We have arrived at our last main character of the Megillah, Mordekhai. Mordekhai, the first person in Tanakh to be called a Jew, counsels Esther, vies with Haman, and ends up as second in command to Achashverosh. What makes Mordekhai the right man for the job? What is so unique about his character? The midrash has this and more covered!
According to Esther Rabbah, the very first word used to introduce Mordekhai hints that he is a particularly righteous and special person, destined to lead:
אִישׁ יְהוּדִי הָיָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה (אסתר ב, ה), אִישׁ מְלַמֵּד שֶׁהָיָה מָרְדֳּכַי שָׁקוּל בְּדוֹרוֹ כְּמשֶׁה בְּדוֹרוֹ, דִּכְתִיב בֵּיהּ (במדבר יב, ג): וְהָאִישׁ משֶׁה עָנָו מְאֹד, מַה מּשֶׁה עָמַד בַּפֶּרֶץ, דִּכְתִיב (תהלים קו, כג): וַיֹּאמֶר לְהַשְׁמִידָם לוּלֵי משֶׁה בְחִירוֹ עָמַד בַּפֶּרֶץ וגו', אַף מָרְדֳּכַי כֵּן, דִּכְתִיב (אסתר י, ג): דֹּרֵשׁ טוֹב לְעַמּוֹ וְדֹבֵר שָׁלוֹם לְכָל זַרְעוֹ.
“There was a Judean man [ish] in the Shushan citadel” – ish teaches that Mordekhai, in his generation, was the equivalent of Moses, in his generation, as it is written about him: “And the man [vehaish] Moses was very humble” (Numbers 12:3). Just as Moses stood in the breach, as it is written: “He said He would destroy them, were it not for Moses His chosen one, who stood before Him in the breach…” (Psalms 106:23); also Mordekhai did likewise: “A seeker of good for his people and spokesman of peace for all his descendants” (Esther 10:3).
Just as the word “ish” is used in the description of Moses, so, too, is it used to describe Mordekhai. In a common method of interpretation, the midrash understands the shared word to signify that they were alike in important ways.
Another example of paying attention to small textual details is in the following midrash which concludes that Mordekhai was a righteous man.
וּשְׁמוֹ מָרְדֳּכַי. הָרְשָׁעִים קוֹדְמִין לִשְׁמָן, (שמואל א כה, כה): נָבָל שְׁמוֹ... אֲבָל הַצַּדִּיקִים שְׁמָן קוֹדֵם לָהֶם ... (רות ב, א): וּשְׁמוֹ בֹּעַז. וּשְׁמוֹ מָרְדֳּכַי, לְפִי שֶׁדּוֹמִין לְבוֹרְאָן, דִּכְתִיב (שמות ו, ג): וּשְׁמִי ה' לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם.
“And his name was Mordekhai” (Esther 2:5) – the wicked precede their names: “Naval was his name” (I Samuel 25:25)... However, the righteous, their names precede them: ... “And his name was Boaz” (Ruth 2:1); “And his name was Mordekhai.” It is because they are similar to their Creator, as it is written: “But by My name, the Lord, I was not known by them” (Exodus 6:3).
The difference in order between “Naval was his name” and “And his name was Mordekhai” seems minor and, yet, the midrash introduces a profound idea. What might it mean that for the righteous and for God, their names precede them? Might this be a precursor to the notion that respected people have reputations that precede them?
Looking at the previous two texts together, we see two different views of Mordekhai. In the first, Mordekhai is compared to Moses, the most humble person ever, yet the second states “his name preceded him” which presumably means that his reputation was known. How are great or righteous people to balance their prominent reputation with internal modesty? Was the ability to strike this balance perhaps what contributed to Mordekhai’s greatness?
At this point we might ask, how did this righteous man get into a conflict with Haman in the first place? The Book of Esther tells us that as a Jew, Mordekhai refused to bow down to Haman. But didn’t Abraham also bow down to others? When three figures approached Abraham, he immediately bowed to the ground in front of them. There was a lot of bowing when Jacob reunited with Esau. So why wouldn't Mordekhai bow down?
The midrash fills in the story with crucial information.
הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב לֹא יִכְרַע וְלֹא יִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה. וְכִי קַנְתְּרָן הָיָה וְעוֹבֵר עַל גְּזֵרַת הַמֶּלֶךְ, אֶלָּא כְּשֶׁצִּוָּה אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ לְהִשְׁתַּחֲווֹת לְהָמָן, חָקַק עֲבוֹדַת כּוֹכָבִים עַל לִבּוֹ, וְנִתְכַּוֵּן כְּדֵי שֶׁיִּשְׁתַּחֲווּ לַעֲבוֹדַת כּוֹכָבִים
“[And Mordekhai] would not bow and would not prostrate himself” (Esther 3:2). Was he contrary and violating the king’s decree? Rather, when Aḥashverosh commanded [everyone] to prostrate themselves to Haman, he [Haman] carved an idol [and set it] over his heart, intending that they prostrate themselves to the idol.
Now we see the problem. If Haman was wearing an idol, bowing down would be construed as bowing to the idol, which Mordekhai could not do.
In the midrash, Mordekhai even goes so far as to explain to God the reason for his actions.
וְעַל אוֹתָהּ צָרָה וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל מָרְדֳּכַי אֶל ה' וַיֹּאמֶר גָּלוּי וְיָדוּעַ לִפְנֵי כִסֵּא כְבוֹדֶךָ אֲדוֹן הָעוֹלָמִים כִּי לֹא מִגַּבְהוּת לֵב וּמֵרוּם עַיִן עָשִׂיתִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא הִשְׁתַּחֲוֵיתִי לְהָמָן, כִּי אִם מִיִּרְאָתְךָ פָּעַלְתִּי זֹאת, לְבִלְתִּי הִשְׁתַּחֲווֹת לוֹ, כִּי יָרֵאתִי מִפָּנֶיךָ לְבִלְתִּי תֵּת כְּבוֹדְךָ לְבָשָׂר וָדָם, וְלֹא רָצִיתִי לְהִשְׁתַּחֲווֹת לְזוּלָתֶךָ, כִּי מִי אֲנִי אֲשֶׁר לֹא אֶשְׁתַּחֲוֶה לְהָמָן עַל תְּשׁוּעַת עַמְךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל, כִּי לוֹחֵךְ הָיִיתִי מִנְעַל רַגְלָיו.
Regarding that same trouble, Mordekhai prayed to God and he said: ‘It is revealed and known before Your Throne of Honor, Master of the universe, that it is not due to haughtiness or arrogance that I did not prostrate myself to Haman; rather, it is due to my fear of You that I acted in this way, and did not prostrate myself to him. It is because I feared You, and did not wish to grant the honor due to You, to flesh and blood, and I did not want to prostrate myself to anyone other than You. For who am I not to prostrate myself to Haman at the expense of the salvation of Your people Israel? For that, I would be prepared to lick the shoes on his feet.
We see that Mordekhai didn’t compromise his beliefs, even when it became dangerous to himself and his people. The midrash further tells us that while Haman was busy writing the letters calling for the death of the Jewish people, Mordekhai was busy teaching Torah to the children.
וּבְשָׁעָה שֶׁנֶּחְתְּמוּ אוֹתָן הָאִגְּרוֹת וְנִתְּנוּ בְּיַד הָמָן, וַיָּבוֹא שָׂמֵחַ הוּא וְכָל בְּנֵי חֲבוּרָתוֹ, וּפָגְעוּ בְּמָרְדֳּכַי שֶׁהוּא הוֹלֵךְ לִפְנֵיהֶם, וְרָאָה מָרְדֳּכַי שְׁלשָׁה תִּינוֹקוֹת שֶׁהָיוּ בָּאִים מִבֵּית הַסֵּפֶר, וְרָץ מָרְדֳּכַי אַחֲרֵיהֶם, וּכְשֶׁרָאָה הָמָן וְכָל חֲבוּרָתוֹ שֶׁהָיָה רָץ מָרְדֳּכַי אַחֲרֵי הַתִּינוֹקוֹת, הָלְכוּ אַחֲרֵי מָרְדֳּכַי לָדַעַת מַה יִּשְׁאַל מָרְדֳּכַי מֵהֶם, כֵּיוָן שֶׁהִגִּיעַ מָרְדֳּכַי אֵצֶל הַתִּינוֹקוֹת שָׁאַל לְאֶחָד מֵהֶם פְּסֹק לִי פְּסוּקֶיךָ, אָמַר לוֹ (משלי ג, כה): אַל תִּירָא מִפַּחַד פִּתְאֹם וּמִשֹּׁאַת רְשָׁעִים כִּי תָבֹא. פָּתַח הַשֵּׁנִי וְאָמַר, אֲנִי קָרִיתִי הַיּוֹם וּבָזֶה הַפָּסוּק עָמַדְתִּי מִבֵּית הַסֵּפֶר (ישעיה ח, י): עֻצוּ עֵצָה וְתֻפָר דַּבְּרוּ דָבָר וְלֹא יָקוּם כִּי עִמָּנוּ אֵל. פָּתַח הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וְאָמַר (ישעיה מו, ד): וְעַד זִקְנָה אֲנִי הוּא וְעַד שֵׂיבָה אֲנִי אֶסְבֹּל אֲנִי עָשִׂיתִי וַאֲנִי אֶשָֹּׂא וַאֲנִי אֶסְבֹּל וַאֲמַלֵּט. כֵּיוָן שֶׁשָּׁמַע מָרְדֳּכַי כָּךְ שָׂחַק וְהָיָה שָׂמֵחַ שִׂמְחָה גְדוֹלָה. אָמַר לוֹ הָמָן מָה הִיא זֹאת הַשִֹּׂמְחָה שֶׁשָֹּׂמַחְתָּ לְדִבְרֵי הַתִּינוֹקוֹת הַלָּלוּ, אָמַר עַל בְּשׂוֹרוֹת טוֹבוֹת שֶׁבִּשְׂרוּנִי שֶׁלֹא אֶפְחַד מִן הָעֵצָה הָרָעָה שֶׁיָּעַצְתָּ עָלֵינוּ. מִיָּד כָּעַס הָמָן הָרָשָׁע וְאָמַר אֵין אֲנִי שׁוֹלֵחַ יָדַי תְּחִלָּה אֶלָּא בְּאֵלּוּ הַתִּינוֹקוֹת.
When those letters were sealed and given to Haman, he and all the members of his entourage proceeded joyfully. They met Mordekhai, who was walking ahead of them. Mordekhai saw three children who were coming from school and Mordekhai ran after them. When Haman and his entire entourage saw that Mordekhai was running after the children, they followed Mordekhai to ascertain what Mordekhai would ask them. When Mordekhai reached the children, he asked one of them: ‘Recite your verse to me.’ He said to him: ‘“Fear not from sudden terror, and from the cataclysm of the wicked when it comes”’ (Proverbs 3:25). The second began and said: ‘I read today and with this verse I left school: “Take counsel and it will be negated; speak something and it will not stand, as God is with us”’ (Isaiah 8:10). The third began and said: ‘“Until old age I am He and until gray hairs I will bear you; I have done and I will carry; I will bear and I will rescue”’ (Isaiah 46:4). When Mordekhai heard this, he laughed and was overjoyed. Haman said to him: ‘What is this joy that you rejoiced when hearing the words of these children?’ He said: ‘It is over the good tidings of which they apprised me, that I need not fear the evil designs that you counseled against us.’ Immediately, the wicked Haman became angry and said: ‘I will strike at none other than these children first.
Read together with the story of Mordekhai adding to Haman’s degradation, the midrash paints the portrait of a man who is not afraid to speak truth to power. How might Mordekhai’s teachings, as reflected in the verses that the children learned, and his actions while Haman was leading him through the streets of Shushan demonstrate an approach to resisting oppression?
The Book of Esther ends with a total turn around. Haman is gone and Mordekhai rises to become second to the king, which the midrash sees as a metaphor for the success of the Jewish people.
Mordekhai starts out wearing sackcloth and ashes and ends up wearing royal clothing of blue and purple and a gold crown.
רַבִּי חִיָּא רַבָּה וְרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן חֲלַפְתָּא הֲווֹן מְהַלְּכִין בַּהֲדָא בִּקְעָתָא דְּאַרְבֵּל, וַחֲזוֹן אֶת אַיֶּלֶת הַשַּׁחַר שֶׁבָּקְעָה אֶת הָאוֹרָה, אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַבִּי חִיָּא רַבָּה לְרַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן חֲלַפְתָּא כָּךְ הוּא גְּדֻלָּתָן שֶׁל יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּתְּחִלָּה קִימְעָא, כָּל מַה שֶּׁהוֹלֵךְ הוּא גָּדֵל וְרָבֶה וְהוֹלֵךְ, מַה טַּעַם (מיכה ז, ח): כִּי אֵשֵׁב בַּחשֶׁךְ ה' אוֹר לִי. כָּךְ, בַּתְּחִלָּה וּמָרְדֳּכַי יוֹשֵׁב בְּשַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ, וְאַחַר כָּךְ, וַיָּשָׁב מָרְדֳּכַי אֶל שַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ וגו', וְאַחַר כָּךְ, וּמָרְדֳּכַי יָצָא מִלִּפְנֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ וגו', וְאַחַר כָּךְ, לַיְהוּדִים הָיְתָה אוֹרָה וְשִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשׂוֹן וִיקָר.
Rabbi Ḥiya Raba and Rabbi Shimon ben Ḥalafta were walking in the valley of Arbel and they saw the breaking of the dawn’s light. Rabbi Ḥiya Raba said to Rabbi Shimon ben Ḥalafta: So is the greatness of Israel. First a little and then, as it proceeds, it continuously increases. What is the explanation? “Although I sit in darkness, the Lord is a light for me” (Micah 7:8). So initially “Mordekhai was sitting at the king’s gate…” (Esther 2:21) and afterwards, “And Mordekhai went forth from the presence of the king [in royal dress of blue and white wool, and with a great crown of gold]” (Esther 8:15), and afterwards, “For the Jews there was light and joy and jubilation and honor” (Esther 8:16).
That’s a wrap! Thanks for taking a journey with us through the whole Megillah. To continue your study, you might want to read the Book of Esther and Esther Rabbah in their entirety. Additional study materials can be found on the #Purim topic page.
Return to the sheets in this journey in the “Esther Rabbah: Behind the Scenes with the Stars of the Megillah” collection.