Purim and the Mystical Descendants of Rachel

Can mystical aptitude descend in the family? I think that’s a possibility.[1] In the Jacob family, the two sons of Rachel and their descendants appear to have cornered the market on reading divine providence and on the mystical connection to the divine.

The story of Joseph, Rachel’s older son, is known as the narrative par excellence of the workings of God’s hands behind the scenes. The young man’s dreams actually come true, and he eventually becomes an interpreter of dreams and a man of God, plugged into the divine in no ordinary manner. Esther and Mordechai, descended from Benjamin, Rachel’s younger son, are also pulled willy-nilly into a tale of hidden miracles taking place through synchronicities, patterns, odd coincidences. The very name Esther means hidden. No parting of the Red Sea here; the divinity of the events is apparent only to the eye of the informed discerner.

That the Esther story is strongly connected to Joseph story is well known. The Midrash[2] notes: “Rabbi Yohanan said, on behalf of Rabbi Binyamin bar [son of] Rabbi Levi: The trials of Rachel’s children are equivalent and their greatness is equivalent.” It goes on to note equivalent verses and incidents from the scroll of Esther and the part of Genesis devoted to the Joseph story. There are also a number of phrases in Esther that echo the Joseph story, creating a powerful intertextuality. These connections have been discussed at length by others, so no need to go into them here.

Instead, I wish to explore a direction not yet documented, as far as I know – the connection between Esther/Mordechai and Jonathan, son of King Saul.

In the megillah, Mordechai is listed as a descendant of Kish, and a Benjamite. Kish is the name of Saul’s father, and the midrash offers that Mordechai was a direct descendant of Jonathan son of Saul, of the tribe of Benjamin.[3] The connection between Saul’s inability to kill Agag the king of the Amalekites as commanded, and Mordechai’s destiny to kill Agag’s descendant Haman, has been discussed before. But I’d like to now turn out attention to Jonathan.

This year, I noticed something interesting, while attending a fascinating talk called “The Five Sacred Marriages in the Book of Esther” by my friend, talented artist and writer Alana Ruben Free. Alana, who has spent six years delving into Megillat Esther and its commentaries, and who is now writing a novel about Esther, shared with us that the number of patterns and codes she found in the scroll is phenomenal. Well, that very evening, while she was speaking, I actually noticed a fascinating pattern.

In the three verses in which King Ahasuerus asks Esther what her request or desire might be, and it shall be given, the word for “and it shall be given,” viynaten, is an anagram of the Hebrew word for Jonathan, Yonatan. This word appears nowhere else in the Tanach. (And incidentally, twice the word for “your request” is she’elatech, the root of which Sh.A.L echoes the Hebrew word for Saul, Sh.A.U.L.).

Furthermore, Alana mentioned that the first instance of (the letters of) the word Esther appears in Genesis 4:14, where Cain cries out “Behold, you have driven me out this day from the face of the earth; and from your face shall I be hidden; and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer in the earth…”  Here, “shall I be hidden”, isater, is spelt the same as Esther. Alana made delightful connections between this verse and its themes of exile and the word face and the book of Esther. I noticed, though, that the next three words after isater are vehayiti na venad (and I shall be a fugitive and a wanderer). Spelled out in these words are the word Yonatan and also the word Yehudi.

Today, Yehudi is the word we commonly use for Jew; but in biblical times, the more common appellation was Ivri; the word Yehudi is an adjective used to describe Mordechai and is almost exclusively associated with him, the “ish yehudi”. (After removing the letters for Yonatan and Yehudi, there is one letter, an ayin, left over, and we will return to that at the end.)

What is the connection between Esther/Mordechai and Jonathan? The biblical figure of Jonathan is intriguing. Many focus on his close relationship with King David, and he is overshadowed by the charm and the charisma of the latter. But Jonathan had a special attribute of his own: he sought God’s will through reading of signs and symbols. In I Samuel 14: 8-10, Jonathan says to his armor bearer concerning the Philistine enemy:

Behold, we will pass over to these men, and we will reveal ourselves to them. If they say thus to us, Remain until we come to you; then we will stand still in our place, and will not go up to them. But if they say thus, Come up to us; then we will go up; for the Lord has delivered them into our hand; and this shall be a sign to us.

The Talmud (Chullin 95b) cites this as an example of divination, like that of the servant of Abraham. Jonathan enters what some might consider risky territory, and rightfully so: reading signs to indicate what God’s will is. Yet he does so with full confidence and is shown to be correct. Later commentaries might feel a bit queasy about the act of divination, and discuss its permitted or forbidden nature (Maimonides, for example); but in the Tanach itself, the incident is portrayed as highly positive and leads to the Almighty saving Israel.[4]

The descendants of Jonathan appear to have inherited his aptitude for reading reality, as befits the descendants of a tribe described by the midrash as “noblemen and close companions to the king.”[5] Mordechai is attempting to understand the meaning of this turn of events, with Esther being swept into the palace and then actually winning the crown. As he considers Haman’s deadly machinations, he suddenly twigs to the larger picture (“And Mordechai knew all that was being done,” Esther 1:4) and springs into action. He sets a chain of fasting and weeping in motion happening, so as to awaken heavenly mercy; and at the same time, does earthly action, sending Esther this timeless message (Esther 4:13-14):

Then Mordecai commanded to answer Esther, Think not yourself that in the king’s palace you shall escape, any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, then shall relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place; but you and your father’s house shall be destroyed. And who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?

Who knows whether…?” Mordechai is being careful with his language, but I am guessing that the truth is – inside him, he knows. He has caught a glimpse behind the veil. His Benjamite “spidey senses” are telling him what is really going on.[6] He is a true descendant of Jonathan.

His opponent is Haman. He too is casting lots and attempting to read the divine pattern. Traditionally, he actually casts correctly – the month of Adar is a difficult one for the Jews, which is why happiness is necessary in this month, to counteract the negative energy present. However, Haman’s charming wife Zeresh, who is also reading the turns of events, finally tells him, along with his wise men, when they see things are not going well: “If Mordechai, before whom you have begun to fall, is of the seed of the Jews, you shall not prevail against him, but shall surely fall before him.” (Esther 6:13). Why are they only now saying this? Because they are reading the signs, the way the wind is turning, and it has reminded them that the Jews are no ordinary people, but receive God’s help in meaningful patterns and synchronicities.

There is more to say, about where these special aptitudes come from. If we ascend even further up the line we find Rebecca, whose fortunately synchronous coming down to the well just as the servant set up a sign to find her, is followed by her “going to seek God,” something no other member of the family does. Or about her son Jacob, who, upon “coincidentally” meeting Rachel – none other than the daughter of the very uncle he was seeking – at another well, is struck so strongly by a flash of some kind of hidden insight or connection that he actually weeps. While I do not know if Rachel herself engaged in any of this mysterious and mystical activity, it certainly appears that it is her sons that inherit the gene, while the sons of Leah and the two concubines seem to conduct their lives in far less supernatural fashion.[7]

And what of that spare letter ayin I mentioned above? Well, the other place where the word Yehudi in the meaning of “Jew” appears in the Tanach is in a very interesting verse to which I was oblivious up until a couple of years ago, but that it turns out is of crucial importance today to thousands and perhaps tens of thousands: Zechariah 8:23:

Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days it shall come to pass, that 10 men from the nations of every language, shall take hold of the robe of a Jew, saying, We will go with you; for we have heard that God is with you.

I have become aware that today in the world there are numerous non-Jewish people, many of them former and practicing Christians, for whom this verse represents a deeply meaningful and real process occurring today. Without converting to Judaism, they are actively and intentionally seeking to attach themselves to Jews, Torah and the State of Israel, for they feel that “God is with” those entities. These people have a variety of identities, hailing from diverse denominations and backgrounds; but all have in common a highly positive regard and desire to connect. To those coming in contact with them, including myself, they represent a truly redemptive turn in history after millennia of the Jews being spurned and ridiculed (not to mention killed) by the gentiles. Yes there may be a minority with hidden and nefarious agendas such as to convert the Jews; but from my conversations and interactions, I believe there is another movement afoot entirely, and I lean to greeting these new friends and students with trust and openness.[8]

So might the ayin that is left over after the letters for Yonatan and Yehudi are taken out, with gematriya 70, possibly represent the 70 nations who will attach themselves to the Yehudi? Perhaps. Many of the stories of how these non-Jews became attracted to the Jews or Israel seem to contain reports of divine callings; they seem quite good at what we might find to be rather mysterious and mystical activity. In any case, the course of history will grant us the big picture. In the meantime, we should pray that it be for the good, and be inspired by the redemption in the Purim story to seek the redemption for our own time.

– – –

[1] I once heard an Israeli woman tell how years ago, a secular lawyer in her thirties, she had gone on vacation to Sinai. While swimming there, a stranger approached and asked her if she would like to hear some Zohar (book of Jewish mysticism). She consented, and he read out some words to her in an unintelligible Aramaic for a few minutes, and then left. That night, she recounted, her brain became flooded with light, and she began to see visions. This led her to begin exploring spiritual avenues previously of little appeal to her, and she decided to make changes in her lifestyle and become a religious observant Jew. Intrigued by the effect a few minutes of Zohar reading had had upon her, I asked her if she had a kabbalist somewhere in her background. She replied in the affirmative. This is not the only case like this I know of, and it makes me wonder if these kind of proclivities/skills might have a genetic basis. The “God gene hypothesis,” by geneticist Dean Hamer, posits that a spiritual and mystical tendencies are influenced by heredity. While God should be accessible to all, some by nature tend clearly towards the more mystical side of things – it’s a form of Spiritual Intelligence, which, like other intelligences, is not distributed evenly across the board, and yet may likewise be developed given the right circumstances.

[2] Esther Rabbah 7:7.

[3] Yalkut Shimoni 2:1053 – through Mephiboshet, Jonathan’s son.

[4] I would also argue that Jonathan’s use of arrows as a code with King David in 1 Samuel 20, which seems a rather elaborate and perhaps even unnecessary act, stems from Jonathan’s love for symbolic reading, and that the arrows intentionally carried some symbolic message for either David or Jonathan (perhaps to do with power?). But this would need to be explored further elsewhere.

[5] Yalkut Shimoni 3:1054. Benjamin was the only one of the twelve tribes born in Israel. This is given as an explanation by Mordechai as to why he would not bow to Haman.

[6] It is interesting that the first instance of Esther in Genesis, mentioned above, appears in Genesis 4:14, and that this verse in which Mordechai the Yehudi sees what is going on is Esther 4:14. Alana  mentioned in her class that she has noted other patterns in the verse numbers, even if their origination is actually non-Jewish.

[7] Note though that the most mystical of the prophets, Ezekiel, is a priest, and therefore descends from Levi, a son of Leah.

[8] Those interested in learning more are invited to read Ten from the Nations, a collection of essays edited by Rivka Lambert Adler. Additionally, Rabbis Yitzchak Ginsburg, Uri Cherki, David Katz and others are supportive of, and involved in, teaching these individuals, and this phenomenon will only grow in the years to come, I imagine.

About the Author
Yael Unterman is a Jerusalem-based international author, lecturer, Bibliodrama facilitator and life coach. Her first book "Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar" was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards . Her second book, a collection of stories that (mostly) fiction, "The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing", was a finalist for the USA Best Book Awards. www.yaelunterman.com
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