Purim is just a few days away, and Jews young and old are gearing up to celebrate this most festive of holidays, during which all will eat, drink and nosh merrily and in great relief over our come-up-from-behind triumph against a vicious Jew hater whose goal was to annihilate the Jewish people, but who instead had the tables turned against him in a dramatic and unforeseen manner.
But there is another albeit unheralded aspect to Purim, one that is not so obvious, but nonetheless teaches a timeless lesson – that of standing up to and defying the bullies who try to intimidate you into subjugating your will to theirs. Often bullies are physically stronger than their victims; others can make your life miserable because they wield financial or political clout. Some bully out of a misguided belief that they are doing you a favor by imposing their agenda on you; some are so beset with low self-esteem that they need to push another down, so as to elevate themselves; others are just plain nasty and evil and get a perverse pleasure in seeing others suffer.
Haman’s descendants, the Nazis, are the undisputed poster boys for bullies. No person of goodwill can come away unmoved at the image of white bearded, refined rabbis scrubbing city sidewalks – with a rifle pointed at their head by a sneering, gloating SS guard.
Haman himself was a self-loving narcissist with a very high opinion of himself, who insisted that all inhabitants of the empire who crossed his path bow to him. Mordechai, the hero of the Purim story, refused to do so; he would not succumb to the whims of a bully whose extreme hubris dictated that he, a Jew, desecrate his religion. Jews only bow down to Hashem.
Mordechai, as the Maccabees of the Chanukah saga, was defiant of the pressure, both physical and social, to conform and submit to the demands of the gentile “machers” who were in control. This simple Yid could have taken the path of least resistance, the easy way out – simply by complying. What would be the big deal, after all, to bending your back? Mordechai could have even justified doing so by saying he was obligated to obey the law of the land – or could have even viewed doing so as pikuach nefesh.
But he instead refused to be bullied into doing what he did not want to do – and would not budge from his stance, despite the very likely dire consequences. Instead he fought back with the best weapon he had available to him, communal prayer, and his niece, Esther.
Mordechai, as we all know, ultimately triumphed and came out on top, thereby imparting the heartening message that going against the stronger, the richer, the more connected, is not necessarily a lost cause. Even if you fail to remove the bully from your orbit, you might make him/her think twice before he/she starts up with you.
My twin brother and I were quite small for our age, and often we were hit or pushed and shoved by classmates, the kids on the street, and the ones who endured the same long, boring bus ride to and from our distant day school. I very quickly learned that being picked on, teased (I had a very noticeable lisp) and even punched several days a week was inevitable – but it did not have to be a one way street. I gave back almost as good as I got, and I am sure that there are several paunchy, graying rascals with faded, fine scars caused by my fingernails, my most accessible weapon.
To this day however, I deeply regret that I only addressed the bullies who were my peers. We were a generation raised to respect our elders – it was unthinkable to stand up to adults. You had to be polite, quiet and never defiant, even if they insulted you or hurt your feelings by saying something derogatory, like calling you ‘fatty’. Even if they physically hurt you, a child had to pretty much grin and bear it.
I had and still have big bekalach (Yiddish for round cheeks) and for many years endured having them pinched and twisted until I could barely contain my sobs. (You couldn’t embarrass THE GROWNUPS, by letting on they were hurting you.) I don’t know why it was considered ok back then for men to grab a piece of your face with their thumb and index fingers and twist it as hard as they could. The more “discomfort” you showed, the harder they twisted, seemingly getting much enjoyment out of doing so.
How I wish I had thrust my kneecap in a way that would have immediately brought to their attention just how unpleasant pain can be. Perhaps that would have motivated them to keep their bullying hands to themselves. You could kickback a kid who kicked you, but you never defended yourself against a grownup in those days.