Leadership at Purim   

Posted on Feb 22, 2023

When you think of Purim, what comes to mind? Perhaps you think of listening to the reading of Megilat Esther, or eating hamantaschen, or preparing mishloach manot for family and friends or the giving of tzedakah to the poor. Did you help your mother prepare a large Purim meal for the family? Perhaps you think (or once thought) of Purim as a Jewish Halloween, dressing and acting in a different persona, or a time to party with permission to get slightly drunk. 

Have you ever thought of Purim as a lesson in leadership? How about a lesson in female leadership? 

Let’s think about that. As children, we thought of Vashti in a negative manner while she was really a powerful woman protecting her rights to her body. She was not going to have the drunken King Ahasuerus embarrass her. Vanquished from the kingdom by the king, Vashti was a hero for standing up for her values and doing so loudly. 

The men of the kingdom afraid of their wives acting like Vashti, insisted that their wives follow the husband’s customs in the home. 

Then Esther appears on the scene as the new queen. Her religion is unknown to the palace. When Esther finds out about the plot to kill all the Jews, she is very distraught. In conversations with her uncle Mordechai, Esther is persuaded to speak to the king on behalf of the Jewish people. He explains to her that she is the only one who can do this job. While putting a guilt trip on her, Mordechai is letting her know also that she is the only one with the power to save the Jewish people.  

Esther finally agrees. She does not intend to go about this mission in Vashti’s outspoken manner.  Instead, “she intends to come from a place of sacred vulnerability,” according to JTS senior rabbinical student Rishe Groner. According to Rishe, “A place of sacred vulnerability means knowing from the deepest, most intuitive place that laying oneself bare, open, raw, and real leads to the greatest power.  That speaking from a place of need and awareness is the greatest in courage. That our abilities to be honest about ourselves . . . can enable us to work through that which holds us back to become infinitely more powerful as we move forward.” 

Rishe references Brené Brown, a researcher who has spent years exploring ideas around love, connection, confidence, and vulnerability, and who extols the virtues of vulnerability as a way of experiencing true courage and freeing oneself of shame. 

Rishe goes on to define “soft power” as the ability to persuade, attract, and co-opt, rather than coercing. Queen Esther took this approach. She knew she could not live with herself if her people were annihilated. 

In her approach, if she was to lay bare her vulnerability, she insisted on “buy-in” from the Jewish people. Esther knew that she needed to include the Jewish people. Strategically, she would fast for three days and nights, as would the Jewish people of Sushan. Then, she would be most vulnerable. And, within this sacred vulnerability she would have the power to influence the king. 

In today’s world, there are individuals heading companies and nonprofits using both leadership styles. There is the “dictator” style of leadership where the head demands the mission be accomplished in their manner. This usually leads to a very negative environment. Then there is the leader who seeks input, listens, and accomplishes the mission with consensus within a positive environment.