Is Megillat Esther a Disney story, in which nothing truly terrible happens and everyone lives happy ever after? Should we tell our children that Achashverosh and Esther have a happy marriage? Can it be a happy ending even when the heroine must go on being married to an actual beast? I very much fear that in almost all contemporary classrooms, at all ages and levels, the answers to these questions are yes, yes, and no.
I understand the impulse to read Megillat Esther as a happy story about a silly king who is tricked but does the right thing in the end. I understand the desire not to imagine too deeply what sort of home life you can have when your husband could kill you at any moment and you can’t speak to him unless called. I understand that abuse of power and and death are not our favorite subjects in a Torah classroom. But the purpose of teaching Torah is for it to guide us and our children in our real lives. If we are to do that, then it matters a great deal what sort of political behavior the Torah and the Tradition endorse, what sort they tolerate, and what sort they tell about as a cautionary tale. We do our children a terrible disservice if we teach Esther as a fairy tale and ignore all of the real lessons in it.
Throughout Tanach, by Himself or through prophets from Avraham to Yirmiyah, Hashem critiques kings and their behavior. Kings are supposed to be subordinate to the fear of God and the Torah of Hashem. They are supposed to be shepherds who care for the people. They are supposed to limit their own desires in favor of the needs of their people. (For examples and explications, please click here.) Hashem makes it clear that for kings, taking what you want from someone else just because you want it is wrong, even if you do it legally.
Achashverosh and his government fail at every one of these requirements. Achashverosh surrounds himself with sycophants who never critique him. He repeatedly acts on whims. He likes to squander vast sums of money to no apparent purpose. He parties endlessly (presumably on the Persian taxpayer’s bill) to prove that he is powerful. He kills or otherwise disposes of Vashti because she does not comply with his drunken and unnecessary instructions. He orders all the beautiful girls rounded up, beautified for his pleasure, and delivered, one at a time, to his bedroom. Each one will never see him again unless he happens to remember her name, which seems unlikely. He operates a household in which nobody, not even the queen, can request an appointment. He literally never hears from anyone unless he asks to. And all of that is before he consents to genocide without even asking who is being killed.
Achashverosh does whatever he wants, regardless of the consequences for his country or other people. While doing that, he has completely insulated himself from any possibility of critique. He is, by Biblical standards, a bad king and a bad person.
So, what should we teach our children about Achashverosh and Esther? What should we teach them about power and kings? We teach them the story, in all of its complexity. We teach them that people are complicated, and bad people sometimes do good things, just as good people sometimes do bad things. We teach them that no story has a totally happy ending or a totally sad ending. We teach them that power must always be exercised in the context of checks and balances. We teach them that a political leader should be a caretaker who puts other’s needs above his own. We teach them that using other people for one’s own pleasure is not how anyone should behave, least of all someone entrusted with political power and responsibility. We teach them that substance abuse has the potential to make people irresponsible and dangerous. We teach them that nobody is above critique by Hashem. We teach them that anyone, even a trophy queen in a gilded cage, can be a brave and noble hero if she steps up when called. We teach them that nobody is automatically right except the King of Kings. And, we teach them that He always has our back, even in the deepest night when evil is triumphing before our eyes.