Leadership is ‘a process of social influence in which one person enlists the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task’ (Chemers, 1997). Both Mordechai and Esther play this kind of leadership role in Megillat Esther. Comparing their respective roles is one of the Megillah’s central themes and accounts for its very name.
Mordechai is the first Jewish character introduced to us by Megillat Esther. The Megillah (2:5-6) introduces him with a detailed description of his lineage and personal history. Mordechai’s ancestors were exiled together with Yerushalayim’s leaders. He followed their path and assumed a leadership role in Shushan.
He is the key (Jewish) actor in the first part of the Megillah. He adopts Esther (2:7) and discovers and foils the plot to kill Achashveirosh (2:22). Later, he actively responds to Haman’s decree by donning sackcloth (4:1-2) in the king’s court and commands Esther to beg Achashveirosh to spare the Jewish people.
After Esther hesitates due to the danger involved, Mordechai responds with sharp rebuke. He emphasizes the personal responsibility she has to use her position on behalf of her people and explains that it is, in actuality, Esther, not the Jews, whose fate hangs in the balance. If Esther fails to act, Hashem will find another way to save the Jews, but she and her ancestry will be lost (4:13-14).
Mordechai definitely qualifies as one who ‘enlists’ (even after being rebuffed) ‘the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.’ Mordechai’s leadership continues after the miraculous turn of events in his authorship not only of the letters sent to reverse the decree (8:9), but also of those eternalizing Purim as a Jewish holiday (9:20).
Esther, on the other hand, is passively taken to the palace and, eventually, to Achashveirosh. Her decisions, such as not revealing her nationality (2:10), are based on Mordechai’s directives.
Considering Mordechai’s central role in the various stages of the narrative, it is surprising that the Megillah is named after Esther. Should it not be named after Mordechai or (at least) him as well?
Esther Takes the Reins
The answer to this question lies in Esther’s response to Mordechai’s rebuke. She not only takes action, but also takes the leadership reins. She responds not by consenting to his command, but rather by changing the plan to include parties for Achashveirosh and Haman (See Gemara Megillah 15b which questions this decision), expanding his plan to include the Jewish people in the process, and charging Mordechai with the responsibility for galvanizing them.
She commands Mordechai to gather the Jews of Shushan and fast with them for three days in preparation for her mission to Achashveirosh (4:15-16). Esther reminds us that Jewish salvation hinges not on the heroic actions of individual martyrs, but on the individual’s ability to inspire the rest of the people to identify with the mission.
Esther’s response changed her role from passive commander to active commander. Mordechai was not the only leader; Esther also knew how to ‘enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task.’ Esther’s emergence as the leader eclipsed Mordechai’s leadership and turned him into the second commander (4:17).
From this point forward, Esther is the central active character and Mordechai fades into the background. In the Megillah’s central perakim, when the flip (‘v’nahafoch hu’) occurs, it is Esther, not Mordechai, who plays the active role. Mordechai is brought back into the picture by Esther only after Haman is hung (8:1). Mordechai may be the one to record the story, but it is a story highlighted by Esther’s leadership and heroics. Though Mordechai was the initial leader, it was Esther who ultimately conceived the plan of action and played the pivotal role. The megillah, thus, bears her name – Megillat Esther.
We are meant to learn important lessons from each of the Megillah leadership models. Mordechai models a leader’s responsibility to consider the significance of the position we find ourselves in, speculate about what actions and sacrifices we are called upon to make, and ensure that we and others answer the call.
Esther teaches us that even those initially led by others have a responsibility to carefully consider the correct path forward and redirect as necessary.
May Mordechai and Esther’s leadership inspire us to play the leadership roles we are expected to play.
Summarized by Rafi Davis