What Does Purim Teach Us?

Many a rabbi has pointed out the midrashic wordplay that indicates that Yom Kippur is, in fact “a day like Purim” (Yom haKi-Purim). Others have noted that some sources indicate Purim to be the holiest Jewish Calendar day of them all. At the heart of Purim does, in fact, lie the holiest deed that any human being can commit oneself to.

For all of us, Jewish or otherwise, the Book of Esther is a celebration of triumph against greatly unfavorable odds.

On the one hand, the King of Persia (whose name has perplexed people reading the text out loud in English translation for centuries) has a temperament that is difficult to predict and a personality that is very difficult to define. On the other hand, there is Haman, who deems himself very powerful, very worthy of respect and has step-by-step and concrete visions for a plan to kill all Jews in the kingdom.

In their midst to clandestinely thwart Haman’s efforts are Mordechai and Esther, who do not feel empowered by the circumstances at all and often speak between themselves in uncertain terms in realizing their plan to save the Jews (in contrast to Haman’s confidence).

Despite that, they always, ALWAYS act on a plan, even when the strategy or the circumstances may not be absolutely sound.The story is a very holy one because it indicates that paralysis from fear or over-analysis is the antithesis of divine vision, and that seizing the day, however the day may be, is a divine attribute, found in many other heroes of Hebrew scriptures such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron and virtually ALL of the others.

Even when Esther thinks of the possibility of having herself and her people destroyed, she still presses onwards. Yom Kippur also contains very much a similar idea–that despite the numerous difficult circumstances created by our misdeeds–on a personal, communal and national level (if not in fact considering the whole human species)–we will nonetheless ask to move forward by being written and sealed in the Book of Life.

Purim is, above all, a celebration of risk taking, to which we as a species and Jews the world over (as well as other peoples) owe all of our accomplishments.

Purim and Yom Kippur also come at times of the year in which the seasons are waning away, in which winter despondency gives way to celebration and the mirth of the sun’s rays gives way to solemnity. In both holidays, despite everything, there is sadness and reflection on this sadness but never paralysis, and this reflects the type of determination that entrepeneurs, visionaries and resistors need to embody in 2018 and beyond.

As the head of my own company, I think of all of the ways that I have needlessly been hindered by my own self-doubt and limiting beliefs. Esther and Mordechai could have done the same, but then I wouldn’t exist and by extension the Jewish people would have been a memory.

On Purim I revel in the possibility that we will embrace who we truly are, with our primal optimism, and reflect the very best aspects of the human experience, unfettered by negative emotions weighing us down, that any Supreme God or human being would be very proud of.

Happy Purim to all you risk takers out there, and to all who have yet to take a chance. Go on, have the first bite!

Tu B’Shvat: The Jewish Holiday Intended for Everyone  

Most Jews in the U.S. today would associate Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish New Year for the Trees, with something like the American Earth Day. Even Jews from outside of the U.S. are likely to associate it with ecological awareness and environmental protection (possibly due to global attention rightly paid to these issues). In antiquity, far before humanity was aware of its ability to damage the biosphere, Tu B’shvat occupies an intriguing place in the Jewish calendar as a day of everyday agricultural workers.

The Pilgrimage Festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot) involved priestly ritual and the Temple in Jerusalem, as did the high holidays. Hannukah and Purim involve people in positions of power as the heroes. In contrast to these holidays, Tu B’Shvat is primarily a holiday about ordinary work and ordinary cycles, which is important to consider given that the priesthood and the royalty, despite being the Children of Israel along with everyone else, had a sense of detachment from the general populace. A lot of Jewish day school narratives, both when discussing Jewish history as a whole as well as the background for many holidays, focus on “big guys”, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David and their families. Often what isn’t present is the fact that the entire story is usually, especially in the Five Books of Moses, on the Children of Israel themselves. Despite struggling with both their leaders and God, they are not just what makes the story, they ARE the story.

It is far too easy to lose sight of the fact that it is often the masses in Jewish history that have been the most important and influential, although seldom are any of them given a voice (as is the case in much of the world with any people group). In an age in which a lot of young Jews are clamoring for acceptance in communities, Tu Beshvat can help us think about how the Jewish experience has had many dimensions in which people of all trades were not only involved but very deeply involved. The Jewish story in the Bible isn’t only one about high priests and kings, nor is the one in the Talmud only about sages—it involves the whole of the people. While many other holidays may celebrate the Temple rites or singular Biblical heroes, Tu B’shvat is a holiday for those orchard laborers in Judah and Israel whose stories were never told.

From entrepreneurial standpoint, this understanding of Tu B’shvat is essential, especially now. Many entrepeneurs of contemporary times tend to focus on individual characters (such as CEO’s, bosses, well-known heroes and paragons of the craft) rather than big collectives that history may have not given a strong voice. But what about those lacking that strong voice? What can business leaders learn from partaking of a rite that resembles the life of the ordinary farmer?

Individualism and competition in the world, rather than collectivism, has sometimes been a toxic influence, and Tu B’shvat is about the wholesomeness of the human story as well as the agricultural and ecological experience. Above all, this holiday serves as a reminder that, despite our accomplishments, our ancestors were largely ordinary laborers and we owe a lot to them and need to learn from their example.



The Hannukah Story: A Recipe for Startups?

This year, the story of Hannukah has taken on a new dimension for me. As a company founder, I see the story of Hannukah as one of persistence and triumph in the face of adversity. But also, a flawed one, as is the case with many startups and businesses.

The Maccabees are admirable in the respect that, very much like many startups today, they managed to define their vision and carry it out despite the fact that it seems that the world may not deem it favorable or plausible. Contrary to what ordinary people would expect, they win. The story is, at heart, one of revolutionary projects. However, in recent times, some have branded the Maccabees as religious fanatics who forcibly converted people to Judaism.

I don‘t deem Hannukah or a celebration of the Maccabean triumph as a problem, but rather a collection of lessons for creative minds and entrepreneurs today.

I am grateful that we live in a time in which virtually every Biblical hero is reckoned with in terms of his or her moral shortcomings (not to mention dozens upon dozens of secular heroes in the Jewish world and beyond). The Maccabees were military heroes, while the purveyors of Talmudic Culture, which evolved into contemporary Jewish practices, were distrustful of secular power, empire and brute strength.

I too, much like the Amoraim who compiled the Talmud, deem military might and worship of war heroes as something to keep my distance from (all this while I am grateful for military campaigns that have prevented ethnic cleansing and genocide or at least stopped it from happening further).

In the same way that we hold Biblical heroes accountable for their shortcomings, we must also hold CEOs, world leaders, and business managers accountable for their actions. Biblical characters, themselves, find that their misdeeds impact their life stories and reputations long after the fact. The reason why is telling: because figures with any sort of power had – and continue to have – the chance to bring healing change to the world or raze it to its foundation. While the Divine element in today’s world, the one that brings about judgment and justice, is more hidden, we, as the human race, have the power to make it apparent and judge those in power favorably or unfavorably in accordance with our morals.

Antiochus Continues to Exist in Our World

As a child in Jewish school, the forces of Antiochus, as well as the culture he represented, stood for something very clear. In a sense, the “Yavanim” were purveyors of a worldview that sought to deal away with differences, to unite an empire through cultural conformity. Antiochus‘ offer was tempting, given that people throughout history have given up their traditional cultural distinctions in favor of one that is associated with power, status, and acceptance (and this continues to be the case all over the world).

Despite all of that temptation of surrendering one‘s distinctions and uniqueness for security, there were the Maccabees who flew against the stream, and – contrary to all expectation – they won against a superior military power.

Starting one‘s own business takes extreme bravery, much like Judah the Maccabee and his family had. There is sacrifice of the routine as well as a significant amount of discouragement and temptation to give up from the outside and the inside. There are deep setbacks as well as moments that seem to require miracles.

In the contemporary world, there still is that path of least resistance, the one to constantly do the safer thing, to become more like everybody else, to give up one‘s culture or identity in exchange for a group‘s acceptance. Backed by media, advertisements, and multinational corporations, the temptation to follow the Antiochuses of today is stronger than anyone living in Judah the Maccabee‘s time could have ever thought possible.

One of the first things I ever remember hearing when I began designing my first video game was that “different always does better in the store”. Having investigated many fields of study and subcultures throughout the world, it is evident to me, if not all of us, that remaining personally as well as culturally distinct (while still acknowledging the good of other cultures and people) is the key to finding a fulfilling life, rather than surrendering it in the name of the “safe path”.

The Maccabees didn‘t take the safe path. The most successful entrepreneurs tend not to either.

When I light the candles this Hannukah, I will do so not only for the miracle that a culture was saved, but also for the many miracles that world-changing projects have experienced. Ones that made innovation possible and continue to make the world a place of constant surprise and betterment, despite the naysayers and challenges.