In his 1929 novel, Mario and the Magician, German author Thomas Mann wrote about an Italian magician named Cipolla, who performs hypnotic tricks to make his audience act in a humiliating fashion and simultaneously satisfy his own lust for power. Mann’s work was politically motivated, designed to highlight the unethical behaviour of autocratic dictators.
There is some debate over the precise historical identity of the biblical Ahasuerus, although many scholars believe he was the Persian king Xerxes, who reigned from 486 to 465 BCE. Unmistakable however, is the fact that he is portrayed in the Book of Esther as a power-hungry, pleasure-seeking and easily manipulated ruler.
The first chapter of the book contains an extensive description of a lavish party thrown by Ahasuerus, lasting many days and designed to showcase his vast wealth and lavish lifestyle.
Some years later, Haman is able to take advantage of his weaknesses, offering him 10,000 pieces of silver to murder the Jews. As the tables turn in the Purim story, Esther, too, realises that it is through inviting the king to a feast that she will be able to best present her plea for mercy on behalf of the Jewish people.
Ahasuerus’ extravagant displays of personal wealth were apparently designed to demonstrate that he was in control of his vast empire. But as with so many other such leaders in history, particularly those of the type to which Mann intended to draw attention in his book, his excesses simply served to highlight his own shortcomings and insecurities.
Thus, his power is demonstrated time and again to be no more than superficial at best. In fact, in the entire Book of Esther, there is not a single decision of any significance made by Ahasuerus alone.
He is always dependent upon the advisors who happen to be closest to him at the time.
Like the magician in Mann’s book, Ahasuerus remains the archetypal example of a deluded dictator who believes he is in control, but whose lack of moral grounding leaves him fatally exposed to manipulation at the hands of those around him.
ω Yoni Birnbaum is rabbi of Hadley Wood Jewish Community