Posts Tagged 'Purim'

Winning the Lottery: Yom Kippur and Gift of Life

And who by fire, who by water

Who in the sunshine, who in the night time

Who by high ordeal, who by common trial

So starts “Who by fire” by Leonard Cohen. Here he sings his modern version of the traditional Hebrew prayer “Unetanneh Tokef“, chanted on Yom Kippur. In this prayer we discuss who will be inscribed in the Book of Life on Rosh HaShanna and sealed in that book on Yom Kippur. This prayer evokes the precarious nature of life. 

In saying Unetanneh Tokef we are awakened to the perception of Damocles coming to an awareness that Dionysius’s sword is hanging overhead. Our lives are in peril. But it is not just a sword, it might be by fire, water, etc. It seems random and strangely sobering. It is as if we are reliving our own version of Shirley Jackson’s Lottery

The random nature of our mortality is underscored within the Temple sacrifice of the scapegoats we commemorate on Yom Kippur. Once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Cohen Gadol took two goats and presented them at the door of the Tabernacle. Two goats were taken and by lot determined its purpose. One would be selected to be for God, which was offered as a blood sacrifice, and the other to be the scapegoat to be sent away with all of our sins into the wilderness and pushed down Azazel, a steep ravine, where it died.

We see this same idea of random lots again on Purim. There we see that Haman wants to kill all of the Jews. There in the Megilah we read:  

On the first month, that is, the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Ahasuerus, pur—which means “the lot”—was cast before Haman concerning every day and every month, [until it fell on] the twelfth month, that is, the month of Adar. (Esther 3:7)

The holiday’s name Purim comes from “pur” the random selection of when Haman and his allies were going to commit genocide. But, what does this have to do with Yom Kippur?

Some say that Yom Kippur which is referred to in the Torah as Yom Kippurim. While this is traditionally translated to mean “The Day of Atonement”, some say it actually means “ The day that is like Purim”, or Yom K’Purim. Both Yom Kippur and Purim are days in which we are aware of our mortality and our collective lot in life. Both seem random, but it seems that the lot of the scapegoat is fated, where Esther steps forward to serve her people and in so doing affirms her and our collective destiny. What is the role of our agency in determining the outcome? On Yom Kippur we acknowledge that it might seem random (who by fire and who my water), but affirm our own agency like Esther K’Purim in determining the outcome. 

I was thinking of this idea of agency and chance in the context of people testing their DNA through Gift of Life. What are the odds that we have in our body the cure for someone else’s disease? What a blessing to have in our agency the capacity to save another human life? We might not be able to determine who by fire and who by water, but we can save people from an extraordinary number of terminal illnesses.  This is an amazing way to commit our lives to a higher purpose. Continued efforts of Gift of Life have led to 23,000+ matches and 4,300+ life-saving transplants. We cannot win that lottery unless each of us get tested and donate if they are a match. May we all be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.

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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.

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

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.

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


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