‘The Triumph of Mordechai’ by Pieter Lastman (1624)
Mordechai “Bilshan” ben Yair (c. 5th century BCE) was a Jewish official in the court of the Persian King Xerxes (Ahashverosh). He raised his orphan cousin Esther, who subsequently became the queen of Persia. Mordechai famously refused to bow down to the evil genocidal minister Haman, who sought to deify himself as a god. Thanks to Mordechai’s previous foiling of a plot to overthrow the king, Haman was unable to take revenge on him. Instead, Haman himself was hanged on the gallows he had made for Mordechai, and Haman’s plot to exterminate the Jews was averted. Mordechai was elected to replace Haman as minister. He and Esther instituted the holiday of Purim to commemorate the miraculous victory, and wrote its history in the Scroll of Esther. (Establishing a new holiday was no easy feat, and was one of the great debates of its day, with significant implications for the future of Judaism.) The Talmud states that Mordechai was a prophet, and ultimately returned to Israel, helping to rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem and re-establish Jewish life in the Holy Land following the Babylonian Captivity. He is sometimes identified with the prophet Malachi, and is called “Bilshan” because he was a ba’al lashon, a speaker of many languages (seventy languages, according to several sources). He ended his life as a member of the Knesset haGedolah, the Great Assembly which composed the first formal texts of Jewish prayer and compiled the Holy Scriptures to produce the first official Tanakh. Happy Purim!
The people which faithfully honoured for 2500 years the oath sworn by the Rivers of Babylon not to forget Jerusalem – this people will never reconcile itself with separation from Jerusalem… For the State of Israel there has always been, and always will be, one capital only – Jerusalem the eternal.
– David Ben-Gurion
After massive assimilation of Jews to the Hellenistic lifestyle, the Greek-Seleucid king Antiochus decided to put an end to traditional Judaism for good. He outlawed Shabbat and holiday observance, banned circumcision and Torah study. The Temple in Jerusalem was captured and a statue of Zeus erected within it. Antiochus planned to seal the deal with a request of the Jews to sacrifice a pig to the Greek gods. Incredibly, many Jews agreed, wooed by Hellenism. But one man, Matityahu, stood up for the truth and declared “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, I and my sons and my brothers will live by the covenant of our fathers… Follow me, all of you who are for God’s law and stand by the covenant.” Thus started what may be the world’s first religious war. Matityahu and his five sons organized a rebel army based in Modi’in, led by Matityahu’s son Yehuda, nicknamed Maccabee – “the Hammer”. The war lasted nearly 30 years. At its height, the Maccabees had no more than 12,000 fighters, while the Greeks had a massive professional army with war elephants (under which Judah’s brother Elazar was trampled in a heroic feat). Meanwhile, children carried small spinning tops to conceal the fact they were secretly learning Torah. Two great miracles occurred: the Jews defeated the world-superpower Seleucid Greeks, and when they reclaimed the Temple and purified it of idolatry, one kosher jug of oil burned for 8 days. Light was restored to the Jewish people.
Words of the Week
A Jew is a lamplighter. The lamplighter walks the streets carrying a flame at the end of a stick. He knows that the flame is not his. And he goes from lamp to lamp to set them alight. – Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch