Lessons on Jewish Resistance from Mordecai
Holiday after holiday, rabbis and writers try to apply the lessons of our tradition to modern times. From using the story of Hanukkah to encourage more aggressive Jewish nationalism or opposition to Westernization, to using the story of the Exodus to advocate for feminism, civil rights, or gay rights, there is no limit to us Jews projecting our political views onto biblical texts.
Yet there is no holiday for which this is more true than the holiday of Purim. Every year Jewish leaders and establishment organizations take the story of near destruction of Jewish people in ancient Shushan to monger fear in the Jewish community so that we believe we are living in apocalyptic times. The Jewish establishment will try to convince us that modern-day Iran is somehow analogous to the ancient Persian kingdom that coincidentally occupied the same area of the world; and Bibi Netanyahu will push a crisis narrative claiming that the Iran deal seals the fate of the Jewish people just as the Purim edict did.
However, as many have recently pointed out, a simple reading of Megillat Esther points to a much more relevant and informative narrative: the story of a power-hungry, simple-minded, philandering tyrant who is manipulated by bigoted advisors into enacting hateful, marginalizing policies. This analogy can be extended even beyond the Trump-Ahasuerus comparison: Steve Bannon as Haman, the alt-right as Amalek, Mordecai as the resistance to Trump, and Esther as—hopefully—an Ivanka or Kushner figure who emerges as a rational voice with the ear of the leader. Ascribing to this line of thinking demands of the wider Jewish community a fierce—almost extreme— resistance, lest we, and other minority groups, be destroyed.
But this is equally as apocalyptic of a view as right-wing narratives of Purim. Not only does comparing either Israel’s situation with Iran or marginalized groups’ situation with Trump to the story of Purim do an injustice to the extent to which ancient Shushan Jews suffered when facing annihilation, but it undermines the legitimacy of actual existential threats; not every generation or every people faces destruction, and claiming anything to the contrary is intellectually dishonest. Instead, we should take a pragmatic approach to reading the Megillah by trying to calmly extract the story’s lessons without descending into the language of end-of-days hyperbole. Doing so will make evident many practical insights as to how the Jewish community can organize and resist in order to bring about change.
Should we work with President Trump? Should we try to bring about change from within or without the administration? To what extent should resistance be provocative? Who should be held responsible for heinous actions and legislation? And when is refusing to compromise with White House or to comply with the law permissible? Megillat Esther itself provides many answers to the dilemmas that liberal Jews—and liberals in general—face today, and turning to the Megillah might clarify these questions that currently occupy our communities.
In Chapter Four of Megillat Esther, after Haman tricks King Ahasuerus into issuing a decree for the destruction of the Jews, Mordecai takes several distinct actions—often overlooked—that can serve as an example for the “Jewish Resistance”. The rabbis teach that when there are several verbs in a short stretch of the bible, like in this section describing Mordecai’s actions, the text is emphasizing the significance of the circumstance, therefore it is worth noting each individual action Mordecai takes.
First, Mordecai “knew all that was done”, meaning he learned of the official decree and educated himself about the policy hurting his community. He did not act until he knew what he was dealing with.
Second, he “tore his clothes and put on sackcloth with ashes”. Even before he went out in public to protest the Jews’ looming extermination, Mordecai allowed himself a brief window of personal mourning. It is important to resist harmful legislation, but it is essential to grieve privately as well.
Third, Mordecai “went through the midst of the city”. He recognizes the importance of drawing attention and provoking reaction. It is meaningless to protest only within your own communities; preaching to the choir does not bring about change.
Fourth, he “cried with a loud and bitter cry”. Mordecai does not simply air his opposition but vociferously lets all the people of Shushan know of his suffering. In a time when there is existential danger, expressing outrage and aggressively pushing your pain in the faces of bystanders and enablers is often necessary.
Fifth, Mordecai “went up to the entrance of the king’s gate”. In resisting leaders, it is crucial to hold them accountable for their hatred. Speaking truth to power is a holy act and doing so in the face of death is religious courage.
Sixth, the Jews from all over the nation mourned and protested: “In every province, wherever the king’s command and decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes”. When the affected citizens heard of the policy that threatened their existence, they did not wait for others to act; they took initiative and resisted their oppression. They made sure their voices were heard not just in the capital city, but in every corner of the empire where the effects of bigotry were felt.
Seventh, when Esther sent clothes to Mordecai to end his protests, “he would not accept” them. After hearing of his public demonstrations, Esther “was exceedingly pained”, not because she shared in Mordecai’s or the Jews’ pain, but because she was embarrassed. Yet Mordecai did not let Esther’s shame curtail his brave actions. There is a time and place for compromise, but on issues so fundamental to one’s being, there is no room for compromise. Refusing reconciliation, irrespective of social or legal consequences, is what often defines history’s greatest heroes.
Eighth, after refusing reconciliation with Esther, Mordecai tells her messenger “all that had happened unto him”. Relating stories of personal misery is one of the most effective forms of bringing about change. Mordecai informs Queen Esther, who is living in the bubble of the palace, of the challenges the common person is facing. Whereas she is not exposed to ugly hatred in her chambers, Mordecai comes face-to-face with it regularly. Whenever any group protests discrimination, there will always be members of that group who are concerned more with the conduct of the protesters than the content of the protests. Likewise, there will always be Jews who criticize those who speak out against anti-Semitism instead of speaking out against anti-Semitism. They are just as perilous to the Jewish people as are the anti-Semites.
Ninth, Mordecai “gave [Esther’s messenger] a copy of the writing of the decree that was given out in Shushan to destroy them, to show it unto Esther, and to declare it unto her”. He understands the need to repeatedly confront her with his pain; it could have sufficed to only “tell her”, but the text adds that he also gives it, shows it, and declares it to her. Being relentless is key to effective resistance.
The text continues with Mordecai’s conversation with Esther, but the most telling parts of the story are his actions before she agrees to help. Once she does, his—and the Jewish resistance’s—protests are, at least in part, successful. It is the resistance’s behavior before Esther’s compliance that is instructional to today’s resistance.
To those of us whose consciences compel us to resist the Trump administration, Mordecai teaches us what defines—or at least what is necessary for—an effective resistance: erudition, preparation, publicity, provocation, mobilization, courage, magnitude, belligerence, and insubordination.
Mordecai serves as an exemplary model for resistance because he runs a campaign driven by all of these lessons, but he serves as an exemplary model especially for Jewish resistance because he embodies the Jewish tradition of speaking truth to power and remaining courageous in the face of peril. When contemplating how to react to and fight President Trump and his dangerous agenda, it would serve the Jewish community—and all minority or marginalized communities—well to take a page out of Mordecai’s playbook.