A Purimpression

by | Feb 8, 2013 | Torah Thought

Rabbi Moshe Alshich (1508– 1593) notes that Mordechai could easily have justified his decision not to bow down to Haman. The king ordered that “the king’s slaves posted at the gate (court) of the king” were to bow down to Haman. Although Mordechai was posted at the king’s court, he was not a slave of the king. Yet Mordechai said, “I am a Jew,” which Rabbi Alshich explained meant that he was of distinguished lineage, one of the exiled officials of Judah. The other officials of the king’s court were incensed by his arrogance. Mordechai was in effect proclaiming himself superior to these mighty and influential barons, claiming he was a prince of G-d. They thereupon reported Mordechai’s comments to Haman. Where Mordechai saw G-d’s chosen people, these officials saw “a downtrodden and outcast people.”

I have long been perplexed by Mordechai’s actions. By what right did he endanger himself and all the Jewish people? Why did he not simply inform his colleagues at the king’s court that he did not qualify as one of the king’s slaves? Perhaps he acted in this manner because he did not wish to be deceptive. Yet Jewish law is unequivocally clear on this issue: one may—nay, one must—lie in order to save one’s life, and certainly to save the entire Jewish people.

In answer to this question, one of my teachers suggested that Mordechai wished in no way to imply that the Jewish people were a downtrodden and outcast people.

I would like to expand upon that idea.

Mordechai was concerned that the Jewish people had reached the point of complete despair. The feast tendered by Achashvarosh with which the Biblical Scroll of Esther opens was according to rabbinic tradition an occasion when the sacred utensils of the Holy Temple were profaned. Achashvarosh wished to impart the unmistakable message that there was no hope of an imminent redemption of the Jews. One can only imagine how demoralized and forlorn our ancestors must have felt under those circumstances. This sense of despair, if left unchecked, could have resulted in wholesale forsaking of our traditions. The Jewish people were thus sorely in need of a strongdemonstration of Jewish pride and self-respect. That was Mordechai’s rationale behind his statement to his colleagues: I am a proud member of the Chosen People.

The Rabbi Dr. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (1903– 1993), of blessed memory, notes: “Purim is also a day of introspection and prayerful meditation. The Scroll of Esther is both a Book of Thanksgiving and a Book of Distress and Petition. The narrative relates two stories, of a people in a terrifying predicament and also of their great exhilaration at their sudden deliverance.”

Perhaps in this light we can understand the comment of the Talmudic sage Rava (Shabbat 88a) that the Jewish people recommitted themselves to Torah observance after the Purim miracle. The Jewish people demonstrated a new-found sense of inner strength and self-worth that was manifest in a renewed commitment to Jewish identity. Along with the revelry, Purim affords us the opportunity to experience a renewed sense of devotion of our sacred traditions.

Rabbi Mordechai Wecker, head of school, Hebrew Academy of Tidewater and Strelitz Early Childhood Center