The third chapter of Megillat Esther records that when Mordechai saw Haman, he did not bow down to him. Haman became upset with him and wanted to kill him and all of Mordechai’s fellow Jews. Especially given how severe the response was, we must question Mordechai’s actions: was his approach correct or not according to the Torah perspective?
In Jewish law, we sometimes follow what the people are doing, the common practice. For example, the Gemara (Pesachim 66a) raises a question regarding carrying a knife on Erev Pesach which falls out on Shabbat. The rabbis did not know what to do, so they said, “Let us go see what the people do.” They noticed the next day that the common practice of the people was to stick the knife into the wool of the Korban Pesach and let the animal bring the knife to the Beit Hamikdash. The Chachamim investigated the common practice and decided the Halacha in accordance with the common practice. Given this, it seems that Mordechai, who was the only one who did not bow down to Haman, must have been wrong.
This conclusion is very troubling, though. Chazal teach that Mordechai was a prominent member of the Sanhedrin, the high court. How can it be that such a knowledgeable person would have acted so improperly?
The Gemara states in Megillah 15a-15b that Mordechai came from a position of wealth, whereas Haman came from a position of poverty. The Maharsha explains that at an earlier time, Mordechai and Haman had been in the army together, and Haman had sold himself as a slave to Mordechai for food. Therefore, Mordechai was really Haman’s master. Now we can understand why Mordechai acted differently from all the other Jews and refused to bow to Haman. He really was in a different position from the rest of the nation, so he had a right to act differently.
Tosafot mentions that Mordechai would not bow to Haman because Haman wore an idol around his neck, so Mordechai was avoiding a violation of idolatry, whereas everyone else bowed to Haman because that was the decree of the king. A question was once asked of Rav Soloveitchik (quoted in Nefesh Harav) whether one is allowed to bow to the master in the beginning of a karate match. The Rav answered even though he would not be doing this as idolatry, one is still not permitted to bow because it is a silly thing. We see that Mordechai teaches us that sometimes it is not proper for us Jews to follow the common practices of the surrounding culture and that even though this might pose difficulties in the short-term, in the long term this insures our cultural survival.