Why Doesn't Mordechai Bow To Haman?
The Hidden Story of Mordechai
Rabbi David Fohrman
Founder and Lead Scholar
The Haman & Mordecai Story: Why Mordecai Refused To Bow Down To Haman
One of the big questions in Mordechai's story – the point when we lean forward in anticipation – is why Mordechai refused to bow to Haman? We read in the Megillah how the palace servants approached Mordechai with this very question – but he doesn’t reply. He keeps it a mystery.
It’s easy to assume that Mordechai doesn’t bow to Haman, the viceroy who demands fielty, to avoid being idolatrous, or because Mordechai was a Jew. But the Megillah doesn’t actually confirm these details – and that raises the question: What is Mordechai’s side of the story really about?
In this video, Rabbi Fohrman suggests that Mordechai’s actions had less to do with idolatry than objecting Haman’s power grab in loyalty to the king. Rabbi Fohrman dispels common explanations by showing that bowing, itself, isn’t idolatrous, that the story of Haman’s wearing an idol is not actually in Biblical text, and connecting the narrative to that involving Potiphar’s wife. Follow his journey through the story of Mordechai as he uncovers the answers.
Why Did Mordechai Not Bow To Haman?I want to ask you a little question about Mordechai: Why won't this man bow to Haman? Haman, or Haman in English, he gets elevated to viceroy in the Persian court; he's second in charge to the king himself. And there was this decree, issued by the king, that all the servants of the king were supposed to bow before Haman, whenever he walked through the streets. And while everybody else evidently had no problem with this, Mordechai publicly defied Haman and he does not bow. Now, why did Mordechai have to do that? Is he trying to infuriate Haman?
Who Is This Mordechai Character?I mean – let's give Mordechai the benefit of the doubt here. In all likelihood, he thought he was endangering his own life, at most, and nothing more than that. You know, no one could have predicted that that Haman would react as he did, with such an insane fit of rage that he'd go about trying to destroy not just Mordechai himself, but every last Jew in the realm, but still, even if that was unpredictable, why, if you're Mordechai, do this? Why risk your life just to thumb your nose at Haman?
Idolatry: An Attempt to Answer Mordechai's StoryNow, I know what you're thinking: There is a pretty simple reason why Mordechai wouldn't bow down to Haman. Bowing down to a person – that's a terrible sin; it's like, idolatry. So Mordechai – he was a good guy. He was just standing up for maybe the most basic tenet of his faith, don't worship other gods.
All right, so does that solve our problem? Can we all go home from our Megillah reading happy now?
Well, not quite. Because, let me ask you: Is it really "idolatry" to bow before a human being? Does the Torah consider that idolatry? As it happens, the Five Books of Moses are full of examples of humans bowing before other humans. Abraham, father of the entire Jewish faith, he bows before visitors that come to his tent. Jacob, he bows before Esav. The children of Jacob, they bow before Joseph. It's, like, all over the place. Everyone bows before other people, as a way of showing deference. It's not idolatry, it's just the way the world works.
Okay, so at this point, maybe in the back of your mind you're thinking: Wait a minute, didn't Haman have, like, an idol hanging around his neck or something? Wasn't that why Mordechai couldn't bow before him?
Why Doesn't Mordechai Bow to Haman? The Midrash About the IdolWell, let's open a copy of the Megillah and see. Try finding the page in the Megillah that describes that idol hanging around Haman's neck. Guess what – it ain't there. All we hear in the Megillah is that the king elevates Haman, and all the king's servants start bowing to him – and Mordechai wouldn't bow. That's all the Megillah says. No mention of any idol.
So what about that idol thing you learned about in school? There is a source for it – but it's not in the text of the Megillah, it's in a rabbinic text – the Midrash, it's in Esther Rabbah. And here's the issue, if I may put it gently: If you want to accept this Midrashic explanation as the most basic way of understanding the Megillah's text, I kinda think you have to ask: Why is the Megillah so silent about that idol? It's not an insignificant detail.
The existence of that idol, you're telling me, is the whole reason Mordechai couldn't bow. So why does the Megillah leave it up to the rabbis to record this crucial information in a relatively obscure Midrashic comment? It's not like the Megillah is shy about telling us all sorts of other details. We hear about horses running here, horses running there. We hear about the drinking policies surrounding Achashverosh's banquet. But we don't hear anything about that idol on Haman's neck. Why leave that information out?
And, you know, I don't mean to argue with the Midrash here. We'll get back to that Midrash and how we might understand it. I'm just pointing out that it is hard to see this Midrashic explanation as the pshat – the most basic, straightforward, meaning of the text in the Megillah. The Megillah, taken on its own terms, doesn't seem to pin Mordechai's refusal to bow on some sort of phantom idolatrous necklace.
The Megillah KillerNow, I just want to take a moment to point out to you the gravity of this question. If we can't find an answer to it, this is the kind of question that really messes with our ability to appreciate the Megillah's story. Because the question of 'why Mordechai didn't bow' – it's not a trivial question. It's not like asking: How come we have to hear that the king's horses ran so fast? You know, you may be curious about that, but it doesn't ruin your appreciation of the Megillah if you don't know the answer to it.
On the other hand, not understanding why Mordechai defies Haman – that really does ruin the story for you. Because central to the Megillah is this terrible decree of genocide that our people faced. It was a decree formulated by Haman, and foiled by Mordechai. Which, you know, that makes Mordechai a hero, right? Well, not so fast. Because, let's face it: The only reason Haman made this decree was BECAUSE Mordechai didn't bow! So, if Mordechai didn't have a good reason for that choice, how much of a hero is he, really? You know, it might sound heretical to say – prideful, even arrogant? Sure, he gets lucky and we all survive in the end – but is that happy ending enough to turn brash recklessness into heroics?
Perceiving a Deeper Story Behind Mordechai the JewSo it looks like we are back to the drawing board: Why doesn't Mordechai bow?
So, to try to answer that question, I want to actually go back with you to the text, to the way the Megillah itself recounts the very first clash between these two men.
Vechol avdei hamelech asher besha'ar hamelech, and all the servants of the king that were in the gates of the palace, korim umishtachavim lehaman, they were all bowing to Haman, ki chen tzivah lo hamelech, for so the king commanded him.
Now here's the thing. If you look at that language, our assumption before, that everyone is the whole Persian empire was supposed to bow to Haman – that may in fact be wrong. We just don't have any evidence for it. The decree seems to be localized to the servants of the king, to the courtiers in the palace. Remember those words: Asher besha'ar hamelech, those in the palace gates. It was a "Palace thing"; Haman, he was the top servant of the king, and all the other servants of the king, all the other courtiers, they were supposed to bow to him.
And all did, except for one.
Mordechai, the guy who wouldn't bow – he, too, was one of those guys in the sha'ar hamelech. He's not a member of the general populace, he is a member of the king's court. What exactly was his job there? We don't know. Maybe he was a mid-level manager in the Interior Ministry or something. Maybe he was just taking care of Esther, the new queen, and he was the King's Special Advisor in charge of Queenly Matters. But whoever he was, he was now, somehow, part of the king's court.
So, Haman goes out and about in the palace, and when all the courtiers bows except for Mordechai, some courtiers, they call Mordechai on it. They ask him: Madua atah over et mitzvat hamelech? Why aren't you listening to the king's orders?
The Question of Mordechai's Deafening SilenceNow, stop right there, for a minute. Those courtiers, they've really asked our question, haven't they? Why aren't you bowing? What's the principle here, they want to know. And as a reader, you want to know, too. This is where you really lean forward and listen: What's Mordechai going to tell those courtiers?
But Mordechai doesn't answer them. He just remains silent. And the courtiers, they actually don't give up. They start badgering him:Vayehi k'amram elav yom yom, and it happened, day after day, they spoke to Mordechai, velo shama aleihem, and Mordechai, he didn't listen to them. He just stays silent and stands there, not bowing.
So Mordechai is silent, but I want to suggest to you that maybe, in Mordechai's silence, right there, there is a hidden explanation being given to us, the reader. There's actually a story going on with these courtiers. Let me show you how the Megillah begins to tip its hand.
A Biblical Parallel to Mordechai's Story? Introducing PotipharLet's read those words that describes Mordechai's silence one more time:
וַיְהִי,כְּאָמְרָם אֵלָיו יוֹם וָיוֹם וְלֹא שָׁמַע, אֲלֵיהֶם
And it happened, when they asked him [why he defied the king's decree] day after day, but Mordechai did not listen to them
Now read those words over a couple of times. And as you do, ask yourself: Do the words perhaps sound just a little bit familiar to you? Just a teeny weeny bit familiar?
Yes, folks, turns out that this phraseology – it actually appears somewhere else, earlier in the Bible. It appears only one other time in all of Tanach.
So ask yourself: Where else, does someone badger someone else, over and over, day after day – and the person being badgered simply will not listen?
And by the way, is not just the general situation that's similar. It's the exact Hebrew phraseology too. Where is the only other time in Tanach that we have the combination of these precise terms: "vayehi … yom yom… velo shama"? And it happened, day after day, and they didn't hear.
Well, did you guess it? The phrase appears… in the Joseph story. Remember? Joseph, he is sold by his brothers and ends up in Egypt, working as a servant in the house of a nobleman by the name of Potiphar. And there, he's got a pretty good deal going: He earns his master's trust, and eventually he's got free reign to administer the household as he sees fit. Everything is working out just peachy keen for Joseph – until one day, he is faced with the greatest trial yet in his young life.
One day, when all the other men of the household have left the grounds, he is approached by his master's wife, we'll call her Mrs. Potiphar, and she attempts to seduce him. He resists her advances, but she persists. And she badgers him day after day.
You see where I'm going here? 10 And it happened, as she spoke to Joseph day after day, and he didn't listen to her, to lie by her, or to be with her...
וַיְהִי, כְּדַבְּרָהּ אֶל-יוֹסֵף יוֹם יוֹם; וְלֹא-שָׁמַע אֵלֶיהָ לִשְׁכַּב אֶצְלָהּ, לִהְיוֹת עִמָּהּ
And there it is… it's the exact same phraseology. The courtiers, they spoke to Mordecai day after day and he didn't listen to them, just as Mrs. Potiphar once spoke to Joseph day after day, and he didn't listen to her. And you kinda have to wonder, why is the megillah doing this? Why is it intentionally quoting, lifting that phrase right out of the Potiphar story and using it again in its own story?
What a puzzling thing.
Like Mordechai, Like Joseph
ChazalWell, as it happens, we weren't the first ones to notice the Mordechai/Potiphar connection. Centuries ago, someone else remarked on the parallel between these two stories – and that someone else was the Midrash. After noting the textual parallels that we just saw, the Sages said this, phrased in their inimitable, pithy style:
בניה של רחל נסן שוה וגדולתן שוה, The tests of the children of Rachel are the same and their reward is the same…
The rabbis noticed something interesting here here. The main protagonists in the two stories – they are related to each other. Both were children of the matriarch, Rachel. Joseph, of course, he was Rachel's son – and Mordechai, as the Megillah tells us, he was a member of the tribe of Benjamin, who was Rachel's other son.
So the Sages, they say: These two children of Rachel, Joseph and, many centuries later, Mordechai – they faced identical challenges: Nissan shaveh. Their trial, as it were, was the same. And their reward was the same.
Remarkable. You know, their reward being the same, I get that. Both Mordechai and Joseph before him are given the signet ring of the most powerful sovereign of their times. But their trial was the same? What exactly was that supposed to mean? I mean, it's not like Mordechai is being seduced or anything, the way that Joseph was...
But, somehow, Mordechai's choice as to whether to bow to Haman, the Sages are saying – it actually was just a latter day version of Joseph's choice as to whether to be intimate with the wife of Potiphar.... It was, on some deep level, the political equivalent of taking his master's wife for himself. It was something you could be seduced to do. Having your master's wife; that's not for you, that's something that should be reserved for the master. Having all the servants of the king bow to you – that's not something for you, it's something to be reserved for the king himself. Mordechai, the Sages seem to be saying – he too, just like Joseph, was expressing a deep loyalty to his own master, the king, by resisting the demands of the courtiers, and by extension, Haman, that he bow to him.
But wait a second, that's crazy, you say. Because, didn't the king himself decree that all have to bow to Haman? I mean, why would it be wrong – a betrayal, as it were – to simply follow that decree? On the contrary – wouldn't you say that Mordechai is actually defying the king by not listening to his decree?
How could those two things co-exist? How could it be so that there was a royal decree that all should bow to Haman, and on the other hand, Mordechai would be exhibiting loyalty to the king by defying that decree?
Well, let's go back to the actual text, and look at it just a little bit more closely. We may be able to find in the text some answers to our question:
Digging DeeperLet's start by asking this: How did that whole bowing decree ever get legislated in the first place?
Here's what the megillah says here:
א) אַחַ֣ר ׀ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה גִּדַּל֩ הַמֶּ֨לֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵר֜וֹשׁ אֶת־הָמָ֧ן בֶּֽן־הַמְּדָ֛תָא הָאֲגָגִ֖י וַֽיְנַשְּׂאֵ֑הוּ
After these things – presumably, after the last events of the Megillah, when Mordechai foiled the assassination plot launched against the king – after that, the king elevates Haman…
וַיָּ֙שֶׂם֙ אֶת־כִּסְא֔וֹ מֵעַ֕ל כָּל־הַשָּׂרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר אִתּֽוֹ׃
...and he essentially makes him second in command to the king, placing him in a position above all the other servants of the king.
Okay, great. So what happens next?
(ב) וְכָל־עַבְדֵ֨י הַמֶּ֜לֶךְ אֲשֶׁר־בְּשַׁ֣עַר הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ כֹּרְעִ֤ים וּמִֽשְׁתַּחֲוִים֙ לְהָמָ֔ן
Suddenly, at that point, all the king's servants in the palace courtyards – they would all start bowing to Haman,
כִּי־כֵ֖ן צִוָּה־ל֣וֹ הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ
...because so the king commanded him…
But just stop right there for a second, because there's a bit of a problem in that last verse. It actually has to do with a misplaced pronoun. Read the sentence again, and ask yourself: When the king commanded that all the servants of the king should bow to Haman, exactly who did the king command?
You'd imagine he commanded the 'servants of the king,' right? I mean, that would be logical. But that's not actually what the verse says. The text of the Megillah, translated literally, reads: ki chen tzivah lo hamelech – for so the king commanded 'him'.
Here's the question: Who's 'him'?
It doesn't seem like it can be the servants of the king. They're a bunch of people, and lo is a singular pronoun, it indicates the king was talking to only one. Now, it could be that the text just isn't being precise – some commentators, like Ibn Ezra, suggest that – but if the text is being precise, what's it really implying with that singular pronoun? The only particular person the king could have commanded about this would have been Haman himself. So you'd have to read the verse this way: All the king's servants were bowing to Haman… because so the king commanded… [Haman].
But now the obvious question is: Why was the decree issued to him? It doesn't oblige Haman, it obliges everybody else!
Moreover, there's a second problem here: How did the courtiers know about this decree? If the king really was talking just to Haman, that means Haman himself was their only source of information. There's no way to independently verify what he's telling them. And it makes you wonder: Were those courtiers of the king really getting the whole story from Haman?
You know, it reminds me of the old parable of the Chassidic rebbe who dies, and a dispute breaks out between his two sons as to which of them will be the new rebbe. Well, one day, one brother says to the other: “That's it. It is settled. Last night, Father came to me in a dream and said that I'm to be the new rebbe.” The other brother thought about it and replied: “If Father wanted you to be the new rebbe, he shouldn't have come to you in a dream to tell you that. He should have come to my dream and told it to me!”
Well, maybe Haman's that brother who had the dream. In other words: Perhaps the Megillah is hinting that Haman is taking some liberties here; he's going beyond the king's actual intent in some way. How so?
Well, evidently the king and Haman must have had some sort of conversation in which the subject of bowing came up. The Megillah, it doesn't tell us exactly what happened between Haman and the King in that conversation, but we can perhaps imagine how that discussion might have gone:
[Enter Haman, Stage Right]
Sire, I really appreciate the promotion. Together, you and I shall bring order to the Persian Empire. Just one tiny little thing that may have been overlooked in all of the hullaballoo surrounding my advancement. You know, perhaps it would be a good idea for the senior staff around here to show some deference to me when I roam through the palace courtyards. After all, as Executive Vice President of the Persian Empire, I really do represent the crown…
Look sire, we both know this isn't for me. I am just your humble servant, sitting at the dust of your feet. But where I go, there goes the might of Persia. By bowing to me whenever they see me, the other servants will be constantly expressing their allegiance to the crown. Might this not be in the interests of the Empire? In your interests, o' King?
Now, we don't know exactly what transpired, of course. But Haman may have made some argument like that to the king, and the king might have bought it. And, by the way, on some level, Haman might have bought it himself. Haman might well have thought himself a loyal servant, just doing what's best for the good of Persia. But in reality, his drive for power is getting the best of him. He is engineering a power grab. He wants to be seen as the king.
And this seems like a good time to remember the Midrash about the idol around Haman's neck. It may well be that this is what the Sages were talking about, when they mentioned that idol. Because let's talk about the origins of idolatry, for a minute. Idolatry, Rambam tells us, got its beginning when people began to make an error – an understandable, but catastrophic, mistake. God, they thought, was very abstract, it's hard to show honor and deference to such an abstract being. So how could you best show honor to God? People began to think: By honoring His servants. The sun, it was a very powerful force created by God. If I bowed to the sun, wouldn't that be a good way to honor the sun's creator? From there, idolatry degenerated, and eventually people began to worship the sun as the ultimate power and eventually forgot entirely about God – but idolatry started with the mistaken notion that you could bow to the servant and thereby honor the master. Well, that's Haman's essential argument here: Bowing to him, the great second-in-charge to the king, is great for the crown. In a deep way, what Haman is doing is nothing but the political equivalent of idolatry: He is the second-in-charge who is seeking to be treated like the king.
Now, it may seem like a stretch to imagine Haman making a power grab like that. But it wouldn't be entirely out of character for him to do such a thing, if you really think about it. Because if you fast forward a few chapters in the Megillah, you'll find Haman trying to engineer a power grab in a way that sounds suspiciously similar to this.
The Forbidden Fruit
A few chapters later in the Megillah, when the king experiences a terrible fit of insomnia, the king turns to Haman and asks him an innocent question: “What should be done with the man the king wants to honor?” he says. And we all know Haman's reply: לְמִ֞י יַחְפֹּ֥ץ הַמֶּ֛לֶךְ לַעֲשׂ֥וֹת יְקָ֖ר יוֹתֵ֥ר מִמֶּֽנִּי׃ Haman said to himself, “Whom would the king desire to honor more than me?”
וַיֹּ֥אמֶר הָמָ֖ן אֶל־הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ אִ֕ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ חָפֵ֥ץ בִּיקָרֽוֹ׃ ...So Haman said to the king, “For the man the king desires to honor
And he gets like, starry eyed, and he goes on to give this almost manic description of what should be done to this man. He says:
יָבִ֙יאוּ֙ לְב֣וּשׁ מַלְכ֔וּת אֲשֶׁ֥ר לָֽבַשׁ־בּ֖וֹ הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וְס֗וּס אֲשֶׁ֨ר רָכַ֤ב עָלָיו֙ הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ וַאֲשֶׁ֥ר נִתַּ֛ן כֶּ֥תֶר מַלְכ֖וּת בְּרֹאשֽׁוֹ Let royal garb which the king has worn be brought, a horse on which the king has ridden and on whose head a royal crown has been set, and bring this all...
וְהִלְבִּ֙ישׁוּ֙ אֶת־הָאִ֔ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ חָפֵ֣ץ בִּֽיקָר֑וֹ וְהִרְכִּיבֻ֤הוּ עַל־הַסּוּס֙ בִּרְח֣וֹב הָעִ֔יר וְקָרְא֣וּ לְפָנָ֔יו כָּ֚כָה יֵעָשֶׂ֣ה לָאִ֔ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֥ר הַמֶּ֖לֶךְ חָפֵ֥ץ בִּיקָרֽוֹ׃ And let the man whom the king desires to honor be attired and paraded on the horse through the city square, and a crier should go before him: This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor!”
Haman's desires completely overtake him. His drive for power, to be seen as the king, becomes completely transparent. The word “king” or “kingdom” – it appears no less than seven times in Haman's short speech. Everything is king, king, king. Ask yourself, you know, exactly what does Haman want here?
He thinks this guy being led through the streets is going to be him. And you know, from a third story balcony, out there in the street, what does someone look like when they're being paraded through the streets riding the king's horse, wearing the king's robes? They look like the king.
That's exactly what Haman wants. He wants to be seen as the king.
Back to Chapter 3
So my argument is that on some level, Haman has always been after this. Yes, it's more overt in that sleepless night scene out there in Chapter 6, but back in Chapter 3, I'm arguing, Haman has been after this, too. You know, because, how did the whole bowing thing come about, back in Chapter 3? Evidently, Haman had wheedled a concession out of Achashverosh in private conversation. It must have been a little awkward when Haman brought up the idea that everyone should bow to me, sire. The king, perhaps sensing that awkwardness – goes along with it to a point: “Sure, everyone should bow to you, Haman. Splendid idea!” You know, in private conversation, he's willing to throw Haman that bone. But that's it. That's it, that's all the king was in this for. A private conversation does not a decree make. Remember: the king, tellingly, never legislated this decree to his court. And there's a reason for that. What the king said was never intended to become law.
There's an old saying I remember: Not everything you think should you say, not everything you say should you write, and not everything you write should you publish. And if you're the king, not everything you say in private conversation should you make a decree out of. There's a difference between these things for a reason.
Haman, though? He takes it all to the bank. He runs out to tell the courtiers: “You'll never believe what the king told me last night. You guys, you're all commanded to bow to me! No, really!”
So in fact, like much else in the Megillah, vanahafoch hu. Things get reversed. It appears that there is a royal decree that all should bow to Haman and that to defy the decree is to defy the king. In reality, though, it could well be that the reverse is true: Defying the decree is what is necessary to actually uphold your allegiance to the crown. As a matter of fact, everybody, all the courtiers, should be defying the decree; it's just that Mordechai is the only one with the guts to actually do it. Haman conveniently confused a conversation with a decree and he's doing it to make a power grab. Someone, Mordechai reasons, has to stand in his way.
Back to Potiphar
So getting back to our Potiphar parallel, it all now makes a good deal of sense: In the Joseph story, Joseph had all the power and privilege that Potiphar had. Potiphar entrusted him implicitly to make all the decisions in the house, much as the king entrusted Haman with affairs of state in Persia. In light of that, Joseph intuited that to have his master's wife would be to betray that trust. In some way, to fall for the advances of his master's wife would actually be even more repugnant than ordinary adultery.
Because… think about it: What really separates Joseph from Potiphar himself? Joseph had the keys to every car, he could write out all the checks with his own signature; he had teams of slaves at his beck and call, pledged to obey his every order. Faced with the reality of that dizzying power bestowed upon him by his master, Joseph turns to Potiphar's wife and essentially tells her: I can't do what you've asked of me. I can't have you. Because there's only one thing that separates me from my master? And it's you. As Joseph says to her: לֹא-חָשַׂךְ מִמֶּנִּי מְאוּמָה, כִּי אִם-אוֹתָךְ בַּאֲשֶׁר אַתְּ-אִשְׁתּוֹ – my master didn't withhold anything from me, except for you, inasmuch as you are his wife. And therefore, to take you, would be an attempt to pretend that I have truly displaced my master, that I am him! And I will never do that to him…
In the Megillah, Mordechai intuits the same thing. The king entrusted great power to Haman, his second in command. He handed him the ring of power. But there's got to be one thing that separates even the most powerful servant from the king, otherwise the servant is the king. In this case, what separates second in command, Haman, from master, is that the king is the only one to whom all must bow. Haman, with his suspicious report about the king's supposed “decree,” is now trying to betray his master by taking that one thing away from the king – and in that way, Haman begins to create the perception that it is he who is the sovereign, the ultimate power. So Mordechai – he decides to resist. If all the other courtiers are simply going to fold and give in to Haman's pressure – Mordechai is going to be the one loyal courtier who doesn't. He's going to make a last stand against this usurper of the crown.
Mordechai and Haman
By the way, this whole approach appears to be corroborated, I think, by a fascinating comment the Sages make about Haman. I mentioned this once in an earlier course on Aleph Beta that we put together on Purim, two years ago. The Sages suggest that there's actually a hint to Haman in the Five Books of Moses. They look for the very first time the letters of Haman's name appear – hei mem nun – and they find it in God's words to Adam, after he's eaten from the Forbidden Fruit: hamin ha'etz… Was it from the tree that you were commanded not to eat from, that you've in fact eaten?
Interesting: The sages seem to be identifying Haman with the man who ate the forbidden fruit. And when you think about it, in a deep way, that makes perfect sense. Adam, he had everything. The master allowed him to have free reign in the garden, to eat from any of the delicious trees he liked. Save for one. Save for the master's own tree, this mysterious, divine tree, known as the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. When Adam reaches for that one forbidden tree, he is reaching for the one thing that separates servant from master. He is making a power grab.
And so Haman, like Adam before him, spurned everything he did have to focus on the one thing he didn't. Remember that scene in which Haman tells Zeresh: I have everything, I have power, I have riches, I have children – but none of it means anything to me every time I see Mordechai the Jew standing there in the palace.
Mordechai, the Sages are saying, he's the one thing Haman can't have. Mordechai has made himself, in effect, the last stand here, the forbidden fruit. The one thing still reserved for the master, that makes servant different from master.
Which makes it all the more chilling, wouldn't you say, that Zeresh would turn to Haman and tell him: Why don't you have the one thing you can't have? Why don't you make a gallows and hang him on them? But the words she uses for gallows, it is “Etz” – which literally means tree.
Take Mordechai, and hang him on a tree.
What is she really doing when she proposes that? What is it that hangs from a tree … if not fruit?
Mordechai truly is the one thing left that separates master from servant, that separates the King from Haman. He is the forbidden fruit. He made himself that when he decided that he would not bow.
Four Choices of Mordechai
Okay, so it looks like we've gotten the answer to our question - We know why Mordechai doesn't bow to Haman – he's doing it out of loyalty; he's trying to be a loyal servant of the king. But let me ask you something: What if I play cynical Aleph Beta viewer for a minute, and I ask you...
'Okay, Fohrman, kudos to Mordechai. He's really a terrific guy. Taking one for the Persian team, isn't he? But, at the end of the day, is that all you want me to like about Mordechai? That he was a loyal servant of … wait for it… Achashverosh? Really? Is that supposed to be, like, really inspiring? Why is that such an overwhelming virtue? What do you want me to take away from all this?'
So, until this point, we've talked a little bit about Haman's story, a bit about Yosef's story. But one thing we haven't seen yet is Mordechai's story. We've been focused on a particular choice he makes at one, particular moment of his life. But one choice, at one moment, does not a story make. We need to trace the contours of Mordechai's other choices over the course of the Megillah, and assemble the pieces of his narrative. Like all stories, there is a development here. Where Mordechai is at the beginning of the book is not where he is at the end of it.
Let me show you what I mean.
The Story of Mordechai's Journey
Mordechai's story encompasses all the various choices he makes in the Megillah. What are those choices? Let's take a sampling:
One of the first things we hear about Mordechai is that he takes in this little girl, a cousin of his by the name of Hadassah, otherwise known as Esther. Both her parents had been killed. She was helpless, and Mordechai made a choice to adopt her as his own.
Now, the Megillah uses an interesting verb in describing Mordechai's care for her: Vayehi omen et Hadassah. 'Omen' is the word for caregiver or nurse – Mordechai cared for her, the text suggests – but 'omen', spelled aleph, mem, nun, is also a word that means 'faith' or 'steadfastness.' He made himself someone she could count on. He was loyal and steadfast in support of her.
So Mordechai's very first recorded act in the Megillah is an act of selfless regard for another. I think we can all agree this is a type of loyalty we can morally get behind: Saving a helpless infant cousin is a good and wonderful thing. But in short order, that act is followed by another: It happens once that little girl grows up and is chosen as Achashverosh's next queen. By this time, Mordechai is yoshev besha'ar hamelech – he's one of the king's servants, sitting in the king's court – and he overhears a plot against the king. He tells Esther about it, and foils it. Bigtan and Teresh, the two would be assassins, are hanged.
So you see what's happening here? In these two vignettes, we have the beginnings of a story, a story that traces an evolution of Mordechai's loyalty. He is loyal to family when taking in the orphaned Esther, and loyal to the nation of Persia in foiling the assassination plot against its king.
But, if I wanted to, I could splash a bit of cold water on that rosy picture, to mix some metaphors. Because we could go back and look at that last episode with a more jaundiced eye. We can ask, with a degree of suspicion in our voice: Why was it that Mordechai stood up for Acheshverosh, and warned him of the plot against his life?
A Closer Look At Mordechai's Character
There are, of course, two options. One possibility is that he was a servant of the king, and he was looking to serve the king with integrity. That meant saving the king from threats to his life. But there is, of course, a darker, more Machiavellian, possibility. Maybe Mordechai did it for the hope of reward. Maybe he was interested in currying favor with his boss, and he saw informing on Bigtan and Teresh as his ticket to advancement in the Persian Court.
The point is: Mordechai's act is inherently ambiguous. There's just no way, from the text itself, to know what his real motivations were.
All of which sets up the very next narrative. Did you ever wonder why the episode of Mordechai foiling the assassination plot is immediately followed by the king's decision to advance Haman, and the choice Mordechai faces about whether to bow? It might just be chronological happenstance. But there might also be something more in this juxtaposition. The second episode ends up clarifying something about the first. It clarifies the first episode because it is the moment where true loyalty ends up parting ways with its counterfeit, the mere appearance of loyalty. Here's what I mean:
Often, in life, if I'm loyal to you, I seem loyal to you, and I actually am loyal to you. Your car breaks down on the highway in the middle of the night, and I rush out in my pajamas and help you change your flat tire. I do it because I'm a good friend; I am truly loyal to you. And you see that I'm loyal to you. Appearances and reality reflect each other accurately here.
But there are times that they don't. The story of Mordechai's reaction to Haman's power grab, and Joseph's reaction to the advances of his master's wife, are examples of such moments. And it is in moments like these that true loyalty meets its greatest test. It is in moments like these that the appearance of loyalty deviates from the reality of loyalty. These moments force us to answer the very uncomfortable question: What would you do, if the only way you could express loyalty to someone who is important to you, is by seeming to betray him?
So when Mrs. Potiphar grabs hold of Joseph's cloak and simply will no longer take no for an answer – Joseph faces a clarifying choice. It is as if fate is asking him: What kind of a loyalist are you, really? If you are superficially loyal and that is all, if what you really care about is looking good in the eyes of those in power, well, you can't go wrong by giving in to Mrs. Potiphar. Joseph will be intimate with her, betraying his master – but Potiphar won't know. Joseph will keep up the appearance of loyalty to his master quite well, answering his every request with impeccable politeness and grace. But to express true loyalty to Potiphar – well, the only way you can do that is by seeming to betray him. You have to literally slip out of that coat she's holding and run outside. When Joseph does that, he's not naive. He knows he's leaving a scorned paramour with his clothes – and that she can, and in fact does, frame him with those: You'll never believe, dear, what our servant Joseph tried to do when we were alone in the house this morning. When I screamed, he ran out in the streets without his clothes! The painful reality for Joseph is that the only way he can be truly loyal to Potiphar is to seem to his master as if he's betraying him.
In that, lies his heroism. He chose the reality of loyalty over the mere appearance of loyalty.
And it is the same with Mordechai. Haman, the new number two, makes a power grab, as we've seen. And when Haman does that, it is as if fate is asking Mordechai why he was loyal in the previous episode. Why was it that you foiled that assassination plot, Mordechai?
You see, if Mordechai is superficially loyal and that is all, if what you really care about is looking good in the eyes of those in power, well, you can't go wrong by bowing to Haman. Mordechai can just do what the other courtiers do: He can bow to Haman, and keep up the semblance, the appearance of loyalty to the king quite well, while in fact betraying the king, and quietly going along with Haman, his usurper. But to express true loyalty to the king – well, the only way you can do that is by seeming to betray him. You have to oppose a supposed, but illicit, royal decree. To the casual observer on the street, you're a traitor; no one but you knows that you've acted with integrity.
Will you do that?
Mordechai's heroism came in the form of his answer to that question: A resounding yes. Mordechai, as Joseph before him, would choose loyalty, even if it looked, on the surface, like betrayal. Even if there was no hope for reward and advancement whatsoever. This second choice, it clarifies Mordechai's previously ambiguous intentions. It clarifies them for the reader of the Megillah – and, perhaps, for himself.
Loyalty: Is It Always Good?
So, now let me take you back to that question we asked before: Is loyalty to Achashverosh, even the selfless kind, really such a virtue?
Well, to be sure, loyalty for loyalty's sake isn't particularly noble. It depends who or what you are being loyal to.
So let's get a little historical context: What's the very first thing the Megillah tells us about Mordechai? Even before his selfless care for Esther, we are told something else about him. We are told that Mordechai was a refugee:
אֲשֶׁר הָגְלָה, מִירוּשָׁלַיִם, עִם-הַגֹּלָה אֲשֶׁר הָגְלְתָה, עִם יְכָנְיָה מֶלֶךְ-יְהוּדָה
Mordechai was forcibly exiled from Jerusalem as part of Galut Yechoniah. Like Joseph before him – Mordechai has been brought to a foreign land against his will. Jewish life had crumbled in Israel. He's in Persia, full stop. A new and unpleasant reality is thrust upon him.
So what do you do now?
If you're Mordechai – or Joseph in Egypt, for that matter – you've been dealt lemons and you have to work to make lemonade. And that's what he does. It starts with Esther, who he saves from demise. In doing so, he helps his family. And then he saves the king, helping his adoptive nation.
These stories of Mordechai and Joseph, these children of Rachel, these are the stories in the Bible about Jewish community in exile. Exile is when you don't get to have your own political system, run the way you'd like it to be run. You have to adapt to someone else's political system. And maybe the Megillah, and the Joseph story for that matter, are telling us something about a Jew's obligation vis a vis his adopted system of governance: You need to serve that system with integrity, even if doing so involves a measure of self-sacrifice.
Because social systems – families, nations -- even if they are imperfect, are positive contributions to the world. No man is an island; families, towns, nations – these are the communities in which we all thrive. Assuming these systems aren't inherently corrupt or evil – our family, our community, our nation - we work for their good. We serve them. After all, as the Talmud says: dina demalchuta dina, the law of the land needs to be upheld as law. You uphold the system that creates social order, you don't tear it down, or see it as a stepping stone for your own aggrandizement. You don't become a Haman.
Okay, so Mordechai's loyalty is noble because it supports the prevailing social system. And you know what? Maybe it wasn't such a bad social system. A verse in Isaiah, strikingly – astonishingly – refers to Cyrus the Great, who appears only a generation or so after Achashverosh – with the appellation “Messiah.” He is, indeed, the only person other than a child of David who is ever called that by the Hebrew Bible. Cyrus was a benevolent emperor, someone who helped the Jews rebuild their Temple and come home to Israel. And he helped other nations under the aegis of Persia thrive, as well.
So Mordechai, this is his new land – and he is going to uphold its sovereign. We have no way of knowing – but maybe Mordechai, in the ashes of exile, even sees some potential for good in this new empire, and he's doing his little piece to help it thrive. But if that's the case, there is one last, utterly bewildering mystery that we need to address. We need to make sense of one of the final scenes of the Megillah.
The moment I am speaking occurs after Haman was killed, and Mordechai was promoted to take his place as second in charge to the king. So, what's, like, the very next thing he does?
וּמָרְדֳּכַ֞י יָצָ֣א ׀ מִלִּפְנֵ֣י הַמֶּ֗לֶךְ בִּלְב֤וּשׁ מַלְכוּת֙ תְּכֵ֣לֶת וָח֔וּר וַעֲטֶ֤רֶת זָהָב֙ גְּדוֹלָ֔ה וְתַכְרִ֥יךְ בּ֖וּץ וְאַרְגָּמָ֑ן וְהָעִ֣יר שׁוּשָׁ֔ן צָהֲלָ֖ה וְשָׂמֵֽחָה׃ Mordecai left the king's presence wearing the clothes of kingship: robes of blue and white, with a magnificent crown of gold and a mantle of fine linen and purple wool. And the city of Shushan rang with joyous cries.
One second, who went parading around the streets of Shushan, looking from that third-story balcony like he is the king?
Yes, you heard right. That was Mordechai. Look at the guy: He's wearing what the verse describes as “clothes of kingship”: fine linen, royal purple. Now, in case you think that “kingship clothes” wasn't so literal, it's just means he was dressed to the nines – the verse adds: he's got this great big golden crown on his head.
A crown? How'd he get that? It is like he raided the palace treasury to find that. And when he goes out in the street… He looks just like the king, doesn't he?
You shake your head piously. So the guy has finally lost it. Mordechai finally gets some power and, you know what they say: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This was the very power play that Haman himself once sought to make, a couple chapters before this. And now, Mordechai, of all people, is falling into this trap?
What's going on here?
Mordechai the Jew Takes a Stand
I want to suggest to you that, in this parade – right there, wearing those royal clothes, with a big crown on his head -- Mordechai is facing his final, greatest test right there. And he's not failing. He's passing in spades. All this stuff about Mordechai looking like the king here, doing virtually what Haman wanted to do so badly, earlier… that's not a coincidence, that's the whole point. Mordechai finds himself forced, by duty, to do the very thing that had once revolted him.
To explain, I need to catch you up on some background to that little parade. Let's look at the context in which it occurred:
Haman had been killed, and the king had elevated Mordechai to take over his position. Everything seems wonderful. But there's only one problem. The decree legislated by Haman, the edict ordaining that all Jews may be killed on a single, blood-soaked day – that decree is still on the books. If nothing changes, Haman will have his victory after all, even if only posthumously.
So Esther goes to the king, and makes an appeal on moral grounds. She asks him to see the injustice in doing away with her people. She begs him for clemency for them.
But the king's answer – it wasn't exactly a no, but it had not been encouraging. He had declared that Persian laws instituted by the king are absolutely inviolate, and simply cannot be repealed. The king does give Mordechai and Esther a consolation prize – he tells them that they can legislate whatever they like concerning the Jews – but the one thing they can't do, is the only thing that really counts. They can't repeal the genocidal decree.
So if you're Mordechai, what do you do now? It is as if the choice itself mocks him. Yes, the king has given him license to “write whatever you like concerning the Jews', but what decree could he possibly write that would be of help, if the first decree has to remain on the books? That all Jews, holed up in their houses with axes and pitchforks, should be allowed access to free extra-strength tylenol as they are mercilessly slaughtered?
But Mordechai, he does see a choice, a possible way out. Mordechai may not be able to revoke the decree of genocide. But he can counter it. Mordechai sends out a second decree, sealed with the king's seal, that the Jews can defend themselves. Indeed, not only can they defend themselves, but they may go on the offense against their enemies.
It is a bold move, using the king's signet ring in this way – and, at the end of the day, that decree might just give the Jews a fighting chance. But just because they can fight doesn't mean they will win. Mordechai needs to try and tip the balance in their favor. Is there anything else Mordechai can do to give his brothers in arms a better chance at survival?
There is. But it will involve Mordechai turning his back on everything he has fought for until now. Mordechai found a solution. The solution was the parade.
A Strange Moment for Mordechai's Parade
Mordechai's joyous parade through the streets, dressed in the king's royal garb, with the Jewish Quarter of Shushan celebrating wildly – it took place at a very strange moment. It took place before the war.
It seems crazy. The Jews should be cleaning their pitchforks and stockpiling their buckshot, preparing for an epic battle to defend their families and their farms. Instead, they're throwing a parade for Mordechai! Talk about celebrating a little too early. Are they insane?
But perhaps there was method in the madness of that parade. Maybe it was the only way to guarantee a measure of success in the terrible battle to come. Indeed, look at what happens in the aftermath of that parade:
וּבְכָל-מְדִינָה וּמְדִינָה וּבְכָל-עִיר וָעִיר, And in every province, and in every city
מְקוֹם אֲשֶׁר דְּבַר-הַמֶּלֶךְ וְדָתוֹ מַגִּיעַ, wherever the king's commandment and his decree came,
שִׂמְחָה וְשָׂשׂוֹן לַיְּהוּדִים, מִשְׁתֶּה וְיוֹם טוֹב the Jews had gladness and joy, a feast and a good day.
; וְרַבִּים מֵעַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ, מִתְיַהֲדִים– And many from among the peoples of the land became Jews
כִּי-נָפַל פַּחַד-הַיְּהוּדִים, עֲלֵיהֶם. .for the fear of the Jews was fallen upon them
The effect of that parade is like a wave. People hear about what happened, and they react. The Jews – they seem so confident, is is like they've already won. Gentiles start converting. Jews start celebrating. Throughout the entire empire.
Why? What happened here?
The parade wasn't a premature attempt at self-congratulation. It was a calculated spectacle designed for the consumption of a very particular audience: officials throughout the Persian empire. It is psychological warfare, designed to forestall and render needless, much actual warfare. The parade is a bluff that could possibly make the battle to come unnecessary.
Why? Well, look at it this way: If Mordechai's counter-decree created a good, solid sense of confusion across the empire over whom the palace supports, Mordechai's parade is an attempt to tip the scales of public perception decidedly in favor of one side: the Jews. With the pre-emptive, public celebration, he has taken the wind out of the sails of the anti-semites, and in so doing, he finally gives his countrymen a reasonable expectation of being saved. In the coming battle, Persian officialdom throughout the empire will tacitly back the Jews.
But in order to have done all this, Mordechai needed to go against the very thing he had once held so sacrosanct. He needed to actually do what his arch nemesis once only hoped to do: He needed to go out in the streets and virtually impersonate the king.
Technically, the king had allowed license to do this. He told Mordechai he could legislate whatever he wanted. In a private conversation. Just like the king once told Haman that maybe all should bow to him. Mordechai takes that permission and runs with it – even if “running with it” means going against the spirit of the permit the king had issued to him. Mordechai creates the impression, a false impression, to be perfectly frank about it – that the palace is on the side of the Jews. His parade sends the unmistakable signal that Persian officialdom, represented in that big, golden crown – stands firmly behind the Jews.
After These Things...
In order to act nobly and save his people – isn't it curious that Mordechai had to mimic Haman? Yes, going out there in that parade, wearing that crown – all of that was once the ambition of his now dead mortal enemy. Mordechai had one fought against people who tried to have parades like that. But, in the end, v'nahafoch hu: Things were reversed. Fate would have it that, in his final test, the only way Mordechai could be a real true, loyal servant of his people – and a servant of a master higher than that of the Persian crown – was by seeming to covet the symbols of Persia's empire, by seeming to revel in them. It would make his skin crawl – but he would have to do it.
In the end, Mordechai would need to impersonate Haman to defeat Haman. He would need to play with the matches of megalomania to avoid the inferno of genocide. And therein, perhaps, lies a powerful lesson about the meaning- and the limits- of loyalty...
You know, if you are Mordechai, on the eve of that parade – and you eye that golden crown in the corner, those royal robes on the hanger – what do you tell yourself as you contemplate actually putting them on and going forth with abandon into the streets? Who, exactly, are you?
Well, if Mordechai tells himself that he's the guy who never wears the king's clothes; he's the guy who would never touch the king's crown – if that's who he is, then Mordechai fails. If that's who he is, he never goes out into the street on parade, and there's no salvation. Hundreds of thousands of his countrymen die.
In order for Mordechai to succeed, he needs to understand a deeper truth about what he's always valued. He needs to look past the outer manifestations of his prior deeds, and ask himself what principle animated them. It wasn't ever really about the clothes. It was never about the bowing. Mordechai has to appreciate that what he has really stood for, all along, is the need to pledge yourself to protect the vulnerable, and to do so at great personal expense. If now, he has to do that by playing dress up with the king's clothes, then dammit, that's what he'll do. At the end of the day, it is not about whose clothes you wear; it is about what ideals you serve. And it is by understanding this, that Mordechai succeeds.
The Conclusion of Mordechai's Story
So Mordechai in truth, is a loyalist – even to the end, even as he marches around looking like Haman. He is standing up for those who would otherwise be destroyed, just as he always has. Mordechai's story is a story that teaches us all, even generations later, about the great perils and the great promise of loyalty. You can say you are loyal to the bitter end, you can congratulate yourself for that – but what does that really mean? Are you the self-serving loyalist, or the true champion of an ideal larger than yourself? Would you be willing to seem to betray your boss if that's the only way you could really serve him? And would you be willing to take a stand against power – to tread on the edge of treason, to oppose a system that is about to commit terrible, irrevocable harm?
Mordechai's choices in the face of these questions are what made him great. May we have the courage and clarity to emulate his example.