“A Jewish man” Parashat Tetzaveh – Zachor 5777

Rav Menachem Leibtag, writing in “Megillat Esther, its Hidden Message”[1], believes that the most bitingly sarcastic verse in the entire Megilla is [Esther 2:5] “There was a Jewish Man in Shushan the capital, whose name was Mordechai the son of Yair the son of Shim’i the son of Kish…” The verse contains two sources of sarcasm. First, what on earth is this “Jewish man” doing in Persia? King Cyrus had already freed the Jews exiled to Babylonia-cum-Persia to return to Jerusalem in order to rebuild the Beit HaMikdash that had been destroyed seventy years earlier. Why wasn’t this “Jewish Man” in Jerusalem with everybody else?[2] Second, why does this “Jewish Man” have a Persian name? “Mordechai” is Persian for “Servant to [the Babylonian Deity] Marduk”. Imagine a “Jewish Man” called “Christopher” and you’ll understand what Rav Leibtag means. The Talmud in Tractate Menachot [65a] identifies Mordechai with Petachiah, a man mentioned in the Book of Nechemiah [9:5]. Note that Mordechai’s father and grandfather, who must also have lived in Persia, retained their Hebrew names. Why did Mordechai jettison his?

And if we’re already talking about Mordechai, let’s look at his niece. She was born with the Jewish name “Hadassah” but somewhere down the line she adopted the Persian name “Esther”. Some believe “Esther” to be the Persian translation of “Hadassah”, while others think that it is derived from the Persian stara (star). It has also been suggested that “Esther” is derived from the Babylonian “Ishtar”, a goddess of love and fertility[3]. Whatever the case may be, the name “Esther” is certainly not of Jewish origin.

Mordechai and Esther. Christopher and Christine. Persian Yordim. Our heroes.

Rav Benjamin Lau, writing in his sefer “Etnachta – Readings on the Weekly Portion”, offers a most definitely non-standard interpretation of the Megilla, especially as it pertains to its main characters. Before continuing, it is worth mentioning that the Babylonian Talmud will often describe political heroes in religious terms. That is to say, people like King David and Bar Kochba are described as Rabbis first and leaders second. The fact that these people ruled over a nation, fought wars, and balanced the budget is less important than the fact that these men learnt daf yomi. Rav Eliyahu Zinni used to constantly point this out to us. He explained that as Jews had limited autonomy in Babylonia, Jewish political leadership was essentially non-existent and so it was ignored by the Babylonian Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud, on the other hand, was written in Tiberias in Israel and treats King David and Bar Kochba as the savvy political leaders they were.

Rav Lau bases his explanation on a Midrash brought down in the Midrash Esther Raba: In the second year of King Achashverosh’s reign, India revolted. Achashverosh sent an army of twelve regiments to put down the revolt, each regiment consisting of ten thousand troops.  Haman commanded six of the regiments and Mordechai the other six. Haman’s troops ran out of supplies and Mordechai had to come to Haman’s rescue, which explains the enmity between the two. But this is far less interesting than Rav Lau’s conclusion: after Mordechai left the army, he went into politics[4]. This can help us understand a number of coincidences in the Megilla. First, after Esther is crowned as queen we read how [Esther 2:21] “Mordechai was sitting in the King’s gate, Bigtan and Teresh, two of the king’s guards of the threshold, became angry and sought to kill King Achashverosh.” If Mordechai is a leading political figure, then his presence in the palace, where he could overhear the King’s chamberlains, is understood. Further, it becomes clear why out of all the women in the Persian Empire the King chooses specifically Esther. As the daughter of a war hero, she is definitely cut out of the right cloth to serve as queen.

Mordechai’s military past can also help us understand why the Sages of the time were so hesitant to accept Mordechai and Esther’s request that Purim be made a yearly holiday[5]. At the end of the day, Mordechai and Esther were not religious leaders – they were political leaders. What right did they have to incorporate a new holiday into the Jewish calendar? In fact, Mordechai and Esther had to use their newly-acquired political clout to force the Sages to accept their decree. For this reason, the Megilla ends with the verse [Esther 10:3] “For Mordecai the Jew was viceroy to King Ahasuerus, and great among the Jews and accepted by most of his brethren”. Not “all of his brethren”, but “most of [them]”. The Talmud in Tractate Megilla [16b] teaches that some of the Sanhedrin (court) distanced themselves from Mordechai, most likely because he was mixing Church and State.

If Rav Lau’s Mordechai and Esther were around today, they would probably be called “Modern Orthodox”. They were deeply religious but they were also deeply integrated into the non-Jewish society in which they lived. This explains their use of Persian names. It used to be that people had two names: Jewish names that were used at home and non-Jewish names that were used outside of the home. At home in Toronto, my father-in-law was “Faivel”, but at the factory he was “Phil”. Perhaps within the Jewish community, “Mordechai” and “Esther” were “Petachiah” and “Hadassah”. Perhaps only when they entered the Royal Courtyard did they go by their Persian names.

Rav Lau notes that Mordechai and Esther were not the first Modern Orthodox Jews. The archetype was Joseph. Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt and after two years in jail he finds himself in front of the Pharaoh, whose dreams he must interpret. Pharaoh is taken by Joseph and he elevates him to his Grand Vizier. Pharaoh changes Joseph’s name to “Tzafnat Pa’aneach”, an Egyptian name. He gives Joseph an Egyptian wife, O’snat, and Joseph begins to live the American Dream: big house, great job, beautiful wife, with enough spare time on the side so he can play golf and go to a few AIPAC events. Joseph’s brothers come down to Egypt to buy grain and they do not recognize this Tzafnat Pa’aneach that stands before him. When Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, he tells them [Bereishit 45:3] “I am Joseph!”. You see me standing before you as Tzafnat Pa’aneach, the Egyptian, but I am still Joseph, the Jew. This did not sit well with Pharaoh, who thought he had rid Joseph of his past. Soon after Joseph dies, a new King arises who [Shemot 1:8] “knew not Joseph”. Joseph’s Jewish past was irrelevant to him and to his treatment of his Jewish subjects.

One would have expected that Purim, as possibly the most joyous of Jewish holidays, would merit the Hallel prayer, but this is not so. The Talmud in Tractate Megilla [4a] suggests that the reason that this is so is because the miracle of Purim happened outside of Israel. The same Achashverosh who turned on his beloved Vashti could just as easily turn on his beloved Esther. The same Achashverosh who drank wine with Haman and sentenced every single Jew in the world to death was the same Achashverosh who only days later hung Haman and his sons, and was the same Achashverosh who could do the very same to Mordechai and his sons.

This shiur is not meant to be a tirade against the vast number of Jews who choose to live in the diaspora. It’s meant to be a reminder that the ground under their feet might not be as solid as they would like to believe. It’s a reminder that the president bears a striking resemblance to Achashverosh and that there are people standing in line to play the role of Haman. Almost thirty-five years ago, my father-in-law decided to stop being Faivel-cum-Phil. At the age of fifty he took his wife and seven children and moved them to Israel, where he became Feeleep, the Hebraized “Philip” written on his Identification Card. A strange name, indeed, but the name of a Jewish Man.

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Moshe Dov ben Malka and Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] Available at http://www.tanach.org/special/purim.txt.

[2] Well, not really “everybody else”. Most of the Jews in exiled in Babylonia felt quite comfortable, thank you very much, and left Aliya to a little more than forty-thousand stragglers Zionists. But the question still stands: if Mordechai was the archetypical “Jewish Man”, why was he not part of this (small) group?

[3] Also a lousy movie starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman estimated to have lost $40 million.

[4] This happens all too frequently in Israel. It is far less common in the US and other western countries.

[5] The Talmud in Tractate Megilla discusses this at length.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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