I’ll never forget the moment I learned that amazing line from the book of Esther. I was in Talmud class at JTS Rabbinical School, and (surprise!) my classmates and I were struggling to stay focused. Our professor stopped the class, and he recited the line which Mordechai said to Esther when he was encouraging her to rise above her own fears and save her people.
כִּי אִם-הַחֲרֵשׁ תַּחֲרִישִׁי, בָּעֵת הַזֹּאת–רֶוַח וְהַצָּלָה יַעֲמוֹד לַיְּהוּדִים מִמָּקוֹם אַחֵר, וְאַתְּ וּבֵית-אָבִיךְ תֹּאבֵדוּ; וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ–אִם-לְעֵת כָּזֹאת, הִגַּעַתְּ לַמַּלְכוּת
If you are completely silent at this moment, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from somewhere else, but you and your family will perish; and who knows? Perhaps it is for this moment that you have arrived at the royal palace?
Our professor pointed this verse directly at us. “Listen, folks,” I remember his message. “The Torah will survive this generation, with you or without you. The question is: do you want to be a part of it?”
I loved that verse, and it still comforts me today. The Jewish people will be just fine. It’s good to know I don’t have to hang the survival of the entire Jewish people on any one class or group of students. When students say they don’t feel like studying or following the tradition, I say to myself or even to them: “no big deal. The Jewish people will survive, no matter what.”
But it is Mordechai’s challenge to Esther which is far scarier. Sure, the Jewish people will survive– and that is certainly comforting– but the real question is, what is my role in the process? Why have I been brought to this “royal palace” in my own life? What am I meant to do with this very moment?
Mordechai throws the gauntlet down for each of us: what are we doing with the privileges we have been given? What is our mission in this one opportunity at life? Where will we fit into this story?
The problem with a challenge like this one is that too often we may feel like dropping the ball. Maybe we don’t know what we are meant to do, and we find Mordechai’s challenge overwhelming. Or worse– we DO know, and we decide we just can’t handle living up to what we might hope for ourselves.
But another verse in this week’s liturgical readings warns us against thinking we don’t have it in us.
This past Shabbat in shul, I sat next to List College Dean Shuly Schwartz, who pointed out her father’s favorite line in the Haftarah for Shabbat Zachor. Evidently, Rabbi Mordecai Rubin, z”l, loved the moment when the prophet Samuel spoke to the failing King Saul. As soon as I looked at the line more closely, I saw what was so special about this line. For Samuel, Saul’s biggest problem– and the reason he could not remain king– was his own self-image.
וַיֹּאמֶר שְׁמוּאֵל–הֲלוֹא אִם-קָטֹן אַתָּה בְּעֵינֶיךָ, רֹאשׁ שִׁבְטֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אָתָּה; וַיִּמְשָׁחֲךָ יְהוָה לְמֶלֶךְ, עַל-יִשְׂרָאֵל
Samuel said: You may be small in your own eyes, but are you not the head of the tribes of Israel? God has anointed you king over Israel. (I Samuel 15:17)
Samuel makes clear that God’s problem with Saul is that Saul’s own ego is getting in his way. Each of us has been chosen for something, but when we fail to step up to it, we are in trouble. Being small in our own eyes is in itself the sin.
Mordechai reminds us, the Jewish people will be just fine, bayamim hahem uvazman hazeh, in those days as well as in our time. But what will our role be in the story? Each of us, like Saul and Esther before us, has been anointed for something. If we don’t play the role chosen for us, history–the history of our people, the history of the world– will certainly continue. But we shy away at our own risk. וּמִי יוֹדֵעַ? Who knows? This could be the very moment we have waited for.