Like Mordechai, Like Joseph

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Rabbi David Fohrman

Rabbi David Fohrman

Founder and Lead Scholar

Rabbi Fohrman looks at the midrash and commentaries in order to understand the connection between the narrative Megillah and that of Potiphar’s wife, continuing to examine the question of why Mordechai wouldn’t bow and examine the text for clues as to what exactly is happening in the story.



Well, 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:

Haman's Story

Let'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.

Fast Forward

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. Come with me into the next video, and I'll show you what I mean.

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