January 6, 2022

Megillah 16

In recent weeks I’ve been listening to the podcast ‘A Slight Change of Plans’, and when I studied a particular section of today’s daf (Megillah 16a) relating to Charvona, it reminded me of a fascinating episode titled ‘The Science of Quitting’ (see https://bit.ly/317iOai) where the host, Maya Shankar, interviews Annie Duke who has recently written a book on the topic of quitting and why we should be prepared to cut our losses and walk away from situations much more than we do.
Duke’s main argument is that we celebrate those who persevere (as evident from the fact that a synonym from grittiness is ‘heroism’) but oftentimes dismiss those who quit when they reach a point that is not good for them (as evident from the fact that a synonym for quitting is ‘cowardice’). As Duke explains, ‘the heroes are the ones who persevere beyond the point of physical or emotional or mental wellbeing in order to push past that… But the problem of course, is that, a lot of times, those people have put themselves in danger [and] in a situation where you really ought to have turned around. And what I think is really interesting…is that…we’d prefer somebody to push past the point of sensibility and persevere and actually perish to somebody who rightly quits early.’
As evidence of this claim, Duke makes reference to Rob Hall who perished in 1996 while leading a group up Mount Everest (as told in the book ‘Thin Air’ and in the movie ‘Everest’). However, this need not have happened. Hall had remained near the peak of the mountain after a time when it was safe for him to do so and in order to assist Doug Hansen who was determined to get to the top no matter what. Contrasting this, three members of his team – Hutchinson, Taske, and Kasischke – knowing the danger, turned around and returned to camp. As Duke explains, ‘these three people turned around at the right time and made these great decisions. [Yet] aren’t the heroes of our narratives. And that’s part of the problem. Like, how do you get people like that to be the hero of your narrative?
Interestingly, this topic of quitting – although not referred to with this word – is a major theme in Rav Soloveitchik’s essay ‘Catharsis’ who distinguishes between the concept of כח (koach) – namely the physical strength to achieve a particular outcome, and גבורה (heroism) – namely the inner strength to retreat from pursuing that particular outcome for a longer-term goal. As he explains, ‘at times the combatant who is defeated on the field of battle is the one who emerges as the gibbor, victor in a higher historical sense; and not the apparent winner. Gevurah is sometimes inversely related to koach.’ In fact, he then proceeds to explain that, ‘halacha teaches that at every level of our total existential experience… one must engage in the dialectical movement by alternately advancing and retreating.’
In terms of our daf, Rabbi Elazar states that we can deduce from Esther 7:9 that Charvona was originally among those who advised Haman to hang Mordechai but, upon realizing that this would not occur, he separated himself from Haman and sided with Mordechai. From this depiction, Charvona quit and ‘switched sides’ midway through the story, while other rabbinic teachings speak more positively about Charvona who, according to the Yerushalmi (Megillah 3:7) and the popular song sung by many after the reading of Megillat Esther, should be remembered for good. Overall, there are many ways to understand the activities of Charvona in the Purim story (as discussed by Professor Yonatan Grossman – see https://bit.ly/3ExTGac). However, one reading – as implied in our daf – is that Charvona, perhaps similar to the sons of Korach as well as On ben Pelet, teaches us about the importance of quitting and stepping away from a bad situation.
At times this means stepping away from an inherently bad situation. While at other times, it means stepping away from a situation which – though it may have started off as being a justifiable one – has since become untenable. Still, the point made by Rav Soloveitchik, and more recently by Annie Duke, is that there are moments in our life that the right and heroic thing to do is to step away from an immoral, toxic or dangerous situation. And according to Rabbi Elazar, this is what Charvona chose to do.
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