Purim, rapidly approaching, is the celebration of our great victory, with God’s help, over Haman and his devastating plot to annihilate all the Jews in the Persian empire – in other words – all of Am Yisrael. Through Esther’s brilliant intervention and manipulation of Achashverosh and Haman, the terrible decree was reversed and the Jews were not only saved, they were recognized as “favored citizens” throughout the Empire.
The necessary act without which none of this story would unfold is, of course, Mordekhai’s clear and unequivocal refusal to kneel or prostrate himself before Haman – as the text makes quite explicit, Mordekhai continues this defiant behavior even after he learns of the terrible edict against his people, fully cognizant of the fact that Haman is behind the decree (‘tho Haman’s name appears nowhere on the writ!). It behooves us, then, to try to understand Mordekhai’s behavior – why wouldn’t he bow?
The first approach taken by most is to fall back on a common misconception – that Jews are bidden not to bow to any but God; this is patently untrue, as is evidenced throughout Tanakh. Our greatest heroes and ancestors prostrated themselves before allies, royalty, family members and such. Avraham bowed to Ephron, Yaakov’s sons to the viceroy of Egypt, Moshe to Yitro -and, after Matan Torah, David to Yonatan, Avigail to David – and so on, not to mention the many people who bow to kings (especially to David). There is no prohibition to show respect, honor or gratitude to another human being by bowing – the prohibition is exclusively one related to idolatry.
There are, broadly, three approaches taken by Haza”l and later commentators to explain Mordekhai’s refusal; as we will see, each is fraught with challenges and difficulties.
The first, most famous approach, is related to the obligation to prefer a martyr’s death “Al Kiddush Hashem” to idolatry; to wit, Mordekhai refused to bow to Haman because, somehow, that act would constitute an act of worship to a foreign god. There are two versions of this approach found in the Midrashim. Esther Rabbah 7 (quoted by Rashi at Esther 3:2) states that Haman had declared himself to be a deity. This is also the thrust of the sugya in BT Sanhedrin 61b (Rava and Abaye’s dispute about our exact issue – liability for worshipping a foreign god out of “love or fear” rather than out of conviction). The other version of this is found earlier in that same passage in the Midrash (quoted by ibn Ezra at Esther 3:2) that Haman wove an idolatrous icon (the Midrash refers to a cross!) into his garments, such that anyone bowing to him would be bowing to the cross and thereby worshipping the god represented by that form. (Evidently, the “popular” version of this Aggadah, that Haman wore an icon around his neck, has no reliable source in the literature).
The difficulty with this general approach – that Mordekhai’s refusal was anchored in concerns about idolatry – is really twofold. First of all, even if an individual is bidden to suffer martyrdom rather than worship a foreign god, it isn’t at all clear that he has the right to do so at the expense of other’s lives; in other words, from the perspective of Halakhah, it isn’t an open-and-shut case that one person has the right to make a martyr out of someone else. In this case, Mordekhai not only put his own life on the line, but risked the lives of all Jews in the world!
Secondly, and perhaps less dramatic yet far clearer – is the reality that Mordekhai had a third choice – it wasn’t a question of “worship or die” – there was also “quit”! Mordekhai was only directed to bow as a servant of the court who worked in the government offices at the palace gates; if he were to leave his post, he would no longer have to bow and thus save himself – and everyone else – from the decree. True – after the decree was promulgated this would not have helped – but there were a number of days after Haman got the other members of the court to bow to him before Mordekhai was fingered by his colleagues and Haman took notice of him (Esther 3:4). If the decree involved some form of idolatrous obeisance, why not just quit the job?
Perhaps it is due to these difficulties that other answers have also been proposed – in later Midrashic literature as well as by the Mefarshim – both medieval and modern.
A popular version of one of them is found in Targum Sheni of Esther (of Geonic provenance) wherein Mordechai and Haman are presented as two generals in Ahashverosh’s army, dispatched with their armies to put down a rebellion in India. Space does not permit us to present all the fascinating details of the story, but in the end, Haman agrees to sell himself to Mordechai as a slave and the bill of sale (the wording of which is presented, in full, in the Aggadah) is written on Mordekhai’s leggings. Mordekhai, as such, refuses to bow to Haman because he is Haman’s master; indeed, every time Haman passes by while others are bowing, Mordekhai points to his leggings as a not-so-subtle reminder of who owns whom. This approach, while attractive, is even more difficult, as it means that Mordekhai is allowing his personal sense of pride to endanger his own life and that of his people.
There is yet a third approach found in the Midrashim (the fact that there are so many different answers points to the gravity of the challenge of understanding Mordekhai’s motivation). In truth, this approach is a “spin” on the second; to wit, Mordekhai refuses to bow to Haman because he (Mordekhai) is a descendant of Yaakov and he will not bow to a descendant of Esav. When the Midrash challenges this on the grounds that Yaakov and his sons did, indeed, bow to Esav (Beresheet 33), Mordekhai’s response is that he is a descendant of Binyamin who, being in utero at the time, never did bow to Esav.
As noted earlier, any answer that is given will have to stand up to the fact that Mordekhai continued to refuse to bow (even after the decree became public) and he did not simply quit the court but defiantly remained in place to make a stand and refuse to bow. One might argue that he didn’t have the choice of whether or not to quit – but, even if that is so (and there is nothing in our knowledge of the Persian court to suggest that), he still should have taken whatever consequences were waiting someone who quit rather than remain in the court, day after day, defying the order and standing tall while everyone else fell to their knees.
I’d like to suggest another approach to understanding Mordekhai’s refusal, one which will answer these questions and will square some difficult passages in the text of the Megillah – but we’ll complete that task next week.
In Part I, I raised the problem of Mordekhai’s refusal to bow to Haman, the central and vital catalyst in the Purim story, and the difficulty in pinpointing his reason for non-compliance with the “king’s order”. I’d like to propose an alternate solution – but, in order to do so, a few short prefaces are necessary.
The Language of the Megilah
Megilat Esther is one of the last books of Tanakh to be composed and, as such, the language used is liberally sprinkled with allusions to earlier books in Tanakh in order to signal “coded” information to the knowledgeable reader. Midr’shei Esther (classic – including those presented in Masekhet Megilah – as well as medieval) are replete with identifications of these allusions – from the Aggadic “glory and splendor” (“kavod”, “tiferet”) used to describe Ahashverosh’s palace as an allusion to the Kohanic garments to the use of “Prazim” to describe the un-walled cities as a hint to the “Prazi” in Devarim, giving us the Halakhah that a city had to be walled at the time of Yehoshua bin-Nun in order to qualify for reading on the 15th. Hazal were always sensitive to the use of relatively uncommon words in disparate locations in Tanakh and saw them as deliberate associations – in Halakhic discourse, we refer to this connection as “Gezerah Shavah”, which allows us to infer from one passage and apply what is known there to a “linked” passage which is opaque. As such, we will reexamine the Megilah’s description of Mordekhai’s refusal to see if it hints to any earlier story in Tanakh.
The Purim Antecedent: Yoseph in Egypt
Many stories in Tanakh are “mirrors” of earlier stories – a point Ramban introduces at the beginning of the Avraham story (Beresheet 12:6) and then reinforces throughout his commentary. For instance, the story of the Exodus is patterned after Avraham’s own travels and travails; the Divine command to make Gerizim and Eval our first “stop” when arriving in the Land are deliberately replicating the sequence of Avraham’s immigration. The story of Purim has a clear antecedent in Beresheet – the story of Yoseph, specifically his time spent in Egypt. The signet ring, the term “Mishneh laMelekh” and many other parallels between the stories have long been observed and commented on, from the Midrash until our day.
Refusing To Heed “Day After Day”
When Mordekhai refused to bow to Haman, the other members of the court pestered him as to why he was “transgressing the order of the king”. In 3:4, we read that “as they spoke to him day after day, he refused to heed them” and that caused them to tell Haman of his refusal (why Haman didn’t notice until now is odd) “in order to see if Mordekhai’s words would stand”; but we have no idea what those words were. We are also left a bit puzzled by the motivation of the other members of the court to push the confrontation between Mordekhai and Haman by informing the latter of the Judean’s non-compliance.
This unusual wording – “vay’hi k’omram elav yom vayom v’lo shama'” is found in only one other place in Tanakh – in the story of Yoseph in Egypt! When Potiphar’s wife demanded that Yoseph “lie with her” and he wouldn’t give in, she “spoke to him day after day, and he refused to heed her” (Beresheet 39:10). What was Yoseph’s stated and explicit reason for not giving in to his master’s wife’s seduction? “Behold, my master, having me, knows not what is in the house, and he has put all that he has into my hand; he is not greater in this house than I; neither has he withheld anything from me but you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” (vv. 8-9). In other words, having relations with his master’s wife would be a betrayal of the trust placed in him (and her) by their common master – Potiphar!
Applying this explicit reason to Mordekhai – he is telling the other members of the court that bowing to Haman would be an act of treason towards Ahashverosh – who is the master over the entire “house”. To wit – Mordekhai is accusing Haman of treason, maintaining that there never was a royal order for the members of the court to prostrate themselves to Haman; indeed, it would be an act of gross disloyalty to Ahashverosh for them to show such obeisance to any but the king – that Haman made this order up in order to start building support for his own planned revolt. This would explain the motivation of the other members of the court to generate the confrontation; they undoubtedly resented Haman and looked to Mordekhai to “take him on”, lacking the courage themselves to do so. This also explains the indeterminate phrase “lir’ot haya’am’du divrei Mordekhai” – to see if Mordekhai’s words would “stand” – meaning, would his claim be confirmed and would Haman thereby be brought down.
This approach is not without its challenges – in 3:3, the text refers to the practice of bowing to Haman as “asher tzivah lo hamelekh” – apparently meaning that the king commanded regarding him (Haman). It is plausible to understand this phrase as being Haman’s claim -but a false one. The other members of the court ask Mordekhai why he is transgressing “the order of the king” but, again, that is as per their understanding, not the reality.
This answer rests on the assumption that Ahashverosh would never find out about the false edict -until it was too late. This is a well-anchored axion, as we see throughout the Megilah that those in the palace are clueless as to the goings-on outside. Indeed, Esther is the last Jew in the entire Empire to find out about the decree of annihilation! (See 4:1-5).
There is a more significant conclusion which comes to the fore as a result of this approach – that Haman is a traitor to the king and has used his newfound power to plan a revolt. This is truly what happened, as Haman misused the king’s signet ring to sign a decree of genocide (leaving his own name off of it!) to which the king never consented. Haman is (literally) hoisted by his own petard, as his heinous decree includes the death of the queen (of which he is blessedly unaware) and, as such, dies the traitor’s death which he deserved all along. Mordekhai is unmasked as the king’s most loyal servant and is properly rewarded and elevated in the court; in a delicious twist of irony, Haman and Mordekhai are both elevated – one impaled on the gallows and the other as viceroy of the Empire.
Text Copyright © 2012 by Rabbi Yitzchak Etshalom and Torah.org. The author is Educational Coordinator of the Jewish Studies Institute of the Yeshiva of Los Angeles.