I’m preparing to chant Torah this coming Shabbat. It is not the easiest thing for me, but it’s good for me, because if I don’t use this skill, I’ll lose it. The process of preparing the portion to chant takes me into a deep analysis of the text, a dream-place where the text transforms before me.
Yes, there are some texts that bore me, at least before I’ve studied them. This one is a case in point: Exodus 30, the directions for the small golden altar for burning incense. The Torah goes into excruciating detail about its dimensions and construction. When I first read it, I sighed. Not only do I need to chant it, I need to preach on it, and I had the feeling it was going to be a job to get a good drash out of a small piece of furniture.
So I began: first translating the passage for myself. It’s very straightforward, almost a cookbook. Nothing catches my eye. Then I begin to chant from the tikkun, the book that has all the marks to designate vowels, punctuation, and melody (the Torah scroll itself has none of those.) I go one short phrase at a time, singing it over and over until I’ve got it. Periodically I stop to figure out how to fit phrases together. Still boring: details, details. Details, details, details. Yawn.
Then I begin to notice how the melody comments upon the text: emphasize this word, that phrase. Make a sort of soprano hiccup (geresh!) on one little preposition. Gradually the text warms up, or I warm up to it. The little incense table begins to take shape, and glow.
Sometimes Torah is transparent. More often is it opaque. All I know is that if I will spend time on it, invest my heart in it, open my soul to it, every time it will come to life before my eyes.
Esther 3:1 After these things, Ahasuerus promoted Haman the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, and elevated him, and set his seat above all the nobels that were with him.
The Book of Esther doesn’t say why Ahasuerus promoted Haman, the bad guy of the story. What the book does say is that he was the son of an Agagite, which provides a link back to Israel’s Biblical enemy, Amalek.
Agag, the king of Amalek, appears first in the blessing of Balaam (Numbers 24:7) but he comes up again and again, finally to war again with Israel and be killed off by the prophet Samuel in 1 Samuel 15. Amalek was an enemy we first encountered in the wilderness, where that nation preyed upon the stragglers on the margins of the camp (Exodus 17: 8-10). At the end of that chapter, God says to Moses:
Write this for a memorial in the book, and rehearse it in the ears of Joshua: for I will utterly blot out the remembrance of Amalek from under heaven.
This verse makes a puzzle: how can we memorialize Amalek, rehearse the story of Amalek, but utterly blot out remembrance of Amalek?
First, and simplest, this is why we boo and make the groggers roar at the name of Haman. We are “blotting out” his name.
But more importantly, this is a warning about all the enemies to come in Jewish history as it unfolds, whether it is Rome, or Ferdinand & Isabella of Spain, or Hitler. On the one hand: don’t forget. And on the other hand: don’t give these guys too much attention. Don’t reduce Judaism to ONLY remembering.
Purim reminds us that as long as we are here to celebrate it, Amalek has not prevailed. So yes, we remember all the stories from the bad old days, but also we live vital lives of Torah in the here and now. The Holocaust is important to remember, but it is also important not to make it the sum total of our identity as Jews. We are more than what has been done to us.
If you are new to synagogue, Purim is either a treat or a shock, maybe both. It’s a holiday based in the Biblical book of Esther, which is such a wild, farcical document that it very nearly didn’t get included in the Bible. Here’s what you need to know:
1. WHEN?Purim falls on 14 Adar. In a leap year, it falls on 14 Adar II. There may be something called Shushan Purim on your Jewish calendar, but you only need to worry about it if you live in a walled city such as Jerusalem. For conversion to the secular calendar, check a Jewish calendar.
2. THE STORY For the whole megillah [scroll] read the Book of Esther in the Bible. The short version: The Jewish community in Persia is nearly annihilated when King Ahasuerus’s chief minister, Haman, takes a dislike to them. The king’s queen, Esther, is secretly a Jew and she intervenes to save the day. The full story, in the Bible, is at least R-rated for both sex and violence, but in most American synagogues what you will hear is the G-rated version edited for children’s ears.
3. MITZVAH 1 – HEAR THE STORY. We are commanded to hear the story every year. We fulfill that mitzvah either by hearing the scroll chanted or by seeing it acted out in a Purim Shpiel, with lots of audience participation. It is traditional to drown out the name of the villain, Haman, with noisemakers like groggers or with boos.
4. MITZVAH 2 – FESTIVE BANQUET.We are commanded to enjoy a festive meal on Purim. One theme for the holiday is feasting – if you read the story, you’ll notice there are lots of parties in it. Hamentaschen are three-cornered filled cookies associated with the holiday.
5. MITZVAH 3 – GIFTS TO POOR PEOPLE.We are commanded to see to it than even the poorest people can enjoy a festive meal – hence, gifts of food to the poor. (A donation to the Food Bank in your area works nicely.)
6. MITZVAH 4 – MISHLOACH MANOT (Meesh-LOW-ach man-OAT) are small gifts of baked goods, wine, or other goodies, given to friends to enhance their feasting. Ideally they are a little package of more than one goodie.
7. COSTUMES. Many Jews, both children and adults, wear costumes to synagogue for the Purim festivities. Often people dress as characters from the Purim story, but pirates, astronauts, and superheroes are good, too. Some just wear a mask for Purim, because one of the themes of the holiday is secret identities.
8. DRINKING.There is a tradition that one should drink “until one cannot tell Haman from Mordechai” – the bad guy from the good guy. This, too, is a theme from the story but it has too often been taken to excess. Don’t drink and then drive home from synagogue, or push alcohol on anyone, please. No matter what anyone tells you, getting drunk is never a mitzvah.
Hey, it’s not our holiday. It’s SAINT Valentine’s Day, and the way it became the Hallmark-and-florist fest it is today is a long and involved story.
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.
But 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 celebrated the day by telling my honey I love her (like I do every day) and sending a donation to Shalom Bayit, an organization working against domestic violence in my home town. I’m going to send one to the National Center for Lesbian Rights, one of the great organizations that are part of the fight for marriage equality.
Down with pain, up with love! I think that’s an idea we can all support.
“Mishenichnas Adar marbin b’simchah” B.Ta’anit 29a
“When Adar enters, joy increases.”
Today is Rosh Chodesh Adar, the beginning of the month of Adar. Adar is the month of Purim, of good luck, of silly games and pranks. We are commanded to “increase joy” although we are not given any direction about how to go about it.
I have quoted the line above from Ta’anit many times, but I realized I’d never studied it and had no idea about the context. Today I went to take a look:
“Ta’anit” means “fasts.” This masechet [book] of the Babylonian Talmud 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?
Sure enough, when I looked it up, 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.”
And the Gamara expounds upon it:
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.
There are many possible ways to read this, but what I take from it is that the sadnesses of life are simply facts. There is tzuris [trouble] in every life. But just as this discussion of Adar bursts in upon the discussion of tzuris for a moment, so does the month of Adar burst in upon us in the wettest, most bedraggled bit of winter. Good surprises burst in upon tired routine: sometimes instead of bad luck, we have good luck. Sometimes a new baby is born, and he smells wonderful. The message: if we are truly devout, we will remain open to the possibilities of those 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 your joy increase, and may you be awake to it!