Haman and Mordochai: Just a Personal Conflict?
The conflict between Mordochai and Haman eventually escalated to a national disaster. But how did it start? While we will look at their confrontation, let us not forget that it was Ahasuerus, and his instructions to everyone to kneel and prostrate themselves as Haman came by, that brought about the clash.
Kneel, Prostrate Yourself Haman is Coming Through!
Before we study the text, imagine for a moment that you were staging the beginning of chapter 3. All the actors are down on their knees, noses to the ground, to honor the current favorite of the king. Only one person will not get down. He surveys the scene. What does he think of the people kneeling and prostrating? What does Haman think about them? What is Hamans reaction to the one person that will not be part of the human carpet at his feet? Back to the street of Shushan where would you have been?
The Megilla does not give a reason for Mordochais refusal in 3:2, where it tells us of his behavior. It waits until 2 verses later, where it seems to have been forced out of Mordochai by the courtiers.
Why did Mordochai refuse to kneel and prostrate himself in front of Haman?
3:4 might suggest an ethnic or religious reason. Mordochai is prevented from following the kings orders by the fact that he is a Yehudi (Jew.)
What about the situation caused a Jew to refuse to obey the orders?
After you think about possible answers, consider the sources from Josephus and the Midrash:
Josephus Antiquities of the Jews XI 6:5
5. Now there was one Haman, the son of Amedatha, by birth an Amalekite, that used to go in to the king; and the foreigners and Persians worshipped him, as Artaxerxes had commanded that such honor should be paid to him; but Mordecai was so wise, and so observant of his own country’s laws, that he would not worship the man. When Haman observed this, he inquired whence he came; and when he understood that he was a Jew, he had indignation at him, and said within himself, that whereas the Persians, who were free men, worshipped him, this man, who was no better than a slave, does not vouchsafe to do so. And when he desired to punish Mordecai, he thought it too small a thing to request of the king that he alone might be punished; he rather determined to abolish the whole nation, for he was naturally an enemy to the Jews, because the nation of the Amalekites, of which he was; had been destroyed by them.
Josephus adds several things that are not known to us from the text of the Megilla as we know it. According to Josephus, why did Mordochai refuse to bow to Haman?
Some of the reason given might be parallel to Mordochais explanation that he is a Jew. But the first reason, Morecai was so wise, seems to be more universal in nature. Will a wise person agree to worship a human being? (Note that Josephus does not describe the actions required, the bowing and prostrating, but rather their meaning worship.)
Josephus adds a nationalistic reason (as opposed to the mainly religious reason) for the hatred between Haman and Mordochai. What is it, and does it appear in the Megilla?
According to the Megilla as we know it, Haman is an Agagite. The Tanakh does not provide us with any more information about this nation, but the rabbis linked it to the king of the Amalekite nation, based on I Samuel 15. From there the road to the Torah reading for Purim being the story of the war with Amalek (Exodus 17,) was short. As the Megilla seems to have an underlying theme of support for the House of Saul, it is quite likely that understanding Agagite to mean Amalekite was intended already at the writing of the story. After all, Mordochai is a decendent of Sauls family, the king that lost his kingdom in a clash with the Amalekites and their king, Agag.
אסתר רבה (וילנא) פרשה ו ד”ה ב איש יהודי
יהודי – למה נקרא שמו יהודי והלא ימיני הוא?! לפי שייחד שמו של הקב”ה כנגד כל באי עולם, ההא דאמר: לא יכרע ולא ישתחוה.
וכי קנתרן היה, ועובר על גזירת המלך?! אלא כשצוה אחשורוש להשתחוות להמן, חקק עבודת כוכבים על לבו, ונתכוון כדי שישתחוו לעבודת כוכבים. וכשהיה רואה המן שאין מרדכי משתחוה לו, נתמלא חימה. ומרדכי אומר לו: יש אדון המתגאה על כל גאים, היאך אני מניחו ואשתחוה לעבודת כוכבים? ולפי שייחד שמו של הקב”ה נקרא יהודי, לומר יהודי יחידי, אל תקרי יהודי אלא יחידי.
Midrash Esther Rabba 6:2
Yehudi (Jew) Why was he called a Yehudi, was he not a Benjaminite?! Rather, since he demonstrated the singleness of the Holy One Blessed be He to all the people of the Universe, as it says: He would not kneel and not prostrated himself.
Was he picking a fight and transgressing the kings decree?! Rather, when Ahasuerus commanded to prostrate [oneself] to Haman, he drew idol worship on his chest and intended that they prostrated to idol worshipping. And when Haman saw that Mordochai was not prostrating himself before him, he was filled with rage. Mordochai said to him: There is a Master who is higher than all high ones, how can I abandon Him and prostrate myself in front of idol worship? Since he demonstrated the singleness of the Holy One Blessed be He, he is called Yehudi, to say Yehudi Yehidi (single) Dont read Yehudi, but rather Yehidi.
What is the reason that the Midrash gives for Mordochais behavior?
The nationalistic reading of Yehudi does not seem to concern the Midrash at all. They are interested in the coping of a Jew who believes in One God in the idol worshipping world around him. Unlike Josephus, who was strongly aware of Jewish nationalism and witnessed some the harshest moments of national Jewish history, the Midrash is dealing with Judaism as a religion. It may reflect a certain mood in the story. There are no Jewish national aspirations mentioned in the Megilla.
The Midrash raises a hard question regarding Mordochais refusal to prostrate himself in front of Haman: Did he not realize the possible grave consequences of his actions? What does it consider a suitable answer?
One of the 3 transgressions that a Jew is told to get killed rather than commit, is idol worshipping. When a Jew worships idols, he denounces the very foundation of his faith. (Just think of the first line of Shema.) The Midrash is reflecting a world in which one is often told to compromise on this fundamental aspect of Judaism, and the message is clear: On some things there are no compromises.
Still, could he not have tried to avoid the confrontation?
אבן עזרא אסתר פרק ג פסוק ד
(ד) והנה יש לשאול למה הכניס מרדכי עצמו בסכנה גם הכניס כל ישראל היה ראוי שידבר לאסתר ותסירנו משער המלך ולא יכעיס את המן אחר שראה שהשעה משחקת לו, והתשובה כי לא יוכל לסור משער המלך כי אם יסור בלא מצות המלך דמו בראשו:
Ibn Ezra Esther 3:4
For here it should be asked why Mordochai put himself into danger and also put in all of Israel, for it would have been proper for him to speak to Esther and she would remove him fro the kings gate and he would annoy Haman who saw that this was his lucky hour. And the answer is that he could not remove from the kings gate, for if he removed from the kings gate without the kings instruction, he deserves to be killed.
Ibn Ezra was surely aware of the Midrash above, yet he chooses a different direction of addressing the difficult question of why Mordochai risked himself and his people. How would you define his approach?
Ibn Ezra is a Peshat (text oriented) person. His approach in commenting on the text will be as close as possible with the text. He does not use this opportunity to send a statement about difficult situations of his time. The kings gate seems to be a place with strict rules. Ibn Ezra assumes that being in such a place (perhaps to differ from the towns square) was by appointment only. However, one could wonder what we should think of Mordochai when a chapter later he cannot be at the kings gate because of his ashes and sackcloth.
Video Summary of Mordochai and Haman