The defiance of Mordechai as he refuses to bow to Haman is a pivotal moment in the Purim story.

All the king’s servants who were in the king’s gate would kneel and prostrate themselves before Haman, for so had the king commanded concerning him, but Mordechai would neither kneel nor prostrate himself.1

Why didn’t Mordechai bow? Only one justification is recorded in the Megillah: “Because I am a Jew.”2

While it was Mordechai’s obstinance that enraged Haman, it was his explanation that fueled Haman’s lust for revenge, providing it a whole new scope. Now he not only wished to kill Mordechai—now he plotted to annihilate the entire Jewish nation. Ultimately, he was able to convince King Ahasuerus to issue a genocidal decree against the Jews.

Mordechai’s response, “Because I am a Jew,” implies that Jewishness and bowing to Haman are mutually exclusive. Meaning: Jews just don’t do this.

Now that’s not so simple: The Hebrew Bible is replete with anecdotes of righteous individuals, including patriarchs and prophets, bowing before other people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, as a sign of obsequience and respect. Obviously, some other factor is at play here with Haman.

We see this in the words of the Megillah itself, where the bowing before Haman is referred to as “kneeling and prostration.” In the entire Biblical canon, that terminology is found only regarding bowing before G‑d. This is a strong indication that there was an element of worship here as well. And indeed, the sages of the Talmud take it for granted that the reason Mordechai did not kneel or prostrate to Haman was because Haman considered himself a deity.3

Nevertheless, even with this added layer, one may ask: Would it be so terrible for Mordechai to bow as a sign of respect, if only to save his life and the lives of his fellow Jews?

Idolatry: A Cardinal Sin

This brings us to a fundamental understanding of the very substance of Jewishness.

Judaism values life. Torah law is set aside even to possibly save a life. There are, however, certain commandments that are so fundamental to the moral, social and spiritual fabric of the Jewish nation, that we are told to be ready to give up our lives rather than transgress. One of these is the transgression of idolatry. (The other two are murder and adulterous or incestuous relationships.)4

Quite simply: If a Jew is told to choose between certain death and the worship of a deity other than the one G‑d of heaven and earth—for a Jew there is only one option. The fact that he would only be doing this out of fear, that he doesn’t have a shred of belief in this deity, that it would only be a show just to save his life—that’s all irrelevant. The rule of “accept death rather than idolatry” is clearly directed to precisely this case—where the worship is only out of fear of mortal retribution.

This would seem to be precisely Mordechai’s situation. Haman demanded worship as a deity. Mordechai, by Torah law, had to refuse at any cost.

Could Mordechai Have Made an Exception?

Are there any cases where this rule doesn’t apply?

The Talmud cites the opinion of one of its most prominent sages, Rava, that one who bows down to an idol out of fear is not liable for his actions. The simplest reading of this ruling (which is indeed the first and primary understanding of Tosafot) is that Rava is speaking post-facto: A person is obligated to surrender his very life not to bow to an idol, even if he does not believe in it and only does so out of fear. Rava only is saying that if he did not muster up the courage to give up his life, he would not be subject to the death penalty for the sin of willful idolatry.5

Tosafot then provides a secondary reading, citing those who explain that the context of Rava’s opinion is a case where none of the worshippers really believes in this purported deity—they are simply providing lip service out of fear. Everyone understands that he’s a mortal being, but he’s also a powerful megalomaniac—so better to do his bidding and play along with his game.

According to this reading, Rava would permit Jews to play along as well.

If this reading is correct, the sages of Tosafot ask, why did Mordechai not bow to Haman, whom surely no one believed to be a god?

One way they answer this is by citing the Midrashic tradition that Haman carried a miniature idol or depiction thereof on his person. Since this idol was, in fact, widely worshiped by the Persians of the time, to bow down to Haman, even out of fear, would constitute bona fide idolatry.6

But they also raise another, vital point:

Mordechai was a public figure, and the scene before Haman was also likely a public event. There was the additional factor of what we call kiddush hashem, “sanctifying the name of G‑d.”

This is the entire essence of a Jew, his purpose in this world—to represent the truth of the one Author of all things to the entire world. Not only is it a mitzvah of the Torah, as stated, “I will be sanctified in the midst of the Children of Israel7 —it lies at the heart of the entire Torah.

Publicly bowing to a mortal being who considers himself a deity is the polar opposite of kiddush hashem. In such a case, the Tosafot tell us, any action that can be associated with idolatry is forbidden according to all opinions.

Moreover, in the classic work of Chassidic teaching, the Tanya, we learn that no matter how far a Jew might have gone astray from Jewish observance, he still harbors deep in his heart a powerful connection to G‑d. This is why, throughout our history, countless Jews gave away their lives rather than pay homage to idolatry, if even it would only have meant paying lip service to tyrannical murderers, without possessing any real belief in the idols.8

More to the Story

Mordechai is regarded by our sages as being one of history’s greatest and most righteous Jews. “Mordechai,” they teach, “was to his generation what Moses was to his generation.”9 Yet, initially not all Jews appreciated his true greatness. Rava indicates that the people themselves were indeed initially highly critical of Mordechai and distressed by his behavior.

Noting that Mordechai was listed as a descendant of both Judah and Benjamin, Rava explains that members of both tribes wished to blame the other for Mordechai and the troubles he caused them.10

Yet, by the end of the story, everyone is happy with Mordechai and all this blaming seems to be resolved.

To understand this, let’s back up a bit in the story:

The Talmud tells us that the true catalyst for the decree against the Jews of the Purim story was an incident that had occurred many years earlier: Many of the Jews had bowed to an idol set up by Nebuchadnezzar, a generation earlier.

Although they had bowed only out of fear of reprisal and death, they were obligated to risk their lives to sanctify G‑d's name, just as Daniel had done and just as Chananya, Mishael and Azaria had done. That was a reason for G‑d bringing upon them, as a penalty, the decree of Haman that threatened them with death. Furthermore, more recently, many had participated in the feast prepared by Ahasuerus. In the words of the Talmud:

“Why were the Jews threatened in that generation with destruction? Because they enjoyed the feast that Ahasuerus prepared.”11

This will give us a unique insight into Mordechai’s actions, specifically as understood by Rava.12 It seems that, rather than endangering the Jewish people, Mordechai’s defiance was just what was needed to save them.

Mordechai’s Intimate Knowledge of the Purpose of the Party

Reading the words of the Talmud, we see that the problem wasn’t so much that they attended the party— something they may indeed have been required to do—but that they enjoyed it. They took pride in knowing that they were finally being assimilated into the Persian culture and were welcomed to immerse themselves in the debauchery and lewd character of the party.13

The Jewish people had begun to surrender themselves to the natural order of things, losing grasp of their unique, eternal mission as a chosen “kingdom of priests and sanctified nation.” In doing so, they also chose the destiny that comes to a small nation living within the realm of natural consequence: Swift oblivion.

As long as the Jewish people were a chosen, special people, they remained invulnerable and eternal. If the Jewish people were a nation like every other, they should no longer exist.

This, our sages tell us, was actually one of the underlying reasons Ahasuerus held the feast in the first place. He knew, based on the prophecies of the Jewish prophets, that the Babylonian exile was destined to be reaching its conclusion and that the Jewish nation would regain autonomy in the Land of Israel. Thus he wanted the Jews to disavow and reject all that made them unique, to melt into the Persian Empire, so that when the time came, there simply wouldn’t be a distinct people to which this prophecy could apply.14

To do so, says Rava, Ahasuerus specifically used at his party many of the precious vessels that were plundered during the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.15 Rava further notes that Mordechai was actually appointed as an official at the party.16 We can therefore safely assume, according to Rava, that Mordechai was in a good position to know the true intent of the party. Indeed, this was why he tried so hard to dissuade the Jews from attending.17

An additional teaching of Rava: In describing how Mordechai had been exiled from Jerusalem together with King Jeconiah, the text uses a peculiar term18 that seems to be hinting that Mordechai actually entered exile voluntarily. Why would he do this?

Rava explains: Mordechai was the spiritual leader of the Jewish nation. He perceived that the very foundations of the Jewish nation, both spiritually and physically, were in danger of collapsing and the Jewish nation would be no more. Lost in Babylonia, they would become just another nation assimilated into the dominant culture of the time, another sandcastle erased into oblivion by the tides of history.19 Therefore, says Rava, Mordechai left Israel for Babylonia with the intent of preventing that from happening.20

Mordechai, the Hero

Yes, at the beginning of the story, according to Rava, many Jews may have been upset at Mordechai’s refusal to bow. But not only did he refuse, the verse tells us that he made a point of doing so multiple times in public. Mordechai’s self sacrifice eventually inspired and aroused the entire nation to return to G‑d through fasting and prayer.21

Furthermore, our sages tell us how Mordechai gathered 22,000 Jewish children to teach them Torah, and that the children were so inspired, they were prepared to give up their lives along with Mordechai rather than relinquish their beliefs.22

The genocidal decree, after all, was only upon those who identified as Jews. Without Mordechai’s inspiration, it would have been quite likely that Jews would hide their identity. But Mordechai inspired them to declare loudly, and in public, “We are Jews, we live as Jews, and we will die as Jews.”

In doing so, the people set an existential border for their identity as a nation. Just as a living cell is preserved by the membrane that defines it, so this boundary of kiddush hashem preserved the Jewish people.

In the end, as Rava himself tells us, all the Jews rejoiced in Mordechai’s ascent,23 having realized the fearless heroism and limitless dedication to his people Mordechai had displayed to save the entire nation.

This can perhaps provide us with another meaning behind the famous statement in the Talmud24 :

“Rava said: A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordechai."

Reading the Purim story, one may perhaps mistakenly believe that Mordechai was in the wrong. He should have bowed to Haman to avoid angering or inciting him. It may even be argued that it was proper to attend and enjoy Ahasuerus’s drinking party, which we recall when we drink on Purim.

But if the Purim story teaches us anything, it is that we can transcend our own petty conceptions of the order of things to attain a higher vision of the eternal destiny and purpose of our people. It is to that transcendent vision that Rava refers when he speaks of reaching a level of “not knowing”—meaning, beyond the knowing of a naive denizen of the natural world to a divine way of knowing, the knowing we call emunah, or faith.

And it was that transcendent vision of faith that ultimately flipped the entire natural order of events on its head.

For more on this see The Purim Drunk