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Mordecai and joseph: Jewish leaders who save their countries

Posted on January 30, 2018

The question of what it means to “save” the Jewish people can have different implications.  For some it is about the observance of mitzvot as a way of preserving the Jewish message.  For others, it is providing financial support to Jewish causes that secure the future for the Jewish people.  For some, it is engaging in the world of politics to save the Jewish people.

The story of Esther has much to teach us about Jews in the world of politics and what it means to be Jewish.  While we tend to focus on the role of Esther in saving the Jewish people, we tend to diminish Mordecai’s role in the story (I encourage you to read the Book of Esther through this lens).   More than just the cousin of Esther who pushes her into a competition to become queen and later forces her to “out” herself to the king as a Jew in order to save the Jews of the kingdom.  At a first reading of the Book of Esther, we might ascribe the entire conflict to Mordecai.   After all, it is his clashes with Haman sets the stage for the entire plot and the motivation for Haman to want to destroy the Jews. 

But what about the episode in which Mordecai saves the live of King Ahashverosh against the plot of the Bigtan and Teresh, two of the castle guards?   What was Mordecai’s motivation?  Was it to get into the good graces of Ahashverosh?  Or perhaps, this is what it means to be Jewish.  Namely, to care about your country and your leaders.  While many people know about the part of the story in which Haman is forced to parade Mordecai through the streets of Shushan with Mordecai sitting on the King’s horse and dressed in royal robes, many don’t know about the fate of Mordecai at the end of the book.  Not only is he saved from the gallows that Haman had built for him (Haman is hanged on them himself), but he is eventually made Viceroy of Shushan.  The final verses of the Book of Esther provide a possible picture of where the kingdom of Persia is better off because Mordecai now is in a position of leadership.

Does this plot sound familiar?

Does it sound a bit like the story of Joseph in Egypt?   In the Book of Esther, it is the lives of Mordecai and Esther who parallel that of Joseph.

Like Joseph, Mordecai comes from a position of nothing, to become second in command of a great nation.  Similar to Esther’s identity hidden from the king, Joseph’s identity is hidden (although here it is hidden from his brothers).   Most significantly to the stories, it is Joseph’s rise to power that saves his family from the famine in Canaan and it is Esther’s rise to power that saves the Jews from the fate sealed by Haman.  But unnoticed by many is the important role that Joseph and Mordecai play in the lives of their adopted countries Egypt and Shushan.  In Egypt, Joseph is responsible for saving the lives of the Egyptians through his program of storing up food during the years of plenty before the years of famine hit.  Without him, the implication is that much of the country would have starved to death.  Likewise, at the conclusion of the Book of Esther we are told that new greatness came to Shushan because of Mordecai.

What is the great message about the stories of Joseph and Mordecai?

More than just viewing the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people, our ultimate goal is that we contribute to the betterment of the world; that is what it means to be “a light unto the nations.”  In this context, the question is not what it means to save the Jewish people, but what does it mean for the Jewish people to “save” the world.  In this context, the answer is not a theological one, but rather an existential one.  In the stories of Joseph and Esther, everyone is better off when the Jewish people are safe and secure.  In addition, it is through Jewish leadership that this utopian world is created.  Unlike the propogandist document of the Protocols of Zion, that imagined a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world for our self-interests, the stories of Joseph and Esther, share an acknowledgment that the fate of Jews is tied to the fate of humanity.  In the words of Supreme Court Justice Brandeis, “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews.” 

I aspire for a messianic image of the world in which all Jews are safe and secure in a world that knows only goodness and it is Jewish leaders who contribute to this betterment of humanity. 

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