And So This is Purim!

And So This is Purim!

(Sung to the tune of John Lennon’s: “And So This is Christmas”…because it’s… Purim!)

And so this is Purim,

And what have we done?

Another year over

And a new one’s just begun.

Let’s wear our Zoom filters

And don our Zoom masks

Let’s drink a L’chaim

And swig from our flasks

But party in private

No large Shushan feast

We increase our ‘happy’

But the parties decrease

So a very merry Purim

Take a moment to notice

We came close to disaster

But they couldn’t quite smote us.

(okay, not proud of that last rhyme but…it’s Purim so I can take rhyming liberties).

Today is Purim and we’re supposed to switch things up, listen to the Megillah, boo at Haman, and remember that being a Jew in exile means standing on the shifting sands of politics.  This year, of all years, we don’t need Purim to teach us about how crazy the world can get.  This year, we look for deeper messages of the holiday that can speak to us right now.

This morning, on my online weekly coffee discussion, we looked at the Megillah, and its message of privilege.  This year I saw it clearly, while every other year it sat quietly in the text waiting for its moment.

The Megillah begins with a portrait of complete privilege: the king is hosting endless feasting and debauchery for his invited privileged guests.  The description is surprising in its excess and the midrashim add details that complete the picture of privilege.  Within this setting, Queen Vashti is told to appear.  At this point, the story will unfold as an ongoing introduction of decreasing privilege.  The queen, who has little choice, refuses, and is ‘gotten rid of’.  The advisors have told the king that if his ultimate power (privilege) is challenged, then all wives will challenge their husbands — those of lesser power (privilege) will begin to question their standings, and challenge the rung above them. Esther is chosen as queen , and will gain privilege, but only as long as she hides who she is, Mordecai has told her she must hide her identity because he knows that knowledge of her people will rob her of any power she might attain.  Esther can blend, she can pass, she lives the life of the imposter.

The stand-off between Haman and Mordecai plays out the same way.  In fact, every detail from that moment onward speaks of a switching of privilege — the doors that open, the safety that privilege provides, and the redefinition of the society when it is challenged.

In the final moments of the narrative, the Jewish people (previously on the bottom rung of the ladder, facing a genocide) are allowed to arm themselves, and deliver a pre-emptive strike against those who had already armed against them.  It is the eleventh hour reversal.

Up to this moment in the Megillah, Esther and Mordecai tell us of the events of their time, but they have not yet weighed in on what we should do because of it.  Only in the last verses of the Megillah do they tell us to read their story every year, make it a day of joyous festivities and send presents to the poor.  In other words, hear their cautionary tale, remember it is a repeating story of hatred and privilege, combat the sadness of that fact with the expression of joy, and fight the reality of privilege by reaching out to anyone in need.  Try to equalize our society by sharing what is ours, and creating a bond across the strata of power.

I’m not sure that even Esther and Mordecai could have known how relevant their message has become. This year I read the Megillah with joy, and I add a measure of gratitude.

Happy Purim and shabbat shalom!

Check out Rachael’s revamped video for Purim:

Rachael hosts Food For Our Neshama, Coffee For Me Friday mornings from 10-10:30am ET on Zoom. The link is on our homepage.

Please Don’t Pass Me Your Torah

We’ve celebrated Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot in the midst of Covid 19, which means a Jewish cycle of pilgrimage festivals is now complete.  At this point, it’s fair to conclude that, Jewishly speaking, we can handle what lies ahead since we’ve already managed our Jewish touchstone holidays.  With that said, I can’t help but approach Simchat Torah with some nostalgia of years gone by, dancing with Torah scrolls, singing and dancing for hours as a teenager, and sitting on my father’s shoulders as a child.

I remember getting excited about Simchat Torah in elementary school when we made Israeli flags with blue construction paper cut into strips.  We had sticks and Elmer’s glue globbed onto paper in front of us while beautiful images of Stars of David danced in my head as I imagined my perfect Israeli flag.  I dipped my fingers in the glue, tried to handle strips of construction paper that stuck to itself, my fingers, and my clothes.  My construction paper strips had developed free will, and in the end, Picasso would have been proud of my interpretive flag.   With my blue stained fingers, I could now choose an apple to stick onto the top of my flag, rush home, eat, change into my ‘shul’ clothes and go to shul for chaotic singing, dancing, and getting hoisted onto the shoulders of men as I waved my flag and watched the apple on top of it shoot across the room.  Those were the days!

As I got older, I joined ‘the cause’ with my teenage friends to solicit and lobby for a Torah to be brought to the women’s section so we could celebrate and sing and dance with a Torah in our midst (on reflection, there were less flags and apples stuck on them at this stage).  As a young woman, I remember participating in a celebration where ‘the cause’ had been embraced and advanced —now a Torah scroll was thrust into my arms and I was told to walk a circuit around the shul with it.  I was shocked, I was honoured, I was intrigued and then within 3 minutes I was terrified.  Never in my life had it ever occurred to me that TORAH SCROLLS ARE INCREDIBLY HEAVY!!

I remember learning that the parchment used for a Torah scroll is made from the skin of a goat, cattle or deer, and I was moved by the symbolic weaving of nature into Judaism.  But I had never actually touched or held one.  Perfect example of how flawed knowledge can be without the benefit of experience.

And so, there I am, holding my first Torah scroll, and trying to remind myself I am actually holding the embodiment of the history and values I hold so dear.  I fought back the tiny voice in my head that kept telling me I’m holding a goat.

I began to walk around the shul with the other Torah people when I felt the scroll begin to slide downwards in my arms.  Terror set in as I became more and more convinced I might drop it (oh, God, all those details I learned about what the whole congregation has to do if someone drops a Torah scroll —it’s not pleasant!  No problem, I thought, everyone will be very forgiving of a woman dropping a Torah and the whole congregation repenting for it…no problem, I’ll just worry about a new identity when I get to Europe).  With every step I took, the Torah inched lower.  All I could think was that I am walking around carrying a goat and it wants to roam free.  I managed to hang on as I completed the circuit and (gratefully) passed the Torah to the next person.  At that point it was at my knees.  

I have faced the hard reality that I am not a ‘Torah carrier’, it is not safe in my hands, I should not be trusted to hold it, please don’t pass me your Torah.  But that is just my personal moment of understanding what the history of Simchat Torah has taught us on a national level.

There was an ancient tradition that lit torches and candles be carried on Simchat Torah, and used to escort anyone reading from the Torah during the celebrations.  But, after a few hundred years, rabbis didn’t feel comfortable that it’s a Jewish holiday when we can’t ignite or extinguish fires, and yet people are carrying torches.  Obviously, the answer was to give the lit torches to children who don’t have obligations to the commandments yet…it didn’t take long to see the flaw in that solution, and so torches were no longer used.

What’s even more interesting is how the tradition of putting the apples on the flags developed.  Ancient texts tell us that we used to ‘lob’ apples at each other during Simchat Torah as a way to offer sweet treats that are associated with Torah.  The intention was to gently, oh so gingerly, lob the apples so children could catch them or collect them later.  Apparently, it got out of hand and we started pelting apples at each other.  Dare I say, it became a form of apple dodgeball until some time in the 13th century when it was disallowed by the rabbinic authority of the time.  Apples, if used, must now be secured to other things so no one gets any ideas of ‘holier than thou’ apple fights.

Simchat Torah is the holiday when we physically celebrate with our Torah scrolls and commit ourselves to new insights in our Torah studies.  This year, we cannot gather in our large groups to sing and dance in close proximity or to pass Torah scrolls to each other.  But that reality doesn’t change anything.  The celebration of Torah continues and at these moments I rely on Jewish peoplehood.  I am not a Torah carrier but I know many other Jews are.  Many Jewish families have Torah scrolls of their own which will be used on Simchat Torah and danced with in their homes.  I believe they include me in their intentions of joy and celebration as I intend to include others in my joy and celebration of Torah values.

Throughout Jewish history we have actively changed how we celebrate Simchat Torah when we realized safety was an issue.  We no longer throw apples at each other when we gather and I, personally, will always ‘pass’ if a Torah is again offered for me to carry.  It is the model of a Jewish holiday that shifts in its practice to accommodate the reality of the times.  

Given everything we’ve been through in the last year, I think we can confidently say, ‘we got this one’.

The Sixth Candle: I Need a Hero

One of the festive songs of Hanukkah is ‘Mi Yimalel’ – ‘Who Will Speak Of’.  Not to take anything away from our classic ‘Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel’, Mi Yimalel is a bit more layered in describing what it is we are celebrating.

When we speak of Hanukkah and the Maccabees, we often talk about the war they waged and the victory of the few over the many.  It is the stuff of fantasies. Unfortunately, outside of discussing a war, we often only think of oil, fried foods and dreidels.  Is the sophistication of Hanukkah sitting in a celebration of warfare?

The song ‘Mi Yimalel’ asks who will speak of the mighty deeds of Israel.  It then proceeds to state that every generation needs a hero who can lead everyone.  It concludes by saying that in our day all Jews must unite and stand together.

As Jews, we don’t celebrate a war or the killing of an enemy.  We celebrate heroes, leaders and the brave people with vision who unite us when we so easily divide ourselves.

Hanukkah celebrates the understanding that brave leaders with strong Jewish grounding can bring us to a place where we can overcome insurmountable odds.

The Fourth Candle: Let the Man Handle It

Hanukkah represents a time when everything Jewish was under attack.  The people, the religion, the culture, independence, autonomy, monotheism, family, Torah, everything that connected us to anything Jewish was under attack.  We often think Hanukkah was a time of warriors and battles with weapons and armies. But the books of the Maccabees also describe the civilian resistance that was waged by the women.

While the men picked up weapons, the women made sure to pass Judaism to their children.  Circumcision was punishable by death, as was teaching Torah, Hebrew, keeping Shabbat or eating Kosher.  And yet, story after story is recorded of women who never gave an inch. These stories are tremendously heartbreaking and difficult to read but it is clear that these women knew that if the war is won, but Judaism is lost, then nothing has been won.

Jewish law thanks women for their steadfastness, courage and bravery by stating that while the Hanukkah candles are burning, women are to refrain from labour.  So every night while those candles burn, the women should gather around the candlelight and share their stories. It happens around sunset – around dinner. For these 8 days, the men of the household are to handle everything while Jewish history honours our women.

Hanukkah is about recognizing the unsung heroes among us.

The Third Candle: Get the Gelt While the Getting’s Good

Hanukkah gelt is a traditional way of celebrating Hanukkah in Judaism.  It is a time to give money, traditionally coins, deliciously chocolate coins, to our kids.  In today’s world, people are giving gifts and forgoing the ‘gelt’ (Yiddish for money) but perhaps we shouldn’t give up on the gelt so quickly.  

Hanukkah coins are used to bet on the outcome of spinning the dreidel.  Everyone would put money into the pot and bet on which letter the dreidel would land on.  There are 4 Hebrew letters on a dreidel, to spell out the sentence of a great miracle happening there.  Legend has it that because Jews weren’t allowed to study Hebrew, on penalty of death, parents created these toys with the Hebrew alphabet on it as a way to continue teaching Hebrew to their children.  In order to fool the soldiers, they told their children to make it look like they are playing a money game. Then the soldiers won’t look too closely at the dreidel because the money would distract them.

It is traditional to still play the dreidel game and still bet with chocolate coins, but the legend doesn’t always get told.  

When we give Hanukkah gelt to our kids we should tell them the legend.

Hanukkah is about being creative to maintain our Jewish identities as we secure it from one generation to another.

The Second Candle: Liberating Gender Barriers

There are several Jewish texts that we believe describe the events or time of Hanukkah.  The first are the books of the Maccabees, which tell of the Hasmoneans and Judah the Maccabee.  There is another text that we believe intends to speak to the Hasmonean time, although it is not set in that time period, and that is the book of Judith.  None of these texts have entered the Jewish canon, and so they are not often studied, but they describe interesting gender diversities that challenge our stereotypes.  

Judah the Maccabee was a warrior and Judith was a widow living quietly in her town.  When Judah the Maccabee liberated the Temple, he and his men are described as sweeping it clean, hanging curtains and decorating the rooms.  When Judith’s town is threatened by an enemy and no one will fight them, Judith plans and executes a strategy to behead the enemy general, Holofernes, and gather an army to fight.

Judah and Judith, the same name, the same goal, each crossing gender stereotypes of their time.

Hanukkah teaches us to exceed our perceived limitations to fight evil and achieve our goals.