|Midrash Esther Chapter IV-1-Consultations|
“The king said to the wise men, those who knew the times (Esther 1:13).” Who were these men? Rabbi Simon said: These were the tribe of Yissachar, as it says, “And of the children of Yissachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do (I Chronicles 12:33).” Rabbi Tanchumah said: This means, for determining the most auspicious times to do certain things. Rabbi Yosi bar Katzrat said: they were experts in calculating leap months and years.
“To know what Israel ought to do,” they knew how to heal skin diseases based on the seasons.
“The heads of them were two hundred (ibid.).” These are the two hundred presidents of the Sanhedrin which the tribe of Yissachar produced.
“And all their brethren were at their command (ibid.).” They all accepted the Halacha as pronounced by them as if it were the Halacha of Moses on Mount Sinai. [Esther Rabbah 4:1]
Why would Achashveirosh turn to Jewish sages to determine how to deal with Vashti? He understood that it would be difficult to find anyone who would have the courage to voice an opinion in this very delicate situation. The wise men could not ignore the King's rage, nor Vashti's blatant disrespect for her husband, and yet, to condemn the Queen would be quite risky, especially after the King calmed down and began to miss his wife. The Jewish sages had nothing to lose. They already know that Achashveirosh hated them. The way this midrash is typically understood is that Achashveirosh needed the advice of people who, had solid reputations for their wisdom and wouldn't hesitate to speak the truth. However, as the rabbis debate the definition of, “knew the times,” it is clear that they read much more into this scene:
We have 5 opinions:
1. They were experts in determining the most auspicious times to do certain things.
2. They were experts in calculating leap months and years.
3. They knew how to heal skin diseases based on the seasons.
4. These are the two hundred presidents of the Sanhedrin which the tribe of Yissachar produced.
5. The people all accepted the Halacha as pronounced by these men as if it were the Halacha of Moses on Mount Sinai.
The opinion that these wise men were experts in determining the most auspicious times to do certain things understands that Achashveirosh has a long-range plan. He wants to be certain that each of his decisions will be made in the most opportune moments. Basically, Achashveirosh wants to feel that the gods are on his side. These exiled sages, who continued to believe in their eventual redemption and return to Jerusalem, were, as far as Achashveirosh was concerned, people who believed that everything happens in its right time. Achashveirosh had already determined how he wanted to handle Vashti; he just wanted to make sure that this was the most auspicious moment in which to act.
This idea, of course, speaks to a fundamental Purim concept, that of the seeming conflict between free choice and predestination. By seeking to determine the most auspicious time to act, Achashveirosh is rejecting that God controls history, and is firmly stating that events can be calculated by human beings based on the movements of the constellations and stars. He can reject God's Providence even while rejecting the responsibility that comes with the gift of free choice.
By honoring the movement of the stars and constellations, Achashveirosh is also implying that his ascension to the throne was determined by some higher power.
Other sages understood this scene as less of a mystical manipulation by Achashveirosh to affirm his role as King than a calculating political strategist who wants to be certain that all the pieces are in place for Achashveirosh to make such a bold political move; he will be displacing the woman who made him king by marriage. He will be rejecting the old royal line and establishing his own. Achashveirosh had to be certain that the governors of his many provinces and the population were prepared for such a bold political maneuver. Achashveirosh had to consult with people who knew how to calculate different movements in time and, according to our understanding, political moods and movements.
Rabbi Yosi wants us to appreciate Achashveirosh as the Bill Clinton of Persia. He wants us to understand that every decision in the Book of Esther is made by a brilliant political strategist. He wants us to understand that when Mordechai and Esther interacted with Achashveirosh, they did so with full awareness of his political genius. Every step they took was calculated to influence the king's political objectives.
The opinion that these sages, “who knew the times,” were experts in determining the right time of year to heal specific skin diseases, may seem slightly out of place in our story. However, when we recall that according to some midrashim that Vashti only refused to obey her husband because she had been stricken with leprosy, we can better understand why Achashveirosh would seek the advice of such experts. He wanted to determine whether her leprosy was a natural occurrence for this time of year. He had not decide whether to punish or cure her. Perhaps he wanted to know if she could be immediately healed and could then appear as he had demand. Achashveirosh was searching for the best dermatologists in Persia.
This scenario, Vashti more than happy to appear just as her husband demanded, but held back by the sudden and mysterious appearance of a skin disease, is a situation in which Achashveirosh suspects that some higher power is manipulating events, and he's desperate to consult these dermatologist to determine if this was something natural or miraculous. Perhaps that he even believed this mysterious power was helping him achieve his agenda of ridding himself of the woman who was the real power behind the throne. This would mean that Achashveirosh began to believe that this mysterious power wanted him to be keying, a powerful King, independent of the great Royal lines of the past. This is a king who believes in his own destiny. This is a king with whom Mordechai and Esther will have to tread even more carefully than if he were Bill Clinton; A man convinced of his great destiny is far more dangerous than the calculating political strategist. Mordechai and Esther will have to convince him that each thing they ask of him will help him achieve his great destiny.
How are we to understand this idea of the two hundred heads of the Sanhedrin? Obviously these two hundred men did not all live at the same time. It's as if Achashveirosh wants to consult only people who have a long day established history of leadership and legal expertise. This would make sense for a King who is considering taking the bold step of executing, or, as I believe, displacing, the Queen who represents the great Royal lines of the past. Achashveirosh will need the support of people who have a reputation for solid judgment.
This would be the story of a king who is very careful to frame his decisions as legally justified, no matter what he does. Whether it will be removing Vashti, marrying Esther, elevating Haman, executing the Jews, and eventually executing Haman and replacing him with Mordechai, Achashveirosh wants each decision to be perceived as a ruling by the Supreme Court.
"The people accepted the decisions of these wise men as if it were the Halacha of Moses on Mount Sinai.” Achashveirosh was concerned with how people would accept his decision regarding Vashti. This opinion holds that Achashveirosh would not be satisfied with a Supreme Court decision; he wanted each of his decisions to be accepted with the same authority with which people accepted the law of Moses on Mount Sinai.
It is also possible that Achashveirosh was intent on winning Jewish support! There seem to be an awful lot of Jews in Shushan, the capital city. All of the people of Shushan, even the non-Jews, were disturbed when the king ordered the execution of all the Jews. The fact that Achashveirosh eventually marries a Jew, and, despite the whole story of a contest to choose his queen, it certainly seems as if Achashveirosh always intended to form some kind of pact with Mordechai, the leader of the Jews, implies that he was fully aware that he needed Jewish support to succeed. But more about that later.