We read in the opening chapter of Megilat Ester that during Achashveirosh’s seven-day feast which was held for the residents of Shushan, he ordered his officials “la-asot ki-rtzon ish va-ish” – to serve every guest according to his individual preferences (1:8).
The Gemara in Masekhet Megilla (12a) comments, curiously, that this phrase refers to Mordekhai and Haman. Noting later verses in the Megilla (2:5, 7:6) where we find the word “ish” associated with Mordekhai and Haman, the Gemara interprets the phrase “ki-rtzon ish va-ish” as a reference to these two figures. Rashi explains the Gemara’s comment to mean that Mordekhai and Haman were the chief butlers responsible for the wine at the celebration. However, the Maharsha notes the difficulty in this explanation, as the Gemara here discusses the verse “la-asot ki-rtzon ish va-ish,” which speaks of the guests at the party, and not the officers in charge of serving them. The Maharsha therefore offers a different explanation, suggesting that Achashveirosh ordered that kosher food and drink be made available for his Jewish guests. The Gemara intends to say that the “Hamans” – the non-Jews at the feast – were served foods and drinks that were appropriate for them, and the “Mordekhais” – the Jews – were served foods and drinks that were suitable for them.
Others, including the Maharal of Prague (Or Chadash commentary to Megilat Ester) and Rav Kalonymus Kalman Epstein (Ma’or Va-shemesh), suggest interpreting the Gemara’s comment as viewing the feast in Shushan as an allegorical allusion to the doctrine of free will. Just as Achashveirosh sought to ensure that his feast would suit the taste of each and every one of his subjects, similarly, God allows our world to sustain everybody, both the righteous (“Mordekhai”) and the wicked (“Haman”). Every “guest” in the Almighty’s “feast” can choose how to conduct himself or herself, to become the kind of person he or she wishes to be. The world itself does not compel us to be “Mordekhai” or “Haman”; the choice is made by each and every one of us. Only we decide how we will act as we enjoy the great “feast” – the countless blessings provided by the world around us.
This understanding of the Gemara’s comment gives rise to the question of how the doctrine of free will relates to the story of Achashveirosh’s feast. Why would the Gemara seek to associate the king’s desire to accommodate his guests’ individual wishes, with the fundamental belief in our free will to choose good or evil?
Possibly, the Gemara’s comment hearkens back to an earlier, more famous, passage, stating that the Jews of the time were initially condemned to annihilation “because they enjoyed the feast of that wicked man [Achashveirosh].” The Jews participated in the royal feast, presumably, because they were fully integrated in Persian society, and thus felt it necessary to join their Persian friends and neighbors in their merrymaking and gluttonous indulgence. The Gemara perhaps points to the fact that the Jews saw themselves as driven by circumstance to betray their values and fully participate in the vulgar, decadent culture of Persia. They saw this process of complete integration as a natural progression over which they had no control, due to their condition in exile. The Gemara notes the folly of this misconception by way of an analogy to Achashveirosh’s policy of accommodation at his feast. In any situation in which we find ourselves, we have the choice to be either “Mordekhai” or “Haman.” No circumstance compels us to act righteously or sinfully; the decision is entirely ours. Even when we find ourselves submerged in “exile” of any sort, when we feel that our surroundings or circumstances do not lend themselves to wholehearted religious devotion, we still have the choice, and are empowered to make the decision to act the right way.