Countdown to Purim Part 1: The Pursuit of Honour

By Rabbi Pinchas Hackenbroch, Senior Rabbi, Woodside Park United Synagogue

The behaviour of Haman in the Purim story is truly astounding. He enjoyed a position of unparalleled power. He was second only to King Achashverosh, and was worshipped and deified by all the subjects of the Persian Empire. Only one person, Mordechai, refused to pay homage to him. Yet this riled Haman to such a degree that he simply could not enjoy the honour and power bestowed upon him by the rest of the Persian Empire: “all this is worthless for me, so long as I see Mordechai the Jew sitting at the gates of the palace” (Megillat Esther 5:13).

How do we comprehend such irrational behaviour by Haman, a man who had the world at his feet and yet was unable to enjoy or appreciate the honour and power, knowing that one Jew refused to bow down to him?

The answer lies in understanding the difference between (a) the desire for honour and (b) the desire for physical satisfaction. Someone who craves physical pleasures seeks something that is tangible and real. When he/she has enjoyed it, the hunger is satiated. Even if one only receives only part of that which was craved, desires will be satiated in direct proportion to that which was received.

Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz (d.1979) writes that in contrast to a physical need, honour is ethereal. The only way to measure it is through one’s personal perception of how much honour has been accorded. Therefore if anything is lacking in the fulfilment of one’s perception, the need for honour is not satisfied at all. Haman’s obsessive aspiration was to witness the total subjugation of the Persian Empire. If there was even one small part missing from the total realisation of that dream, then all the honour bestowed upon him would be meaningless.

Understanding that honour is measured in the mind of the one who seeks it sheds light on the Talmudic story of Channah, whose seven children were instructed to bow before the king (Bava Batra 11a). When they brought the youngest son before the king, he refused to bow. The king then suggested tossing his signet ring before the child. The child would pick up the ring, thus giving the impression to the onlookers that he was actually bowing down. In reality there was no genuine honour, as the king knew that the boy’s picking up of the ring was not an act of obeisance. Yet it fulfilled the illusion that the king wanted to maintain before the people.

We see that the pursuit of honour relies dangerously on how we feel we are viewed by others. Jewish thinking urges us to focus on the gifts with which God has endowed us, enabling each of us to make our unique contribution to the world. This self-worth is discovered internally and therefore avoids the pitfalls of Haman, who was so dependent upon external acknowledgement.

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