Mordechai the Jew
From the start, Mordechai is described as a man of principle. The king is important to him and he saves the king’s life, but he is prepared to disobey the king’s orders, in order to remain faithful to the principles of his religion, according to which one does not bow down before flesh and blood:
All the king’s courtiers in the palace gate knelt and bowed low to Haman, for such was the king’s order concerning him; but Mordechai would not kneel or bow low.
וְכָל עַבְדֵי הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲשֶׁר בְּשַׁעַר הַמֶּלֶךְ כֹּרְעִים וּמִשְׁתַּחֲוִים לְהָמָן, כִּי כֵן צִוָּה לוֹ הַמֶּלֶךְ. וּמָרְדֳּכַי לֹא יִכְרַע וְלֹא יִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה.
He is also described as someone who cares about others. He adopted his orphaned cousin and looks out for her after she is taken to the king’s palace:
Every single day Mordechai would walk about in front of the court of the harem, to learn how Esther was faring and what was happening to her.
וּבְכָל יוֹם וָיוֹם מָרְדֳּכַי מִתְהַלֵּךְ לִפְנֵי חֲצַר בֵּית הַנָּשִׁים, לָדַעַת אֶת שְׁלוֹם אֶסְתֵּר וּמַה יֵּעָשֶׂה בָּהּ.
Foundations for Planning
- What resources support/enable/inspire my growth?
- How can a person’s decisions and actions impact his/her life?
- What are the factors that move individuals / communities / nations to great sacrifice and what are the consequences?
- What can we learn from different generations?
- How do challenges and struggles lead to growth?
- What can we learn from the changes experienced by the characters in the megillah?
- How does the idea of reversal of fortune give us a framework for understanding the characters and the story of the megillah and life in general?
- What can the characters in the megillah teach us about responsibility, power relations and human nature?
One of the recurring themes in the megillah is that of “ve’nahafokh hu”, reversals of fortune. This type of change occurs not only in the plot of the story, but also within the characters themselves, in terms of their status and behavior. Not every...
One of the recurring themes in the megillah is that of “ve’nahafokh hu”, reversals of fortune. This type of change occurs not only in the plot of the story, but also within the characters themselves, in terms of their status and behavior. Not every case involves a complete about-face, but we can see changes in the behavior and roles of the characters. From the fact that God is not mentioned in the megillah, we can learn from these reversals that we possess the power to make changes happen and that our fate is not dictated from above.
These are the reversals and changes experienced by the main characters in the story on whom we have chosen to focus:
Mordechai — Makes and carries out a leadership decision to instruct Esther, who he has cared for as a daughter to put her own life in danger for the sake of the Jewish people.
Esther — Takes initiative and trades her passive approach to life for a more active approach, even at the cost of risking her own life, revealing her own political wisdom and interpersonal skills in the process.
Achashverosh —This character does not change over the course of the story. His reversal can be found in the difference between the way in which he presents himself and the reality: a strong, authoritative person as opposed to an unstable person who is manipulated by others.
Haman — His arrogance leads him straight to defeat. He is blinded by his confident belief that his own abilities are limitless and, in the end, he loses all of his power and even his life.
Examining the characters of the megillah can teach us that an active approach to life and faith in our own abilities that is not based on arrogance, but which is accompanied by humility and acknowledgement of our position, is a way that we can change the course of our own lives.
At the start of the lesson, refresh the students’ memory regarding the story of Megillat Esther (or first study The Story of the Megillah resource).
- On the board, write the names of the four characters you will learn about in this lesson. Ask each student to write down at least three words that describe each character. If this is difficult for them, you can write a list of words they might want to use on the board, for example: caring, wicked, innocent, strategic, passive, active, important, degraded, foolish, manipulative, arrogant, humble, confident, angry, generous, loved, hated, strong, weak, powerful, authoritative, etc.
- Then, have the students work in groups of four. Within those groups, have them compare their answers with one another and look for cases in which two group members wrote down words that are opposites for the same character. If the students find any such examples, they should circle them.
- With the class back together, ask each group to present one pair of antonyms that they found and to explain it. Conclude by noting that the appearance of these pairs of antonyms is not just due to chance. The characters in the megillah undergo transformations that push the plot of the story forward and determine their fates.
What are the behaviors and traits of the characters that propel the plot forward?
- Can you think of a situation in your lives or in current events in which a change in someone’s behavior or a stubborn refusal to change led to an outcome that had consequences for others?
About Mordechai the Jew:
- What do you see as the most important characteristic of Mordechai, which influences the plot?
- Which of Mordechai’s actions was most critical?
- Do you think that Mordechai undergoes any change or transformation over the course of the story? Explain.
About Queen Esther:
- In the megillah, Esther is presented as obedient and subservient, but also as an active character and a leader. What do you think her “real” personality is? Is there such a thing?
- What do you think led Esther to change her approach, to instruct the people to fast and to go to Achashverosh?
- Now, think about a time in your own life when you were hesitant to do something that you knew was important. What could push you to do that important thing? (Suggest an external or internal impetus.)
- Haman takes credit for all of his accomplishments, saying to himself, “My strength and the power of my own hands made me great.” From which of the other characters could he have learned about important ingredients for success and failure? (Possible answer: From Mordechai and Esther, who prayed, asked the people for their help and did not rely only on themselves.)
- How does arrogance sometimes lead us to failure? Bring an example from the megillah and an example from life.
- The only time that Haman loses his arrogance is when he begs Esther for his life. Explain why this isn’t really an example of humility.
- What do you think is Achashverosh’s most prominent character trait?
- To what extent does Achashverosh influence the plot?
- Bring examples of two other styles of leadership that could have led the story in a very different direction — to the Jews’ benefit or detriment. What are the important character traits behind each style of leadership?
- Divide the students into groups. Assign one of the characters to each group and ask the group to make an “identity card” for that character. (You can use this worksheet. Each “identity card” should include character traits of the character, including leadership traits. Have the students look for works of art that they feel express important traits of their character and themes related to their character’s role in the story (for example, if they underwent a change, power relations between their character and other characters, etc.). Have the students bring supporting evidence from the story. (You can have them look for it on their own or you can distribute the sources above.) For enrichment, look for works of art that could be proposed as options.Then, have each group present their work to the class. We recommend that they make a slideshow that can be shown to the class. If it’s a group project, each student can work on their own slide to be included in the group’s slideshow. Ask each group to explain their choice of artwork. At this point, you may choose to ask questions that will lead to discussions about each character.To conclude, you can go back to the opening activities and evaluate whether the closer examination that you gave to the different characters revealed any character traits that you did not initially notice.
- Have the students work individually or in pairs. Have each individual or pair choose one character and make masks for them. They can make two or more masks. The masks will express the different aspects of each character. Ask the students to write a short monologue to go with each mask and to present their work to the class. We highly recommend setting the monologues to the tunes of Purim songs. For an extra challenge: You can get inspiration from the masks of the Commedia Dell’Arte characters.
- Have each student choose a character from the megillah who they see as an inspiration to make some change in their own life. (This could be a very small change in behavior or regarding a specific decision, etc.) Have them write down what they want to change, including the operative decision that will lead to that change. Have them fold over the paper and write their name on the outside. Put all of the papers in a large envelope. Two weeks later, return all of the notes to the students who wrote them. Have the students check whether or not they made the change that they wrote about (small, initial steps also count). If they want to, they can share with the class. It is very likely that most of the students had trouble making even a small change. Discuss: Why is it so difficult for us to change our habits? How can we encourage ourselves to do so?You can refer to the ideas of Charles Duhigg, author of the book The Power of Habit, which demonstrates how we can focus on factors that lead to habits, in order to overcome those habits and make changes in our lives. (The video is in English, with the option of subtitles in different languages.)
- Different artists have understood the characters of the megillah in different ways. You can refer to the following works of art over the course of the lesson or in addition to the lesson:Queen Esther – Lilian Broca: The contemporary mosaic artist Lilian Broca made a series of mosaics depicting Queen Esther. We can see how this artist perceives change in this character. For example, in the mosaic Queen Esther with Mordechai, she is presented as sheltered by him. In contrast, in Queen Esther’s Banquet, she is depicted as decisive, confidently pointing to Haman.
Mordechai’s Victory Procession – Murray Bloom: In this work, Mordechai is presented as an abstract figure made up of rectangular shapes. The only thing that has an actual shape is the tefillin — instead of royal garments, he wears his Jewish pride. He is not embarrassed of his identity and he does not hide it.
Ahasuerus Sends Vashti Away — Marc Chagall: Marc Chagall chose to present Achashverosh in the back of the picture. He is indeed standing and surrounded by advisors, but it is Vashti who is larger than him, even though she is hurt and bent.
Haman – Leonard Baskin: This sculptor and etcher presents Haman as an evil and non-human figure, who is haughty and sure of himself. In contrast, the artist Richard McBee chose to present Haman at his lowest moment, when his fate had already been decided. At that point, he was only an outline of his former self, with his head hanging down, in particular contrast with Esther who is depicted next to him.
For additional works of art, go to the Visual Midrash site and search under “Megillat Esther”.
- The story of the megillah is described in detail in the resource Megillat Esther: Story of the Holiday (for ages 6–11).
- Additional focused study of the characters in the megillah can be found in the resource Vashti and Esther: Women in Action.
- The resource Leadership and Responsibility focuses on this important characteristic of characters in the Purim story. We recommend using these two resources together.