The Book of Esther, the Megillah, was my first Biblical love. I had opportunity to delve into it as a McGill undergrad prior to my first yeshiva experiences and discovered that it is a brilliant text. The Megillah is balanced and suspenseful, sacred and absent of God, deadly serious and filled with [ribald] humor. In this short essay I want to show that an essential factor in the reading of the stories of the Megillah is the obedience and disobedience of the characters. We have been trained, as it were, to look for obedient God-fearing Biblical characters as role-models. But, a closer reading, will show that disobedience is often a critical positive shaper of the unfolding biblical narrative.
As children we were taught that the Megillah was full of women. There was, after all, a beauty pageant; Miss, soon to be Mrs, Persia! These were all the beauties of the land. As we’ve grown up we have come to understand that these women were exploited, afraid and pressed into a demeaning service wherein you could only gain notoriety by being the most memorable purveyor of sexual favors to a lecherous king.
But, in fact, we only have three named female characters, Vashti, Esther and Zeresh. Vashti, in a modern revisionist reading, has become a folk heroine for her obstinate refusal to give in to the king’s debased request. Esther, the Jewess, has always been cast was the heroine, after all, she brings deliverance to the Jews. Zeresh, the wife of Haman, has been considered a villain due to her association with her husband the chief antagonist of the Jews.
Vashti is the person who sets the story in motion. Asked to come before the drunken king and courtiers she refuses. Whether or not she was to be dressed or only adorned with her diadem is a matter of debate. I like to read the Megillah as I was taught to read Shakespeare as a high school student. Always imagine that there are two audiences: the pit and the box seats. The box seats filled with the upper crust were at the Globe Theatre to watch the art and absorb the story. The pit, filled with the lower classes, were there to be entertained, not only by the performance but also by the double-entendres that Shakespeare was so expert at. So back to Vashti, when the king summons her to appear in her royal diadem we can read the command in two ways: 1) come only in your diadem or, 2) appear before me and wear your diadem so everyone knows you are queen as you parade in. Big difference.
The Rabbis of the talmud preferred the bawdier reading because it cast Vashti and Ahashverosh in a worse light. It fits into their inclination toward reading Biblical tales as black and white, villain and hero, (see also, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esav). But, disturbingly, this interpretation has been so ingrained that the midrashim that explain her refusal have become the peshat that is taught to school children.
Consider the stories as the rabbis tell them. Vashti refuses to appear before the king and his courtiers because she is suddenly struck by leprosy. Or her refusal is due to her sudden sprouting of a tail. This makes Vashti, the Queen of Persia, into a disgusting person whose vanity is the only thing that keeps her from appearing nude in front of a group of drunken men. The idea that this is taught to school children is disturbing in its own right, but, as can be discovered in contemporary divrei torah, this idea has also been transferred into a parable of Jewish modesty and sanctity in opposition to non-Jewish promiscuity and debasement.
The peshat is that Vashti refuses to obey her husband. The motivation for this refusal is derash. The most likely reason for a self-respecting person, let alone a queen, for refusing to accede is her feeling that she is being objectified. Her refusal is heroic – it is brave, courageous, and quite possibly a choice with existential repercussions.
Vashti’s disobedience of her husband is often compared to Esther’s obedience of Mordechai. She does what he says and hides her Jewish identity. This is a very disturbing component of the story. Mordechai, my namesake, is meant to be a stalwart representative of Judea and Judaism, but he and Esther are both named for Near Eastern gods. And when Esther becomes socially mobile she is told to hide who she really is. Mordechai seems to be an assimilationist.
So what’s peshat here? I think one way to read this is that Mordechai is deep into his identity as a courtesan and maintains, at the same time, a deep relationship to his Judaism. He of course refuses to bow to Haman but really we don’t know why. But, once his people are threatened, he awakens to his true identity and pushes Esther to do the same. Mordechai’s disobedience of Haman, Esther’s obedience of Mordechai and her subsequent disobedience of the king (she comes to him when she isn’t call to) are the key factors in the unfolding of the story. So Esther’s heroism is counterintuitive in that it is connected to disobedience as opposed to obedience.
Zeresh. Oh Zeresh. She’s a bit player for sure. But the great thing about Zeresh is that she is a truth-teller: “If Mordechai, before whom you have begun to fall is of Jewish stock, you will not overcome him; you will fall before him to your ruin.” She seems to be the most ‘religious’ character in the Megillah. She has some idea about Jews being special and she tells her husband. She does lie, she doesn’t curry favor, she just lays it out. Notice that Esther has to jump through all kinds of hoops to get the king to get to the point where she can tell the king the facts. Zeresh just speaks it straight out.
While the Megillah is about seeing everything a little differently we have fallen into the trap of reading it the same way year after year. Is Vashti the folk heroine for the 21st century? I don’t really think so but at least she is someone with self-respect. Is Esther a pathetic assimilationist? We don’t have to read her this way but we should be conscious of the problematic of her behavior and that of her mentor Mordechai who sets her in a very precarious position. And, Zeresh, she is married to a terrible man. Long enough to give him a minyan of sons. She is certainly a flawed person for that. But I like to reserve a little space for her to be not so bad. In the two times that Zeresh is mentioned she comes in the same sentence with ‘kol ohavav’. The Hebrew could be literally translated as ‘Zeresh AND those that loved [Haman].’ If we read the text literally the Megillah, in its subtle and layered way is telling us that Zeresh saw the truth and wanted to be distant from her husband.
Purim is set up by the Megillah. And on Purim as much as we read the text we should also be reading ourselves. Turning the interpretive lens into a mirror. Along with the openness that the celebration brings we should be attempting – for good or for bad – to reinterpret our own actions and inclinations so that we can have greater clarity in our lives.
P.S. I only know one rock song that has the name Esther and the word Armenian in it. Here it is.
I wrote this for a collaborative blog I’m on with some friends. It’s meant to encourage us all as we work through another February trying to avoid sadness and tragedy.
I’m sure there are details that are wrong but such is life.
February has been a brutal month. It is connected to Adar wherein we’ve lost friends and students. Both at Brown and when I was a student in Israel. It is also the month in the mid-90′s when there was a spate of suicide bombings on buses in Jerusalem. I was there. It was horrible.
But, like the Purim story, which also takes place in Adar, everything is about turnaround and redemption. And really, my day is February 14. Valentine’s Day. Sweet. Commercialism. Fakery. Imported flowers with a carbon footprint bigger than a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. But I digress.
This is a story about one moment. It’s a long one.
Thirteen years ago on February 14th I went on my first date with my nice wife, Nechama Lea. We were both living in Bat Ayin in the middle of nowhere. I was studying in a Yeshiva and she was in a Midrasha. We were amongst men and women who were hot to get married. It was a crazy time. We had a wedding every two weeks. In those days I learned what it was like to live in the middle-ages, not only because we lacked warm housing, but because we had no entertainment outside of communal simchas – celebrations.
Rabbi Kohn was my teacher and his wife, Batya, was a matchmaker. For reals. Batya and I had met but we’d never spent much time getting to know each other. I mean there was no Starbucks. So Batya corners me one day and says, “Hey. How’d you like to go out with Nechama Lea?” And I was like, “You mean that woman with the beautiful smile and gorgeous blue eyes?” (I swear that’s what I said.) And she said, “Yes.”
While I was being coy the truth is I had recently met NL. She and I had been introduced at the wedding of Jonah and Alison by my very good friend Charlie. NL had been Alison’s roommate. Char and I had known each other for years. I was drunk, weddings you know. And I had literally just walked in from calling off a short relationship with a great woman. (It was by mutual agreement – we were great friends but not lovers. Still are. She’s married, lives in Israel with her husband and beautiful boys.) And the next woman I saw was NL. We said hello and I went on my way.
Then a day later Batya asked if I’d like to go out with Nechama Lea Rackover. I didn’t want to seem like a man-slut, I had, after all, just broken up with ‘Shaindel,’ so I said let me think about it.
That night I went to a party. Sheva Berachot. This is a party that is held every night for the week following a wedding. It’s awesome. So at a Mexican themed Sheva Berachot in Nachloat at the home of Sara Lea, I sat down on a bench and lo and behold who should be next to me but Nechama Lea.
She was drinking beer. From a bottle. Awesome. It felt strange. We had escaped our medieval village. Men and women were shmoozing. Beer was being consumed. We were all adults who had found religious Judaism later in life and this was a space that was clearly a bridge between our ‘former’ and present lifestyles.
There was no chance of ‘going home’ with a girl. We were all celibate and we were all committed to abstaining from pre-marital sex and even pre-marital touching. So we talked. It was great. And, in the end, we did ‘go home’ together, but it was just mutual hitch-hiking back out to Bat Ayin. Our first encounter turned into a 4.5 hour tunnel-visioned experience. We were at a party but I don’t remember much about it. We were in Jerusalem, and then in a car and then walking, but I don’t remember. At some point we were with a third person, Josh, but we lost him. I think he caught the vibe and took off.
The next morning I contacted Batya and gave her the code word and she set up the next meet. We were going to go into Jerusalem, for dinner. We decided on a vegetarian place in the German Colony on Emek Refaim. Yeah, we were on Emek before Emek was Emek. We got a lift and then a bus and then we walked and we went into the restaurant. I think she had a quiche of some kind and I had a Greek Salad.
At some point during the meal we offered each other tastes of our respective food choices. And here was the moment. So small. So insignificant. But so deep. We each took our fork and picked a piece of food from the other’s plate.
Nothing. The smallest most benign gesture. But I remember, at the time, that it was so so powerful. We had crossed into intimacy. We had broken through the barrier that our place-settings represented. We had fulfilled the innate mammalian desire of providing food for those you care for. It was really really deep.
I remember her eyes from that meal. Later I would compare them to sunflowers. Her eyes are blue but there are flecks that bring me to those flowers. In later years, after losing friends, the sunflower was my visual meditative cue. I still use it when times are terrible. It is a place of safety and beauty.
We finished dinner and then went to a pizza shop and drank beer. She’s Czech. I’m Canadian. We talked about our families and hockey and beer.
I don’t remember going home. And then we got married.
When I was younger (1997 or so) I was hanging out with my friend Stephen Eisenhauer and somehow I said “photogenic memory.” Obviously this makes no sense but, nonetheless, if you Google it you get tons of people asking questions about the exact nature of such a memory, such an ability. Most of the respondents explain that the correct term is photographic memory and it refers to the ability to recall all that one sees. It is a rare talent.
The photogenic memory, on the other hand, is more than just a google-able malapropism, it is a memory full of ideas that are worth capturing – frozen in moments.
So here goes a re-christening of my blog with an attempt to track more ideas and readings and thoughts. I am not sure but I may be inspired by BrainPickings. Whatever the case here it goes.
Mindblowing Music It’s not new but this stuns me every time I hear it. For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her, by Simon and Garfunkel. Art hits this note at 1:21 and then another at the end. Play it really really loud.
Silliness we all know that it knows no bounds. Here is a case. In a recent class with some Brown students I was discussing the production of materials necessary for writing a Torah scroll. I explained that they needed to come from animals that could be eaten, i.e. kosher animals.
I pointed out that there are other dyes that do not need to come from kosher animals such as the blue dye known as techelet that is derived from snails. I’m also reading a book, The Rarest Blue on techelet, so far it’s really good.
Here’s how it went down as I pulled a blue dyed string out from under my shirt and onto the table.
“The snails are milked,” I reported while making a milking motion with my thumb and forefinger squeezed together over a miniature snail teat. Met with incredulous stares I continued the milking motion and explained, “that the snail is milked into a tiny tiny bucket.” Continued confusion. “There is even a tiny little stool that they put next to the snail during the milking.” “Hmmm,” their faces said, “is he pulling our leg?” Going in for the ‘kill’ I explained, “that the best part about milking a snail is that they never kick over the bucket since they don’t have any feet.”
Michelangelo I recently read two books on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling is a fascinating historical read about the politics and personalities that went into painting the ceiling. We all know that Michelangelo was a genius but reading this allowed me to see many more aspects of his brilliance. He seems to be responsible for bringing a realistic rendition of the human form back into art. He never used women as models so ‘his’ women are very ‘butch.’ It is particularly clear when you look at how unnatural their breasts look, at least in my opinion. He hated Pope Julius II who was his patron. Julius, also known as Il Papa Terribile - The Fearsome Pope, was a bruiser who was known to be of slight moral credibility. But he believed in the glory of Rome and saw to it that it began a renaissance in art and design. Read the book, 5/5 stars.
Michelangelo and the Jews I had read the first book so I would be better informed when I read this second book, The Sistine Secrets: Michelangelo’s Forbidden Messages in the Heart of the Vatican. Rabbi Blech and his co-author Roy Doliner, string together historical facts about Michelangelo, his early life within the DeMedici inner circle, his later life religious compatriots and then, using this background as an interpretive lens explain the Sistine Ceiling. There are no Christian figures on the ceiling. Not one. There are crypto-Hebrew symbols and fascinating critiques of the Pope. Even a couple of different characters giving the finger. Their argument is pretty convincing as long as they stick to that which is clearly expressed on the ceiling. When stringing together mysticism and certain midrashim it begins to move into the speculative. It is clear that Michelangelo was an unmatched genius. I was stunned over and over again by these two books.
Veganism My nice wife and I are doing a ‘cleanse.’ Never done one before so I presume I’m filthy. Week one: no grains, no potatoes, no rice, no soy, no coffee, no alcohol, no sugar, no processed anything, and no animal products. What I’ve learned is that it isn’t that big a deal. I’m eating better, that’s certain. I’ve purchased fruits, dried and fresh, nuts and vegetables that I like and I keep a lot of them around. Nuts are allowed and I’ve eaten a ton of those. Unfortunately so many that I’ve actually woken in the middle of the night with a killer stomach ache. There is a shortage of crispy. So I go for nuts and then I gorge and that is not good. What do I miss? Coffee. Not the caffeine – you can drink black tea and I have been – it’s the taste. I just love coffee. I can feel the richness of the brew in my mouth. When I make coffee it home it’s got texture because I brew it so ‘thick.’ I miss that. I also miss potato chips. Meat – not so much. I would like some but I haven’t had a craving.
Ben Sorer u’Moreh I have been giving a series of Talmud classes which focuses on ‘great sugyot’ (great sections/ideas.) In the first class we looked at Kol D’Alim Gavar – a rule that on the service appears to allows litigants to physical fight over contested property. In class two I chose something very different. The Torah (De. 21:18-21) tells us that there may be a stubborn and rebellious son who is a glutton and a drunkard. If certain conditions are met he is to be executed. Heavy. The amazing thing: the Talmud comes along and, according to at least one opinion, says “this never happened and will never happen in the future.” So then why is it in the Torah? The stunning response: learn it and receive reward. This is highly problematic. A pandora’s box of paradoxes. Here are the source-sheets (primarily Hebrew) ben sorer umoreh and a link to the audio of the class (coming soon.)
5 Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and all the wealth that they had amassed, and the persons that they had acquired in Haran; and they set out for the land of Canaan.
This phrase, one of the first about our father Abra(ha)m, is troubling. Abraham the father of our nation who is thought of as a deeply caring soul was a slave-owner. But slavery was different then. Robert Alter, in his “The Five Books of Moses” puts it this way:
the folk they had bought in Haran. Slavery was a common institution throughout the ancient Near East. As subsequent stories in Genesis make clear, this was not the sort of chattel slavery later practiced in North America. These slaves had certain limited rights, could be given great responsibility, and were not thought to lose their personhood.
Note that In Biblical times slave ownership was the norm for the wealthy and there were many forms of slavery. For most slaves it was an atrocious way of life. For others it was a means of escaping debt, or enslaved service in an army, it wasn’t roses but it was not anathema the way slavery is today.
But in the Hebrew we find a more ambiguous term.
ה וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם אֶת-שָׂרַי אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת-לוֹט בֶּן-אָחִיו, וְאֶת-כָּל-רְכוּשָׁם אֲשֶׁר רָכָשׁוּ, וְאֶת-הַנֶּפֶשׁ, אֲשֶׁר-עָשׂוּ בְחָרָן
Translated literally: And Abram took Sarai his wife and Lot the son of his brother, and all the possessions they had amassed, and the soul (nefesh) they had made in Haran.
They rabbis noted this problem and made the following explanations:
And the souls which they had made in Haran: R’Elazar bar Zimna said: if we were to assemble all the creatures of the Earth they couldn’t even create a single fly and give it a soul (nefesh). Yet the text says, ‘and the souls they had made in Haran.’ Rather, this is a reference to the converts they had converted. If that is the case, that they converted, then why does it say, ‘they had made’? To teach us that whoever befriends a non-Jew and converts them it is as though they had created them… Genesis Rabbah 39
And the souls which they had made in Haran: Reish Lakish said: whoever brings his friend to learning Torah is considered to have created him. As it says ‘the souls which they had made’ and not ‘the people they had taught.’ Midrash haGadol
The rabbis consider Abraham the first monotheist, the first person who is like a Jew, and thus understand that he must have converted others. How else could he have amassed a household and wealth? It would be impossible for him to have had idolators in his family and employ. And, of course, the way one converts is by first studying Torah.
Conversion is a complicated question. It is fraught with denominational politics, halakhic argument and societal stigma. But what is so important is that it has long been understood as a way in to Jewish tradition. Did Abraham ‘convert’ everyone he met? No. But many rabbinic and biblical tales tell us that Abraham had an open house which was inviting and accessible.
Learning Torah is the means, par excellence, into Jewish tradition. Reish Lakish, the author of the second statement should know, he was a gladiator and took up learning late in life and became a remarkable sage.
But here is the challenge: how do we teach and welcome and remember that the essence of the process is creating souls and not changing people or fulfilling some obligatory religious function?
It has been my experience that many people do mitzvot because they have to. I include myself in this group. Sometimes it is a very deep thing to say, “I am doing this because it is a commandment of the Creator and for no other reason.”
But such an attitude when relating to the Other is dangerously objectifying. Imagine that someone would say: “It’s a commandment for Jews to observe Torah. I need to help this Jew observe the laws of the Torah so that they will do the right thing.”
It sounds great. Help someone do the right thing. But sometimes, in that equation, the student, the not-yet-observant is an object, a piece in the puzzle of religion that needs to be put in the right place.
Two examples: A friend posted a story on a list serve (it’s a private list so no names.) A great rabbi was sick. All the other rabbis in his community, his friends and colleagues, came by to visit. After a few days when the flow of visitors slowed another rabbi came by. This rabbi, not a member of the sick rabbi’s community, had never spoken with the sick man before. They had differing outlooks in Torah observance and didn’t have a relationship. So the visitor knocks on the door and the sick rabbi comes to answer. He says, “what are you doing here?” The visitor replied, “I’ve come to visit you. To do the mitzvah of bikkur cholim (the commandment of visiting the sick).” The sick rabbi replied, “You never spoke to me before but now you want to come and visit me when I’m sick? I’m sorry but I don’t feel like being an object right now.” The visitor was effectively trying to use the sick person as an object to aid in his fulfillment of a commandment.
A similar story: A good friend of mine went to college on a campus where there was almost no Jewish community. His campus had no Shabbat observances to speak of. So for a couple of years every Friday afternoon he would drive an hour to a major city and be a guest in someone’s home for Shabbat. After so many of these experiences he told me that he had stopped going. I asked him why. He told me that he felt that people were not hosting him because of his identity, but rather they were having him in their home so they could do the mitzvah of hachnasat orchim (the commandment of welcoming guests). He was tired of it. He felt distanced and objectified and he stopped keeping Shabbat.
By no means do I wish to cast aspersions on so many kind people that do tremendous works in teaching and hosting. What I want is for all of us that are engaged in these practices to take a step back and ask some questions:
1) Do I have an end result in mind for this person? If I do then I have shaped who I want them to be and have, to some degree, robbed them of their identity in our relationship.
2) Do I welcome all people equally? Or do I try and figure out how ripe different people are for picking?
3) How open am I to Jews who are committed to practices that differ from my own? Not that I have to adopt their practice, but that I respect their choice and withhold judgement. Am I prepared to engage in conversations and arguments that are respectful and do not denigrate the informed choices of other Jews and non-Jews?
It’s hard being indiscriminate. Accepting all and withholding judgement. We can only imagine what it would have been like to be in Avraham’s presence. There was sanctity, power, belief, hope, and above all, there must have been welcoming and love. Without welcoming and love we wouldn’t be in a world that has benefited so richly from Judaism and the other Abrahamic Faiths. Acceptance and love is a challenge that Avraham laid out for us and that every person struggles with every day. To repair the world we will have to begin, like Abraham, by repairing ourselves.
Genesis Ch.11 – NJPS Translation
1Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. 2And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.”—Brick served them as stone, and bitumen served them as mortar.—4And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.”
I used to wear a black velvet kippah, the kind the ultra-orthodox litvacks wear. I chose it because it fit my head and because, as I began to explore orthodox Judaism I wasn’t sure of my identity. Over time it wore out. It was sun-bleached and thinning. It started to look brown and even had a reddish tint.
While wearing my gradually lightening black kippah I would wear jeans, mostly plaid shirts and combat boots. There was an incongruity. My head, as it were, didn’t match the other parts of my body. And I think that that was important for me and those who looked at me, they understood that all of us are works-in-progress.
This week we’ve suffered through a painful chapter in the long battle for religious tolerance in the State of Israel. Anat Hoffman, leader of Women of the Wall, was arrested for disturbing the peace at the Kotel. Her crimes, according to Israeli law, necessitated her forcible removal and arrest. Israeli law prohibits women from certain forms of self-expression at the holy site. It prohibits their wearing of tallitot (prayer shawls) and the raising of their voice to lead prayer.
It must be noted that Anat Hoffman was being deliberately provocative. She knew that she was likely to be arrested and chose to lead a group of women to the main section of the Kotel which is specifically reserved for more traditional prayer experiences. The section of the Kotel that has been demarcated for egalitarian and woman-led services is not policed for these disturbances.
The law was enforced with particular harshness. Ms. Hoffman reports that she has bruises from handcuffs that were used to pull her across the floor. During her arrest she continued her civil disobedience and as a result of her refusal to change seats in the Police building she was dragged by the cuffs. She was strip-searched and placed in a cell with prostitutes.
There are many angles to take on this story: halakha (Jewish Law), Israeli law, secular complicity in ultra-orthodox dominance of the religious services sector, and the question of whether or not Jews in the Diaspora should criticize Israeli law and police practices to are just a few worthy avenues.
For me the biggest problem is that we’ve ignored one of the main messages of this week’s parsha (Torah portion). That difference is part of God’s plan.
After the Flood God commands Noah to repopulate the earth. This is to achieve God’s plan for humanity’s dominance over the planet. God’s goal is not that humans should dominate in the sense of abuse, but rather to rule, to civilize, to create civilizations, to create societies. But the people are scared and instead of spreading out they choose to concentrate themselves in one place. The introduction to the story sets us on the appropriate interpretive track: “1Everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.” The Hebrew, ודברים אחדים could also mean one mission or one idea. Sameness is the cause of the downfall.
“4And they said, “Come, let us build us a city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves; else we shall be scattered all over the world.” The city is built in direct opposition of God’s desire for settling the earth. (See Rashbam 11:4) This construction is an expression of the rebelliousness of the generation. But those in power, the ringleaders, also want a tower to limit the rebelliousness of the population. The Netziv says the tower functioned as a guard tower so that people would be spotted if they tried to escape!
When God punishes these people it is measure for measure, the Creator says: “‘7Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.” 8Thus the Lord scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.” The corrective measure for the attempt to concentrate in one place is the injection of radical difference into the community of humanity. By means of changing their languages God spread them out over the earth. It appears that God destroyed civilization, but in fact God created it by increasing the varieties and cultures of settlement.
We live in a time where we’ve lost track of the Divine imperative to foster difference. God abhorred the vacuum of empty space before the Creation and God continues to abhor simple unthinking unity of thought and action. The Talmud tells us that every person is created with a different mold and that God is the only artisan who could accomplish such an infinitely massive task.
Should we encourage people to ignore God’s commandments? No. But we should keep the lines of communication open. We should be able to sit with another Jew and express our love for them and tell them that we think they are wrong but we respect their right to chose.
We all wear different kippot. We are all exploring ways in the service of the Creator. While we do not have to agree with everyone we do have to recognize their right to difference. We should advocate against those who sit in the towers and watch preparing their weapons and snares for those who dare challenge the status quo.
I was blessed to be the Chattan Torah at our synagogue. Chattan Torah, literally “The Groom of the Torah,” is a big honor, it means that I was the person who was called up to finish this year’s cycle of Torah reading. The good news – this was not due to any spectacular merit of my own, rather the first-string guy, who had finished learning the Talmud, after 7.5 years!, was called away at the last minute and couldn’t be in town. As a teacher of Torah and a Rabbi I was asked to take his place.
It’s nice to be thought of and even nicer when it comes with a built-in ego deflater.
I was very moved by reading the final section of the Torah. I’ve probably read or heard the last verses over one-hundred times. I teared up when God showed Moshe the Land of Israel and the places where all the tribes would settle. I remembered, in that moment, as I read along, listened and held my sons, that I had been up and down Israel this year. I was on the Land that Moshe only saw in a vision.
There is a book, ha-Giborim sheli : arbaʻ hartsaʼot Tanakhiyot, “My Heroes: four lectures on Tanakh” with a series of talks by the Israeli journalist, now politician, Yair Lapid. (Lapid, the son of Tommy Lapid, is not known as a traditional religious person, I think that that is one of the great things about the book, that a Jew wants to talk about the Torah and actually does it regardless of his religious inclinations.) Lapid talks about Moshe and decides that he was essentially fatherless, he was given over to women to be raised and really never had a long relationship with his natural father, Amram, or father-in-law, Yitro. He is always moving in and out of these relationships.
So God is Moshe’s father. Not like Jesus. God is the character who cares for Moshe, who guides him, who is in constant relationship. And then there comes a time when the father will have to bury the son. Lapid suggests that the vision that God gave to Moshe of the Land of Israel was infinitely better than anything Moshe could have experienced by actually entering the Land. God’s infinite kindness is manifest by showing Moshe the idealized Land of Israel rather than the actual Land of Israel that is subject to the flux of nature and human habitation.
So I stood there reading about Moshe’s vision. I wondered how long it lasted. Was this a moment that lasted an eternity? Was it a ninety minute Smithsonian IMAX film or a bodily sensation of moving up and down and in and out of every inch of our beloved land?
I don’t know the answer to my questions. I do know that even dying by God’s kiss as Moshe did, even after the beautiful vision he was granted, he must have been infinitely sadder than we could ever imagine. It breaks our heart and it should. Every year, over and over, for our whole lives.
Parenthetically: I think this is why children are such a rich part of Simchat Torah, to remind us that even when and end comes there is a beginning. Just like the Torah.
I find this time of year challenging. There are many reasons: introspection, on again off again work and school, the exigencies of the rabbinate and balancing my rabbinate with my family’s needs. But mostly because it seems that the process of teshuvah (repentance) can be anti-climactic.
Teshuvah can be understood as a once yearly process. We begin in Elul (the month prior to Rosh HaShannah) to take an accounting and at Rosh HaShannah we really get into it and then, intensively, until Yom Kippur we are on our best behavior. We apologize to friends and enemies. Have intimate moments with our family where we savor each other and the roles we play in each other’s lives. I think of this is as the 1040 method, the individual tax return method. Once a year you pull out all your bills and you fill out some forms. You sweat it a little and once it is all over, presuming you don’t owe too much, you move on with your life.
But what if we thought about teshuvah as we think about paycheck deductions? Or, better yet, saving for retirement or buying health insurance. Every day that I work a little money gets pulled out and is invested in my retirement. In the same way I also pay for health insurance and dental insurance. It comes off of my salary because I need it on an ongoing basis. It is true that income taxes come off in the same way but they are only accounted for once a year, and really they don’t feel like an investment in me. But health insurance is an investment in maintaining who I am. Retirement savings are an investment in who I want to be.
This week, the “week after,” this first Shabbat of the new year, can be a major let down. After all the handwringing, fasting, and penitential prayers we have a regular Shabbat. What I think we need is a name for this Shabbat.
Last week was Shabbat Shuvah - the Shabbat of Return – whose name is derived from the first word of the haftarah from Hosea. “Return to God…” I have heard people call it Shabbat Teshuvah, which is of course the intention of the day but not its proper name.
So I am appropriating Shabbat Teshuvah for this Shabbat. The Shabbat of Repentance. This week, the one after, is always the big one because we can see how people perform without the pressure of Yom Kippur looming. It is also the Shabbat where we can “repent for our repentance.”
When we read the vidui, the confessional, on Yom Kippur one of the issues we repent for is for sinning while confessing. This is obviously a deep challenge to our personal honesty and is meant to remind us that even when we are doing the right thing we need to be in focus and of pure motive.
Rebbe Nachman of Breslov tells us that we need to teshuvah on our teshuva, that once we have reached a level beyond where we once were the teshuvah from that place will be seen as inadequate (hence the 11 confessions of Yom Kippur and Mincha before.) We are constantly striding forward.
But the human condition is such that once the knife is removed from our throats we slide back. For example: we all know that God won’t forgive slights of one person to another unless the slighted one forgives the one who gave offense. This is the reason for the phenomenon of people asking for mechilah, forgiveness, before Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. This has become so pervasive that we now have Facebook statuses asking for forgiveness from the entire universe for possible sins committed. Frankly without identifying the transgression and actually apologizing personally I’m not sure how anyone can imagine that this is anyway personally or cosmically effective. (N.B. that one must enumerate the sins in the confession, see Rambam Hilchot Teshuvah, this I believe is applicable in apologies as well.)
But now, having passed Yom Kippur, you won’t see anyone begging for forgiveness via social media. In fact, I think that if you did you’d think that the person was about to die. Or at least undergo some life-threatening experience.
So now the knife is removed and we have to prove to ourselves that we can invest in the present and in the future in a measured and consistent way. Not just in the year end rush to get everything in.
A final thought. The Torah reading this Shabbat is the final parshah in the Torah – V’zot HaBerakhah. This reading is the near climax of Moshe’s ministry and life. What is interesting to me is that we read it a lot. We read it now and then finally in almost two weeks we close out the Torah on Simchat Torah by reading the last verses. Depending on the year and how the calendar works out in the weeks prior to the high holy days and Simchat Torah it is also read on Mondays and Thursdays as well as Shabbat Mincha. The full reading is repeatedly pushed off by holidays. It is the protracted death throes of Moshe. We’ve been living with his impending death for over two months and we are still pushing it off and pushing it off.
To me the sense of tragedy and finality of our Teacher’s passing is meant to be hanging in the air for as long as possible. It is the Greek Chorus that follows us through the period from Tisha B’Av until we escape from the high holidays. Even Moshe dies. We should be ready in our lives for the inevitable.
- Apologize to someone who you may have missed before the holidays. Make sure that you identify what you may have done to offend. The other may feel that there was no offense but they will appreciate that you care enough to bring it up.
- Do a mitzvah with fervor and love. It could be praying, listening to the Torah or eating your gefilte fish with full intentionality. Be in it.
- Have a conversation with your family or the people with whom you normally share Shabbat about how it could be better every week or over the course of the coming year.
These are the remarks I delivered at both the Reform and Conservative minyanim at our Hillel this past Sunday night. I’ve removed the ‘thank yous’.
I was in synagogue on Shabbat morning and the Rabbi, my friend Barry Dolinger, told the following story. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, possibly the greatest rabbi that ever lived in America, was slated to give a speech at a convention in a hotel. So he arrives and everyone is set up they are waiting for this giant to step in to the room and blow their minds. But he’s a little late, traffic. So he finally shows up and for some reason a reporter from a local Jewish newspaper had decided that it was a good time to say Mincha, the afternoon prayer (I guess the wait got long and he had somewhere to go after.)
So this reporter is praying, davenning, right in front of the door to the auditorium that Rabbi Feinstein has to go into to give his speech. So the ‘handlers’ are saying, “Rav Moshe, please everyone is waiting. Rav Moshe let’s go. Rav Moshe is everything ok?”
So they’re really bugging him to get in and get it going and the guy is still praying. So what’s the problem? What’s the big deal? So there is a very beautiful idea – that when we pray God fills the space in front of us, beside us, and behind us. So being that the Divine Presence is in front of this guy Rav Moshe, who is being hassled to come in and give a speech, says, “I can’t come in. God is blocking the door.”
I want to hold on to that idea for a little later.
Now I want to tell you what happened next. Not to Rav Moshe, to me. Remember I was in synagogue and I heard that story from my friend, Rabbi Dolinger.
After hearing the rabbi’s talk which was about concentration during prayer, I was inspired to take a little more time with my prayer, to go a little slower. So I’d say I was about two-thirds of the way through my private prayers and lo and behold a guy walks right in front of me, along one row of empty benches and he’s collecting prayer books and chumashim.
I was blown away. Completely and utterly beside myself – I was out of God’s space – as it were. I collected my thoughts and finished praying and when it was over I decided I had to talk to him. I went over, put my arm around his waist and said, “John Doe, I hope you can hear this, I’m about to give you a little chastisement, tochecha.” So he says, ok. I say, “did you hear the rabbi’s speech?” Yes. “Did you listen?” Yes. “Well then,” I asked, “what would possess you to walk around and collect books during the time when people were praying?”
What would you say? You would probably just say I’m sorry. (And if I was less grumpy I would say it’s ok. But what I really would have said was, “APOLOGIZE TO GOD!” But he didn’t say sorry.)
So he tells me, “well you know there is a halakhic (jewish legal opinion) that says that if there is a bench in front of you then it’s ok.”
What do you think I said? “Don’t give me that!” And then I explained to him the various opinions that he was trying to refer to.
So that was the end of the story and now you are asking – why is he telling us this? Because after I did what I did I was grasped with a supreme need to clarify what my motives were. It was not guilt, it was a searching, an attempt to determine what I was trying to do. I’ll tell you where this comes from: There was a school of chassidic thought called Przysucha. It was founded by Simcha Bunim of Przysucha (whom my second son is named for) and in Przysucha Hassidut they fought for the “supreme value of personal authenticity.” Listen to how this is explained by Mickey Rosen ob”m in his book, The Quest for Authenticity:
For the world of Przysucha, authenticity meant the process of truthfulness – to oneself and to one’s Maker. Anyone and anything that helped this process was considered holy, but anything that inhibited was sacrilegious. I use the term sacrilegious because only by using such a loaded term can we begin to understand that it was not neutral. To be authentic means to be truthful. In Przysucha, in order to be truthful one needed to be self analytical, because only thus could one clarify the motive of one’s own actions. Was one’s religious behavior motivated by pride, by fear? Or was it in fact part of the process of attempting to be real? The enemy of truthfulness, (especially in a religious context) was feigned piety; even appearing to do something for an external reason, was to be eradicated. Therefore, one needed to engage continually in self-analysis to understand why one was doing what one was doing.
So I have to say that our biggest problem here at Hillel, at Brown, should be people taking too long to pray. Showing off about how deep they are ‘into it.’
But I want to relate this to what does go on around here. I want us to ask ourselves about our relationships, about the people we see and speak to regularly, I want us to ask ourselves how honest are we?
We have had honesty and authenticity beaten out of us since we were children. It is destroyed by the media, by the need to succeed based on ‘grades,’ by market economies and the exigencies of politics and profit.
We have been taught how to give feedback that will never hurt or offend but neither will it help advance our causes as human beings.
I’ll be honest with you – I think that living in Przysucha or Kotzk would have been brutal and unhappy. But it would have been powerful and life-altering. But I don’t think we could support that type of challenging and painful feedback loop on an ongoing basis, no matter how much it was motivated by love of one’s brother.
I very much love my students, both in the real sense – this boy and that girl. But also in the abstract sense – you are all my students. The people of Brown are as well. I feel the same about the Jews and people of the world in general. We love each other. But when we allow ourselves to pass through life without pressing back, without helping others correct then we are really doing a disservice.
Think about the most banal of examples: sometimes there is a little food in your friend’s teeth. And you’re just a little too embarrassed to tell them. Or it’s your own teeth and you get home and you look in the mirror and “Oh GOD! I can’t believe I had food in my teeth. Why didn’t they tell me?”
And that is so small. But what if you’re being a jerk? Or what if you are being just a little bit less of who you could be? And nobody tells you? It happens all the time.
We should not be cruel and that is why there are no Kotzker chassidim around – you really had to connect and to get through torture tests emotionally and spiritually and help out of love and never through cruelty.
And we don’t do that anymore. But we should do a little. We should let go of our fears of offending others and work more dilligently on helping others through kind and careful words of help and correction.
I want to get back to Rav Moshe, standing at the door – the door that God was blocking. This is unbelievably deep. Rav Moshe didn’t really believe that God was in the doorway. Like standing there physically blocking the door. But Rav Moshe, the greatest judge of Jewish law that ever lived in America, believed deeply in his system, in the principles that he had decided to adhere to as a Jewish person. When people tried to get him to bend on those principles, even such abstract and seemingly minor ones, [for everybody knows that everybody walks around in shuls all of the time all around the world,] he wouldn’t bend.
I’m thinking that as we begin to demarcate spaces for the coming year. Spaces of holiness, prayer, good deeds and self-correction, I’m wondering how firm we are about the existence of those spaces. However abstract those spaces – do we have the mental and spiritual energies to draw down these behaviors into the practical and uncooperative world. What fills the space in front of us? What is inviolable even if it is invisible?
And what barriers artificial or real will I break down to help myself and help others become better people.
Positive Identity Creation – a Response to Joel Frankel – Jewish/Judaism as a Modifier
In a recent post on eJewishPhilanthropy.com Joel Frankel identified some of the core challenges in the Taglit-Birthright Israel enterprise. Specifically he focused on the following: the quality and training of staff, the variety of avenues for Jewish identification for the participants and the role of local Federations in following-up after the trip.
I think Joel, while being a little tongue-in-cheek, is doing a significant disservice to our colleagues who work diligently to make each trip a success. I’ve staffed three trips with two different providers and on each one have had excellent Israeli guides who challenge themselves to not only learn the names of participants but to craft the experience in such a way that enables their personal love of Israel to be conveyed to each and every American participant. True, our medics are prohibited from engaging in romantic relationships with participants, but they are encouraged to help our participants understand life in Israel from the perspective of an Israeli.
In regard to the American staff Joel writes, “However, it takes a pretty committed staff person to try and organize and lead a productive and meaningful “tie-in discussion” for forty exhausted/horny/anxious twenty-somethings who just spent the past eight to ten hours getting on and off a tour bus, especially when the preference of the participants is that sharing time be pushed aside in favor of an extra bar night.” Apparently I’ve only worked with committed staff people. As leaders and educators we work hard to make sure that our participants understand the parameters and expectations. There will be time out on the town and there will be reflective time. There will be fun and the will be sadness. The participants are not kindergartners wanting at all times to run out to the playground. They are intelligent young adults who, if given credit and opportunity, want to learn and grow.
I want to suggest that there are a few relatively easy ways to remedy some of the challenges that Joel identifies.
- Change the way you think about the participants. Rather than thinking of them as “forty exhausted/horny/anxious twenty-somethings” think of them as forty individuals with different experiences. On our trips we always ask students to identify what they are most looking forward to and what they are most anxious about. We do it aloud so that everyone on the trip can be aware of similarities and differences. We do it publicly so that people can find buddies in their journeys. And so that the staff can begin to keep a mental record that will help them cultivate the participants’ identities.
- Change the way you think about the American staff. Rather than using the term ‘staff’ use the word ‘educator,’ or ‘trip-mentor,’ or ‘facilitator.’ It’s a small thing but would make the world of difference.
- Empower the staff vis-à-vis the Israeli guides. Making sure that American staff (I’ll stick to staff as it is the standard term) can identify the participants’ needs and convey them to the Israeli guides is critical. Very often the American staff are inexperienced, young and somewhat lost in the challenges of jetlag, language barriers and generally their impression of domineering Israelis. The guides and the American staff must be taught to work together. The guides must be taught to accede to the educational choices of the American staff.
- Training. While setting up his identification of the problem of under-trained staff Joel asks, “How can we embrace the “Jewish Diversity” on each Birthright trip while simultaneously empowering participants to take ownership of their Jewish Identity and personal relationship to Judaism and Israel?” On our Taglit-Birthright trips we ask a similar question and we ask it over and over and over again: “What is the content of your Jewish identity?” I believe that we need to be training staff to ask that question and to facilitate the discovery of the answer. As we said above, we ask students to publicly identify their interests and concerns so that we can help them key in to those moments where they can get what they are looking for. That question is part of the larger program of helping the participants recognize the vast scope of Jewish – [modifier] possibilities. Jewish-food, Jewish-mysticism, Jewish- art, Jewish-military history, Jewish-sexuality, Jewish-architecture, Jewish-jurisprudence to name a very few. Further, in almost all cases the word Israeli can precede the hyphen and can serve in places where ‘Jewish’ would be awkward. Israeli-club scene, Israeli-bikini designers, Israeli-geography, etc …
On our trips we’ve challenged our participants to find the content of their identify. To answer, “What follows their hyphen?” We use the trip and all of its opportunities to open their eyes to the infinite numbers of combinations of positive identities they can choose from. We insist that they answer the question at least once to fill in the blank of the content of their identity.
Another important question that Joel asked, ‘how do we train the staff?’ His suggestion of a conference is an excellent one but is likely cost-prohibitive and inconvenient for volunteer staff people who have day jobs. I’d suggest a series of webinars on the various aspects of Jewish identity that can be taught on the trips. Each webinar would be on a topic that will be encountered on the trip – Hebrew language for example. The participants would learn about Hebrew, its history and its revival. How it is used in modern Israel and how it can be taught about on the trip. Each webinar would include practical moments and most importantly would conclude with an explanation of the possibilities for follow up. For example: when participants return to North America where can they learn Hebrew? Another example: The Israeli fashion industry. How did it develop? What successes have there been? Where can it be encountered in North America? What opportunities are there for internships or hiring? Where can you study fashion in Israel?
These are just two examples of the infinite possibilities. Another training method: interactive web-based modules that would require check-ins and game-like tests that would prove the potential staff has ‘studied’ and ‘mastered’ the material. These modules would also be open to participants.
I hope we can continue to improve the quality and quantity of Taglit-Birthright Israel experiences. I’m sure that there are great minds working on these questions and hope that this may bring some new light.
Original post here - http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/positive-identity-creation-a-response-to-joel-frankel-jewishjudaism-as-a-modifier/
Rabbi Mordechai Rackover is the associate university chaplain for the Jewish community of Brown University and the Rabbi of the Brown RISD Hillel Foundation. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @mrackover