Thoughts on Presidents Day

Image: Presidents Day Sale announcement. Art by vectorshots.

Today is President’s Day in the United States. The holiday came into being in 1968, when President Johnson signed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971 into being. Before that, we celebrated President Lincoln’s  birthday on February 12 and President Washington’s birthday on February 22.

According to President Johnson:

This will mean a great deal to our families and our children. It will enable families who live some distance apart to spend more time together. Americans will be able to travel farther and see more of this beautiful land of ours. They will be able to participate in a wider range of recreational and cultural activities.– Statement by the President Upon Signing the Uniform Holiday Bill, June 28, 1968.

Moving holidays to Monday meant that instead of holidays that broke up the work week, we had long weekends for President’s Day, for Veteran’s Day, and for Memorial Day.

I was once engaged as a High Holy Day leader by a congregation that wanted to move Rosh Hashanah to a Friday night, to make it less disruptive of their work week. They were upset with me when I refused to accommodate their wishes. The principle is firm: we don’t move the High Holy Days for our convenience, because they are more important than our convenience. Even when the 9/11 attacks fell during the Days of Awe, we did not put off Yom Kippur until an easier time. In fact for many of us, the Yom Kippur services marked a key step in mourning the attacks and coming to terms with the fact that our world had changed forever.

Sometimes things in the Jewish calendar do move, but usually that has to do with a conflict with other calendar items. For instance, this year we have two months of Adar. We do that so that Passover and next Rosh Hashanah will stay in their proper seasons. If we did not adjust, then our lunar calendar would send the spring and fall holy days spiraling around the year.

For very small congregations served by student rabbis or rabbis on a once-a-month schedule, it can be very difficult to keep holy days in their proper place. Still, most small congregations I know keep the major holidays faithfully and do the best they can with the minor ones.

I don’t know how Presidents Washington and Lincoln would have felt about us combining their birthdays into one holiday. Likely they would have agreed with President Johnson that it would be better for business. However,  I notice that it has taken the emphasis off of the men themselves and made it more of a “holiday weekend” for vacations and sales. The same is true, maybe more so, for Memorial Day and Veterans Day, both of which originally marked solemn days in our country’s history. Those days have largely lost their significance as days of solemnity and gratitude unless your family has members who have been in the military.

With that in mind, I don’t see myself accepting any requests to celebrate Jewish holy days at more convenient times. The holy days’ very inconvenience is part of our experience, reminding us that yes, indeed, some things are more important than work, or even play.

 

Jews & Valentines: What to do?

Image: My homemade “What’s a Jew to Do?” Valentine card (Photo by R. Ruth Adar)

Valentine’s Day is here, and there’s nothing Jewish about it. If you want to know about the Jewish holiday of love, read A Jewish Valentine’s Day?

That said, I am all in favor of a day that reminds us to tell our loved ones “I love you.” Truth is, we should be doing that every day.

I see the pain Feb 14 gives some of my single friends, and the widows, and those whose marriages are suffering.  I wonder about the kindness of a day devoted to expressions of romantic love, a day that winds up excluding all but the already happy.

I celebrate the day by telling my beloved that I love her (as I do every day) and sending a donation to Shalom Bayit, an organization working against domestic violence in my home town.

Down with pain, up with love! I think that’s an idea we can all support.

Drinking on Purim: A Mitzvah?

Image: Two shot glasses full of liquor. Image by saragraphika.

Every year I have the discussion with someone: “Rabbi, doesn’t it say in the Talmud that we HAVE to get drunk on Purim?”

This is not a trifling matter. On the one hand, that is a traditional understanding of the command that we celebrate on Purim. But on the other, we now know more about the dangers of over-consumption of alcohol.

Jewish tradition both encourages the use of wine for celebration, and encourages moderation in the use of alcohol. Shabbat and holidays are welcomed with a kiddush toast. The Passover seder requires four cups of wine. Many life cycle events include a cup of wine: even the baby receives a taste of wine at his bris!

On the other hand, our tradition has warnings against alcohol abuse. Noah shames himself and is shamed by his children for becoming a drunk. A midrash speculates that the sin of Nadav and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, was that they entered the Tabernacle drunk. (Leviticus 10:1-11) A line in Sanhedrin 70a quotes Rabbi Meir as saying that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was actually a grape vine, because nothing brings so much woe to human beings as wine.

So, to return to the issue of Purim and drinking, the discussion is set in motion by this passage from the final chapter of the book of Esther:

Mordecai recorded these events, and he sent letters to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Xerxes, near and far, to have them celebrate annually the fourteenth and fifteenth days of the month of Adar as the time when the Jews got relief from their enemies, and as the month when their sorrow was turned into joy and their mourning into a day of celebration. He wrote them to observe the days as days of feasting and joy and giving presents of food to one another and gifts to the poor. – Esther 9:20-22

In Tractate Megillah 7b, the rabbis focus on the phrase “observe the days as days of feasting and joy.” Exactly how are we to observe it, they wonder?

Rava said: One is obligated to become inebriated on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai.”

So there it is, the famous line from the Talmud. However, notice (1) that that line is broken out from its context. Also (2) a key word in it is a bit less clear than it seems: the word for inebriated requires clarification from Rashi, who tells us that it means inebriated. The word itself is associated with fermentation, according to Jastrow (a dictionary of the Talmud.)

Then another story, not often quoted with the famous line, immediately follows:

Rabbah and R. Zeira joined together in a Purim feast. They became inebriated, and Rabbah arose and cut R. Zera’s throat. The next day he prayed on his behalf and revived him.

Next year he [Rabbah] said: Will the master come and we will have the Purim feast together. He [R. Zeira] replied: A miracle does not take place on every occasion. –Megillah 7b

 This story seems to warn against drunkenness. Two rabbis get drunk together, and one cuts the other’s throat. (The Aramaic is vivid: literally, he shekhts him, ritually slaughters him.)  Rabbah prays, and Rabbi Zeira is returned to life. The next year, Rabbah invites R. Zeira to celebrate with him again, and this time R. Zeira demurs with the warning that one cannot depend on miracles.
So: is this a story warning in general against drunkenness, or is it a story warning that the “drink a lot on Purim!” interpretation is incorrect?
Let’s loop back and look at Rava’s line from Megillah 7b again:
Rava said: One is obligated to become inebriated on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai.”
How else might we understand this, if not “drink lots on Purim”? If we take a clue from Jastrow, is there a way to do this by fermenting, by studying until the two statements are one?
What if we were to ask, “Are there any ways in which Haman and Mordechai are alike?
My initial reaction to this was to laugh, it is such a ridiculous question. One is the bad guy and one is the good guy! They aren’t anything alike!
But on second thought, read the book of Esther.  If we read it not in its sanitized version we tell children but the way it is written, Mordechai presses Esther to participate in the search for a new queen. This means joining the harem and becoming a one night stand for the king in hopes of securing a permanent position. In other words, Mordechai pimps his own neice, possibly to enhance his own power: not very moral at all.
But even more so, in chapter 9 of the book of Esther, Mordechai proves as bloody-minded as Haman. Haman and all his sons are executed on Mordechai’s order, as well as 5,000 Persians, and on the next day another 70,000 are executed.  This is at least as many dead people as Haman had ordered.
So how different are Haman and Mordechai? There’s a reason we don’t like to read chapter 9.
I do not know whether the story about Rabbah and R. Zeira is there to cause us to question Rava’s strange words. However, I do know that whenever someone says to me, “There’s a commandment to get drunk on Purim!” my reply is always, “Oh, really?”

 

 

Happy Adar Alef! (Alef???)

Image: An early harbinger of spring, a crocus blooms in the snow. Photo by Justyna Markiewicz.

The month of Adar Alef, 5776 began at sundown on February 8, 2016.

5776 is a leap year in the nineteen-year Jewish cycle. This cycle keeps our lunar monthly calendar aligned with the solar seasons, so we have two Adars, Alef and Bet. That way Passover remains in the spring, the High Holy Days remain in the fall, but we still have a lunar calendar. Clever, no?

Some things to know:

Holidays such as Purim are observed in Adar Bet, next month.

Yahrzeits are observed in Adar Bet, unless the death occurred in Adar Alef in a leap year.

Purim Katan [“little Purim’] is listed on some Jewish calendars for Adar. It is usually not observed in any organized way.

I wish you a happy Adar!

What’s the BIGGEST Jewish Holiday?

Image: A woman covers her eyes as she recites the blessing for lighting Shabbat candles. Photo thanks to Dawn Kepler, who retains all rights.

Some will tell you it’s Passover. In America, that’s the most observed Jewish holiday.

Some will tell you it’s Yom Kippur because that’s what they have heard.

Some will tell you Chanukah, because that’s the only Jewish holiday they know.

Some will tell you it’s the High Holy Days, because — well, “High Holy,” right?

All wrong.

The BIGGEST Jewish holiday is…. Shabbat!

What? you might say. “It comes once a week! How can it be the biggest Jewish holiday?”

But it says so, right in the Kiddush* for Shabbat Evening:

Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe,
Creator of the fruit of the vine.

Praise to You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe
who finding favor with us, sanctified us with mitzvot.
In love and favor, You made the holy Shabbat our heritage
as a reminder of the work of Creation.
As first among our sacred days, it recalls the Exodus from Egypt.
You chose us and set us apart from the peoples.
In love and favor You have given us Your holy Shabbat as an inheritance.

– from “Shabbat Blessings” at http://www.Reform Judaism.com

“As first among our sacred days” — and so it is.

Shabbat is so important that it is never cancelled by another holiday. Other days, like Yom Kippur, may happen on Shabbat, but they never happen instead of Shabbat.

The Kiddush also tells us why Shabbat is so important. It is a memorial of the Creation and a memorial of the Exodus from Egypt.

The heaven and earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work which God had been doing, and God rested on the seventh day from all the work which God had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God rested from all the work of creation which God had done.

–Genesis 2: 1-3.

At the end of the work of Creation, God rested. Then, at Sinai, God gave our people a commandment:

Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of Adonai your God: you shall not do any work – you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days, Adonai made heaven and earth and sea, all that is in them, and God rested on the seventh day; therefore Adonai has blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.

– Exodus 20:8-11

and the commandment is repeated, with different wording and a different rationale, in Deuteronomy:

Observe the Sabbath day and keep it holy, as Adonai your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of Adonai your God: you shall not do any work – you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your ox of your ass, or any of your cattle, or the stranger in your settlements, so that your male and female slave may rest as you do. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Adonai your God freed you from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore Adonai your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.

– Deuteronomy 5: 12-15

So there, in the two accounts of the 10 Commandments, we have the rationale of Creation and that of the Exodus, both of which are mentioned in the Kiddush blessing. That’s another reason I can say with confidence that Shabbat is the BIGGEST Jewish holiday: it’s the only one mentioned in the 10 Commandments!

Jews disagree about the best way to keep Shabbat. Some Jews head to synagogue, some to the seashore. Some make sure to touch base with loved ones. Others make sure not to touch a cell phone. How you choose to observe this holiday (holy day) is up to you.

More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.

Ahad Ha’Am (Asher Ginsberg)

*”Kiddush” is a special blessing for a holiday – think of it as a toast. We hold up our glasses of wine or juice and we say or sing the kiddush. There is a kiddush for every major holiday, and this is the kiddush for Shabbat.

 

Interfaith Challenge: When December isn’t Wonderful

Right about now (late December) the world seems full of Christmas, and many liberal Jewish publications seem full of stories about interfaith families that are having a wonderful December.

But what if your interfaith household is having a tough time this year? Here are some tips for you, in this moment:

  1. Know that you are not alone. The holidays hit a lot of people hard. Your particular issue may be “interfaith” but there are also people in single-faith households that get stressed out, fight, or feel horrible this time of year. Depression is not unusual, either. So even though the marketing on TV tells you that everyone else is happy, don’t you believe it.
  2. Kindness is more important than holiday spirit. We can’t control how we feel, but we can choose what we do. Choose kindness whenever you can.
  3. Keep your agreements if you possibly can. Let’s say you have agreed to something, and now you find that it is uncomfortable. You can say to your partner, “This is harder than I thought it would be.”  You can renegotiate for next year after December is over (see #7 and #8 below) but for now, keep the agreements you’ve made. It will make any future renegotiation easier.
  4. This year is just this year. It isn’t how it’s always going to be. Next year might be completely different.
  5. Make a little time and/or space for your tradition. If the house feels too Christmasy, this might be a time to go to synagogue, mosque, or temple. If it feels not Christmasy enough, it might be a time to go to church, or to any of the places where Christmas is in abundance.
  6. Make a little time and/or space for yourself. What restores you? Go do that. Go for a run or to the gym. Get that pedicure. Meditate. Listen to your music. Be kind not only to others, but to yourself.
  7. Don’t try to process December during December. If it’s already December, the Christmas goose is in the oven, and the Chanukah fat is in the fire. Yes, you and your beloved may need to have a conversation, maybe even a conversation with a skilled counselor helping, but now it’s all too raw. Be as kind to one another as you can, survive to January, then have a conversation when you aren’t in the middle of it.
  8. Know that help is available. If that conversation is going to be tough, or you don’t know where to begin, call your rabbi or minister and ask for help. That may be enough, or they may refer you to an individual or couples counselor who can help. One thing: you want a counselor with experience in interfaith issues. It’s OK to ask for what you need.
  9. Take depression and other mental health issues seriously. Sometimes the only issue is December, but sometimes December can highlight deeper troubles, like mental health issues or addiction. Don’t brush those things under the carpet and hope they’ll go away. Seek treatment for mental health issues. If the sick person won’t seek treatment, other family members need the support of counseling, Al-Anon, or a NAMI group.
  10. December will not last forever. I promise.

Love My Neighbor

 

One of my neighbors has the brightest, most colorful light display imaginable. Last year I found out why he does it: he lives in that house with his 90 year old mother. Years ago, everyone in that cul-de-sac had holiday lights. Now most of them are elderly and he has gradually added to his light show as theirs have become too burdensome. He enchants the whole street, including me.

This year I noticed something else: the first lights he puts up are all blue and white. It’s only after Chanukah that the red and green lights are lit. That can’t be a coincidence.

I am fond of my neighbor: he’s a good man. I smile every time I round the corner and see his light display. It isn’t my holiday, but I love to see his lights shine.