From Purim to Pesach

 

Today is Purim -- the full moon of the lunar month of Adar. Pesach (Passover) begins in one month, at the full moon of Nissan. There's a traditional teaching (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 429:1) which holds that "One must begin studying the laws of Passover thirty days before the holiday." In the Mishnah Berurah (note 2, Biur HaGra) we are told to begin studying Pesach specifically on Purim itself. That's the impetus behind "Purim to Pesach," a new project of the Shalom Center.

 

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The Shalom Center is sending out a new series of daily emails between now and Passover. The goal, as Rabbi Arthur Waskow explained it to me, is "to make broadly available powerful short kavanot (intentions) that reawaken and revitalize the meaning of Pesach, especially in a Shmita (sabbatical) year devoted to healing Earth and renewing social justice." Each day's post is by someone different who was solicited to share their words as part of this project: rabbis, activists, poets, writers & more.

This is a new twist on the idea of studying the halakhot (laws/ways-of-walking) of Pesach for a month before the holiday begins. Instead of focusing us on matters of ritual and praxis, these emails aim to focus our attention on what Pesach might come to teach us about our relationship with the earth, especially during this Shmita year when many of us are paying renewed attention to our relationship with consumption and with the planet. And they link Purim with Pesach, which I think is really neat.

I'm honored to be one of the writers whose words will be going out as part of this series, and I'll let y'all know when my post goes out. That said, I'm only one of 30 voices taking part in this project, and I'm excited about reading what the other participants have to say, too. If you want to receive these writings in your inbox, sign up for The Shalom Center's email list; alternatively, you can visit the Purim to Pesach website daily and see what new earth-oriented Passover wisdom has been shared.

Chag sameach -- happy Purim! And here's to Pesach, only one month away.


Purim approaches

PurimPurim begins tonight at sundown. I used to not really get the appeal of this holiday, but over the years I've grown fonder of Purim.

Yes, for kids it's a fun opportunity to dress up and to make noise in the synagogue (drowning out the name of the wicked Haman.) But there's something here for adults, too. Purim comes one month before Pesach; it's a stepping-stone toward the coming spring.

Purim offers us a megillah (scroll) in which God is never explicitly megaleh (revealed). God's explicit presence is nistar (hidden) in this book -- as Esther (whose name shares a root with nistar) hides her Jewishness when she enters the royal palace.

But Esther reveals her Jewishness when her people need her, and God's presence is palpable throughout the story in the twists and turns of providence. Purim is a holiday of hiding and revealing: Vashti refuses to reveal her body; Esther hides until she needs to reveal her identity; God hides in plain sight.

And Purim is a holiday of inversions: Achashverosh exiles Vashti rather than accede to a woman's will -- and then winds up doing what Esther wants. Haman builds a gallows for Mordechai, and winds up swinging on it himself. Haman tells the king what should be done for someone the king wants to honor, and then has to enact that reward for Mordechai instead of himself. Haman orchestrates the massacre of the Jews, and instead the Jews are given the right to defend ourselves.

Purim is an opportunity to play. To turn things upside-down. To be silly. To hear a pulp fiction soap opera chanted or acted-out from the bimah (pulpit) instead of the kinds of material rabbis usually aim to present -- and to find the hidden meaning even in the silliness. And for the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet, it's an opportunity to ascend the tree of knowledge until we reach the high vantage point where our limited human notions of "good" and "evil" disappear into the Oneness of God. I can get behind that.

A freilichen Purim -- may your Purim be joyful!

If you like poetry, you might enjoy a pair of Purim poems I wrote a few years back: Hidden and Purim Pantoum.


Celebration and change in deep winter

I wonder sometimes how it came to pass that so many cultures have celebrations / carnivals / festivals around this time of year. Christians have Mardi Gras, the "Fat Tuesday" carnival which precedes the Lenten season; Hindus have Holi, the festival of colors celebrated at the full moon nearest to the spring equinox; Jews have Purim, our festival of costumes and disguises and topsy-turviness, also at full moon, also near the spring equinox. Maybe there's something about deep winter which awakens a cross-cultural human yearning for bright colors, merriment, and change.

Gragerbanner

Giant painted wooden gragger, showing a scene from the Megillah of Esther.

The shortest days of the year are well behind us. (And I am grateful for that. I thrive on longer light.) But just as summer's strongest heat comes well after the longest day of the year, winter's deepest cold comes well after the shortest day. The thermometer in my car this morning registered -5 as I drove our son to preschool. He is fascinated by the fact of negative numbers, and we talk about them often. I'm not sure I knew what negative numbers were when I was his age. Then again, I didn't grow up in a place where negative numbers routinely register on the thermometer as winter unfolds.

By mid-morning the mercury had risen some 25 degrees, and by comparison the air feels -- well, balmy would be an overstatement, but certainly more comfortable! The sun on the snow is so bright that it creates the illusion of warmth; I opened the windows in my car to let in some crisp fresh air. And today is a bright, cloudless, blue-sky day. Sunshine sparkles on the dry dunes of snow. But even with the sun, this is a time of year when winter seems to be lingering. February may be the shortest month on the Gregorian calendar, but experientially, it can drag longer than any of the others.

Intellectually I know that winter will end. But the deep freeze feels as though it couldn't possibly budge. Like one of the doors of our house which keeps freezing shut -- it feels as though winter has frozen into place and will never melt. This is exactly when I need Purim most: the raucous cry of the graggers drowning out the name of wicked Haman, the over-the-top soap opera qualities of the Megillah of Esther, the costumes, the nip of celebratory schnapps. Purim comes to remind us that things aren't always what they seem and that God -- while sometimes hidden -- is always present.

One of Purim's themes is change. The wicked vizier winds up hoisted by his own petard; the hidden heroine shows her true colors; the Jews who were going to be victims of a massacre emerge victorious. (Okay, actually the violence at the end of the story is problematic for me, but that's another post.) If those things can change, surely something as simple as the season will change too, in the fullness of time. One of the names by which we know God is Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh, "I am becoming Who I am becoming." God is always-becoming, never-standing-still. We find God in the simple fact of change.

It's easy to slide into late-winter doldrums. And for those of us who live in snowy climes like this one, this is a time of year when the eye craves color. Everything around us is white and grey and brown, snow and slush and dirt. My bright purple coat and red hat feel necessary, as though their bright colors were actually nourishing. (They may not nourish my body, but surely they nourish my soul.) This is exactly when we need something to shake us up and remind us that there's more to life than slush and road salt. Enter these late-winter festivals, the first early harbingers of the coming spring.

 

In case you were wondering: Mardi Gras was yesterday; Purim will be two weeks from tonight; Holi will be two weeks from Friday.


What it means to become "perfumed" at Purim

Tree-of-life-jaison-cianelliPurim is almost upon us! The full moon falls this weekend, and Purim begins on Saturday evening at sundown. In honor of the coming holiday, here's an adaptation of a teaching from the Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet. (You can read it at greater length in this post from 2009.)

 

1. Above good and evil

We read in the Gemara that it is the duty of a person to mellow (or "perfume") oneself on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai'." This means raising one's consciousness until one is higher than the tree of the knowledge of good and evil -- in other words, expanding one's consciousness so much that the binary distinctions between good and evil fall away.

We read in the megillah of Esther about Haman's gallows, which is called "a tall tree of 50 cubits." (So there are two trees here: the tree of knowledge of binarism, and the tree which is the gallows.) There's an ancient teaching that there are 49 "gates" (or levels) of impurity, and the 50th level is the level of holiness. (There's that number 50 again -- like how Shavuot is the 50th day after the 49 days of counting the Omer.)

If we can ascend past the 49 levels of impurity, we reach the 50th level where everything is holy. If we can reach that high level, we've gone higher than the tree of knowledge of good and evil; we've reached God's vantage, from which everything is good. "Perfuming" ourselves on Purim means opening our minds and ascending to that high God's-eye-view place.

2. Defeating Amalek

Amalek is the name given to the tribe which attacked the Israelites from behind during the Exodus from Egypt. Haman, who sought to destroy the Jews of Persia in the story of Esther, is considered to be a descendant of Amalek. Amalek and his ilk exist on every level of spiritual understanding except the top one, which is the level of holiness. (Maybe the Sfat Emet is saying that Amalek exists in some form in all of us, except for those who are at the very holiest level of spiritual understanding.)

Amalek pursues evil on those lower 49 levels, but at the 50th level, Amalek's power disappears. When Amalek attacked our ancestors, Moses lifted up his hands to God, and as long as his hands were upheld, the Israelites were able to rout the enemy. Moses reached up to God and Torah, and Amalek was defeated. God and Torah are what we find at that 50th gate or rung of spiritual understanding. So: ascending to that high level of spiritual consciousness also enables us to live without fear of our enemies, because at that high level, enmity can't harm us.

3. Accepting the Torah on Purim

There's even a teaching that our ancestors, the ancient Israelites, accepted the Torah on Purim.

What? you ask. Isn't Shavuot the anniversary of when we accepted the Torah? Well, yes. But there's also a midrash which says that we accepted the Torah at Shavuot under duress -- that God held the mountain over us like an inverted barrel, and we accepted Torah rather than perish. But another sage says, "Even if that is so, they re-accepted the Torah in the days of Achashverosh," pointing to a line from Esther which said that we "received it upon ourselves" -- he says that what we received, at Purim, was the highest form of Torah.

And when we approach Purim now with the appropriate consciousness -- awareness that at the highest levels there are no differences between good and bad, between Haman and Mordechai, between "my side" and "your side" -- we can access the highest Torah once again.

That's what it really means to become "perfumed" or "mellowed" -- not to get so drunk we forget who the good guys and bad guys are, but to become so enlightened that we see the unity beyond all differences. When we access that kind of perfume, we're breathing the scents of spices which filled the world at the time of the revelation at Sinai -- maybe even the spices which filled the world at the first moments of creation.

Happy Purim!

Image source: Jaison Cianelli.


The Purim Without Purim

Img2B26Tonight at sundown we enter into Purim Katan, "Little Purim."

At the full moon of Adar, we celebrate Purim, our festival of masks and merriment. We read from the Megillah of Esther, we eat hamentaschen and give gift baskets to friends and to the needy, we dress in costumes and make noise to drown out the name of the bad guy who sought to annihilate the Jews of Persia.

Except during leap years. During a leap year, we have two months of Adar, Adar 1 and Adar 2. The "real" Purim comes at the full moon of Adar 2. When we reach the full moon of Adar 1, we get Purim Katan, Little Purim.

What do we do on Little Purim? Well, according to the Mishna, "There is no difference between the fourteenth of the first Adar and the fourteenth of the second Adar save in the matter of reading the Megillah and gifts to the poor." In other words -- it's just like Big Purim, except that we don't read the Megillah or give gift baskets to friends or the poor, which is to say, we don't do the activities which characterize Purim proper at all.  Or, as an amnesiac Kermit the Frog put it in an advertising slogan in The Muppets Take Manhattan, "It's just like taking an ocean cruise, only there's no boat and you don't actually go anywhere." I suppose we could still eat hamentaschen.

For those who pay attention to Purim Katan, the usual practice is to eschew fasting, to skip the daily tachanun prayers of repentance, and to avoid opportunities for grief. And some commentators argue that it's a special mitzvah to be joyful on Purim Katan, as a kind of fore-echo of the big Purim a month later.

For me the most interesting thing about Purim Katan is the idea that it's just like Purim Gadol except for all of the outward trimmings of Purim as we know it. That suggests to me that there's a kind of essential experience of Purim which exists somehow independent of the acts which we usually use to cultivate a Purim state of mind.

One of my favorite teachings about Purim holds that our task on this holiday is to ascend the ladder of mystical knowing until we reach God's own vantage point where our human notions of "good" and "evil" disappear. Where Mordechai (the hero) and Haman (the villain) aren't from opposing sides anymore, but are part of a greater whole.

What would it feel like to cultivate such a sense of joy on Purim Katan, such a sense of elevated spirit, that we could seek to ascend to that place even without the megillah and the storytelling, the costumes and the gragers, the cookies and the schnapps?

 


Happy Purim / חג פורים שמח!

Drew at CBI me as McGonagall

 

We had a sweet little Purim shindig at my shul tonight. A few folks decorated masks beforehand with the markers and stickers which Drew and I had purchased at the art supply store. Then we all adjourned into the sanctuary for our Purim Spiel, ably written and directed by my friend David Lane.

I chanted a handful of verses from the megillah, and our Purim players retold the Purim story in fine style. Then we adjourned for hamentaschen (and tiny cupcakes, Drew's favorite) and, for the adults, a few celebratory nips of slivovitz. And then I brought Drew home while the party was still going on, because it was already well past his bedtime.

I came home to a beautiful Purim poem by my friend Kate Abbott. It's called Mordechai -- scroll down to reach the poem on that page. I love her imaginative insights into what it might have been like for Mordechai to rear the orphan Esther.

Whatever your Purim may hold, I wish you ora v'simcha, light and joy.

 

Professor MacGonagall and her son say: Happy Purim to all!

 


For more images from our Purim celebration, don't miss the Purim, 13 photoset at my congregation's Flickr account.

(The individual photos, above, are from that photoset, and were taken by Len Radin -- thanks, Len! The one of Drew and me is a cameraphone photo, but I love it anyway.)


Purim Pantoum

The king wants to reveal
but Vashti's body is her own.
What if every woman were so uppity?
his courtiers tsk and cluck.

But Vashti's body is her own:
the veil is her comfort.
His courtiers tsk and cluck.
Ladies whisper behind soft hands.

The veil is her comfort
as the palace doors open.
Ladies whisper behind soft hands
a new chapter is unfolding.

As the palace doors open
girls pour in like the sea.
A new chapter is unfolding.
Who will be chosen to serve?

Girls pour in like the sea.
Esther, the bright orphan
who will be chosen to serve
keeps her own counsel.

Esther, the bright orphan --
she piques the king's interest
keeps her own counsel
she knows how to curtsey.

She piques the king's interest
with fine foreign features.
She knows how to curtsey --
no one asks women to bow.

Her fine foreign features
don't mark her as a stranger.
No one asks women to bow
but men have their pride.

Don't mark her as a stranger!
Mordechai stands tall
(men have their pride)
Haman hammers. At his gallows

Mordechai stands tall.
Is this why Esther was chosen?
Haman hammers at his gallows.
She plucks her courage in both hands.

Is this why Esther was chosen?
The invisible hand of God at work?
She plucks her courage in both hands --
Tell the truth of who you are.

The invisible hand of God at work?
The King wants to reveal.
Tell the truth of who you are.
What if every woman were so uppity?


Purim is a topsy-turvy holiday, a holiday of inversions. I wanted to write another Purim poem, and the pantoum -- with its inversions and recontextualizations -- seemed like the perfect form. I welcome questions and/or comments. Enjoy!

 

(Related: Hidden, a poem about Esther, 2011.)


Happy Adar - the gateway to the gateway to spring!

Cs-pur"When Adar enters, joy increases!" So says the wisdom of our tradition (B. Ta'anit 29a.) Why? The simplest answer is that the month of Adar contains the festival of Purim, and Purim is a festival of rejoicing.

Although Purim can seem, on the surface, like a purely fun-oriented holiday -- costumes, merriment, silliness, noisemakers -- there's more there than meets the eye. That's kind of Purim's theme, really. In the megillah of Esther, things aren't necessarily as they first appear. The king isn't really in charge; Esther isn't just a beautiful woman; and though God is never mentioned, divine providence is palpably present, subtly guiding events to turn out for the best.

One month later, at the next full moon (in years like this one, not a leap year) comes Pesach, the festival of our liberation. In Jewish spiritual time, Pesach is the entryway into spring. As I type these words here in western Massachusetts in early February, snow is falling fast and furious. Spring's usual signifiers feel a million years away.

But Pesach is about something deeper. Pesach is when we tell the central story of our peoplehood: that we were slaves to a Pharaoh in the Narrow Place, the place of suffering and constriction, and our God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Pesach is about leaving Mitzrayim together, crossing the Sea of Reeds and emerging into an unknowable and incredible openness and possibility on the other side. At Pesach we're like bulbs putting out the first shoots of new life, not knowing what we'll find once we break through the surface of the earth but trusting that if we keep pushing, we'll find the light.

Right now, at the new moon of the month of Adar, that breaking-forth into the light is six weeks away. And the first big step on our journey toward Passover and its liberation is Purim -- two weeks from now, at full moon -- when we'll tell the story of how Esther and Mordechai took the lead in liberating the Jewish people of Persia from persecution.

At Purim, we have the opportunity to liberate ourselves from our usual ways of thinking: we lighten up, sing silly songs, wear costumes which may reveal a different facet of who we imagine ourselves to be, and strive to ascend beyond our usual ways of thinking to see the world from a lofty, enlightened God's-eye view. (That's my favorite Hasidic interpretation of the injunction to drink ad d'lo yada, until one can't tell the difference between Haman and Mordechai.)

And one month after that, we'll gather to retell the story which constitutes us as a people: that we were slaves and now we are free. That life was constricted and now it opens up. That more light, and more life, and more responsibilities, and more wonders, are in store.

The new moon of Adar is the first step toward spring, an opportunity to open ourselves to joy and liberation. No wonder our sages say מי שנכנס אדר מרבין בשמחה / Mi she-nichnas Adar, marbin b'simcha  / When Adar enters, joy increases. May it be so!


More Adar wisdom:

  • The Months of Spring: Purim through Pesach by Rabbi Marcia Prager. "If we understand the spiritual journey that begins in Nisan, we'll have some of the tools we need to understand Purim and the gifts and challenges this seemingly minor holiday brings."
  • Joy Increases by Rabbi Jeff Goldwasser. "For those who are feeling beaten and battered by the darkness of winter and by the storms of life and sky, this is a time to focus on brightening our souls. Seek, pursue and create excuses for your own happiness. Be outdoors, sing, play, take pleasure, and delight in all growing things."

5 ways to celebrate Purim

Now that Tu BiShvat is behind us, the next festival on our radar is Purim. In preparation for our coming holiday of masks, costumes, food, and merriment, I've shared a post at my congregational blog about five things you can do to celebrate Purim wholly this year. It's here: How to Celebrate Purim in 5 Easy Steps.

A few of the items on that list are geared toward my local community. For instance: the first one is "listen to the megillah," and if you're local to me, you are welcome to do that at my synagogue on Saturday night February 23! And the second one is "give to the needy," and it happens that Purim afternoon coincides with the one Sunday a month when my community cooks meals for 100+ homebound senior citizens in North Adams, so if you're local to me, you are welcome to come and help out with that. But these five ways of celebrating Purim are possible no matter where you live.

Anyway, if you're looking for tips on how to make Purim fun and meaningful, check out the post over there. Shabbat shalom, y'all.


A few words about Esther for a Christian audience

Earlier this fall I heard from Rachel Held Evans, who describes herself as "just a small-town writer asking big questions about faith, doubt, culture, gender and the Church." She has a very well-read blog and she's spent the last few years studying what the Bible teaches about women as she's been working on her forthcoming book A Year of Biblical Womanhood. (I wonder whether I'll enjoy it more, or less, than I did A.J. Jacob's A Year of Living Biblically...)

Anyway, she recently launched a series of posts about Esther, beginning with Esther Actually: Princess, Whore...or Something More. (I also quite like her post Esther Actually: Purim, Persia, Patriarchy.) Most of her readers, she tells me, are evangelical Christians, and she wanted to counter some of the disturbing ideas about Esther she's seen promulgated in the evangelical world. She asked whether I would be willing to write a guest post, a few hundred words about what Esther means to me as a Jewish woman and as a rabbi.

I'm honored, and humbled, to be asked to provide what may be the only Jewish perspective her readers have ever encountered on this story. Anyway, my guest post is now live on her blog:

Like most Jewish kids, I grew up hearing the story of Esther in the court of King Achashverosh each year at Purim. But I didn't appreciate the subtle humor of the story, or the wonders of her character, until I was entering my thirties.

I don't think any Biblical figure can or should be read in only a single way. But I like to read Esther as the hero of her own story -- and also the hero of the story shared by the whole Jewish people. She's an orphan who rises to power in the court of the king. She knows how to live in an assimilated society -- she goes by the name Esther, which has resonances with the Hebrew word nistar, hidden -- and yet she also knows her own true nature...

Read the whole thing here! Esther Actually - Rabbi Rachel.

Thanks, Rachel, for opening your doors to another Rachel. And to anyone who finds your way here from Rachel Evans' blog, welcome; take a peek at the VR comments policy; feel free to browse the "greatest hits" posts in the sidebar (here are excerpts from my favorite ten posts from last year); and I hope you'll stick around.


Breaking news: a fragment from Tractate Pseudonymity

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Fragments from genizah manuscripts, now at the University of Manchester.


How remarkable, that on this very day in which we celebrate how hidden identities can nonetheless reveal one's true essence1, this fragment of Masekhet שם בדוי -- Tractate Pseudonymity -- should be discovered! This fragment of parchment was found in a Mountain View genizah this very morning; I offer here the first-ever translation of this seminal text.


Rabbi Google asked: do we not have the right to demand a person's real name?2

Rabbi Montoya answered: As it is written: 'You keep using that phrase. I do not think it means what you think it means.'3

An anonymous baraita noted: Who are we to imagine that a name, whether given or chosen, tells us anything significant about a person? Is it not known that 'only God knows the hearts of men'?4

Rabba Hadassah added: The hearts of women being, of course, a different matter entirely. But if Matisyahu, Sting, and Bob Dylan had reason to choose new ways in which they wished to be known, how much more so might women, youths, victims of sexual assault, and others who are vulnerable desire to make the same choice?

Rabbi Shlimazl cited a teaching he heard from his grandfather, his teacher, may the memory of the righteous and the saintly be a blessing for the world to come: that until the age of majority a man may may be known by a nickname, but after he has accepted the yoke of the commandments he must be known as "son of his father" until he is famous enough to have written a book, whereupon he can be known by the name of his book.

Rabba Hadassah retorted: There are longstanding examples of online communities in which the use of persistent pseudonyms is the norm5; over the course of time minhag m'vutal halakha, custom trumps law. Also: if a man can become known by the name of his book, how much more so might someone from a small town, a refugee, or a member of a religious minority become known by the name of their choice?

Tanu rabanan / our sages have taught: Also remember the example of Esther, as it is written: 'And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther.'6  Our heroine Esther had two names, one to which she was born and one by which she was known once she became Queen of Persia. It is known also that the name 'Esther' relates to 'nistar,' hidden, and that even God is nistar in the megillah of Esther; therefore it must be permissible for us, following the example of the Holy Blessed One, to conceal ourselves beneath the veils of pseudonyms.

Rabbi Google objected: But how can we trust the voice of the anonymous baraita, or our unnamed sages, when we don't even know the legal names of the people who wrote this down? What if they're not who they're pretending to be?

Whereupon the chorus of anonymous baraitot shouted him down, and poured him another drink, as it is written, 'ad d'lo yada,'7 'until one cannot distinguish' between legal name and pseudonym. And the entire internet observed a day 'which was turned unto them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into a good day.'8

'And there was much rejoicing.'9

 

 


Mishloach manot for me!

Found on my desk this morning.

Yesterday after I taught the b'nei mitzvah prep students a bit about Purim (and then we spent a while decorating masks for them to wear on the holiday if they're not otherwise costumed), I dashed south to fetch Drew at daycare, as is my Monday routine. The students stayed at the synagogue for a youth group event -- making hamentaschen which I will deliver later today to some of the elders in our community.

Among Purim's central traditions are the delivering of mishloach manot -- gifts of tasty snacks given to friends -- and the giving of food, or money for food, to those who are hungry. The hamentaschen made by our youth group kids were intended to enable them to fulfill the mitzvah of sending mishloach manot. Apparently they also made a few special extras -- like this one which awaited me when I arrived at the synagogue this morning.

I get virtual gifts each year at Purim from friends, but it's years since I've received an actual package of edibles in celebration of the holiday. I've never tried a mint-chocolate-chip / raspberry-jam / chocolate-sauce hamentaschen, but I'm looking forward to braving it later today! Happy Purim to all.


Thoughts on Adar

Chodesh tov -- happy new month! Today is an extra-special new moon: we're entering the month of Adar.

"When Adar enters, joy increases." -- Ta'anit 29a (Talmud)

"The month which was transformed for them from sorrow to joy." -- Esther, 9:22

Adar is a month of joy for us because it contains Purim. Purim, when we celebrate the story of how the Jews of Shushan were saved from the plotting of the evil Haman, thanks to the righteousness of Mordechai and the bravery of his niece Esther. Purim, when we wear costumes and masks to disguise our usual selves (and perhaps in so doing, reveal some hidden facet of who we might be.)

On the surface, it seems obvious why Purim is a joyful holiday. We're celebrating yet another story in which our people survived against all odds! Purim features costumes, silliness, and commotion. At Purim, we stamp our feet and gnash noisemakers in synagogue to drown out the name of Haman. Purim plays (called Purimspiels) often feature ribald humor of the sort rarely otherwise heard from the bimah.

And, I think there are also other, maybe deeper, reasons why Purim is a time of joy. At Purim, we celebrate surprise twists and inversions. Haman plotted to destroy us, but instead he was destroyed; he erected a gallows for Mordechai, but swung on it himself. Purim reminds us that everything turns and changes, and that we can find holiness in the surprise twists and turns of our own story.

It appears at first glance as though the Purim story is entirely about good guys and bad guys -- but many Hasidic masters read this holiday as an opportunity to spiritually elevate ourselves beyond those distinctions. At Purim, we're instructed to become so "perfumed" by the celebration of the holiday that we entirely transcend the dualism of good and evil, moving to a place where all is God.

Speaking of God: at Purim, God appears to be entirely hidden. God's name is never mentioned in the megillah of Esther. (Those of you who've been reading this blog for some years have heard me say this before, but I think it is a gorgeous teaching every year, so forgive me, I'm offering it again.) It appears at first glance as though the story unfolds entirely without divine presence or divine help.

But many of the first several columns of handwritten text each begin with the same word: Ha-Melech, The King. The King, the King, the King. The Sovereign. The Ruler. Who is the real king in this story? Surely not Achashverosh, who comes across as something of a bumbling buffoon. The real king here is the one who is hidden, but is manifest everywhere for those who have eyes to discern: God. What greater reason could there be to awaken our communal sense of joy?

 

(Crossposted to my From the Rabbi blog, along with our Song for the Month of Adar.)


Hidden - a poem for Purim

As my final project for the feminist exegesis class I took in my last year of rabbinic school, I wrote a series of poems exploring Biblical women. One of those poems has already been shared here -- Seven Miriam stories -- and I'm sharing another one now in honor of the festival of Purim which is almost upon us. This is written in the voice of Esther, the hero of the megillah of Esther which we read on Purim.


HIDDEN

 

Vashti, the first favorite
was well before my time, though
I still wonder sometimes
why he asked her to strip.
Maybe he’d grown tired of her
and needed an excuse.

Of course I use my body
to get what I need: what woman
doesn’t? But until now
all I’ve needed were clothes,
bread, the freedom to read
in a quiet corner of the room.

The king thinks I hung the stars
but when the time comes
to make my play my hands shake.
And Haman leers. He’s thinking
casual threesome! score!
but I know karma's a bitch.

The story ends in celebration
and bloodshed, a revenge fantasy
your children will retell
for generations, but listen--
I’m not a paragon of virtue.
I’m not your blank canvas.

I was never hiding. I’m not
a Torah scroll to be concealed
behind ornate walls, then
revealed bit by bit (here a flash
of ankle, there a glimpse of hip)
for your viewing pleasure.

I’m not God, veiling My face
like the newest of moons.
I’m a dark-skinned Persian girl
raised on twisty Shushan streets
who gambled for a favor
and won.


Purim Katan: a koan of a festival

In a leap year, as previously noted, there are two months of Adar. Each month of Adar has a 14th. On the 14th of the second Adar, we'll celebrate Purim. On the 14th of the first Adar, we celebrate "Purim Katan," "Little Purim." Because leap years arise only seven times in every nineteen-year cycle, Purim Katan is a relatively rare occurrence. So what does one do on Purim Katan? The rabbis of the Mishna tell us the following:

There is no difference between the fourteenth of the first Adar and the fourteenth of the second Adar save in the matter of reading the Megillah, sending mishloach manot (reciprocal gifts of food), and gifts to the poor. (Megillah, 6b)

Let's unpack that. The Mishna is telling us that there is no difference whatsoever between the two Purims -- except the actual acts whose performance signifies Purim! On Little Purim, we don't read from the scroll of Esther, we don't send mishloach manot, and we don't give charity to the poor. So what can it mean to say that there is no difference between them, when at first glance it appears that they have nothing in common save their name? (I can't help thinking of the quote from The Muppets Take Manhattan: "It's just like taking an ocean cruise, only there's no boat and you don't actually go anywhere.")

But I think we can find, in the koan of this invisible festival, a deep teaching.

Sometimes our celebrations take visible forms. Reading the megillah, dressing in costume, making noise to drown out the name of Haman -- sending mishloach manot, and feeding the poor -- these are the visible external signs of Purim, just as eating matzah and telling the tale of the Exodus are the visible external signs of Pesach, and eating dairy and studying all night are the external signs of Shavuot, and so on. The external manifestation of each holiday does matter! The physical acts which embody the observance of a festival help us experience that festival wholly.

But sometimes we can evoke the emotional and spiritual valance of a celebration without actually doing the acts we associate with the holiday at hand. Imagine if, a month before Thanksgiving, you had the opportunity to spend a day meditating on gratitude and family, thinking about the festive meal you were going to prepare and enjoy, imagining your dinner table and the people who will join you there. You wouldn't actually make the turkey or the cranberry sauce, but you'd think about them, and you'd contemplate gratitude and thankfulness and what role those spiritual states play in your life. How might that change your experience of Thanksgiving a month later?

That's the invitation of Purim Katan: to spend the 14th of Adar I meditating on the deep mysteries of Purim (the God Who is hidden from the simple text of the megillah, but plainly manifest all over the story; the queen who pretends to be something she isn't in order to preserve and celebrate who she truly is; the need, once a year, to ascend to a place where binary distinctions, like those between Haman and Mordechai, are no longer relevant) in order to begin to prepare ourselves for the festival that's coming, so that when the festival gets here, it's different for us than it otherwise might have been.

There are a couple of tiny ways in which Purim Katan is traditionally marked. We don't say tachanun, the (weekday) prayers of repentance, on Purim Katan. The tradition also prohibits fasting on this day. And many sources argue that there is an obligation to celebrate and rejoice. One d'var Torah I found online, written by Greg Killian, makes the point that "Purim Katan has no halachic requirements. Whatever we do to increase our joy on Purim Katan, we do because we want to, not because we have to."

Here's a teaching from Rabbi Moshe Isserles, known as the Rema. (This teaching is based on a talk given by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; I found it online here.) The Rema begins his commentary on Orach Chayim, one of the sections of the Shulchan Aruch (a central text of Jewish law), with a quote from Psalm 16:8 -- "I place God before me constantly." Later in his commentary, on the subject of Purim Katan, the Rema writes that in his opinion, it is not obligatory to feast on Purim Katan, but one should still eat somewhat more than usual, quoting Proverbs 15:15 "And he who is glad of heart feasts constantly." Note the two usages of the word "constantly."

The sages tell us that his first use of the word "constantly" (in the quote "I place God before me constantly," shviti Hashem l'negdi tamid, which I've written about before) is understood to suggest reverence for God; his second use of the word "constantly" (in the quote "he who is glad of heart feasts constantly") is understood to suggest joy. He mentions reverence first because it's a necessary precursor to doing mitzvot; he mentions joy second because joy is the natural outgrowth of doing mitzvot. What strikes me, reading this, is that there are no active mitzvot associated with Purim Katan. This holiday challenges us to experience the shift from reverence to joy without actually "doing anything."

Purim Katan begins this Thursday evening. How might you choose to mark this rare minor festival -- how might you reflect on the Purim story's teachings, and increase your sense of joy, so that in thirty days' time the observance of Purim itself can be more meaningful and more sweet, and so that your reverence can transmute directly into joy?


Entering Adar א

I mentioned a few days ago that 5771 is a leap year on the Jewish calendar. Unlike the Gregorian calendar, where a "leap year" means that February 29th enters the picture, on the Jewish calendar a leap year means a whole extra month is added. In a leap year, there are two months of Adar, called Adar 1 and Adar 2. Or, in Hebrew, Adar א (Aleph) and Adar ב (Bet), since Hebrew letters double as numbers.

Why do we engage in these calendrical shenanigans? The Jewish calendar is metonic, also known as lunisolar. If our calendar were purely lunar, our festivals would move around the Gregorian calendar by a few days each year -- much as the festivals on the Muslim calendar do; that's why Ramadan moves by about 10 days each year. But the rabbis of the Talmud felt it was important that Pesach be in the spring, so they instituted a system whereby we add this extra "intercalary" month 7 years out of every 19, to ensure that our calendar is "re-set." (The Talmudic rabbis were, of course, operating in the northern hemisphere; it never occurred to them that for Jews in the global South, Pesach would fall in the autumn and Sukkot in the spring. To anyone reading this in the southern hemisphere, my apologies for our tradition's borealcentrism.) Anyway. This is a leap year! Which means there are two months of Adar this year.

I have two different teachings to offer on this front. First, from Rabbi Jill Hammer of Tel Shemesh: in Hebrew, a leap year is called me'uberet -- pregnant. There's a tradition which associates the 12 months of the ordinary calendar with the 12 tribes of Israel, each of which is linked with one of Jacob's sons, and associates this occasional 13th month with Dinah, Jacob's daughter. Rabbi Jill Hammer has written a powerful poem arising out of those ideas: Dinah's Month: Poem for Adar Aleph. She begins:

Adar Aleph is the month most often missing
as you are most often missing, your story
lacking like a year without a season,
your life events reduced
to a syrup of rape and vengeance,
a place to pour out anger...

It's a gorgeous poem; go and read.

And, taking an entirely different tack: Rabbi Arthur Waskow of The Shalom Center recently emailed out a beautiful teaching about Adar, and I want to share part of it with y'all. He writes:

The Adar we are about to proclaim is a strange Adar because it has no Purim -- yet that makes it the most Purimdik Adar of all. For by omitting Purim it is pretending not to be Adar. It is hiding behind a mask, just as we do on Purim, and the hiding actually reveals the deeper truth beneath the mask. In Megillat Esther, God hides – is never mentioned – and the name "Esther" itself echoes "nistar," hidden, just as she hides her identity in the palace so as to be more fully who she really is when the time comes.

We usually think "Adar Aleph" just means "the first Adar, "Adar 1." But it could also mean "the Adar of The ONE." The Adar that speaks through silence, through hiddenness, just as some say that the only sound God actually spoke at Sinai was the sound of the first letter, Aleph, of the first word, "Anokhi, I" – and the sound of the Aleph is silence. An open throat.

On the surface, Purim is a festival that's all about merriment and revelry. We wear costumes, we dress up as people who we are not, we swing loud noisemakers in synagogue to drown out the name of the bad guy in the story. It's Carnival-esque. And God is never once mentioned in the megillah, the scroll of Esther, which we read on that day.

On a deeper level, God is all over the megillah, the hidden Presence Who is never named but always felt. Look at the scroll itself in Hebrew and you'll note that many columns of text begin with the word המלך, "the king." Scanning the scroll, one sees "the king," "the king," "the king," again and again. On the surface, that king is Achashverosh; but he's a laughable ruler, barely in charge of anything. The real King in the story is the one who's never named. The real Jew in the story is the one whose identity is hidden. Reb Arthur sees wordplay between "Esther" and nistar, "hidden" -- a word which the Hasidic tradition also often applies to God.

I love Reb Arthur's idea that Adar 1 is the Adar of the א -- that silent letter in which the whole aleph-bet is mystically contained. That's the month we're entering today. What do you make of this koan that the aleph speaks through silence, that the hidden divinity is the divinity which may be most present, that sometimes the masks and veils we wear allow us to show who we most truly are?

And I love Reb Jill's suggestion that our years are pregnant with the stories of our ancestors, the tales we tell and the tales we keep silent in our own minds and hearts. What is growing in you this month as we move slowly toward (northern hemisphere) spring?


A basket of Purim links

Happy Purim!

Not surprisingly, given the existence of our three-month-old son, I haven't had the chance this year to write anything new about the festival. So instead, I figured I'd point to this blog's Purim category, which includes all of the Purim-related posts I've made in years past.

And as a kind of virtual mishloach manot (basket of tasty goodies traditionally given to friends at Purim-time), I offer these links to three of my favorites among those posts:

  • 2009: The end of Esther. Let's be clear: in my understanding the Book of Esther is not a historical text. The story it chronicles never "happened." (Biblicist Marc Zvi Brettler calls it "more like comedy, burlesque, or farce.")

    But even if we relate to the megillah of Esther as pure story, as a rich and finely-crafted parable about masks and inversion and the challenges of living in an era when God's face may seem as hidden from us as God's name is absent from this traditional text, how can, or should, we deal with the violence at the end of the story?

  • 2008: מאי המנתשן / Why hamantaschen? As a kid I learned that Haman (boo!) wore a tricornered hat. These tricornered cookies are called "hamantaschen" which means "Haman's Hat" (actually Haman's Pocket, but close enough) and we eat them as a sign of our triumph over Haman. In adulthood it's become clear to me that this is an anachronism (among other things, tricornered hat? in ancient Shushan? really?) but it's still an entertaining drash, mostly because it allows me to picture Haman as a kind of arrogant little Napoleon.

  • 2006: Purim homily. On Purim we don masks and costumes, pretending to be someone else -- a king, a queen, a villain, a jester -- for the night. These masks and veils can remind us that the ordinary identities we wear -- mother, daughter, banker, doctor -- are also constructed. We wear them because they protect us, or they feel good, or they feel safe...but deep down, we are both more than and less than our public identities would indicate. Deep down, there is a part of each of us which never changes, no matter what mask we wear. That part of us is continually at-one with God.

Those are three of my favorites, but there are plenty of other posts which take different tacks. I hope you find something in these Purim posts which resonates with you, and I hope your Purim is joyous and sweet!


The end of Esther

A lot of bloggers are posting "Purim Torah" today -- think "April fool's posts," more or less. I don't have any Purim Torah to give over, so instead I'm posting a serious piece that I meant to post a few days ago but life got in the way.

There's a lot to love about the megillah of Esther. I've waxed rhapsodic about it before in these pages (I direct your attention especially to last year's Redemption and the true king and to The whole megillah, my 2006 review of JT Waldman's gorgeous graphic novel rendition of the story.) But near the very end of the scroll, there's some material I don't love quite as much.

Chapter nine of the megillah describes the revenge the Jews take on those who had desired to slaughter them, and reading it makes me uncomfortable.

Let's be clear: in my understanding the Book of Esther is not a historical text. The story it chronicles never "happened." (Biblicist Marc Zvi Brettler calls it "more like comedy, burlesque, or farce.")

But even if we relate to the megillah of Esther as pure story, as a rich and finely-crafted parable about masks and inversion and the challenges of living in an era when God's face may seem as hidden from us as God's name is absent from this traditional text, how can, or should, we deal with the violence at the end of the story?

Continue reading "The end of Esther" »


Purim: accepting the highest Torah

You may remember that I'm taking a class called Moadim l'Simcha ("seasons of rejoicing"), a class in the Hasidic sacred year. We're studying the round of the year through the prism of Hasidic texts, beginning with where we are now in the year, e.g. the lead-up to Purim. In last night's class, we read a few short texts by the Sefat Emet, a.k.a. Reb Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter. These are texts about the deep spiritual teachings of the holiday of Purim -- which is not historically a holiday in which I find a lot of resonance, so it's been fascinating for me to dip into these Hasidic teachings which uncover some really beautiful stuff here.

I liked our first text so much I thought I'd share it with y'all. Here's one paragraph from the Sefat Emet on Purim; the italicized material is translation, the plaintext is my own commentary. Full disclosure: many of y'all may find this a bit, hm, esoteric? :-) But I think it's really lovely, and it's giving me a whole new perspective on a holiday I've never liked all that much, so -- if the notion of unpacking a dense paragraph of Hasidic prose-poetry about Purim appeals to you, read on.


We read in the Gemara: "Raba said, it is the duty of a man to mellow himself on Purim until he cannot tell the difference [between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai']." (Megillah 7b)

One thing which is lost in translation is that the word I'm rendering as "mellow," לבסומי/lib'sumei, is related to בסמים/b'samim, spices, as in the spices we savor at havdalah to keep our souls intact as Shabbat departs. So while it seems initially that the Gemara is talking about the obligation to drink until one can't tell the difference between the good guy and the bad guy in this story, a discerning reader may suspect that there may be something else going on here.

I've heard words to this effect from the holy mouth of my grandfather, my teacher -- that one must ascend high above the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

His grandfather taught him that this notion of becoming mellowed (or, one might say, spiced or perfumed) is really about ascending to a place above our constructs of good and evil. We're not just talking about getting wasted; we're talking about a kind of mystical ascent to a new level of understanding.

Continue reading "Purim: accepting the highest Torah" »


(Late) Cookies for Purim and Norouz

Last Sunday we went to Northampton for lunch with my in-laws. We had planned to spend some time bopping around town, browsing the aisles of the used-cd stores, but most things were oddly closed; apparently Sunday was some kind of holiday? (Joking! -- obviously -- and I wish a blessed Eastertide to all my Christian readers.) Still, we were bemused when we realized that even secular institutions seemed to have closed for the holiday; the only place open downtown was, amusingly, the bagel shop. So we bought some bagels and then we continued on down the road to Tran's World Market.

The layout of the stores is similar: You enter to an array of phone cards, Indian videos, over-the-counter medicines, scents and packaged snacks. Most of the stores take credit cards. The aisles are roughly divided by country or by food type. Typically, there is a row of dried noodles -- rice, wheat, cellophane (pea flour), fat and thin -- and spring roll wrappers. The soy sauces, oyster sauces, Sriracha hot sauces and fish sauces fill nearly an entire aisle. There is aisle of bulk spices, dals (lentils) and canned fishes...

That's from this post, which describes several different world markets in the Pioneer Valley. The first one on the list is Tran's, which is one of our favorite stores. Several of our cooking staples come from there: dark soy sauce in big plastic bottles, good sesame oil and sriracha hot sauce, soba noodles and strange spicy pickles. I love the sense of culinary possibility I feel every time we're there, and the way ingredients for different cuisines collide on the shelves. It's a little bit like traveling the world without leaving home.

It had only been two days since I blogged about hamentaschen, and in the process learned about the Iranian poppyseed cookie naan-e berenji, which are made with orange flower water and poppy seeds and rice flour. First I spotted the rice flour; then the black and white poppy seeds; and then the bottles of various flower waters. I couldn't resist. I brought them home, and today I tried this recipe. So Purim was a week ago; who says I can't still enjoy an Iranian Purim treat?

I suspect I should have softened my butter further, because my dough wound up a little crumbly even though I opted to use the lesser of the two amounts of rice flour the recipe offered. But the cookies are tasty; they have a fine grain, like rich shortbread, and their aroma is amazing. (Orange flower water is awesome stuff.) Having just seen Persepolis, I'm delighted to have made a first foray into Iranian cuisine.

A little bit of digging reveals that many folks enjoy these on Norouz (the Persian New Year); they're one of seven sweets that are traditional Norouz fare. Norouz begins on the vernal equinox, which in Jewish tradition we call call the tekufat Nissan; I was born on the equinox, so I feel an affinity with Norouz. (Hey, it marks a new year for me, too.) It sounds like in Iran people celebrate Norouz for 13 days, so -- these cookies may be a late Purim celebration, but they're still right on time for the Persian New Year. Happy new year to all those who celebrate at this season! I'll enjoy a cookie for you.


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