Don’t Forget this Purim Mitzvah!

will_work_for_food3gPurim’s coming! Don’t forget: one of the four main mitzvot of Purim is a gift to feed the poor.

In its strictest interpretation, that’s a gift to make sure that poor Jews can celebrate the holiday. You can fulfill that mitzvah, feeding Jews, by a couple of routes:

MAZON is a Jewish organization that feeds people in both North America and in Israel. They do not turn anyone away, but they are primarily focused on Jewish food insecurity.

Alternatively, you can give money to your rabbi’s discretionary fund. Every congregation has members who are living with food insecurity, usually silently. The rabbi sometimes becomes aware of these situations and the discretionary fund can help buy groceries. A rabbi’s discretionary fund is not a private slush fund for expenses. Those funds have to be spent on things that preserve the deductible status of the original gift (in the USA.)

However, we are taught by our tradition to feed ALL hungry people, not just Jews. Some other options:

  • Donate cash or goods to your local food pantry or food bank.
  • Persuade others to give to your local food bank.

This is different from the usual “tzedakah before a holiday” thing, although that’s certainly good on its own. This is a particular part of Purim observance.  Partly this makes sure all can celebrate the holiday, but also look at the calendar: this holiday comes at what can be a brutal time of year for people with food insecurity. It’s cold and wet in many locations, and has been for months. Nutrition affects people’s resistance to colds and flu. Many kinds of produce are more expensive because of the season, too.

The Hebrew name for these Purim gifts is Matanot L’Evyonim (mah-ta-NOTE l’ev-yon-EEM): Gifts to the Poor. Purim is actually the traditional Jewish gift-giving holiday: we give gifts to the poor, and food gifts to friends.

The root of tzedakah (charity) is tzedek, justice. It is unfair that so many are hungry. In my own home state of California, 15% of households – that’s over 2 million people! – are currently suffering with food insecurity. There are parents going hungry to feed their children and children going hungry because there isn’t enough to go around. This is a shanda (scandal.)

Before we put on our festive masks, let’s each choose a place to send what we can!

 

 

No Stupid Questions!

One of the routine challenges I face as an educator is that people are afraid to look stupid. They don’t ask questions, or if they manage to get the courage together to ask questions, they apologize for asking. I don’t think anyone should be afraid to ask an honest question, ever, as long as they are doing it to become informed. The fact is that the best questions, the questions that must be asked, are the questions that come out of ignorance. 

Asking a pure question, an explain-this-to-me question, is in Jewish tradition the foundation of study. Look at our sacred texts: the Talmud is full of questions: “Why is this?” “What is that?” The great commentator Rashi anticipates our questions and answers them generously. A good question requires humility and courage, because it admits ignorance.

Asking a pure question, an I-don’t-know-please-fill-me-in question is also the foundation of education. Asking questions is how we learn.

image from the msnbc.com website
image from the msnbc.com website

I’ve been thinking about questions ever since seeing a piece on the The Rachel Maddow Show on Feb. 23. Ms. Maddow, whom I usually admire, is setting up a story about another matter entirely. She plays video of Idaho State Rep Vito Barbieri asking a question about human anatomy. I can’t get a link to the video to work, but here’s the quote from the msnbc.com website:

An Idaho lawmaker received a brief lesson on female anatomy after asking if a woman can swallow a small camera for doctors to conduct a remote gynecological exam.
The question Monday from Republican state Rep. Vito Barbieri came as the House State Affairs Committee heard nearly three hours of testimony on a bill that would ban doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing medication through telemedicine.
Dr. Julie Madsen was testifying in opposition to the bill when Barbieri asked the question. Madsen replied that would be impossible because swallowed pills do not end up in the vagina.

Yep, I get it. The man doesn’t know basic female anatomy and he’s a state legislator, about to vote on a bill that affects women’s agency over their own bodies. That’s not good. What troubles me is that the man asked a question and then Ms. Maddow and now a large number of my fellow liberal Americans laugh at him for it. Social media were immediately awash with people making fun of him; #VitoBarbieri became a popular hashtag on Twitter.

I wish more conservative lawmakers had the humility to ask questions of scientists and listen to their answers. We’ve got people making laws who don’t know basic anatomy: that’s terrifying. The immediate fix is for them to ask questions and learn. Come the next election, I hope the voters will do a better job of electing someone qualified. But to shame the man, to make him and his wife and his mother the butt of jokes is dead wrong.

I am not going to repeat any of it, but if you search Twitter for #VitoBarbieri you’ll see it. If I were on the receiving end of that, it would be a long time before I asked another curious question when someone might catch me doing it.

Rep Barbieri’s question seems to have come from genuine curiosity. That is profoundly different than the sort of pompous, ignorant pronouncement that often comes from politicians about scientific matters. Too often our lawmakers make up their minds on the basis of what they think will get them elected next time and then spout ignorant statements about women’s anatomy. They don’t ask – they just presume and vote. Rep. Barbieri asked.

Rep. Barbieri and I disagree about most things, as far as I can tell. But I applaud him for the curiosity and humility to ask a question. I am sorry and sad that people are laughing at him, because asking questions is a noble thing to do.

 

For more about Jewish tradition and shaming: Thou Shalt Not Embarrass.

Mishloach Manot: A Delicious Mitzvah!

https://www.flickr.com/photos/shinyhappyworld/5634941531/
(image by Wendi Gratz)

Ask most American Jews about Purim and they will mention children’s parties, silly Purim Shpiels, costumes, and masks. They may tell you the story of Queen Esther. They might tell you about drinking alcohol in quantities not seen on any other holiday. They are less likely to mention one of the sweetest customs of the day: mishloach manot. (meesh-LOW-ach mah-NOTE) This is the mitzvah of wrapping up small gifts of food or drink to give to family and friends. If the Hebrew name is a tongue twister, call them Purim Goody Bags.

While it is a commonly observed mitzvah in some places, I had never seen it in my home congregation in Oakland. My first experience with mishloach manot was when one of my teachers at Hebrew Union College, Dr. Rachel Adler, showed up at class with a shopping bag loaded with a small brown paper bag for each student in her classes. Mine had a tiny bottle of kosher grape juice and 2 cookies. I was thrilled, then immediately felt guilty that I hadn’t brought her a goody bag, too.

Most sources give two reasons for this mitzvah: (1) to make sure that everyone has good things to eat to celebrate the holiday and (2) to promote good feelings and harmony in the Jewish community. It’s based on a verse in the Scroll of Esther:

Therefore the Jews of the villages that dwelt in the unwalled towns made the 14th day of the month of Adar a day of gladness and feasting, a holiday, and of sending portions to one another. – Esther 9:19

The gifts must be food, not money. They must be delivered during the day of Purim. They are given in addition to a special gift to feed the hungry, not instead of it, and one should not buy the gifts with money from one’s tzedakah (charity) budget. And despite my initial guilt feelings over Dr. Adler’s generosity, mishloach manot do not require a reciprocal gift.

The minimum to fulfill the mitzvah is a package of two prepared food items to one person. “Package” is a flexible term: I have seen fancy gift baskets of food for sale for Purim in Israel, but I have never received a sweeter mishloach manot package than the little brown bags Dr. Adler passed out to us with cookies and juice. One hectic year I used foil to make shiny little packages with wrapped candies inside. Mara Strom has written a charming article with 101 ideas for mishloach manot on a budget. The idea is generosity and delight, not ostentation or excess.

There are four main mitzvot of Purim: The Reading of the Megillah, Eating a Festive Meal, Giving Gifts to the Poor, and Mishloach Manot. Which of these mitzvot have you done in the past? Which might you like to try this year?

Where Do You Sacrifice the Animals?

This model of 1st c. Jerusalem, complete with Temple (in the foreground) stands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
This model of 1st c. Jerusalem, complete with Temple (in the foreground) stands at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

“Rabbi, can we see where you sacrifice the animals?”

A group from a local Christian church was touring the synagogue. I explained that we don’t sacrifice animals anymore. We haven’t sacrificed animals since the destruction of Herod’s Temple in year 70 of the common era. Our rules said we could only do that in the Temple in Jerusalem, so once that building was gone, we had to find a new way to stay connected with the Divine.

I don’t think he believed me, but it is the truth.

In a Reform synagogue, not only do we not sacrifice animals, we are no longer hoping to rebuild the Temple. We agree with Maimonides, who wrote in about 1190 in The Guide for the Perplexed that what God wanted from us was prayer, not sacrifices. The sacrifices had been instituted, he wrote, because we saw other people in the ancient world making sacrifices to their gods, and so God gave us a limited program of sacrifice: only certain animals, and only in one place. That program was meant to move us towards prayer as worship. Maimonides never wrote “so don’t bother to rebuild the Temple” but that became the position of the Reform Jews of the 19th century.

Instead of the sacrifices in the Temple, Jews say a prayer every day at the times appointed for the sacrifices. That prayer, often called “the Amidah” [standing prayer] is a series of short blessings said without a pause or interruption. Rather like the pyre on the altar that they replace, these prayers are layered one upon another in a particular prescribed order. For Orthodox Jews, the Amidah includes a prayer for rebuilding the temple, but in the Reform version, that prayer becomes a prayer that God will “pour out Your spirit” upon us, instead.

There are some people so interested in rebuilding the Temple that they have built elaborate models of it, and others who are trying to develop a red heifer so that the new Temple could be properly purified.

I think there are enough mitzvot that need doing in the world without rebuilding the Temple. I am reminded of the words of the Prophet Hosea, and other prophets as well:

For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings. – Hosea 6:6

The Temple was one of the wonders of the world in its time. Today, that space is occupied by someone else’s house of worship since the year 703. Meanwhile, Jews have moved on to a new, more portable form of worship, the layered daily Amidah, and the shorter Amidah for Shabbat. Personally, I’m glad.

What about you? Would you like to see the Temple rebuilt? Why or why not?

What I’m Reading Lately

Some books I’ve been reading since the secular New Year:

Didion, Joan – The Year of Magical Thinking. Joan Didion wrote a painfully honest book about the year following her husband’s sudden death. Didion writes honestly but artfully, using her considerable craft to walk us through a year of irrationality. It is a magnificent book; I could hardly put it down.

Boyne, John – A History of Loneliness. Edmund Burke wrote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” I do not want to give away too much about this book, but it is about the price to be paid when good people refuse to see what is before their eyes. It is a book about paralysis of the soul.

Laymon, Kiese – How To Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America. I don’t recall who recommended this book to me – someone on Twitter – but I thank them. Laymon is a brilliant essayist and I am going to look for his novel, Long Division.  This one slim volume convinced me that I’m woefully ignorant about African American realities and I plan to remedy that.

Bliss, Eula – On Immunity: An Inoculation – This is a wide-ranging book on the history and science of vaccination, on the fears that may underlie current controversies around it, and about this one mother’s uncertainties in facing motherhood. I found it fascinating and yet eventually the confessional portions wore me out. Ms. Bliss is not a great writer, merely a competent one, but I will grant her this: she made me think and stirred my compassion.

Almog, Shmuel, ed. – Antisemitism Through the Ages – Professor Emeritus at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, editor Almog was born in Berlin in 1926. He (and presumably his family, although I do not know for sure) emigrated to then-Palestine in 1933. The book is from 1988 and is no longer in print; copies are expensive, so I have not provided a link. This is one of the books recommended in a class I’m taking on antisemitism. When I have a book on the topic I can recommend that’s a bit more available, I’ll do that, I promise.

What have you been reading? Anything to recommend?

Thoughts on Parashat Terumah

V’a’asu li mikdash, v’shachanti b’tocham. –Exodus 25:8

Make me a sanctuary, and I will live in the midst of them.

These words appear in and on many synagogues. Usually they get a fancier translation, something along the lines of “Build me a sanctuary, so that I may dwell among them” or some such. I think there’s something to be gained from the rawer version: Make it, and I will live with you.

It appears in the early part of Parashat Terumah, when God tells Moses to ask for a free-will offering. The offering will be used to build the mishkan, the portable Ark of the Covenant, and its setting, the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting. He asked specifically for a list of things I would never imagine to be in the possession of runaway slaves in the midst of the Sinai Wilderness:

These are the offerings you are to receive from them: gold, silver and bronze;  blue, purple and scarlet yarn and fine linen; goat hair; ram skins dyed red and sea mammal skins; acacia wood; olive oil for the light; spices for the anointing oil and for the fragrant incense;  and onyx stones and other gems to be mounted on the ephod and breastpiece. – Exodus 25: 3-7

Other writers will offer you theories on why the Israelites had these things. But for a moment, let’s just focus on the fact that much of this list is beyond precious and rare. The “blue, purple, and scarlet” dyes were so scarce that they were reserved for royalty even centuries later. I can imagine Moses thinking to himself, “Uh-oh. I don’t think we’ve got half this stuff.”

Moses transmitted the message to the people: here’s what we need. And Am Yisrael delivered. The people of Israel came through, bringing precious metals, precious dyestuffs, rare leathers, precious gems.  That’s the miracle of this parashah: God asked, and the people stepped up. The rest of the parashah talks about the people bringing such a pile of loot that it turned out to be more than was really needed.

Today we face an analogous situation. “Oy gevalt, how will American Jewry make it to the next generation?” say the pundits and pollsters. They follow this statement with a list of what the people aren’t bringing. Jews are intermarrying! Jews don’t learn Hebrew! Jews don’t come to synagogue! Oy gevalt!”

But here’s what I learn from Parashat Terumah: Look at what Am Yisrael, the Jewish People are bringing. Many American Jews are intermarrying, yes, but a significant percentage of them are raising their children as Jews. We are in the midst of an avalanche of conversions, people bringing themselves to us, jumping through hoops to become part of us, anxious to participate and build a Jewish future. Jews are bringing innovation to the table, too: Internet learning, online services, nontraditional minyanim, a thousand interesting experiments, any one of which may turn out to be durable for the next ten generations.

Perhaps our next tabernacle is not a holy place hung with linen and studded with precious gems, not a fabulous modern building. Perhaps it is a gathering of rare and lovely souls, a gathering of Jews themselves, bringing heads and hearts and hands. I know that when I am in the midst of Jews celebrating a holiday, or studying together, or doing social justice work, I can feel the presence of God, living in the midst of us.

Let us bring all that we are and see what we can build together.

Joy Increases – Welcome to Adar!

A few blooms announce the arrival of spring.

“Mishenichnat Adar marbin b’simchah” B.Ta’anit 29a

“When Adar enters, joy increases.”

Sunset on February 18, 2015 brings us Rosh Chodesh Adar, the beginning of the month of Adar. Adar is the month of Purim, of good luck, of silly games and pranks.

The quotation above is from Masechet Ta’anit in the Babylonian Talmud.

Ta’anit means “fasts.”  This masechet [book] is a compilation of discussions about fast days (with, of course, digressions on those discussions.) Fast days are somber occasions: Yom Kippur [The Day of Atonement] and the Ninth of Av [the memorial of the destruction of the Temple] are the best-known fast days. They are not happy occasions. How did this line about Adar wind up in there?

When we look at the context, the rabbis are in the midst of a sobering discussion about the “curtailment of rejoicings” in the month of Av. There’s a heartbreaking story about the young priests going to the roof of the Temple as it was burning, reaching their arms up to throw the Temple keys into the hands of the angels.  Then the young priests, their duty done, fall into the fire. There is a sad quotation from Isaiah about people dying, and God weeping.

Then a new bit of Mishnah is quoted: “WITH THE BEGINNING OF AV REJOICINGS ARE CURTAILED.”

Then the Gamara expounds:

Rab Judah the son of R.Samuel b. Shilath said in the name of Rab:

Just as with the beginning of Ab rejoicings are curtailed, so with the beginning of Adar rejoicings are increased. 

R. Papa said: Therefore a Jew who has any litigation with Gentiles should avoid him in Ab because his luck is bad and should make himself available in Adar when his luck is good. 

To give you a future and a hope: 

Rab Judah the son of R. Samuel b. Shilath said in the name of Rab: By this is meant [an abundance of] palm trees and flaxen garments. 

And he said: See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the Lord hath blessed: 

Rab Judah the son of R. Samuel b. Shilath said in the name of Rab: As the smell of an apple orchard.

… and then the text returns to the grave discussion of the “curtailment of rejoicings” of the month of Av.

 Too many of us know tragedy at some point in our lives. But just as this discussion of Adar bursts in upon the discussion of tragedy for a moment, so does the month of Adar burst in upon us at the point where winter appears to be endless.  Good surprises burst in upon gray skies: sometimes instead of bad luck, we have good luck. Sometimes a new baby is born, and he smells wonderful. The message: The truly devout remain open to the possibility of joyful moments.

Adar comes with a command to “increase joy.” To do that, we must stay attuned to the possibility of the sacred moment when laughter breaks through tears, sun through clouds, beauty through the gray winter. If we are paying attention, we will be awake for joy. Adar is the month to cultivate that sacred skill in ourselves. For indeed:

Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.  Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.

Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed. 

And we, clay touched by God, will reach out for holiness, and exclaim in wonder:

How filled with awe is this place, and we did not know it!  Blessed is the Eternal One, the holy God!  [Gates of Prayer]

Happy Adar!  May our joy increase, and may we be awake to it!

May it give us all “a future and a hope.”  Amen.