Tsav-Purim

by Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz

There was a Jewish (Yehudi) man in Shushan the capital whose name was Mordechai, son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjamite. (Megilas Esther 2,5)

Thus the Purim story, as recorded in the Book of Esther, introduces us to the hero of the story - Mordechai. Our Rabbis are confused by the manner in which Mordechai is described. Firstly, he is described as Eesh Yehudi, which in its basic meaning denotes a Jew of the tribe of Judah. Yet, at the end of this passage's description of him, we are told that he is not from the tribe of Judah but rather from the tribe of Benjamin (Eesh Y'mini).

The Talmud Megilah 13a explains this seeming conflict as follows, "He is called a Yehudi, which generally means he is from the tribe of Judah, and he is called Eesh Y'mini, which generally means he is from the tribe of Benjamin," said Rabbi Yochanan. He in actuality was from the tribe of Benjamin, so why was he called Yehudi (indicating that he was from the tribe of Judah) - because he refuted the Pagan in public. (He refused to bow before Haman who wore an idolatrous symbol on his chest.) The Talmud continues: "All who refute the idolater are called Yehudi."

Rabbi Epstein, in his work Gashmei Bracha, rightly asks: "What is the special nature of the name Judah (Yehudi) over Yisrael or Jew or Jeshurun that it denotes refutation of the idolater?"

To begin to unravel this mystery, he refers us to a comment in the Medrash Rabbah on our passage. "Eesh Yehudi, why is he referred to as coming from the tribe of Judah when he actually came from the tribe of Benjamin? Because he (Yechidi) made one the name of the Holy One Blessed be He in the face of the whole world." The Medrash here replaces the word Yehudi (yud, he, daled) with the word Yachad (yud, cheis, deled) that has the connotation of oneness.

Rabbi Epstein reminds us that many times Hebrew letters that are related such as heh and ches (heh is pronounced in the front of the mouth, the ches in the rear of the mouth - ches actually being a hard heh) are at times interchangeable. With this in mind, the Medrash becomes clear. Mordechai was an Eesh Yechidi (as opposed to Eesh Yehudi), yechidi having its roots in the concept of singularity.

Students of Persia know that the Persia of that period practiced Zoroastrianism, which has as one of its foundations the juxtaposition of light and dark - two separate and distinct forces in the universe. This, of course, is in stark contrast to one of the greatest concepts of Judaism - a singular G‑d - monotheism.

It surely was no simple task for Mordechai to stand out in public and, by not bowing to Haman, who proudly wore a symbol of paganism, demonstrate to everyone his belief in the one G‑d of creation. This was all the more difficult as his co-religionists had already embraced much of Persian civilization even, as our Rabbis tell us, to the extent of eating at the great banquet that King Ahasuerus had given for all the notables of his realm. I am sure it wasn't under the kosher supervision of the Shushan Rabbinical Council or, as it is more widely known by its symbol, the sRc.

Given the above the "oneness" expressed in Yehudi can as well represent the devotion Mordechai maintained to Judaism - this in spite of the fact that he was Yehudi, in this sense understood as singularly alone. Undaunted by the fact that the non-Jews of his day believed in paganism, undaunted by the fact that his co-religionists had forsaken Judaism, Mordechai, in public, before the most important personage of the realm save for the King himself, by his actions, rejected paganism and the Persian culture it supported. His conviction is matched by his willingness to stand for what he believes firmly and openly before Jew and non-Jew alike.

These two-fold attributes of the believing Jew are desperately needed today. The frustrations we all feel about Israel, about domestic issues here in the United States, can only be addressed through a steadfast commitment to the One G‑d, author of the Torah, and our willingness to stand tall openly declaring the Torah’s timeless message. Otherwise, and we see this every day, "Jewish" positions are really political positions based upon the moment, conditioned by the sense that we must "understand the landscape" and temper our views accordingly. Instead of being the moral leadership of America, joining in partnership with those who believe in the moral and ethical teachings of our Bible, the American Jewish community seems to align itself with those who believe that human beings have the right to say or do most anything they wish as long as it doesn't "hurt" another individual. Worse yet, Jews seem to join hands with those who support individual expression at all costs, even if it may harm another. One need but look at the recent position of the ACLU regarding the "rights" of pedophiles.

While Purim is no doubt one of the most joyous holidays on the Jewish calendar, one on which we celebrate with parties and carnivals, its message is far from frivolous. It is the message of the Jewish responsibility to ourselves and the world to be "a light unto the nations" not by supporting the right of each person to do as he/she pleases as the touchstone for all moral and ethical decisions in society, but rather requiring all to realize the Kingship of the One G‑d, who, in his love and mercy for humankind, presented us with his Torah to guide our spiritual, moral and ethical paths in life.

This, above all else, is the fundamental message of Purim. Accepting it provides the individual with true peace and joy in life. Rejecting it results in conflict and confusion. Knowing the path we must trod, clearly having defined the tools we need to determine right from wrong is the true happiness we seek.

The Medrash Shmuel tells us that in the time of Messiah, all fasts will no longer be observed with the notable exception of the Fast of Esther. The reason it gives is that the Fast of Esther was the cause of the redemption of the Persian Jews while all other fasts commemorate events. For through Mordechai's Faith and action, through Esther's strength of purpose, the Persian Jews were re-energized in their commitment to Judaism. Fasting as a sign of both contrition and their belief in G‑d as the determining factor in the human condition, they, as Mordechai, publicly demonstrated the two-fold meaning of Yechidi, declaring the oneness of G‑d, and their willingness to stand alone in their declaration of G‑d's Will to humanity as a whole.

May we all aspire to be later day Mordechais, believing and practicing Judaism with mind and soul, willing, without reservation, to stand before a hostile world declaring its truth and value to all.