Posts Tagged 'Purim'

21st Century Synthesis : On Jewish Life, Camp, and Purim

Despite being erroneously attributed to Hegel, it was actually Johann Gottlieb Fichte, an 18th century German philosopher, who originated the idea of  thesis–antithesis–synthesis. This idea takes an intellectual proposition, reacts to this by negating it, and then solves the conflict between the thesis and antithesis by reconciling their common truths and forming a new thesis, which in turn starts the process over. In its most elementary way, Fichte’s idea can be used to describe the story of Esther we will read on Purim.

In the Megillah it seems that the thesis is best described by Haman when he says to the king:

“There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king’s laws; therefore it does not profit the king to suffer them.” (Esther 3:8)

As an orphaned child of these refugees, Esther is presented at the extreme margins of society. It seems that the pendulum swings to the other extreme for Esther when she ascends to the Persian throne. But is there a synthesis? Mordecai pleads for Esther to speak to the king to save her people from Haman’s plot. On a simple level he asks her if she will remain comfortable in the king’s house or risk death and approach the king. On another level Mordecai is asking her to synthesize her Persian and Jewish identities.

I was thinking about this process these last few days at the 2016 Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Leaders Assembly. At this conference we hosted 750 people committed to vibrant Jewish future through high quality, meaningful Jewish summer experiences. Together we celebrated the genuine maturation of the field of Jewish camp and 18 years of the FJC. It is interesting to think about the history of Jewish summer camp in North America in the context of Fichte/Esther’s process.

At the inception of Jewish summer camps in this country at the start of the 20th century, the goal was to bring inner-city children of Eastern European immigrants out to the country to “Americanize” them. This thesis to acculturate our children was met by the antithesis in the emergent trend to use camp to indoctrinate a generation intentionally in Jewish culture, education, and religious and Zionist ideologies (e.g. Cejwin Camps, and denominational camps). The most recent phase has emerged in the last decade of specialty camps. After listening to visionary camp owner and director Scott Brody at our Leaders Assembly, I realize that this specialization is actually part of a larger synthesis.

Scott is the former national vice president of the American Camp Association and currently serves on FJC’s board. He recently expanded his camp business into China, where affluent parents are looking to give their children an edge in a competitive economy. At our conference, he eloquently spoke about the movement to use camp to strengthen 21st century skills in the next generation (see recent article). Jewish parents, like their Chinese counterparts, are increasingly looking for experiences that give their children an advantage, add value, prepare them for college and position them to succeed in their careers. Last year, Brody said:

“When you look at the entrepreneurial and innovation skill set, a lot of what you need are the qualities that people get to practice at camp – creativity, communication, collaboration, and building your own sense of resilience … All of these themes are interwoven with the American dream. And the opportunity to practice these skills is the critical novelty of the camp environment.” (Yale Globalist)

At camp we foster leadership, grit, tenacity and resilience in the next generation. Away from our watchful eyes, our campers and staff increase their independence, friendship, confidence, responsibility, and teamwork. At a Jewish camp, the next generation have a profound feeling of connectedness to the Jewish people, gain a deeper understanding of Jewish values, and explore their heritage of wisdom and spirituality. We need to help the next generation synthesize their identities.

We understand how we all want to see “Esther” pursue her interests in all facets of life – whether that is getting into a certain college, establishing herself in her career of choice, and empowering her to compete in the global marketplace. Like Mordecai, we want Esther to do well and to do good and to be fully self-actualized. We need to better articulate how our Jewish engagement efforts help do all of these things and at the same time create mensches who make the world a better place. With Jewish camp, parents do not have to choose between their children’s future and our heritage. The right synthesis will ensure a bright future for all.

– Reposted from ejewishphilanthropy.com

The Secret Life of Moshe II : Shemot and Purim

Can you keep a secret?

As I written about before, I think that secrets play a dynamic and critical role in the Bible, Jewish memory, Jewish life, human psychology, contemporary life, and of course most family issues.  OK that is not the best secret. If only the Elders of Zion really existed I would have some better secrets to share with you. But how might I argue my claim of  the importance of secrets? For now I am going to focus on this week’s Torah portion.

In the beginning of the book of Sh’mot we see that a couple from the tribe of Levi clandestinely have a male child. They, Amram and Yocheved, need to keep this a secret out of fear that this male child will be killed under the new government rule. How long will they be able to keep this secret? They put the child in a basket and put him in the river. None other than Pharaoh’s daughter and her maidservants discover the baby in the bulrushes. Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, names him Moshe and brings Miriam and Yocheved into the plot to raise Moshe as a closeted Israelite in the house of Pharaoh.

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead. ”  How did so many people conspire to keep this secret? It seems somehow that these people are able to keep a secret; Moshe grows up with his secret secure.

Moshe’s identity seems  safely hidden until one day when he sees an Egyptian slave master beating an Israelite. Moshe is inspired to action, but he does not want to betray his secret. We read, “And he looked this way and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he smote the Egyptian, and hid him in the sand.” (Exodus 2:12) It seems like the perfect act of vigilante justice. He saves his fellow Israelite, there are no witnesses and he is able to  maintain his old secret of being an Israelite and his new secret of killing the Egyptian. The very next day Moshe intervenes as one Israelite is beating another. The Israelite responds, “Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you plan to kill me, as you killed the Egyptian?” (Exodus 2:14) Moshe leaves town out of fear that his secrets are known by all. The juxtaposition of these two secrets, one kept and one not, frame the importance of secrets in Moshe’s life.

In many ways a secret is like being naked. If shared with the right person it is high level of intimacy. If your secret is revealed to the wrong person you feel exposed, embarrassed, and even in real danger. But, if you had a secret that you could never  share, it could be a very large burden to carry having to keep this part of yourself in the closet. In the words of Sigmund Freud, “He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore.” Moshe had to leave Egypt because  everyone knew his secrets. He also had to leave to evade the deafening sound of the  Tell-Tale Heart. While he might have been killed if he stayed, keeping his secrets bottled up would have also killed him. But if his secret identity as an Israelite male would have been known he also would have been killed.

This seems to be resonant with the story of Purim.  Like Moshe, Esther has a secret identity of being Jewish at a time when the Jewish people are going to be killed. Like Moshe’s connection to Yocheved, some how she and Mordecai  the court Jew carry on their relationship without anyone knowing her identity. Esther maintains this secret even after she reveals the secret plot to kill the king in the name of her uncle.  The main difference between the two stories seems to be the role of God. In Moshe’s story when his secret comes to light his role is to share the secret of God with the people.  In the story of Purim the climax comes when Esther reveals her secret identity to the King, but if God has a role in the story, that remains a secret. There is still more to be explored as to the role of secrets in the Torah.

– Reprieve of an older post on Moshe and His Life of Secrets

Fifty Shades of Anti-Semitism: Talking with Our Children About Purim

When my children were in Kindergarten they learned about the story of Esther in preparation for Purim. Five years ago, at the Purim Seudah, or festive meal, Yadid shared with me what he learned about Purim in school.  He learned that, Haman’s punishment (for attempting genocide) was having to walk behind Mordechai, who was riding on the royal horse, and pick up the poop. Yadid added with a smile that this is his favorite part of the story. This year at Purim, like every other year, I will try to fulfill the commandment to mistake the blessing of Mordechai with the curse of Haman. It struck me this year that I have been acculturated to expect Haman. He is a stock character in our history. As the adage goes, “What is the definition of an anti-Semite? It is someone who hates Jews more than you are supposed to.” I am thankful that Yadid was not taught of Haman and his sons being put to death, but I realize that in retelling the story of Purim, we have normalized anti-Semitism. From a young age Haman is not excused but he is to be expected.

I was reminded of a Sarah Silverman piece in which she corrects her niece who was astounded that 60 Million Jews died in the Holocaust. After correcting her that it is 6 million Jews, not 60 million, her niece responds “What is the difference?” There is a difference, “Because 60 million would have been unforgivable.” We make fun, but it is astounding to realize that the expectation of anti-Semitism has made us fulfill the commandment of mixing up Mordechai and Haman all year-long. As if anti-Semitism is normative, if not normal. That’s black and white.

You might argue that the hatred of Jews is a central theme of Jewish history. You would be correct. But when is it appropriate to share this with our children? Why would you want to raise your children to think that being hated is expected? Isn’t it black and white?

It is particularly scary raising Jewish children in a world in which there is a revival of anti-Semitism in Europe and elsewhere, ISIS is on the rise, and Iran is inching closer to having weapons of mass destruction to aim at Israel. In my mind part of the problem is that we have made it normal to hate the Jews. In each story in our history, we are left trying to figure out who loves us and who hates us. It is a sort of pornographic horror- we hate it, but we just cannot pull ourselves away from it. Like Fifty Shades of Grey, the global audience enjoys watching anti-Semitism. Purim is a time of grey, not black and white.  Esther is the queen and also the object of hate. It is the time when we confuse Haman for Mordechai and blessings for curses.

The rest of the year we need to know what is good and what is evil- black and white. Hating people for their religion, racial identity, gender identity, orientation, or ethnic identity is simply wrong and there is nothing normal about it. How will our children understand the horrors of anti-Semitism without trivializing it? We need to confront evil beyond making bad people “pick up the poop.”

-reposted from the Canteen

Consuming Role

In Korach, this week’s Torah portion, we learn that Korach, along with Dattan, Aviram, and 250 men from the tribe of Reuven, challenged Moshe’s and Aaron’s leadership. Eventually Korach, Dattan, and Aviram, along with their entire families were swallowed up by the earth, while the 250 men were consumed by a heavenly fire. While they repressed a threat to Moshe’s and Aaron’s authority their extreme nature of their punishment seems out of proportion. At the end of the Torah portion we read that Aaron is appointed as Cohen Gadol, high priest. Aaron’s election is confirmed through a “test of the staffs”. There we read:

17 ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and take of them rods, one for each fathers’ house, of all their princes according to their fathers’ houses, twelve rods; you shall write every man’s name upon his rod. 18 And you shall write Aaron’s name upon the rod of Levi, for there shall be one rod for the head of their fathers’ houses. 19 And you shall lay them up in the tent of meeting before the testimony, where I meet with you. 20 And it shall come to pass, that the man whom I shall choose, his rod shall bud; and I will make to cease from Me the murmurings of the children of Israel, which they murmur against you.’ 21 And Moshe spoke unto the children of Israel; and all their princes gave him rods, for each prince one, according to their fathers’ houses, even twelve rods; and the rod of Aaron was among their rods. 22 And Moshe laid up the rods before the Lord in the tent of the testimony. 23 And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moshe went into the tent of the testimony; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and put forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and bore ripe almonds. 24 And Moshe brought out all the rods from before the Lord to all the children of Israel; and they looked, and took every man his rod. (Numbers 17: 17-24)

This seems like such a more reasonable way to resolve conflict. Each loser takes his staff home, no one gets eaten by the earth or burned to death, and the winner gets an almond treat.  It seems that the Levi bracket in the tournament was really tough. Why did we need to have the whole Korach ordeal and this almond lottery?

Before I discussed this idea and its connection to the story of Esther. This time I wanted to discuss it in the context of the story of Yonah. Near the start of his story we see him on the run from being a prophet for God. God sends a storm to thwart his escape by boat. To preempt the ship being destroyed he and the people drew lots to see who was causing the storm. Just as the almond staff bloomed for Aaron, this lot fell on Yonah. He is thrown from the boat only to be swallowed by a giant fish just as Korach was swallowed up by the ground.

What do we make of this juxtaposition of these two stories? Where this is the end of Korach’s story, this seems to just be the start of Yonah’s story. Korach was never really satisfied with his role as compared to Moshe’s role. From being swallowed Yonah turns his life around and finally fulfills his appointed role.   I often reflect on my role in life. How do I  come to accept it? Figuring that out can be quite consuming.

 

– A special shout out to our friends Ari and Adina on the bris of their son Yonah Shemer. I think that is how I got Yonah on my mind. Mazel Tov.

 

MISSION PURIM

Mission Purim

MISSION PURIM

Good morning Agent Shushanberg. The woman you are looking for is Esther Achoshveroshakov. She is known to be well positioned in the government. We have discovered through our sources in the capital that she has ties to the resistance. Upon learning this we had our man there Mordecai Benyamini on constant watch. Unfortunately he has not been able to make direct contact or turn her to support the opposition. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to make contact with Esther and encourage her to influence the King. To make contact with Esther you will need to use her code name Agent Hadassah. She will only talk to you if you have fasted for three days so you might want to eat the contents of this package before your mission. As always, should you or any of your Mission Purim Team be caught, the secretary will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This message will self-destruct in five seconds.

Good Luck. Tizku LaMitzvot and have a wonderful Purim.

Agents Adina, Avi, Yadid, Yishama, and Emunah

NOTE: STOLEN FROM Mishloach Manot

Hidden Ingredient

Teachers, curricula, grades, rulers, pencils, erasers, chalk, markers, handouts, hands up, heads up, mouths shut, black boards, white boards, smart boards, and (all too often bored) students: the ingredients of formal education. If we were to reject these in the name of awaking our children to the joy and splendor of Jewish life, we would be relegated to the realm of informal education. But calling it informal seems too limiting. By calling it informal we are defining this mode of education by what it is not, as compared to defining it by what it is. That is why I prefer to call it experiential education. But, what is experiential education?  In general the core of excellent experiential education is plainly put: excellent education. But if experiential education does not follow the recipe of formal education, what is its secret in ingredient?

copy 110707.CampJRF.-207So even before I get started I want to say that I believe assessment, evaluation, and accountability are crucial to the educational project, but here I want to explore what positive things happen in the educational kitchen when we take away the grades and remove the perception of judgment. With this move away from presumptive hierarchy, the weight of the education needs to be born out on the shoulders of the relationships. It is only when the educators meet the students’ basic needs and achieve a mutual trust that we get cooking. In an environment where we are giving grades we need to be transparent, otherwise we run the risk of being unethical. How can a student be held accountable for something that they did not know that they were going to be tested on? In experiential education, the deepest learning often happens when educators help students get out of their own way in the service of their learning. We often need to use obfuscation and trickery. Being transparent often destroys that magic. Obviously this manipulation can be misused, but if we maintain that trust, the process will yield future revelations and breakthroughs in learning.

It is interesting to think about this aspect of education in the larger context of revelation. When the People of Israel were about to receive the Torah at Sinai, the Torah says, “And Moshe brought forth the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood under the mountain.”(Exodus 19:17) What does it mean “under the Mountain?” On this, in the Talmud Shabbat 88a, Rabbi Avidimi ben Hama ben Hasa said that this teaches us that the Holy One raised the mountain above them like an inverted cask and said, “If you accept the Torah, good; if not, this will be your burial.” So our experience at Sinai was less an intimate moment under the chupah, and more, a carjacking. Rabbi Aha ben Yaakov noted that accepting the Torah under duress presents a strong challenge to the obligatory nature of Jewish law. How can we be held liable for a contract that we were forced into? But Raba said that they accepted it again in the days of Purim, as it says in Megilat Esther, “The Jews fulfilled and they accepted.” (Esther 9:27) Why the doubling of language? This means: they fulfilled what they had already accepted. The fulfillment of the added laws of Purim demonstrated that they accepted the laws of Sinai from thousands of years earlier. The difference being that this time there was no duress. It was not only that there was no God to push them into it, in the entire book of Esther there is no reference to God. God is hidden.

The story, and the holiday of Purim, seems to be a theater in which we are exploring what is hidden and what will be revealed. Esther’s name and identity are hidden. When will they be revealed? We explore this with all of our customs of costumes. The fate of the Jewish people is unknown. When will that be revealed? We explore this with our community gatherings and of course our eating. There would be no story of Purim if all we had was transparency. Purim seems to be a holiday of delayed revelation.

I am not arguing that formal education is bad. I happen to love it and it has a huge role to play in education, but it is clearly not the only way. We need different ingredients to meet the needs of different learners. The delayed revelation of Purim points to a secret ingredient of experiential education. What does the world look like without a judge or judgment? The absence of God made it possible for Esther to be a true heroine. If there was transparency, Esther would have never learned the nature of her commitment to her community. We see many aspects in camping where it is a child centered institution free of judgment because the adults are hidden and there are no grades. The joyous Judaism and the freedom of camp hide the highly organized and intentional program. If we had to be transparent about our intention to make another generation committed to our future we would not be successful. As we read in Megilah, “The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honor.” (Esther 8:16) It is only at the end of the story of Purim that the hidden became clear, but boy were they glad.

– Also posted in the Canteen

Hoist By His Own Petard

Mi Sh’nichnas Adar, Marbim b’simchah- With the advent of Adar we increase joy in preparation for Purim. Each of us find different ways to bring joy. Here I want to explore Schadenfreude one distinct genre of humor. Why is the pain of other people such a rich source of laughter for so many of us?

I think that Megillat Esther might provide us some interesting insights into this question. The whole story  seems to get started when  Achashverosh asks his queen Vashti to come his banquet in her crown. When she rejects him he is angry and turns to his inner court for counsel. There we read:

And Memucan answered before the king and the princes: ‘Vashti the queen has not done wrong to the king only, but also to all the princes, and to all the peoples, that are in all the provinces of the king Achashverosh. For this deed of the queen will come abroad to all women, to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes, when it will be said: The king Achashverosh commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not. And this day will the princesses of Persia and Media who have heard of the deed of the queen say the like to all the king’s princes. So will there arise enough contempt and wrath. If it please the king, let there go forth a royal commandment from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes, that it be not altered, that Vashti come no more before king Achashverosh, and that the king give her royal estate to another that is better than she. And when the king’s decree which he shall make shall be published throughout all his kingdom, great though it be, all the wives will give to their husbands honor, both to great and small.’ ( Esther 1: 16-20)

So just like that, by royal decree, the queen was out, women needed to listen to their husbands, and honor was restored to the men.

Later on in the story we meet Haman the kings lead counsel. Haman has ascended to be all-powerful, he has been given permission to kill the Jews, and he recently was invited to a very exclusive party with the king and Esther the new queen. And despite all of this he is unhappy because Mordecai sits at the kings gate and will not bow to him. There we read:

Then Zeresh his wife and all his friends said to him: ‘Let a gallows be made of fifty cubits high, and in the morning you should speak to the king that Mordecai may be hanged on it; then you can go in merrily with the king in to the banquet.’ And the thing pleased Haman; and he caused the gallows to be made. ( Esther 5:14)

The story continues that Haman follows his wife’s advise and goes to see the king where he is met with an interesting question. “What shall be done to the ma n whom the king delights to honor?”( Esther 6:6) Assuming the king was talking about himself he suggests that the king bring out the royal apparel so that the person being honored can ride around the streets on the king’s horse wearing the king’s crown and being led by the kings most noble prince announcing that this is how the king honors people. Then the king said to Haman:

‘Make haste, and take the apparel and the horse, as you have said, and do even so to Mordecai the Jew, that sits at the king’s gate; let nothing fail of all that you hast spoken.’  Then took Haman the apparel and the horse, and arrayed Mordecai, and caused him to ride through the street of the city, and proclaimed before him: ‘Thus shall it be done to the man whom the king delights to honor.'( Esther 6:10-11)

It is noteworthy that while Mordecai is honored to be led around by his nemesis Haman he does not get to wear the king’s crown.  Why is this the case? The king could not sleep at night so he read the chronicles where he saw that he had not appropriately honored Mordecai for saving his life.  And why was the king awake? Well I think it might be because some Jackass listened to his wife and kept him up all night building a gallows. On a number of levels Haman is hoisted by his own petard .

So, if you are anything like me you ask, what does it mean to be hoisted by a petard ? The petard, a rather primitive and exceedingly dangerous explosive device, consisted of a brass or iron bell-shaped device filled with gunpowder. This was attached to a wall or gate using hooks and rings, the fuse lit and, if successful, the resulting explosive force, concentrated at the target point, would blow a hole in the obstruction, allowing assault troops to enter. So this phrase means “to be harmed by one’s own plan to harm someone else” or “to fall into one’s own trap.” So on one level Haman wanted to have the king honor him and in the end had to honor Mordecai in that same way. On another level the gallows on which he hoped to kill Mordecai was the reason the king was awake. In the end it was means by which Haman and his family were killed. So that plan really blew up on him. And on yet another level we see that the whole story was set into motion to preserve men’s honor and ensure that their wives would listen to them. Haman is killed because he listened to Zeresh and Achashverosh listened to Esther.

So going back to the question of Schadenfreude. There is nothing noble about laughing at someone’s pain, but is seems justified when the one in pain is being hoisted by his own petard. Hell I am honored to do it. Have a very joyous Adar.

 

 


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