From the Rabbi’s Desk — September 2018
Of Love, Loss, Kafka & Sukkot
I recently came across an article by May Benatar about the famed author Franz Kafka. She writes that:
The story goes, that he encountered a little girl in the park where he went walking daily. She was crying. She had lost her doll and was desolate. Kafka offered to help her look for the doll and arranged to meet her the next day at the same spot. Unable to find the doll he composed a letter from the doll and read it to her when they met.
‘Please do not mourn me, I have gone on a trip to see the world. I will write you of my adventures.’
This was the beginning of many letters. When he and the little girl met he read her from these carefully composed letters the imagined adventures of the beloved doll. The little girl was comforted. When the meetings came to an end Kafka presented her with a doll. She obviously looked different from the original doll. An attached letter explained ‘My travels have changed me.’
Many years later, the now grown girl found a letter stuffed into an unnoticed crevice in the cherished replacement doll.
In summary it said:
*Every thing that you love, you will eventually lose, but in the end, love will return in a different form.’* – (Kafka and the Doll, The Pervasiveness of Loss by May Benatar)
I found this story deeply touching especially the kindness and sensitivity Kafka showed the little girl. I also think that the final letter he left was both true and profound. Indeed, when we open ourselves up to people we truly love, we make ourselves vulnerable to loss. By caring and investing our souls in the relationship, by creating the deep bonds that draw us into love, when loss occurs it badly hurts us. Yet, love has an eternal way of showing up when we least expect it and our fragile hearts can often find the capacity to let new love in. Like in the way Kafka comforted the little girl with the imaginary letters he wrote and by his caring presence in her life. The love we share with others changes us, it makes us think differently, feel differently, and ultimately we can be surprised and continually blessed by it.
On Sukkot, we have the custom of opening our sukkah to family, friends, guests, and strangers. We invite both those who are living but also those who we have loved and whose loving spirit we remember and recall. We imagine these Ushpizin there with us, as we fill our sukkot with song, joy, good food, and yes, love. Dwelling in the fragile and temporary sukkah reminds us that the physical and immediate world we live in are not permanent and are subject to loss. And yet the sukkah at its best can also be a reflection of the eternal truths like love which can transcend our own human mortality and remind us of what is truly important and majestic about life. Yes, the sukkah, like love is fragile and susceptible to loss and yet both are remarkably enduring and stronger than we think.
May we remember those who have loved us and made us who we are, may we cherish the loved ones we have in this moment and hold them tight, and may we open our hearts to sharing our love with those we have yet to meet and are waiting for us.
From the Rabbi’s Desk — August 2018
A Blessing on Your Head, Mazel Tov!, Mazel Tov!
In one of the most well known quotes from the musical Fiddler on the Roof, the community comes and asks the rabbi, “Is there a blessing for the Czar?!” The rabbi pauses in thought for a moment, strokes his beard and replies, “Why yes, may God keep the Czar – far away from us!” This is of course a true yet fun poke at the fact that as Jews we have a bracha (blessing) for everything. In our spiritual tradition, we stop to acknowledge each and every day the brachot (blessings) that surround us and mark the moments of our lives. We recite brachot not out of a rote religious obligation but because the words of blessing allow us to acknowledge the good (Hakarat haTov) that we might otherwise take for granted or just ignore. Brachot can be recited on the physical (food, ritual objects, etc.), sensory (smell, sight, etc.), or time experiences (holy days, life-cycle, etc.) we encounter on our life’s journey. No matter the subject of the bracha, all brachot must be done with intention or kavanah. Brachot allow us to stop, take a moment and elevate our hearts and minds to the miracles of life which are all around us. To give credit to God for the beauty, wonder, and love which sustain our world and our lives.
There is another benefit to acknowledging the good through brachot, namely it allows us to see all of the goodness which can often be drown out by the daily news cycle which focuses mostly on the discord, problems, negativity, and calamities of our world. While we have a moral obligation to confront evil and work to heal/repair our communities and world, we never the less also have a need and a responsibility to recharge, sanctify, and give thanks for the abundant blessings God has given to us. Brachot are the fuel for Jewish optimism that has allowed us historically and personally to weather life’s challenges and tragedies and continues to inspire us both with HaTikva (The Hope) and an imperative L’Chaim (to Life)!
In Robert Muller’s (no not that Robert Mueller) book Most of All They Taught Me Happiness, he writes:
The key to (a positive) outlook is love, affirmation of life, thankfulness for life.
Some have called it sanctity of life, reverence for life, celebration of life. I prefer
to call it passion for life, the key to all, the result of a personal, determined
decision…anyone who receives the gift of life ought to feel fathomlessly
indebted to it, for he has been given a unique treasure in the universe. He is a
true miracle on a planet that is itself a miracle. He should love life from deep
within, whatever others may think or proclaim, despite wars, the prisons, the
injustices, the struggles, the inequalities, the false values, the dogmas, the
noises, the ideologies, the jealousies, the fashions… Life is beautiful, divine,
miraculous, fathomless. Life is to love, to do, to learn, to think, to imagine, to
talk, to receive, to feel, to understand…and to embrace in one’s heart and brain
the entire creation…Not to revere, not to love, not to wonder, not to be
impassioned with the miraculous, brief droplet of life is a crime, a waste, an
outrage, and a stupidity.
Judaism concretizes this idea by making it a personal and spiritual habit to recognize the good through the recitation of brachot, the giving of tzedakah and through gemilut hasadim (acts of lovingkindness). Through these intentional acts, we recharge ourselves with optimism, show gratitude and reverence to God for the daily miracles of life, and look forward to each day with renewed hope and zest for life. As we approach Rosh HaShanah 5779, may you and your family enjoy a year of continued blessing and be written and sealed in the Book of Life.
L’shana Tova Tikateivu v’Tikateimu!
From the Rabbi’s Desk — July 2018
Law vs. Morality: What Does Judaism Say?
One of the things I am most proud of being a Jew, is the moral compass our Torah and tradition have established as its core. Our faith has given the world monotheism, mitzvot (including the 10 Commandments), and strong ethical principles which make up the backbone of Judaism and many other religions moral codes. Our Torah, as a blessing and gift of God’s love, is here to guide our behavior both through its stories and laws. It represents an evolving, dynamic, and creative tradition that aspires to the highest moral values and ideals.
As Jews, we use the lens of Halacha (Jewish law – literally meaning to walk along the path) to help us make our daily choices and give us sacred opportunities and connect us to our rich past and to our future. For centuries, our Rabbis have been charged with interpreting the Halacha for their communities and often, case by case, ensured that God’s word was reflected with humility, compassion, and kindness.
In one of the most quoted stories, the Talmud (Shabbat 31a) recounts a potential convert who goes to the famous sage Hillel asking for him to teach him the entire Torah while he stands on one foot. Hillel instead of rejecting this brazen request outright, as did his colleague Shammai, agrees. Hillel inverts God’s command in Leviticus 19:18, “Love your neighbor as yourself” and says to the convert, “”What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation of this—go and study it!” This became known as Ikar Torah or as I like to think of it – God’s Prime Directive (or commonly known as the Golden Rule).
In essence, Halacha by its very nature cannot be immoral, unjust, and damaging to God’s name and holiness. As God’s guiding path of life, it must live up to the highest moral and ethical ideals, of which – loving our neighbor, caring for the stranger (36x in the Torah – more than any other commandment), orphan, poor, and widow is recounted over and over again in our sacred texts. When it fails to do so, our Rabbis recognized that the Halacha is either being misunderstood or needing to be limited, changed, or even occasionally uprooted. No commandment from God could be immoral or denigrating to God’s name or to human beings, who were created in God’s image. Law without ethics, is not merely corrupt and unjust but violates the Commandment of “taking God’s name in vain” as it denigrates God’s reputation in the world, let alone many times violating Ikar Torah – God’s Prime Directive. Immoral laws also have the detrimental effect of pushing people away, profaning the holiness of the Torah which God has entrusted to us, and damaging the moral authority at the core of our tradition.
Like all ancient religious traditions, Judaism has its share of problematic texts and moral dilemmas. As caretakers of the tradition, Rabbis have found overt and sometimes creative ways of addressing many of them. The Torah itself teaches that we are to, “do the right, and the good.”, meaning that it is not always possible to legislate every ethical situation or moral dilemma but instead relies upon the middot (moral character & measure of humanity- middah means literally to measure) of compassion, dignity, respect, and love to help guide us on the path. Throughout history there have been both Jewish and more often secular laws, enforced by governments, that have been (and are) immoral, unjust, and indeed evil. They sought to claim authority/authenticity from God’s word or revelation. To that assertion, Judaism answers with a resounding, NO!, reminding each of us that as we walk with God down the path of life, loving each other trumps any law
From the Rabbi’s Desk — June 2018
Some Journeys Have No Seatbelts: A Summer Poem and Thought
We put in from the launch right as the sun was peaking over the horizon. Mist still hovered over the river and the water was cold at our feet as we got into the boat. A grey heron stretched out its wings and ever so gracefully skimmed the water toward the opposite bank. The mountains still drenched in greenish gray bracketed us as the river cut through. We began to paddle quietly, too afraid to disrupt nature’s stillness and the gentle flow of water – of life – which embraced us. Suddenly, we were aware of how small we were, a playful speck, voyeurs of a secret Eden, witnesses of the Divine Creator, whose splendor and artistry were too vast for us to comprehend. We were entranced, dizzy as the sunlight slowly illuminated the valley, river, and mountains.
SMASH! From nowhere we hit a rock and I tumbled forward, surely I would be flung out of the boat, injured or worse… And in that split second, I remembered what my mother drilled into me, “never go anywhere without putting on your seatbelt!” But, there I was – in a canoe with no seatbelt!
And yet a hand reached out and grabbed me, pulling me back in.
“It would be bad to lose our new rabbi,” he said.
May we never be afraid to take the journey but be smart enough to keep close those who would pull us back. Especially when there are no seatbelts!
From the Rabbi’s Desk — May 2018
Al haDavash v’al haOketz – The Honey and The Sting: Deepening the love between American & Israeli Jews
There is an old adage that says, “Love is blind.” It is based on the common experience of when a couple first falls in love, and each sees their partner as perfect. Foibles and idiosyncrasies are often overlooked in order to move the relationship forward because it is so young, fresh, and romantic. However, as the relationship deepens and becomes more serious, it reaches the end of the honeymoon phase, and a more mature and honest love hopefully takes hold.Each partner in the relationship can be honest about who they and their partner truly are. They learn to acknowledge, cope with, and even embrace each other’s human imperfections. I believe this type of mature love is desperately needed in the relationship between American diaspora Jewry and the State of Israel.
For my grandparent’s generation, the State of Israel was an unquestionable miracle. They worked to build the State of Israel with unwavering support in both money and political capital after it sprang forth from the horrific tragedy of the Shoah (Holocaust), which saw the destruction of European Jewry. From the JNF to Hadassah and AIPAC, we as American Jews were active participants in the fate and destiny of our ancestral homeland. We could vicariously be Zionist pioneers, turning the desert into forests, and also be protectors of this safe haven for Jews seeking new lives who were gathering from around the world. Israel was the underdog, who, against the odds, turned back the Arab armies time after time.
This perspective on Israel’s founding miracle climaxed in the 1967 Six Day War, when not only did Israel win a war in six days, but also reclaimed Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Even the Peace and Love generation couldn’t help but get wrapped up in the euphoria of Israel’s triumph. Israel became a badge of honor for American Jews who began to make the pilgrimage to see firsthand the dream of Israel become a reality. The heroism and derring-do of Israel’s defenders (including capturing Eichmann and the rescue at Entebbe) mingled with the sadness of the 1972 Munich Olympics, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, and the entanglement of the civil war in Lebanon. Israel was an important source of Jewish pride and identity even as many American Jews began to pull away from observance and synagogue life. No longer would we be victims at the hands of others. Our history, identity, and future was now guaranteed in the strength of Israel.
But something fundamentally flawed was allowed to seep into the psyches of some in the American and Israeli communities. From the Diaspora side, love of Israel meant believing that Israel had to be perfect. Israel was routinely placed on the highest of pedestals in American Jewish thinking, either to counteract the deep vitriol and anti-Semitism of the world or as a panacea for the decline of American Jewish religious affiliation and identity. As a natural reaction to the “Zionism = Racism” scourge that permeated (and still permeates) much of the world’s opinion, American Jewry closed ranks around Israel. In Israel, there grew a sense that American Jews were good for money (checkbook Zionists), but were “too delicate” or uncommitted to move to Israel in large numbers and fulfill the true Zionist imperative, to literally serve and build the State of Israel. What right then should the Diaspora have in commenting about Israeli policy and life? Diaspora Jews were not there and therefore had no skin in the game.
Over time, both of these perspectives have damaged the love relationship between the State of Israel and American diaspora Jewry, serving to drive a wedge between them. I believe American Jews need to learn that Israel is not and does not have to be perfect for us to love her! Family is family — period! There are times when Israel fails to do what is right. When it fails to live up to the highest ideals of Jewish ethics and, just like every country on the face of the Earth, it has both good and not so good leaders and moments in its history. Life is complicated, and choices are often weighed between differing ethical values. Also, in the realpolitik of a nation state, compromise and imperfection are inherent. Mistakes are part of being human. In a mature, loving relationship, loving the other is not contingent on perfection or agreeing with each other all the time, but instead on the deep ties and connections of journeying through life together. However, when the myth of Israeli perfection burst, the American Jewish community and our educational system could not find the way to teach, let alone talk about, a more mature love of Israel. Instead, it developed a bunker mentality, pitting any critique of Israel as being a betrayal of Israel and our love for her. Silence was enforced for fear of hurting Israel, leading American Jews away from Israel, or giving succor to the anti-Semites hiding behind an anti-Israel/anti-Zionist facade.
Yet, the need for Israel to be perfect, and the fear of talking about the real problems in Israeli society and the hard choices it faces for security and survival have become a taboo that I believe has come back to hurt us. As in any relationship, communication and dialogue are critical aspects of a healthy relationship. Israel has become a third rail not to be touched. Insults, condemnations, and accusations of disloyalty have shut down important debate among those who love Israel and want Israel to thrive and succeed. The result is that far too many younger American Jews have a totally unrealistic view of Israel to both extremes. Either Israel has to be perfect, or Israel is always wrong. The narrative has become black or white. This lack of mature love of Israel has not only driven away nuance but has driven American Jews away from Israel. It has made us weaker in our defense against the truly heinous Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement gripping college campuses and supported by Israel’s true enemies. American liberal values, which many Jews believe in (and are taught in religious school), are being used as a bludgeon to challenge young Jews to choose falsely between Israel and what they believe to be morally right.
Further, on the Israeli side, there are many Israelis who do not understand American Jews or American Judaism. They fight and die for Israel, joining the IDF before going to college. They grow up very fast, face real danger, and cannot relate to American students coming on a ten-day Birthright trip to sightsee, party, and sometimes dabble in an often superficial Jewish (religious?) experience. Even the most secular of Israelis too often have come to believe that the clock is ticking on American Jewry. They cannot understand how and why the Diaspora should matter and are often taught little about American Jewish life and its pluralistic approach to our Jewish faith. Most of their textbooks and education leave this out completely. They do not understand why the vast majority of American Jews get bent out of shape about issues of religious pluralism and are hurt when their deep Jewish beliefs are not recognized by the only Jewish state in the world.
I believe that for the love of Israel and the Diaspora, we must begin to heal this rift and devote ourselves to a more mature, robust, and honest love. Again, Israel does not need to be perfect to warrant our love and highest support. We should celebrate the miracle of Israel and her remarkable achievements. In just 70 years, Israel’s art, poetry, music, technology, culture, science, medicine, and democracy are the envy of the world — a light unto the nations! Yet, income inequality, racial tension, religious intolerance, the African refugee crisis, and especially the Palestinian dilemma (which has created an internal threat to Israel’s survival as a Jewish democratic state) cannot be whitewashed or ignored. Israel’s enemies like Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and others are a real and immediate danger, but in the long run, so too is losing a future generation of American Jewish support of Israel.
Likewise, there are real problems in American Jewish life (assimilation, the cost of Jewish life/education, shrinking demographics, etc.), but the solution is neither to write us off as lost or deny our stake in the fate of the Jewish state. American Jewish life is dynamic, creative, and vibrant with much to teach and share. Here, a Jew, in a free society, can choose to express his or her Judaism in many different ways and among many different streams and still work together with others to build a strong Jewish community.
Both Israel and America are worthy of our deepest love, blood, sweat, and tears, not because they are perfect, but because despite the ups and downs, we are family. We both are striving to make ourselves and the dreams we were founded on become reality. This type of love requires a new mature, reality-based understanding and education about our two Jewish communities. Relational bridges must be built, strengthened, and renewed in order to keep our Jewish American/Israeli family strong. Not only are our fates intertwined and dependent upon one another, but the very wholeness of our hearts as Am Yisrael is as well. As the Naomi Shemer song Al Kol Eyleh reminds us, Jewish life is about acknowledging both the “honey and the thorns,” and in doing so love is not diminished but instead becomes more appreciated and deeper. It is time for American/Israeli love to grow up. After all, our tradition teaches that the number 70 is a special number representing the diverse facets and interpretations (shevim panim) of God’s Torah, which serves to grow and enrich our people and tradition. Love, too, has many facets and dimensions worthy of our best efforts and devotion. May God bless the State of Israel on her 70th birthday! Together we raise our voices to toast — Am Yisrael Chai!
From the Rabbi’s Desk — April 2018
Elevating the Conversation: Words Matter!
And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week—fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the LORD. (Leviticus 23:15-16)
Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of disciples, from Gevas to Antiparas (Judea); and they all died during one period because they did not treat each other with respect and the world was left desolate:- until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Judah, Rabbi Yossi, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Eleazar ben Shammua; and it was they who founded the Torah at that time.
A Tanna taught: All of them died between Passover and Shavuot.
Rabbi Hama bar Abba or, it might be said, Rabbi Chiyyah bar Avin said: All of them died a cruel death.
As I have written and spoken about numerous times (and will continue to do so – with God’s help), Judaism places a very high value on the power of words. Words in Jewish thought hold God’s creative power within them. As the story of Creation itself utilizes words to create the universe. From the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai to the words of theProphets calling us to justice, our most sacred Scriptures are a treasure trove of timeless words that continue to inspire, command, and challenge us to strive for the highest ideals of moral and ethical behavior. Yet, our sacred texts also show us how words can demean, hurt, and destroy one another, our world, and God’s very name. From the unknown words that Cain speaks to his brother Abel before killing him, to the hurtful words of Aaron and Miriam against Moses; words have the power to destroy relationships, divide a people (ie Korach), and even exile God’s presence from among us (the Rabbis attribute the destruction of the 2nd Temple to evil speech). Words are never taken lightly in the Jewish tradition.
Enter the period of the Jewish calendar called the Sefirat HaOmer (Counting of the Omer) which had its origins in the agricultural tradition of the wheat harvest. Each year as Passover approached the old grain was used up, while the new grain awaited harvesting in the fields. Jews would then offer a “sheaf(omer) of elevation(t’nufah)” of the new crop of grain as an sacrifice to God for a prosperous harvest and as a thanksgiving offering to God. It was by all accounts a time of great happiness and celebration.
This all changed during the time of Rabbi Akiva (some date this particularly to the Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome in 166 C.E.) where the Talmud (Yevamot 62b) in a tragic yet strange reference remarks that 12,000 pairs of his disciples died because “they did not treat each other with respect…” Further, “the world was left desolate”… and “All of them died a cruel death.” Whether it was a disease/plague (as some suggest) or the Romans (during the Bar Kochba war) but the texts attributes their deaths to the rampant immorality of disrespect they showed each other – and alludes that their deaths were a punishment from God. What is crystal clear is that disagreements and hurtful words lead to demeaning each other, disrespecting each other, and in the end destroying each other. A pattern that history has shown time and time again to be true. (From blood libels to the Shoah)
The change in the nature of the Sefirat HaOmer (Counting of the Omer) from joy to sadness is often attributed to this story. It is traditional not to perform weddings or shave until Lag B’Omer (when the “plague” against the students subsided). While these traditions might seem a little bit drastic, I believe our times once again demonstrate that we should not, cannot, must not forget this lesson. How we talk, tweet, and treat each other is extremely important. We can argue and disagree but we must not lose sight of the respect we need to have for one another and the impact of our words to hurt or destroy. We need to fight the current rise in hateful speech, in all of its forms whether it is cyber-bullying, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, racism, etc. while also watching how we debate and talk about the topics the divide us. As we count the Omer, let us resolve to elevate the level of our discourse and in so doing creating more Torah and more life.
From the Rabbi’s Desk — March 2018
Together for Pesach
Have you ever had a nightmare where you found yourself left behind and alone? It is quite a frightening and awful feeling. Even in the comic movie Home Alone, Macaulay Culkin’s character at first struggles to adjust to this new reality. Now imagine that it is the night of the Exodus from Egypt, the 10th plague is over and everyone is hurriedly gathering their belongings ready to set out to who knows where.You’ve packed your sack and are ready to go but when you step outside, there is nobody around. Absolutely nobody! I imagine at first, shouting out, as the feeling of panic sets in. Eventually, however fear may be replaced with a feeling of hopeless loneliness and abandonment. They have forgotten me! They have left me!
Interestingly in the account of the Exodus, the Torah takes a moment to remind us that we cannot leave anyone behind. Our ancestor Joseph’s bones, who generations earlier we had sworn to bury, must come with us out of Egypt. Indeed, it is precisely when we might be so harried and uncertain about our own journey that we are told that Moses stopped to retrieve Joseph’s bones. The text of the Torah also states, that a “mixed multitude” left Egypt. The Sages interpreted this to mean, that the young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick, Jew and non-Jew seeking to be free of the shackles of Egyptian slavery went forth. No one who wished to be a part of the exodus to freedom was left behind. In fact, when the Egyptians realize just how many people had left, they complain to Pharaoh about it. They persuaded him to change his mind yet again and pursue us with his army and chariots towards the sea.
This lesson is not merely one from the past but one that we need to remember today. It is all too easy for people to be left behind and to feel they are alone. The Haggadah reminds us from the beginning saying, “Let all who are hungry come and eat, let all who are in need come and partake of the Pesach feast.” When the Rabbis ask why do we need both parts of this statement since the first part already deals with the hungry? They answer that those “in need” means those who have food and wealth but no one to share the Pesach feast with. In essence, no one should be alone and abandoned.
This is one of the main reasons we have a Brith Sholom community seder. It allows people to come together and celebrate the Passover holiday without anyone feeling they need to ask or be asked to attend a seder. For some, they would have no other seder experience without it. But it is much more than that. The community seder is open to everyone, member and non-member, Jew and non-Jew, rich, poor and everyone in between. We never turn anyone away. It is a joyous celebration of freedom with the story of the Haggadah coming to life in both its traditional as well as new and innovative ways (this year to the tunes of Rogers and Hammerstein). It is a feast to nourish the body, the soul, and our bonds of connection. We left Egypt not merely as a singular family but as a “mixed multitude” carrying both the most vulnerable among us, as well as those who too often would have been forgotten. How fitting therefore that we continue this tradition today, by ensuring that everyone has a seat at the seder table. As our member Joan Parker captured in her new children’s book entitled No Seder Without You, indeed it would be, “no seder without you!”
Chag Kasher v’ Sameach! A Zissen and Joyous Pesach to all!
From the Rabbi’s Desk — February 2018
Hide and Seek: Purim and Revealing Ourselves
Well we all have a face
That we hide away forever
And we take them out and
When everyone has gone
Some are satin some are steel
Some are silk and some are leather
They’re the faces of the stranger
But we love to try them on
(from Billy Joel – The Stranger)
Ever since I was a child, one of the most enjoyable parts of the Purim holiday for me has always been dressing up. For just a few hours, I could pretend to be someone that I was not. The scoundrel Haman with his pointy hat and pirate like beard or a doctor borrowing my mom’s nursing scrubs and stethoscope. It was always a fun challenge to come up with an exotic and unique costume and imagine winning the costume contest at my synagogue. Granted there was no “trick or treat”, but there were plenty of hamentaschen to eat and bets on what crazy and wild costume the Rabbi would come as. The joy of Purim was just contagious. But, why do we dress up with masks (maseichot) and costumes? In the story of Esther we find a lot of intrigue and misdirection. From the beginning with King Ahashverus’s demand that Vashti reveal everything (ancient #MeToo) we can see a theme throughout the megillah of reveal vs. hide. Central to the story is that Mordechai asks Hadassah to hide her identity in Esther and not reveal that she is indeed Jewish. In fact the name Esther is a double entendre. Esther is based on the Persian goddess, Ishtar (star) but in Hebrew the word also comes from the root hester which means to hide or be hidden. We read about how the harem of women competing for the love of Ahashverus were anointed with fragrance and slathered with makeup. Esther we learn, doesn’t need to hide her beauty, it is radiant without any embellishment. Another thing scholars recognize is the detailed descriptions of clothing throughout the story. From the king’s finery, the reward parade clothes of Mordechai, to the sack and ash clothe worn in fear of destruction. – clothes and their descriptions and use play an important role in setting the mood and drama of what is to come.
Yet, as with all things Jewish, there is a deeper meaning that is waiting to be revealed. The interplay of identity and self is an important theme of Purim. Mordechai reminds Esther that even though she is the queen, the fate of her people will also impact her. She is at the end of the day – a member of the Jewish people even when she hides that aspect of herself. Many of us can relate to this idea of figuratively wearing masks and concealing pieces of ourselves from others. This hiding or concealment of who we are sometimes comes about because we are frightened to show ourselves to others. We do not want to feel rejected, subject ourselves to ridicule, or have the other person/people not understand who we truly are. We therefore often use psychological energy to formulate a “mask” which defends us against these feelings. From smiling even though we are sad to even suppressing deep depression/anxieties, religious beliefs, and sexual orientation to name a few. Many people spend their lives living behind the masks they create in order to cope with friends, family, co-workers and others. This often makes people feel that they are not understood, that they are strangers unable to find someone to truly connect with who will love them for who they are and not for who they picture others want them to be.
Discovering who we are is a hard process of being honest with ourselves. Having to wear masks that hide these hard-fought insights from those around us is many times even more painful and difficult. Esther’s bravery was her ability to not only come to grips with who she really was but also that she could stop hiding her true self and reveal it to the king and the kingdom. It not only saved and transformed her life but the lives of our people. At Congregation Brith Sholom, I hope each one of you can be who you are without the need of a mask. You should know that the love and community we share welcomes everyone. We do not need to pretend before God, but rather be true to ourselves and each other. So yes, on Purim we wear masks and costumes but on all other days please come as you are! Our doors and hearts are open.
From the Rabbi’s Desk – January 2018
The Exodus, Civil Rights, and our New/Old Marching Orders
Often when I mention the Civil Rights Movement, people (particularly Baby Boomers) begin to wax nostalgically for the heady days of the 1960’s. Ah, Rosa Parks, John Lewis, and Dr. King. They will proudly recall the myriads of Jews who organized, protested, and even gave their lives to bring America’s promise to all people. They will point to iconic photographs of Rabbi Prinz at the 1963 March on Washington and Rabbi Heschel arm in arm with Dr. King in Selma, Alabama. But, then it seems the Civil Rights Movement ended, period! Love had vanquished hate, peace triumphed over war, racial and gender inequality was outlawed, and all around the “better angels of our nature” defeated our sectarian segregated prejudices, politics, and divisions. Game Over! … But, complacency, indifference, apathy, and cynicism have slowly chipped away at our “better angels.” Today we are gripped by polarities – “Us vs. Them”, the “true” America vs. those who are trying to steal or undermine it. In this tempest of absolutism, compassion for the “other” has been replaced by demonization and contempt. Hate has once again become fashionable, scapegoating and blame acceptable, and close-mindedness and willful ignorance a banner to be lofted.
Which brings me to some lessons we can glean from Shemot (Exodus) which we will begin to read this month. Beginning with a quick review of how the Jewish people ended up in Egypt, we learn quickly that things have gone terribly wrong. Somehow, a new Pharaoh arose who did not remember (or care to remember) Joseph and all he did to save Egypt from famine and death. Instead in a moment of revisionist history, poof! Joseph and rights of the Jewish people were gone. To be fair, the degradation, demonization, and eventual slavery was done in a methodical process, which took time. First, Pharaoh and his advisors demonized the Jews as being disloyal to Egypt, a 5th column if you will, that would side with Egypt’s enemies. The oppression built, slavery the new norm. Then laws were passed to try to restrict the number of Jews. When dissenters among the midwives (Shifra & Puah) refused Pharaoh’s orders, Pharaoh eventually had to take things into his own hands and order his soldiers to throw the Jewish baby boys into the Nile. It was a dark time for humanity and especially for us. Sadly, we have seen this play out over and over again. Closing our eyes to hate and injustice does not make it go away instead it emboldens it. It won’t stop of its own accord but rather has to be continually confronted and mobilized against.
The story of the Exodus gives us a guiding hand on what we can do when faced with these challenges. First, we can never lose our dream of a better future. We know that God has made all human beings “little less than angels.” We hold within us the Divine spark. Deep down we know what kind of world we wish to live in. “We know hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal…” If we have the dream, if we have the vision, then we know which way the moral compass points. Our people, slavery worn and battered, persisted in hope, in the belief that one day God would redeem us.
The next lesson Exodus teaches us is that God wants us to take the first step. God needed to find people willing to put it all on the line to stand up for what was right. Shira, Puah, Yocheved, Miriam, Batya, Aaron, and Moses to name a few. Each act of kindness and courage was critical and without them the story would have been very different. Today the same is true. Each of us has something to contribute to the story of now. We can fight ignorance with learning, listening, and respect. We can double down on kindness, especially to people and communities we don’t normally come across in our daily lives. We can reach out a hand to the most vulnerable, to the most picked on, those who feel the least loved. We can cry out against the hate mongers, the scapegoaters, the narrow-minded purveyors of division and chaos who seek to make our world petty and cold. We each play an important part in this story everyday by the way we communicate and treat each other.
Finally, Exodus reminds us that passing this story down throughout the generations is a spiritual act vital to the future. As Jews, we constantly look to God for help in every age, and in an act of God’s brilliance, God recognized that what we needed was to hold on to this story. God commands us to literally ingrain this story upon our souls and psyche. We tell it to steel ourselves, to remind ourselves of its ending and to recognize in it the continuing struggle for civil rights and freedom. Like so many of the words of Dr. King, we need to remind ourselves over and over again where we came from and where we are going. (Always forward) We are the next generation in this story adding our hearts, minds, and hands in the pursuit of a more just, caring, and loving world. May we merit God’s grace in this pursuit.