Of Gems and Towers, Secrets and Wine
In this week’s “Corner Office” interview in The New York Times Sunday business section, Romil Bahl, President & CEO of PRGX, a data mining firm, talks about the importance of creating a culture in which everyone feels comfortable sharing ideas. He says:
The best idea can come from anyone, and let’s open up our minds to getting thinking from cross-functional areas. That’s something that comes from that notion of equality and diversity … you have to get good people around you and then make sure they feel comfortable putting their ideas out there, because somewhere in there, there’s a gem.
Easier said than done. What happens when that good idea is hard to hear, and even harder to implement? What if the gem challenges your organization’s very foundations, or your assumptions about the purpose of your work, or even your self worth? What if it comes from the most unlikely of sources, at the most unlikely of times?
Purim’s upon us again, and its texts hint that it’s worth looking for those gems, listening to the diverse voices that might speak them, and optimistically celebrating the mayhem that may emerge when changes occur.
Though it appears easier to uphold the status quo, and keep business as usual, it actually can become tremendously labor-intensive, emotionally exhausting, and counter-productive. Chapter One of Megillat Ester sets up the straw-man paradigm that the rest of the Megillah laughs down. Queen Vashti refuses the King’s demands, is ousted, voiceless, and the chapter ends with the edict that “all wives treat their husbands with respect, high and low alike … and each man shall wield authority in his home and speak the language of his own people.” King Achashverosh exhibits textbook behavior; when faced with a challenge to his authority, with a new potential model (the Queen calling the shots), with a perspective that challenges his own, he silences that challenge, and reinforces the status quo. Avivah Zornberg, in her chapter on Ester in The Murmuring Deep, claims that the King’s actions ultimately “broadcast [his] insecurity and the absurdity of his conception of what law can accomplish.” He is simply flexing his “royal muscles, [activating] his couriers, and [evacuating] his anger” (p. 110). In squelching Vashti’s voice, and listening to the obsequious voices of his servants, he reinforces his paradigms, ends up lonely, and stuck in a pattern of his own doing. And, perhaps most importantly, his problem doesn’t go away; it simply emerges in a new costume.
The method of change is important; its content even more so. Ultimately, King Achashverosh and his kingdom’s edicts are changed by a woman, and not just any woman – the very embodiment of a powerless outsider, suddenly given the voice of authority. Ester wields her authority with intelligence and grace, unlike Vashti. But her message is ultimately the same as Vashti’s – don’t squelch difference, and learn to listen to the voices that challenge you. The Megillah hints that the method of delivering change is often more powerful than the message itself, and this is a critical piece of advice in any change process: pace the work, ensure the ripeness of an issue, and tread carefully. The story of Ester and the Jews ultimately mirrors the story of Vashti and the kingdom’s women. What Ester is able to accomplish for the Jews, Vashti was unable to accomplish for the women; Ester’s ultimate victory, which results in religious freedom for a particular group of people, also hints at the potential overarching change in the kingdom, providing all minorities with a voice, with their own unique language. And so, while the Megillah hi-lights the importance of the method of the delivery of the content of change, it also reveals the importance of valuing the content itself, especially when that content is difficult to hear. Because when an issue is ripe, when a change is upon us, it will keep rearing its head in multiple ways until it is heard.
Celebrate multiple perspectives, and build tolerance for the instability that may emerge when those perspectives are taken seriously. The Purim story can be read as an attempt to eradicate the confusion of multiple perspectives. In chapter 3 of the Megillah, Haman says to King Achashverosh, “There is one nation scattered and dispersed among the nations throughout the provinces of your kingdom, whose laws are unlike those of any other nation and who do not obey the laws of the King. It is not in the King’s interest to tolerate them.” In a sense, Achashverosh and Haman are trying to recreate an earth that is “all one language and one set of words” (Genesis 11). The story of the Tower of Babel is a story of tyranny. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the Netziv (R. Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893), writing in Czarist Russia and foreseeing communism, sees Babel as the world’s first totalitarian regime, in which all freedom of expression is suppressed. The antidote to this is a scattering, and a wild diversity of tongues: “That is why it is called Babel, for there God babbled the language of all the earth, and from there God scattered them across the earth” (Genesis 11). The Megillah begins with an attempt to stifle diversity, and ends by celebrating it: “an edict was written…each province according to its script and to each nation according to its language, and to the Jews according to their script and language” (Chapter 8:9). Scattered babbles are difficult to hear and understand. Purim challenges us to listen more closely, and to find the gems in the cacophony.
A story in Sanhedrin 38s recounts an incident of two students sitting at the table of their Rabbi, Rebbe Yehuda HaNasi. They are sitting silently, and so Rebbe keeps filling their cups with wine until they speak. When they finally open their mouths, they claim that the messianic era will not occur until the fall of the reign of Rebbe’s family. Rebbe is flabbergasted.
He said to them:
My sons, are you sticking thorns in my eyes? Rabbi Chiya [their father] said to him: Rebbe – the Gematriya of wine is 70, and the Gematriya of secret is 70 – when wine enters, secrets emerge.
Sometimes, when we give voice to the silent, they say things we do not want to hear. Purim encourages us to think carefully about the methods we use to evoke change – what is the wine, that we put into our systems to encourage the sharing of diverse, complex, contradictory perspectives? And it challenges us to gaze honestly at our ability to stay at the table once those perspectives have been shared. Do we have the tools to hold and utilize the secret gems that may emerge when we encourage multiple perspectives? Purim reminds us that we must expand our tolerance for contradictory ideas, lest we fall prey to our own small edicts.
Maya Bernstein is Director of Education and Leadership Initiatives at UpStart Bay Area, a San Francisco-based nonprofit whose mission is to advance early stage non-profits that offer innovative Jewish engagement opportunities.