Ester the Design Thinker

Ester reminds us that the only way to act and make a difference in such a world is to move courageously between thought and action, cultivating deep empathy for the people and their reality, and audaciously dreaming of new possibilities, and tripping our way towards them.

by Maya Bernstein

Rachel Cort recently wrote about the value of Design Thinking for Jewish Institutions. She argues that working with the mindsets and tools of Design Thinking keeps professionals intimately connected with the populations they wish to serve, and allows them to be more flexible, adaptable, and creative.

She also makes the interesting claim that “Design Thinking is particularly suited to Jewish life precisely because of the importance of constraints to the process.” Cort points out that “Jews have long faced constraints, with regard to both internal religious laws and external pressures. We have always found inventive ways to bridge the gap between needs and constraints; it’s one of the great strengths of our tradition.” I strongly agree; and would argue that the Design Thinking way of working is actually quite Jewish.

Design Thinking is an iterative process, one that emphasizes the cyclical relationship between thought and action. Two of its phases – Immersion, in which practitioners engage intimately with their community through observations and empathy interviews, and Prototyping, in which practitioners bring their ideas to that community to test them – are incredibly action-oriented. And the other two phases – Framing, in which practitioners spend time analyzing what emerged from the Immersion phase, reframing the challenges and opportunities facing the community, and Ideation, which involves practitioners engaged in a creative thought-process – are thought-oriented. This cyclical relationship between thought and action is deeply Jewish. It is most famously articulated in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Kiddushin 40b, in an argument between the Rabbis on the question of “what is greater – study or action?” Ultimately, the Rabbis conclude, “study is greater.” Why? “Because study leads to action.” This text emphasizes that study and action must be intertwined, and that one without the other is greatly lacking.

Ester, the heroine of the Purim story, is a natural Design Thinker. Ester naturally embodies each phase of the process. First – she is observant, and she immerses herself in trying to understand the mood and needs of her community. In the beginning of Chapter 4, her maids and chamberlains tell her that Mordecai, and the entire Jewish people, are in mourning. Ester is “exceedingly distressed,” but, unlike Haman, who, in Chapter 3, is filled with rage when Mordecai refuses to bow down to him, and moves immediately from intense emotion to decisive action, Ester composes herself and seeks, in Chapter 4 verse 5, to learn “what this was, and why it was.” The rest of Chapter 4 can be read as Ester’s deepening her understanding of her people, Mordecai, and herself. Chapter 4 begins with Mordecai’s “loud and bitter cry,” and with the Jews’ “great mourning and fasting, weeping and wailing,” and ends with the three day fast that Ester declares for all of the Jews, and yet the tone has shifted radically. Through her immersion, Ester has reframed the mood. Instead of profound despair and utter lack of control, instead of the initial articulation of doom facing the Jewish people, there is now a challenge – still daunting, but containing hope. Ester now perceives herself in a position of power, placed so close to the king in order to fulfill a larger mission. She re-frames her role with a design challenge – “how might we take advantage of my position in the palace to save the Jewish people?” This shift, from pessimism, from perceiving something challenging as inevitable and impossible to change, to something that, though difficult, is possible, challenging in an exciting way, and laced with hope and optimism, despite how grave the issue, is a core aspect of Design Thinking.

While we do not get to peek behind the palace curtain into Ester’s ideation exercise with her chamberlains and maids, we do get to watch her incremental prototypes, her small experiments, which she devises to test whether or not her plan will work. She knows that she is facing a tremendous challenge. She knows that if she attempts to bite it off all at once, it will be nearly impossible. She takes small steps, small bites, which allow her to keep interacting with Achashverosh and Haman in order to move towards her ultimate goal. First, she tests whether or not she can approach the King without being called; then, she invites the King and Haman to a party, building the trust between them; then has another party, in which accuses Haman; and, finally, only after Haman is hung, does she ask Achashverosh to reverse the decree and save the Jews. Perhaps she had planned to point the finger at Haman at the first party but did not feel it was the right time. Rabbi Yonatan Grossman, in his piece Feasting and Fasting in Megillat Ester notes that the level of intimacy is markedly different at the beginning of the second party. He writes:

  • At first the King and Haman merely come to “the party that Ester had made,” while afterwards they come “to drink with Ester.” This discrepancy may hint at the significance of having these two parties with the same apparent purpose: at the first party Ester feels that she is not yet at the stage of drinking together with her guests, and they, for their part, also still treat her as the mistress of the house, the hostess of the party. She is like a waitress, pouring drinks for the guests who have come for that purpose. At the second party, in contrast, Ester joins in the drinking together with the King and Haman. Now they drink as a group; she no longer faces a coalition of male drinkers. This, then, is the opportune time to plead for herself and her nation.

It is possible that Ester’s original plan included only one party, and that she was able to pivot, test her idea, and creatively imagine another test, which allowed her to succeed.

And so, when we think of the challenge of bringing tools like Design Thinking into our institutions, of working in ways that are more collaborative, creative, action-oriented, and experimental, let us remember that this way of working is in fact very close to our tradition. It is a very Jewish way of working. Purim is simultaneously a celebration and a somber acknowledgement that things don’t always work out the way we expect. And its heroine, Ester, reminds us that the only way to act and make a difference in such a world is to move courageously between thought and action, cultivating deep empathy for the people and their reality, and audaciously dreaming of new possibilities, and tripping our way towards them. If we keep with this tradition, heed this Purim message, then our community too, despite the myriad of challenges it is currently facing, will have “light and gladness, joy and honor.”

Maya Bernstein is Strategic Design Officer of UpStart Bay Area, a social venture and innovation consulting firm.