Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Circle of Life – A Contemporary Purim Tale

One of the most profound lessons of the Hebrew Bible – and of Jewish tradition --  is to be found in Chapter Four of Megillat Esther, which we will read this weekend when we celebrate Purim. Therein, Mordechai compels Esther to go to King Ahasuerus not only for the salvation of the Jewish people but for her own sake as well.

Mordechai informs Esther that she is mistaken if she imagines that her royal position will protect her from Haman’s genocidal plot. He then goes one step further, appealing to her sense of personal mission, enabling her to envision herself within the context of Jewish history:

U’mi yoda’ah im l’et kazot higa’at l’malchut -- And who knows if it was not for a moment just like this that you arrived at your royal position?

From the construction of this sentence, beginning with the word “and,” one can imagine Mordechai musing aloud, turning this concept over in mind, perhaps even stroking his beard as he pondered whether Esther’s royal position was tied up with the history and fate of the Jewish People.

Every year, this verse jumps out at me in the middle of the boisterous megillah reading, filling me with deep emotion. Yes, the concept of having been put on earth to fulfill a mission is deeply Jewish, but the resonance of this pasuk is also deeply personal for me.

Three decades ago, when I was 15 years old, my father’s second wife, the only mother I ever knew, passed away. Needless to say, this was a very vulnerable time for me. Aside from the trauma of maternal loss (compounded twice because my biological mother died when I was an infant), our family was plunged into distress as my mother’s death obviously had a devastating effect on my father as well.  By the time I got to college, I had to work full-time. Because of relationships I had formed at USY, I was able to get a job with an automotive warehouse whose Jewish owners were very involved with the local Jewish community and Israel.

One day, my boss called me into his office and slid an envelope across the table.

“What is this?” I asked with trepidation.

Smiling, he said, “It’s for you. Open the envelope.”

Wordlessly, I opened the envelope. There was a document inside showing that I was registered for a trip to Israel. “What is this?” I repeated.

“Our local Federation is sponsoring a trip to Israel and my partners and I decided that you should be part of it,” he told me. “This is your registration.”

I was a junior in college, a rabbi’s son, but I had never been to Israel before. That act of generosity changed the course of my entire life, setting me on a path towards the rabbinate and service to the Jewish People.

U’mi yoda’ah im l’et kazot higa’at l’malchut?

I came back from trip to Israel the same way that most everyone does: uplifted, inspired, transformed. That experience is ultimately the reason I went to JTS and am now the CEO of United Synagogue.
Rabbi Wernick, pictured with Rabbi Rick Jacobs (URJ) and Steven Weil (OU)
That moment of kindness brought me to the most recent AIPAC gathering, where I told this story.  It was a seminal moment in my life. And it was inspired by the recognition – on the part of my bosses -- that individuals are capable of changing the course of Jewish history.

But there is a postscript to this story, a further extraordinary outcome to my having shared it at AIPAC.

What I didn’t know as I ascended the stage to speak was that the president of that automotive company was in the audience.

The man who changed the course of my life -- from late adolescence and onward -- was attending the AIPAC convention with his family.  The act of my sharing this story provided them with tangible, quantifiable, measurable proof that acts of chesed – loving-kindness – can change the world…often one person at a time.

Leaving AIPAC, I was awash in so many feelings. Yes, being part of a mega-gathering in support of Israel is heady enough; this year’s convention drew over 14,000 people from a wide ideological spectrum. And I had come to AIPAC on the heels of a recent, remarkable trip to Israel with the Conference of Presidents, the Jewish Agency and Masorti Olami, our worldwide Conservative Judaism.

But the thought that has occupied me since my AIPAC presentation is best encapsulated by Mordechai’s words to Esther on the eve of destruction: U’mi yoda’ah im l’et kazot higa’at l’malchut?

What, I wonder, would it mean if we lived our lives with the understanding that we are capable, at every moment, of great acts of transformation and action – through our own agency or through the enabling of someone else?

What if we lived life with the knowledge of the power and potential of chesed?

As we approach the holiday of Purim, let us take a lesson from Mordechai and his modern-day descendants – Harold Scherling, Michael Schoenberger, and Dan Ribnick – who were able to recognize the concept of et hazot – this moment.

As surely as the sun rises, each new day presents us with innumerable opportunities to act, to seize the et hazot.

And just as the decision of Harold, Michael and Dan to send me to Israel grew out of their communal consciousness and sense of Klal Yisrael, the core of our work at United Synagogue is to build, strengthen and transform our kehillot so that they are sacred communities of meaning and relationship.

This Purim, may we be able to act in the spirit of et hazot. This Purim, may we be like Mordecai and Esther, agents for redemption.