Purim and Theodor Herzl
In celebration of the holiday of Purim, we go to the synagogue in the evening and in the morning for a public reading of the book of Esther.
One thing that always bothered me about the book of Esther was why didn’t Mordechai just bow down to Haman? It sure would have saved a lot of aggravation!
Let’s back up first, just in case you need a little reminder of what I am referring to. Haman, who was an advisor to King Ahasuerus, would walk the streets of the capital of Persia, the ancient city of Shushan (current day Iran) and everyone would bow down to him and boy did he love it! Bowing to Haman was in fact commanded by King Ahasuerus. Mordechai, however would not bow at all, ever. This really ticked off Haman. In fact, other people noticed and asked Mordechai why he violates the law of the king (Esther 3:3). Day after day people kept telling Mordechai to bow to Haman but he consistently refused.
So Haman wants to take Mordechai to task over his refusal to bow but it would not be sufficient to hold Mordechai accountable. Better yet, Haman decides to exterminate all the Jews in King Ahasuerus’ kingdom no matter where they may be (Esther 3:6).
It would seem to me that Mordechai’s refusal to bow was a bit selfish. A bow here and there would have avoided the Jewish people being marked for genocide. Couldn’t he be a little more accommodating?
Oddly enough, the answer is found in the actions of Theodore Herzl. Herzl, was not the first to call for a Jewish return to Israel but nonetheless is considered the father of modern Zionism. After witnessing anti-Semitism first hand in Europe, he went home to Budapest and penned a book called “The Jewish State.” In it he outlines his solution to the problem of anti-Semitism, namely the founding of a Jewish state. It would be a place of Jewish self-determination and creativity. To that end, Herzl organized in Basle, Switzerland in 1897 the first World Zionist Congress. At the congress, Herzl declared, “Today I have founded the Jewish State. It will take thirty, forty but no more than fifty years until you see it.” He was close–it took 51 years. Herzl though died in 1904 and though he never saw the State of Israel he holds a place of honor as the father of modern Zionism.
In his pursuit of support for a renewal of the Jewish State, Herzl traveled widely seeking audiences with heads of State. He would speak with anyone who would listen. In his travels, Herzl had a meeting with the Pope. Before he went in to the meeting, Herzl was instructed that the proper etiquette when meeting the Pope is to kneel and kiss his hand. Herzl records in his diary that he did not kneel nor kiss the Pope’s hand. Here is what he says: “I believe that this spoiled my chances with him, for everyone who visits him kneels and at least kisses his hand.”
Herzl refused to kneel to the Pope because Herzl was not meeting with the Pope as a regular citizen. He was representing the entire Jewish people in their quest for a renewal of the days of old. It was time for the Jewish people to come home and the return would not be based on having to bow to the Catholic Church or to anyone else for that matter. Herzl wasn’t merely a person meeting with the Pope, he was everyone, he embodied the spirit of the entire Jewish people.
When Mordechai refused to bow to Haman it was because he was a leader of the Jewish people whom everyone looked to for guidance. Mordechai had come to Persia after being exiled from Jerusalem following the destruction of the First Temple. In Persia, the mindset of the Jewish people was precarious and had Mordechai bowed, had a leader who represented the people done so, it would have decimated the Jewish people’s optimism and hope to return to the land of Israel. Mordechai and Herzl both needed to keep their heads up, to be strong, proud Jews. All eyes were upon them as leaders.
As I write these words, our Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu just finished delivering his message to Congress. “The days that the Jewish people remain passive in the face of a genocidal enemy, those days are over.” He is right. Mordechai got it. Herzl got it and now Netanyahu gets it. The Jewish people have come home and we will not bow to anyone. We are living in our God given homeland thriving and striving to be a beacon of moral clarity in a world that often can be very dark.