And Mordechai would not kneel and would not bow to Haman…(Esther 3:2)
Many lessons have been gleaned from Mordechai’s refusal to bow down to Haman: How we must always stand staunch in face of adversity; the power of uncompromising faith; fighting for principles and values; not conforming to social pressures and the need “to belong.” The lists go on and on of popular themes that we have heard – and will surely hear this weekend again – the messages we can learn from Mordechai, including their relevance to current events.
What is less known is that Mordechai’s unwavering stand repaired a 1214-year wound that would change the course of history, with implications that affect us until this very day.
The full story of Purim, pitting Haman against Mordechai and the entire Jewish people, actually began over 12 centuries earlier, on a lonely dark night, when a lonely man fought a lonely battle, and was left wounded in the process. But as a result, we were all healed, never to be wounded again. The lonely man was Jacob and the nightlong battle he fought was with a “stranger” – his brother Esau’s archangel. In the Bible’s own words: “Jacob remained alone and a stranger wrestled with him until the break of dawn. When he saw that he could not defeat him, he touched the upper joint of Jacob’s thigh. Jacob’s hip joint became dislocated as he wrestled with him.” As a result Jacob “was limping because of his thigh” (Genesis 32:25-32).
In one of the most fluent interpretations you will ever read, the 16th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Abraham Galanti (student of the Ramak), places Mordechai’s unbowing resolve into historical context. In his Eichah commentary Kol Bochim, on the verse (Lamentations 4:18) “they hunted our steps so that we could not walk in our streets,” Galanti explains that Mordechai’s resistance to kneeling and bowing to Haman was a fundamental declaration of strength that originated and was a response to Jacob’s limp over a millennium earlier. (Galanti’s eloquent exposition is cited in the Shaloh Mesechta Megillah. See also the Arizal – Likkutei Torah and Sefer HaLikkutim Samuel I 10).
Jacob’s limp is a watershed event in history: It reflects every wound that each of us and every person in history has ever endured. Jacob’s wrestling with Esau’s angel through the night represents all the battles of our lives, beginning with the biggest battle of them all – between the material and the spiritual. (see The Dislocated Hip and A Lunch to Remember).
The tension between matter and spirit is deep and difficult. Yet even then, the soul (Jacob) cannot be defeated. But the material forces are relentless. Even when the essence of our beings cannot be hurt, matter’s inherent narcissism “touches” our extremities – the part of your life that is vulnerable and exposed to the elements. When the “angel of darkness,” in whatever form it assumes, sees that it cannot conquer your soul, it attacks and wounds your “thigh” or “hip” – the part that protrudes from and is outside of the body, “our steps” (see Zohar I 146a. 171a). “They hunted our steps so that we could not walk in our streets” describes every type of abuse and hurt, which attack our very steps and movements.
The scars and wounds of this dissonance are far and deep. Virtually every form of loss and suffering, every injustice perpetrated, personal or collective, is a result or an expression of the schism between matter and energy: The mechanics of the existence divorced from their “programming instructions,” the body misaligned from its spirit, is in effect a personal and cosmic limp the result is dislocation and displacement, and the inevitable pain that follows.
In Jacob’s time the confrontation between the soulful Jacob and the warrior Esau left Jacob wounded. No matter how dominant Jacob was he still had to contend with Esau’s power.
Indeed, Jacob and his family even end up bowing to Esau. Bowing is a symbol of submission and deference. So though Jacob had good reason to bow to Esau (in order to gain Esau’s favor), the mere fact that he had to concede and acknowledge Esau’s power was a bow to the power of materialism in our lives, and the wounds that it inflicts.
The Zohar (I 171b) is actually deeply disturbed by the fact that Jacob bowed to Esau. “How is it possible,” the Zohar wonders, “that the Divinely perfect Jacob, would prostate himself before the idolatrous Esau; tantamount to worshipping a false god?!” Explains the Zohar, that Jacob’s behavior was justified because he wasn’t bowing to Esau, but to the Divine presence that Jacob recognized was surrounding Esau. But, as Galanti emphasizes, this only explains Jacob’s behavior; it does not justify the fact that Jacob’s children bowed to Esau, which constituted a strong concession that further emboldened and empowered Esau and his progeny, allowing for Jacob’s wound to manifest and intensify.
The connection between the bowing of the tribes to Esau and Jacob’s limp is striking: Standing upright requires strong legs to hold up the entire body. By contrast, prostration is the physical act of bending the knees and then thrusting the entire body forward, in effect neutralizing the power of the legs. The sacred act of prostration (as we do on Yom Kippur) symbolizes total subjugation to G-d. But when the prostration is to Esau, then it constitutes weakness, surrendering your steadfast pride, as your legs give way to your prostrating yourself before the materialism of Esau. Since the tribes were so bound to Jacob, their bowing to Esau empowered him and allowed him (his angel) to wound Jacob’s hip and leg, causing him to limp.
Jacob’s limp was then a manifestation of frailty in the face of Esau’s materialistic power, effecting, if not Jacob’s personality, his extremities, i.e. his connection and involvement with to the material world.
Yet, within these events lay buried one silent, absent, detail: The unborn Benjamin was not part of the bowing procession. The remedy was born even before Benjamin was.
Twelve centuries later Benjamin’s absence would blossom into Mordechai – Benjamin’s descendant – refusing to bow to Esau’s descendant, Haman. As the Midrash explains (Esther Rabba 7:9), that Haman challenged Mordechai’s stand: “Didn’t your grandfather bow down to my grandfather?” referring to Jacob and his wives and children bowing to Esau (Genesis 33:3-7). Mordechai replied: “Benjamin, my grandfather, was not yet born then. Just as my forefather did not bow to Esau, I, a Benjaminite (“ish yemini”) will not bow to his descendant either.”
Mordechai understood the stakes: By not kneeling and bowing to Haman he was rectifying the concession that took place when the tribes bowed to Esau. “Mordechai would not kneel and would not bow” was a loud and resounding statement that enough is enough: We will no longer limp around wounded. We will stand upright and strong, and nothing can bring us down.
Finally, Jacob’s long dislocated hip (“yerech”) was relocated by Mordechai, when his hips and legs held fast, and he stood proud and upright.
[For the record, Galanti explains that Benjamin’s impact began earlier with King Saul, who also stemmed from Benjamin. In beautiful detail, Galanti weaves the verses in the book of Samuel to explain how Saul’s anointment as king and his war against Amalek (descendant of Esau and ancestor of Haman) all were rooted in Benjamin’s power of never having bowed to Esau. However, Saul was unable to stand strong, and the job was finished by Mordechai’s unwavering stand].
Mordechai’s stand, which lies at the heart of the Purim story, offers us a powerful lesson:
Each of us faces our own particular battles. A “stranger” – within or without – wrestles with you in your lonely night. It may be the ghosts of your childhood, or your inner fears and insecurities; it may be your vulnerability in a relationship or the concerns around and unknown future. No one is without a dark corner or two in his or her psyche. And though you prevail, hardly does any person come away unscathed. Each of us has taken many punches, and we have incurred our particular limps. Life wears us down, and we are left hurt and wounded. Often the limp can seem irreversible. If the great Jacob did not remain intact after struggling with his “stranger,” how can any of us expect anything better?
Come Purim. Enter Mordechai. And demonstrates that Esau’s blow shall not stand. 1214 years of limping is quite enough. Now Mordechai “would not kneel and would not bow.” His legs, hips, knees and all would stand upright – and nothing, not Haman, not the king’s decree, could change that.
Some say that Jacob’s battle took place on Yom Kippur eve. But, as the Tikkunei Zohar states, Purim is in some ways greater than Yom HaKippurim. It has the power to mend the wounds Jacob incurred on that lonely Yom Kippur night.
2364 years have passed since Mordechai made his grand stand against Haman. 2364 years since he prevailed and in the process healed the limps of history. Much has transpired in the interim. The Second Temple was destroyed. The long exile began. Persecutions, expulsions, oppressions, genocides – from the Crusaders to the Middle Ages, the Inquisitions, pogroms and finally the unspeakable Holocaust – “they hunted our steps so that we could not walk in our streets.”
Yet, we are still here. Perhaps limping a bit, with a few scars, but intact. Not only have we prevailed, we are a free people, with the unprecedented ability to choose, with absolutely no restrictions, how to educate our children, how to serve G-d, how to allow our souls to express themselves.
It took a Mordechai to stand up against the dark forces that wanted to bring him and his people down, as they did so many times before and after. But his stand became an eternal source of strength to us all. “Our steps” are now firm; we walk with resolve.
Empowered by Mordechai’s courage and self-confidence, we can stand today proud, with no need for compromise or apologetics, to fight with unwavering commitment for all the values and the virtues that define our common humanity, living up to the Divine Image in which we were all created.