Restoring the Name: Shabbat Zachor 5784 / 2024

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Most of Megillat Esther reads like a soap opera, full of banquets and beauty pageants and assassination plots and nemeses. There’s a theme of topsy-turviness. Haman is hung on the very gallows he had built for Mordechai, and instead of being slaughtered the Jews of Persia prosper, and we all live happily ever after. But there’s one part of the turn-about that we don’t typically act out in our Purim play. In chapter 9, the Jews slaughter 75,000 Persians.

The context is this: although Haman himself has been defeated, the King had issued a decree saying that on the 13th of Adar Persians were welcome to kill Jews at will. And he had no way to undo that decree, because in this story the king is comically powerless. Mordechai suggests, “Why don’t you issue a new decree giving us the right to defend ourselves?” The king does that, and the Jews do… that. Every year, I wish that this part of the story weren’t there.

I’m not alone in that. Some communities that hold full readings of the megillah race through those verses as fast as they can. Or they sing them in Eikha trope, the melancholy musical mode used at Tisha b’Av when we mourn the fallen Temples and the brokenness of creation. The folks at The Shalom Center recently released what they’re callling The Chapter Nine Project, featuring a variety of alternative revisionings of that part of the story. 

Megillat Esther was written during the 4th century BCE. It’s generally understood to be a work of fiction, though King Achashverosh may have been a fictionalized version of Xerxes I. The megillah is unusually full of loan-words from Akkadian and Assyrian. Even the character names might be borrowed: Mordechai and Esther could be variations on Mespotamian and Babylonian deities Marduk and Ishtar, and Haman might be a derivative of local Elamite deity Humman.

I don’t have any problem with seeing Megillat Esther as a work of fiction. A text doesn’t need to be historically verifiable in order to be sacred or meaningful. I’d venture that most of us don’t think the universe was literally created in six days, but Torah’s poetic teaching that Shabbat rest is the culmination of creation is deep spiritual wisdom. Esther contains deep spiritual wisdom too – about resilience, about leaps of faith, about what’s hidden and what’s revealed.

In a month we’ll immerse in the story of the Exodus, in which God brings us forth from the Narrow Place with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. In this scroll, in contrast, God’s name literally does not appear. Here God is nistar, hidden. (And yes, that word shares a root with the name Esther.) It’s part of what makes this story feel so modern: there’s no Voice of God here. We can only glimpse God through the miracle of ethical choices and right actions.

Daf-2So what do we glimpse in unethical choices? Jewish tradition writ large supports the right to self-defense, so I can understand the part of the story where we go after those armed against us. And Haman getting hung on his own gallows feels like a kind of literary justice. But the murder of his ten sons feels excessive, and it’s highlighted by scribal calligraphy – meant to evoke “joy over the fact that they were destroyed.” (Maharal, Or Hadash 9:10) Whoa.

Purim is a festival of joy, but this doesn’t feel joyful. (I’m also not convinced that his sons were our enemies. Neither is the Israeli comedy troupe HaYehudim Ba’im, who in one of their sketches portrayed a soldier returning from the war of defeating Haman and the Persians, and saying, “yeah, that Haman was a real piece of —--, but I want you to ask yourselves: what are his children guilty of?”) (Find that here – no English translation though.)

Our tradition also teaches discomfort at the death of an enemy. There’s a midrash that appears in many Passover haggadot describing how, when the Egyptians drowned in our pursuit, God rebuked the angels, “My children are dying and you sing praises?!” (Talmud, Megillah 10b and Sanhedrin 39b.) For this reason we spill drops from our second cup of wine. I’m more comfortable with that than I am with this part of the megillah, but both are part of our tradition. 

Today is a special Shabbat, one of the Shabbats with its own name: Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance. Shabbat Zachor falls on the Shabbat before Purim, and on it, we read a special extra bit of Torah, Deut. 25:17-19, describing how Amalek attacked us on our way out of Egypt. Amalek attacked the back of the caravan, wiping out those who were elderly or sick or weak. Torah commands us to blot out the name of Amalek, and to never forget.

54141Haman, meanwhile, is understood as a distant descendent of the tribe of Amalek. We’ll “blot out” his name with our graggers tomorrow night. This year I’m struck by the juxtaposition of blotting out the name of our adversary – and the entirely missing Name of that One we call God in the scroll we read at this season. Could there be a spiritual connection between the presence of the massacre in chapter 9 of Esther, and the absence of God’s name in this book? 

It’s as though when we give in to violent fantasies of revenge, we render holiness invisible. Maybe God’s names, which are a stand-in for God’s presence, literally can’t coexist with this degree of gratuitous violence. “Gratuitous” being the key word here, because we know there’s plenty of violence and conquest in other parts of Tanakh. But the massacre of 75,000 Persians feels excessive, even vindictive, in a way that’s hard to bear. Maybe it’s hard for God, too.

This year that part of the story also lands differently because of the ongoing horrors of the Israel-Hamas war. Many of us are still enmeshed in grief for those who were slaughtered or kidnapped by Hamas at the very start of 5784. Hamas’ hatred of us makes Haman feel too real. And many of us are enmeshed in grief for tens of thousands of Palestinians killed or displaced or starving since then, which makes the violence at the megillah’s end also feel too real.

Maybe the vengeance chronicled in this story landed differently during 2000 years of exile than it does now. For centuries we lived precariously, couldn’t become citizens of most nations, weren’t allowed to hold certain professions. And whenever something went wrong, like the Black Death, we were blamed and massacred. Revenge fantasies turn out to be common where there is PTSD and complex grief. They can offer a sense of control when life feels shattered. 

But that control is illusory. And marinating in revenge fantasies can be spiritually unhealthy. According to psychologist Judith Herman (author of Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence), traumatized people who engage in acts of revenge don’t thereby get rid of their PTSD. Instead they seem to suffer more. According to Dr. Michelle Maidenberg, the only real answer is working through the anxiety and grief caused by the trauma in the first place.

The threat of communal annihilation is traumatic. And Jews have collectively known that threat intimately and often, from the Crusades to the Inquisition to pogroms to the Holocaust. We joke about “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat,” but it’s actually pretty dark. As one passage in the traditional Passover haggadah teaches, “in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.” That’s a grim worldview. It’s not the way I want to see the world around us.

But maybe the subtext of the Megillah – the fact that God’s very name is missing – can teach us that a violent counter-response to trauma isn’t the right path. I don’t know how the whole Jewish people could go about the psychological and spiritual work of healing the trauma of being hated, of being attacked, of facing annihilation over and over. But I think that if we can do that work, it will bring us closer to making the divine presence manifest in the sacred text of all creation.


This is the d'var Torah I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel of the Berkshires (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)



Image by Stellalevi.

Content warning: there's a disturbing antisemitic quote in the 9th paragraph.


Maybe it’s because I hang out with a lot of rabbis: I can’t count the number of people this week who sent me a link to the current cover story of the Atlantic, The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending. [gift link] It’s a powerful essay. It has much to say about American Jewish history, liberal democracy, and the resurgence of anti-Jewish hate on both the left and the right. 

It raises big questions. Are our safest years over?  What if the acceptance we’ve taken for granted as American Jews has been a historical anomaly? What if liberal democracy turns out to be a historical anomaly? Is it all downhill from here? Add to these the current question of: does soaring public support for Gaza necessarily translate here to hatred of Jews?

These questions precipitated a slow-motion anxiety attack that knocked me out for most of a day. Maybe you've had this experience too: chest feeling constricted as though by an iron band, no ability to draw a deep breath, tears coming in waves like a storm system that just won’t quit. The next day the heart and body feel leaden. One's insides ache. It takes a while to “recover.”

That word is in scare quotes because I’m not sure what it means to recover from an anxiety attack when the sources of the anxiety persist. Here we are, five months in to the Hamas-Israel war that began on Shemini Atzeret. It has been longer and more terrible than I could have imagined.  I don’t think I know anyone in congregational service who isn’t struggling. 

I have congregants on every “side” of this divide, from ceasefire activists to oldschool Zionists. I feel-with all of them: the one who asks, “how can we not condemn indiscriminate killing?” and means Hamas, and the one who asks the same question and means Israel, and the one who says Judaism feels like a burden now because the world uniquely hates us again. 

Of course, the end of the golden age of being an American Jew (as Franklin Foer writes about it) isn’t “just” about Israel and Gaza. It’s a bigger picture of social trends, the liberal dream perhaps dissolving, Trumpism and more. But the fact that hating Jews has become acceptable both on the Right and on the Left is a central piece of the sense that an era has ended. 

This morning’s email from the Forward included one headline about Israeli hostages invited to the State of the Union, and another about a bar in Utah that refuses service to Zionists, because in today’s progressive understanding people who think Israel deserves to exist are often considered akin to Nazis and white supremacists. The cognitive dissonance is staggering. 

A poet-rabbi friend told me recently about a literary magazine now specifying, "No misogyny, no homophobia, no racism, no Zionism." Is this really where we are? Disavow the right of Israel to exist, or be considered as morally repugnant as homophobes and racists? I remember one of the most harrowing lines of Foer’s article: 

“Are you Jewish?” one mop-haired tween asks another, seemingly unaware of any adult presence. “No way,” the second kid replies. “I fucking hate them.” Another blurts, “Kill Israel.” A student laughingly attempts to start a chant of “KKK.”

Foer may be right: it’s possible that our best and safest years as American Jews are over. And in a certain sense, so what? In that case we’re like the vast majority of our Jewish forebears over the last few thousand years. When has it ever been easy or safe to be a Jew? The last 50 years, maybe. But 50 years isn’t even an eyeblink in the long span of history. 

I used to think that humanity had evolved beyond antisemitism, but that seems to be as false as the white liberal American dream that our nation was evolving beyond racism (a dream in which I also partook, until it came crashing down around us). That doesn’t mean we stop trying. It just means the work ahead is long, and the dream of something like redemption is still far away.

What do we do with these feelings? Well, in a few weeks, we dance with them. We make merry. We celebrate Purim – another story in which someone wanted to wipe us out across an empire. (And we wrestle with the violence at the end of the Purim story. Knowing that we’ve been hated for centuries can damage the soul, and so can revenge fantasies, if we let them.) 

Esther has something to teach us this year about the bravery it can take to openly be who we are. To be Jews, even when it isn’t easy. To name the bigotry of Jew-hatred as the cancer it has always been. There is a spiritual lesson here about wresting "light and gladness, joy and uprightness" (Esther 8:16) even from the panicky grip of despair. Even in times like these.



Year one


"What did we even do for Purim last year?" I wonder aloud to a friend. It's disconcerting. Purim happens every year. Surely last year I must have celebrated it in some way! But I can't remember a thing. It's as though Purim has been wiped off of my mental map. What could we have done?

"Weren't you in shiva?" he asks, and the memory stops me in my tracks. Of course. That's why I can't remember last Purim: I didn't have one. On Purim I was in the midst of the week of shiva. I was new to being wholly parentless. Talk about topsy-turvy: my world was completely upside-down. 

Dad died on the 6th of Adar II (the second Adar that happens in a leap year), right before Purim. As it happens, Mom also died during a Jewish leap year, on the 21st of Adar I. This year's a "normal" one, not a leap year, which makes their yahrzeits feel... not normal, because they've switched places.

On the Gregorian calendar, Mom died in February and Dad died in March. Jewishly, their yahrzeits now orbit around each other. Hers comes first during leap years, which fits the way we experienced it. His will come first during non-leap years. Like this one we're in now. No wonder I feel scrambled.

Dear Dad: what a year it's been. A few days ago I visited your kever. I pressed my palm to the earth and cried. Look how tall your grandson's gotten, I said, as though you can see him more clearly when we're there. I do feel a certain closeness to you and Mom when I'm there, walking where you walked.

One of the things I brought home with me after you died was a silver gragger, engraved from Mom to you and dated January 1, 2000. I wish I could ask y'all about it now. Why a gragger? Why New Year's Day? What was the story? I dreamed of you the other night, but my questions have no answers.

The tiniest spark of joy


We read in the Tikkunei Zohar that Purim is like Yom Kippur. This is hinted-at in the way that on Yom Kippur, one must fast and do teshuvah (repentance / return) not only if one feels like it, but whether or not one wants to do it. This is an enduring decree from the Holy One of Blessing. Rejoicing on Purim is similar. One is obligated to rejoice on Purim, not only if one is happy in oneself, or is in a situation where it's easy to feel joy. On the contrary: even if one is in a low place and completely broken-hearted, body and spirit laid low, it's still an obligation to seek out whatever tiny spark of joy is possible, and welcome that spark into the heart.

On both of these holy days, there's a flow from on high to us here below. Just as Yom Kippur itself atones for us, even if our teshuvah feels inadequate (according to Talmud in tractate Yoma), just so on Purim. Even if a person isn't feeling joyful the way one's supposed to, and therefore one's service of God doesn't feel whole, even in that case the salvation and joy of Purim will flow -- and that potential is open to us even now.

-- The Piazeczyner aka The Aish Kodesh aka R' Kalonymos Kalmish Shapira, Purim 1940


Last year, Purim happened a scant few weeks after my mother's death. I was shellshocked. I was in a fog. I scarcely remember the holiday at all. But I remember taking comfort in a text that R' David Markus taught me over the phone. The text said that Purim itself would do its work in me and on me, as Yom Kippur does, and that even if I couldn't access real joy, there would still be a flow from on high that would come through me to those whom I serve.

This year I sat down twice to study this short text from the Aish Kodesh, once with my Bayit hevre, and once with my other hevruta R' Megan Doherty. And only today, on Purim itself, did I realize why this text resonates with me so deeply and why it feels so familiar: this is the teaching R' David shared with me last year when I was in the pit of grief. And, in fact, it turns out this is a teaching I had shared with him a few years prior and had forgotten!

What jumps out at me in this text this year is the idea that we are obligated to welcome into our hearts whatever tiny spark of joy we can find. This isn't spiritual bypassing. This isn't "put on a happy face." This is the spiritual practice of opening our hearts even in difficult circumstances, so that some measure of blessing can flow in. The Aish Kodesh was writing from the Warsaw Ghetto; he knew something about difficult circumstances.


God would like us to be joyful
Even when our hearts lie panting on the floor.
How much more can we be joyful
When there's really something
To be joyful for?

-- To Life, To Life, L'Chayim / Fiddler on the Roof


I thought of this teaching a few days ago when I was blessed to see the national touring production of Fiddler on the Roof. "God would like us to be joyful / even when our hearts lie panting on the floor" -- Tevye might have been citing the Piazeczyner! Even when our hearts lie panting on the floor, Purim invites us to open our broken hearts to a spark of joy. Even when our circumstances (individual or collective) are dark, our tradition invites us to open to joy.

And when there is within reach "something to be joyful for," in Fiddler's words -- maybe a birth, or a wedding, a friendship, a sign of hope, a Shabbes -- we've got to seize that joy with both hands. Because joy is part of what fuels us. Because without joy, we can't go on. And the world needs us to go on, because there's a lot of work we need to do to bring justice and hope and ethics and opportunity and peace to everyone everywhere, and that's what we're here for.

So if today we're in the narrow straits of a personal grief, a loss or an illness or a sorrow... or if we're in the narrow straits of communal anxiety about the election, or the economy, or the pandemic that is sweeping the globe... we shouldn't kick ourselves for not being able to fulfill the mitzvah of rejoicing. Instead, let's open our hearts the tiniest crack, and let the tiniest spark of joy and hope come in -- and trust that the day itself will do the rest. 


In defense of dressing up on Purim

MasksThe Forward ran an article recently, by Elon Gilad, that argues that dressing up for Purim is a relatively new tradition, dating back to a particular banquet in Vienna in 1900. The article is interesting, but it has one of the worst headlines I've seen in recent memory: Wearing Costumes On Purim Is Not A Real Jewish Tradition

I beg your pardon?

When my eight year old woke this morning, he said to me, "Mom, it's almost Purim! I'm so excited! I've been waiting for this day for sooooooo long!"

He's excited about dressing up. Not about hearing the megillah, not about eating hamentaschen, and not about giving gifts to the poor, as fine as those traditions are. He's an eight year old kid, and what excites him about Purim is getting to put on a costume and be someone different for a night. He'll be dressing up as one of his heroes, a teacher from a favorite cartoon, and when he tried on his costume he practically levitated with joy. 

(Fortunately he's too young to read the Forward.)

I object to the headline because it minimizes something people love about this holiday. I also think it ignores the extent to which masks and hiding are integral to the megillah of Esther. Esther's name shares a root with nistar, "hidden;" she hides her Jewishness until the time comes to reveal her true identity; even God is hidden in this book. (See last year's d'varling, What costumes can reveal.) Wearing costumes may be a newish tradition, but it can be rooted in the holiday's core text and its themes.

I also think Gilad is missing something when he traces the costume / mask tradition only to the year 1900. In the Code of Jewish Law, R’ Moses Isserles (1520-1572, also known as The Rama) writes, "There is a custom to wear masks on Purim, for men to wear women’s clothing, and for women to wear men’s clothing[.]" That's from the 1500s: still fairly recent, compared with some Jewish traditions, but clearly R' Isserles saw masks and cross-dressing as common enough to be mentioned as standard custom.

Beyond that, I object to the idea that anyone (even the Forward) gets to determine what is and isn't a "real" Jewish tradition. Yes, Jewish tradition often valorizes what's "old" and "traditional," but there's also always been a strand within Jewish tradition that glorifies making-new. Our liturgy teaches that God every day makes creation anew. When we take our traditions seriously enough to reinvent them and infuse them with new meaning, we too can be renewed. Halevai: we should be so lucky.

So what if dressing up for Purim doesn't come to us "mi-Sinai," as divine revelation directly from the mouth of God, as ancient as Torah itself? The practice of celebrating bat mitzvah for girls is a relatively new innovation too. So is ordaining women rabbis, or for that matter even counting us in a minyan. I thank God for those innovations, and I thank God for the practice of dressing up at Purim, too. 

Play is an important part of spiritual life. There's a teaching that says that God spends 1/3 of God's time studying Torah, 1/3 being a matchmaker for human beings, and 1/3 playing with Leviathan, a giant mythic sea creature. Even God spends time in play -- and so should we. It's good for us to be silly sometimes. It's good for us to rejoice. And it's good for us to try on other clothes, other identities, masks and costumes that may allow us to show facets of ourselves that don't usually get expressed.

May our Purim be merry, and may our costumes teach us something about who we aren't -- and about who we are.

ETA:  This post was also published at The Forward.


Noteworthy / related:

  • I'm a boy and these are my clothes, Rabbi Mike Moskowitz - why cross-dressing needn't pose a halakhic (Jewish-legal) problem for trans folks 
  • Cross-dressing and transmisogyny on Purim, Rabbah Emily Aviva Kapor - why cross-dressing on Purim can be problematic and painful for trans folks (and a reminder to cis folks who may be cross-dressing on Purim to be conscious and careful)

New from Bayit for Purim: Esther + #NeverthelessShePersisted

UnnamedJust in time for Purim, Bayit is releasing something new, created by founding builder R' David Markus.

Nevertheless, She Persisted: A Purim Tribute for Women's History Month

Here's what R' David wrote about it:

This trope mash-up of Esther and the 2/7/2017 Congressional Record (“nevertheless she persisted” silencing of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren) commemorates Purim and Women’s History Month at a time when society especially needs brave truth tellers to hold back the tide of hate.

Purim affirms Esther’s stand against official silencing, abuse of power, misogyny and anti-Semitism. At first an outsider, Queen Esther used her insider power to reveal and thwart official hatred that threatened Jewish life and safety. We celebrate one woman’s courageous cunning to right grievous wrongs within corrupt systems.

The archetype of heroic woman standing against hatred continues to call out every society still wrestling with official misogyny, power abuses and silencing. For every official silencing and every threat to equality and freedom, may we all live the lesson of Esther and all who stand in her shoes: “Nevertheless, she persisted.”

If you click through to the post on the Bayit Builders' Blog, you'll find a soundcloud recording of the two texts in Esther trope, and also an annotated script in case you want to chant this in your own community. Find it here: Nevertheless, She Persisted: A Purim Tribute for Women's History Month.

What costumes can reveal



I remember the first time I saw a boy in drag and found him beautiful. It was fall of my freshman year. My first boyfriend lived in the entry next to mine, and he dressed in my clothes for a dance party thrown in Currier Ballroom by the organization that was then called the BGLU. He fit easily into my purple suede miniskirt and blue silk shirt. I made up his face the way I had learned to make up my own. And when his transformation was complete, he was gorgeous.

That I found him equally attractive when he presented as a femme man, and when he presented as a butch woman, was revelatory for me. (Those phrases sound binaristic now, but that was the language we used then.) That was my first step toward recognizing that the qualities that draw me -- intelligence, kindness, musicality, integrity -- aren't gender-specific. My boyfriend dressed in a costume that hid his everyday identity, and seeing him in that guise taught me something about myself.

Purim, which begins tomorrow night, is a holiday of masks and costumes. Everywhere around the Jewish world, people will wear costumes and veils, masks and disguises. Some of our costumes will be silly, or funny. Some will be random. Some will enable us to show sides of ourselves we don't usually get to display. Regardless: the act of putting on a costume invites us to think about the masks we wear every day, and in turn about what it would feel like to set those masks aside.

We all wear masks in daily life. Maybe we hide our vulnerability. Maybe we hide our yearnings. Here in this environment most of us don't feel the need to hide our intelligence -- intellect is valued here -- but we may feel the need to hide our hearts. We may hide a love interest we fear is unrequited, or compassion we don't feel safe expressing aloud. We may hide our strength. We may hide emotions that we learned, in childhood, it wasn't safe for us to manifest or express: fear, or anger, or joy.

The hero of the Purim story is Esther, whose name shares a root with נסתר / nistar, hidden. When Esther enters the palace of Achashverosh, on Mordechai's advice she hides her Jewishness. It's a lie of omission. She just... doesn't mention that part of who she is. Until, of course, the time comes when the only way she can save her community is to come out as a Jew and hope that Achashverosh's attachment to her will extend far enough to save her people too. Esther's willingness to stop hiding saves the day.

There's another figure in the megillah of Esther who's hidden, and that's God. God doesn't appear in this book at all -- at least not overtly. God's name is never mentioned. But our mystics tell us that God isn't absent; only נסתר, hidden. In our lives, too, divine presence may be hidden. But if we search for divinity, we can experience God everywhere: not just in the spaces that look holy, like Shabbat services, but also in spaces that might appear secular or profane, like costume parties or  a drag ball.

God's hiddenness, coming out, and drag balls: this d'varling may not be in everyone's comfort zone. (Maybe it's the drag that's uncomfortable for you; maybe it's the God-language.) I want to sit with that -- not flinch from it, not hide it, but embrace it. Because to say that God can be נסתר (hidden) is to say that we find God where we least expect to... including in and through our own spiritual discomfort. 

What are the things you habitually feel the need to hide? What would it feel like to have the safety to be your whole self -- not hiding, not silenced, not compartmentalized, but bringing all of who you are to every moment of your life? What would it feel like to recognize that you are a reflection of the Holy One of Blessing, made in the image and the likeness of God, not despite the things you usually tend to hide but precisely and absolutely in all of who you are?

The Esther story reminds us that there's a time for hiding, and a time for revealing. May we continually keep learning more deeply who we are and who we're becoming: when we choose to conceal ourselves, and when we choose to try on different faces, and when we choose to reveal our splendor and our light. May we be safe -- physically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually -- when we veil and when we unveil, this Purim and always. 


This is the d'varling I offered tonight at the end of Kabbalat Shabbat services at the Williams College Jewish Association. 

On cultivating joy as Purim approaches - in The Wisdom Daily

...What role does joy play in spiritual life? Some might claim that it’s a distraction from spiritual life, but that’s not the Jewish way. The psalms instruct us to serve God with joy (Psalm 100:2). The Talmud tells us that this is meant to be a joyful season of our year. And the sage known as the Baal Shem Tov (Rabbi Yisrael ben Eliezer, d. 1760) taught that we should work to discern what’s good and joyful within every experience life gives us.

Others might say that joy is the end result of spiritual life, but what then do we make of the fact that we all have moments in our lives that are not joyful? If we’re feeling sorrow or grief, does that mean that we’re “failing” at being spiritual? (Hardly: it means we’re succeeding at being authentic to where we are.)

“When Adar enters, joy increases” is a common translation of the Talmudic dictum with which I began, but it misses one subtlety in the original. The original is closer to, “When Adar enters, we increase joy.” There’s a presumed actor or set of actors there. Joy doesn’t increase on its own; someone has to do something in order for joy to increase....

That's from my latest at The Wisdom Daily. Read the whole thing: Purim Reminds Us That Cultivating Joy Is An Important Spiritual Tool

Stop hiding: let yourself go free

_91021013_thinkstockphotos-517519673The festival of Purim (coming up this Saturday) is a holiday of concealment. At Purim we read the Scroll of Esther, a delightfully bawdy Persian court soap opera which doesn't appear, at first glance, to have much to do with spiritual life or with God. Jewish tradition doesn't shy away from this oddity -- we embrace it and find meaning in it.

The quintessential act of Purim is להתחפש, a reflexive verb which means to dress oneself up or to conceal oneself. We do this when we dress up in costumes on Purim. Esther does this when she hides her Jewishness (until the moment comes for her to reveal herself and in so doing save the day). God does this in concealing God's-self entirely; God is never even mentioned in the megillah (though to the discerning eye God's presence may be subtly manifest even so.)

Purim is about the self-reflexive act of hiding. But what happens when we shift that verb and make it no longer reflexive? We get the verb לחפש - to search. And searching is one of the quintessential moves we make before Pesach. On the night before Passover begins, there's a tradition of lighting a candle and searching our homes for "hidden" hametz (leaven), a physical hide-and-seek game that represents a deeper inner searching. We read in the book of Proverbs (20:27) that our own souls are God's candle -- just as we search for hidden leaven by the light of a physical candle, God uses our souls as candles to illuminate all that's hidden in the world.

When we search for hametz, we're not just looking for bread crusts. We're also seeking spiritual leaven, the puffery of pride and ego, the sour old stuff within us which needs to be discarded in order for us to move toward freedom.

The shift from להתחפש to לחפש, from concealment to searching, is the fundamental move we're called to make as spring unfolds, as we move from Purim (festival of masks and concealment) to Passover (festival of searching and liberation). At Purim, we may be hiding -- from others, and even from ourselves. Maybe it feels dangerous to let ourselves be known. Maybe there are truths we don't want to admit. Maybe we think there are parts of ourselves we have to hide in order to move freely in the world. Maybe we think we are better off if we conceal the parts of ourselves of which we are ashamed, or the parts of ourselves which don't meet others' expectations.

But in order to move toward freedom, we have to turn the reflexive verb outward: we have to move from hiding (from) ourselves to searching for what's been hidden. If God hides in order that we might seek, then it stands to reason that so do we. We have to unearth precisely our own stuff which we have hidden from the world. We have to unearth precisely our own stuff which we have hidden even from ourselves. The hopes and yearnings that we've tried to keep under wraps, the sorrows and fears that we've tried to hide, from others and from ourselves.

May we do that unearthing through therapy, or hashpa'ah (spiritual direction), or a writing practice, or a prayer practice. Maybe we do that unearthing through conversations with a trusted friend who can help us see ourselves more clearly than we could see on our own. Maybe we do that unearthing through studying texts and delving into the passages that resonate with us. There are many ways to do the work of searching for who we really are. What's important is that we light the candle and we do the searching. Passover will come in the fullness of time no matter what, but the journey of the Exodus will mean more if we're willing to do this inner work.

The hametz we need to root out is not our imperfections (because everyone is imperfect) but the way we try to hide our imperfections, the way we shame ourselves for our imperfections. The internal narrative which says that we are only lovable, or only worthwhile, if we keep parts of ourselves -- our quirks, our mistakes, our tenderest places -- hidden. The need to conceal oneself can become a kind of Mitzrayim, a place of constriction. In order to emerge from the tight places in our lives, we need to stop hiding. We need to move from concealing ourselves to searching for ourselves in order to let ourselves go free.

And the journey takes us one step further. We move from concealment (Purim) to searching (Pesach) to revelation (Shavuot.) Purim's reflexivity primes that pump: first we own (and prepare to relinquish) our own hiding. Then we search for our deepest truths and begin to experience the freedom of wholly being who we truly are. Only then can we be ready to receive revelation anew. The journey to revelation begins right now. The places where we've hidden our hearts from others or from ourselves aren't impediments to the journey: they are the spark that will ignite the inner spiritual journey of our transformation.


 Dedicated to Rabbi David Evan Markus, from whom I learned this teaching.

Image: hide-and-seek, from the BBC.

Purim: a holiday of hiding and revealing

Because this year is a leap year on the Jewish calendar, we've had an extra month between Tu BiShvat and Purim... but Purim will be here soon, not long after the vernal equinox which marks the official first day of spring.

I used to think Purim was just a kids' holiday, an opportunity to dress up and make noise in shul. But even though I have a kindergartener who loves the schtick and silliness of Purim, I've come to savor Purim for the gifts it offers me as an adult. Each year, Purim teaches me again how to find divine presence in places and times which I might otherwise have mistakenly imagined to be devoid of God.

Here's a bit of wordplay which reflects some of what I'm talking about. Purim features a megillah (scroll) in which God is never explicitly megaleh (revealed). God's explicit presence is nistar (hidden) in this book -- as Esther (can you hear the connection between "Esther" and "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 woven throughout the story in the twists and turns of providence. Purim is a holiday of hiding and revealing. At Purim, God hides in plain sight.

I love the idea that God can hide in plain sight. Because if God can be hidden, than any place where (or time when) I feel as though God's presence is missing, it's possible I might be wrong about that. Our tradition contains this wisdom in a variety of places: not only implicitly in the Purim story, but explicitly in the Tikkunei Zohar, which teaches that there is no place devoid of the divine presence.

Here's what that means to me. No matter where we are, no matter what we're doing, God is with us. No matter what we are feeling -- even if what we are feeling is frustration, or loneliness, or grief -- God is with us. Even at times when life feels hopeless and we feel existentially alone, God is with us. Even when God's presence is neither visible nor palpable, God is with us.

I don't know what the word "God" means to you. I know that for some of us, that word is freighted, or opaque, or alienating. Fortunately our tradition offers us plenty of other words to try on. One of my favorites right now is the Hebrew word Havayah. It's a reshuffling of the letters yud-heh-vav-heh, the four-letter Name of God which is found in Torah and which is often understood as a permutation of the verb "to be." But Havayah can also be understood to mean "The Accompanier," or "The One Who Accompanies."

When I use the name Havayah, I'm reminding myself that I never need to feel alone. I'm reminding myself, as the Purim story reminds me, that even when God seems hidden, that doesn't mean there is no source of holiness in the world. Maybe what I'm experiencing is just a divine game of hide-and-seek. Maybe God hides in order that we might do the work of seeking. Maybe the seeking itself is what I really need to find... and I'm never truly doing it alone, because the One Who Accompanies is always with me.

These are intense theological musings to have been sparked by a scroll which is, on the surface, a bawdy soap opera about a long-ago Persian court! For me, that's precisely the point. Purim teaches me to seek (and find) depth, or meaning, or God, even in the unlikeliest of places. May you find wondrous things in unlikely places, this spring and always.


This originally appeared in the Berkshire Jewish Voice, in their Feb. 14 to April 2 issue.


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.



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.


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.