All About the Benjamins

Analogies are hard.

Some wags in the late 90s thought that the Lewinsky scandal was a modern Purim story, with Monica as ingenue Esther, Bill Clinton as insatiable Ahasuerus and Hillary as imperious Vashti. Fair enough, but what about Haman, the villain of the piece? Apparently relying on the fact that Iran and Iraq indisputably share 75% of their letters, Saddam Hussein was cast.

In the 2000s, we got a Persian who certainly could play the role, and not just because his last name is an anagram for “I, jaded Haman”: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the man who became famous for declaring that “Israel will be wiped off the map” and “There are no Persian carpet munchers” (your translation may vary) left office almost two years ago. (I know, a President Mahmoud A. who leaves office when his term is up–those Shiites give up so easily!) The most you can say about his successor, Hassan Rouhani, is that he’s an inconsistent New Year’s tweeter.

Then The Speech was announced. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu coming to the most prestigious chamber of the world’s sole superpower, unbidden, to beg and supplicate for his people to be saved from the ministers of Persia. And doing it on the Fast of Esther! How perfect is that?

Except it’s not the Fast of Esther, because that’s the 13th of Adar, not the 12th. And even here in Israel, where it will be after sunset when the speech starts, the fast doesn’t begin until the next morning. And the Fast of Esther does not commemorate when Esther went before Ahasuerus, which was on Passover, eleven months earlier. And–

You know what, never mind. As I said, analogies are hard. I understand why some are comparing Bibi to Esther. But I think the closer analogue is Mordecai.

And about that… Now, I don’t embrace Ayalon Eliach’s Haaretz hit-piece, “Mordechai the villain,” but he does raise some interesting questions. The text does seem to indicate that Mordecai has no trouble hiding (denying) his Jewish identity until Haman comes on the scene, and this seems to be his main concern with Esther over the previous decade. The comfort with which we accept Esther’s being “taken” because Mordecai ultimately gets wealth and prestige in return does the beg the question of how we would look at Sarah’s abductions if the God had not intervened.

But the greatest service that Eliach does is remind us of the view of Rava, 4th-century Babylonian sage, who has a somewhat ambiguous view of Mordecai. The Talmud (Megilla 12b-13a) is trying to explain the fact that Mordecai is identified both as a Jew (from the tribe of Judah) and a Benjamite (from the tribe of Benjamin) when he is first mentioned (Est. 2:5). Rava comments:

The community of Israel explained [the two designations] in the contrary sense: ‘See what a Judean did to me and how a Benjamite repaid me!’ What a Judean did to me, viz., that David did not kill Shimei from whom was descended Mordecai who provoked Haman. ‘And how a Benjamite repaid me’, viz., that Saul did not slay Agag from whom was descended Haman who oppressed Israel.

In other words, the Jewish community is equally annoyed at two kings from the Book of Samuel: Saul for not killing Haman’s ancestor, and David for not killing Mordecai’s ancestor.

Shocking, certainly. But let’s consider another aggadic source (Yalkut Shimoni 1054):

They said to him: Know that you cause us to fall by the sword. What did you see to abrogate the king’s command?

He said: For I am a Jew.

They said to him: But surely we find that your forefathers bowed down to his forefathers, as it is stated: ‘And he bowed down to the ground seven times’ (Gen. 33:3).

He said to them: My forefather, Benjamin, was in his mother’s womb and did not bow down, and I am his descendant, as it is stated: ‘a Benjamite’ (Esther 2:5). Just as my forefather did not bow, so I do not bow or bend…

R. Benjamin bar Levi said: “I am the knight of the Holy One, blessed be He; does a knight bow down before a commoner?”

In other words, according to Yalkut Shimoni, Mordecai’s refusal to bow before Haman is not due to his Judaism (since Halakha allows this), but due to his tribal pride.

But even if Mordecai is less than perfect (in the view of some sages), we can no doubt say that he saves his people. The Book of Esther ends with a glorious act of self-defense!

Let’s look at what does finally happen on the 13th of Adar (Est. 9:1-5):

The enemies of the Jews had hoped to rule over them, and it was turned that the Jews rule over those hating them — the Jews were assembled in their cities, in all provinces of the king Ahasuerus, to put forth a hand upon those seeking their evil, and no man stood in their presence, for their fear had fallen on all the peoples. And all heads of the provinces, and the lieutenants, and the governors, and those doing the work that the king had, were lifting up the Jews, for a fear of Mordecai had fallen upon them… And the Jews smote among all their enemies — a smiting of sword, and slaughter and destruction — and did with those hating them according to their pleasure.

So whom did the Jews kill? Antisemites, certainly–those who hated them. This was a widespread phenomenon during the reign of Ahasuerus (see Ezra 4:6). But this was hardly an act of self-defense, but rather “for the Jews being ready at this day to be avenged of their enemies” (Est. 8:13). It is the Jews who mass, not their enemies. Consider just three points:

  1. The Jews are allowed “to cut off, to slay, and to destroy the whole force of the people and province who are distressing them, infants and women, and their spoil to seize” (8:11). What infants and spoils did the Jews need to defend themselves against? In practice, the Jews only kill men; but the decree is clearly designed to be the mirror image of Haman’s decree, targeting Jew-haters instead of Jews, but not limited to self-defense.
  2. “Many of the peoples of the land were becoming Jews, for a fear of the Jews had fallen upon them” (8:17). Now, if they were scared of the Jews, and the Jews would only act in self-defense, how about just not attacking?
  3. “And Esther said, ‘If to the king [it be] good, let it be given also tomorrow, to the Jews who [are] in Susa, to do according to the law of today; and the ten sons of Haman they hang on the tree.”‘ Now, that’s the 14th of Adar, a day on which no one was ever allowed to attacked Jews. So why did the Jews go and kill 300 more men in the royal complex?

The confusion is probably due to the phrase “la’amod al nafsham,” which many translate “to stand for their lives,” i.e. to act in self-defense. But the phrase “al nafsham” recurs in 9:31, where it clearly means “for themselves”–the Jews accept Purim “for themselves and for their seed.” They are meant “to stand for themselves”–to settle the score with their foes.

Mordecai the Benjamite is a complex figure. We would do well to study what he does in order to understand the nature of the threats we face today–and what motivates our response.

There’s a reason it’s the Book of Esther, after all.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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