Although the main name of our people is Yisrael, we also have other names which refer to the spiritual qualities which we are to represent to the world. For example, we are called Yehudim - a name which is derived from Yehudah, one of the twelve tribes of our people. The Torah records that when our mother, Leah, had her fourth son, she expressed her appreciation to Hashem – the Compassionate One - by naming him Yehudah (Genesis 29:35). According to the Sforno, a classical biblical commentator, she chose this name because it contains the letters of the most sacred Divine Name that we refer to as Hashem, and because it also contains the Hebrew term for “gratitude.”
An individual member of our people is called a “Yehudi” (Judean); in fact, some language scholars say that the English term “Jew” is derived from a Latin term for “Judean.” An example of how the term “Yehudi” can refer to a member of our people can be found in the following verse from Megilas Esther – the Scroll of Esther: “There was a man who was a Yehudi in Shushan, the capital (of the Persian empire)), whose name was Mordechai son of Jair son of Shimi son of Kish, a Benjamite, who had been exiled from Jerusalem, along with the exiles who had been exiled with Jeconiah, King of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar, King of Bablyon, had exiled” (Esther 2:5). Although Mordechai was from the Tribe of Benjamin, he was still called a “Yehudi” since he was among those who were exiled from the kingdom of Judah (Rashi). The Talmud, in the name of Rabbi Yochanan, cites an additional reason why he was called “Yehudi”:
He rejected idolatry, and whoever rejects idolatry is called a Yehudi (Megillah 13a).
The Talmud also cites a verse where Bitya, the daughter of Pharaoh, is called a “Yehudiyah” –a Judean woman (1 Chronicles 3:18). This heroine who saved Moshe when he was a baby is called a Yehudiyah, explains the Talmud, because she rejected idolatry. The Talmud adds that this spiritual transformation took place when she immersed herself in the Nile in order to “convert” to the faith of our people (Rashi). She later joined our people when we left Egypt. The term “Yehudi” or “Yehudiyah” can therefore refer to someone who rejects all forms of idolatry and acknowledges the Compassionate One, the Unifying Source of all existence. These two terms are from the name “Yehudah” which contains the letters of the most sacred Divine Name; thus, they are ancient terms for a believer in Hashem. (“Emes L’Yaakov” by Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky, cited in the Art Scroll commentary on Rashi, Genesis 36:2)
The plural form of “Yehudi” is “Yehudim.” Megilas Esther tells the story of how the Yehudim were saved from Haman’s genocidal plan, and the following verses reveal one of the reasons for Haman’s hatred of the Yehudim:
“After these things King Achashverosh promoted Haman...he set his seat above all the officers who were with him. All the King's servants at the King's gate would bow down and prostrate themselves before Haman, for this is what the King had commanded concerning him. But Mordechai would not bow down or prostrate himself.” (Esther 3:1,2)
“But Mordechai would not bow down or prostrate himself” - For Haman had made himself into a god (Commentary of Rashi).
It was common within the pagan world for very powerful or very wealthy individuals to view themselves as gods. Haman had this arrogance, and Mordechai had the courage and the chutzpah to defy Haman.
Megilas Esther reveals that Haman was enraged at Mordechai's refusal to bow before him; moreover, Haman realized that Mordechai's refusal was based on the spiritual beliefs of the Yehudim – a people who believed in the One Creator and who therefore refused to deify any fragment of the creation, including a human being. Haman therefore decided to punish all the Yehudim, as it is written: “So Haman sought to destroy all the Yehudim who were throughout the entire kingdom of Achashverosh – the people of Mordechai” (3:6).
“But Mordechai would not bow down.” If we read these words in the original Hebrew – Mordechai lo yichra – we notice that the phrase “not bow down” is actually written in the future tense; thus, a literal translation would be, “And Mordechai will not bow down.” Why was the phrase written in the future tense? My friend, Rabbi Avraham Mordechai Freifeld, shared with me the following answer of the noted Chassidic sage, the Sefas Emes: The verse is alluding to the idea that there will always be a courageous “Mordechai” among our people in each generation “who will not bow down” – who will refuse to give up his faith in Hashem, despite the various attempts to force us to abandon Hashem and His Torah. (From the Sefas Emes’s talk on Purim in 5,643)
In fact, the Yehudim took on the courageous role of Mordechai in later generations, especially during the rise of Christianity. Although Christianity was influenced to some degree by Judaism and accepted the belief in the Creator of all life, Christianity also deified a human being. The Christians thought that they could win over the Yehudim to their religion, for they had deified a Yehudi. This appeal to the ethnic pride of the Yehudim did not work, for the Yehudim were the people of Mordechai, the Yehudi who remained loyal to Hashem; thus, they refused to deify a human being, even if he was one of their own. This caused the Christian Church to persecute and murder the Yehudim. When the Yehudim were offered the choice, “the cross or death,” many Yehudim went to their death proclaiming the Divine Oneness and Unity: Hear O Israel, Hashem is our God, Hashem is One!
There is a custom to chant Psalm 22 on Purim – a psalm which describes the lonely journey of the Yehudim in a hostile world. According to tradition, King David dedicated this psalm to Queen Esther, as through the holy spirit, he foresaw the courageous role of Esther who risked her life to save her people. In fact, we have a tradition that Esther herself chanted this psalm before she went to meet with the King. The psalm opens with the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – words which were said throughout the generations by Yehudim who were persecuted and murdered for their belief in Hashem and for their loyalty to the Torah of Hashem. Towards the end of this psalm, however, we find a prophecy of hope which proclaims that all humankind will one day accept the unifying belief of the Yehudim:
“All the ends of the earth will remember and return to Hashem, all the families of nations will bow before You.” (Psalm 22:28)
In this new age of enlightenment, we, the Yehudim, will be vindicated. The nations who despised us for our chutzpah and for our refusal to adopt their beliefs will become our allies. As the Prophet proclaimed in the Name of Hashem, God of the hosts of creation:
“In those days it will happen that ten men of all the (different) languages of the nations, will take hold, they will take hold of the garment of a Yehudi man, saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’ ” (Zechariah 8:23)
The ultimate vindication of our people and our holy chutzpah is alluded to in the concluding section of the Purim story:
“Mordechai left the king’s presence clad in royal apparel of turquoise and white with a large gold crown and a robe of fine linen and purple; then the city of Shushan was cheerful and joyous. The Yehudim had light and joy, bliss and honor.” (Esther 8: 15, 16)
Shalom, and may we be blessed with the life-giving light, joy, bliss, and honor of Purim.
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen
Related Teachings and Comments:
1. “The City of Shushan was cheerful and joyous” (Esther 8:15). Shushan was the capital of the Persian empire, and according to the Malbim, a noted 19th century biblical commentator, the reference to the joy of Shushan alludes to the happiness of the peoples in the Persian empire when Mordechai the “tzadik” – righteous and just person - was elevated to a position of power. The Malbim writes: “All the peoples rejoiced at the elevation of Mordechai, the tzadik.” And the Malbim cites the following verse: “When the righteous are ascendant, the people will be glad; but in the rule of the wicked, the people will groan” (Proverbs 29:2). When there is an evil and corrupt official, the people suffer, but when there is a righteous and just official like Mordechai, the people rejoice.
2. On the holiday of Purim, we celebrate our deliverance from the genocidal plan of Haman. Purim is celebrated on the 14th day of the month of Adar, and it begins this year on Saturday night, March 17th. In Jerusalem, the celebration of Purim takes place on the 15th day of the month of Adar, and it begins on Sunday night. The Purim that is celebrated in Jerusalem is known as “Shushan Purim.”
3. Information on the connection between Psalm 22 and Esther can be found in the Talmud: Yuma 29a and Megillah 15b. In addition, one can find information in the midrashic commentaries on this psalm.
4. Within the archive of our series which is found on our website, there is a related letter titled “Our Holy Chutzpah” – a letter which is very appropriate for the spirit of Purim! The following is a direct link: http://www.shemayisrael.co.il/publicat/hazon/tzedaka/chutzpah.htm