There’s a saying that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. The story of Esther highlights the former, yet also mentions the latter.
The final chapter of Megillat Esther begins, “Vayasem Hamelech Achashverosh Mas Al Haaretz V’al Iyay Hayam (King Achashverosh levied a tax on the population of his entire kingdom).”
Most commentaries wonder why this little tidbit of information is so important as to necessitate inclusion in the final few lines of the Megillah. Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, the Vilna Gaon, points out the concept of taxes actually appears once before in the Megillah.
In chapter two, right after King Achashverosh marries Esther, he gave a tax break to all the countries in his empire. Why would he do that? The Vilna Gaon explains that Achashverosh was so desperate to find out Queen Esther’s nationality that he offered to give her country of origin a tax break in order to induce her to reveal her nationality. When Esther did not relent, and to prove his sincerity, Achashverosh gave all the countries in his empire a tax break.
Of all the characters in the Megillah, Achashverosh is the only one who is keenly aware of all the events and experiences them all first hand. He is the one who threw a 180-day party to celebrate the conclusion of the 70-year prophecy marking the Temple’s destruction. He summons Vashti in a fit of drunkenness, and has her executed in a fit of rage. He chooses as his queen the one woman who should never have made the cut due to her ancestry. Achashvesrosh promotes Haman and partners with him in his despicable plot to annihilate all the Jews, and he alone watches as the entire plot backfires with the revelation that the wife he chose is herself a Jew! Achashverosh has Haman hanged, Mordechai promoted, and the Jewish people are saved.
Achashverosh is the one person, who experiences the divine hand behind the Purim saga. One would therefore expect that, after such an incredible journey, Achashverosh would be changed forever. He would see the incredible hand of God that unfolded before his eyes, embrace the reality of God’s existence, and act accordingly.
Yet, what is the very first thing Achashverosh does when things get back to normal? What lesson has he taken from the experience of the last 15 years? What is the top priority for him and his kingdom? The tax break! His money!
Now that he knows Queen Esther’s ancestry, there’s no point in continuing with the tax cut. So what does he do? The Megillah testifies, “King Achashverosh levied a tax.”
Incredible, and unbelievable! After all he’d been through, his only concern was his lost revenue. The Megillah authors highlighted this to teach us that human nature is such that it can come face to face with reality and truth, and continue on as though nothing has happened. One of the hardest things in life is to be motivated to change. Any experience is only as powerful and memorable as we want it to be. It is our task to open our eyes and see the truth around us and, like Queen Esther, to act on it.