I wish I could write some Purim Torah. I have never been great at scripted humor but I am not in a humor-writing mood right now. The Jewish world faces an existential crisis. Enemies in Persia seek to destroy us, to wipe us off the map. Internally, we face the consequences of the economic downturn – or fall off a cliff – combined with the consequences of dependence on big donors , lack of vision and leadership in some quarters, and the collapse of the Madoff Ponzi scheme. It is both a time of fear and opportunity. As I prepare the chapters I will read tonight and tomorrow for Purim, I am drawn to the fourth chapter of Megillat Esther as a recipe for what is required in this dangerous time. Let’s take a moment to summarize:
Esther is now royalty.
Haman, in his fury over Mordechai’s ongoing refusal to bend or bow to him, resolves to rid the world not only of Mordechai but of all the Jewish people.
Haman convinces King Ahashuerosh to allow him to kill the Jews.
Mordechai, having heard the king’s decree, dresses up in sackcloth and ashes, and goes and sits near the palace within site of Esther. Esther is distressed by her uncle’s mournful appearance, sends clothes, and when they are refused, sends a messenger to find out what this is all about.
Mordechai, via Hatach, tells Esther that the King is going to kill all the Jews and that she must go to the King and appeal to him to avoid the slaughter.
Upon hearing about the impending disaster, Esther responds that she cannot simply walk in to see the king, that there is a certain protocol, and that violating that protocol means risking death. Mordechai retorts:
“Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained this royal position for just such a crisis.”
Esther is moved to act. She sets a course, creates a plan, invites others to join her, and then executes the plan flawlessly. In the end, the Jews are saved!
Now, let us look at the fourth chapter through our own lenses and in our own language. There is a crisis. Mordechai, like everyone else, is stunned. It appears, however, that while others are paralyzed by the disastrous news, Mordechai is move to lead. He does not sit in his cocoon resolved to his impending doom.; rather, he goes out and calls for action. Mordechai sees a potential solution and he goes to the person best positioned and well suited to seize the moment: Esther.
Esther’s initial reaction to Mordechai is embarrassment at his outward appearance. She looks at the superficial. She has a knee-jerk reaction. She does not ask questions. She sends clothes: “Cover up. Don’t embarrass me. Don’t put whatever it is out in the open.” It is only after being rebuffed that Esther sends someone to ask what is bothering her uncle.
Mordechai sees the need for action and knows that the Queen, the insider, is well positioned to save the Jewish People. But Esther’s response is that there is a usual way of doing business and this is not it. She cannot see outside the box. She is concerned initially only with her own life, her own budget, her own position, her own turf.
Mordechai is brilliant in his response saying, “Esther, you can stick to business as usual. That is a legitimate choice. It does, however, have consequences. Namely, staying the old course will mean that you will not be part of the solution or part of the future. Salvation will come from someone or somewhere creative and innovative. You, however, will disappear!”
Esther now reconsiders. She realizes that she is kidding herself, that business as usual will fail, and that she cannot rely on someone else to come and solve the problem. She has to act. But she does not do so immediately. She creates enough time and space to step back and think, to plan, to be responsible. She is calm and thoughtful in the face of crisis, not fearful and reactionary. As a result, she designs a strategy, executes it to perfection, wins the day, saves the Jewish People and strengthens herself.
The Jewish People, in North America, in Israel, throughout the world, faces a dramatic moment. We are threatened by external foes and internal stultification, overt and covert anti-Semitism and internal lack of leadership and creativity. We are standing on a precipice, one that can lead to disaster if we simply live in fear or can represent the greatest opportunity for re-organization of the Jewish community in our lifetimes. Those organizations that choose business as usual – turf, hierarchy, “we’ve always done it this way” mentalities – will shrink or disappear. Those who act rashly, who wield the machete unthinkingly at budget meetings, who shoot first and aim and ask questions later, will be just as endangered as those who stick to “business as usual.”
And perhaps it is time, painful though it is to say, that some Jewish organizations, institutions, and frameworks be put to rest. Rather than struggling through painful efforts to “re-package” or “re-engineer” maybe that time and effort and those resources are simply better spent creating new, more nimble, more creative addresses to focus on the Judaism of the future. Moreover, those who wait for someone else to solve their problems, who call on everyone else in the world to “help” but are not willing to commit themselves, their time, and their financial resources, will discover that the problem will be solved – their doors will close, plain and simple.
This is a time for bold action, for reprioritization, for creativity and forward thinking. It is a time when Jewish education, Jewish meaning, Jewish learning, Jewish living, and Jewish creativity – all broadly defined - must be seen as our currency, our capital, and our generated revenue. This is what we are about. And if we don’t focus on this now, in a smart way, others will and they will be the solution.
And for each of us, - professional leaders, lay leaders , the Jews in the pews, etc – the question for us is how are we going to answer Mordechai? Business as usual or strategic action with an eye toward the future? Make a choice about that while waving your grogger in the air tonight.