Achashveirosh in the White House

By Chana Gansburg, Crown Heights, NY
Essays 2017

MyLife Essay Contest 2017

It was in the days of Achashveirosh, the pompous, arrogant, narcissist who ruled over 127 lands, that the Jewish people enjoyed the greatest privilege. They enjoyed religious freedom and freedom to prosper. Their leader and sage sat at the palace gates serving as a top advisor to the monarch, and their sister sat on the throne. So great was the king’s tolerance, that he allowed Mordechai to establish a Yeshiva in the king’s own courtyard. The Rebbe refers to the Persian Empire of that time as a Medina shel Chessed.

So how did the Yidden go from being so beholden to being threatened with utter annihilation? During the Purim farbrengen of 5726, the Rebbe outlines exactly what went wrong, how it was fixed and what it all means for us today.

The Rebbe explains that Haman’s evil decree took root because the Yidden sinned. Their sin was that they took pleasure in the feast of Achashveirosh, not that they attended, but because they derived pleasure from it. It wasn’t the gourmet Kosher food or the expensive exotic wines that elicited such excitement, but the fact that the King included them in his banquet. At last, they felt accepted, their existence felt validated, and that was their sin, a sin so great, it rendered the Yidden worthy of destruction.

The leader of the generation, Mordechai HaTzaddik, knew that in order to be saved from Haman’s decree, the Yidden needed to atone for their sin. Immediately, he donned sackcloth and ashes and turned his attention to the school children. He didn’t seek an audience with the king with whom he enjoyed a longstanding relationship, he did not attempt to bribe the king, or gather the elders to petition him, instead, he sought out the children and inquired about their education, for he knew that a proper Jewish education is what determines from where a Jew will seek validation, and the Tshuvah of the entire Jewish Nation will only be accepted if the education of the children was right and proper.

Each morning I send six of my eight children off to school. Each day, my husband toils, sweats and bleeds to provide enough to not only feed, clothe, shelter and whenever possible spoil our troop of tiny people, but enough to send them to Yeshivah, not to public school, not to a top nationally rated private school, not to an ivy league college, we specifically choose to send our children to Yeshivah. Why? Because my husband and I are trying to raise our children to be happy, G-d fearing Yidden. Yidden who are fulfilled in their Yiddishkeit, proud of their identity and heritage, and successful in their life of service to Hashem. We not only believe that a Torah guided life will give our children emotional and physical happiness and success, but that only a Torah life can give them that.

Why? Why are we so fanatically opposed to even the slightest mention of a secular method or approach to education? Why can we not be open-minded to using the secular experts’ methods, research and “proven” success to teach our children Torah? In order to properly answer that question, it is necessary to understand what the purpose of a secular education is, and what the intention of every expert who wishes to effect change in our system (of his own volition or in response to the demands of parents or the administration) is.

The goal of the secular system is to empower a child to be able to accomplish the greatest good that their potential allows. Be it save the whales, feed an impoverished nation, cure cancer, or simply decide to use paper bags instead of plastic, the child should be able to achieve whatever he or she perceives as greatness. Being that knowledge is power, the more a child knows, the greater good he or she can achieve.

In this vein, the Head Start system is designed to give students a “head start,” teach them as much as possible to prepare them for future learning. Shapes prepare them for geometry, numbers prepare them for arithmetic, colors and incorporating sensory activities into every activity prepare them for all the sciences that are discovered through seeing, touching, smelling, moving etc. The Montessori system believes that a child’s natural curiosity can more effectively lead his education than a traditional instructor-based setting, but the goal remains the same, that the student acquire as much knowledge and understanding of the physical world as possible. So what are they trying to do? They are endeavoring to empower future generations through the physicality, the science and chochma of this world, to the point where nothing can stand in their way, not even basic biology!

Now we can ask “Why?” Why would it not benefit our children to teach Torah through secular methods? Wouldn’t it be beneficial to shove as much Torah as we can into our children’s brains? The answer is an emphatic NO! Why? Because our intention is not to pour knowledge into them. Torah, if viewed as information or knowledge, is not Torah. Our goal is to raise happy, G-d fearing, Yidden. Yidden who are secure with their gender, happy in their marriage, bound to their children, generous and kind to their neighbors and community, adults who are constantly striving to improve their actions and character every day of their lives.

Therefore, we teach Torah, because Torah teaches us how to live, how to be, how to view the world, how to interact with it and how to be part of it. In order to teach Torah as a way of life and not as a subject or source of information, it must be taught on a firm, unwavering foundation of Kabalas Ol. And herein lies the most blatant incompatibility between the secular approach and the Jewish one.

A secular educator looks at a three-year-old and envisions a future for him full of curiosity, of exploration, of experimentation, where the world around him inspires him to pursue its mysteries and messages resulting in a life full of learning and discovery. The educator’s methods and approaches to every subject has this goal in mind. The educator dreams of the day his student will look at the moon and not see a glowing white rock, but he will see the craters, the dead volcanoes and ancient lava flows covering its surface, he will see the planets and constellations that exist above and beyond the moon, he will wonder about life on those planets and will endeavor to discover water on Mars. Now that would signify that this student had received a top notch education. (Nevermind that he is self-centered, cares more about trees than people, and consciously chose not to ever meet his children.)

A Jewish child is different. When a melamed looks at a three-year-old child, he envisions a future where the child can look up at the moon and be reminded to be humble, to be happy with what he has, unlike the moon who wanted to be larger than the sun and in turn was made smaller. His spirits are lifted by the moon as he thinks of the wonders that the era of Moshiach will bring when the moon will shine even brighter than the sun. When he is feeling low and small, he can look at the moon and its cycles remind him that he is not alone, the Jewish Nation, like the moon, wanes and waxes, and his hardships are temporary. And most importantly the ever-present, glowing moon, that appears at random in all corners of sky, often visible even by day reminds him that Hashem, the creator of the moon, is everywhere, that Hashem is there with him, watching him, guiding him, loving him, helping him. The melamed’s success is achieved when everything the child hears, sees, and feels aids him in his life and in his service of Hashem.

These two goals, the one of the secular educator and the goal of the melamed, are mutually exclusive. A child can’t be raised with both and one can’t be a channel for the other. Much like fire can’t breed water and water can’t feed fire, no matter how impressive each one is on its own, it is impossible for them to assist each other, one of them will survive only by the demise of the other. A young child’s malleable mind will be influenced by everything he or she is exposed to. Both the secular educator and the melamed are highly sensitive to this fact, and where the former uses it to expose the child to as much as possible, to excite the child with the materialism of the world, the melamed’s goal is to lift the child above the materialism to train him to see beyond it, to see the G-dliness, the purpose of the materialism, and not to get distracted or, G-d forbid, swallowed up by it.

The Rebbe draws a parallel between the Yidden in the Megillah and our generation. We, too, live in a time of great privilege. We live in a Medina shel Chessed, free from religious persecution, free to engage in trade, in academia, in government and politics. Suddenly, we even have a President as pompous, arrogant and narcissistic as Achashveirosh residing in the White House, inviting Jews to prosper under his rule. It is incumbent upon us to learn the lesson of the Megillah, to protect ourselves from repeating our terrible behavior of looking to the secular world for validation, of gauging our success by their standards, of constantly checking how we measure up to them.

The physical well-being of our entire nation depends on our spiritual health. Just as the spiritual leader of the Yidden, Mordechai HaTzaddik, focused all his energies on their spiritual well-being, and he left the job of procuring a physical vessel to satisfy the workings of the physical realm to just one individual, Esther, for he knew that it was just a vessel and one person being in the right place at the right time was sufficient to get the job done, we too, must focus on our spiritual health. We must remember that our validation comes from our Creator, our contentment and success from following His Torah, and our security and continuity from ensuring that our children are receiving a proper Jewish education, an education Al Taharas Hakodesh.