Saturday, March 5, 2016

Donald Trump and Achashveirosh: Thoughts Pre-Purim 5776

With the hysteria surrounding the sudden, seemingly inexplicable rise of Donald Trump, many left-leaning-liberals have sought to compare Trump to Hitler, the rise of the Nazis, or both Hitler and the Nazis (or Mussolini). In religious terms, there's a hysterical fear that Trump is Haman.
I don't see it. I find it hard to imagine that a man with an Orthodox Jewish daughter who he calls his "right hand man" is suddenly worse than Hitler. I also don't think that the knee-jerk hysteria really helps anyone, but that's another matter entirely.
If I were to compare Donald Trump to any figure in Megillat Esther, I'd have to say that Trump is King Achashveirosh. Consider the following:

  • When confronted with a new, challenging situation which might possibly complicate matters politically (i.e. his wife refuses to attend his party, representing a slight to the king), Achashveirosh calls together his advisers, listens to their points of view, and makes a decision to go with the most logical position. Donald Trump to this point has been amazingly vague about what he'd do in different challenging situations, but he's basically said, "Look, I'll have a bunch of smart guys, and they'll give me the options, and I'll make a decision." Sound familiar?
  • When Achashveirosh didn't like his wife's behavior, he got rid of her and found himself a new, younger wife. Sound familiar?
  • Gold Plated Accouterments on the Trump Jet
  • Achashveirosh makes a big show of his supposed wealth, inviting guests to lavish parties with incredible gold goblets and tapestries of fine fabrics. While Donald Trump doesn't invite us regular folk to any of his parties, he has no problem giving the world a tour of the gold-plated seat belts on his personal jet with the world via YouTube.
This only begs the question: If Trump is Achashveirosh, what sort of character was the Persian king: Good for the Jews, bad for the Jews, or somewhere in between? As with all political analysis, it's impossible to know. Yet, I would like to suggest an interpretation based on a comment of the Vilna Gaon in the third chapter of Esther.

Fed up with Mordechai's refusal to subjugate himself and fueled by insane, anti-Semitic hatred and rage, Haman decides that the best course of action is to commit genocide, and wipe out the Jews. So he approaches the king and asks for permission to carry out his plan. Yet, when we look carefully at the language of the text, we find that he says one thing to the king, and writes something quite different in the edict he publishes to the world.
וַיֹּאמֶר הָמָן, לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ--יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם-אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים, בְּכֹל מְדִינוֹת מַלְכוּתֶךָ; וְדָתֵיהֶם שֹׁנוֹת מִכָּל-עָם, וְאֶת-דָּתֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֵינָם עֹשִׂים, וְלַמֶּלֶךְ אֵין-שֹׁוֶה, לְהַנִּיחָם
אִם-עַל-הַמֶּלֶךְ טוֹב, יִכָּתֵב לְאַבְּדָם; וַעֲשֶׂרֶת אֲלָפִים כִּכַּר-כֶּסֶף, אֶשְׁקוֹל עַל-יְדֵי עֹשֵׂי הַמְּלָאכָה, לְהָבִיא, אֶל-גִּנְזֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ
And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus: 'There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king's laws; therefore it profits not the king to suffer them. If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those that have the charge of the king's business, to bring it into the king's treasuries.' (Esther 3:-9)
When Haman approaches Achashveirosh with his request to destroy the Jewish people, he describes the dispersed, unpatriotic nature of the people, he says that, אם על המלך טוב ייכתב לאבדם - which we translate to mean "If it please the king, let is be written that they be destroyed." While we know the full meaning of the word לאבדם - as he immediately sends out letters להשמיד להרג ולאבד את כל היהודים מנער ועד זקן - "tto destroy, to slay, and to cause to perish, all Jews, both young and old, little children and women on one day...", it is quite possible that Achashveirosh himself didn't understand his request in that manner. While לאבד means to "make lost" a nation, perhaps he understood the request in terms of their assimilation into the larger culture. After all, what king would want the nightmare of mass casualties and battles in the streets? Recent history has shown us that when you unleash unrest, you don't really know where things will lead.

This question takes on greater import especially in light of Achashveirosh's vitriolic protests at the second party, when Esther begs for her life and the life of her people. The king seemingly has no idea what she's talking about, wondering: מי הוא זה ואיזה הוא - "who and where is the person that would do such a thing?!" (Esther 7:5) I always assumed that the king is simply bluffing, pretending not to know what she's talking about. But is it at all possible that he really didn't know precisely what Haman was planning, and the scope of his wickedness?

This is especially interesting to me in light of the commentary of the Gr"a on this section, and especially the strange pesukim at the end of the section (3:14-15). The Vilna Gaon writes that Haman didn't publicize his full plans for fear that the Jews would exert political pressure to avert the decree. Is it possible that Achashveirosh - like many political leaders - said to Haman: "Do what you want. I don't want to know the details." And that he really didn't know - putting him in a very different light than we normally see him.

According to this interpretation, Achashveirosh isn't bumbling. Nor is he wicked, although "making lost" an entire people doesn't sound so great. (But at least it's not genocide.) He's a shrewd political operator, manipulating people to achieve his personal goals, accrue power, and solidify his control over his kingdom.

Maybe that's what make people so nervous. It isn't that Trump himself is wicked, per se. Rather, it's all about the "Art of the Deal." Everything is negotiable. There's no way of knowing what deal he'd strike. That, in a world leader, is a frightening prospect indeed.