Didn’t have time to read the Megillah this Purim? No worries! To celebrate the holiday, we asked five writers to reflect on the story’s five leading characters. Missed the previous installments? Click here to read about Ahasuerus, and here to read about Vashti.
Who was Mordechai, really? I am not asking about the historical aspects of his character which are, of course, both non-existent and totally irrelevant. It is the literary character of Mordechai that intrigues me. Where did the male hero of the Book of Esther emerge from, and how did he come to play the major role he plays in its tragicomic, playful plot?
The rabbis, as usual, are not confused about his identity. Loyal to the Talmudic storytelling tradition, they recreate Mordechai in their own image, just as they type-casted many other very unlikely candidates in a rabbinic role: The lustful and ruthless King David, the heretical King Jeroboam, and even some of the descendants of the wicked Haman, who according to the Talmud (Sanhedrin, 96b) not only converted to Judaism but became great rabbis who taught Torah in public.
Not only did the Talmud portray Mordechai as one of the great rabbis of his time, a member of the famous Sanhedrin – it even dragged him into a typical rabbinic quarrel. The Hollywoodian happy end of the Book of Esther is marred by a small detail, almost invisible to the non-Rabbinic eye: “For Mordecai the Jew was next unto king Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews and accepted of the majority of his brethren, seeking the wealth of his people, and speaking peace to all his seed.” (Esther 10:3) Why, asks the Talmud (Megillah, 16B) is Mordechai accepted “of the majority of his brethren” but not of all his brethren? “This informs us” replies the Talmud “that some members of the Sanhedrin separated themselves from him.” Why would anyone in their right mind do such a thing? “Rav Joseph said: The study of the Torah is superior to the saving of life.” As grateful as the rabbis were to Mordechai for saving their lives, they still couldn’t forgive him the fact that when he rose to power, he neglected the study of the Torah.
But, with all due respect to the lively rabbinic imagination, there is nothing scholarly, or particularly pious, about Mordechai in the Book of Esther. As a matter of fact, he is portrayed as a rather marginal figure, an outsider, sitting at the gate of the royal palace. King Ahasuerus, who embodies absolute power, needs not know or remember anything – he wallows in ignorance, drunkenness, and forgetfulness. Mordechai, who has absolutely no power, needs to know and remember everything. His only source of influence is the fact that not a single detail escapes his attention. The Book of Esther does not reveal Mordechai’s sources and does not tell us how he obtains his knowledge. How, for example, did Mordechai find out about the plot of two of the palace guards, the eunuchs Bigtan and Teresh, to assassinate the king? We hear about the brilliant way in which Mordechai trades in this information, but not about the equally brilliant way in which he obtained it. We are also not told how Mordechai finds out about Haman’s plan to launch the final solution of the Persian empire’s “Jewish problem.” All we are told is that “Mordecai perceived all that was done” (Esther, 4:1) the rest is left for the readers’ imagination.
How did Mordechai obtain his information? Did he bribe the guards and the eunuchs? Did he grovel, or ingratiate himself to them by flattery? Perhaps he trades in information, smuggles news and gossip to the bored women who are locked up in the golden cage of the harem? Most of these women were abducted from their families to serve as sex slaves to the corrupt, drunken ruler. Was Mordechai their last liaison to the outside world? Would he smuggle small gifts into the harem: Samples of home-cooked food; small pieces of clay with a few loving words scribbled on them; little locks of hair, wrapped in colorful ribbons, of beloved children they will never embrace or watch grow? Was Mordechai’s role in the Persian court the jester like role of a professional gossip, a verbal paparazzi of the ancient world, running between the king’s gate and the city and spreading news, gossip and rumors? Could he have been, like the poor orphan Esther, the least likely candidate to the grand historic role imposed on him by an ironic twist of fate? In that case, his character would be even more intriguing, and his endeavors more inspiring, than it would be had he been the usual suspect—a sage and seasoned leader of his people.