Mordekhai in the Sovereign’s Court, by Rabbi Shalom Carmy


When Mordekhai learned of Bigtan and Teresh’s plot against the king, he did what a good subject would do: he relayed the information to the court. However, Bereshit Rabba (39:12) discussing God’s blessing to Abraham at the beginning of Lekh Lekha, wonders why he did so; why should he go out of his way to save the undeserving Gentile king? R. Yehuda says that Mordekhai followed in the footsteps of earlier role models—Jacob blessing Pharaoh, Joseph working in Pharaoh’s court, Daniel responding to Nebuchadnezzar’s requests. R. Nehemia holds that Mordekhai looked back to the mission God gave Abraham, to be a blessing to the nations: since Jews cannot benefit the world through material wealth (since the Gentiles outstrip us in that regard) we can only help the world through the information we provide when consulted.[1]

At first blush it would seem that Mordekhai’s obligation to report treason is anchored in the prophecy of Jeremiah 29: “Seek out the welfare of the city where you dwell, for in its welfare is yours.” What does the Midrash add to the seemingly straightforward duty of social benevolence?

Let me suggest a subtle distinction. There is a duty we have, as decent people, as decent neighbors, to seek out the communal good. This is not an obligation to the king as sovereign. It is a duty of justice and kindness to fellow human beings. Society is in effect, my next door neighbor written large. Helping the community to do well may be more complicated than helping the individual but it is not different in kind. Then there is a different kind of duty claimed by the sovereign—as a subject or as a citizen, I am asked to give allegiance to the state. Most of the time what’s good for the community is good for the state and vice versa. Sometimes the desires of the sovereign and the interests of the commonwealth do not coincide. But even when the actions performed are identical, there is a conceptual and experiential distinction between the two. I act for the community because I perceive an objective order promoted by my actions. I serve the state because the sovereign so wills it.

To offer allegiance to the state is thus more than to seek its welfare. I can fulfill Jeremiah’s injunction by praying for the state (see Avot chapter 3) without personally engaging with the government. But what Jacob, Joseph and Daniel did entailed personal entanglement with the sovereign power and subservience to it.

Note well that in the Megilla, and elsewhere in Tanakh, sovereignty is vested in one man, the monarch, while, in democracy, the sovereign is “We the People,” as determined by constitutional process. This may make some practical difference: as a citizen I am a “partner” in “We the People;” as subject of the king, I do not participate in sovereignty. Either way, however, the obligation to obey is the product of will posited by the individual or collective sovereign rather than an external judgment of welfare. An oath of allegiance by the citizen or subject of the state is not a promise to do good for the community but pledges personal allegiance to the state.

It is this entanglement with the sovereign that concerns the Midrash. According to R. Yehuda Mordekhai was able to intervene because he was guided by his predecessors: their service to Gentile kings demonstrated that such activity is justifiable; perhaps they also showed how the Jew, whose ultimate allegiance is only to God, can engage in political service to the sovereign without compromising his ultimate commitment to God. R. Nehemiah, for his part, goes back to God’s election of Abraham and the blessing that is manifested in the Jews’ putting his counsel at the disposal of the troubled sovereign. In his view such interaction is one element in the vocation of the Jewish people.

None of this hesitation is evident from the Biblical text itself. One may think that the anxiety is all in the mind of the Midrash not in the mind of Mordekhai. This would ignore the larger context of the Megilla. We are told that Esther concealed her background because Mordekhai requested her to do so. Why is not explained in the text. Though many particular reasons have been given for this strategy, the fundamental point is that Mordekhai does not want the court circles to know more than in absolutely necessary about Esther’s identity.

Immediately after the failed coup, when Haman becomes the most prominent face of the sovereign, Mordekhai refuses to bow down to him. The “servants of the king” ask Mordekhai why he transgresses the king’s command. We do not hear an immediate response. It is only after Mordekhai has repeated his behavior many times that we are informed that the courtiers know that Mordekhai is a Jew. Haman apparently never hears this directly from Mordekhai; it is “they” who divulge the information. The cumulative import of all this is that Mordekhai was reluctant to expose his identity and commitments to the ruling classes. In this light we may also view the reservations about Mordekhai’s subsequent involvement in Persian political life recorded in Megilla 16b.

  1. Shaul Nathansohn offered a halakhic analysis along the lines here outlined. As he explains, Esther was permitted to acquiesce in Ahasuerus’s desires so long as he was aiming only at physical pleasure (hana’at atsmo). If he had known that she was Jewish, he might have insisted on his way with her as an imposition of ideological supremacy (as, let us add, he did with Vashti). Once the ideology of royal sovereignty entered the picture, he would be coercing her to betray her religious commitment (l’ha’avir al dat) and then Esther would have been compelled to choose martyrdom.[2]

Purim is a day of joy, a celebration of survival against all odds. All the same, the Megilla contains a sober message about the conflicts that we Jews must navigate in the course of our exile among the nations of the world, in particular our relations with the sovereign powers under whom we conduct our lives and to whose welfare we make our contribution.

[1] My phrasing is intended to take into account Bava Batra 4a.

[2] In this connection one might wish to think about the debate between Leo Strauss and Alexander Kojeve about the nature of ancient and modern tyranny—-where the ancient tyrant is motivated by the desire for pleasure while the modern tyrant seeks to realize an ideology.

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