The Vilna Gaon writes that Mordechai did not get up as if Haman were not even there.
The Ohel Moshe reminds us that Nefesh HaChaim (3:12) writes that a powerful spiritual power we have is to internalize the idea that no influence can affect us besides H-Shem. Mordechai’s believing this is one reason he refuses to even rise for Haman.
The Maharal writes the two actions of standing and stirring refer to Mordechai giving no sign of respect to either Haman, nor the idol he had constantly about him. He quotes the Midrash (Esther Rabbah 7:8) that Mordechai felt Haman made himself into an idolatry. In other words, borrowing a phrase from Yeshaya (2:24) such a person has “his soul in his nose,” or considers his own self-aggrandizement before anything else. For this self-worship is what Mordechai could not stir.
Rebbetzin Heller writes that when the Alter Rebbe of Lubavitch was is Russia, he quoted a Talmud (Sanhedrin 74a-b) that there are three things for which Jews should give up their lives to avoid transgressing. Put simply, these three “cardinal sins” are idolatry, adultery, and murder. However, that is only true under regular circumstances. However, if a nation attempts to destroy Judaism altogether, even the “smallest” of sins cannot be committed under threat of death. Therefore, in communist Russia too, where their laws added up to a struggle against Judaism, all of their laws could be ignored.
In an interesting gematria, the phrase v’lo kam v’lo za (“he did not rise and he did not stir”) (6+30+1+100+40+6+30+1+7+70=291) less the two mentions of v’lo (“and he did not”) (6+30+1=37×2=74) is equivalent to 217, the numerical value of eretz (“land”) (1+200+90=291). Perhaps this indicates that Mordechai’s refusal to do these actions helped the Jews merit re-entry into the Land of Israel in the following Persian reigns.
The Midrash (Esther Rabbah 7:8) teaches that, by answering that he is a Jew, Mordechai really intended to emphasize that, as a Jew, he is forbidden to worship anyone or anything besides H-Shem.
Rav Shlomo Kluger says that “Mordechai’s words” indicate his reporting the plot of Bigsan and Seresh. Mordechai wanted to see if his demonstrated loyalty to the king would be enough to excuse him (and perhaps the other Jews) from this bowing.
The Chasam Sofer says that the words “that he is a Yehudi” refers to Haman. As mentioned in the Talmud (Megillah 15a), Haman sold himself as a slave to Mordechai. Yalkut Shimoni (953) tells us there was rebellion against Achashverosh in one of his Indian states. Haman and Mordechai were chosen to command two of Achashverosh’s battalions. Due to his spending practices, Haman ran out of provisions. Mordechai, due to his righteous care for his resources (see Rashi to Bireishis 32:25 and Talmud, Chullin 91a), did not. Haman begged Mordechai for some of his rations, on condition that Mordechai sell himself to him as a slave, to which Haman agreed. Having nothing on which to write handy, Mordechai wrote the deed on his shoe, or armor he had on his feet. That being the case, a slave to a Jew who then goes free becomes Jewish, himself (Talmud, Chagigah 4a and brought down in Halachah in Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 267:3-5, 11). According to the Chasam Sofer, then, Mordechai was saying that he does not have to bow down to him since Haman was once his slave. For that reason, according to the Midrash, every time Haman would pass by, Mordechai would point down to his shoe.
The verse makes it sound as though the servants did not trust Mordechai, and Mi’archei Lev writes that Mordechai gave them reason to respond this way. After all, it was well-known that he was from Benyamin, but he aroused suspicion by saying he was a Yehudi.
Rabbi Yehonasan Eibshutz writes that Haman felt confident about conquering Mordechai as he was from Benyamin. Here, Mordechai is pointing out that he comes from another tribe as well – Yehudah. Yehudah, being the tribe of Moshiach, is the great challenge to the power of Amalek. Mordechai represents the Yehudi who can conquer the power of evil. Rav Eibshutz also writes that Haman set up a test for Mordechai by one time coming out without a statue. Nevertheless, Mordechai still refused to bow to him. Even though Mordechai knew there was no statue, other people didn’t know, and this would constitute maaris ayin.
One might think that the reason for Mordechai’s refusal to bow is the low regard with which the Torah holds worship of anyone or anything outside of H-Shem. According to the Midrash (Esther Rabbah 7:8), however, Mordechai admits that bowing down to a person in-and-of-itself is not wrong. For example, Yaakov and his family bowed seven times to Haman’s ancestor, Eisav (Bireishis 33:3). In fact, Mordechai deflects criticism of his not acting likewise with Eisav’s descendant by citing his ancestry from Benyamin, who had not yet been born during this incident. The Maharal adds that, in reward for this, Benyamin inherited the part of Eretz Yisroel where the Kodesh Kedoshim (Holy of Holies) of the Beis HaMikdash would stand. Mordechai was concerned that bowing to Haman would cause him to lose his connection with the Shechinah (the Divine Presence), just as the Shechinah left the Kodesh Kedoshim when the Jews no longer deserved her.
In Michtav M’Eliyahu, R’ Eliyahu Dessler writes that Mordechai’s defiance can teach us to attack our Yetzer Hara head-on without a kernel of compromise. Any capitulation can lead to a downward spiral of spiritual loss.
The Malbim writes that Mordechai did not bow down to Haman to avoid ascribing divinity to him. In an era when people ascribed godliness to their rulers and the rulers’ courts, Mordechai felt compelled to demonstrate his variance with heaping any possible blandishments of divinity upon Haman.
Rav Eliezer Ashkenazi writes that the command to bow to Haman referred to two different groups of people – regular subjects of the king, and higher-ups sitting at the gates of the king. Mordechai did not fit into either category. As a Jew, he was not a citizen of the realm. At the same time, as an adviser of the king, he sat at the king’s gate, and was not one to pass there.
The Kedushas HaLevi says there were two different commands – first, everybody had to bow down. Second, Mordechai, as a favor to Esther, was ordered to not bow.
The Shelah HaKodesh quotes an argument in the Talmud (Megillah 12a) regarding the reason the Jews deserved death in this time period. One opinion is because they bowed to idols. The other reason is that they attended Achashverosh’s party. The Shelah continues that Mordechai’s refusal to bow to Haman served as a spiritual tikkun (or repair) for the Jews’ capitulating to bow to the idol of Nebuchadnetzer, and Esther’s eating seeds to avoid eating non-kosher food in Achashverosh’s palace (as mentioned previously) served as a tikkun for the Jews’ enjoying themselves at Achashverosh’s party. Together, their actions saved the Jews from the decree against them.
As noted earlier (three posts ago), the Talmud (Megillah 12b) states that Mordechai’s father was from the tribe of Benyamin. Rav Yitzchak Hutner adds that this is an important detail to the story because, when Haman becomes incensed at Mordechai’s refusal to bow to him (Esther 3:5), the Midrash (Esther Rabbah 7:8) has Haman say, “All the tribes bowed to my ancestor, Eisav (Bireishis 33:3)! Why won’t you bow to me?” Mordechai answers, “All the tribes bowed except for Benyamin, for he was not yet born. Therefore, I need not bow to you.”
Another reason this is important is that Esther is related to Mordechai by being “daughter of his uncle” (Esther 2:7). Therefore, she too comes from the royal house of King Shaul, and may be prized by Achashverosh for this.
“Yimini” could also mean that Mordechai was right-leaning. In Kabbalistic thought, this means he had a focus on “chachmah” – masculine, logical, and linear knowledge – rather than “binah” – feminine, instinctual, global wisdom. With H-Shem’s help, this insight into Mordechai’s character will help us to better understand his argument with Esther (4:11-16) about the best way to combat the coming threat to Jewish survival.