By Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz
Let me tell you a story. A Jewish man is taken in captivity to a foreign land where he rises to power. Through deep insight, wisdom, and personal devotion to God, he comes to the aid of the foreign government. Eventually, the very same ruling house turns on the Jews and tries to wipe them out. But a Jew, operating from inside the royal house, manages to secure the salvation of the Jews in this foreign land.
Sound familiar? You probably thought I was talking about Joseph. Indeed, these details certainly do fit the Joseph story. But the same description also fits the story of Mordecai. Indeed, there are textual hints in the Bible itself that highlight these similarities.
What are these textual hints and what can we learn from this comparison?
The significant relationship to power in each story is described by the same action, and the the kings in each story, Pharaoh and Ahasuerus, designate honor in an identical fashion:
And removing his signet ring from his hand, Pharaoh put it on Yosef‘s hand; and he had him dressed in robes of fine linen, and put a gold chain about his neck. He had him ride in the chariot of his second-in-command, and they cried before him, “Abrek!” Thus he placed him over all the land of Egypt. Genesis 41:42-43
The king slipped off his ring, which he had taken back from Haman, and gave it to Mordechai; and Esther put Mordechai in charge of Haman’s property. Esther 8:2
and let the attire and the horse be put in the charge of one of the king’s noble courtiers. And let the man whom the king desires to honor be attired and paraded on the horse through the city square, while they proclaim before him: This is what is done for the man whom the king desires to honor!” Esther 6:9
Both Joseph and Mordecai are given a ring by the ruling king, and each are led around by horse while someone cries something before them. At the end of each rise to power, the Jews have a place of honor in the royal court and the Jew has helped the kingdom in some way. These two events are a clear manifestation of Genesis 12:3, which assures that those who bless Israel will be blessed in return.
Unfortunately, it also illustrates a recurring theme in Jewish history. Throughout the exile, Jews have always succeeded economically and been lifted to positions close to power. But as we saw in Egypt, the blessings and deeds of the Jews are quickly forgotten, and the Jews become the focus of hatred. For almost 500 years, Poland and Ukraine both hosted large and successful Jewish communities in Europe which led to their national prosperity. But when the two countries began to experience difficulties in the mid-1600s, vicious pogroms broke out. This continued sporadically, culminating in the Holocaust which wiped out what was still at the time the largest Jewish community in Europe.
This is perhaps most graphically illustrated in Persia itself; the backdrop of the Purim story. The history of the Jews in Persia goes back 2,700 years, since the first Jewish diaspora when the Assyrian king Shalmaneser V conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel 722 BCE and took some of the Israelites into captivity at Khuzestan. Of course, Persian King Cyrus gained considerable merit when he sent the Jews home to rebuild the Temple. Yet many chose to stay in their new homes in Persia, which is why there were still Jews living there at the time of Ahasuerus and Haman.
While the Jews of Persia suffered occasional oppression under the various Muslim rules, this seemed to end with the Pahlavi Dynasty in 1925. Jews became an integral element in the royal court and the wealthy class. Restrictions on Jews and other religious minorities were abolished. Iran had warm relations with the newly established Israel. After the Six-Day War, Iran supplied Israel with a significant portion of its oil needs, and Iranian oil was shipped to European markets via the joint Israeli-Iranian Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline.
This changed overnight in 1979 with the Iranian revolution. Iran adopted a sharp anti-Israel stance and cut off all official relations with Israel. Like Haman the Agagite in Ahasuerus’ court 2,500 years ago, Iran is now openly dedicated to the destruction of Israel.
Time and time again, history has shown that the deeds of the Josephs who save their non-Jewish host nations are too quickly forgotten, as regimes change. And too often, Jewish kindness is repaid with outright evil.
In the words of Professor Jonathan Grossman:
The connection [between the book of Esther and the Joseph story] may also hint at a teaching of the Sages that explains why Hallel (songs of praise to God) is not recited on Purim: “For we were still the subjects of Ahasuerus” (Megilla 14a). In other words, even after the happy ending of the Megilla (Book of Esther), the Jews of Shushan were still in exile; this had not been a complete redemption. Through the veiled connection to the story of Joseph, the reader is reminded also of the continuation of that story – the bitter slavery in Egypt. Even if a Jew is placed at the very highest echelons of power in a foreign land, this is no guarantee for the safety of the Jewish nation so long as it dwells in exile. In the next generation, a new “Haman” may arise, one “who did not know Joseph”…
While Jewish history is replete with examples of rising to power and prosperity in foreign lands, only to face persecution and violence, there is one place where Jews can truly feel safe and secure: the Land of Israel. Throughout the centuries, the Land of Israel has served as the eternal home of the Jewish people. With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the Jewish people were finally able to return to their homeland and build a thriving, democratic society.
Today, Israel remains the only place in the world where Jews can truly feel secure and at home. Despite ongoing threats and challenges, Israel has built a strong, prosperous nation that serves as a beacon of hope for Jews around the world. As we celebrate the story of Purim and the heroism of Mordecai and Esther, let us also remember the lessons of Jewish history and the importance of a strong and secure Israel for the Jewish people.