Megillat Esther, 1:1: “And it was in the time of Achashverosh: it was Achashverosh who reigned from Hodu to Cush over one hundred and twenty-seven provinces.
Rashi, 1:1: sv. He is Achashverosh: He [remained] in his evil from beginning to end.
In the first verse of the Scroll of Esther, Rashi reveals an allusion to the nature of King Achashverosh, one of the main characters in the story. It teaches us that Achashverosh was a bad person at the beginning of the story and remained bad until the very end.1 Two questions arise: First, every detail of the Megillah teaches us a message that ties into the theme of Purim – how is the fact that Achashverosh remained evil relevant to the Purim lessons?
Second, why, of all the wicked people described in the Bible, is Achashverosh one of the only ones singled out for this particular criticism?2
By answering the second question, we can also understand the first. There seem to be two very important factors that can cause a capricious person to change their ways; the first is exposure to righteous people. The Torah asks us to attach ourselves to Torah scholars and to spend as much time as possible with great people, for we can learn from their righteous behavior and see firsthand the results of a spiritual life.
A second possible catalyst for repentance is the events around us; when a person is involved in events that seem to be guided by the divine hand, he has the opportunity to respond to the divine message and change his ways.
Achashverosh deserved both opportunities; He married the righteous Esther, whose greatness could not be hidden from him despite her secretive nature. Moreover, his main adviser towards the end of his life was Mordechai, one of the greatest Sages of the time. Achashverosh was also blessed to be one of the actors in the remarkable story of Purim – the tale of how the very existence of the Jewish people was threatened, and yet everything miraculously changed.3
It would be hard not to be positively affected by such great people and to be part of such a miraculous story. Yet Achashverosh remained the same, greedy, selfish at the end of the story and even at the end of his life.
A proof of this is mentioned by the Talmud is in one of the very last verses of the Megilla: “And king Achashverosh imposed a tax on the land and the islands.”4 The commentaries explain that when he married Esther, he reduced the taxes on his kingdom so that his home nation could reveal themselves to him in order to benefit more from his new connection with the king.5 By the end of the story, he knew his identity, so he raised taxes again. This demonstrates that at the height of the Purim story, all Achashverosh could think about was money.
Another indication that he remained evil is that he never undertook to rebuild the Second Temple despite the great benefits he derived from Mordecai and Esther.
We can now understand the connection between the failure of Achashverosh and the Purim story. The lesson of Purim is to see Divine Providence even in times when the Presence of God is hidden, and to increase our awareness of God in our own lives. However, it is insufficient if this new recognition remains in the realm of the mind and the heart. She must make an improvement in her relationship with God. Achashverosh’s example teaches us how not to respond to Divine Providence – by remaining oblivious to God’s messages and engulfed in lusts and base desires.
- Rashi is based on the Gemara of Megilla, 11a.
- The Gemara similarly criticizes four other villains: Esav, Dattan, Aviram and Ahaz, one of the kings of Yehuda.
- It is true that the many miracles of the Megillah were hidden miracles in the sense that they did not overtly defy the laws of nature, but anyone who cared to notice this would surely have been affected in some way by the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people.
- Megillah Esther, 10:1.
- Megilla Esther, 2:18, see Malbim.