by R. Gil Student
We celebrate Purim every year to commemorate the celebration in ancient times, when joy conquered fear and good vanquished evil. The story of Esther and Mordechai as told in the book of Esther takes place over many years. Too often, we skip the dates in the text and miss an important message hiding in plain sight in the final, short chapter of the book.
The Gemara (Megillah 12a) says that Achashverosh ruled for fourteen years. In the third year, he made his enormous feast, to which Vashti refused to come (Esther 1:3). After this feast, Achashverosh began gathering young women to be his wife. Esther was taken to be Achashverosh’s wife, after a year of preparation, in the seventh year of his reign (2:16). At the beginning of the twelfth year of Achashverosh’s reign, Haman selected a day—eleven months later—to destroy the Jews (3:12). Within three months, Haman was dead and Mordechai was trying to undo the wicked plan (8:9). The fighting took place during the last month of Achashverosh’s twelfth year as king (9:1). The next year, in Achashverosh’s thirteenth year, the Jews established a celebration on those days as Purim and Shushan Purim (9:22). This was probably the last Purim of Achashverosh’s reign.
For at least four years, Achashverosh was taking young women to the capital so he could select from among them a wife (or wives). This must have been a traumatic time for the nation, for parents whose daughters were taken away, most likely to be rejected and sent back to their disrupted youth. Esther could not have been the only Jewish girl snatched from her home.
After a queen was chosen, the other young women were sent home. Things returned to normal. While there was palace intrigue, this was largely invisible to the public. Even if they learned about it, they rightly saw it as politics as usual. For five years, life was good.
Then things got worse, very quickly. Seemingly out of nowhere, a genocidal decree was issued with the king’s signature. After a miraculous reversal, the Jews had to fight for their lives. They not only won the street fighting but rose to a position of favor. They even declared a holiday. It was all over and things could return to normal.
Normalcy is the theme of the brief tenth chapter of Esther. In the first verse, we learn that Achashverosh raised taxes. What can be more normal than that? Instead of worrying about their lives, the Jews were concerned with taxes. The previous period of normalcy, after Achashverosh chose Esther, began with a reduction in taxes (2:18). The next period of normalcy also begins with a discussion of taxes. (Note that in the book of Esther, three things seem inevitable, contrary to the two in American tradition: death, taxes and feasts.)
The second verse of the tenth chapter talks about Mordechai’s and Achashverosh’s legacies in running the emprie. The third verse, the grand finale of the Megillah, tells us that throughout that time in power, Mordechai was also a great leader of the Jews. Mordechai was “gadol la-Yehudim,” which Targum translates as “a leader of the Jews.” He was not just a successful politician but also an active leader of the Jewish community.
He was also “ratzui le-rov echav,” a complicated phrase to translate. The Talmud (Megillah 16b) understands “rov” to mean majority, meaning that Mordechai was accepted by and popular with only a majority of Jews. Some of the Sages opposed Mordechai’s decision to engage in politics rather than learn and teach Torah. Ibn Ezra explains simply that you can never please everyone, particularly given the natural jealousy of those in power. However, many modern commentators translate “rov” as very large number, which seems to be its consistent use throughout the Bible (e.g. Gen. 48:16).
Put differently, after the miraculous salvation, Mordechai faced ideological opponents and jealous critics despite enjoying widespread popularity. During the year-long threat, communal divisions took a back seat to survival. Crisis produced unity. When things returned to normal, ideological and political concerns returned.
On a personal level, we experience the same phenomenon. During a spiritual high, we embrace the moment and forget our mundane concerns. But when we return to normal life, our routine takes over and a multitude of concerns compete for attention. One of the great religious challenges of our time is apathy, or perhaps more accurately distractedness. Too many people don’t feel the spiritual high of religion.
One solution is to create as many spiritual highs as possible, minimizing the downtime, all but eliminating the normalcy. For some people, this works. But one size does not fit all and many people lack the time or personal inclination to go kumsitz hopping. A constant high, like a constant crisis, is exhausting. No person or machine can function at full capacity without rest.
Another solution is to find spirituality in the mundane, to bring God into the workplace and the living room. When we see ourselves fulfilling God’s will in every large and small decision, we transform our days into religious worship. The beauty of the detailed halachic life lies in the opportunity for constant God-awareness. Still another solution is to see God in the Torah, to rise spiritually in the pages of the Talmud. For some, Torah study is the highlight of their days, among the greatest joys in their lives. People react differently based on their experiences and personalities but some will find meaning in all strategies.
From the time that Esther was taken, Mordechai sat in the palace courtyard. How did he do it? Was he living in crisis mode, looking for daily updates from Esther? Perhaps he felt that God wanted him to be politically aware, seeing spirituality in the mundane. Or maybe he spent most of his day learning and teaching Torah, taking a break to visit the palace.
We don’t know. But we know that in the later period of normalcy, after the final crisis, he focused on two things that serve as the final words of the book of Esther. He was “doresh tov le-amo,” he proactively helped his community, “ve-dover shalom le-khol zaro,” he focused on Jewish education, either of his family (Ibn Ezra) or all children (modern commentators). Mordechai, the politician, found spiritual meaning in his community, his family and educating the next generation. We cannot all share the personality of Mordechai but we can learn from his example that there is beauty and inspiration to be found in community, family and Torah education.