In this year’s more peaceful and quieter Purim, I found a particular passage that struck me: ‘For he had told him that he was a Jew’ (Esther, 3:4). These words appear at the first incident where Mordechai refuses to bow before Haman despite the royal command to do so. The obvious question – why not? Why did Mordechai not bow? The general understanding is that Haman wore an idol around his neck and to bow would be to recognise the idol as a deity. Idol-worship is a cardinal sin that overrides the ruling to obey civil law and it is a sin that a Jew should die rather than do.
In this and throughout other events in the Megilah, we see a recurring theme: Jewish identity. Mordechai stands out because he is a Jew. He is forever present at the palace, hardly inconspicuous. Esther, on the other hand, is sworn to secrecy by Mordechai himself; she is not to reveal her Jewish identity and heritage under any circumstances. Mordechai is an openly proud Jew, the persecuted type. Esther is the Jew who shrinks from playing a part but ultimately, upon embracing her membership of the Jewish people, overthrows the planned persecution.
These two personages are play-offs between the “standing-out” Jew and what we can call the “silent” Jew. Yet at the same time, they are representatives of extremes. Mordechai was criticised by some sages for being too involved in royal and civil affairs when he focused on remaining in civil administration instead of focusing more on the Jews. Esther, while being the heroine, fades out of her Jew identity into a non-descript Persian queen. We cannot be too close – Esther – nor too far away – Mordechai – from outside society; we need to strike a balance both as individuals and as a nation to preserve Jewish life.
This balance presents within the Megliah itself in the midst of the narrative. Esther and Mordechai work hand-in-hand to combat the approaching genocide. She plays her part from the “inside” and he from the “outside.” While she approaches the king to plead for assistance, he rouses the Jews to prayer and repentance. It is an alliance between individuals from completely different arenas and unity is the key to victory.
Strife and rifts have always existed between Jews and unfortunately, extremely so today. The very background of Purim itself lies in the destruction of the First Temple destroyed in consequence of committing the three cardinal sins. Jews had abandoned their faith entirely and their commitment to one another in committing murder, serving idols and acting immorally. When Jewish identity is negated by the Jews, we all suffer.
Throughout the ages, the Jew has been the thorn amongst the roses, the thorn in the side of society, the sore thumb, the black sheep of humanity, etc. We haven’t been liked, still aren’t and probably never will be. No matter how hard we try to assimilate, we will always be Jews. Hitler, for one, taught us that. It didn’t matter how German you were, you were still a Jew. Judaism might mean nothing to you, but not wanting or caring to be something doesn’t change the fact that you are.
And accordingly, we need to see each other as what the other is: a Jew. Completely assimilated, modern-Orthodox, Haredi, black, white, female, male… we are all Jews. When we put on decorative masks or dress-up, we all look different but we all accept each other in mutual celebration. We are explicitly commanded to share meals together, support each other financially and materially and read the Megilah, the chronicle of the power of unity. Purim is a narrative of triumph and it is also a profound lesson about Jewish identity. No matter who or where we are, we are Jews at the core.