Posts Tagged 'Purim'

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.

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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

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


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