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Mordechai, Reincarnation & Jewish Pride

February 25, 2018 | by Rabbi Benjamin Blech

The response to a world filled with anti-Semitism must be pride, not submission.

There is a remarkable mystical tradition about Mordechai, based on a belief accepted by the Masters of the Kabbalah, as well as many other rabbinic sages.

Judaism allows for differences of opinion concerning the concept of reincarnation. Granted, the idea that we may pass this way on earth more than once is not an unquestionable dogma. Yet it has a sufficient number of adherents within Jewish sources to lend it not only a great measure of credibility but also to allow us to glean powerful messages from some of its teachings.

Its essential insight is that what we see may not be the full story. What is left unresolved in Act I of our first life may very well be rectified in later scenes that follow. Kabbalah sees reincarnation as serving a powerful purpose: it permits us a second opportunity to face up to challenges that may have previously defeated us, to succeed in overcoming the flaws which marred our efforts to be worthy of finding a fitting place in God’s presence.

It's somewhat like the story of the opera singer whose rather mediocre performance was greeted with loud shouts of "encore" from the audience. After repeating the aria again to the same response, he thanked the people but graciously declined. Yet once again he heard the same cry. This time, however, the crowd made clear the reason for their reaction. "Encore, encore!” they yelled. “Do it to till you'll get it right."

An example the rabbis offer to illustrate reincarnation in order to rectify a weakness of a previous lifetime is that of biblical Jacob. Jacob led an exemplary life, yet he failed in one way.

In Genesis 33: 1-3 we read:

And Jacob lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, Esau came and with him four hundred men. And he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two handmaids. And he put the handmaids and their children foremost, and Leah and her children after, and Rachel and Joseph hindmost. And he passed over before them, and bowed himself to the ground seven times until he came near to his brother.

Seven times Jacob bowed to Esau. Seven times one of our patriarchs assumed a posture of subservience to a human being instead of reserving that gesture solely for the Almighty. Seven times Jacob kneeled before a divine creation instead of the creator.

A righteous man who puts his trust in God ought never to bow down to a fellow human being. That is why Jacob's bowing is considered sinful by some of the Rabbis. It was a defect which still required rectification in order for his soul to achieve perfection.

Everyone bowed to Haman except Mordechai.

So many generations later, in the Book of Esther, we read the story of Mordechai. One characteristic is singled out as a sign of his greatness:

And all the king’s servants who were in the king’s gate bowed and reverenced Haman, for the king had so commanded concerning him. But Mordechai did not bow, nor did him reverence (Megillat Esther 3:2).

Everyone bowed to Haman. It was the required thing to do. It was the expected thing to do. But Mordechai did not. No matter what the consequences might be, Mordechai was the Jew who would not bow to another human being. Mordechai would not bend his knees nor prostrate himself in front of secular power. Because, according to this mystical tradition, that was the reason for his return to earth – to undo the sin of his long-ago past as Jacob and thereby complete his charge to perfection.

As a reincarnation of the biblical Jacob, Mordechai's mission in life was to demonstrate this central teaching. And whether in fact Mordechai was a later version of Jacob, the emphasis in the story of Mordecai as the proud Jew who refused to be subservient is surely the key to the biblical book whose story takes place in the Diaspora and whose theme is Jewish survival in a foreign land.

Our generation faces a similar challenge. We live in a world where it is often difficult to identify oneself publicly as a Jew and as a lover of Zion, of Israel and of Jerusalem.

There are still those who quake with fear because the designation of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital incites anti-Semitism and provokes threats of violence. Perhaps, say the Jews for whom bowing to the will of others has become not only second nature but even ideal Israeli national policy, we ought to be more subservient to public opinion, more worshipful of the views of those who hate us.

Jews only bow to God – and that is the surest way to defeat all the Hamans of history.

Menachem Begin, a former prime minister of Israel, had a magnificent phrase for the timid Zionists of his generation who saw bowing to the will of our enemies as our ideal policy for survival. He called them “Zionists with trembling knees.” When confronted, during difficult days in Israel’s early years, with an American threat to cut off aid unless Israel obediently followed the uncompromising dictates presented to it, Begin did not hesitate to respond:

“Don’t threaten us with cutting off your aid. It will not work. I am not a Jew with trembling knees. I am a proud Jew with 3,700 years of civilized history. Nobody came to our aid when we were dying in the gas chambers and ovens. Nobody came to our aid when we were striving to create our country. We paid for it. We fought for it. We died for it. We will stand by our principles. We will defend them. And, when necessary, we will die for them again, with or without your aid. We are grateful for the assistance we have received, but we are not to be threatened. I am a proud Jew. Three thousand years of culture are behind me, and you will not frighten me with threats.” 

It is not simply a matter of American aid. It goes far beyond that. It is living at a time when the whole world believes they have the right to tell Israel how to deal with daily threats against their lives, the lives of their children, and the very existence of the state of Israel.

The response to a world filled with hate of our people, as well as the land to which we have returned after thousands of years of exile, dare never be submission. Mordechai is our model. If Jacob sinned by bowing, Mordechai and the message of Purim must remind us that Jews only bow to God – and that is the surest way to defeat all the Hamans of history.

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