To Bow or Not to Bow?

By Rabbi Steven Bayar

This week is Purim. Last week I posed a question about the story of Esther and Mordechai which suggests a subtle depth to the Megillah. We know from the text that Haman’s motivation for destroying the Jewish people was Mordechai’s refusal to bow down to him. We are taught that Mordechai’s refusal to bow stemmed from the Jewish aversion to bow down to idols and false gods. However, Haman never claimed to be a god, nor is there any suggestion in the text that this was so. This means that Mordechai’s decision to refuse acknowledging Haman’s status was a misinterpretation of Jewish law. If so, what is really going on?
Two solutions are suggested. The first takes a look at the Jewish community in Persia as described in the Megillah. Mordechai and Esther are not Hebrew names. Not only are they Persian names, but they are the two names of the high gods of the Persian pantheon: Marduk and Ishtar. This would be analogous to an American child being named Jesus. What type of community would have those names in common usage? A very assimilated community; a community where a queen might want to hide her Jewishness because she was uncomfortable in her high position. This suggests that Mordechai relied on Jewish custom (to refuse to bow down) but was not knowledgeable of Jewish law. Was the Persian community so assimilated into Persian life that they lost all ties to the tradition — and only through threat of extinction were able to rediscover their roots?
The second solution is political. Mordechai refuses to bow down to Haman after he has saved the king’s life by reporting an assassination plot and more importantly, after Esther has become queen. We know from the text that Mordechai was a minister to the king. Was it possible that he identified Haman as a threat to the Jews ahead of time, and only moved to provoke Haman after all the pieces of Haman’s downfall were in place? A close reading of the text suggests that Mordechai did just that. In which case his refusal to bow down to Haman was a calculated action designed to enrage Haman into a mistake — so that Mordechai could save his community.
This week will see serious political maneuverings in Washington, D.C. The parallels between today and Purim are close at hand. Let us all hope for a joyous Purim, on all levels.