Mordechai was a prominent member of the Jewish community—one of its leading rabbis with an important position in the grand palace of King Achashverosh. Then the Purim story kicked off, and the Jewish People were in great peril. A plot had been hatched by the viceroy Haman, and approved by the king, to have every last Jew murdered. Mordechai enlisted the help of his cousin Queen Esther, resulting in Haman finding his worthy place on a high gallows and the Jewish people were saved.

Now the tables turned completely. Mordechai was elevated to seniority in the palace and was not only able to protect the Jews from certain slaughter, but to advocate for their welfare. Due to his new-found importance, Jews throughout the vast Persian Empire were to enjoy a period of unprecedented prosperity and tranquility.

Mordechai remained a scholar, jurist, and teacher for his people, but he assumed the role of protector as well. Thus concludes the Megillah (Scroll) of Esther – the scriptural record of the Purim story: “For Mordecai the Jew was viceroy to King Achashverosh, great among the Jews and accepted by most of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all their seed.”1

Why “Most”?

The wording “most of his brethren” in Hebrew is lerov echav. This is unusual phraseology.

“This teaches us,” says the Talmud, “that some of his colleagues on the Sanhedrin distanced themselves from him.”2 The Sanhedrin was the Jewish parliament and high court rolled into one. Its members were the most scholarly and pious leaders. And some were unhappy with something about Mordechai.

This is extremely difficult to comprehend. It is not unusual for colleagues to disagree – but we’re talking about Mordechai, who had masterfully orchestrated the collapse of the plot to kill the Jews and had secured the safety of his people. Surely, if there was a person who deserved unconditional and unreserved support it was Mordechai! What could possibly justify turning against someone of his stature?

Fortunately, the Talmud provides some context: “Given he was now the holder of high office, he was less occupied with words of Torah.”3 To explain: the highest calling in Judaism is the study and teaching of Torah. With an empire to manage, Mordechai was much less free to dedicate himself to that noble cause. This, it seems, rubbed some of Mordechai’s colleagues the wrong way. The Talmud supports its contention by the fact that when Mordechai is listed with the elders of the Jewish people in the book of Ezra,4 he is listed fourth, and when his name appears in the book of Nechemia,5 his name was demoted to fifth – signifying some reshuffling of his status.

How could his absence from Torah study be even remotely worthy of rebuke?

While this is an explanation of sorts, it raises more questions than answers. Mordechai was not idling his time instead of joining his colleagues in Torah discussion in the Sanhedrin. He was holding high public office and using his enormous power and influence to protect the Jewish People and to advance their welfare. How could his absence from Torah study be even remotely worthy of rebuke?

The power of this question is such that it demands a worthy explanation. The Rebbe introduces a brilliant insight that explains Mordechai’s behavior, the positive reaction of most of his colleagues, as well as the reticence of others. It not only explains the historic dynamic between Mordechai and the other sages at the time, but provides a highly relevant guide for how communal leaders may act in our own age. In other words, we shall now learn an entirely new way of looking at the competing worldviews of the rabbis of the time – and of all times.

The Rebbe picks up on a small but telling detail. We read earlier that some of Mordechai’s colleagues “distanced themselves.” What does that even mean? They stood six feet apart, COVID style? We would expect the text to say that his colleagues “disagreed with him” or “disputed his ruling.” So it seems, explains the Rebbe, that they distanced themselves but did not disagree. Strange, no?

The Nuance

There is nothing like a story to explain a story. The story the Rebbe tells is of one of his own mentors, the famed genius Rabbi Yosef Rosen of Rogachov.

This illustrious scholar was invited to join a rabbinic leadership committee at a time of great challenge to the Jewish people – the rise of Communism in Russia. The animosity against religion was intense and the Jewish faith was under imminent threat. Rabbi Rosen politely declined. When pressed, he cited a fine distinction in phraseology between how the sages of the Babylonian Talmud and Jerusalem Talmud explain the statement that “the pious ones of previous generations would linger in prayer for nine hours a day.”6

The Talmud asks, with this amount of time dedicated to prayer, when did they have time for work, and how did they find time for Torah study?

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. The answer given in the Babylonian Talmud is: “because they were pious, their Torah learning was preserved [and not forgotten], and their work was blessed [so they could earn a living in just a few hours].”7 The Jerusalem Talmud gives the same answer with a tiny variation: “because they were pious, they enjoyed blessing in their Torah learning, and their work was blessed.”8

Despite the bold highlight, it may be difficult to detect any difference between the two versions. But the scholar that Rabbi Rosen was, he noticed the significance of the subtle deviation.

The Jerusalem Talmud promises that the pious one will “enjoy blessing in his study"

The Jerusalem Talmud promises that the pious one will “enjoy blessing in his study” – implying that their (limited) efforts to study Torah will be blessed with great success. The Babylonian Talmud makes a more modest promise, that “their learning will be preserved,” meaning that they will not lose the learning they have already acquired, but not that they will be able to acquire new knowledge in the manner of one who devotes the entire day to Torah study.

“Well,” Rabbi Rosen said, “we all know that we rule according to the Babylonian Talmud. This means that if I join your committee there is no guarantee that I will be able to accomplish my goals in Torah scholarship. I am therefore inclined to demur.”

Two Approaches

The difference in phraseology between the two Talmuds reflects the major difference between the culture and attitudes that prevailed in the Land of Israel and those that prevailed outside of Israel, in the so-called Jewish diaspora. The Talmud itself provides colorful portrayals of the divergences in perspective between the two centers of Jewish life. One sage fasted for one hundred days before travelling to study in Israel “so as to forget the learning of Babylon.”9 Another sage living in Israel refused to speak to anyone who lived in Babylon, even if that person was a leading Torah scholar.10 These differences stem back to the early days when the exile from Jerusalem was conducted by the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar.

The story of Purim happened broadly in the region of Babylon, outside of the Land of Israel. The Sanhedrin and most of the scholars that constituted this august body were born and raised in Israel before they became part of the Diaspora when the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. They followed the view that was later codified by the Jerusalem Talmud, that if someone dedicated time to a higher cause out of piety, their Torah study wouldn’t suffer. They were therefore in full approval of Mordechai, and did not see any reason to think that his government position would take away from his greatness in Torah. If he has less time, are we not assured that a blessing will compensate?!

So far so good for those who trace their values to the teaching emanating from the Land of Israel.

Well, some members of the Sanhedrin were born and raised outside of Israel and were schooled in the view that the promise to the pious was limited to not losing the scholarship they already had attained, but there was no assurance about any learning they would miss out.

Mordechai is described in the Megillah as ish Yehudi, “a man from Judea.” Clearly, he traced his roots to the Land of Israel. So he felt he was entirely in the clear. As did most of his colleagues.

This was not a disagreement as much as a divergence of approaches

A small number saw it differently. They felt that Mordechai was becoming a lesser scholar due his preoccupation with government business. They did not disagree with him per se, as they fully understood his position, but they had a different approach (the Babylonian one) and they therefore “distanced themselves.” This was not a disagreement as much as a divergence of approaches. Mordechai was not being rebuked or censured, but a small group of scholars considered his standing as rabbi slightly lowered.

The Takeaway

What about communal activists and scholars in our time?

We have a clear majority view, espoused by Mordechai and his colleagues, that it is right to prioritize their work for the public good. Is this not going to result in neglect and diminishing of their Torah study? It seems not. If their work for the public good is motivated by noble intentions they will find blessing in everything they do. Their Torah learning will flourish in whatever time they have available to dedicate to it.

We all have to find the right balance between our own growth and our responsibility to help others.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichot vol. 16, Purim III (pg. 373-380)