The pressure to maintain one’s individualism in the face of a growing trend can be enormous. Politically correct views and ideas are repeated so often that they become the accepted norms. But then there are those who defy convention. Mordechai personified that kind of individual. He opposed a trend among his fellow Jews in his time which posed a threat to the well being of the Jewish people.

In the ancient Persian empire Jews were in a transitional situation. The horrid suffering of the Jews of Judea at the time of the destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE was in the past. Under the rule of the seemingly tolerant Persian empire the Jews were one of many respected minorities. Because the Jews as a whole did not want to be seen as a pariah within the empire many were tempted to undergo a process of Persianization whereby the they would relax some of the barriers of separation between themselves and the Persians.

Facing a prolonged exile from their land the question beckoned: What would be of the future of the Jews? Would they wither away and become another footnote in history as so many other nations? Would they be beaten into submission? Neither of those possibilities would be their destiny. As guaranteed in the Torah the Jews as a people would endure (Leviticus 26:44).

Mordechai understood the challenges facing the Jews. When King Achashverosh invited the Jews of Persia to attend his illustrious feast which would no doubt be replete with the immorality that accompanied such events Mordechai urged them not to attend. They in turn mocked him as a rabble rouser. It would not be very politically savvy to refuse the king’s invitations. To refuse could alienate the king’s affections.

During the feast however the Jews were indeed reminded of their true place in Persia when the utensils of the destroyed Jerusalem Temple were brought out for display. Achashverosh chose the occasion to celebrate what he thought was the expiration of the seventy-year period that the prophet Jeremiah had predicted between the destruction of the first Temple and the construction of the second. He thought he was celebrating the final vanquishing of the Jerusalem Temple and that there would be no Jewish return to Zion.

He in fact had calculated that period from the wrong time and was off by eleven years.

The Jews seeing their holiest vessels in mocking display maintained their composure and continued to participate in the event. Just decades earlier their fathers the exiled Jews of Babylon sat by the rivers and wept over the loss of Zion and the treasured Temple which was destroyed by the Babylonian Nebuchednezzer. With the passage of time much was forgotten. The years had seemingly dulled the Jews’ fervor.

But Mordechai would not be silenced by his critics. Nine years later the masses of Shushan were bowing to the rising star – the powerful wealthy and evil minister Haman who wore an idol around his neck. Mordechai’s refusal to follow suit enraged Haman – and Mordechai’s Jewish brethren as well.

Once again the Jews were agitated by a stand taken by Mordechai a stand they perceived as threatening their status within Persia. His refusal to bow could incur the wrath of their friends. In their minds Mordechai – who understood that Haman had planned the destruction of the Jews from the start of his rise to power – was recklessly endangering the Jews. 

Mordechai is referred to throughout the Scroll of Esther as Mordechai the Jew. The term Jew implies that Mordechai ardently repudiated idolatry (Megilla 13A). Mordechai the Jew stood apart as a zealous man who took an uncompromising stand – one that sent a message to his fellow Jews. While initially his actions were not well received eventually his message resonated. When Haman’s edict against the Jews was published the Jews heeded the decree by Esther and Mordechai to fast and repent. They had also realized by then that they should have listened to Mordechai nine years earlier.

Mordechai may initially have stood alone in his generation but he certainly is not alone in the annals of Jewish history. 

In Egypt Bitya the Pharaoh’s daughter rejected the idolatry of her father’s palace. At great risk she immersed herself as an act of purification in the waters of the Nile – the very river worshiped by the Egyptians – and converted to Judaism.

Bitya eventually gave birth to Caleb – also a rebel – who as one of the spies sent to the Land of Israel withstood the enormous pressure of ten of the other spies and at great risk spoke out in support of the conquest of the Land of Israel. In the Torah Caleb is referred to as My Servant (Numbers 14:24).

In Babylonia just following the destruction of the first Temple three Jewish servants of the king Chanania Mishael and Azariah refused to pay homage to the sovereign by bowing before a golden statue representing the Babylonian empire. Even though that act according to Talmudic and Medieval rabbinic opinions was not considered idolatrous they zealously repudiated anything that even resembled idolatry and thereby put their lives at great risk. 

These individuals all had a profound impact on the history of the Jews. Purim is a reminder to us to follow the ways of Mordechai. To resist the trends and embrace the God-given traditions which comprise being a Jew.

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