Today is Shushan Purim, a unique day in the cycle of Jewish holidays. Purim is the only holiday whose date depends on where you happen to celebrate it. For most of the world, Purim was yesterday. However, if you happen to reside in Jerusalem or the city of Shushan (where the story of Purim took place) Purim is today. Therefore, the observance is called "Shushan Purim."
Only a few of the hamantashen I made with my children are left on Shushan Purim.
This oddity is the result of a minor detail of the story of Purim in the Book of Esther. According to the story, Haman connived to have the Jews of Persia destroyed on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar. However, after his plot was revealed by Mordechai and Esther, the king ordered the execution of Haman and issued a new decree allowing the Jews to defend themselves on that day. Not surprisingly, the Jews succeeded in overcoming their enemies. (How many people are going to join a fight against the Jews when their chief enemy and his ten sons have just been hanged in the capital?)
Queen Esther then instituted the holiday of Purim for the day after
the Jews were permitted to defend themselves. It is an important distinction for the holiday. Purim does not celebrate a military triumph. It celebrates the day of "rejoicing and feasting" that followed. That is why Purim is on the fourteenth day of Adar, not the thirteenth.
However, the text tells us that in the capital city of Shushan, the King permitted the Jews to defend themselves for an additional day. They fought against their enemies on both the thirteenth and fourteenth of Adar. The book of Esther is careful to explain, therefore, that Purim could not be celebrated in Shushan until the fifteenth day. On that day, the Jews of the capital would follow the Jews of the "unwalled towns" of the kingdom by "sending gifts to each other" (Esther 9:12-19).
This is the reason that Purim still is celebrated a day late in Shushan and in Jerusalem, whose walls were standing back in the days of Joshua. Today is the day that Jews in Jerusalem read the Megillah
with its blessings and deliver mishloach manot
, gifts of food, to their friends.
For people today who are concerned with reviving and reinvigorating the joy of Judaism, Shushan Purim has an important lesson. We must be careful to be clear about why
we are celebrating. We change the date of a holiday to avoid even the appearance that we are celebrating the downfall of our foes.
Real joy is not about triumphalism. We do not rejoice over the death of Haman. We do not celebrate by firing our weapons into the air. Rather, our best celebrations are always about gratitude. We wait a day after our temporal victory and rejoice, instead, over the miracle of an unseen presence who delivers us and guides us. We celebrate by laying down our weapons and taking a bag of cookies over to our neighbors' homes.
That is something to be joyful about.Other Posts on This Topic:Imagine There's No HamanPurim: Who Knows?
The Shabbat that begins tonight is known as Shabbat Zachor, and its special meaning involves one of the oddest paradoxes in the Torah. Shabbat Zachor, the "Sabbath of Remembrance," always falls on the Shabbat before Purim. Its name comes from a special additional Torah passage that is read in the morning service from Deuteronomy 25:17-19:
Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey after you left Egypt—how, undeterred by fear of God, they surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when Adonai your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that Adonai your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!
This is a strange commandment. We are obliged to remember to blot out the memory of Amalek. How do you do that? How does a person remember to forget?
It's helpful to understand the symbolic meaning of the nation called Amalek in this passage, and the relationship of Amalek to the holiday of Purim.
Later Jewish tradition imagined Amalek as the eternal enemy of Israel that would appear in various guises throughout history. In the book of Exodus, we are taught that "Adonai will have war with Amalek from generation to generation" (Exodus 17:16). Amalek is not just a nation that fought treacherously against Israel once-upon-a-time, during the travel through the wilderness. They are the embodiment of enmity against God that is unending. Amalek is the undying human capacity for evil.
Now, evil is a particularly difficult problem for Judaism as a strictly monotheistic tradition. If there is one God, who is the master and creator of everything, how can there be a separate power in the universe that is in opposition to God? The classical Jewish answer—that evil is not a separate force, but is only the shadow of God's absence—cannot answer our darkest questions adequately. How is it that deeply malevolent, actively destructive evil can exist in a universe that is ruled solely by a benevolent and all-powerful God?
This is not an idle or hypothetical question for Judaism and for Jews. The Jewish people, who most strenuously insist on God's unity, are also the people whose history most clearly declares the reality of evil. Throughout our generations, we have been victims of schemes and plots that originate in the darkest and most hateful recesses of the human psyche.
Haman, the villain of the Purim story, is viewed as the representative of Amalek in the time of the Persian Empire. He is known in the book of Esther as "Haman the Agagite," and so he bears the name of King Agag, the Amalekite ruler who was defeated by King Saul (I Samuel 15:7-9). The entire holiday of Purim can be viewed as a way to fulfill the commandment to remember to "blot out the memory of Amalek." We remember that the evil of Haman exists in the world—an evil that would wipe us out for no reason and without mercy—and then we blot that memory out with laughter, drink, joy and noisy groggers.
There is a tradition, on Purim, of writing the name of Amalek in chalk on the bottom of ones shoes. That way, as we parade around on the holiday, we are also wiping away the name with each festive footfall. Another tradition associated with destroying the name of Amalek is practiced by Jewish ritual scribes. A sofer
will test his of her quill for writing a Torah scroll, a mezuzah or tefilin by first writing the name of Amalek and then crossing it out.
But why the paradox? If we should always remember Amalek, why should we also strive to forget? Why should we drive the name from memory? I believe the teaching to be a reflection of the paradox that evil itself represents in Jewish tradition.
We cannot deny evil. We may want to believe in a God who is present in all things—in our sorrow as much in our joy—but we cannot escape that we live in a universe that includes things that are beyond our ability to reconcile with God. Judaism is too realistic to just brush aside evil as a mere illusion. We are bound to remember it.
Yet, we also are given a tool to drive it away. Evil cannot be fought by filling our minds with equal measures of hatred and anger. When we try to fight evil with evil, we only add to the evil present in our world. We would only multiply the denial of God and God's Torah that Amalek represents. We must forever oppose evil, yes, but we also must have the courage to engage in constructive forgetfulness.
When we choose to live our lives with joy, despite evil, we help to destroy evil. When we know our hurtful past, and yet live as though it had no hold on us, we defeat it. On Purim, we are asked to behave (perhaps with the aid of a drink or two) as if there were no difference between "Cursed be Haman" and "Blessed be Mordechai." The idea is not to deny the existence of the evil represented by Haman the Agagite, but to defeat the power of evil by looking beyond it to the true power behind creation.
That is what we must remember. Remember to wipe out the memory of evil from your consciousness, and allow yourself to connect instead to the source of life.Other Posts on This Topic:DarknessTough TimesKi Tetze: The Bird's Nest and the World Trade Center
I had the pleasure tonight of studying the book of Esther in an unusual (for me) context. First of all, we are nowhere near the holiday of Purim, the time of year at which Jews usually read Esther. Secondly, I was teaching at the local Catholic church at the invitation of the church's Wednesday night Bible study group. This was the second of two sessions we did together on Esther, and more than thirty people came to participate as we read the book from the perspectives of two different faiths.
Parishioners from St. Joseph Catholic Church in Stuart see the book of Esther through Jewish eyes as they appreciate the Hebrew scroll.
I've studied and taught Esther dozens of times before. I don't think I said anything very different about the book tonight than what I have said in the past. I focused on the way the book portrays God's presence hiding in the shadows of our lives, sometimes barely noticeable, but always there. I talked about the two competing visions of reality portrayed in the book—a world that is random and meaningless versus a world that is purposeful and ruled by a moral order. I presented the book as a lesson about how the world is the opposite of how it sometimes appears to us.
The thing that was different about tonight's study was not the teacher. It was the class. I was humbled by the way the participants so warmly and openly embraced a stranger, someone from outside of their faith, who came to teach a text that they consider to be part of their own sacred canon.
In fact, they did more than that. They gleefully used the groggers I brought to class. They had as much fun twirling them as any group of Hebrew school children I have ever seen. They pored over the Hebrew scroll of Esther I brought and treated it as an object of great sanctity.
Yes, I can imagine a synagogue welcoming a Christian teacher with as much enthusiasm as I received tonight. Yet, there is something special in the experience of being the one who is so welcomed. I am grateful for the kindness of my new friends at St. Joseph Catholic Church of Stuart
The book of Esther, after all, does teach us that appearances can be deceiving. Sometimes, we discover that there is a deeper truth that underlies the masks we wear through life. Tonight, I learned again that where people expect to see only differences, there can be great commonality. Conventional expectations were inverted tonight in a way that reminds me of the way the terror of destruction in the book of Esther was transformed for the Jews of Shushan into "light, gladness and honor" (Esther 8:16).
It is an honor, indeed, to witness the shining of that light.Other Posts on This Topic:Tetzaveh: Games of ChancePurim: Who Knows?Nine Students, a Baby and a Wedding
For those who want to relive a bit of Purim, here is the video of the Purim Shpiel at Temple Beit HaYam. The shpiel was performed by Don Matlin, Terrie Welz, Beth Pennamacoor, Karl Drehobl, Jerry Shapiro, Steve Rozansky, Sam Friedman and Roseann Conrad. The script was created with the amazing talents of David Lane. Credit and gratitude for the creation of the video goes to Ruben York. Thanks to one and all.
On the contrary, if you keep silent in this crisis, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another quarter, while you and your father's house will perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained to royal position for just such a crisis.
-Esther 4:14 (JPS Translation)
My favorite verse in the whole Megillah comes after Mordechai tells Esther about Haman's plans and asks her to intercede before the king. Esther protests that she would risk death if she appeared before the king without being asked. Mordechai answers by telling her that this may be the very moment for which she has become queen.
The careful use of language here—the hedging of "perhaps" and the unnamed agency by which Esther has become queen—all point to Purim's hidden theme. God is never mentioned in the Megillah, but can be found between every line.
There is an Ashkenazic custom of writing a Scroll of Esther so that the word, HaMelech
, "The King," appears as the first word of almost every column. In the literal story of Purim, "The King" means the dopey, drunken Achashveirosh. However, in the hidden story, the king at the top of each column is the King of Kings of Kings, the Holy Blessed One, pulling the strings and setting the story's course.
So it is in our lives. People say, "Oh, God," in moments of exasperation, anxiety or delight, and they think that they are just using an expression. Yet, the words betray a hidden presence. In the moments that matter most in our lives, we want to know that we are not alone in the universe. We want to know we have a reason for being here.
Mordechai says to Esther, "Who knows?," because God's presence is sometimes better left as a question than an answer. Perhaps God only peeks around the corners of our lives. Perhaps we are better off seeing ourselves as the agents of our own destinies, as Mordechai and Esther are portrayed in today's story. Purim is the holiday for celebrating our mastery of our own fate, and that's good. Yet, there is always that question—"Who knows?"—hovering unnamed at the top of every column.
Who knows? Perhaps you have a purpose, too. Other Posts on This Topic:Miketz: Deception
There was a young lady from Shushan
Who knew how to put the right moves on.
Haman plotted a ruse
For to murder the Jews,
But Esther defied that conclusion.
Purim tonight. Potluck dinner at 6:30 p.m. Purim Shpiel at 7:30 p.m.
Be happy. It's Adar.
Today, Sunday, our religious school had its annual Purim carnival. This is a mainstay of many congregations at Purim. The youth group organizes games and other entertainment for the younger kids and charges admission or a fee for each game. It is a fundraiser for the youth group that helps them pay for their programs and trips throughout the year.
I agreed to participate in this year's carnival by helping with a game in which kids throw shaving cream pies at Haman. And, yes, my job was to be Haman. There's a video clip above to attest to the indignity of it all.
(By the way, I was joking about "fifty bucks a throw." It was actually three dollars. This booth raised about $120 for our youth group. Not bad.)
I know that there were at least a few parents watching today who wondered, "Is it right that our rabbi should be doing this? What does it teach our kids that they can throw shaving cream pies at the rabbi—even in the spirit of Purim merriment?" Well, I have to admit that I thought about that, too.
There actually is a discussion in traditional Jewish law about this question. Are there activities that should be considered beneath the dignity of a rabbi?
The proof text that generally is used in this discussion comes from the book of Samuel. When King David brought the Ark of the Covenant to the City of David, there was a boisterous celebration with dancing, shouting, music and shofar blasts (II Samuel 6). When David's wife, Michal, saw her husband "leaping and whirling," she despised him for it. Michal was born a princess, the daughter of King Saul. She felt that to behave as David did was beneath the dignity of the successor to her father's throne.
When David came home, Michal gave him what for. She spoke sarcastically to him: "How well did the King of Israel honor himself today by exposing himself to the eyes of his subjects' slave girls in the way that one of the riffraff might expose himself!" (II Samuel 6:20).
David answered by telling Michal that he danced with the Ark in order to serve God. "I will dance before Adonai and dishonor myself even more and I shall bring myself low in my own eyes; but among the slave girls of whom you speak, I shall be honored" (II Samuel 6:21-22).
The Bible clearly has a negative view of Michal's reproach. It states that because of this incident she never gave birth. David, on the other hand, is viewed positively for his willingness to subvert his own dignity for the sake of honoring God. David knew that by lowering himself before God, he actually lifted up the way he was perceived. From this, Jewish legal scholars conclude that the dignity of a leader, such as a rabbi, is not compromised when his or her actions are seen as the fulfillment of God's commandments (See, for example, Bei'ur Halachah
, Siman 250).
Now, I don't bring this up in order to say that I was as righteous as Kind David, or to suggest that I acted today to raise my prestige in the eyes of our congregation. The point I want to make is a more global statement about Judaism, rabbis, dignity and joy.
I want Jewish children to know that Judaism wants us to experience the leaping joy of the human heart. I think a rabbi can sacrifice a bit of his or her dignity if it helps to show children (and the child in all of us) that Judaism is more interested in celebrating God with ecstatic joy than it is in the solemn dignity of human beings.
Rabbis (including myself) can be a pretty stuck-up bunch. We display ourselves as spiritual exemplars and we believe that our behavior sets the standard for the community. We are mindful that the way we are perceived shapes the way that the Jewish people as a whole are perceived. I believe that all of this is right. Rabbis should live in awe of the responsibility to act accordingly.
Yet, there also is a need to lighten up a bit. If awe and dignity are all that people see in rabbis, they will assume that this is all there is to Judaism. We owe them so much more. A rabbi also has to be an exemplar of life lived with joy. What better opportunity is there for doing that than Purim?
Celebrate God by living outrageously, proudly and joyfully. Live with dignity, yes, but never forget that the purpose of dignity is not to aggrandize ourselves. Dignity is a good thing only to the extent that it helps us remember that our lives matter. We live every moment in the presence of an awesome God.Other Posts on This Topic:Counting from Freedom to Covenant: Nobility
Welcome to Purim, holiest day of the year.
Sanctity and profanity merge in
A time so lost beyond the horizon
We lose the Name.
Haman and Mordechai now are drinking buddies,
Old pals who trade stories.
Meaning fades and concepts melt--
They were only windows, after all,
That peer into immeasurable truth.
There are no boundaries here.
After a few, the two stumble home,
Their heads spinning, adlayada.
They fumble keys, feed the cat,
And wake sober on Pesach,
Each in the other one's bed.
Welcome to Purim, holy of holies,
Fulfillment of the solemn cycle.
Miracle and revelation,
Sorrow and celebration,
Find strange completion
In this day of days.
All others we toss away to say
We finally have remembered to forget.
| |Other Posts on This Topic:
Imagine There's No Haman
This week's Torah portion (Tetzaveh) includes a description of a strange pair of objects used by the ancient Israelites as tools of divination. The Urim and Tumim were kept in the breastplate worn by the High Priest, and, it appears, he used them to discover things seen only by God.
The idea of having a window that allows human beings to peek into the mind of God may make us feel both curious and wary. It seems that the Hebrew Bible itself also has mixed feelings about using games of chance to reveal the divine.
At the center of the seal of Yale University are two Hebrew words, "Urim and Tumim." these are the names of the oracular devices used by the High Priest of Israel to discover the will of God. There is an interpretive tradition of associating the words with "light and purity," hence the Latin phrase, Lux et Veritas, "Light and Truth."
The Torah says, "You shall place inside the breastplate of judgment the Urim and Tumim and they shall be over Aaron’s heart whenever he comes before Adonai. Thus, Aaron shall carry the judgment of the Israelites over his heart before Adonai always" (Exodus 28:30). A passage in the book of Samuel shows the Urim and Tumim in action. When King Saul believed that a member of the Israelite army had committed a sin that removed God's favor, he used the Tumim to discover who was at fault. The text says that Saul separated himself and his son Jonathan from the troops and used the Tumim to determine whether the fault was with Jonathan or the rest of the army. The Tumim showed that it was Jonathan who had sinned. He then confessed his actions (I Samuel 14:41). The idea of using special objects as oracles to divine secret knowledge existed in many cultures of the ancient world. Think of the Urim and Tumim as a special pair of dice that a king or high priest could throw to determine a propitious date for attacking an enemy or discovering a source of divine disfavor. The Urim and Tumim were instruments of selection that helped their user discover meaning and sense in a world of seeming chaos and uncertainty.In that respect, the Urim and Tumim are rather like the Torah itself. They were a guide to finding a right path in a world that seems to be all wilderness.The lovely irony is that, during the very time of year when we read about the Urim and Tumim in the Torah, their exact counterpart appears in an upcoming holiday. Purim, of course, is the holiday named for pur, the selection tool used by the evil Haman to discover the date for the destruction of the Jews. The book of Esther tells how, "
In the first month, the month of Nisan, in the twelfth year of King Achashveirosh, pur
(which means 'the lot') was cast before Haman concerning every day and every month, until it fell on the twelfth month, the month of Adar" (Esther 3:7).
In the Purim story, Haman's use of the pur
is a kind of inside joke. Haman is depicted as an evil and superstitious man who denies God. He believes in a universe without rules that is governed only by strength and power, not by ethics or righteous divinity. His reliance on the pur
is a statement about his allegiance to a random universe.
The joke is that, when Haman casts the pur
, the date revealed—seemingly by chance—is nearly the last possible day on the calendar. Nisan is the first month of the year; Adar is the last. Poor Haman cast his dice on New Years Day to find out when he would realize his dream. The dice landed on the equivalent of December 15th. Haman would have to wait eleven and a half months—plenty of time for his intended victims to discover his plan and prepare their defense.
The book of Esther, famously, is the only book of the Hebrew Bible that does not contain the name of God. Yet, God's presence is felt everywhere in it. God appears as the unnamed source of strange coincidences that show a higher power at work against the forces that worship only human might.
The relationship between the Urim
, on one side, and the pur
, on the other, is paradoxical. Both appear to be instruments of random selection, but their meaning is opposite. Haman selected his date with a pur
because he believed in chaos. A random selection device, according to this view, would reflect the nature of a random universe. The high priests and kings of Israel, on the other hand, used the Urim
because they believed in an underlying order hidden beneath the seeming disorder of reality. This device that freely chooses among options, to them, would have been like a compass that points to the true north of God's will, revealing the hidden pulse of God's magnetic field of meaning.
What do you believe? Do you, at a fundamental level, believe that there are reasons and purposes within the universe that usually are hidden beyond the reach of our senses? Or, do you believe that your presence in the world is just the product of a long series of meaningless coincidences? Either position can be defended, yet it is difficult to see how both can be true.
Shall you choose one or leave it to chance?
Other Posts on This Topic:Tetzaveh: Keeping the Fire BurningEkev: Deuteronomy vs. Job
Imagine There's No Haman
Imagine there's no Haman
It's easy if you try
No efforts to destroy us
No need to wonder why
Imagine all the people
Living for God’s way!
Imagine there's no hatred
It isn't hard to do
No one to bow down to
And no rulers too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
Purim joy for everyone!
Imagine no humiliation
I wonder if you will
No need for greed or hunger
All can eat their fill
Imagine all the people
You may say that I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
Purim joy for everyone!