Archive for the '8.4.1 Purim' Category

The Character of Money: From Khmelnytsky to Zelenskyy

One of the central commandments of Purim is to give matanot l’evyonim– presents to the poor. We are obligated to give gifts to two needy individuals. There in the Megilah we read:

Mordecai recorded these events. And he sent dispatches to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, near and far, charging them to observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, every year—the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which nahafoch- had been transformed/overturned for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and matanot l’evyonim-presents to the poor. The Jews accordingly assumed as an obligation that which they had begun to practice and which Mordecai prescribed for them.

Esther 9:20-23

It has become customary for rabbis and other community leaders to collect funds on behalf of needy individuals. Monies can be given to these collections before Purim, provided the funds are distributed on Purim. There is a difference of opinion as to the exact minimum amount one can give to satisfy their obligation, a few pennies or a few dollars. The Rambam (Megillah 2:17) writes that it is better to increase the amount one gives to matanot l’evyonim even more so than for the Purim seudah or mishloach manot. Additionally, there is a custom that on Purim anyone who puts out their hand for assistance should not be turned away empty handed. We always have a commandment to give tzedakah, is this different? Why is matanot l’evyonim so central to Purim?

The obvious answer is that it counters Haman’s central claim against the Jews. There we read:

Haman then said to King Ahashverosh, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.”

Esther 3:8

Haman portrays the Jews as set apart and even a pariah on Persian culture. One way to counteract that is to demonstrate our interest in the larger society. Giving gifts to anyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, shows that we are not “different” than the rest of the King’s people. But is there a deeper understanding of matanot l’evyonim ?

It is interesting that this obligation is so connected to a notion of currency. I really had not given money much thought until reading Sapiens by historian Yuval Harari. The first money was Sumerian barley money. He writes:

Even though barley has intrinsic value, it was not easy to convince people to use it as money rather than as just another commodity. In order to understand why, just think what would happen if you took a sack full of barley to your local mall, and tried to buy a shirt or a pizza. The vendors would probably call security. Still, it was somewhat easier to build trust in barley as the first type of money, because barley has an inherent biological value. Humans can eat it. On the other hand, it was difficult to store and transport barley. The real breakthrough in monetary history occurred when people gained trust in money that lacked inherent value, but was easier to store and transport. Such money appeared in ancient Mesopotamia in the middle of the third millennium BC. This was the silver shekel.

Unlike the barley sila, the silver shekel had no inherent value. You cannot eat, drink, or clothe yourself in silver, and it’s too soft for making useful tools. Their value is purely cultural. Today, most money is just electronic data. The sum total of money in the world is about $60 trillion, yet the sum total of coins and banknotes is less than $6 trillion. More than 90 percent of all money—more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts—exists only on computer servers. Most business transactions are executed by moving electronic data from one computer file to another, without any exchange of physical cash.

Harari goes on:

For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers, and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs, and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age, or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.

In this sense money is a universal trust. This strengthens the notion giving matanot l’evyonim strengthens the larger society.

I got to thinking about this recently with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At first it is relevant in as much that Russia will soon default on their loans which has interesting implications for their currency. Secondly it also reminded me of my travel in Ukraine when I was bringing supplies from the youth center I was running in Minsk down to a camp we were running in the Crimea. I had the good fortune to combine that with a family heritage tour seeing the towns where my grandfather Abram Orlow was born. In this context one of the memories that stuck out to me was seeing Ukrainian currency. The 5 gryvnya features the visage of Bohdan Khmelnytsky.

Who was Bohdan Khmelnytsky? He was the 17th century Ukrainian military commander and Hetman of the Zaporozhian Host, which was then under the suzerainty of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. He led an uprising against the Commonwealth and its magnates (1648–1654) that resulted in the creation of an independent Ukrainian Cossack state. In 1654, he concluded the Treaty of Pereyaslav with the Russian Tsar and allied the Cossack Hetmanate with Tsardom of Russia, thus placing central Ukraine under Russian control.

The assessment of Khmelnytsky in Jewish history is overwhelmingly negative because he blamed Jews in assisting Polish szlachta, as the former were often employed by them as tax collectors. Bohdan sought to eradicate Jews from Ukraine. Thus, according to the treaty of Zboriv all Jewish people were forbidden to live on the territory controlled by Cossack rebels. The Khmelnytsky Uprising led to the deaths of an estimated 18,000–100,000 out of 40,000 – 50,000 Jews living in the territory. Atrocity stories about massacre victims who had been buried alive, cut to pieces or forced to kill one another spread throughout Europe and beyond. Orest Subtelny writes:

Between 1648 and 1656, tens of thousands of Jews—given the lack of reliable data, it is impossible to establish more accurate figures—were killed by the rebels, and to this day the Khmelnytsky uprising is considered by Jews to be one of the most traumatic events in their history.

Seeing Khmelnytsky on the 5 gryvnya today is tantamount to seeing Hitler on the Deutschmark.

One could only imagine the Achashverosh was on his own money. In deeper way the giving of matanot l’evyonim was a way for Jews to demonstrate our participation in the national trust of Persian currency.

I paused when I saw this image of Volodymyr Zelenskyy:

I hope he and his country survive this assault. Seeing his bravery and how he continues to lead his country with honor is hopeful. In this time of nahafochu– upheaval that which is topsy-turvy seems plausible, if not likely. In the spirit of the national and universal trust of currency, in the name of the commandment of matanot l’evyonim, and in honor of his Jewish lineage I want to make a prediction. You might dismiss it as Purim Torah, but I can imagine a time when we switch from Khmelnytsky to Zelenskyy on the 5 gryvnya.

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Hidden Identities: Esther, Sharansky, and Us

With the advent of Adar Sheni we say,” Mi Sh’Nichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha– as soon as Adar has entered, we increase in happiness.” (Taanit 29a) It is hard to really get into the happy mood right now. It is impossible not be be appalled by violence in Ukraine, horrified by the enormity of this refugee crises, and terrified by the prospects of World War III.

With Adar comes Purim and with Purim comes Esther. There in her eponymous book we are introduced to her, “And [Mordechai] had raised Hadassah, she is Esther . . .”(Esther 2:7) Why did she have two names?

The name Hadassah is derived from the Hebrew word hadas הדס , a myrtle tree from the Myrtaceae family. The myrtle has a pleasant fragrance. The Talmud explains why Queen Esther was also called Hadassah:

Why was she called Hadassah? Because the righteous are called myrtles. As it states (Zechariah 1:8), “And he was standing among the myrtles [the righteous prophets Chananiah, Mishael and Azariah].”

Megillah 13a

The sages in the Midrash take this one step further:

Just as a myrtle has a sweet smell and a bitter taste, so too Esther was good and listened (“sweet”) to the righteous Mordechai, and was adverse (“bitter”) to the wicked Haman.

Esther Rabbah 6:5.

According to Kabbalah, each of her names corresponds to a different spiritual level. The name Hadassah represents righteousness. As such, it corresponds to a heavenly sphere representing God’s infinitude. The name Esther -אסתר is derived from the Hebrew word hester-הסתר, which means “hiddenness,” and corresponds to a spiritual plane representing hidden Godliness (Deuteronomy 20:19). Interestingly, she is referred to by both names—seemingly opposites. How do we understand these identities? Why is the book called Megilat Esther and not Megilat Hadassah?

I was thinking about these questions recently when reading this amazing story about Nathan Sharansky. He was speaking this past week at the Sheva Brachot of Yossi and Chana Dickstien’s wedding. Yossi lost both his parents and brother, to a terrorist attack when he was just seven years old). Sharansky shared the following to those at the Simcha:

When I grew up in Ukraine in the city of Donetsk, there were people of various nationalities living there. Their ID certificates had the word ‘Russian’, ‘Ukraine’, ‘Georgian’, ‘Kozaki”, it wasn’t that important and there wasn’t much of a difference. One thing was important – if it had the word ‘Jewish’ written on it, that would be as if you had some disease. We knew nothing about Judaism, except antisemitism and hatred towards us.  That’s why no one tried to replace the word ‘Russian’ or the word ‘Ukraine’, in order to get accepted to the university.  But if it you had the word ‘Jewish’ on your ID papers and you could manage to change that, your chance of getting accepted was so much higher. I was reminded of this while watching this week how thousands of people are standing at the borders, trying to escape the tragedy in Ukraine. They stand there day and night, and there’s only one word today that can help them get out: “Jewish”. If you are a Jew – there are Jews outside who care for you, there is someone on the other side of the border looking for you, your chance of getting out is so much higher. The world I knew has been turned upside down. When I was a child ‘Jewish’ was an extraordinary bad word, no one was jealous of us! Today at the border of Ukraine, ‘Jewish’ is an extraordinary word for good, it describes people who have somewhere to go and there’s an entire nation – their family, waiting for them outside.

Sharansky and Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin, 19 September 2000

This resonates with something the Elie Wiesel. wrote in Jews of Silence in 1965 when he wrote, “In Russia they hated the Jews because they were not Russian enough, and in the other Soviet states they hated the Jews because they were too Russian.”( from memory so might not be precise) Our identities have always made us feel different or scorned, but this seems to be a new moment of safety and pride.

Reading Sharansky’s quote, I cried seeing how this is really a time when, like Purim, it is nahafochu– things are topsy-turvy. What was once a hidden identity and even shame, was overturned to become a source of pride or even salvation. How do we think about Esther’s and Sharansky’s hidden Jewish identities? In the Jews of Silence Wiesel wrote, “What torments me most is not the Jews of silence I met in Russia, but the silence of the Jews I live among today.” How will we show up with our hidden identities to meet this moment? Like the Megilah being called after Esther, it is our choice if we come out like Hadassah to do the right thing.

Once and Forever: Purim and Yom Kippur

I recently reconnected with a dear friend who shared a deep Torah from the Aish Kodesh on Purim. He teaches:

We read in the Tikkunei Zohar that Purim is like Yom Kippur. This is hinted-at in the way that on Yom Kippur, one must fast and do teshuvah (repentance / return) not only if one feels like it, but whether or not one wants to do it. This is an enduring decree from the Holy One of Blessing. Rejoicing on Purim is similar. One is obligated to rejoice on Purim, not only if one is happy in oneself, or is in a situation where it’s easy to feel joy. On the contrary: even if one is in a low place and completely broken-hearted, body and spirit laid low, it’s still an obligation to seek out whatever tiny spark of joy is possible, and welcome that spark into the heart. On both of these holy days, there’s a flow from on high to us here below. Just as Yom Kippur itself atones for us, even if our teshuvah feels inadequate, just so on Purim. Even if a person isn’t feeling joyful the way one’s supposed to, and therefore one’s service of God doesn’t feel whole, even in that case the salvation and joy of Purim will flow — and that potential is open to us even now.- The Piazeczyner aka The Aish Kodesh, Purim 1940

R’ Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira z”l was exploring how one might experience joy despite living through the worst acts of human cruelty during Holocaust. But I do believe that there are other lessons learned from the connection between Purim and Yom Kippur.

On Purim we read the book of Esther, and one of the most poignant moments in it is when Mordechai beseeches Esther to intercede with Ahashverosh for her people. There we read:

Mordecai had this message delivered to Esther: “Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will escape with your life by being in the king’s palace. On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.” ( Esther 4: 13-14)

Mordechai wants to convince her to put herself at risk and come out of the closet with her hidden identity to save her people. But instead of arguing that we really need her and that our existence is held in the balance, he claims that if she does not act for her people our salvation will come from somewhere else, and she will be the one lost from our communal memory. It seems like some ancient reverse psychology. And it works- she saves her people.

It is fascinating when you compare Esther response to a human call to duty with Yonah‘s running from God’s call to prophesies to the people of Nineveh that we read on Yom Kippur. Instead of doing his job, Yonah runs away. What learn from this juxtaposition?

To offer one answer this question I want to share with you the chorus from Ahat Uletamid, by Ishay Ribo. I just love his music. He seems to have all of the right words, tunes, and emotions. I would offer you to listen to the whole song:

The chorus goes:

And I wish to do as Your will, as You wish Really and truly, once and forever With no screens, with no masks, without wanting to please Really and truly, once and forever

Like no other time this Covid Purim I am experiencing a desire to live without screens or masks. Ribo is articulating the commitment to be like Esther and not Yonah and answering the call when needed. On Purim and Yom Kippur we strive to live as our true selves. If we want to live fully and authentically we cannot stay hidden.

Another Woman’s March: Between Purim and Chanukah

A few months ago there was a big tumult regarding the Women’s March of Washington. Three of the four lead organizers had attended events hosted by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, who has made a living off of making antisemitic remarks.  Perceptions that the leaders of the Women’s March had failed to condemn the rhetoric and subsequent accusations of antisemitism within the organization itself led to former co-founder Teresa Shook to call for their resignations and were followed by the disassociation of numerous state chapters. By December 2018, The New York Times reported that “charges of antisemitism are now roiling the movement and overshadowing plans for more marches.”

Questions about alleged antisemitism connected to the Women’s March organizers have swirled for months in response to an article in online Jewish magazine Tablet. While the organizers had repeatedly denied all accusations of misconduct or using inappropriate speech, the issue resurfaced when two of the March’s organizers appeared on “The View”. During the show, March co-president Tamika Mallory was asked why she posted a photo of herself and Louis Farrakhan on Instagram with a caption indicating her adulation of this hatemonger. “I didn’t call him the greatest of all time because of his rhetoric,” Mallory responded. “I called him the greatest of all time because of what he’s done in black communities.” Pressed on the issue, Mallory said, “I don’t agree with many of Minister Farrakhan’s statements,” but when asked directly if she condemned them, she demurred. “I don’t agree with these statements,” Mallory responded. “It’s not my language, it’s not the way that I speak, it’s not how I organize … I should never be judged through the lens of a man.”

Image result for tamika on the view

What are the implications of judging a woman through the lens of a man? What is the right lens to judge a person who brings on a foe as an ally? What are the implications of a cause that I find to be just even if the allies brought together to support this cause are deplorable?

There were many voices in the Jewish community who were so triggered by the larger context of rising antisemitism that they could not see through that to the importance of the cause of the March. While I deeply appreciate the sensitivity to an association with Farrakhan being too much, I am curious about those who were against the March on the merits of it not reaching their standards of a purity of allyship. It has been noted by others that it’s a pernicious privilege to demand that a group of revolutionaries trying to make change a system maintain a purity of who they ally with for their cause.

This privilege makes sense from the perspective of Chanukah. That is to say that the Hashmonaim were revolutionaries who were fighting for their lives.  After the Maccabees beat their enemy and rededicated the Temple they found one cruse of pure oil for the Menorah. This oil was enough to last for one day, but it lasted for eight days, which was enough time for them to produce more pure oil. To the Maccabees this miracle was proof that God approved and sanctioned their military efforts. This notion of purity got expanded by the Rabbis future celebration of Chanukah. We learn:

Our Rabbis taught: The precept of Chanukah [demands] one light for a man and his household;  and the mehadrin- more beautiful [kindle] a light for each member [of the household]; and the mehadrin of the mehadrin – Bet Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced;  but Bet Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased. (Shabbat 21b)

The most beautiful expression of this ritual is when everyone shows off the purity of God’s sanctioning the Maccabees fight against the Greeks.

This paradigm of Chanukah stands juxtaposed Purim. Similar to the Maccabees with the Greeks, Esther and Mordechai were fighting the existential threat of Haman. Both holidays tell the stories of a small group of people uniting to defeat the bloodthirsty forces of a much larger and more powerful oppressor. But where Chanukah represents an aesthetic of Jewish purity over Hellenistic physical beauty, Esther represents the opposite. She only became the queen by winning a beauty pageant. Esther uses her beauty to save her people, and most importantly to our discussion here, to do this holy work she made some interesting allies. Throughout her efforts he relies on the eunuchs. For a community that has not historically looked on intermarriage so positively we are all too happy to overlook her relationship with Ahashverosh. The strangeness of who she portrays as her ally comes to head in her second banquet with Haman and Ahashverosh. There we read:

Queen Esther replied: “If Your Majesty will do me the favor, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request. For we have been sold, my people and I, to be destroyed, massacred, and exterminated. Had we only been sold as bondmen and bondwomen, I would have kept silent; for the adversary is not worthy of the king’s trouble.” Thereupon King Ahashverosh demanded of Queen Esther, “Who is he and where is he who dared to do this?”“The adversary and enemy,” replied Esther, “is this evil Haman!” And Haman cringed in terror before the king and the queen. The king, in his fury, left the wine feast for the palace garden, while Haman remained to plead with Queen Esther for his life; for he saw that the king had resolved to destroy him. When the king returned from the palace garden to the banquet room, Haman was lying prostrate on the couch on which Esther reclined. “Does he mean,” cried the king, “to ravish the queen in my own palace?” No sooner did these words leave the king’s lips than Haman’s face was covered. (Esther 7:3-8)

Esther only request is the she and her people not be killed. She would not have bothered him if they were “just” enslaved. The King only acts when he perceives that Haman, who has been courted by Esther to these exclusive banquets, is trying to have sex with his wife in his palace. This seems incredibly strange that this is what provokes action and not his trusted adviser wanting to kill his queen or commit genocide. Ahashverosh is only moved to action when he sees his wife taking a strange bed-fellow.

Both Chanukah and Purim are stories of revolution and salvation. But while Chanukah is a story of purity, Esther is a story of persistence. Esther does whatever it takes to be successful, including using her beauty and not her purity to make strange bed-fellows. While people can still chose a Chanukah lens over a Purim lens to critique revolutionary activity, it should be mentioned that the Hashmonaim were roundly criticized by the Rabbis and were similar to today’s Taliban killing many brothers in name of ritual purity.  It was only after the privilege of winning that the Maccabees would claim that their fratricide was pure.

Coming back to our times we need to say clearly that women’s rights are truly in danger and we need to come together to fight this good fight. While Farrakhan and the larger rise of antisemitism is horrifying and needs to be blotted out, I think we need to be more understanding that revolutions by design get messy. Before we judge the leaders of the Women’s March too harshly in light of the Chanukah story, we need to see that their “misconduct or using inappropriate speech” might just be these women taking a chapter from Esther’s original Women’s March.

Purim Sameakh- Have a revolutionary holiday.

Hosting Adar

One of my favorite stories tells of the origin story of the Besht. We read: 

Reb Eliezer, the father of the Ba’al Shem Tov, lived in a small village in the Ukraine and was particularly devoted to the mitzvah of hospitality. It was his practice to send emissaries to bring visitors to his home, and after he had filled their needs with food and drink, he would supply them with more provisions for their journey. In heaven they were very impressed by his practice, but the heavenly prosecutors claimed that Reb Eliezer had not yet reached the level of hospitality that Abraham and Sarah had reached. Just as with Job the devil asked for permission to test him, however, upon hearing of this, the prophet Elijah said that it is not proper that the devil be the one to carry out this mission, because Reb Eliezer might not be able to withstand his exacting judgment.

And so it was that one Shabbat afternoon, in the guise of a poor man on foot, Elijah descended to visit the Reb Eliezer. Upon entering Reb Eliezer’s home, he called out, “Good Shabbos!” It appeared to Reb Eliezer that his guest had desecrated the Shabbat, God forbid, and was not even embarrassed by his deeds, yet he did not become angry at him.  Instead, Reb Eliezer immediately offered the pauper food for the third Shabbat meal and after Shabbat was over, he served him the Melave Malka meal. The following morning, on Sunday, Reb Eliezer provided his guest with a generous donation, still making no mention of the sin of desecrating the Shabbat. 

Then Elijah revealed himself to him and announced, “I am the prophet Elijah, and in merit of your exceptional deed, you will be privileged to bear a son who will light up the eyes of Israel.”(adapted from  Reshimot Devarim 4, p. 35)

This story speaks to the centrality of hachnasat orechim-hospitality in Jewish life. 

I was thinking about it today as the second day of Rosh Chodesh Adar Sheni. As we learn in the Gemara:

Mi’SheNichnas Adar Marbim B’Simcha– One who welcomes Adar increases joy. ( Taanit 29)

Nichnas and hachnasat have the same root. This makes me translate this differently. One who hosts Adar increases joy.

This makes me go back to the story of Reb Eliezer. What does it take to really be a good host? Yes it means opening up our homes, but that is the easy part. The hard part is opening up our hearts. In Adar we need to get into the spirit of putting on the mask of being hospitable so that we can actually get to the level of Abraham and Sara If we do that we will increase joy by lighting the eyes of Israel. 

Hodesh Tov

Men Hiding: Genesis, Purim, and Kavanuagh

We just made it through the holiday season and the next holiday is Hanukkah on the distant horizon weeks from now on December 2-10. This is why it is particularly weird that I woke up this morning thinking about Purim which is not until March 20, 2019. It was less strange seeing that we are reading Parshat Bereishit this week. In one of my favorite passages in the Talmud the Rabbis mix the stories of Purim with earlier narratives in the Torah. There we learn:

From where in the Torah, [do I know] Haman? “Is it from (hamin) this tree” (Genesis 3:11). From where in the Torah, [do I know] Esther? “And I will surely hide (astir)” (Deuteronomy 32:18).  Where is Mordecai mentioned in the Torah?… As is written “Flowing myrrh” (Exodus 30:23), which the Targum renders as “Mira Dachia“. ( Chullin 139b)

There is clearly some fun word play going on here, but why is it important that Haman is prefigured in the story of the Garden of Eden? What is that context? There in Genesis we read:
The Lord God called out to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” He replied, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, so I hid.” Then God asked, “Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat of (hamin) the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?” The man said, “The woman You put at my side—she gave me of the tree, and I ate.” ( Genesis 3:9-12)

The scene is set. Adam and Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge and God is coming to inquire as to what they did. God asks Adam two questions:

  1. Who told you that you were naked?
  2. Did you eat of the tree from which I had forbidden you to eat?

We see in Adam’s answer that he ignores the first question ( subject of other writing) and only answers the second question by way of blaming Eve if not God for his eating that which was forbidden. In some mystical way Haman is prefigured in the Torah as the allure of not taking responsibility for what Adam himself did and hanging the blame of others. Just as the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge is removed from the tree at the start of our narrative, Haman is returned to the gallows he created for Mordecai at the end of the Megilah. There we see humanity is redeemed when Esther, who is hidden, reveals herself. She is the Eve who Mordecai and the rest of her people are proud to follow.

While these parallel images do frame the Eden and Purim stories, what I find most compelling today is the story of men not taking responsibility for their actions and blaming women. In all of the proceedings for Judge Kavanaugh for the open seat on the Supreme Court he has yet to take responsibility for anything he might have done consciously or unconsciously.  Regardless if Kavanaugh gets the seat or not, this whole situation has cast violence against women up against “being fair to men” that seems to be eerily prefigured by the Megilah. There King Ahasuerus orders Queen Vashti to come before the king wearing only her a royal crown, to display her beauty to the people and the officials. Upon her refusal he was incensed and did not know what to do so he turned to his advisers. There we read:

Thereupon Memucan declared in the presence of the king and the ministers: “Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands, as they reflect that King Ahasuerus himself ordered Queen Vashti to be brought before him, but she would not come. This very day the ladies of Persia and Media, who have heard of the queen’s behavior, will cite it to all Your Majesty’s officials, and there will be no end of scorn and provocation! “If it please Your Majesty, let a royal edict be issued by you, and let it be written into the laws of Persia and Media, so that it cannot be abrogated, that Vashti shall never enter the presence of King Ahasuerus. And let Your Majesty bestow her royal state upon another who is more worthy than she. Then will the judgment executed by Your Majesty resound throughout your realm, vast though it is; and all wives will treat their husbands with respect, high and low alike.” (Esther 1: 16-20)

In our tragic version of the Megilah we make Dr. Chistine Blasey Ford show up to display her vulnerability to the peoples and the officials on national TV and still question the victim. Hiding behind a sham of an FBI report the advisers and the King are claiming that any concession to veracity Dr Ford’s accusations would lead to “no end of scorn and provocation” and be very bad do men. In a new low for the President and the country Trump mocked Christine Blasey Ford at a rally in Mississippi, casting doubt on her testimony about her alleged sexual assault.

I for one want to thank Dr Ford, our modern-day Vashti, for elegantly, gracefully, and humbly showing up to show us that our elected officials of naked behind their crowns of power. This is a moment for us to reflect and redefine who has power in our kingdom. We need to be bigger than Haman, Adam, Memucan, or our modern-day King Ahasuerus and his officials. Power and gender need not be a zero sum game. And most urgently we see in the Garden of Eden as today, men cannot hide behind a woman. Men need to learn how to accept responsibility for their actions without blaming women. Truly that will be the only way we will uproot scorn and provocation from across the kingdom. Image result for senate confirmation dr ford

 

 

Purim Today: Xenophobia, Sexism, and Violence

At a town hall meeting last Wednesday night, Senator Marco Rubio was grilled over gun control by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman killed 17 people. On Comedy Central’s Daily Show, Trevor Noah argued that Rubio was “totally out of sync with the entire room,” also pointing out the clip about assault-rifle loopholes. “That was such an epic fail. Rubio said the solution like it was the problem.”

Then Noah related the moment to the “Me Too” movement: “It reminded me of the reaction that a lot of men had to  the ‘Me Too’ movement, you know, when people were like, ‘If we carry on like this, we’re going to live in a world where men can’t even hit on their female staff. Oh, that is what we want? Okay. OK, fair enough, I misunderstood.'”

I was thinking of this when reading Megilat Esther. At the start of the story Achashverosh is having a series of parties. Amidst the revelry the king instructs his wife Vashti the Queen to show up to his party to display her beauty. She refuses and a crisis ensues. The king has no idea what to do when she refuses to obey him and calls on his advisers. Memuchan steps forward and advises that the king.  He warns: “Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in all the provinces of King Achashverosh. For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands…“( Esther 1:20). The fear is that the Queens sleight of her husband’s unreasonable request will have implications all over the kingdom that women will not obey men.

This in turn becomes interesting in that one of the critical moments of the Megilah is when Mordecai beseeches Esther to proactively meet with the king without being asked and reveal her hidden identity to save her people. After the whole Vashti affair Esther knows that it is risky but relents on the condition that the people fast with her in solidarity. There we read:

“Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!” So Mordecai went about [the city] and did just as Esther had commanded him. (Esther 4:16-17)

Esther is courageous and as we know the whole plan comes together and the people are saved. The story turns on Esther’s leaning in and also Mordecai doing what he was commanded to do. At the start of the story the fear was that women would not obey men, and here in the end we see that we were saved because a man obeyed a woman. Like Rubio and Trevor Noah’s making fun of Rubio, the perceived problem is actually the solution. Throughout history  xenophobia, sexism, and violence are mixed together to distract people from the real problems facing their lives. The more things change the more they stay the same. These forces of division are just out of sync.

Yadid’s Bar Mitzvah Speech for Tetzaveh and Purim

This week marks the first anniversary of Yadid’s Bar Mitzvah. It is hard to believe that he is about to be 14 years old and in a few short month he will be off to high school.  To mark this moment I wanted to share the Dvar Torah Yadid gave at the ceremony he had at our synagogue.

When I was in Toronto, for my cousin Eliyahu’s Bar Mitzvah, our friends the Horowitz’s suggested I go to a high quality, low cost tailor nearby. I went to the tailor and I tried on a couple of suits. While wearing the suits I felt like a king. I started thinking about how clothes affect how people are seen and see themselves. My sister, Emi, can be intensely focused on her clothes and has said, “ Clothes is life”.  While I was learning with Rabbi Marder I had a thought that clothing has a role in helping people connect with the the idea of majesty. But how? You might ask.

In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, we see an elaborate description of the Bigdei Kehuna. Part of the Bigdei Kehuna is a vest that is turquoise- Techelet, gold and purple (Exodus 28:6-8). Like the blue color of a hyperlink linking web pages the Techelet connects the Cohan’s clothing to the Techelet  in our ancestor’s tzitzit, eventually to G-d’s  Kisei Hakavod– saphire heavenly throne. Now we see that our ancestors looked at the Bigdei Kehuna and saw a representative of God in heaven.

What does it mean to represent God? In regard to this I wanted to share  an interesting piece by Kafka. He wrote, ” The emperor of the imperial sun sent a messenger out with an important message; a strong indefatigable man running through the crowd. Every time the messenger met resistance he would point at his breast which bore the sign of the sun- the king’s symbol and people would get out of his way ( Emperor of China).

Maybe this is why my Abba is always getting on my case about wearing tzitzit?

So when our ancestors saw the Kohen Gadol they saw a representative of God. If that is how our ancestors saw the Kohen Gadol, how did the Kohen Gadol see himself?

We read in Tetzaveh that the Kohanim were dressed like this because, “ l’kavod uLetriferet” (Exodus 28:2). Meaning they were dressed up for honor and splendor. But whose honor and whose splendor? Who? The Kohanim, God, or even B’nai’ Israel? The answer is, likely, that it was for all three. The Kohanim are singled out and special. How could they not see themselves as special sporting the tekhelet and the special robes?

The symbolism of clothing, and its connection to both honor and position, is very much present in this week’s Haftorah as well. King Saul has failed to carry out G-d’s instructions and the Prophet Samuel announces that HaShem has now rejected Saul as king. Samuel turns away to leave and Saul grabs Samuel’s tunic, ripping it. In response to that Samuel said just like this, “HaShem has ripped the kingship of Israel away from you today.”  Here we see that the  clothing carries the full symbolism of the role.

In the words of the Bard, “Spend all you can afford on clothes, but make sure they’re quality, not flashy, since clothes make the man” (Hamlet). Saul admits to his wrong doing, then begs Samuel to not embarrass him in front of the elders of the people. He pleads Kabdeni– for his honor.  We hear the root Kavod here, echoing the use in the description of the Kohen’s clothing, “l’kavod ultifaret” and G-d’s Kisei Hakavod – heavenly throne.  Saul is not worried about how he represents God’s honor, only how his honor is perceived by B’nai Israel. Unlike in this week’s parasha,Torah portion, when the Kohanim are serving God to honor God, Saul, having lost God’s favor, is not focused on how he represents God as the king. Rather, Saul is more concerned with how being king represents him in front of the people.  Sad for Saul.

Interestingly we see a similar discussion in Megillat Esther which I will be reading tomorrow at my Bar Mitzvah ( Yadid’s Bar Mitzvah was celebrated the next day on Purim). Achashverosh wakes up in the middle of the night and he has the book of chronicles read to him. It is brought to his attention that Mordecai saved his life and was never recognized or rewarded for this. Achashverosh asks Haman: “מַה לַעֲשׂוֹת בָּאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הַמֶּלֶךְ חָפֵץ בִּיקָרוֹ- What he should do  “to honor someone the king wants to honor” ( This was according to Onkelos’ translation of  yakar as kavod )?  Haman says that the man should be dressed in the king’s clothes, wear the king’s crown and be paraded around Shushan on the king’s horse. The king agrees – well, sort off.  He says that Mordechai should be led around with the king’s clothes and the king’s horse. Notably, he excludes the crown. By Haman’s asking for the crown and the king excluding the crown we can see that both Haman and Achashverosh see the crown not just as another accessory of his outfit, but wearing the crown has symbolic value which means that the person donning the crown is king.  The clothing themselves imply something royal, and that crown seals the deal.

So, what connects our three texts? And how do they help our understanding of the concept of honor? In the Megillah, on a superficial way honor can be worn, but it is much harder to actually  attain. In the haftorah, we learn that even if one is stripped of kingship, one should not be stripped of honor.  There is a baseline of honor due to everyone, even someone who has failed God. In Tetzaveh, the clothing is there for honor as well, but it less so to demand respect as to a king then to inspire a connection to the King.

The berachah, blessing, for seeing a king is Shechalak Mikvodo lebasar v’dam– that G-d has shared some of his honor with flesh and blood. When you see a king you should honor them- give them kavodI can imagine at the moment of my being faced with a real life King- l’kavod uLetriferet with all of their pomp and circumstance I would be overwhelmed. The very nature of taking this moment to make a beracha to God reframes the experience. Like our ancestors, we can double click on the Techelet from the Bigdei Kehunah and be taken to an image of God’s Kisei Hakavod – heavenly throne. The honor due to do a King is but a helek, a part, of God’s infinite honor.

It is true that we are all created B’Tzelem Elochim, in the image of God, and when we see a King we get a chance to see a magnified version God’s majesty.  This blessing gives us a way to give a flesh and blood king the proper respect regardless of their imperfection. This is like what we learn from Samuel. It also reminds us never to be fooled like Haman and Achashverosh into thinking  that majesty is as simple as wearing a crown. But how do we make sense of this blessing in light of the Megillah and in our world in which God is often hidden from view? As we will read in the Megillah tonight this corrupt world view leads to thinking that people can be bought and sold with no respect of their divine nature. Perhaps this is why we dress up in costume on Purim. In the absence of perceived God we can project an ideal that clothes might inspire us to seek out God and dress ourselves in the moral fabric that ensures that we treat everyone with respect and honor.

And when I stand here today in my Bar Mitzvah suit, I feel a little majestic. My family and friends are here from all over the world to celebrate me. But I take this moment to realized that clothes should inspire us to emulate something greater not make us think we are greater.

Thank you Rabbi Marder for helping me with my speech, thank you everyone for joining me for this coronation of sorts. Thank you Abba and Mami for helping me with troupe, planning and more, and thank you Shama, Emi and Libi for cheering me up when I was down and helping me see myself for what I can be with or without a majestic suit. Shabbat Shalom and have a majestic Purim.

I am still so proud of my majestic son.

A Matter of Perspective

Yesterday we celebrated Yadid’s Bar Mitzvah. For the occasion he prepared a Shiur. He allowed me to post he class here. It was a true pleasure celebrating the extraordinary person he is becoming. So here is what he said:

To quote from a book that my family enjoyed reading together “If every person in this room made it a rule that wherever you are, whenever you can, you will try to act a little kinder than is necessary – the world really would be a better place. And if you do this, if you act just a little kinder than is necessary, someone else, somewhere, someday, may recognize in you, in every single one of you, the face of God.” Wonder by R.J. Palacio.

In preparation for today I wanted ( or at least my Abba wanted me to) do a siyum. Over the last year I have learned Masechet Megillah as part of my Bar Mitzvah Bucket list. I wanted to share a short shiur– lesson as a completion of what my father and I learned.  

My favorite sugya in the Gemara was Megillah 16a which tells a crazy story:

When Haman goes to get Mordechai to dress him in the king’s clothes and parade him around town,  he finds Mordechai himself giving a shiur to the  Sages on the halakhot – laws of kamitzah. What you say is the kamitzah?

Image result for ‫קמיצה‬‎

Good question self. Well the kamitzah was the three finger measurement of fine flour used in the meal offering in the Temple in Jerusalem. When Mordechai sees Haman he tells the Sages to leave so they don’t get burned by his coals.

Which is interesting in that part of the meal offering itself, but back to the story in the Gemara.

Mordechai bravely stands alone before Haman, puts on his tallis and starts davening. We are left with a bizarre image of Haman patiently waiting for his mortal enemy to finish his prayers while Mordechai thinks he is about to be killed. After Mordechai finishes, Haman tells him that the king has commanded him to clothe Mordechai in the king’s clothes and parade him around town on the king’s horse. Mordechai says that he can’t do that because he is dirty and needs a haircut.

Why is he dirty and need a haircut? Excellent question self.

Seeing that his fortune has changed from nearly being killed to being paraded around town by his enemy – Mordechai leaves his state of mourning  and starts to toy with his adversary.

While that occurs Esther closes all the barbershops and bathhouses. She is mean that Esther.

In order to obey the king’s decree Haman had no choice but to cut Mordechai’s hair and bathe him. Haman then dresses him in the king’s clothes and bends down so that Mordechai can climb onto the king’s horse. As Mordechai is climbing on to the horse he kicks Haman. Haman responds quoting Proverbs (24:17) and says “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls.”

While doing so Haman’s daughter, lets call her Antikke is standing on a roof and sees Haman walking and Mordechai on the horse. Antikke thinks that the person being lead around in the King’s clothes is Haman her father and the person leading him around is Mordechai. Thinking it is Mordechai from that distance she throws a chamber pot full of poop onto her father’s head.

When I think about this story in the context of the entirety of Megillat Esther I think we can learn some important lessons but I will let you be the judge of that:

1) There are many perspectives in this story that are alternating between comedy and tragedy. In the beginning of the story Mordechai’s perspective is that he is about to be killed. Antikke’s perspective is that she thinks she will punish her father’s enemy but instead punishes her father. Throughout the Megillah it seems that  G-d isn’t actually present, especially in this story we, with the reader’s perspective  see a majestic plan unfolding.

 

2) I as a reader find it problematical that the so called victims of the story are mistreating people. For example Esther’s effort to close the barber shops and showers just seems cruel in that it is engineered to shame Haman. Similarly when Mordechai kicks Haman. He didn’t just kick him, he responds to a Torah quoting Haman by  dismissing him outright, being mean spirited and being dismissive of non- Jews. This is resonant with what we see at the end of the eighth perek when the Megillah. There we read “Moreover many from among the people of the land declared themselves Jews, for the fear of the Jews had fallen upon them.”( Esther 8: 17)  I appreciate that they were feeling oppressed, but why do they need to make others feel oppressed?  

This is especially troubling because of current events where groups are being persecuted as in the Megillah. I hope that we come together as a nation to end persecution of anyone. The root of hatred is fear, we cannot fight it with more hatred, only with more love. This can only happen when we don’t tolerate bad behavior but also don’t behave badly ourselves. We have to strive to keep the highest standard of conduct.

I wanted to summarize what I have learned in light of my becoming a Bar Mitzvah.  There seems to be two main ideas here:

1) In this sugya as in life the line between comedy and tragedy is perspective. As Abraham Lincoln said- We can complain because rose bushes have thorns, or rejoice because thorn bushes have roses. In becoming a Bar Mitzvah I think about this quote whenever something goes wrong or someone does something wrong. I remind myself to regain the right perspective so that I can bring my best self. I try to do this because, lets say if, not that this ever happens, but imagine that Shama and Emi are fighting, and no one was around. They both tell my mom what happened individually and no matter how hard they try, they will tell the story slanted towards themselves. So in order to hear what really happened you have to see the situation from both perspectives. In any conflict there are always three perspectives: his side, her side and the truth.  I think this is why my family liked Wonder so much, because every chapter was told was a different perspective.

2) The other big idea is that we have to be just in our ends and our means. As we saw in this sugya even Mordechai himself might confuse the blessed Mordechai with cursed Haman in being unnecessarily cruel to his adversary. It is a hard lesson to learn for myself or even for our people but I realize that being the victim is never an excuse for behaving poorly.

Thank you friends and family for helping me get through this journey of sorts. Thank you all who came from out of town, from Canada to Argentina. Thank you Abba for learning Masechet Megillah with me and helping me with this speech, thank you Mami for teaching me troupe and the Mincha service, thank you both of you for helping me navigate through this strange world and thank you Shama, Emi and Libi for cheering me up when I was down, and making me feel proud of who I was, from any perspective.

Motherless Child: Esther And Our Nation

On Purim we are introduced to the heroine Esther who risks her life to save her people. At the start we read:
There was a certain Jew in Shushan the castle, whose name was Mordecai the son of Yair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite, who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captives that had been carried away with Yeconiah king of Yehudah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away. And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter; for she had neither father nor mother, and the maiden was of beautiful form and fair to look on; and when her father and mother were dead, Mordecai took her for his own daughter.(Esther 2:5-7)
So much attention is paid to her rise to power and how she risks everything for the sake of her people that we forget her humble origin as an orphaned refuge child. All of us are filled with images from across the world of refugee children from recent crises. Thinking about her I recalled Shlomo Gronich & The Sheba Choir cover of the classic Negro spiritual “Motherless Child”

Most people think that this song was composed by the children of slaves who were sold to other owners being raised without their parents. There is something haunting about a group of black Ethiopian immigrant children singing : “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, Long way from my home”. Understanding  the loneliness of all of these children make me appreciate Esther in a deeper way.
In this light, Esther’s courage is significant beyond her as an individual. All of us in diaspora are living away from our mother land. Despite our salvation on Purim, we do not end up as an autonomous people in our own land as we do on Hanukkah. This is the reason we do not say Hallel today. We should still take a moment and appreciate that the”Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor” ( Esther 8:16) amidst the darkness of hatred and bigotry. Esther represents our national courage to survive and even thrive in diaspora.
 Chag Purim Sameakh 

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