The gemara (Meg 12) relates that R’ Shimon bar Yochai’s students asked him what Bnei Yisrael did wrong that caused the gezeirah of Haman – a question of theodicy. He put the ball back in their court and asked them what they thought, to which they replied that it was enjoying the seudah of Achashveirosh that was the problem. Rashbi countered that if that was the case, then only the people of Shushan were guilty. Why was everyone else included in the gezeirah? Rashbi then gave his own answer – it was bowing to the idol of Nevuchadnetzar years earlier that was the issue. The students countered that if Klal Yisrael was indeed guilty of avodah zarah, why did they merit the nes of being saved? Rashbi answered that it wasn’t really avodah zarah – they bowed to the idol only out of fear. It only superficially looked like avodah zarah. Therefore, they experienced the “superficial” threat of Haman’s gezeirah, but were sure to be zocheh to a nes and saved.
There’s a lot that is unclear here. What was the hava amina of the talmidim that everyone was at fault because the Jews of Shushan participated in Achashveirosh’s party? According to Rashbi, why should a cheit of avodah zarah done literally decades earlier rear its head now? And if it really wasn’t avodah zarah, then why should there have been any gezeirah?
I happened to be recently reading R’ Sholom Gold’s autobiography, Touching History: from Williamsburg to Jerusalem, in which he recounts that R’ Shneur Kotler was once the guest speaker at a dinner for Ner Yisrael Toronto (which R’ Gold help found) and he addressed himself to this gemara. I’ll try my best to summarize his thought, with apologies if I get anything wrong. Close to 70 years before the Purim story Klal Yisrael went into galus and cried, “Al naharos Bavel sham yashavnu gam bachinu b’zachreinu es Tzion.” What a difference 70 years made! The problem with the party of Shushan was not that the food wasn’t glatt or the wine not mevushal – it might very well have been. The problem was that participation in such an event meant that we had become acclimated to life in Bavel. We were, if not happy, certainly content. The tears that we cried as we were led into galus has long since dried up. It may have been that only the Jews of Shushan partook of the meal, but their participation was a siman that something had changed in our attitude toward galus.
Rashbi agreed in principle – it was acclimation and acculturation which were the causes of the gezeirah. What his disagreed with is the talmidim’s identification of Achashveirosh’s seudah as the catalyst. It was decades earlier, explained Rashbi, when Nevuchdnetzar setup his pseudo-avodah zarah and demanded that people bow, that the Rubicon was crossed. Had anyone asked a shayla whether it was really avodah zarah, the answer would have been a resounding “No” (see Maharasha). Nonetheless, even if bowing didn’t violate the letter of the law, to do so should have broken the hearts of the golim. How could someone who so recently cried “Aichnashir es shir Hashem al admas neichar?” bow even to a "kosher" idol? Yet they went ahead and did it. They already accepted such behavior as just an acceptable part and parcel of being a galus Jews . It was then that the seeds that led to Achashveirosh’s party were planted.
Rav Gold added to this thought a beautiful idea of his own. The gemara on the next amud (12b) has a discussion regarding the lineage of Mordechai. On the one hand, he is called “ish Yehudi,” implying that he came from the tribe of Yehudah; on the other hand, he is called, “Yemini,” implying that he came from the tribe of Binyamin. Rav Gold suggested that Mordechai was one of the few who never acclimated to Bavel; he lived with the memory of what life was life before galus and yearned to return to Eretz Yisrael. Therefore, he is the only one who could awaken the Jews to their error; he is the hero of the Purim story. "Ish Yemini" means that Mordechai remembered the vow, “Im eskacheich Yerushalayim tiskach yemini” – Mordechai never forgot Yerushalayim, never forgot Eretz Yisrael, never forgot where home really was.