June 24, 2024
Search
Close this search box.
Search
Close this search box.
June 24, 2024
Search
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Public Text Messages of Purim

In the days leading up to Purim this year and during the holiday itself I was struck by all the texting I noticed going on throughout the Purim story. Everyone in the Megilla is constantly writing messages that are not just notes to their friends and family but literally e-blasts to the entire known civilized world at that time, 127 nations in all.

First, Memuchan sends out letters after Vashti’s rebellion to assert that every man should rule in his home. After coming to power and hating Mordechai, Haman sends out his letters ordering the destruction of the Jewish people. Then Mordechai and Esther get Achashverosh to send letters to counteract Haman’s original ones so that the Jews can fight back. Finally, Mordechai and Esther send out letters to the entire Jewish people to establish how Purim should be observed from then onward. And those are just the letters explicitly mentioned in the Megilla. Presumably there must have been many other letters circulated, such as ones to organize gathering potential queens for Achashverosh.

Therefore, it seemed strange to me that after Haman implemented his plot through sending out letters, the Megilla states “… the city of Shushan was bewildered.” (Esther 3:15) The people of Shushan must have been very accustomed to letters being distributed and proclaimed throughout the city. How could they possibly be “bewildered”? Due to the severe nature of Haman’s decree, the words “troubled,” “worried” and “terrified” would all fit here, but “bewildered” seems out of place for a capital city with so many cultured individuals. Upon further reflection, I decided that the residents of Shushan were likely suffering from one of the first cases of information overload.

I don’t know about you, but throughout the COVID crisis I have been utterly bewildered. We have been bombarded by the traditional media and social media with loads of information, misinformation, eye-witness accounts, rumors, statistics, conjectures and much more. To make things worse, all of this content has been coming at rapid speed and in real time so that the news of five minutes ago becomes irrelevant due to someone’s recent tweet. We find ourselves incapable of sifting through all of this content to reach some consensus on how to respond. Therefore, we seek the advice of experts who can interpret all of this information for us wisely.

But if we cannot interpret this information ourselves, how can we possibly determine and judge who is a reliable expert? The candidates are usually heads of government agencies, which few of us have any direct contact with. Should we judge experts by how well they present themselves at news conferences? By how many letters they have after their names? By how many diplomas they have hanging on their walls? Alternatively, how can an individual who seeks out “anti-establishment” experts really be sure of his experts’ credentials? It’s quite likely that he reveres these experts because they justify a position he has already adopted.

I myself try to evaluate the validity of experts using three criteria. First, they must be individuals having the integrity to recognize their fallibility and are quick to own up to any mistakes or miscalculations they undoubtedly make. Second, while they should be self-confident to know that their extensive education and experience give credence to their expertise, they do not belittle anyone simply on the basis that they lack similar credentials. Finally, they should act with the realization that they are servants of the people and not the other way around. As such, they recognize that their policy decisions can only have a positive impact through extensive education and not intimidation. Given the current state of affairs, it looks like I will be searching for an expert indefinitely.

Or maybe not. Maybe I can look back to the Megilla and observe the expertise of Mordechai and Esther. After Mordechai figured out Haman’s plot, he immediately went to Esther to plan a response. They undoubtedly knew they possessed a high level of righteousness and greatness. So then why did they choose to first take on such a grueling three-day fast and get all of the Jews in Shushan to do so as well? Also, how was fasting supposed to help things? If anything, it would work against them by putting Esther in a much weaker state both physically and mentally. Apparently, Mordechai and Esther had the humility to realize they could not rely solely on their own merits and righteousness when facing such a severe decree. They saw the threat as primarily a spiritual one and that any attempt to eliminate the associated physical threat would fail if they did not first address the spiritual root cause.

I firmly believe we will get past the current COVID crisis one way or another just as we have done throughout our exile. What I worry about is how we will approach another existential threat if one is decreed against us, Heaven forbid. Will our rabbis, that is our spiritual experts, call for unity right away and stress that extensive repentance and soul searching, both on an individual and a collective level, are the order of the day? Or will there only be calls for unity near the end and even then only in the form of support for a physically invasive response? Will our scientific experts work tirelessly to determine how some individuals survive against all odds despite conventional treatments failing for them? Or will they doggedly insist that these cases are statistically insignificant and irrelevant? Such a perspective would be especially ironic given the historical fact that the world’s first vaccine resulted from an analysis of a small sample of milkmaids. I guess the answers to these questions all depend on what lessons we learn from the COVID crisis and how quickly we adopt them.

All I know is how our Sages in the times of the Mishnah approached their various existential threats. Though they lived already a few hundred years after the Purim story and certainly faced a very different political, social and economic reality, they still knew where to look for advice and guidance on how to deal with crises. They recorded this lesson for posterity and we would be well advised to follow it: “…. Anyone who says something in the name of another brings redemption to the world, as it is stated: ‘…and Esther said to the king in the name of Mordechai’ (Esther 2:22)” (Pirkei Avot 6:6).


Ari Blinder is the creator of MishnahMath (https://mishnahmath.org/), a new project that engages students through innovative lessons demonstrating the connections between math and Judaism. He lives in Highland Park, NJ, and can be reached at [email protected].

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles