A Revolution of Jewish Pride
BY RABBI ELIE MISCHEL
Antisemitism is back – and it’s no longer disqualifying, even in the greatest halls of power. In May 2021, as Hamas rockets rained down upon Israeli homes and Rashida Tlaib accused Israel of bombing Palestinian schools, President Biden praised the congresswoman, saying “I admire your intellect, I admire your passion, and I admire your concern for so many other people.” Meanwhile, former President Trump has no problem dining with white nationalist Nick Fuentes and the antisemite Kanye West, legitimizing Jew-haters who formerly occupied the margins of society.
Many hope this is simply a passing phase. During Shavuot of 2020, Black Lives Matter rioters in the Fairfax neighborhood of Los Angeles shouted “Kill the Jews”, scrawling antisemitic graffiti on the walls of five Orthodox synagogues and three day schools. But when I spoke with a local Orthodox rabbi the following week, he downplayed the incidents and said “give it time, it will blow over”. Umm, not exactly.
Other Jews have called out the problem, but maintain that the solution is not in our hands. Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh told CNN: “It cannot fall on Jewish people alone to fight these acts of hate. Victims are not the ones to cure antisemitism.” Yes, we are sometimes victims, and in Pittsburgh, tragically so. But is passively hoping that the good gentiles of America stand up in our defense the wisest response to antisemitism?
Certainly, as believing Jews, we must turn to Hashem in prayer – just as Mordechai and Esther did in Shushan, thousands of years ago. But Mordechai did not rely only on prayer. He took active steps to defeat and destroy the Jew-haters who threatened our people. I believe he has much to teach us – if we are willing to listen.
The man who would not bow
The time period of Purim is eerily similar to our current generation. Like the United States, the Persian kingdom took great pains to emphasize its tolerance and acceptance of all peoples, לַעֲשׂוֹת, כִּרְצוֹן אִישׁ-וָאִישׁ, “to do according to the will of every man”. But just as the “tolerant” United States now tolerates blatant antisemitism among its political class, Persian “tolerance” led to the rise of Haman, who sought nothing less than the genocide of the Jewish people.
The Jews of Persia prudently bowed before Haman, assuming the antisemitism he personified was just a passing phase and would soon blow over. Only Mordechai refused to go along: וּמָרְדֳּכַי לֹא יִכְרַע, וְלֹא יִשְׁתַּחֲוֶה, “and Mordechai would not bow down or prostrate himself before him” (Esther 3:2). The midrash describes a strange backstory to Mordechai’s obstinate refusal to bow: “Haman said to Mordechai: ‘Why won’t you bow down to me? Your grandfather Ya’akov bowed down before my grandfather Eisav!’ Mordechai answered: ‘My grandfather [Binyamin] was not yet born when Ya’akov bowed down to Eisav… I am G-d’s nobleman, for all the other tribes were born in exile, but my grandfather was born in Eretz Yisrael!’” (Esther Rabbah 7:9)
Mordechai’s rationale seems faulty. It’s true that the father of his tribe, Binyamin, was not yet born when the rest of the family bowed down to Eisav. But why should the timing of his forefather’s birth exempt him from bowing to Haman? And why is it significant that Binyamin, alone among the sons of Ya’akov, was born in Eretz Yisrael?
An Eretz Yisrael Jew
Exile is synonymous with fear – a debilitating spiritual condition. Rav Kook writes that “it is impossible for the Divine spirit and the light of G-d to rest upon the people of Israel unless they first remove from within their souls the terrible fear which has clung to them like an infected wound from their years of exile and persecution at the hands of lowly and evil enemies” (Ikvei Tzon, 21). In exile, our vision is impaired; our fear of the gentiles makes it difficult to clearly assess our situation and reach the appropriate conclusions. In the words of Rav Moshe Avigdor Amiel, “‘Jews in exile are worshippers of idolatry in purity’ (Avodah Zara 8a). This refers to the exile Jew’s inner nullification of self to the cultural influences of the gentiles. In exile, we constantly think: ‘what will the gentiles say?’ instead of ‘what will the Jews say?’” (Ezer el Ami).
The Jews of Persia, a frightened minority living in a foreign land, instinctively bowed before Haman. They couldn’t conceive of any other alternative.
But Mordechai was different. The Megillah describes him as אֲשֶׁר הָגְלָה מִירוּשָׁלַיִם, as a Jew “who was exiled from Jerusalem” (Esther 2:6). This is a strange introduction; Mordechai was hardly the only Jew of his time who was exiled from Jerusalem! But the Megillah, of course, is not merely informing us of Mordechai’s background; it is telling us who Mordechai is, in essence! Though living in exile, Mordechai identified as a Jew of Jerusalem – an “Eretz Yisrael Jew”! He never forgot that he was G-d’s royalty, a Jew who was הָגְלְתָה עִם יְכָנְיָה מֶלֶךְ-יְהוּדָה, a Jew of royal lineage “exiled together with Yechonyah, the King of Judah”!
Alone among the Jews of Persia, Mordechai remained impervious to the spiritual degradation of exile. Though he lived in galut, he was not “galuti”. He consciously identified as a noble Jew of the Holy Land. Ya’akov, the man of exile, might bow to our enemies, but Mordechai is a descendant of Binyamin, the only son of Ya’akov to be born free and proud in our own Land. Mordechai refused to bow – for Jews of the Holy Land do not bow to antisemites!
Mordechai’s defiant act ignited a revolution of Jewish pride – a revolution which transformed the Jews of Persia. At the beginning of the story, we were pachdanim, a frightened people, a “nation scattered and dispersed” (Esther 3:8). But by the end of the story, we were giborim, brave warriors who struck fear into the hearts of the nations: “No man could withstand them; for the fear of them was fallen upon all the peoples” (Esther 9:2).
This was Mordechai’s greatest achievement – לְחַנֵּךְ אֶת הָעָם בִּימֵי שִׁפְלוּתוֹ לְרוּחַ גָּדְלוֹ, “to educate the nation during its time of lowliness to develop a spirit of greatness” (Rav Kook, Orot, 5). And how did he accomplish this? By reminding the people that they were not merely Jews in exile, but also the glorious nation of Israel! By reconnecting the Jews of exile to their glorious heritage in the Land of Israel, Mordechai awakened his people and revealed their latent glory!
By the end of the Megillah, Mordechai reaches the pinnacle of power, replacing Haman as vizier. But he remained known as “Mordechai the Jew”: כִּי מָרְדֳּכַי הַיְּהוּדִי, מִשְׁנֶה לַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ, וְגָדוֹל לַיְּהוּדִים, “For Mordechai the Jew was second to King Achashverosh, and great among the Jews.” Not only did his proud Jewishness not diminish his power, it was the very source of his strength! By refusing to identify as a Persian – even in the very halls of Persian power – Mordechai demonstrated that the Jewish people are unlike any other. We don’t operate by the rules of normal nations, nor do we need their approval, even when we live among them.
To Persian antisemites, Mordechai the “Eretz Yisrael Jew” was deeply disconcerting. Mordechai feared no man and was impervious to their tactics of intimidation. Under his leadership, וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא, “everything was turned upside down”; instead of Jews cowering in their synagogues behind armed guards, it was the antisemites’ turn to be afraid. כִּי-נָפַל פַּחַד-מָרְדֳּכַי, עֲלֵיהֶם, “for the fear of Mordechai had fallen upon them” (Esther 9:3).
They had good reason to be afraid, for Mordechai was neither merciful nor forgiving to antisemites. When Achashverosh commanded Haman to honor Mordechai, Mordechai humiliated Haman:
Haman stooped down and Mordechai mounted [on his back]… and kicked him. Haman said: “Is it not written in your books, ‘Rejoice not when your enemy fails?’” Mordechai replied: “That refers to a Jew, but in regard to you it is written, ‘And you shall tread upon their high places’” (Megillah 16a).
A path forward
As Mordechai proved, we will not defeat antisemitism by waiting for it to blow over or by emphasizing our victimhood and hoping our non-Jewish friends come to the rescue. Our path to salvation will come from looking inward and remembering who we truly are!
Ultimately, we are neither “Persians” nor “Americans”, neither “South Africans” nor “Canadians”. As Mordechai reminded the Jews of his generation, we are the children of Israel, G-d’s chosen people – the greatest nation on earth! “Not only are we different from all the other nations, set apart by our unique national history that has no parallel among the peoples of the earth, but we are also loftier and greater than any other nation! If we know our greatness then we will know ourselves, but if we forget our greatness, we will forget ourselves; and a nation that forgets itself will be small and lowly…” (Rav Kook, Orot, 5).
When we remember who we truly are – Eretz Yisrael Jews who never bow to antisemites – we recognize Jew haters for what they truly are – dust in the wind. When we remember that we are G-d’s royalty, the likes of Haman, Ilhan Omar and Nick Fuentes will cower in fear! “For behold Your enemies, Hashem, behold Your enemies will perish…” (Tehillim 92:10).
As the miracle of Purim reawakened Diaspora Jewry’s pride, spurring thousands of Jews to return to the Land of Israel, so may the antisemitism of today awaken our people’s pride – and bring them home!
Rabbi Elie Mischel is the Editor of HaMizrachi magazine.