The story of Purim has drama, suspense, nudity, plot twists, and drinking. So much drinking. But despite all that craziness and tomfoolery it’s actually a troubling story of how a society can turn on the Jews. So every Purim we hear the Book of Esther to remind us of the sobering tale of how the Jewish people had to fight for their survival. And sadly, that sentiment is beginning to feel more and more relevant today. But there’s one moment in particular I want to highlight as the instance when one man stood up where others didn’t.
A Turning Point
The Jews have been in exile and are living in Shushan, the Persian capital. King Achashverosh has appointed as his right hand man an individual who is about as anti semitic as someone can possibly be. And he has it out for Mordechai.
After these events, King Achashverosh promoted Haman, son of Hamdata, the Agagite and advanced him; he placed his seat above all his fellow ministers. All the king’s servants at the king’s gate kneeled and bowed before Haman, for so had the king commanded concerning him. But Mordechai would not kneel or bow. The king’s servants at the king’s gate said to Mordechai, “Why do you transgress the King’s command?” And when they had said this to him day after day and he did not listen to them, they informed Haman to see if Mordechai’s words would endure, for he had told them that he was a Jew. When Haman saw that Mordechai would not kneel or bow before him, Haman was filled with wrath. But he thought it contemptible to kill only Mordechai, for they had informed him of Mordechai’s nationality. Haman sought to annihilate all the Jews, Mordechai’s people, throughout Achashverosh’s entire kingdom. (Megillas Esther 3:1-6)
When Haman is promoted, as said above, his first act is to pass a decree that everyone should bow down to him. And Mordechai refuses. But the Midrash and the Talmud point out two things about this moment. As I mentioned in last year’s Purim post, this is the only bible story where God doesn’t appear anywhere in the text. There is an understanding that when the Megilla says “King Achashverosh,” it’s talking about King Achashverosh, but when it just says “the king,” it can be referring to King Achashverosh or God. Which gives you really interesting deeper level to the text.
So above when it says the king’s servants asked Mordechai why he won’t bow down, one of way reading it is that it’s referring to the Jews. But then why is Mordechai responding to the Jews, “because I’m a Jew!”? Which leads us to the second Midrashic insight. Haman hated the Jews so much that he decided to wear an idol around his neck so he could force the Jews to transgress the Torah commandment to not bow down to idols. Mordechai is taking a stand (literally) for the Jews of Shushan to confront them with fact that they have a duty to resist decree. But do they?
When You’re Commanded to Break the Torah
You’re probably aware that you can break any commandment if it’s to save a life. The concept is known as pikuach nefesh. The source for the idea comes from Vayikra 18:5 “You shall keep my statutes…which if a man must do, so that he shall live by them.” The rabbis of the Talmud further expound on the sentiment, “That he shall live by them, and not that he shall die by them.” (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 85b). Basically if a madman holds a gun to your head and says, “Eat this cheese burger or I’ll shoot you!” you can eat the cheese burger.
And it’s not just that you can break the commandment to save a life, it’s that you HAVE to break the commandment to save a life. If you don’t, you’re committing an averah (sin). So in the situation where there has been a royal decree to bow down to Haman and his idol which could result in execution, you’d think Modechai should definitely bow down. So why does he risk the harm, especially when they Torah commands him otherwise?
Well, the pikuach nefesh applies for all commandments except three. Taking another life, sexual immorality, and idolatry. Meaning if that madman holds the gun to your head and says, “Cut that guy’s throat or I’ll shoot you!” you’re going to have to take the bullet. So with the third prohibition, bowing down to an idol, now it seems Modechai shouldn’t be bowing down.
However (to complicate things further), this refers to bowing down for the sake of worshiping the idol. Which is clearly not what Mordechai would be doing. Granted there is a commandment that prohibits bowing down to an idol for any reason, or even doing anything that resembles bowing down to an idol. But that’s a rabbinical commandment and wouldn’t fall into the category of the three sins you can’t break for pikuach nefesh.
One Last Piece
So it seems like Mordechai is in the wrong here and is just being stubborn. In fact, it is because of this action that leads Haman to persuading King Achashverosh to pass the death sentence on the Jews. Could this be a lesson about not being so religiously implacable?
But the Rambam elucidates one more wrinkle in this pikuach nefesh dynamic.
However, in times of a decree — i.e., when a wicked king like Nebuchadnezzar or his like will arise and issue a decree against the Jews to nullify their faith or one of the mitzvot — one should sacrifice one’s life rather than transgress any of the other mitzvot…
(Hilchos Yesodei Hatorah 5:3)
This Rambam has some far reaching implications. If a king or ruler issues a decree against the Jews, the pikuach nefesh loop hole is thrown out the window and you would be commanded to risk your life to continue to do the mitzvahs. Why would a decree from a king be any different than the madman with a gun?
The key difference is that when that decree comes down, you are now living in a time of not just religious persecution, but state-sectioned religious persecution. That reality is known as shas h’shmat, and it is then that the Jews are being tested with the ultimate question, what are you living for? Because at that point if the Jews are not able to stand up and say, “no, this is too far,” then everything that we are could disappear. And the only thing that is capable of stopping a government that is targeting a people for being who they are is an unrelenting unity.
Mordechi could see this so clearly in Haman’s edict. Which is why his answer was simply “I’m a Jew.” He had so much clarity to say this is what I stand for and you should too.
As Marc wrote so profoundly and necessarily in his post Never Again is Now, there is no doubt that we are seeing anti-semitism in a way we’ve not seen in almost 100 years. It is essential that we stay active and aware of that which is happening and to fight it with connection, unity, and clarity. I do not know what this administration will do in the future. Some of its actions are extraordinarily positive and some of its actions are deeply troubling. But it is of paramount importance that should this government or any other pass any legislation, resolutions, or orders that prohibits that which allows us to be Jewish, God forbid, we must be prepared to fight it at all costs.