The apparent catalyst of Haman’s plan to eradicate us was Mordechai’s refusal to bow to Haman. The question remains, though, why Mordechai refused to do so. Halacha does not forbid bowing to a king. We find in the Tanach a number of instances when prominent Jews bowed to kings such as the prophet Natan bowing to David (Melachim 1:1:23) and Yosef’s brothers bowing to Yosef (Breishit 42:6). Yaakov even bowed to Esav seven times. So why did Mordechai imperil the entire Jewish people by refusing to bow to Haman? We will explore this intriguing issue based on an essay by Rav Yaakov Meidan of Yeshivat Har Etzion that appears in a book entitled Esther Hee Hadassa.
Mordechai’s Debate with the Dayannim
The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 953) interprets the words “the king’s servants” that appears in the Pasuk (Esther 3:3) “and the king’s servants said to him (Mordechai), why do you violate the king’s orders?” as referring to Dayanim (rabbinic judges). According to this Midrash, the Dayanim said to Mordechai that he was killing Bnei Yisrael with his reckless actions.
The text of the Megilla does not explain the reason for Mordechai’s actions, however, it implicitly approves of his approach. This is apparent from Esther 3:4 that states “and as they told him every day, he refused to listen to them.” Rav Meidan notes that this Pasuk employs strikingly similar language to Bereishit 39:10, which records Yosef’s refusal to accede to the demands of Potifar’s wife “and even as she spoke to him every day, he did not listen to her.”
By employing this language, the Pasuk seeks to compare the two events and teach that Mordechai appropriately followed the model of Yosef to resist powerful people and observe the Torah despite the enormous danger involved.
This Midrash, though, does not explain why Mordechai refused to bow to Haman. Various Midrashim, though, adopt at least four different approaches to this issue.
A Religious Confrontation – Midrash Esther 7:6
Esther Rabba 7:6 presents what is probably the most popular approach to this issue. This Midrash states that Haman wove an image of an idol on his clothes so that anyone who bowed to him was bowing to his Avoda Zara. Ibn Ezra and Tosafot (Sanhedrin 61b s.v. Rava) accept this interpretation of Mordechai’s action. According to this approach, Haman was religiously motivated and the struggle between Mordechai and Haman was of a religious nature, similar to the resistance of the Chashmonaim to the Greek repression of Torah life. Rav Meidan notes that according to this Midrash, Haman parallels Tomas de Torquemada, the fifteenth-century spiritual leader of the Spanish Inquisition who influenced King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella to torment the Jews of Spain.
According to this Midrash, it is obvious why Mordechai refused to bow to Haman despite the danger. This is simply because the Halacha forbids engaging in idolatry even to save one’s life. It is difficult, though, to explain the position of the Dayanim according to this Midrash. Why would they vigorously encourage Mordechai to worship Avoda Zara?
Haman as a God- Rashi
Rashi (to Esther 3:2) adopts a different approach to this issue. Rashi (as well the Ralbag and Midrash Lekach Tov) believes that Haman fancied himself a god. Haman perceived himself as a competitor to the Ribbono Shel Olam (as well as Achashveirosh) and reinforced this belief by ordering all to bow to him as they would bow to Hashem (Lihavdil). Haman, according to this understanding, resembles Mao Tse Tung, the chairman of Communist China in the mid-twentieth century. Mao had pictures of him hung throughout China and all its citizens were expected to bow to him.
According to this interpretation, the struggle between Mordechai and Haman was not of a direct religious nature. Hence, the argument of the Dayanim is readily understood. They felt that since technically Haman was not defined as Avoda Zara, it is wrong for Mordechai to endanger the entire Jewish people. Mordechai, on the other hand, felt it important to look beyond the technicalities and realize that Haman is the equivalent of Avoda Zara. Interestingly, Rav Meidan writes that the destruction of the statues of Lenin and Stalin in post-communist Russia constitutes partial fulfillment of the vision of the Aleinu prayer, that Haelilim Karot Yikareitoon (the foreign gods will eventually be destroyed).
A Personal Struggle – Yalkut Shimoni 956
A small minority of Midrashim criticizes Mordechai for his actions and believes that he erred in his refusal to bow to Haman. One example of this approach is the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni 956) that states that Mordechai refused to bow to Haman because Haman was technically his slave. The Midrash relates that Mordechai and Haman were once on a boat together and Haman had no food. Mordechai, according to this Midrash, agreed to give food to Haman on condition that Haman become his slave. According to this approach, Mordechai recklessly endangered the entire Jewish people because of personal pride.
This Midrash seeks to teach a poignant lesson how personal animosities and pride can wreak havoc on an entire community. Unfortunately, this happens all too often in a variety of situations.
Rav Meidan notes that this Midrash does not seek to portray Mordechai as wicked. Rather, it presents Mordechai as a role model of Teshuvah as he transformed himself into a leader who sought only the best for his people as the Megilla describes Mordechai at its conclusion. This perception of Mordechai parallels the Midrashim (see Devarim Rabbah 2:8 and Targum Yonatan Shmot 4:25) that describe Moshe Rabbeinu as one who abandoned the Jewish People throughout his stay in Midyan, but performed Teshuva when Hashem summoned him to return to Mitzrayim to save Am Yisrael.
The Nationalistic Approach – Esther Rabbah 7:8
A fourth approach to our problem is presented in Midrash Esther 7:8, which records a dialogue between Mordechai and Haman. Haman, says the Midrash, poses the following question to Mordechai – didn’t your ancestor (Jacob) bow to my ancestor (Eisav)? Recall that Chazal assert that Haman is a descendant of King Agag of Amalek (hence, the Megilla repeatedly refers to Haman as “Haaggagi”) and that Amalek is the grandson of Eisav. Mordechai, according to this Midrash, responds that his ancestor Binyamin was not alive at the time of the Yaakov-Eisav encounter and did not bow to Eisav. Thus, Mordechai said that he is following the precedent of his ancestor Binyamin.
According to this Midrash, the argument of the Dayanim is quite powerful. They pointed to Yaakov bowing to Eisav as a precedent for bowing to Haman. Moreover, it is puzzling why Mordechai did not follow this precedent. Binyamin hardly constitutes a precedent of a conscious decision to endanger his people because of what appears to be nationalistic pride.
One may explain that the situations of Yaakov and Mordechai differed and both acted appropriately in their respective circumstances. Yaakov sets an appropriate example of swallowing some nationalistic, familial, and personal pride in order to save his nation-family. Indeed, the Seforno (Breishit 33:4) asserts that had the Biryonim (Zealots) of the late Second Temple period followed the example of Yaakov Avinu, the second Beit HaMikdash would not have been destroyed (see Gittin 56a).
On the other hand, Mordechai perceived the situation of the Jews of his time differently. He saw the danger of the excessive acculturation of the Jews in his day. Chazal (Megilla 12a) teach that the Jews enjoyed their participation in the feasts of Achashveirosh, feasts that celebrated the rule of Achashveirosh. The Jews were content with their lives in the Galut and apparently did not pine for Eretz Yisrael. Had the leader of our people, Mordechai, followed the precedent of Yaakov and bowed to Haman, he would have further intensified the assimilation of the Jewish people into Persian society.
Mordechai had to set a precedent of resisting the surrounding culture. Had he not resisted Haman’s order the Jewish people would have been destroyed by assimilation. Hence, Mordechai refusal to bow to Haman in reality saved Persian Jewry of his time. He also set a powerful precedent for all generations about resisting excessive acculturation to the lifestyles and ideologies of the surrounding culture.
Rabbi Chanoch Teller, in his recently published biography of Rav Aharon Kotler, relates that Rav Aharon Kotler once was in a post office in Japan in 1940 when a siren sounded alerting that Emperor Hirohito was in the area. The law in Japan at that time was that anyone who did not bow to the ground when the siren sounded was to be put to death. Rav Aharon Kotler refused to bow down following the precedent of Mordechai. Rav Aharon was beaten severely, but Baruch Hashem his life was spared. Similarly, my cousin Binyamin Toib of Chadeira visited Rome in 1945 after serving in the Jewish Brigade of the British army in WWII. The Pope happened to pass by and everyone kneeled to the ground. However, my cousin Binyamin refused to kneel. The Pope’s Swiss guards approached him and were ready to harm him until the Pope intervened when Binyamin explained that he is Jewish. The Pope, in turn, placed his hand on Binyamin’s head and blessed him in Hebrew, saying “Yevarechecha Elokim Bni.” Mr. Toib followed the example of Mordechai in his refusal to kneel to the Pope, even at risk to his life.
The leadership of Medinat Yisrael also must make difficult decisions regarding when to follow the model of Yaakov’s bowing to Eisav and when to follow Mordechai’s model of refusing to bow to Haman. One cannot honestly point to either example as the model we should follow in all situations. Prudent and sober judgment must be used to determine when to follow the different precedents. Yaakov’s bowing to Eisav saved our people and Mordechai’s refusal to bow to Haman saved our people. We must daven fervently that Hashem grant wisdom to our leaders to chart the appropriate path during these difficult times. Moreover, the same applies to everyone’s private life. Sometimes we must take bold actions and other times retreating and swallowing our pride is in our best interest. May Hashem grant us the wisdom to act appropriately in such situations.