The Dispute Between Mordekhai and the Sanhedrin

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Summarized by Zev Frimer

Translated by Kaeren Fish



For Mordekhai the Jew was second-in-command to king Achashverosh, and great among the Jews and accepted by most of his brethren; seeking good for his people and speaking peace to all his descendants. (Esther 10:3)


Commenting on this verse, the Gemara (Megilla 16b) elaborates:


"Accepted by most of his brethren" – but not by all of his brethren; this teaches us that some members of the Sanhedrin parted ways with him.


The Gemara does not elaborate as to why some of the Sages of the Sanhedrin parted ways with Mordekhai.  Rashi provides the following explanation:


"Parted ways with him" – because Mordekhai abandoned Torah [study] and took up the reigns of power.


According to Rashi, some members of the Sanhedrin severed their ties with Mordekhai because he became the second-in-command to King Achashverosh, instead of being engaged in Torah.  Rashi may have deduced this from the context of the Gemara, which quotes several sayings in praise of Torah study in relation to other values, such as building the Temple and honoring parents.  In any event, Rashi does not explain what exactly the argument was.  However, we can point to several possible issues.


            a. In the Gemara (Kiddushin 40b) there is a debate among the Tannaim as to the relationship between study and action:


Rabbi Tarfon and the elders were gathered in the upper chamber of the house of Nitza in Lod, and this question was posed to them: Which is greater, study or action (ma’aseh)?

Rabbi Tarfon answered: "Action is greater."

Rabbi Akiva answered and said, "Study is greater."

All the others present answered and said, "Study is greater, for study leads to action."


It is possible that Mordekhai and the Sanhedrin were debating a similar question. The members of the Sanhedrin believed that, in terms of values, it was better to engage in Torah study than in action, while Mordekhai felt that action should be given preference.  (The Rishomim are also divided on this question, since the Gemara's conclusion is not clear. The Gemara establishes that "study is great" – but only because it leads to action.)


However, if we look further on in the Gemara, we see that when the Gemara speaks about "ma’aseh" it is not talking about political power or regular day-to-day activities outside of the beit midrash; rather, it is talking about the fulfillment of practical commandments, such as challa and tithes.  We may therefore say that Mordekhai and the Sanhedrin agree that "ma’aseh is greater," but disagree as to what "ma’aseh" means, in this context. The Sages of the Sanhedrin maintained that this term referred to actions with purely halakhic value, such as the fulfillment of practical commandments, and that only these took preference over Torah study. Mordekhai, on the other hand, interpreted the term "ma’aseh" in its broader sense, so as to include all actions that have some worthy value, even if they lack weight on the purely halakhic level.


            b. In some contexts, the term "reshut" (optional or voluntary) represents the opposite of "mitzva" (commanded).  Thus, for example, we encounter the concept of a "voluntary war" (milchemet reshut), as opposed to "an obligatory war" (milchemet mitzva).  From the Gemara (Bava Kama 91b) it appears that, according to those who rule that a person is permitted to injure himself, this action would be considered "voluntary harm." Does the term reshut imply that these actions are morally neutral? Obviously not.  For instance, it is clear that the decision of whether to go out to war is not the same as the question of whether to wear a blue tie or a red one.  There can be no doubt that the former question belongs to a category that carries considerable moral weight; nevertheless, such decisions are called reshut since there is no clear halakhic imperative or prohibition involved.


Mordekhai, then, maintained that the concept of "ma’aseh" applies not only to the activities that are permitted or forbidden by Torah law, but also to activities that are defined as reshut – such as engaging in politics, economics, social action, etc.  These activities admittedly are not "halakhic" in nature, in the strict sense of the word, but there can be no doubt that they have great significance, and can bring about a "repairing the world in the Kingship of God."


We see, for example, in Rambam's Hilkhot Matenot Aniyim (10:7) that the highest level of the mitzva of charity is where a person finds someone else employment in order that he may support himself and not be dependent on others.  This charitable person has not lost a single penny in the process, but he has nevertheless fulfilled the commandment of tzedaka in the finest possible way.  How much more so, then, a person who accepts upon himself some public position, and within that framework succeeds, for example, in managing the country's finances wisely so that thousands of people are able to find themselves a source of income; such a person is fulfilling a great mitzva.  Even if there is not a single paragraph in the Shulchan Arukh dealing with the assumption of political power, it should nevertheless be regarded as the realization of an important and lofty goal, and in certain circumstances it should even be given preference over Torah study.


Hence, it is possible that Mordekhai and the Sanhedrin were not divided over the question of the relationship between study of the Divine will (i.e., Torah) and its realization, but rather over the question of the scope of the sphere of "ma’aseh" that pertains to the realization of God's will.


c. There is a third possible source of the disagreement.  Even if we interpret the term "ma’aseh" in its broadest possible sense, it is still not desirable that a person who is a leading Torah scholar should abandon his study for the sake of the world of action.  Would it be better if Rav Shelomo Zalman Auerbach zt"l had been the Prime Minister of Israel, or if Rav Chaim Soloveitchik zt"l had been the Prime Minister of Poland? Such a scenario would certainly not have been beneficial for the world of Torah, and there is considerable doubt as to whether it would have been beneficial for the regimes and citizens involved.  The distinction between the world of Torah and the world of ma’aseh must be preserved; they should not be confused with each other.


The Sages of the Sanhedrin believed that, despite the importance of political influence, it would be better for Mordekhai to remain within the world of the beit midrash, rather than mixing two dimensions that did not belong together.  Mordekhai, on the other hand, insisted that it was specifically this integration of the different spheres that could bring about mutual fructification and advancement.


d. Another possible source of the dispute arises from the Gemara in Berakhot (63a):


We learn, Hillel the Elder said: At a time when others gather in, [you should] scatter; at a time when others scatter – [you should] gather in.  And if you see a generation that holds Torah dear – scatter, as it is written, "There is one who scatters yet increases" (Mishlei 11:24).  If you see a generation that does not hold Torah dear - gather in, as it is written, "A time to act for God; they have violated Your Torah" (Tehillim 119:126).


Rashi explains:


"At a time when others gather in" – i.e., the Sages of the generation are not spreading Torah among their students;

"scatter" – you shall spread it and teach the students.

"At a time when others scatter" – when the great Sages of the generation are teaching Torah,

"gather in" – you [shall keep your Torah to yourself].  And do not exercise power over them, for it is for the glory of heaven for a person to maintain humility, and it is written, "A time to act for God; they have violated Your Torah."

"And if you see a generation that does not hold Torah dear, gather in" – do not [teach and thereby] allow words of Torah to be held in derision.


From this Gemara, we learn that when a person is required to choose a sphere of occupation for himself, it is not sufficient that he act in accordance with his own personal hierarchy of values.  He must also take into consideration the social circumstances prevailing around him. Sometimes a person regards it as a great value to work in a particular sphere, but at the time of his decision there is no shortage of people working in that area – either because the occupation is saturated with workers, or because there is little demand. On the other hand, there are times when a person may lean against a certain occupation, but there is a need for more people to work in that field.


Every person is "planted" by God in a particular generation and in a specific environment.  A person who wants to live wisely must evaluate very carefully what is required of him in the reality in which he lives.  There are, admittedly, aims and values that exist beyond time and place, but nevertheless there are priorities that arise from every specific situation.  This may be what Ramchal refers to when he introduces his Messilat Yesharim with the subject of "man's obligation IN HIS WORLD."


It is possible, then, that Mordekhai and the Sanhedrin were divided as to the question of what was required right then, after the conclusion of the story of the Megilla.  This period was characterized, on the one hand, by a great spiritual revival. Am Yisrael, which at the beginning of the Megilla had "enjoyed the banquet of that wicked one," symbolizing identification with the decadent culture of Shushan – had, by the end of the Megilla, reached a situation of "kiyemu ve-kiblu": a renewed acceptance of the Torah ("they re-accepted it in the days of Achashverosh" – Shabbat 88a).  Perhaps Am Yisrael even reached a higher level than the one they had maintained prior to this deterioration: "The place where ba'alei teshuva (penitents) stand is unattainable even by the completely righteous" (Berakhot 34b).


However, a spiritual danger still hung over their heads.  So long as they remained under the powerful impression of the salvation from Haman's decree, and had an immediate sense of God's Providence, there was little danger of another spiritual deterioration.  But with time, the memory of their miraculous salvation would fade, the spiritual enthusiasm would wear off, and Am Yisrael would sink back into the routine of life.  It was for this reason that it was so important to Esther to demand, "Inscribe me [i.e., my story] for all generations" (Megilla 7a).  Esther wanted to set aside a day on the Jewish calendar that would bring the story of their salvation into the national consciousness, preventing it from turning into an isolated event that would be forgotten.


The Sages of the Sanhedrin therefore argued that the leadership of the generation was now faced with an incomparably important task: to ensure that the experience and spiritual fervor would be preserved for future generations, rather than dissipating and disappearing.  Was this an appropriate time for Mordekhai to assume a position of political power?


Mordekhai, for his part, argued that political power was exactly what the generation needed.  Chazal are divided as to whether Achashverosh was a cunning king or a stupid one (Megilla 12a), but what is clear is that he was given to changing moods. At one point in time, he followed his advisor unquestioningly and approved the execution of the queen (Vashti); at another point in time, he followed the queen's advice and approved the execution of his advisor (Haman).  At first he expresses agreement to the Haman's plan to slaughter the Jews; afterwards he commands Haman to lead Mordekhai the Jew through the streets of the city with great honor.  The phenomenon of the king committing the kingdom to whatever occurs to him at a given time, depending on his mood, is one of the most prominent themes of the Megilla.


Mordekhai therefore argued: Who can guarantee that Achashverosh will not change his mind once again, all of a sudden, and be drawn after some new Haman who may decide to attack the Jews? Would it be responsible to ignore such a fragile political situation? Would this be the right time to go off to the beit midrash? Despite the enormous weight that he accorded Torah study, Mordekhai could not allow himself to choose the beit midrash over the world of political influence, while Am Yisrael was vulnerable and in such great danger.  Therefore, he chose to become second-in-command to the king.


We have proposed four possible focuses of the dispute between Mordekhai and the Sanhedrin.  What is common to all of them is the fact that the debate was based upon considerations of values and principles alone.  This conveys an important message to each and every one of us.  A person faced with the need to choose the profession that he will engage in, must ensure that he is guided in his decision by meaningful considerations.  He must ask himself where he is needed right now, in which sphere he is able to contribute and to meet the needs of the generation in the most effective way.


In this regard, what is important is not only the bottom-line result – whether one works in a field that, by definition, contributes to society and influences it – but also the manner in which one chooses. What considerations guided one’s choice? There may be a situation in which two people choose the same profession, but one makes his choice as a Torah-directed, value-based decision, while the other makes the same decision out of completely selfish considerations.  Seemingly, both are responding in equal measure to the needs of the generation, but on the personal, spiritual level there is an enormous difference between a person motivated by a sense of giving, and a person motivated by personal ambition.  In such matters, the motivation is of critical importance, even if the decision is ultimately the same.  A person cares about his own self-advancement differs from a person who asks himself continually where he can contribute.


One of the phenomena that characterized the State of Israel in its early years was idealism, rising above one’s personal needs for the sake of contributing to society. This reminds us of the Rambam's teaching (Hilkhot Klei ha-Mikdash 3:1) concerning the Leviim – that they must be available and ready for service in the Temple, "whether they want to or not." But just a few decades later everything collapsed, and what guides the average individual now is the question of which occupation most interests him or would be the most lucrative.


When a ben Torah faces such a fateful decision – what he is going to do every day for the next forty or fifty years – he must ask himself, first and foremast, whether it is the public good that he keeps in mind or his own benefit and his personal wishes? Are the "needs of Your people numerous," or it is perhaps the case that "numerous are my wants"?


Clearly, the ideal situation is where there is no contradiction between the needs of the generation and a person's own personal preferences.  This overlap is made possible in two different ways. One possibility is that a person succeeds in choosing a sphere which, on the one hand, addresses the needs of the generation, and on the other hand gives him a sense of satisfaction and enjoyment, independent of the sense of giving that accompanies it.  Thus, for example, there are people who are drawn to Torah study with all their heart and soul, and find it interesting and enjoyable, without any connection to its inherent value and importance.  A person who has such a great, natural love for Torah is fortunate; he is easily delivered from the schism that sometimes divides one's personal desires and the needs of the generation.


But there is another situation, in which a person is not naturally drawn to the sphere that he chooses out of commitment to the needs of society, but ultimately he discovers that there is some overlap between his will and the public good.  The Mishna in Avot (2:4) teaches, "Nullify your will before His will."  We may understand the mishna as meaning that, on the practical level, a person ultimately should end up doing not what he himself desires, but rather what God wants.  But there is another way of understanding it: when a person internalizes the fact that what he is doing is God's will, it can become his will, too.  A person generally has no desire to defy God's will; even if he has such a desire, it can be channeled into positive ways of serving God ("'With all your heart' [means] with both of your inclinations, the positive and negative inclinations," Berakhot 54a).  A person wants with all his might to advance God's plans in the world, and even if it seems to him that his personal will is for something else, he internalizes the fact that the realization of God's will is more important than the realization of his own desires.


Thus, the debate over a choice of profession is not limited to Mordekhai and the Sanhedrin.  It has occupied, and continues to occupy, many people.  There is no single correct answer.  Not every person is necessarily suited to the world of Torah study.  Every person has his own talents and skills, by means of which he may enrich the world.  But a sense of mission, a will to contribute to society, can and should be part of each and every one of us.  A person must do some honest soul-searching, to examine carefully what his considerations are in choosing a profession, and then – with God's help – arrive at the proper conclusion.


May it be God's will that we be granted the wisdom to determine the correct priorities, and that we merit help from heaven in choosing a worthy sphere of occupation.