Two distinct kinds of Diaspora Jews have emerged over the millennia: the two “P” Jews. One is Persecuted Jew, the Jew who has lived through governments and regimes that have been most unkind to their endemic Jewish populations. Sadly, this has been the majority of our Diaspora history.
The other is Patriot Jew. This is the Jew who has lived during a time of relative tolerance and benevolence, and who has reacted in kind to his government with gratitude and civic service. In fact, Patriot Jew has typically been more fervent in his fealty to the ruler of the land than his non-Jewish counterpart.
Small pockets of time for Patriot Jew have existed over the past 2,000 years. The 10th and 11th centuries were known as the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry. So welcomed were Jews into the general Moorish society that great Jewish civic servants also emerged, such as Chasdai ibn Shaprut (d. 990), vizier to the caliphs Abd al-Rahman and Hakem. Half a millennium later and in a different part of Iberia, Rabbi Don Isaac Abravanel (d. 1508) was treasurer to King Afonso V of Portugal.
So great was the patriotic spirit of Jews that it became common practice for the Shabbat liturgy to include a prayer for the welfare of the government. One may still detect German Jews’ patriotism before the Third Reich from the few still extant old German siddurim containing a prayer for the welfare of Kaiser Wilhelm.
Considering Jews’ tendency to obediently serve their governmental leaders, what was Mordechai’s problem? Why did he so boldly refuse to bow down to Haman, as recorded in the Book of Esther (3:2)? This was, after all, the king’s edict, that all should be obeisant to Haman. It was the law of the land.
Furthermore, when Haman realized that Mordechai was breaking the law, why didn’t he just have him arrested and/or executed for this act of sedition? We also never find that Haman ever reported Mordecai’s offense directly to King Ahasuerus.
Perhaps we’re looking at the story the wrong way. It wasn’t Mordechai’s disregard for the king’s law that prompted him to break it. It was his high regard for Ahasuerus and the monarchy that prevented him from bowing to anyone other than the king.
Mordechai was conscientiously objecting to any subordinate of the king being accorded that kind of honor. He viewed it as compromising the king’s power and command. Mordechai genuinely felt it was his patriotic and civic duty to peacefully disobey this one law in order to strengthen all the other laws of the king.
We could then understand why Mordecai was not arrested on the spot by the king’s officers. How can you arrest someone who is upholding the honor of your king? We also understand why the officers present reported Mordecai’s refusal to bow directly to Haman instead of to the royal police or courts, who might have let the case get buried out of respect to their king.
Looking at the story in this light, we find that ultimate salvation came to the Jews of Persia because of Mordechai’s insistence on supporting the honor of his government.
As the Talmud states: “A person should strive to greet non-Jewish kings.” Out of one’s respect and loyalty to his non-Jewish rulers, he will eventually merit his own powerful Jewish government.
Not only did the Jews gain salvation from Haman’s death squads in the Purim story, but they later received permission to rebuild the Temple and return to Israel.
Some recent negative press in our community indicates, lamentably, that some Jews in America still view themselves as Persecuted Jew instead of Patriot Jew. Of course, we all can learn from Mordechai how to maintain a pristine patriotism for the country that has been so good to us.
Perhaps one way to strengthen our people and our Jewish leaders — both in Israel and in the Diaspora — is to show proper respect for the laws of our land and commit even more to civic duty. When it comes to preserving this sweet land of liberty, we, too, must refuse to bow.
Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy and director of community and synagogue services for the Orthodox Union West Coast Region.