It all began with Ahasverosh's Feast, a vast sprawling celebration, a multicultural collection of peoples from around the kingdom, feasting and rejoicing-- partaking in their own conquest.
While in Israel, the first wave of returnees from the exile were laboring under harsh conditions and against the hostile peoples who had occupied the land, to begin the rebuilding of Israel-- a process aborted by the decree of the very same empire whose celebratory feast they were attending, the Jews of Sushan ate and drank merrily. Under the guise of multiculturalism and tolerance, the Jews who had come to Ahashverosh's feast, were partaking in the death of the dream of the return to a Jewish homeland.
Ish Yehudi Haya Be'Sushan HaBira U'Shemo Mordechai. There was a Jewish man and his name was Mordechai, so the Megilat Esther lackadaisically introduces Mordechai. Was there but one Jewish man in all of the capital? There was but one who had rejected Ahashverosh's feast and did not partake of his wine, but continued to work for the Return from the Exile. This made him the only man in Sushan fit to be called Yehudi, a Jew. This is what the Megillah tells us.
The Tribes of the Kingdom of Israel had already dissolved in the Exile. Babylon had fallen when in all his arrogance King Belshazzar had held his own drunken feast, and displayed the temple vessels, only to see a hand write on the wall MENE MENE TEKEL UPARSIN. Thou Hast Been Weighed and Judged. And swiftly that night the fall of the Babylonian Empire followed.
The Persian Empire under Ahashverosh repeated this folly, this time however its Jewish subjects, the exiles of the fallen Kingdom of Judah. willingly joined in the celebration. The nature of what was to come followed from that.
Mordechai, descended from Saul, Israel's first monarch, fought a lonely battle against his people's dissolution into nothing more than another captive people in a multicultural panoply of the Persian Empire, devoid of any Jewish identity or faith. Their attendance at Ahashverosh's feast marked a betrayal of everything that being Jewish meant. And even after Mordechai and Esther's success in saving them from annihilation, only a handful of those who had been exiled would return to build a Second Jewish Commonwealth in Israel.
That tension between allegiance and betrayal, between the easy life offered by buckling down to assimilation into a permanent captivity, and the sacrifices required by a commitment to a national identity as Jews, defines Megilat Esther. The renewal that the holiday of Purim offers is more than a temporary salvation from a threatened genocide, but a renewal of Jewish identity as a whole.
That tension recurs over and over again throughout Jewish history. When Jews rushed to Obama's inauguration and the accompanying events, they were repeating the folly of their ancestors who had attended Ahashverosh's feast. Under the guise of multicultural and tolerance, they had joined a celebration that meant the planned destruction of Israel.
When the likes of Rabbi Lookstein rushed off to participate in prayers at the National Cathedral, he was betraying the legacy of Mordechai and Purim. The liberal Rabbis, such as Marc Angel and Avi Weiss, who defended him, were demonstrating the same kind of lack of leadership that in the days of Purim, led to Mordechai alone being called Ish Yehudi. The larger multitude of Jews devoid of any real religion of identity who joined the multicultural mob that swamped D.C. to celebrate the idolization of Obama, paralleled those who had bowed to Nevuchadnezzar's golden image, that Daniel and his companions would not kneel to. Yet they did not do so out of terror, but out of a lack of knowledge of what it means to be a Jew and an absence of faith in God of their forefathers and foremothers.
When a people cast away faith, into that vacuum idolatry must come, most often the idolization of men. For if you do not believe in anything higher than man, then you will come to worship men as gods. From the Biblical Pharaoh of Moshe's day, who set himself up as a god and created a volunteer corps that he quickly turned into permanent slaves for "shovel ready" construction projects across Egypt, to Nebuchadnezzar's golden image, to the 20th century's cults of personality manifested within Communism and Nazism, to the Cult of Obama-- follow a single road. And to the Jewish people throughout history, the tyranny of the cults of men offer but one choice, submission or resistance.
The rise of Haman, a man all were commanded to bow to, became a teaching moment for Mordechai's act of resistance. When Haman demanded what was owed only to God, Mordechai alone refused to obey. Seemingly just as at the feast, a compromise was possible, for the Megilah uses two terms, Koreah and Yistachaveh, one meant bowing and the other meant falling on one's face, or kowtowing. "So you don't want to prostrate yourself in front of Haman, but you could still bow to him," the servants of the King might have said. And indeed Mordechai could have bowed without kowtowing, thereby remaining within the letter of the law. That sort of compromise was the ethos that had let to Ahashverosh's feast, with Kosher food served side by side with the defiled Temple vessels. And Mordechai would have none of it. Instead his refusal is expressed as Lo Yikra Ve'Lo Yistahaveh, Mordechai would not bow or prostrate himself to Haman. He would make no compromise whatsoever to tyranny and the worship of men.
While Mordechai's refusal seemingly brings on Haman's genocidal purge of the Jews, Mordechai understood that Haman would move against the Jews sooner or later, regardless of whether or not he bowed to him. For a Haman could not tolerate a people who would not worship men. To the Jews there would be the choice between giving up all the things about them that stood in Haman's way, their identity, their independence and their desire to return to their homeland-- or death. Mordechai's refusal to accept a phony compromise in the hopes of appeasing the tyrant, but to stand steadfast when all others fell to the ground, earned him the title Ish Yehudi.
Well into Chapter 4 of Megilat Esther, the title character, Esther is subsidiary to Mordechai, who urges her to remember her people. Until then it is Mordechai who is the driving force, the one who remembers what is right, when all others have put right aside. At the end of Chapter 4 when Esther makes the commitment to be a Jew in the same way that Mordechai was, by risking everything for her people. That is when Esther begins giving Mordechai orders, "Kol Asher Tziva Esther". It is at this point when she takes on a Jewish identity in substance, as well in covert form, that Esther becomes the pivotal character and the Megilah becomes "hers". Each risky step she takes is met by a divinely orchestrated series of coincidences that bring about the downfall of the tyrant Haman and the salvation of the Jews.
By fighting for her people in every way that she can, with everything to lose, Esther, like her uncle before her, comes to embody the virtues of her heritage and the absolute commitment to her people.
Yet Haman's rise and fall consumes barely half of Megilat Esther. With Haman hung on the gallows, despite the improvement in Mordechai's station, seemingly very little has changed. The earlier decree giving any people who wants to the right to exterminate the Jews still stands. What Mordechai has done, through the King, is to give the Jews the right to fight back, to gather weapons and stand for their lives.
No doubt the Jews across the Persian Empire, from the capital, to India, Israel and Ethiopia could have done this before on their own. But it is likelier that they would not have resisted, for they did not have faith. It is likelier that they would have hidden in homes and attics, fled into the woods, and been slaughtered one by one. Some remnant would indeed have survived, as Mordechai told Esther. As a remnant survived the Fall of the First Temple and the Second, the massacres of century after century, culminating in the Holocaust.
Now however the Jews had the faith to, in the words of the Megillah, "stand for their lives." They were not any stronger or mightier than they had been. They had no new reserve of resources or muscle or weapons. But what Mordechai and Esther accomplished was to give them back, for a brief time, faith by demonstrating that a higher power would unexpectedly come to the aid of those who chose to stand as Jews, rather than those who chose to attend the feast and bow to the tyrant. As Mordechai's resistance had set into motion Haman's decree, which had demolished the illusion of their "happy lives" as captive peoples of the Empire, Esther's commitment and revelation of her identity, demonstrated the mystery that is the presence of Divine in all things, a presence that had accompanied the Jews into exile and would stand with them in all their trials.
Faith transformed the frightened Jews of a hundred lands from victims into warriors, who would stand for their lives and the lives of their families, taking weapons in hand and slaying those who would come against them. Those who had been considered easy prey, suddenly became something else, as in the words of Joel (4: 9-10), "Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning-hooks into spears; and let even the weakest among you say, I a mighty warrior." That transformation would have seemed inconceivable except that many still living today had seen a persecuted people claim their land, out of the ashes of Auschwitz strode the survivors to rise as soldiers to the heights of Mount Hermon-- all within a single generation.
And now with too many eunuchs presiding over Israel, too many who attend the feasts and bow to Haman prominent in the land, that tide of strength is receding again. It is why the fast before battle is just as significant to Purim as the feast. For it reminds us that there is no prosperity without challenge, no success without struggle and that both famine and feast come from the Lord. The fast of Purim marks the sacrifice of the struggle, against enemies from without and within. Against the inner doubts that mar the strength of one's faith and the outer foes determined to break us. The feast marks the overturning of Ahashverosh's Feast of appeasement to one dedicated to renewing Jewish identity and faith in God.
That was and is the significance of Purim-- for no lesson is lasting and no human state of consciousness can endure forever. The majority of the Jews would soon forget again, the meaning of Mordechai and Esther's acts of courage and faith. A handful would return to Israel to rebuild the second temple, and when the time came, some of their debased descendants would invite the Romans in, and serve as their informers and tax collectors. Exile would follow exile, for exile is a state of mind and a state of the soul, as much as it is a geographical fact or political condition.
Today exile still remains a state of mind. The self-hatred that animates so many Jews who despise their Jewishness, choosing Haman rather than Mordechai, Vashti rather than Esther, as their models, is a fact of life and a factor in our lives. With Israel reborn, many Jews are foremost in wanting to destroy it. Like Haman they cast their lots and propose their own decrees. They plot and scheme to tear down what has been built. The gap between Haman and Soros, or the eunuchs of Ahasverosh and J Street is one of time, not of morals. For when they arise to slay you in every generation, your choice is to either affirm your faith like Mordechai, or to escape by transforming yourself into your own persecutors, to become your own people's Haman. That tidal line between the good son and the wicked, the prophets and the traitors, defines the inner struggle of a people.
The debasement of Obama Worship is but the latest manifestation of that struggle. For if you will not worship God, you will worship a man. If you will not wait for his messiah to come, you will choose one of your own. If you pride yourself on rejecting faith in what you cannot see, you will instead have faith in the things that you do see, but whose worthlessness and corruption you do not see. The human mind is ever destined to reach for something higher. To those who have become degraded, in their degradation the highest they can reach is to the feet of a man whom they place on a pedestal and chant praise to. And when men do this, tyranny always follows.
It is why Mordechai's pivotal action in refusing to bow to Haman, defined him and the Jewish struggle. Compromising with tyrants cannot save you from them. In time you will still face the choice, to abandon your beliefs or to resist. The story of Mordechai is the story of Ish Yehudi, the one Jew in Sushan who would not fall on his face before evil when it demanded his submission. Today too evil demands our worship and submission, but we can be comforted in that there is far more than one of us who will not bow to it, who will not worship a golden image or attend the feast.
Let us raise a glass in celebration and praise, for the Lord who uproots tyrants, renders their plots to dust and their whims to mockery. To those who stand by him in every age and generation, and to his people, in all their trials and tribulations. The celebration has ended here, but it continues in Israel. Long may it continue.