The Never-ending Story

Is it possible to create organizations that have stable structures as well as the flexibility to grow to meet the changing needs and demands of its target audience? Is it possible for organizations to maintain their values and stay true to their missions, while also adapting to radically shifting times? What is the best way to ensure that established institutions gain the flexibility and skills to creatively address the issues they face, with the support and partnership of creative entrepreneurs, without dismissing the structures and ideals that have defined and sustained them?

The Book of Esther, traditionally read twice on the holiday of Purim, reminds us that we have grappled with these questions before, and sheds some light on how to navigate them. The scroll has all of the elements of a great story – a king, a couple of queens, drunken parties, a great villain, brave heroes, cameo roles (imagine Billy Crystal as Harvona) and lots of horses. It also appears to have an elemental story structure – a clear beginning, in which the scene is set up and the characters and story line are introduced; a suspenseful middle – what will become of the Jews? Will Ester reveal her true identity? – and a satisfying end, in which, all in a scene, Ester bravely pleads for her life and the life of her people, and Haman is hung.

The problem is that the fantastic ending doesn’t correspond with the end of the Megillah. The story ends in chapter 7, yet the Megillah drags on for three more repetitive chapters, obsessively occupied with writing and re-writing edicts and letters, so as to figure out how to preserve this story. It becomes less of a story, and more of a treatise on how to preserve stories. It is a tale that, like Mo Willems’ We Are In A Book, in which the elephant has a crisis of realization that the book will end, becomes aware of, and obsessed with, its own impending mortality. The story becomes less important than the way in which we tell the story, the way in which we keep the story alive for generations to come.

The structure of the Megillah raises the question at the heart of all stories – how do you keep the story going when you know that it is doomed to end? The elephant’s response in Willems’ book is to ask the reader to read the book again, trapping the reader in a never-ending cycle of reading and re-reading. The Megilah’s approach similarly involves encouraging the reader to participate in an ongoing reading and interpretive experience. It attempts to morph a static, written text into a structure for an ongoing, ever-changing, nuanced conversation.

Mordecai and Esther live in a kingdom in which the written word has simultaneous total and total lack of authority. They live in a world in which the king attempts to exert his authority through written, highly structured documents. And yet, as Avivah Zornberg points out in her chapter on Esther in The Murmuring Deep, these documents are so rigid and authoritative, so divorced from the reality of the people, that they become absurd:

The actual workings of this elaborate textual system, however, are shown, at significant moments, to be almost comically ineffective… The king’s first edict exposes to mockery his use of written texts to promulgate his will. He rules, “all wives will 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” (Ester 1:20, 22). Its totalitarian pomposity broadcasts the king’s insecurity and the absurdity of his conception of what law can accomplish.

In Chapter 8, when Ester begs that the decree to annihilate all of the Jews be reversed, Achashverosh responds by saying, “the decree which has been written in the king’s name, and sealed with the king’s ring, may not be reversed” (Ester 8:8). And he then immediately grants permission to write another “irreversible” edict, which, de facto, reverses the prior one. The Megillah implies that when text carries such weight that it cannot change, or adapt to new circumstances, then it becomes meaningless. If people cannot adhere to the structures created, if those structures are not relevant to them, and are insufficiently flexible, the structures will be rendered ridiculous, and abandoned.

Ester and Mordecai face the difficult challenge of preserving the experience of the Jews in Persia for eternity: “that these days should be remembered and kept throughout every generation” (Ester 9:28). They must respond to the question: What is the best structure to enable us to stay connected to the core values that emerge from our collective experience as a people?

They are caught in the paradox of Achashverosh’s edicts, intensely aware that when rigid, immutable structures are created, they become irrelevant. But they also acknowledge that when there is no structure at all, there is no way to create quality, transmit values, or be productive. In fact, the two extremes, that of immutable structure, and that of no structure at all, both create the type of absurd environment spoofed in Portlandia’s portrayal of a creative ad agency so obsessed with being creative that nobody gets anything done at all.

And so they write their story. But they don’t end it at chapter seven. They write about the challenge of writing, of preserving experiences and values. And, as they write, they introduce new concepts. They frame the experience they have just had through their own lenses. Mordecai adds “giving gifts to the poor” (Esther 9:22) as an additional law to preserve the Purim story. Ester re-writes the story after Mordecai has already written it (Esther 9:29). Their insight is that structures can be relevant only if they allow for constant interaction and the possibility for adaptation. Their writing is radically different from Achashverosh’s. Their writing can be edited. Their system encourages people to be in dialogue with the written word, and leaves the ending open, so that each generation can continue to write its interpretation into the text.

The very structure of the Megillah reminds us that we are part of a dynamic, supple tradition, which weaves flexible formations needed to maintain our identities and preserve our values, and keeps those identities growing, and values relevant. Can we, facing our analogous, modern questions revolving around preserving Jewish traditions within a swiftly shifting world, create organizational infrastructures that are spaces of simultaneous commemoration and adaptation, structured stories in books that never end?

Maya Bernstein is Director of Education and Leadership Initiatives at UpStart Bay Area, a San Francisco based nonprofit whose mission is to inspire and advance innovative ideas that contribute to the continued growth and vitality of Jewish life.