Rabbi’s Corner

How we respond to sorrow

Rabbi Yossie Shemtov
Rabbi Yossie Shemtov

Two consequential decisions were made by Ahasuerus, King of Persia in the 4th century BCE. Both elicited the same crisis management, as told in the Book of Esther, which we will read on the upcoming holiday of Purim (Wednesday night, March 23 and Thursday, March 24).

The first was the punishment of Queen Vashti for her disobedience. After she refused to attend his party, her husband “consulted wise men versed with the times — for it was the royal practice to consult experts in law and judgement.”

The second was the king’s decision “to destroy, kill and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, little children and women, in a single day.” The king contacted “envoys of every province, and … the governors and ministers of every people.”

In contrast, the Jewish response to crisis is the polar opposite. Faced with an existential threat, the Jewish community doesn’t waste time on consultants and wordings of statements. Their leader, Mordechai, put on sackcloth and ashes, and cried out to his brethren to repent and change their ways.

The king’s second wife, Queen Esther, who was Jewish and related to Mordechai, felt that such self-demeaning behavior was inappropriate for the head of the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish tribunal. But Mordechai refused to change from his humble rags.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that although Mordechai could have personally saved himself from the decree of extermination, he remained in his sackcloth and ashes in support of his people as they battled for their lives.

This, the Rebbe says (as quoted in the Kol Menachem Megillah), is a powerful lesson to all of us about the importance of empathizing with, and taking responsibility for, the plight of others. We do this without consultation or consideration — it is who we are.

Under the most tragic circumstances this past week, we in Tucson have seen a community spring into action and unite in compassion and support at a time of sorrow and heartbreak.

Rabbi Yossi and Naomi Winner, co-directors of Chabad at the University of Arizona, lost their 3-month-old baby, Dovber, on the holy day of Shabbat, March 5. The outpouring of love hasn’t stopped since.

Inspiringly, the Winners are pouring their grief into hope. They are encouraging men and women to do “extra mitzvah in honor of Dovber.” They will return to the newly built Chabad house, reconfirming their promise “to see it grow and continue to be a source of light and warmth for students and faculty.”

When faced with a crisis, the Jewish nation takes immediate action. The evidence surrounds us.