Haman on the couch

The Purim story is full of fascinating and unusual characters who each have their resonances in our contemporary world. King Achashverosh reminds us of the various world leaders or other powerful people who are ineffectual and yet somehow ascend to their level of incompetence. Esther reminds us both of people who are driven and ambitious to succeed, and those who are willing to hide important elements of themselves to do so.

But believe it or not, I think the most fascinating person in the story is Haman.  Sometimes I even imagine that if someone could have hooked him up with the right therapist, 2500 years ago in Persia, things could have turned out differently.

We first meet Haman in Chapter 3 of the book of Esther.  He has become an adviser to the king. We know nothing about his policies whatsoever, except that he demands that all the people in the king’s courtyard bow down to him.  Immediately after we meet Haman, Haman meets Mordechai for the first time.  The one and only thing that we know about Haman’s interactions with Jews is that Mordechai the Jew refuses to bow down to Haman. This is enough to send Haman into a genocidal rage, and he secures permission from the king to arrange for the extermination of every Jew, young and old, men, women and children.

Later on, in Esther chapter 5, King Achashverosh recalls that his life has been saved by Mordechai, and he wants to honor Mordechai in some way – but he doesn’t know how.  (No surprise. Achashverosh is beyond incompetent.)  So he consults with his advisor, Haman, and asks:  “What should I do for someone that I would like to honor?”

Haman presumes, of course, that the king is planning to honor HIM.  We get a rare peek into Haman’s psyche: what are Haman’s real dreams?  And he answers:  “For the person the king wants to honor:  bring the royal clothing that the king has worn,and bring the horse that the king has ridden on… give these to a minister of the king, and have them dress the man to be honored in this royal garb, and lead him on horseback throughout the city, and have that minister announce before him:  ‘This is what shall be done to the man whom the king wants to honor!’ ”

How interesting that in Haman’s fantasy, he doesn’t ask for wealth, or physical or sensual pleasures.  What he wants is — honor.  This is what Haman salivates for.  (Bear in mind that already, everyone in the king’s palace is bowing down to him, indicating that everyone already knows that the king thinks Haman is deserving of honor. But for Haman, that’s not enough.)

Later, in chapter 5 (v.12), Haman announces to his wife and family: Queen Esther is having a party, and guess what ONE OTHER PERSON she invited besides the king?  she invited ME!  And she invited me to come again with the king tomorrow! (That in and of itself is sadly peculiar. If Haman is the chief adviser, why is he getting so excited about this?  Imagine, for example, a top presidential adviser bragging to his family about getting invited to the White House for dinner.)

But next, Haman says (v. 13):  “But all that doesn’t matter to me, every moment I see Mordechai the Jew sitting by the king’s gate!”   Haman can be the most exalted leader in the empire, second only to the king, but every time he sees the one person who won’t bow down to him, seeds of self-doubt appear to be sown in his mind, and he cannot bear the apparent disrespect he is being shown.

Usually the villains in the Bible are not particularly complex characters; they are pure personifications of evil.  Often Haman is presented as a pure personification of evil, but I have never seen him that way.  To me, he seems disturbed, in a pathetic sort of way, and that disturbance is the root of his evil behavior.

This analysis of the roots of Haman’s pathology in no way gets him off the hook for his efforts at genocide.  But perhaps it serves as a reminder to us that when deep within ourselves we have great needs and hungers that go unmet, we ought to bring them to the level of conscious thought so that we don’t give them an opportunity to fester.  Perhaps it’s for this reason that Jewish tradition encourages every person to develop a self-regard that does not need to be validated by others. A person with an unquenchable thirst for approval can be terrifying indeed.

About the Author
Rabbi Robert Scheinberg is the rabbi of the United Synagogue of Hoboken, a teacher and musician, and an adjunct faculty member at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
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