Purim Mordechai: Another Kind of Tzaddik

Nov 17, 2014


Alongside the Jewish romantic image of the humble tzaddik — self-effacing, slightly bent-over, hidden, and devoted to all — is an alternate type of Jewish figure — powerful, unbending, strong, and even stubborn.

Moshe, when pleading the case of the Jewish people after the sin of the Golden Calf, uses the term stiff-necked people in a strange context. He says to G-d, “If I have found favor in your eyes my G-d, please, G-d, walk in our midst, for they are a stiff-necked people, and forgive our sins and our iniquities and you will inherit us.” (Shemot 34:9) Our being stiff-necked seems out of place here. It was part of what led to the sin — holding on to our Egyptian ways and not accepting the Divine authority?! The Ralbag, quoting his father (quoted in the Malbim) explains that the Jews’ stubbornness has two sides to it. It takes a long time to win them over, but once they follow Hashem they will stick with Him forever, stubbornly.

The Jews are a stick-necked people, and Mordechai the Jew (Esther 2:5) typified his people. He is, in many ways, a classic example of the tough Jew. Mordechai is persistent, day in and day out checking on what will become of Esther. Mordechai is not preoccupied with appearances — publicly displaying his sackcloth and ashes after Haman’s decree and letting out a great cry in the middle of Shushan. Mordechai, most prominently, does not bow down to Haman.

The verse states, “Mordechai did not bow down, nor prostrate himself (before Haman)” (Esther 3:2). The Sfat Emet (Purim 5643) comments on a problematic grammatical point. Rather than saying “lo kara” — he did not bow, using the past tense; the verse says, “lo yichra” — literally, he will not bow, in the future. Mordechai, says the Sfat Emet, was firm in his thoughts that he would never bow. The future indicates Mordechai’s conviction — I will never bow. The Sfat Emet adds a second explanation, that every generation will have a Mordechai like tzaddik who will neither bow down nor prostrate himself before a Haman. Mordechai’s soul, he quotes, is from the same source as that of Moshe Rabbeinu, and shares Moshe’s quality of not bucking under pressure.

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Esther) asks why Mordechai did not bow. After all, his intransigence ended up causing the decree to destroy the Jews. The Midrash gives two answers. One, that Haman affixed an idol to his garment, causing any one who bows down to him to effectively bow down to an idol. The Midrash’s second answer assumes that the bowing was not idolatry but gives the following answer: Mordechai replied, “Am I to flatter a human? I, who is descended from Binyamin, about whom it says, ‘He (the Divine Presence) dwells between his (Binyamin’s) shoulders (for the Temple in Jerusalem was situated in the midst of Binyamin’s territory)’ should bow down to a man?”

Mordechai’s sense of himself was that he provided a dwelling place for the Divine Presence. How can one hosting the Divine Presence bow down to a man? In this lies the key to Mordechai’s toughness. His struggle against Haman is not personal, but part of protecting the Divine dignity that Mordechai the Jew represents.

It is precisely a Mordechai who can stand up to and defeat a Haman. Haman has political clout, a high standing in the empire, wealth. He is a man of power. But the external trappings of power cannot defeat Mordechai’s inner strength, conviction, clarity, and sense that the Divine power is with him and his people.

Mordechai alone, though, was not able to bring about the salvation in the Purim story. Divine Providence chose Esther as the agent for reversing Haman’s decree. But it was only through Mordechai’s encouragement and sharp message that she was able to gather the courage to risk her life for her people and approach the King. It is ultimately not Mordechai’s own courage but his ability to pass it on to another that brings the Purim story to its miraculous conclusion.

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