18 March 2008

Purim - a lesson in crisis management

The Purim story is unusual in many aspects not the least of which is the way Mordechai and Esther handled the crisis. To set the the scene: a vindictive high government official – Haman, conspires and plots to destroy an entire population. His argument - “there is in our midst a people whose laws are different than anybody else’s…” Thus we have the first “reasoned” argument in history to eliminate an entire nation. Indeed we find that, as explained by the Alter Rebbe, Haman’s problem was not really with all the Jews at the time. His wrath and indignation were directed at those Jews who chose to identify themselves as ‘yehudim’ and indeed this is how Mordechai is referred to in the Megila – “Ish Yehudi”. This in itself is strange because both Mordechai and Esther were from the tribe of Benjamin.

The situation will be understood by first realizing that at that time in Persia a rift had developed within the Jewish people. The majority had come to refer to themselves as “Ivriim” or “Hebrews”; they were well integrated into the Persian society and were for the most part secular. The smaller “orthodox” minority came to be known as “Yehudim”, irrespective of their actual tribe. The name “Yehudi” has the connotation of someone who opposes idol worship. Persia at the time was thoroughly steeped in idol worship of all types and so the Yehudis’ stance, among other things, raised the ire of Haman.

As in all things affecting the Jewish people, what happens on the material plane is a reflection of a higher, spiritual reality. This will help us understand Mordechai’s and Esther’s actions in the wake of Haman’s genocidal decree. By all accounts, Mordechai and Esther were well-connected, influential people, with access to the highest echelons of government. Realistically, they should have immediately contacted all those in positions of power, lobbyists, politicians, etc. to annul or mitigate the decree. Yet we see Mordechai and Esther following a completely different course of action: they put all of their efforts into increasing Torah learning and performing acts of repentance including the three-day fast. The question is why? Why not follow the prescribed, “natural” channels of trying to deal with a crisis situation? Mordechait and Esther had realized that what Haman had in mind was but a reflection of a higher reality, a manifestation of a different layer of creation. They quickly understood that the Jews as a whole were not innocent and thus the first order of business was to remove the spiritual cause of Haman’s decree. That done, the material manifestations of that decree automatically were removed.

And this is the meaning of the special Torah reading of Parshas Ki Seitzei when we read about how Amalek attacked the Jewish people shortly after they left Egypt. In that reading we are instructed, among others things, how Amalek “met you on you way”. The word used for “met” or “chanced” - “korach” has the connotation of “cooling off” as well as of something happening by pure chance. Thus the mandate is clear: a Jew must always be aware that nothing happens by mere happenstance, everything is guided from on high down to the minutest details and this is the lesson Mordechai and Esther brought home during the events of Purim: they reconfirmed that “Purim” (lots) were not coincidental at all but a “pre-planned” event and so to confront that they had to reach beyond the materialistic veneer of life and tap into the true, higher reality whence all things originate.

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