Purim / Am I My King’s Keeper?

The imposition of a xenophobic mindset on the Bible is foreign to its spirit, and this foreignness is expressed by both Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah, who present biblical figures whose fate merged with that of the gentiles around them.

When Mordecai hears that two of King Ahasuerus’ chamberlains, Bigthan and Teresh, are plotting to assassinate the monarch, he immediately notifies his niece, Queen Esther, who passes on the news to her husband, the king. The plotters are executed.

Concerning this episode, the midrash asks: “It is written, ‘And the thing became known to Mordecai, who told it unto Esther the queen; and Esther told the king thereof in Mordecai’s name’ [Esther 2:22]. Mordecai is circumcised while Ahasuerus is not, so why should Mordecai be concerned for the king’s safety?” (Bereisheet Rabbah 39:12).

Mordecai is circumcised (that is, he is a Jew) while Ahasuerus is not (he is a gentile). So, asks the midrash, why should Mordecai care about what might happen to the king? If Bigthan and Teresh are plotting to assassinate Ahasuerus, the midrash wonders, why should Mordecai do anything to thwart their plans?

Two Amoraim try to answer the midrash’s questions: “Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah reply. Rabbi Judah cites the Bible, ‘I learn from mine elders’ (Psalms 119:100), and then says: Mordecai says to himself: It is written, ‘And Jacob blessed Pharaoh’ [Gen. 47:7]. And did not Joseph decipher Pharaoh’s dreams? And did not Daniel decipher the dreams of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon? I will do the same thing! As it is written, ‘Mordecai told it unto Esther the queen.’ Rabbi Nehemiah says: God tells Abraham, ‘and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed’ [Gen. 12:3]. If the subject is affluence, then they are richer than we are, so it must be for advice. If they are in trouble, they consult with us and we reveal the answer to them” (Bereisheet Rabbah 39:12).

The Amoraim, Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah, try to figure out why Mordecai wants to help a gentile. Rabbi Judah uses a “coding verse.” When an argument begins with the citation, “I learn from mine elders,” this means that the subject of the midrash studied the actions of his or her ancestors – and learned what to do from their example.

This is one form used in the technique of the analogical homily based on the principle, “What happened to their ancestors is a guideline for the descendants.” According to that principle, what happened to one’s ancestors is a foreshadowing: The descendants behave in a way similar to the behavior of their forebears – even if the descendants are not consciously aware of their behavior.
 
In Mordecai’s case, however, his actions are a conscious reflection of his elders’ behavior; he learns from it. His contemplation of their actions is not a literary device but rather part of the plot: Mordecai studies his ancestors’ actions and learns from them, as can be seen in the course of action he adopts.

In the above midrash, the actions of Mordecai’s forebears serve as an example to him of how Jews should relate to gentiles who need their help. Jacob blessed Pharaoh when he was brought before the Egyptian monarch, Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, and Daniel interpreted the dreams of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. Mordecai declares that he will follow their example and do the same; he therefore reveals to Ahasuerus that two of his chamberlains are plotting to assassinate him.

Rabbi Nehemiah goes further back into biblical history; he is not content with relying solely on what the elders did, and cites God’s blessing to Abraham, from Gen. 12:3: “and in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” God thus defines the pattern of the future relationship between Abraham and his descendants, on the one hand, and the gentiles in their vicinity, on the other. It is a relationship of influence, of giving, of blessing the other.

“What precisely is the nature of the blessing that Abraham’s descendants bestow on gentiles?” asks Rabbi Nehemiah, and replies that, if the subject is affluence, the gentiles are richer than the Jews. God’s blessing, which he bestows upon Abraham, relates to the dissemination of information: “ if they are in trouble, they consult with us and we reveal the answer to them.” Mordecai’s behavior is, on the one hand, an emulation of the behavior of Jacob, Joseph and Daniel, and on the other, a realization of the blessing that God bestows upon Abraham.

The question that the author of the above midrash asks is xenophobic in nature: It reflects a culture of which xenophobia is an integral component. The working assumption of the author is that a Jew has no interest whatsoever in helping gentiles. In reading the Book of Esther, the author, upon reaching the verses depicting how Mordecai saves Ahasuerus’ life, expresses bewilderment, asking: “Mordecai is circumcised while Ahasuerus is not, so why should Mordecai be concerned for the king’s safety?”

That intuitive feeling is not present in the Book of Esther nor in any other part of the Bible; it is present solely in the mind of the author of the above midrash, who is the sole xenophobe in this story and who is the only one who cannot understand why Mordecai feels obligated to help a gentile king, Ahasuerus. The imposition of a xenophobic mindset on the Bible is foreign to the very spirit of the Bible, and this foreignness is expressed by both Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah, who present an entire gallery of biblical figures whose fate merged with that of the gentiles around them.

It is clear that the question asked in the midrash does not belong in the Bible. The sharp contrast between the value system that leads to the question asked there and the value system reflected in God’s words to Abraham and in the conduct displayed by Jacob, Joseph and Mordecai is the subject of this small, wonderful midrash.

In asking the question, “Why should Mordecai be concerned for the king’s safety?” the author becomes an outsider who is not part of the biblical continuum. This midrash presents a moment of reflection on the part of the person who wrote it, who ponders the vast difference between the spirit of the above question and the historical experience recorded in the Bible. The author of the midrash develops a new way of looking at one’s surroundings and at one’s uncircumcised neighbors.

We must not read the replies provided by Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah as the answer to a natural question. That question simply does not arise in the Bible and is apparently raised in the midrash only in order to provide a pretext for the introduction of a convincing answer. The source of that question is not a careful reading of the Bible, but rather the social reality of the sages – a social reality in which the Jews live as a poor, persecuted minority (“If the subject is affluence, then they are richer than we are,” the reference being to the era of the sages). The question concerning Mordecai’s behavior vis-à-vis a gentile king is not a question that should be asked; it is, however, a question that might nevertheless have arisen in the time of the sages.

In the midrash in question, Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Nehemiah dispense “preventive medicine” to counter xenophobic thinking and, in describing the magnificent biblical tradition arising from God’s blessing to Abraham, they link the fate of the gentiles to that of the Jews. Their reply to the question, “Mordecai is circumcised while Ahasuerus is not, so why should Mordecai be concerned for the king’s safety?” is: “Mordecai is obligated to help his gentile king, in accordance with the very essence of God’s promise to the Patriarch Abraham.”