Esther, Margaret and the Weasels: A Lesson in Creativity

February 28, 2018

When a friend recently described me as creative, I was flattered but not at all sure she was right. True, I manage the occasional bit of amateur artwork with my kids’ fruits and vegetables. My crowning achievement: a stegosaurus made out of a cantaloupe for my son’s fifth birthday party. (He’s almost ten and I’m still talking about it, which just goes to show….) I do like to think I have some positive qualities, but wouldn’t have listed “creativity” among them.

Considering further whether I deserved my friend’s label, I remembered that at the very least, there was a time in my life when I longed to be creative. I spent most of my senior year of college immersed in research for a senior project; basically, I read a lot of commentaries on the first half of Sefer Bereishit and fit them together like puzzle pieces to create a unified and supportable thesis about Avraham Avinu. Insert this commentary here; take out that one over there, maybe move it to that other spot and smooth things with a nice tight transition. The same thing we all do when we write a paper, but somehow it began to irk me that all I was doing was rearranging material. I developed an overwhelming desire to create material.

I remember thinking with frustration of the statement in Kohelet, “אין כל חדש תחת השמש,” “there is nothing new under the sun” (1:9). Was everything really done already? I’m not really sure why I found this so frustrating, why I became so desperate to make something totally new. Maybe it was some sort of adolescent need to find myself, to search out my individuality, to do something entirely different from everyone else. Maybe I was just burnt out from all the late nights comparing commentaries and trying to fit them together tightly. Whatever the reason, the need was intense enough that I contemplated signing up for random creative writing courses I saw advertised in Manhattan, even though I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable in those settings, or maybe for a pottery class, even though I don’t particularly like getting messy.

Over time, the feeling subsided, and I think I wondered at various points whether it had gone the way of so many unrealized adolescent passions, and whether I should be satisfied with that. Did I “sell out” or “settle” because I never created a work of fiction or brought a clay vase into existence? Maybe, but I hope not. I prefer to think that my conception of “create” matured, developing complexity that allowed me to find satisfaction with the creativity that was already inherent in everything I did – indeed, in everything any one of us does.

What makes something “creative” and new? When my friend asserted that my writing – often similar to the puzzle-making of my senior thesis – qualifies me as creative, I thought back to that college angst and how presumptuous it really was to think I could create something entirely new. After all, G-d is the One Who creates “yesh me’ayin,” something from nothing – and even He doesn’t do it anymore! That was a one-shot, six-day deal, never to be repeated (with the possible exception of certain miracles, depending who you ask – but I digress). Naturally (pun intended), all that remains for me – for any human – is to create “yesh mi’yesh,” to take what exists and yes, rearrange it into something new. There is nothing new under the sun. Even if I had taken one of those creative writing courses – I would only have been piecing together bits of character and plot that already exist in the world of narrative. Even if I had learned pottery, I would have been using the same clay as everyone else. And how many unique new shapes of vase can really be invented?

Ironically, though, this realization led me to the conclusion that my friend was right. I am creative, and so are you. Our materials might exist already; every word, idea, commentary, musical note, color on a palette – any ingredient any one of us could possibly use in any endeavor in this physical world, already exists. But nobody has ever put them together the way that this painter or that musician or the other writer might do it.

How many people have read Malbim’s commentary on Shoftim? In particular, on chapter 6 verse 14? How many people who read it, noticed it? How many of them were struck by it the way I was, or were motivated to work it into an essay? Not a single other person could have done that the way I recently did, because no one else is me. And that means that yes, my arrangement of Malbim’s sentence into an essay is creative. It’s creative because it’s unique; because only I could have done it. Others could have done other things, maybe better things, with that Malbim, or with similar ideas. But the fact remains that I created something that never existed before, that could not have existed without me.

I keep thinking about a line my husband tells me is from a Scott Adams book, though we haven’t been able to locate it. In this alleged line, the author observes that the sentence “Margaret will be in charge of the weasels” has probably never been spoken before. This is a pretty silly sentence, but it represents a profound insight. The name “Margaret” has been around for a while; so have weasels, and so has the notion of being “in charge.” But someone took those elements and put them together in a way that never existed before. This sentence wouldn’t exist without that author; he is its creator, and that new creation is worthy of note. The impact of this particular sentence may not be especially earth-shattering, but it is worth noting that once that author created that sentence – the world was changed. Because as it happens, the sentence “Margaret will be in charge of the weasels” has now been uttered countless times in my house alone. One unique personality was able to arrange a few apparently mundane words into an apparently ridiculous sentence, and now that sentence exists where it didn’t before, and it can change lives in unforeseen ways, as readers  might take it and run with it and build whole paragraphs on its existence. All because of one person, who did something no one else could have done.

This idea can be found, hidden (as so many ideas are) in the Purim story. The Megillah describes how Mordechai convinced Esther to go to Achashverosh, but if we look carefully, his argument includes a point that seems to run counter to his goal: “If you are silent at this time, relief and salvation will arise for the Jews from another place” (Esther 4:14). If that’s the case, Esther might well respond, why should I risk my life to do it? Why does it matter if I do it, when G-d will in any case make sure the Jews are saved? (Like I often tell my kids: it doesn’t matter who gets the plates and who gets the forks, as long as the table gets set!) Let G-d make arrangements in a way that won’t risk my life!

The answer, though, is embedded in the rest of Mordechai’s plea. He continues, “but you and the house of your father will be lost; and who knows whether it is for a time such as this that you came into royalty?” Sure, says Mordechai, the Jews could be saved another way. But then you – and your family, the history of everything that makes you you – will be lost. You will have missed the chance to put yourself to the cause, in the way only you can do. And who knows; maybe you are uniquely placed in the palace so that you can put your unique creativity to use in making this work!

Maybe each of us is uniquely situated to work our creative magic, with materials already in existence, and bring something new into the world, make something happen that could never have been without us.

Esther apparently understands this message, because rather than saying, “Okay, so let it come from another place!” she sets a complicated plan in motion. The Gemara in Megillah (15b) wonders about that plan, why she invited Haman and Achashverosh to a party, and offers a litany of possible explanations of the thought behind her strategy. (In a possible allusion to Mordechai’s wording, one answer given is that she based her plan on a principle she had learned from “her father’s house” – an idea uniquely learned, internalized, and applied by her.) Anyone else, in that position and with the same people and tools to work with, would have gone about things in some other way, and it could have worked. And if there were no one in that position, someone else could have come in out of left field, with other tools and strengths, and saved the day. But only Esther had her strategy; only she could create the unity among her people, and the distrust between Achashverosh and Haman, that ultimately led to the salvation of the Jews in the particular way we celebrate on Purim.

Everything we do ultimately comes down to the same, yet unique, type of creative process: bringing our unique background, abilities, and thought processes to bear on things that already exist in the world, producing  whole new creations out of those ingredients with the potential to change the world in ways big and small and unpredictable. Just like Esther, Margaret, and the weasels.



The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.