Who Zelensky wants the Jewish people (and all of us) to be

“I am now addressing all the Jews of the world. Don’t you see what is happening? Do not be silent right now.”

Like so many around the world, since Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, I’ve been watching Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s regular video addresses on the war. 

One of the central themes in these videos, and in Zelensky’s speeches to the European Parliament and U.N., is his personal appeal to the world to support Ukraine and condemn the Russian attack.

Zelensky has directed his video pleas to multiple audiences — the Russian people, the Ukrainian people, the Jewish people, leaders in Europe and the West and the entire world. But regardless of the intended audience, the message is the same: “Do something. Speak out. Don’t remain silent.”

“Our diplomats and our friends unite the world for the sake of Ukraine and the whole world,” Zelensky said in one video. Neutral Switzerland supported E.U. sanctions against Russian oligarchs, against the state and companies. Once again, neutral Switzerland. What are some other countries waiting for?”

Listening to Zelensky’s repeated appeals to the world to do something and to help Ukraine as it is under attack, I’ve been thinking about a comment that New York Times opinion columnist David Brooks made on a recent episode of the podcast, “The Ezra Klein Show.”

In a conversation with the ethicist Leon Kass, Brooks was discussing his approach to friendship and what the deepest friendship entails.

“I’ve gone through hard times and I’ve thrown myself on my friends. I’ve always felt guilty about it because I’m burdening them,” Brooks said.

“Later, when I came out of hard times and I’ve been in good times, and people throw themselves on me, I realize that I’m thrilled when they do that. It allows us to deepen our friendship. And the lesson I’ve learned is, never hesitate to burden a friend if you’re going through something, because it’s really a treasure to them.”

What does it mean to get up and do something for someone else, or for another country, and what is the idea behind that? The story of Purim offers one compelling answer to that question, which is the idea of what I’m calling a “4:14 Jew.”

What do I mean by a 4:14 Jew? As Yoram Hazony, author of “God and Politics in Esther,” wrote, there is one sentence in the Book of Esther that is arguably “the thesis around which the entire book is built.”

That is Mordechai’s famous statement to Esther in 4:14, in which he pleads with her to use her status and privilege and do something on behalf of the Jewish people:

If you are silent and you do nothing at this time, help will come to the Jewish people from another quarter… And who knows whether it was not for such a time as this that you came into royalty?

Unfortunately, this demand is not so simple, and Esther knows that. She is aware that anyone who approaches the king without being summoned — as Mordechai is asking her to do — could face the death penalty (if you’re unfamiliar with the Purim story, you can read it here).

Despite this, she has the courage and wisdom to heed this call: “Then I will go in to the king, though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish,” she responds (4:16).

Ultimately, as a result of both Mordechai’s rhetorical question and Esther’s response, the Jewish people are saved. Being a 4:14 Jew means following in the footsteps of Esther and Mordechai. It means doing something and being willing to give up something. It means taking a stand for what is right, even at great personal risk.

This leads me to an obvious set of questions: Don’t we all want to act nobly? Don’t we all want to do the right thing? Why don’t we want to be 4:14 Jews? What’s holding us back from doing something? I want to suggest three thoughts we might have that get in the way of us being this way:

1. “Do I really matter?”

There is a great debate in Jewish and religious thought about the relationship between God’s presence in the world and human beings’ freedom of choice. One of these existential questions is, “If God controls the world, does what I do really matter?”

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 4:3 has a compelling answer to this: “Ein lecha adam she-ein lo sha’ah,” which I translate as, “There is no person who does not have their moment.” Every person has a role to play at a given time that they uniquely can do, and it is impossible to know when that will be.

The story of a man named Eddie Jacobson illustrates this. Jacobson was born in 1891 and grew up on the Lower East Side in New York City. When Jacobson was 14 years old, his family moved to Kansas City, and there he met Harry Truman who was around the same age. The two became close friends and completed military service together during World War I, and later started a business together.

The business collapsed and the two went their separate ways, and Truman went on to become President of the United States.

In 1947 and 1948, Jews around the world needed the support of the U.S. for the creation of the state of Israel. Truman was reluctant to do so, and had issued instructions that he did not want to see any more spokespeople for the Zionist cause.

This was when Eddie Jacobson’s “moment” arrived. Someone remembered that Truman had a close childhood friend named Eddie Jacobson, and urged him to lobby Truman to support the new Jewish state.

On March 13, 1948, Jacobson went to see his old friend Truman in the White House, and pleaded with him to meet with Chaim Weizmann, the leader of the Zionist movement. Truman just couldn’t say no to his old friend, and he agreed.

Truman met with Weizmann, and the U.S. subsequently became the first nation to recognize Israel on May 14, 1948, just 11 minutes after it was declared a state. 

According to Gary Ginsberg, author of the book “First Friends: The Powerful, Unsung (and Unelected) People Who Shaped Our Presidents,” Jacobson “convinced the president to do something that he otherwise would not have done.”

“I think the evidence suggests that [Jacobson] played a very critical role in breaking the logjam that existed in Truman’s head” about recognizing Israel, Ginsberg said.

As the story of Jacobson shows, although it’s easy to feel like a speck of dust in a world of 8 billion people, there are times when each person could be called upon to make a big difference. Not all of us are in positions of great power or royalty like Esther was, but we are each presented with moments when it’s up to us to rise to the occasion.

Even if we are not kings, queens or heads of state, we can still make choices that have big consequences in our own spheres of influence. As Rabbi David Fohrman has said, “We can be the main character in our own lives” — influence the communities we are a part of for the better and rebel against the passivity we may feel. Our choices and decisions really do matter.

2. “Will this really work?”

In addition to the doubts we might have about our own ability to create change, another question that could dissuade us from being 4:14 Jews is, “Will this really work?” 

I’ve been living in Hollywood, Florida for a little over a year now, but I recently went to the famous Hard Rock Casino for the first time. I’m not a gambler, but I was reminded of what it’s like to gamble and to “play the odds.” The fundamental question when gambling is, “Will this really work?” And the answer is, “I don’t know. Maybe or maybe not.”

The same question applies when there’s a big decision that needs to be made. There is always going to be a cost, and there are no guarantees about how it will turn out. We can never really know the outcome in advance, yet there are times when we must make a decision amid great uncertainty, and accept this uncertainty.

Returning to the Purim story, Esther’s response in 4:16 conveys this idea: “If I perish, I perish.” Her plan might work out, but it also might not work out. She makes the decision to accept this uncertainty and go forward in spite of this. What should we do when we are faced with uncertainty and a decision must be made?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks zt’l suggested that we pay attention and listen for a voice that is calling us to do something:

“Wherever we are, sometimes [God] is asking us to realize why He put us here, with these gifts, at this time, with these dangers, in this place,” Rabbi Sacks wrote. “Even [when God appears hidden], if you listen hard enough, you can hear [God] calling to us as individuals, saying, ‘Was is not for this very challenge that you are here in this place at this time?’”

One of the key lessons of Purim is that we can pay close attention, and when that voice is present, we must have the courage to listen to it and take action.

3. “Inaction is inaction.”

A third thought that could hold us back from being a 4:14 Jew is the belief that “inaction is inaction.” That is the opposite of the truth — inaction is, in fact, action. A decision to not make a decision, is a decision. Not making a decision also has very real consequences.

Elie Wiesel famously said, “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

Similarly, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.”

When we take a neutral stance or remain silent in times of injustice, we are engaging in cognitive dissonance. We know that we should speak out and do something, but we end up justifying to ourselves why we should sit back and ultimately do nothing. We can counter this tendency by reminding ourselves that inaction is, indeed, action.

So, why be a 4:14 Jew? Why should we be willing to speak out and do something, rather than stay silent or quiet and do nothing?

We should be 4:14 Jews because we do really matter, and because part of heroism is playing the odds, when there are no guarantees that it will work out. And we should be this way because choosing inaction is a form of action with real consequences.

Most importantly, we have to listen to God’s voice, or our inner voice depending on how you think about it, to know what’s going on. And we tend to have a strong sense of what’s going on, so let’s put aside the other “voice” in our head that says that’s not the case.

With these misconceptions in mind, here are a few takeaways for how we can all be “4:14 Jews”:

  1. We don’t need to be like Eddie Jacobson (i.e., a close friend of the U.S. President) or Queen Esther, but in any position of power we hold, the idea is, “do something.” As Pirkei Avot 4:3 states, we all have our moment. Let’s recognize those moments and do something when we are being called to action.

  2. Speak out in support of Ukraine and against the invasion, and donate to help Ukraine relief efforts. Zelensky has pleaded with the Jewish community and the world to do something and not remain silent about Ukraine. Let’s respond to Zelensky’s plea by speaking out and supporting relief efforts. You can donate to the following Jewish organizations providing assistance, or support one of these vetted nonprofits in Ukraine.

  3. Resist the notion that your actions don’t really matter. The 19th-century Rabbi Simcha Bunim of Peshischa famously said that we should all live with two pieces of paper in our pockets. One piece of paper should state, Bishvili nivra ha-olam, “for my sake the world was created,” and the other should read, V’anokhi afar v’efer, “I am but dust and ashes.” If we act only in a way of “Bishvili nivra ha-olam,” then we’re cocky and arrogant. But if we exclusively think, “V’anokhi afar v’efer,” this could lead to a life of defeatism and inaction. Let’s be mindful of this and remember that our actions do matter.

  4. Put this into practice and be a 4:14 Jew this Purim. One of the mitzvot of Purim is giving matanot l’evyonim (gifts to the poor or those in need), and the obligation can be fulfilled through any type of gift (such as money, food, drinks or clothing). This is a perfect time to donate to assist refugees, people in Ukraine and any Jewish community in need. Let’s all give that $180 gift (or whatever amount we can give), and resist the idea that our one donation won’t make a difference. Let’s also give extra mishloach manot (gifts of food and drinks) to our friends and neighbors this Purim, and be 4:14 Jews for our friends and neighbors as well.

Whether it’s giving mishloach manot, matanot l’evyonim or something else, the small things that we do can have massive implications. A conversation I recently had with a Jewish educator in New York demonstrated this. The educator was having questions about his career and was unsure what to do, and asked me for advice. I asked him, “What do you love about your job?” 

He replied, “You know, I just recently taught Megilat Esther, we went pasuk by pasuk, verse by verse. And for the first time, a student said to me, ‘I never did this before, I’ve never really learned Megilat Esther.’”

For that student, “U’mi yodeia im l’et kazot higa’at lamalchut?” “Who knows if it was not for this moment that you are in this position?” This educator changed that young person’s life.

For many people of faith, this concept can be challenging to grasp. We end up using expressions like b’ezrat hashem (“with the help of God”), im yirtzeh hashem (“if God wants”), and baruch hashem (“blessed is God”).

Don’t get me wrong — it’s good to believe in God and to know that God is ultimately in control, or that we do not have full control over what happens in our lives. But let’s not mistake that for the only reality in life.

The other reality is that, to quote Hazony, “There can be no Exodus without the leadership of Moses, no calling Israel to return to God without Jeremiah.”

This theme of partnership is pervasive throughout the writings of the late great philosopher, Rabbi Eliezer Berkovitz, whose post-Holocaust theology reminds us of the roles of human beings and God. 

In his book “God, Man, and History,” Berkovitz lays this foundation out emphatically, saying, “Who would say where the work of God comes to an end, and the human contributions begin? Man may be ‘as nothing’ before God, yet God nonetheless desires man’s partnership.”

There is no story of Megilat Esther without Mordechai saying to Esther, in 4:14, “Who knows if it was not for this moment that you came into royalty?” and without Esther responding, in 4:16, “If I perish, I perish,” and still making that decision. 

Mordechai and Esther remind us that, while we may not have full control over what happens in the world, it is incumbent upon each person to partner with God, to be a 4:14 Jew and to act. 

That is what Zelensky has been asking of all of us throughout the war. “I am now addressing all the Jews of the world,” he said in one recent video, after a Russian airstrike landed near the Babi Yar Holocaust memorial site. “Don’t you see what is happening?”

“It is very important that millions of Jews around the world do not remain silent right now, because Nazism was born in silence,” he said. “So cry out against the killing of civilians. Cry out against the killing of Ukrainians.” 

Zelensky is asking us to stand for something, stand with Ukraine and be 4:14 Jews. He is asking us to recognize that this is all of our moment to help.

Daniel Elbaum, head of North America at the Jewish Agency for Israel, pithily articulates what it means to be a 4:14 Jew today in a Facebook post of his (which he allowed me to cite from):

“There are not many times in human history where we are faced with a fundamental choice — act or do nothing. Ukraine needs your solidarity, but most of all they need your help. Let me be even more blunt — they need your financial support.”

Let’s heed this call, and do something as Zelensky is pleading with us to do. Let’s remember that “l’et kazot higa’at lamalchut” — each of us has our different “kingdoms,” our own spheres of influence and power. Let’s take those seriously, donate to help people in Ukraine, protest where we can protest, and do the right thing…even if there is a cost.

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