At the beginning of the celebrated Jewish ethical work called Ethics of the Fathers, is the statement of Rabbi Shimon the Just, that the world rests on three pillars. He identifies them as Torah, prayer and acts of love and kindness.
If I had to shape and interpret his words in a contemporary context, I would say that at dangerous and difficult times our world stands on three pivotal principles: cognition, conviction and compassion.
Cognition is about the way we use our minds to think through challenges and find solutions. Conviction is about how we use our passion to create good outcomes and enact the solutions or strategies. Compassion is about how we use our hearts, our feelings and emotions to ensure a caring thoughtful outcome.
Shimon is known as The Just for his incisive articulation and application of these principles. He is also called a survivor for he lived through a time of turmoil and uncertainty (in Jewish terms he witnessed the end of the accepted traditional structure called the Great Assembly).
We are living in a time of tectonic turmoil. The ground is shifting, the geopolitical understanding between nations is unravelling. The agony of the Ukrainian people is overwhelming and unbearable to witness…. The only certainty (beyond taxes and death) is uncertainty.
On the Jewish calendar we celebrated Purim yesterday. In the book called the story or Megillah of Esther there is a telling phrase. As the very moorings of the secure world of the Jews of the Persian empire are undermined, the Book of Esther declares, “everything was overturned” the world was topsy turvey. The existence of the Jewish citizens of Persia was suddenly threatened by a diabolical enemy called Haman. He wins the confidence of the King and plots the genocide of the Jews.
An upside down world suggests chaos and panic but it can also have a connotation of a freedom of spirit, a boundlessness of joy; the kind of dizzy, giddy, happiness you experience when you can just let go; simply celebrate the fabulous fortune of being alive.
Purim is so joyful a festival because it is a reminder of how we live on the sharp edge of triumph and tragedy. It is the one and only festival on the Jewish calendar that encourages extreme exuberance and reckless abandon. You only readily appreciate the acute joy of living, the sheer joie de vivre, when you have had a brush with death itself.
The freedom, liberation and relief of Purim didn’t just happen. It came about because the heroes of the story, Esther and Mordechai, exercised all their cognition, conviction and compassion. Mordechai is the model of conviction in his implacable opposition to the evil of Haman and in his recognition of the divine spirit that guides the souls of human beings. Esther is the very example of cunning, cognitive capacity. Using all her ingenuity and subtle skills, she finds a way to orchestrate the downfall of Haman. Together they are exemplars of compassion. They care deeply about the anguish of their fellow Jews and go to extraordinary steps to save them from disaster.
This little Book of Esther is a tale for today. It reminds us that if we use all of our strength, conviction and compassion we can overcome the most treacherous of tyrants, the most difficult of times. It gives us hope at a time of hopelessness, it gives us energy at a time of despair, it reminds us that joy is to be celebrated and savoured.
It also says to us that together women and men can achieve extraordinary outcomes. Esther and Mordechai are not just a power duo, they are a kind and caring couple. They deeply respect one another and represent the opposite of an abusive relationship. We marked International Agunah Day on March 16 (the oppression of many Orthodox Jewish women by cruel and recalcitrant husbands), we are reminded of how Esther is forced to marry the King. She freed the Jews of Persia but she remains in trapped in an abusive relationship with an authoritarian ruler.
Our hearts and prayers go out this Shabbat to all those trapped in abusive relationships, languishing in cellars and basements at the mercy of cruel leaders. To adapt the words of the marvellous metaphysical poet, Andrew Marvell: Let us roll all our strength, and all our sweetness, all our courage and all our conviction, up into one ball and make our way through the iron gates of life!