Cross-posted with permission from OurJewishCommunity.org
In today’s world, holiday celebration is usually juxtaposed with whatever else is going on at the time. So it was with my celebration of Purim this year, as I was travelling into the holiday from the SXSW Interactive Conference in Austin and the Nonprofit Technology Conference in Washington DC. I couldn’t help but reflect on Purim in the context of technology, and I discovered that the Book of Esther is full of helpful tech tips!
As background, Purim is one of several Jewish holidays to commemorate the resilience of the Jewish people in the face of oppression (otherwise known as: they came to kill us, we won, let’s eat!). The main characters in the Book of Esther are King Ahasuerus of Persia; his beautiful first wife Vashti; Haman, an evil official of the king; Mordechai, a kindly Jew; and Queen Esther, the second wife of Ahasuerus, who was Mordechai’s relative and also a Jew.
Another piece of background: There are two ways to approach biblical texts. One is exegesis. This involves a careful, objective analysis. The other is eisegesis, a subjective, non-analytical approach. It lets us read our own message into the text. And that’s exactly what I decided to do. Here's what I learned:
1. Diversity matters. Throughout the Nonprofit Technology Conference, many spoke of the importance of diversity in tech teams – the need to include women, minorities, and others who are so often excluded. Purim celebrates diversity as well. The cast of characters includes two queens who are quite different from one another, and two courtiers at opposite ends of a good-to-evil continuum.
2. Avoid the shiny object syndrome. The king’s shiny object was Vashti. But when he wanted her to prance around naked in front of his friends, she refused. If he wanted a queen who doubled as a display piece, Vashti wasn’t that woman. He was wooed by her looks, and never bothered to see if she had the substance needed to accomplish his goals. Of course, I’m speaking from the king’s perspective of viewing Vashti as a beautiful, objectified woman, rather than from my feminist perspective. But the parallel holds: with technology, it’s critical that we look past the sexiness of the package to make sure it does what we want.
3. Collect data and ask questions. Several conference sessions addressed the importance of data. Haman could have used that lesson. When King Ahasuerus asked how he would honor a great man, Haman said he would dress that person in royal robes and lead him around on the king’s horse. Haman assumed the king was talking about him, but it turns out the king was asking how to honor Mordechai. If Haman had done things thoughtfully, he would have first gathered data and then answered based on that. We need to make sure our tech decisions are data-driven as well.
4. Just because you build it doesn’t mean they’ll come. Haman built gallows for Mordechai. But, it turned out that’s not what the community (and in this case, the king) wanted. In fact, Haman ended up being the guy who was hanged. So don’t assume that, just because you build something, people will want it. Maybe you’ll be the only guy using that tech in the end!
5. Go big or go home. Be loud and bold and crazy. Like Esther, be yourself. And be willing to make noise. Wear a mask occasionally. Experiment with tech. Try new things on for size.
6. Don’t drink and tweet. Be responsible. Though it’s a mitzvah (commandment) to get so drunk on Purim that you don’t know the difference between Drupal and WordPress – or Salesforce and Oracle – drink responsibly.
7. Segment your audience. If we were writing and disseminating the Book of Esther today, we would share it differently with each audience. For example, kids would get a text about hamantaschen (cookies), queens, and noisemakers. Adults would get an email about nudity, drinking, and violence.
8. Think before you hit send. King Ahasuerus had already decreed that all the Jews should be killed – before Esther told him she was Jewish. When he wanted to reverse the decree, it was too late. So the story had to end with the king allowing the Jews to defend themselves, and therefore tragically slaying tens of thousands. He would have been better off not issuing the decree in the first place.
9. Borrow from the past, but decide what to discard. The Bible is a series of myths and legends. Its authors were brilliant and creative. I still look to some of my ancestors’ writings for meaning – but not to all of their stories. Some are simply not meaningful to us today, so we also create our own authentic stories. It’s the same with technology. We have to decide what to hold on to and what no longer serves.
10. Be disruptive. The Purim story is about disruption. Mordechai changed history by refusing to bow to Haman. Vashti disobeyed the king. Esther disrupted the norms too. In an effort to save the Jews, she appeared before the king without having first been summoned – a clear violation of royal protocol. The authors of the Book of Esther knew that it is through disruption that society moves forward, just as disruptive technology helps us create new markets and value streams today.
As someone who values the ongoing evolution of the Jewish experience, I celebrate disruptive Judaism and disruptive technology. Through disruption, innovation happens. Meaningful experiences emerge.
Laura Baum is rabbi and co-founder of OurJewishCommunity.org, an online synagogue that reaches hundreds of thousands of people around the world. Follow her on Twitter @Rabbi .