Shushan Purim: From ancient Persia to modern Iran

From the earliest times of the ancient pre-sophists to the post-modern period today, there have been only two ideologies regarding the nature of the human being.

Painting by Yoram Raanan (photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
Painting by Yoram Raanan
(photo credit: YORAM RAANAN)
‘But Mordecai would not bow and would not prostrate himself’ (Book of Esther 3:2)
Why did Mordecai refuse to bow before Haman, a slight which almost led to the obliteration of the largest Jewish community in the world at that time? From a religio-legal perspective, Haman was neither a god nor even a demi-god; he was merely a mortal viceroy to the King of Persia, so that bowing to him had nothing to do with serving idolatry. Do not the chief rabbis of Britain make a properly expected act of obeisance before the queen when they are invited for an audience? And even more to the point, is there a real connection between the enmity of Iran today for the nation of Israel, and the enmity of Persia – Iran’s predecessor – for her Jewish population 2,500 years ago? And is there a real connection between Mordecai’s refusal to bow before Haman, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to comply with President Barack Obama’s wish that he not address the Congress of the United States? I would resoundingly answer “yes” to both questions, but in order to prove my contention in depth, I must place Persia then and Iran today within a certain historical, moral and theological perspective, so I beg my readers’ indulgence.
From the earliest times of the ancient pre-sophists to the post-modern period today, there have been only two ideologies regarding the nature of the human being: Is the human created in the image of a loving God of compassionate righteousness and moral justice, who demands that His children have an inalienable right to freedom and life as long as they act morally in pursuit of the enhancement of life and the perfection of the world, or is the human merely a complex animal in a universe in which only the most powerful (the “fittest”) survive and deserve to survive, in which might makes right, the weak must submit to the strong, and to the victor belongs the spoils? Our sacred Bible champions the first view, depicting the human being endowed with a portion from God on High, inspirited by the Divine “soul of life” to communicate verbally, lovingly, constructively to re-create a world of love (Genesis 2:7, Targum ad loc); in the words of Rabbi Akiva, “This is the great rule of the Torah: ‘You shall love all your siblings under God like yourself.’” (See, too, Lev.19:18 Ibn Ezra, ad loc).
And because God so inspirited us with a part of His essence, he believes in us, in our eventual repentance and in world redemption. He therefore created us with the ability of free choice even to oppose His will (Seforno, Genesis 1:26), and made as the most seminal of our historical experiences, our freedom from Egyptian enslavement, and our obligation to oppose slavery in all of its forms, including the removal of freedom of religious or political convictions – as long as they are morally sound.
Hence our Mishna (Sanhedrin 4:5, and B.T. Brachot 58a) praises God for creating every individual with different features and different ideologies, and the Founding Fathers of the United States took their inspiration in founding a new world based on religious freedom from the biblical story of the Exodus.
The second view, the submission of the weak to the strong and the insistence of domination over body and soul, harks back to Sparta and Rome; to the Christian Crusades (which the Catholic Papacy and many leading churchmen of all denominations repudiated and apologized for, to Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia and Islamic State today. The theology of Islamic State is jihad, world domination by power of the sword, and only those who ascribe to their particular philosophy of Islam has the right to live; and this includes the masses of non-IS Muslims.
As I’ve written, the image of God in which we believe the human being is created, is expressed by the lips of loving verbal communication by the differences in facial physiognomy, by the differing ideas and beliefs by different individuals with different mindsets, in sum, by the human head and face. This, I believe, is the significance of beheading; it bespeaks a denial of the image of God in Man.
But this denial is not limited to Islamic State alone.
Ancient Persia, in the beginning of the Book (Scroll) of Esther, seems to have been ruled by an oligarchy of seven wise men, the “kitchen cabinet” as it were, of Ahasuerus. It was entry into this group that Mordecai aspired to achieve (Esther 1:13-15). This situation changed dramatically when Haman was elevated to absolute power, a totalitarian rule. And when Haman offered money into the king’s coffer for Jewish lives, it was an offer the king could not refuse. And why the Jews? Because we were always against totalitarian tyranny; it flies in the face of image of God! And, as Nietzsche understood and Hitler acted upon, Jewish morality will always seek to limit the power of the powerful.
Iran today is no different. The Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rules with an iron fist; he has declared the desire for the genocide of Israel. And as history has shown, whoever lifts his banner against the Jews will continue with the Christians and end with trying to destroy the entire free world – America first.
This is why the prime minister of Israel must do everything in his power to prevent a nuclear Iran in our global village. This is not a political issue. It is the most critical existential issue in these fateful times. Whoever believes in jihad as a military battle of conquest – ultimately of the world – must be stopped if there is to remain a free world!
Shabbat shalom
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone institutions and the chief rabbi of Efrat. His acclaimed series of parsha commentary, Torah Lights, is available from Maggid Books, a division of Koren Publishers Jerusalem.