One of the amusing accounts presented by the Gemara regarding the Purim story involves Haman’s daughter, who did not recognize Haman as he led Mordekhai through the streets of Shushan. As we read in Megilat Ester, at the time when Haman came to the king’s palace to request that his nemesis, Mordekhai, be killed, the king ordered him to give Mordekhai great honor – to dress him in royal garb, have him ride on the royal horse, and lead through the main thoroughfare shouting that this is how those loyal to the king are rewarded. The Gemara relates that as Haman led Mordekhai on the king’s horse and passed near his own home, Haman’s daughter was on the rooftop and saw the spectacle. Apparently too distant to get a good look, she assumed that her father – the Persian vizier, to whom the king had ordered the entire kingdom to show honor – was the man on the horse, and his despised foe, Mordekhai, was the man leading the horse through the city. Eager to add to Mordekhai’s humiliation, she took the basin used as the family’s toilet and threw its contents onto the man she had wrongly identified as Mordekhai – which was, in fact, her father. Upon realizing her mistake, the Gemara concludes, Haman’s daughter took her own life by jumping from the roof.
What might the deeper message of this unusual account of Haman being misidentified by his daughter? Is this told simply to underscore the extent of Haman’s downfall, or is there perhaps a more profound meaning to this bizarre incident?
Already Ben Ish Chai, in his Ben Yehoyada, raises the question of how Haman’s daughter could not have recognized him by his appearance or by his voice. The simple answer, seemingly, is that she was too far away to see or hear her father. But on a deeper level, perhaps, this might be precisely the Gemara’s point – that Haman’s persona was defined entirely by his position of honor and prestige. Haman had no other personal identity besides his powerful post. The amusing story told by the Gemara is actually a tragic depiction of a person who could not be recognized by even his own family when he was not being showered with honor. This showering became Haman’s very identity, such that he was assumed to be somebody else when the roles were reversed.
This aspect of Haman’s character can be seen through his and Mordekhai’s drastically different reactions to this incident. The Megila relates (6:12) that after Haman paraded Mordekhai through Shushan, Mordekhai returned to his place by the gate to the palace. He was entirely unaffected by this incident. He did not revel in his having been honored or in his Haman’s being disgraced; his personality and sense of self were unchanged by having his archenemy forced to show him great respect. Haman, on the other hand, returned home in a state of anguish and grief, furious over what he had just gone through. As his entire self-identity was anchored in his position of prestige, he lost his composure the moment he suffered indignity.
The Gemara’s story, then, instructs that we must never identify ourselves based on our successes or our failures. Our identity and our sense of self-worth must never be dependent on any given achievement, position, role, or condition. We are defined neither by our impressive accomplishments nor by our embarrassing mistakes. And thus we should not be excessively jubilant over the former or excessively disturbed by the latter – because neither determines our true essence. We should be readily identifiable and recognizable to all who know us – including ourselves – whether we succeed or fail, both when we enjoy triumph and when we suffer defeat, and never define ourselves by one or the other.