From Shushan to Sarajevo (Purim 5779)

The Feast of Esther; circa 1625; artisit unknown

By Andrés Spokoiny

A 19-year-old boy was arguably the most influential person in the 20th century and, most probably, you’ve never heard of him.

His name was Gravilo Princip and by sheer luck one day in Sarajevo, he found himself in front of the Hapsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand with a pistol in his pocket. Princip, a member of a Serbian nationalist movement that opposed the Hapsburgs’ empire, seized his moment: he pulled the trigger twice, and set in motion the hecatomb of World War I.

Many dispute what they call a “simplistic” vision of history. They say that the situation in Europe was such that any spark would have ignited the conflagration. I used to think that too, but I’m not so sure anymore. New research shows that European powers were not really itching for war in 1914; far from it – they all had a lot to lose from it. And lose they all did. If Princip hadn’t shot the Archduke, maybe another excuse would have started the war, but maybe, and most likely, not.

A single act of a single individual unleashed the horrors of World War I, with its trenches, “total war,” and millions of people mowed down by machine guns. But the impact of Princip’s actions goes far beyond the millions of dead in the Great War. Without WWI there would have been no Bolshevik Revolution in Russia (triggered by Kerensky’s decision to continue the war), no Soviet Union, no Soviet Bloc, no Mao, no Cuban Missile Crisis, no Berlin Wall, no gulags; without WWI Hitler would have been another starving artist in the streets of Vienna; without WWI there wouldn’t have been Sykes-Picot Agreement and the Middle East would look radically different; without WWI, and the bizarre way in which it reorganized the Balkans, the wars of Bosnia and Kosovo could have never taken place.

I think I used to resist this way of thinking because it makes the world into an incredibly random place. If one individual can cause over 100 million deaths with one action, the world is indeed a very dangerous place. But the fact that an idea scares me doesn’t make it less true. Three individuals – Hitler, Stalin and Mao – caused what Matthew White called the huge hemoclysm (a cataclysm of blood) of the 20th century. It’s not that there wouldn’t have been other atrocities or massacres without them, but the mind-bending scope of the bloodbath was only possible because of the specific individuals who were at the top in these pivotal moments in history.

I guess we have to surrender to the chilling fact that one person can produce incalculable horror. That realization, however, carries on its back the mother of all silver linings. Because then, the opposite needs to be true as well: a single person can indeed destroy the world, but a single person can also save it. Without Martin Luther King, Jr., the Civil Rights fight could have been far more bloody and violent; without Nelson Mandela, South African whites could have been slaughtered, and there might also have been a civil war of Zulus versus Xhosas. Without Winston Churchill, Britain might have sought a separate peace with Germany and thus given Hitler victory, and without Ben Gurion’s personality, the doubters in the Zionist leadership would probably have wavered and not declared Israel’s independence.

And, if we are to believe the Megillah, if it were not for one individual, Queen Esther, we wouldn’t be here.

Researchers debate whether the story of Purim is historically accurate, but I think that misses the point. As in every Jewish holiday, what’s important is not the historicity of the tale, but the values it conveys and what we can learn from it. One of the things that puzzled rabbis over the centuries is a conspicuous absence: God. In every other book of the Bible, God is omnipresent, the main character of the story. In the case of the Megillah, Esther saves the Jewish people seemingly without Divine intervention; in fact, the story goes to great lengths to explain that it’s the actions of Esther that saves us. One is left wondering whether God would have stepped in to save the Jews if Esther hadn’t acted. Nothing in the text implies that God would have done so.

Esther is the negative image of Gavrilo Princip: an individual that, alone, can alter the course of history for the better. And, like all history-altering individuals, she faces her moment of truth, the instant in which she needs to decide whether she’ll surrender to the seeming inevitability of history or whether she’ll change it. In her case, the realization comes at the urging of Mordechai, who poignantly tells her “Who knows if it is for a moment like this that you’ve attained royalty.” In other words, you have the power to change history for the better; will you use it? Esther indeed uses it, and saves us. Thanks to her seizing the moment, I’m writing these lines and you are reading them.

Most of us are not heads of state, or queens, or leaders of social movements. But maybe the message of the Megillah is that we all have our “Esther moment.” We all have the capacity, alone, to create a change for good in the history of the world and of our people. To realize this is not necessarily a glorification of the maverick or the lone ranger; it’s not a lionization of the selfish (after all, Esther, Churchill, Mandela, and Ben Gurion didn’t act alone), but a realization of the enormous potential we have as individuals, both for good and for bad. It’s about recognizing that there are moments in which our intervention – and our intervention alone – can have an enormous impact on the lives of others.

In the 21st century, we are fortunate to live in a time in which the individual has more power than ever before. Technology, open communications, science, and freedom give us many more possibilities to be Esther than we’ve ever had.

As funders, we have many “Esther moments.” In the future we will have more. Funders have attained a place of power and influence in the community that is, indeed, unprecedented. Our actions make concentric waves of impact upon a growing number of people and communities. So how will we answer when our inner Mordechai asks us: “For what purpose did you attain all this power”? Will we see our power as license or as responsibility? Will we be Gavrilo Princip or Esther?

Andrés Spokoiny is President & CEO, Jewish Funders Network.