Mordechai is introduced to us in Megillas Esther as follows: “He was exiled from Jerusalem with the group of exiles that were exiled with Yechonya, king of Yehudah, whom Nevuchadnezzar, king of Bavel, exiled” (2:6).
The Vilna Gaon makes an astonishing comment based on the repetitive mentions of Mordechai’s exile in this single verse: “[This is] to inform us of his love for Eretz Yisrael, for each time [he was exiled] he returned to Jerusalem, and he was exiled three times.”
Mordechai lived through the gradual destruction of the original settlement of Israel, which had been forewarned for generations and whose end was by then a fait accompli. Israel was a sinking ship, both materially and spiritually, the Beis HaMikdash was all but doomed, and most of the Torah scholars were already in exile. Israel’s kings were puppets without power, and the vast majority of the land was already under foreign occupation. The end was a matter of when, not if.
The “rational” thing for Mordechai to do was set up shop in Bavel with his rabbinic colleagues, build a nice frum community, and pray for the welfare of the government that would rule over them and hopefully not persecute them too badly.
Instead, Mordechai did just the opposite. At the very first opportunity, he turned around and returned to Israel, a trek of hundreds of miles.
It wasn’t long before the situation in Israel deteriorated further. Once again, Mordechai was forcibly exiled. Once again, the moment the dust settled, he turned around and trekked back to Israel.
Not long after, Mordechai was exiled for a third time, and he probably could have given directions by then. This time, there was nothing left to return to, so Mordechai became a leader of the Diaspora community, an honored member of the Persian king’s court, rescued the king from an assassination attempt, taught Torah to the masses, and saved the Jews from Haman’s plan to destroy them. Mordechai even managed to receive approval from most of his fellow Jews, the rarest of feats. He had it made.
Nevertheless, when the opportunity arose to return to Israel and rebuild the Jewish settlement, Mordechai left the exile once again, this time making the trek at a very advanced age. He is named as one of the men of the Great Assembly during the times of Ezra.
Mordechai single-handedly throws cold water on every justification Jews have for remaining in exile:
- There was greater Torah scholarship in Bavel.
- The Israeli government was anti-Orthodox, and spiritual leaders were persecuted.
- Jews in Israel were in constant danger, and it was safer in exile.
- The prophets had made it clear that exile had been decreed by G-d; Moshiach certainly hadn’t announced his arrival.
- Enemy attacks and sieges had caused famines and plagues; it was definitely easier to make a living in exile.
- There was greater Jewish unity in exile.
- It was definitely easier to raise children in exile.
- The trek to Israel was arduous and dangerous, especially for older people.
- Many rabbis were clearly in favor of remaining in exile.
- Mordechai had already tried to make aliya multiple times, only to be forced to leave Israel again. He had every right to conclude that he was absolved, and it was G-d’s will for him to remain in exile.
- Mordechai had a terrific life in exile, and returning to Israel would mean lowering his standard of living in many respects. Exile was far more comfortable.
- Mordechai was a vital member of the community, a leader in both the spiritual and secular worlds, and he was doing holy work in the exile.
Despite all of the above, Mordechai returned to Israel twice during the period of its downfall, and then again 70 years later when it became feasible to do so. The vast majority of Jews voluntarily remained in exile when they were no longer forced to be there for all the reasons Mordechai repeatedly dismissed. This is the main reason Bayis Sheni was handicapped from the very beginning and doomed to fail (see Kuzari II:24 and my sefer, Go Up Like a Wall). When push came to shove, most of the Jews did not truly love Eretz Yisrael, and they preferred to remain in exile.
Mordechai had every excuse to remain in exile, and he wanted no part of it. Mordechai never forgot what it means to be a Jew. He was forced into exile three times, but he never let the exile be forced into him. When others rationalized and compromised, Mordechai remained staunch and proud. When the gates to Israel were once again opened, Mordechai didn’t hesitate or make calculations. Returning to Israel – regardless of the challenges and sacrifices – was a no-brainer.
Today we universally recognize Mordechai as a national hero and a spiritual role model. He is introduced to us as someone who refused to live in exile when there was any opportunity to get out. If Mordechai lived today, he would be in Israel, no ifs, ands, or buts.
We celebrate his example every year. It’s time to follow it.