Latest update: March 22nd, 2012
Throughout the entire Scroll of ESTHER, God’s Name does not appear even once. Upon a casual reading, it would seem that Haman, Ahashverosh, Mordechai, and Esther are fully responsible for the events taking place within the narrative. Intrigue, human jealousies, and political machinations all account for the twists and turns within the Megillah as events of great significance to the Jewish Nation unfold.
After completing the story, however, it becomes clear that the juxtaposition of all the coincidences is nothing short of miraculous as God’s Hand becomes visible through the thin veil of history. It is important to note that the events described in ESTHER took place over a period spanning roughly ten years. Ahashverosh’s party took place in 3395, Haman drew the lots in 3404 and Israel won our victory in 3405 (dates according to Seder HaDorot). Living through that period, one would probably not have noticed anything extraordinary taking place as everything was unfolding according to the laws of nature. There was nothing especially supernatural about the process that we retroactively understand as having been miraculous.
Our Sages teach in the Jerusalem Talmud (Brachot 1:1) that we must look at the Purim story as a model to understand the final Redemption process. Through the epic story of mankind, HaShem weaves the Redemption of Israel. When making the effort to closely examine our own times, we can see God orchestrating the historic events – large and small – that have brought Israel back to our borders and are bringing the world ever closer to perfection.
We celebrate Purim today with great joy because we are familiar with the story’s victorious ending. The Hebrews of ancient Persia, however, had clearly found themselves in a very frightening situation. Persia’s Jews were faced with the threat of complete annihilation. And Mordechai – who Israel today praises as a national hero – may have been much less appreciated in his own generation. A superficial reading of ESTHER can even lead one to attribute Mordechai blame for placing his people in such a terrifying position.
“All the king’s servants at the king’s gate would bow down and prostrate themselves before Haman, for so had the king commanded concerning him. But Mordechai would not bow and would not prostrate himself.” (ESTHER 3:2)
The rabbinic leadership of Shushan at the time strongly condemned Mordechai’s refusal to bow before Haman. Comfortable with life outside of their homeland, they feared Mordechai might provoke Persian Jew-hatred and spoil their enjoyable Diaspora existence. But according to our commentators, Haman either engraved the image of an idol on his robes (Ibn Ezra) or attributed to himself the powers of a deity (Rashi). Because it is well known that the Torah commands one to die rather than bow before a false god, the condemnation of Mordechai seems somewhat unjustified.
The Maharal of Prague clarifies the rabbinic position in Ohr Hadash by explaining that Mordechai went out of his way to appear before Haman in order to purposefully demonstrate that he would not bow, thus creating an otherwise avoidable confrontation. The Sages record how the Jews of Persia reacted.
“They said to Mordechai, `Know that you are putting us at the mercy of that evil man’s sword!’” (Agadat Esther 3:2; Megillah 12:2, commentary of the Radvaz)
“So the king’s servants who were at the king’s gate said to Mordechai, `Why do you disobey the king’s command?’ Finally, when they said this to him day after day and he did not heed them, they told Haman, to see whether Mordechai’s words would avail; for he had told them that he was a Jew.” (ESTHER 3:3-4)
A close reading of the Megillah reveals that Mordechai’s refusal to bow before Haman was not an isolated incident. Rather, he had gone out of his way several times in order to walk near the minister and publicly antagonize him. Because Mordechai could have easily avoided the situation but instead engaged in actions that were deliberately confrontational, Shushan’s Jewish leaders seem justified in their condemnation.
Even when Mordechai saw that “Haman was filled with wrath” (ESTHER 3:5), he continued to intentionally provoke the viceroy. Based on his actions and the Talmud’s teaching (Pesachim 64b) that a person is forbidden from relying on miracles, one could easily argue that Mordechai behaved irresponsibly with the lives of his people. The Maharal, however, defends Mordechai (in Ohr Hadsash), asserting that challenging Israel’s enemies ultimately leads to the sanctification of God’s Name.
The Midrash recounts that Mordechai explained to Haman that the reason he would not bow was that he was born of kings from the tribe of Binyamin. Haman countered, “But Yaakov, Binyamin’s father, bowed before Esav, my ancestor.” Mordechai answered him in turn, “Yes, but that was before Binyamin was born. He was born in Eretz Yisrael, and his soul, therefore, was an elevated soul. He would not bow down before others.” (Esther Rabbah 7:9)
Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Harlop, a leading student of Chief Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak HaKohen Kook, explains in the sixth volume of Mei Marom (based on teachings from the Zohar) that subordination to gentile rulers is a form of idolatry. Israel must trust completely in HaShem who controls and directs all historic events. To fear foreign nations is to reject G-D’s supremacy and a terrible desecration of His holy Name.
The Talmud (Brachot 7b) discusses whether appeasement or confrontation is the proper strategy when dealing with gentile antagonists. While Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai – who himself stood up to the Roman oppressors of his generation – teaches that it is acceptable to antagonize and provoke the wicked, the Talmud concludes that not everyone should follow this opinion. Only a person whose motivation is purely for the sake of heaven can allow himself to take such dangerous risks.
Mordechai refused to humble himself before Haman, arguing that Hebrews must stand strong in the face of gentile aggression. The rabbinic leadership of Shushan agreed with Mordechai in principle but felt that in order to display this ideal level of courage, the Jews had to first feel strong inside themselves. Mordechai rejected the notion that his people were weak and instead saw Israel’s true national potential. He argued that even if Jews first need to feel inner strength before being able to stand up against oppressors like Haman, that strength will never come from getting down on their knees. In fact, bowing to tyrants is precisely what leads people to mistakenly believe they lack the power to assert their rights. Haman was already seeking an excuse to destroy Israel and demands for submission could easily lead to other humiliations. Appeasing evil, according to Mordechai’s logic, can only succeed in inviting further trouble.
As HaShem’s chosen people and national expression, Israel must realize our own inner strength. When the Persians came to destroy the Jews, Mordechai led our people into battle and prevailed over those who had sought our destruction. The actual decree to annihilate Israel had not been rescinded and the Jews were required to take up arms. At that point, Israel realized our true inner might by taking the initiative and killing 75,800 Persians without losing even a single Hebrew life. The message is clear for every generation. Israel must demonstrate confidence in ourselves and an iron determination to defy our antagonists. Mordechai teaches that it is not through appeasement that one achieves peace but rather through strength, self-assurance and unequivocally firm resistance to tyranny and injustice.
About the Author: Yehuda HaKohen teaches history at several Jerusalem institutions and is a seasoned activist for indigenous rights in the Middle East and a vocal opponent of attempts to shrink Israel's borders. Yehuda organizes grassroots Jewish-Arab dialogue meetings for the purpose of fostering mutual acceptance and understanding.
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