Freezing in Crisis

BY
hero image
Man in summer clothes frozen in an ice cube
13 Mar 2019
Inspiration

I once got a call from a friend whose husband had just been in an accident. Her preschool-aged son, around the same age as my daughter (I had two kids at the time), had a friend over and she wanted to bring them both to my house so she could join her husband at the hospital.

I’m embarrassed to say that I hesitated. In that moment of crisis, I froze: Wait, what? Can I handle two more little kids, along with my own, for who knows how long? I don’t know…

Only when she reacted to my non-reaction, and emphasized the enormity of the situation, was I able to see sense and give the only possible answer: Right, yes, of course, please bring them for as long as you need!

I like to think my initial reaction isn’t so uncommon. Faced with a new or otherwise frightening situation, one might rally immediately and start identifying and attacking tasks that need to be done – or one might panic, thinking (at least momentarily) there’s nothing he or she can possibly do. It’s too much, too scary, requires skills we don’t possess… and maybe we can’t even fathom what “it” is that we might do. Consider the proverbial deer in headlights: Any observer will see that the obvious thing to do is run, but the deer seems to almost forget it has working legs.

Happens to all of us, right?

One might say it happens to three central characters in Megillat Esther.

The most obvious is Esther herself. Mordechai tells her of a terrible royal decree that will destroy the entire Jewish nation, and asks her to plead with the king on their behalf. Seems like the obvious thing to do: she was married to the guy who’d made the decree; who better to tackle the task? But Esther hesitated, and while I’ve suggested there was more going on behind her hesitation, on a basic level we might read her reaction as a simple case of freezing in crisis. What do you mean? Go to the king? But he didn’t call me; I could be killed for that! Only once Mordechai pointed out the flaw in her logic – Do you think you won’t be killed if you don’t do it? – did Esther wake up and gather her strength to do what obviously had to be done.

And then – Mordechai himself, according to one midrashic reading, had a similar moment when Esther told him to declare a communal three-day fast on Pesach – when one is not allowed to fast. As the Midrash Rabbah (Esther Rabbah 8:7) tells it, Mordechai challenged Esther much like she challenged his original charge to go to the king: Wait, what? We’re not allowed to fast on Pesach! And then Esther shakes some sense into him, much like he did for her: Elder of Israel, why is it Pesach? The midrash then tells us that “immediately, Mordechai heard and agreed to her words.”

I used to understand Esther’s response as sarcastic, suggesting that Mordechai wasn’t being very bright if he thought they would continue to have Pesach at all if they didn’t take drastic measures, such as declaring a fast even to override the holiday. (Like we say in cases of life-threatening danger on Shabbos: break this one Shabbos so the person will live to observe Shabbos for years to come!)

Recently, though, I saw a different reading of this midrash that I like better. The way the Torah Temimah (on Esther 4:16) explains this pasuk, Esther is being perfectly straight: Mordechai, you are an elder of Israel. Declaring a fast to override a holiday is something you, of all people, have the power to do!

Just as Mordechai pointed out to Esther that she was the one best suited to go plead with the king – Esther pointed out to Mordechai that he was perfectly suited to declare a communal fast day.

Sometimes, in a moment of crisis, we forget our own capabilities and even responsibilities. And sometimes, it takes a nudge from someone else to help us see – or “hear” – reality clearly enough to move, to “immediately agree.” Of course I will!

And the third example? I have long been troubled by Achashverosh’s response when, once Haman is out of the way, Esther brings him back to the core issue: “Let it be written to take back the scrolls… that Haman wrote to destroy the Jews…” (8:5) A natural request – but what does the king say? He can’t do it; his hands are tied. A royal decree can’t be taken back (v. 8).

This pasuk always makes me think of the Disney movie, Aladdin. For most of the movie, the princess is stuck: she has to marry a prince. Her father is sympathetic, but the law is the law – until the end, when he gathers himself and declares, “Well, am I Sultan or am I Sultan? From this day forth, the princess can marry whomever she deems worthy.”

I’ve always wondered why Achashverosh couldn’t do the same. Is he king of 127 provinces, or is he not? (And of course, there are other parallels between the Megillah and Aladdin – like Jafar’s obvious resemblance to Haman.)

What’s interesting here – and different from the cases above of Esther and Mordechai – is that apparently, the king’s hands really were tied. With all the analysis of his decisions and debates about his character at other points in the story, and debates about whether he’s foolish or clever, the commentaries I’ve seen all seem to either accept that there really was a law preventing him from undoing his own decree, or understand that doing so wasn’t a viable option because of the effect it would have on his reputation.

Sometimes, in a crisis, we’re right that we can’t do it – even when it seems to outsiders that we are perfectly suited for the job. Sometimes the deer really won’t be able to run fast enough.

Oddly enough, this king – though he may or may not have been stupid and/or wicked – teaches us something here. Maybe two things.

First, he reminds us that sometimes there are real issues. There are lots of reasons someone might say “no” to a friend with an emergency – anything from not being home to having the flu to anything else we can (or can’t) imagine. And sometimes we know their reasons, but sometimes we don’t. Even when it seems obvious that someone should be able to help out, or do some job – we don’t always know the person’s whole story or the reasons behind their refusal. It might be perfectly legitimate; their hands might really be tied. And we may as well give them the benefit of that doubt, especially since most of us are neither stupid nor wicked.

And second – note that I misrepresented Achashverosh as an example of freezing in a crisis. Whatever else we might say about him, he didn’t really freeze; what he actually did was offer a different solution. Earlier in that same pasuk, even before offering excuses about why he can’t take back the decree, Achashverosh says, “You, write as is good in your eyes, in the king’s name, and seal with the king’s ring.”

Before crushing their hopes by telling them he can’t do as they asked, the king points out there are other ways. Maybe they couldn’t see the other ways themselves at first; maybe they were still in panicked crisis mode. But Achashverosh, a step removed from the panic (it wasn’t his nation being threatened!), points out that there are other solutions possible. And once he points that out, they find one, writing a decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves – a decree that, in the end, does the job.

It’s easy, in crisis mode, to become fixated either on the danger, the obstacles to a solution, or the illusion that there’s only one solution. But if we can take a step back, whether internally or with the help of a more objective outsider, we might be better able to see the door leading out of the crisis – yes, of course I can! Or to see how we might open a door that seemed locked – yes, I have the ability to change this! Or we might realize that one door really is off-limits, but that we can still open another one.


Sarah C. Rudolph is a Jewish educator and freelance writer. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over 15 years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Times of Israel, Kveller, Jewish Action, The Lehrhaus, TorahMusings, and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through www.TorahTutors.org and www.WebYeshiva.org.

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