To Bow or Not to Bow?

From: Carrie

Dear Rabbi,

Haman was a malicious maniac who demanded homage from all – and most people obeyed. What I’m wondering is why Mordechai didn’t bow as well. Aside from this being one of the venues through which the salvation occurred, what were Mordechai’s reasons for not bowing down in honor of Haman as everyone else did? From their point of view, and not from retrospect, why not placate Haman instead of inciting him as Mordechai’s refusal to bow did?

Dear Carrie,

This is an intriguing question. Why did Mordechai refuse to bow down to Haman arousing Haman’s anger and thereby endangering his people?

The Sages explain (Esther Raba 7:6) that Haman intentionally hung an idol over his heart in order to cause the prostrating Jews to bow in front of the idol while bowing down to him and thus ensnare them in sin. Since idolatry is one of the transgressions which one may not commit even under threat of death, Mordechai refused to bow before Haman’s idol.

However, there is also a deeper reason for Mordechai’s refusal to bow before Haman. Mordechai descended from Binyamin while Haman descended from Amalek who came from Esav. Since Binyamin had not yet been born at the time that Ya’akov and his wives bowed in honor before Esav, he was not tainted by submission to Esav. Therefore, Binyamin’s descendants, such as Mordechai, do not cow before Esav’s, such as Haman (Esther Raba 7:8).

This explanation is alluded to by the fact that the verse describing Mordechai’s refusal to bow is in the future tense: Rather than saying “He did not kneel or bow”, the verse actually states (3:2), “He will not kneel or bow down”. This suggests that Mordechai’s refusal was part of the larger metaphysical dynamic that Binyamin will never bow before Esav.

What’s more, the use of the future tense in the verse suggests yet a third reason why Mordechai would not bow before Haman:

As opposed to the beginning of the verse which says, “And all the king’s servants who were in the king’s gate kneeled and bowed down to Haman, for thus did the king command concerning him”, the verse concludes, “and Mordechai will not kneel or bow down”. This is as if the verse intends to state, “For thus did the king command…Mordechai will not kneel or bow down”. This suggests that the entire verse is discussing the king’s decree, and while others were required to bow before Haman, Mordechai was, according to the language of the decree, specifically exempt by the king from bowing.

This would explain why Haman didn’t actually slander Mordechai before the king for contravening the decree to bow down to him since, according to this, the decree did not apply to him. Rather Haman conjured up a different pretext for complaining against the Jews: “There is a certain people…and they do not keep the king’s laws; it is [therefore] of no use for the king to let them live” (3:8).

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