Where is God in Megillat Esther?

Image: A masked person. Photo by madeinitaly.

The name of God appears nowhere in the text of the Book of Esther [Megillat Esther.] What are we to make of this? Is Purim a godless holiday?

There are a number of ways to read this absence. Chapter 9 of the scroll says that the story was copied onto scrolls and sent far and wide to be read by the Jews. Perhaps the writer (traditionally, Esther herself) felt that it was better not to put scrolls with holy words into general circulation where they could be desecrated. So she chose to omit the name of God, in order to protect the holy Name.

However, modern scholars are fairly certain that Esther is a novella, a fiction, not a history. It has a number of assertions about the Persian court that any Jew of the time would recognize as fake. It is more likely a parable about life in Diaspora.

If that is the case, then the absence of God’s name perhaps has a more deliberate meaning. Jews in Diaspora do not live in Jewish space. The Jews of Megillat Esther live in Persia, under the rule of a Persian king and his court, and as the story illustrates, powerful men can turn on them at any time.

When this happens to Jewish communities, it is natural to ask, “Where is God?” And the Book of Esther directs us to ask that question: where is God, when our enemies slander and betray us, when they imprison and kill us for no good reason other than hatred?

We cannot “see” God in the Esther text. God is apparently missing, and in the context of this story, that poses a theological question: Where is God?

Esther and Mordecai do not have the luxury of waiting for God to appear. They do not have the luxury of miracles. This is not a Red Sea moment, when the waters pass and we all walk to safety. Rather it is like so many other moments in Jewish history, when God seems to be somewhere else, and it is up to good men and women to improvise salvation. Esther married a non-Jew, and Mordecai was the architect of the massacre in Chapter 9. We can disapprove of them if we wish, but once Haman turned on them, they had very few alternatives.

Where is God in the text? We can say, “Thank God!” that Esther was queen, married to the heathen Ahasuerus. We can say, “Thank God!” that Mordecai saw a solution to the problem of the king’s ring and seal. God IS in the text, in the courage and ingenuity of Esther and Mordecai!

Where is God? God resides, as always, in the hearts and hands of good men and women.

Enjoy your Purim!

 

 

 

Home Safety is a Mitzvah

Image: Life preserver hanging on a wall. Photo by tookapic.

When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring bloodguilt on your house if anyone should fall from it. -Deuteronomy 22:8

We often think of spirituality as a high and lofty subject, but Jewish spirituality can be a gritty pursuit. At its best, it permeates our daily lives, for the mitzvot [commandments] often address very practical matters.

The commandment above is one of my favorites. It addresses the question of home safety: put a railing on your roof so that no one will fall off. The rabbis extended this to include the principle of all home safety matters: if I have a loose stair, or an unlighted entry, or a tricky throw rug, the Torah commands me to fix it, lest someone be injured.

I’m engaged with this mitzvah right now, because I’ve begun my Passover preparations. Every year at this time I check my “earthquake supplies” (really, emergency supplies) to make sure that I can take care of myself, my family and my two elderly neighbors should a big earthquake hit or some other disaster complicate life in the Bay Area.

I do this as part of my Passover prep because it’s very convenient time to do it. One of the things I do is cart last year’s canned tuna and peanut butter to the Food Bank. It’s all still good, and someone will benefit, but when/if there’s trouble, I won’t be stuck eating ten year old peanut butter for a month. I promptly sell the renewed supplies to my non-Jewish son, who is the official owner of my emergency stash, so I can still observe a kosher Passover.

Silly? Nope. I have vivid memories of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, which was not “The Big One” but was certainly the Bad Enough One which wrecked our home and disrupted our lives for more than a year. The next big quake may very well cut me off from water and food for an extended period, so I prepare.

If you don’t live in earthquake country, you still need to be ready for emergencies. Should something bad happen in your neighborhood, can you lay hands on these things?

  • Clean (probably bottled) water (1 gallon per day per person)
  • Nutritious food (high in protein and/or calories)
  • Can opener
  • Flashlight, with extra batteries
  • Battery-operated or crank radio
  • First aid kit
  • Prescription meds
  • Emergency blanket or wrap
  • Shoes
  • Copies of essential personal documents (whatever you’d want to have if the house burned down, God forbid)
  • Chargers for electronics like your cell phone
  • Phone numbers and contact information
  • Copies of passports and driver’s licenses
  • Cash in small bills (ATMs may not be working)
  • Baby supplies (if needed)
  • Pet supplies (if needed)

I also have a roll of duct tape, a multi-tool knife, a bottle of detergent, a whistle, my ham radios, spare eyeglasses and a spare bottle of propane.

There are also things I don’t keep around, because they decrease the safety of anyone in my house: guns and cans of gasoline top that list.

I hope that we’ll never need this stuff. I hope you will never need your emergency supplies, either. But if you need a push to update your kit, now you’ve got it: it’s a mitzvah!

 

 

Purim’s Coming!

Image: Three Jews celebrating Purim: a Cubs fan, a very silly rabbi, and a cowboy. Photo by Linda Burnett.

At last! Rosh Chodesh Adar Bet arrives at sundown on Wednesday, March 9!

In a leap year, Adar Aleph is the “added in” month, so we have to wait a little longer for Purim. Purim this year (2016) will begin at sundown on Wednesday, March 23, aka 14 Adar Bet, 5776.

Two weeks is not too early to begin planning for Purim. Mitzvot require planning! Some things to do–  follow the links for more information on each mitzvah:

  1. Plan our tzedakah to feed the poor. (A Purim mitzvah)
  2. Plan our mishloach manot, gifts of food for friends, aka Purim goody bags.
  3. Plan our festive meal (yes, another Purim mitzvah!)
  4. Plan where we will hear the megillah [Scroll of Esther] If you want to hear the whole scroll chanted, it is wise to phone ahead. Some synagogues have only a Purim shpiel.
  5. Plan costumes for yourself and your family! (Not a mitzvah, but still fun.)

Also, while officially we don’t begin preparation for Passover until after Purim, in reality many Jews begin the Passover prep before they put on their masks. If you want to start thinking about that process, I recommend taking a look at Cleaning for Passover: Begin in EgyptIt’s a guide especially for those who have never kept Passover before, or who find the prospect of cleaning for Passover overwhelming.

Shake off those winter blues, and get ready: Purim’s coming!

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!