Hatred and Hope, Then and Now

For those paying attention, I haven’t written anything in the past two weeks. Two weeks ago, my Friday (the day I usually write my message) got tied up with an email threat to the congregation, which turned out to have been a boilerplate message that was also sent to other congregations across the country. I spent a part of that day not only getting ready for our monthly Shabbat Salon, but talking with the authorities and congregational leaders about safety and security.

And the Friday following was in the immediate wake of the attacks on the mosques in New Zealand, and I felt the need to be present for our local Muslim community. I spent my afternoon in prayer and community with our Muslim friends and neighbors.

Time, then, has become a premium, and I was drawn to other places than my weekly message. For that I apologize, and believe you will forgive me.

But I have had the same message on my mind for the past few weeks, and its relevance is unfortunately not time bound, nor disconnected from the two events mentioned above. Within these two weeks, we have been confronted with two threats: one unfounded and unsubstantiated, the other unfortunately frightening real. Both were rooted in hatred, a hatred that can and will boil over into violence and murder. The response to both is what we need to do regardless of the outcome: we need to take care of our own safety, and do what we can to protect ourselves, and we need to show up for others to let them know we care about them too, and are there to protect them.

As we draw towards Purim, which falls on Wednesday, we get ready by practicing jokes, baking hamantaschen, prepping our costumes, and dusting off the megillah. What we don’t often dwell on is the challenging parts of Purim: while we celebrate the topsy-turvy nature of life, how that which is bad can be turned into the good, we don’t often remember that the “bad” in the story is a planned genocide rooted in hatred of the Jews.

Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews is averted when Esther, in a courageous act, defies royal protocol and approaches the king to expose Haman. And so therefore we celebrate. But it would do us well to remember that while we should celebrate deliverance, we should not take such threats lightly. Indeed, in recent times we have seen increases in anti-Semitic activity, in both words and deeds.

In the Purim story, there is an allusion to an edict that Haman sends out to the country in the name of the King announcing the impending killing of the Jews. The text of the book of Esther is silent on what the edict contains. The ancient rabbis, however, fill in the gaps with a midrash, or commentary, imagining what the letter said. It is quite a fascinating midrash, and appears in a slightly different form in different texts. Here is the commentary, as found in the anthology Legends of the Jews by Louis Ginzberg:

The edict issued by Ahasuerus against the Jews ran thus: “To all the peoples, nations, and races: Peace be with you! This is to acquaint you that one came to us who is not of our nation and of our land, an Amalekite, the son of great ancestors, and his name is Haman. He made a trifling request of me, saying: ‘Among us there dwells a people, the most despicable of all, who are a stumbling-block in every time. They are exceeding presumptuous, and they know our weakness and our shortcomings. They curse the king in these words, which are constantly in their mouths: “God is the King of the world forever and ever: He will make the heathen to perish out of His land: He will execute vengeance and punishments upon the peoples.” From the beginning of all time they have been ungrateful, as witness their behavior toward Pharaoh. With kindness he received them, their wives, and their children, at the time of a famine. He gave up to them the best of his land. He provided them with food and all they needed. Then Pharaoh desired to build a palace, and he requested the Jews to do it for him. They began the work grudgingly, amid murmurings, and it is not completed unto this day. In the midst of it, they approached Pharaoh with these words: “We wish to offer sacrifices to our God in a place that is a three days’ journey from here, and we petition thee to lend us silver and gold vessels, and clothes, and apparel.” So much did they borrow, that each one bore ninety ass-loads off with him, and Egypt was emptied out. When, the three days having elapsed, they did not return, Pharaoh pursued them in order to recover the stolen treasures. What did the Jews? They had among them a man by the name of Moses, the son of Amram, an arch-wizard, who had been bred in the house of Pharaoh. When they reached the sea, this man raised his staff, and cleft the waters, and led the Jews through them dryshod, while Pharaoh and his host were drowned….

“‘To this day they are among us, and though they are under our hand, we are of none account in their eyes. Their religion and their laws are different from the religion and he laws of all the other nations. Their sons do not marry with our daughters, our gods they do not worship, they have no regard for our honor, and they refuse to bend the knee before us. Calling themselves freemen, they will not do our service, and our commands they heed not.’

“Therefore the grandees, the princes, and the satraps have been assembled before us, we have taken counsel together, and we have resolved an irrevocable resolution, according to the laws of the Medes and Persians, to extirpate the Jews from among the inhabitants of the earth. We have sent the edict to the hundred and twenty-seven provinces of my empire, to slay them, their sons, their wives, and their little children, on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar none is to escape. As they did to our forefathers, and desired to do unto us, so shall be done unto them, and their possessions are to be given over to the spoilers. Thus shall ye do, that ye may find grace before me. This is the writing of the letter which I send to you, Ahasuerus king of Media and Persia.”

It’s a fascinating text because it imagines what the “charges” would be against the Jews from someone who wishes to destroy them. And it’s even more fascinating to think that these were rabbis imagining what those charges would be. And what is still even more fascinating, is that so much of what is written here, in a text centuries old, still resonates today.

In this “letter” the Jews are charged with lack of loyalty to the nation in which they live, of being foreigners and different, of not being grateful to the ruling powers, to theft and desiring of wealth, and of possessing magical powers that are used to overthrow governments. This probably sounds familiar. Not much has changed between the anti-Semitic arguments of the past, and the anti-Semitic arguments of today.

One could read into this a sense of hopelessness, that things will never change no matter what is done. But that would not be reading the whole story. For again, the entire story of Purim tells of the overcoming of this hatred and the averting of the violent plot. Hatred does not win out in the end. It may persist, but so does hope, courage, community, love, and respect.

So this Purim, let us remember the persistence of hatred. It existed then, it exists today. And let us remember that we have the tools to overcome it, embodied in the figure of Esther, who stood along side her neighbors, spoke out on behalf of the oppressed, exposed those who would seek to destroy others, and used her privilege to the benefit of all, not just herself.


Is Michael Cohen Today’s Esther?

In the coming week we will welcome in the month of Adar II, and with it the holiday of Purim.

Purim is a frivolous holiday that hides a dark message. We dress up in costume, have fun, give gifts, tell jokes, eat and drink, and make a lot of noise at the same time we tell a story of a near-genocide of the Jewish people that is narrowly averted by a fickle king and a Jewish woman with access who speaks truth to power.

Indeed, it is because of the darkness of the story that we are so focused on having fun. We celebrate life itself because life can be so precarious. We celebrate a near-genocide because it is exactly that, a NEAR-genocide, and a reminder that life and history can change at an instant. We actively give up control because we know we have already given up control: to greater powers, both political and spiritual.

The center of the story is Esther, who after a misogynist pageant is installed as the queen. She is Jewish, but she hides this fact–her Hebrew name is Hadassah, we are told–in order to fit in to the court society. Her Judaism is not a factor in her day to day life, so she doesn’t talk about it in order to be well connected with those in power.

Circumstance, however, tips her hand when she learns that the king’s counselor Haman is plotting to kill the Jews of Persia. He convinces the king to issue a decree against the Jews, and when it is pronounced, the Jewish community goes into mourning. Esther’s cousin Mordechai, who had originally counselled Esther to hide her identity, then makes the suggestion that she is in a position to reverse the decree by revealing that she is Jewish and pleading for her life and that of all the Jews.

Though she is hesitant, Mordechai convinces her, saying “perhaps you have attained your royal position for a time such as this.”

It was Esther’s position that gave her access, and it was her position that allowed her to be able to speak up when no one else would have been able to.

I thought of the Purim story as I watched the powerful testimony earlier this week of Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former personal lawyer, who revealed before Congress a litany of Trump’s unethical and illegal dealings, both as a private citizen, as a candidate, and as President. The testimony painted an ugly picture of a person who has already been known to do ugly things.

There were those who sought to impugn Cohen’s character since he is headed to prison for campaign finance violations and lying to Congress. It is hard not to be skeptical. Yet listening to him speak, both in his opening statement and answers to questions, he took full responsibility for his actions, believably expressed remorse and regret, and talked of the lessons of his Holocaust survivor father. He was enacting a from of teshuvah, or repentance.

Michael Cohen is a Jewish man with access who is speaks truth to power. He is a man who through circumstance found himself close to the center of power, and therefore is able, though presumably hesitant at first, to speak up in a way that no one else is able to.

So perhaps, Michael Cohen attained his position for a time such as this.

What were their true motivations? We don’t know. But they both saw a wrong that needed to be righted, and both had the position and opportunity to do so. Esther courted death at violating the sanctum of the king. Cohen courts further shame and disgrace by speaking publicly. But both made a difficult choice to do what they believe to be right to save a people.

Unlike Esther and Cohen, most of our actions do not take place on the national stage. But yet like them we continually find ourselves in similar positions, where we are uniquely positioned to make a difference, but first we need to make a choice: do we stay comfortable and silent, or do we risk vulnerability and speak up?

“You Have Attained Your Position for a Time Such as This”: An Invocation

The invocation I delivered at the Washington State House of Representatives on March 6, 2018. You can watch the video clip here:

Last week Jews around the world celebrated Purim, a festival that commemorates the story told in the biblical book of Esther. In this story, Esther, a Jewish woman, becomes the Queen of Persia, and is forced to confront a difficult situation when the king’s counselor Haman initiates a plot to destroy the Jewish population.

Struggling with her desire to help her people and her fear of confronting the king, her cousin Mordecai encourages her saying, “who knows, perhaps you have attained your position for such a time as this.”

She then appeals to the king, exposes Haman, overturns the plot, and saves her people.

As we gather at a different time in a different place in a different seat of government, let this be our prayer:

You, the members of this body, duly chosen to be our representatives and lawmakers, have attained your position for such a time as this. May you respond to this call to meet the demands of the day.

To safeguard the residents of this state from violence, so that we all can be safe in our homes, on our streets, in our schools.

To look after the welfare of our bodies through access to health care, and the welfare of our minds through access to education and information.

To guarantee to those who struggle the basic human needs of shelter and food and clothing.

To ensure the integrity of our individual choices.

To welcome those who are new, or different, or from somewhere else.

To balance rights with responsibilities, liberties with obligations.

To protect our freedoms to, and our freedoms from.

And to create a state that is more just and more equitable, where we can live free from discrimination and hate, where all are honored and uplifted, celebrated and respected.

Ken yehi ratzon. May it be so.


Purim: The First International Women’s Day

This post was originally posted on Wednesday as part of my monthly contribution to the Rabbis Without Borders blog. You can click here to read it in its original setting

.Today is International Women’s Day, and we have a confluence, as we sometimes do, between secular observances and our Jewish calendar. For just three days after International Women’s Day we celebrate Purim, a holiday in which the accomplishments of women are pivotal to the story.

International Women’s Day was made formal by the United Nations in the 1970s in order to mark women’s contribution to global society, but its roots go deeper, stemming from an initial observance in New York marking a strike of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union. It was then observed primarily through Socialist and Communist sponsorship throughout the world, linked up with women’s labor. When the UN made it official, that body offered a theme as a focus each year; this year’s theme is women and work.

Today it is an opportunity to celebrate and uphold the contribution women make to our world, especially in the field of political advocacy. In this day in which the political awareness of so many, especially women, has been reignited, it is fitting that this day be marked as such. With the recent defeat of the first woman to potentially become US President, we are reminded how far we have come and how far we have yet to go.

Indeed, the organizers of the Women’s March, which took place in Washington DC and across the country the day after the inauguration, have adopted International Women’s Day as a Day Without A Women general strike, in which women are meant to refrain from going to work and engaging in commerce in society in order to demonstrate the great role women play in society and the impact such an absence will have on communities.

The holiday of Purim, that we celebrate beginning on sundown on Saturday night, is, perhaps, the first International Women’s Day, as the story contains two women who act in defiance of the existing political structures in order to bring about systematic change. The first of course is Esther, for whom the biblical book in which we find the story of Purim is named. In the story, the King of Persia, Ahasuerus, is convinced by his adviser Haman that the Jews of the kingdom are a threat and must be destroyed. The King is agreeable to the plan and proceeds until his Queen, Esther, intervenes. She herself is Jewish, and she pleads that her people should be spared.

The scene in the text is fraught with tension, and Esther must defy certain conventions to even talk to the king. She here is an example of defying the odds and making demands of humanity and justice to a government that is seemingly oriented in the opposite way.

But we also remember that Esther became queen only after Vashti, the king’s previous wife, was banished from the kingdom. Ahasuerus had demanded that Vashti make an appearance at a royal banquet in order to show her off to those assembled, and Vashti refused to go.

Vashti stood up to an unjust and demeaning order by refusing to adhere to it, and instead absented herself despite the risk of punishment. (Day Without A Woman general strike?) While Esther enacted her defiance through her speaking out, Vashti enacted her defiance through her civil disobedience.

Both the these women’s actions advance the story of Purim, and have the effect of, in specific, saving the Jewish people from certain destruction, and, in general, bringing to the kingdom a greater sense of justice and respect for all of its citizens.

As we mark International Women’s Day, and we celebrate Purim, we honor the role these two women Vashti and Esther played in the story. And they serve as an inspiration to us, not only in our need to recognize the role women play in the advancement of society, but in recognizing that both of the actions of these women—absence and presence, silent civil disobedience and vocal appeals to power—are tactics that we can employ in working to make a more just world.

Trump and Haman and Ahasuerus..and Mordechai

Today was Purim, the annual celebration of the events of the biblical book of Esther.

The story goes like this:  the Persian King Ahasuerus dismisses his queen Vashti for not appearing at his summons. He invites all the women of the kingdom to appear to see who would become the new queen, and a Jewish woman named Esther is selected. Meanwhile, Ahasuerus appoints a minister Haman, who, angry with Esther’s cousin Mordechai for not bowing down to him, sets out a plot to exterminate the Jews. He convinces the king to issue a decree that on a particular day (chosen by lot) the Jews are to be killed. Learning of the plot, Mordechai persuades Esther to use her position to save the Jews, which she does. A counter decree is issued, Haman is executed and a new holiday is established to mark the occasion.

The observance of Purim has a decidedly non-solemn tone: we sing and dance, dress in costume, share jokes and parody, eat and celebrate and make a lot of noise. We do so because of the happiness which comes from a disaster averted and evil foiled. We are happy because we survived, because we won, because a miracle occurred on our behalf.

As part of the celebration we read the megillah (scroll) which contains the book of Esther. A simple story, yet complex at the same time. Like many texts of scripture, the story of Esther can be understood in many different ways. It is a human drama, a story of redemption and at times even a farce.

This year, however, it is hard to not read the book of Esther as a political drama, complete with jockeying for position, manipulation and power plays.

Haman is the main villain of the story. He is hungry for power and influence, he manipulates the king and hatches and implements the plan to exterminate the Jews. And he does so because he is angered by one Jew, Mordechai. Thus he does not hesitate to stir up hatred and blame and punish an entire people for the supposed slight of one person. And he, along with his own Lady Macbeth Zeresh, seeks to kill Mordechai personally.

Ahasuerus the king is also a villain. He is a tyrant, who holds a beauty pageant (read: sexual contest) to find a new queen, is ready to carry out a plan for genocide. He unwilling to rescind his extermination decree in order to save face, and instead issues another decree permitting killing and looting. While he is the one who issued the decree, he blames Haman and executes him. He is easily manipulated because he is eager to please and hold onto power.

And Mordechai, one of the traditional heroes of the story, also is a political manipulator. He positions Esther to gain power, telling her to hide her Jewish background. He informed on two eunuchs who were angry at the king and got them killed. He then uses Esther’s position to not only save the Jews (which is, of course, a good thing) but for political gain–at the end of the story, he winds up with a plum political appointment, second only to the king.

It is hard not to think of the political overtones in this story as we read it during this Presidential election season. For as the primaries and caucuses continue, we will continue to write the narrative with its heroes and villains.

Donald Trump at AIPAC. Photo from Tablet Magazine.
While each contest has its heated moments , the emergent “villain” during this election has been Donald Trump. Popular among voters, but disdained by his own party, Trump has also consistently raised the ire of opponents and pundits alike. His anti-Muslim comments, negativity toward immigrants and ad hominem attacks on his opponents have cast Trump as “the one to stop.”  His appearance at AIPAC last week even brought protests and walk outs.

At the same time, he is developing a great following. At AIPAC, while some protested and walked out on Trump, many, many more stood and cheered when he spoke, willing to either tacitly accept or outright ignore his problematic stances in exchange for his support of Israel. And he is the Republican frontrunner for the simple reason that he is winning the most elections and the most delegates. If he eventually loses, we will still have his followers who will potentially be a political force to contend with.

In reading the Purim story in light of the election, it would be easy to cast Trump as Haman, the demagogue who cast aspersions on his enemies, condemning whole peoples for the sake of political gain. But Trump is also King Ahasuerus, who is desirous of power and therefore seeks to please all.

And, Trump is also Mordechai, who elevates his own self-interest above all, making decisions based on personal gain at the expense of others.

And Trump is us. We got him to where he is now.

As we move through the primary season, it is not my place to endorse a particular candidate. I simply share that I believe Trump’s rhetoric to be dangerous and hurtful. I have serious concerns about the lasting effects of what he says, and what impact it will have on our civil society.

And while the Book of Esther can be read as a reflection of the political manipulations we see at work today, there is another angle to the story. One of the reasons we dress up on Purim is to enact the idea that things aren’t always what they seem. A theme of the Purim story is that what was planned could fail to materialize, that what was once thought inevitable was not to be. Things are turned around, events unfold in a way that was not intended.

Here too, perhaps things will turn out differently than they seem. Perhaps the hateful speech and the demagoguery will fail to have staying power. It will if we drown it out like we do Haman’s name on Purim. And when harmful rhetoric gives way to words of love and compassion, that, too, will be worthy of celebration.

Kol Nidre 5776: “What is Your Purpose? The Time is Now.”

If not now, tell me when

If not now, tell me when,

We may never see this moment

Or place in time again

If not now, if not now, tell me when.

I don’t know if I am much into signs. I understand the concept of synchronicity—how the proximity of certain events in time can perhaps provide us with an opportunity for examination or meaning making. But in the idea of a sign from God, like the 10 plagues from the Exodus story as signs of divine power and human injustice, I don’t usually buy it. I don’t usually base my actions on signals from beyond, or wait to make decisions until I get a sign from above.

But I’ll share with you something, not a sign per se, but something came up that made me think. I have recently completed an 18 program in mindfulness and embodied Jewish spirituality. It was a study program for Jewish clergy—rabbis and cantors—which was comprised of retreats, text study, yoga and meditation.

At the end of our second retreat, we did an exercise. All that week we were invited to write prayers and place them anonymously in a box. At the end of the week, for a closing circle, we passed around the cards and we all read one of the prayers.

After we read the prayer, we went into the center of the circle where we picked another card. The faculty had prepared these laminated sheets, and on the back was a phrase from during the course of our studies. When it was my turn, I picked my card, and it read “et ratzon.”et ratzon

Now I know this was random, and I know I wasn’t the only one to get this phrase. There were only a few phrases and about 40 of us. But it was the one I chose, based on the randomness of where I stood in the circle and where we started the process of reading prayers. And so I took it not as a sign, per se, but as a kavannah intended for me, to reflect on and try to connect with. Et ratzon.

Et Ratzon means a desirable time, a good time, an acceptable time. It is a phrase from Psalm 69:14:

Vaani tefilati lecha adonai et ratzon Elohim berav hasecha aneyni beemet yishecha

But as for me, let my prayer be to you God at an acceptable time; God in the greatness of your lovingkindness answer me, in the truth of your salvation.

It is a phrase that may be familiar to us, we will sing it tomorrow as part of the Mah Tovu prayer. The Mah Tovu is a collection of four verses from the Bible, put together to create one coherent whole, a prayer for our sacred space. It’s inclusion is meant to be an introduction to prayer. We want our prayer to be worthwhile, heard, answered. The verse is included in Mah Tovu based on its traditional interpretation, found in the Talmud, for what et ratzon, a desirable time, means. For the rabbis in the Talmud it is the time that the community gets together for prayer. That is, if you pray with a community, you are more apt to have your prayer heard. That is et ratzon.

That is a nice interpretation of course. But to be standing there, holding a card with the phrase et ratzon, excerpted from the rest of the verse, I wasn’t thinking about communal prayer. I was thinking, what is et ratzon to me? What is a desirable time?

But first, we can ask, what is ratzon? What is desire?

For the term ratzon is interesting. It means desirable, and it also means will. That which we will, is what we desire. We come across it in our liturgy. Ken yehi ratzon we say sometimes in the liturgy, may it be your will—another way of saying amen. At the end of the Amidah, after we opened up our hearts in prayer, we say Yih’yu l’ratzon imrei fi v’hegyon libi l’fanecha, Adonai tzuri v’go-ali. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heartbe acceptable to You, Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer. And we will come across this word tomorrow, when we read the haftarah from the book of Isaiah, the powerful and challenging words, is this the fast I desire? Isaiah in the voice of God challenging the Israelites who observe ritually but neglect to act ethically and morally. A fast desirable to God. Ratzon.

These examples have a common element to them, that they are prayers less about our desire, our ratzon, but about God’s desire, God’s ratzon, God’s will. May it be your will, may it be your desire God—this thing that I have just asked for. May my prayers be desirable to you, may it be what you want to hear, may they be accepted, may they be good, may they be understood.

But we are also taught that we have a will, a desire. And to understand that, we need to turn our attention not to this holiday, but another.

Today is called Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In the Torah, the day is referred to in the plural—Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonements. This quirk of biblical Hebrew leads to an interesting commentary, a pun on the Hebrew, because you can read Yom HaKippurim, the Day of Atonements (from the root kaper, atone) as Yom K-Purim—a day like Purim (the prefix k- means “like” or “as”)

But, it seems, there can not be two holidays so far off in their intention and practice. Purim is a day of pure celebration. We recall the story of the biblical book of Esther, which tells of an averted plot to destroy the Jews. We celebrate by eating and drinking, sometimes to excess, and dressing up in costume. Frivoloity, satire and fun are the themes of the day, and so it is not uncommon to dedicate the observance of Purim to jokes, fun and games.

Yom Kippur meanwhile, is about seriousness. The tunes are more often than not somber. The themes of sin and atonement are heavy. It is a long day, full of multiple services and times for reflection.

But on further reflection, there are elements of the two days that are very similar.

On both days we dress up. Purim it is outlandish costume, we pretend to be something we are not in order to demonstrate the topsy turvyness of the story. And dressing up is fun. On Yom Kippur we also dress up. It is customary to wear white, and not wear leather or other luxuries. Even not eating and drinking is a form of dressing up, for we are pretending on this day, or rehearsing, for death. Again, the topsy turvy ness of life.

Both Purim and Yom Kippur are days of risk. The Esther story with the plotting of destruction, and the near aversion of that destruction, reminds us of the risk we take just by living our lives as Jews. Yom Kippur, with its reminders of life and death in the balance, reminds us of the risk we take just by living our lives as humans.

But the connection between Purim and Yom Kippur may come from that important question, of what is our purpose?

The details of the Purim story are perhaps known to us. It is about the Jewish community of Persia, under King Ahasuerus. The king dismisses the Queen, Vashti, then holds a beauty pageant of sorts to select a new queen. Esther, a Jew, enters and wins, becoming the new queen.

For a variety of reasons, the king’s advisor, Haman, hates the Jews who live in the kingdom and convinces the king to order a decree for their destruction. The date of the destruction is held by lottery (thus pur, or lot) and as the day draws near, Mordechai, Esthers’ cousin and guardian, implores her to use her standing as queen to plea on behalf of the Jews to the King.

Esther, however, is hesitant. She is scared and rightfully so—the law of the castle is that no one may appear before the King unless he or she is summoned. If one does so, and the king does not look favorably upon it by pointing the golden scepter at you, then the punishment is death.

Mordechai’s response to Esther is perhaps one of the most profound verses of Torah. He says to her, “for if you altogether hold your peace at this time, then will relief and deliverance arise to the Jews from another place, but you and your father’s house will perish;” and then, this powerful phrase, “and who knows, perhaps you have come to the kingdom for usch a time as this?”

Who knows, perhaps you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this. Perhaps this is the sole reason you are here.

And who knows, perhaps you, my friends, have come to your kingdom for such a time as this.

The Book of Esther is a unique book of the Bible, for it is the only book that does not contain God as an actor. It is less about what God does, but about what we do. It is a unique book because it asks us to focus on not what we may be called upon to do by another power, but what we care called upon to do by our humanity.

And so as we gather on Yom Kippur, Yom Kippurim, a day like Purim, we must ask ourselves that same question. The most important question we can ask ourselves. It is less about figuring out what God’s will is. Rather it is figuring out what our will is. What are we here to do? What are we here to contribute? What is our ratzon, our desire, our will. What do we have to contribute? That is the question we must wrestle with on Yom Kippur. Because we all have something to contribute.

A Hasidic master, the Netivot Shalom, offers the following teaching, in the name of the Ari, one of the great kabbalists of Jewish tradition.

from the moment we are created each one of us has a unique role and purpose in repairing the world, a unique mission given to us from Heaven. No one can fulfill the mission of the other, to repair that which is required of another. Thus, even the least person has a unique mission that no one else is able to complete. Happy are they who, while in this world, discern their earthly mission and fulfill it properly.

So that is your question this Yom Kippur. What is your unique mission? What are you here for? As Einstein famously said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” We each have a reason for being. And it is part of our role to find out what that is.

For if we do not hold out the possibility and the reality that we have a mission in our life, that we have a purpose, a ratzon, then we deny an aspect of our humanity. Again, the Netivot Shalom:

The principle that emerges from this teaching was expressed by our Master of Kobrin: the worst thing is when a Jew feels that “by him all is right, just how it is”. The problem is when we become so accustomed to the course of our lives that we make peace with how things are. At least regarding sins we feel some regret and movement toward teshuvah. But, when we make peace with our situation we can never turn from it; we get used to our situation and have no aspiration to change, to raise ourselves out of the routine of our lives.

If we make peace with our situation we do not grow. If we say that is just how it is it can never change. Part of our role is to be dissatisfied with the way things are, and find out the way that we can make it different. This is our ratzon, our desire, our will. It is our answer to Mordecai’s question. Who knows, perhaps you are here for this very purpose.

And this response to this question, is one of creativity. In other words, we ask ourselves, what is our creative response to life?

I’ve shared some wisdom from Brene Brown in the past, from this bimah, last year in fact, on vulnerability. On how vulnerability is, while uncomfortable, a key to growth. She has continued with her work, and has a new book out, and recently I heard another interview with her, in which she was speaking of creativity.

In the interview, she dismissed the idea that there are some people who are creative and other people who are not. Rather, she said, there are those who act on their creativity and those who do not. And to not act on one’s creative impulse is harmful. “The only unique contribution we will make in this world,” she said, “will be born of creativity.”

We sometimes don’t act on our creative impulse because of shame, another one of Brown’s research topics. That we feel shame because we do not feel that we are creative, it makes us vulnerable. But this is how we add to the world.

“You are a born maker,” Brown says, “and we need what you can bring to us, because you are the only one who can bring it.”

We as unique individuals are the only one who can offer what we can offer, because it is uniquely ours. Life depends on you offering it. We all have something to bring, a creative impulse in response to life. So what do you have to bring?

There is a story of a king who had a prized possession, a diamond. He kept it protected in a special case, only taking it out on special occasions. On one occasion, he took it out only to discover a small nick, a scratch in the side of the diamond. He was completely distraught, and didn’t know what to do.

He went to everyone in his court, and asked if there was anyone who could restore the diamond. Many examined it, and tried, but could not find a way to make the diamond whole again.

He then went out into the kingdom, to every town and hamlet, asking if anyone would be able to restore the diamond. Everywhere he went, people either didn’t want to try to fix it, because they thought they might ruin it more, or simply didn’t know what to do.

Finally he came to a town on the far outskirts of the kingdom. Again he made his request. No one knew what to do. Until he came to a house, on the outskirts of the town. A small simple home, and home to a craftsman. He examined the diamond, then took it into the back of his shop.

He was gone for quite sometime, finally emerging from the back. “Well,” said the king, “did you fix it?” The artist handed the king the diamond. And there, etched on the side, where the scratch was, was a beautiful engraving of a rose. A rose, that incorporated the scratch in its stem.

What is your purpose? What can you bring to this world? What is your creative contribution to this life. Can you, like the craftsman, see an opportunity, respond with creativity, and do what mission in life is to do? Maybe he was brought to the kingdom for a time such as this.

And when we ask this question of ourselves, when we try to discern our mission, when we suggest, like Mordechai to Esther, that maybe this is why we are here, we recognize that others have that same charge. And while we seek out our gifts, we can also recognize those gifts in others.

In Pirke Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, we read: “He [Ben Azzai] would also say: Do not scorn any person, and do not discount any thing. For there is no one who has not their hour, and no thing that has not its place.” (4:3)

Everyone has something to give. Everyone has their hour. We seek to recognize this in ourselves. And we seek to recognize this in others. And when we all recognize that we have something to give, and we act on it, and offer it, then we are all enriched, we are all uplifted. What is your ratzon?

Which brings me back to my first question, what is et ratzon? What is the desirable time? There is no one who has not their hour. When it et ratzon? It is now. The time is now.

Now is the time to begin to change

Now is the time to offer your unique contribution.

If we understand ratzon to be that which we are called upon to do, then every time is the right time. Every time is the desirable time. For as we learn from Esther, it is not always finding our ratzon and going out to create it, although that is certainly one part, it is finding ourselves in a particular circumstance and rising to the occasion. It is the ability to see the life that we have and the circumstances we are given and transcend them, to remake them. It is responding creatively to life.

Et Ratzon—the time is now.

As Rabbi Hillel put it, also in Pirke Avot, “if not now, when?”

As the contemporary singer songwriter Carrie Newcomer put it:

If not now, tell me when

If not now, tell me when,

We may never see this moment

Or place in time again

If not now, if not now, tell me when.

This Yom Kippur, we commit to find our mission, find our purpose. Because each one of us has one. And that is, how are you going to creatively contribute to this life. We need it. We need your contribution. And we need it now.

Some Purim (Madlib) Torah, and a pie video

A highlight each year at our Temple Beth Hatfiloh Purim celebration is the Mad-lib sermon, a “d’var Torah” I share created with the help of those assembled. I learned of the idea from by friend Rabbi Moti Rieber, and it is a lot of fun. Here is this year’s product, and perhaps there is some wisdom contained within:

This week’s Torah portion is from the book of Genesis. The Israelites, who were once slaves, are slowly adapting to life as a free people. At this point, the Israelites have been wandering in Hawai’i for 532 years under the leadership of Moses. Unhappy with the situation since leaving Egypt, they have begun to grumble against Moses and God. The people, unhappy with their lot, have begun to engage in sports. God, unhappy with the Israelites and their constant demands for pizza and toilet paper, punishes the people by inflicting forest fires. The people, repentant for their transgression, promise to God that they will no longer complain, and will institute an annual sacrifice of a platypus in order to show their remorse.

hamantaschenGod then brings the Israelites to Mount Rainier where God is going to give the Torah to the Israelites. God, having revealed Godself to Moses years ago at the burning cannabis plant, makes good on the promise to create a covenant with the Israelites. The covenant solidifies the relationship between the Israelites and God, in which God promises to provide the Israelites with golf clubs and the Jews promise to observe the rituals and make donations of hats to the Temple.

While Moses is on the mountain, however, the Israelites become very happy. Moses has been on the mountain for 44 seconds. They begin to lose faith in Moses and this God whom they can not see, so they implore Aaron, Moses’ brother and the high priest, to build them an idol in the form of Farley [a congregant’s service dog] made out of copper. They begin to worship this idol.

Moses, furious when he returns, takes the tablets and smashes them to the ground. He calls out to God to punish the Israelites, which he does by afflicting them with arthritis. The Israelites repent, promise not to engage in such behavior again, and as a sign of gratitude, melt down the idol and make it into a dashboard hula girl.

This is an important episode in the history of the Israelites since it points to the importance of the covenant with God, and especially of the Torah, which marks that covenant.

The Torah’s wise words guide us in every aspect of our daily lives. Primary are the ethical concerns which govern our daily interaction with others. For example, if you see your enemy’s tiger lying helpless in a bathroom, you must help it. We are told that we are not to steal our neighbor’s paper clip, or that we should be kind to clowns, because we were slaves in Egypt.

Also contained within are the ritual observances which bind us as a Jewish people. Our holidays provide a focal point to our year. One of the major holidays is Sukkot, in which we celebrate a festival to God in honor of the Civil War and the tulip harvest, celebrated by building the Eiffel Tower and dwelling in it for 8 ½ weeks and eating asparagus and singing “Firework” by Katy Perry.

The Torah teaches us how we are to sanctify the every day through our practices. We are instructed in the dietary laws in which we are told not to eat paprika with cinnamon together, and that animals are kosher only if they roar.

While the Torah is meant to guide us in our everyday lives, and is full of details, the wisdom of the Torah could probably best be summed up as “a stitch in time saves nine.”

Chag sameach!

And our TBH tradition would not be complete without a little pie in the face. Here is a clip (in slo-mo) of me getting pied, then ambushed by one of my bar mitzvah kids. My revenge is currently being planned.

Purim’s Four Rules of Life

Purim begins tomorrow night, and his the holiday that celebrates the events of the biblical book of Esther. The Persian Jewish community lives under King Ahasuerus, and eventually comes under threat from the king’s adviser Haman who issues a decree to kill the Jews. Esther, who at this time has become the Queen, risks her life to confront the king and reveals for the first time that she is Jewish. The king reverses the decree, saves the Jews and punishes Haman for his act.

This is, of course, the cleaned up summary of the story. The story itself is rife with sexual exploitation, gender inequality, public humiliation, extreme violence and oppressive use of power.

And at the same time the story contains female empowerment, reclamation of identity, freedom of oppression, liberation from tyranny and justice for a minority population.

In short, it is a mixed bag, a complex story.

The celebration of Purim is meant to be one of unabashed frivolity. We are meant to dress up in costume, tell funny jokes and stories, play games, eat and drink–all while reading the megillah (scroll) which contains the story. So why such ribaldry while marking such a challenging story?

One the one hand, the story is a pure celebration of escape from harm. A decree was issued, the decree was averted and so we celebrate. We do not lament what might have been, but we celebrate what actually is. Did Haman want to destroy the Jews, yes. Did he succeed, no.

A more subtle understanding is that fine balance between the yes and the no, the decree issued and the decree averted. purimshirtOne of the reasons we dress in costume is to represent something we are not, to show the topsy turvy nature of life. We are one thing, we dress as something else, to show that what might have been was not, and what could be, could not. Life doesn’t unfold like Haman’s plot–things change. And life is filled with both those things we are proud of, and those we would wish to eradicate.

In approaching Purim, I sometimes think that celebrating an almost certain destruction is hard. There is, after all, an undercurrent of antiSemitism in this story that seems all to familiar. With recent events in France and Norway, and also closer to home with increased incidents of anti-Jewish bias on college campuses, we bring to our Purim celebrations a bit of caution, of wariness, of pragmatism. The hatred the fueled Haman still lives today, and we should not turn away from nor make light of it.

And the other negatives underlying the story–female exploitation and violence, for example–are others blemishes on our society that still exist today.

These are, unfortunately, not going away fast. If we see them today as we do in this ancient biblical book, then we know that these ills have long staying power. We remain vigilant when we see them in our own day and age, and call them out when necessary. At the same time, we go on living our topsy-turvy lives with all of its challenges and blessings.

And in doing so, we can take a cue from the traditionalmitzvot (sacred acts) associated with celebrating Purim. Jewish tradition teaches that there are four main mitzvotwe are to observe during Purim:

1. Read the megillah
2. Have a seudah (festive meal)
3. Send m’shaloch manot (food gifts to friends)
4. Give tzedakah

By examining these, we see that these four are not just guidelines as to how to celebrate Purim, but these four give us guidance at how we are to approach life in general, with all of its faults, and all of its hatreds. In other words, by doing these four we:

1. Tell the stories that we see, call out oppression when we see it, herald acts of courage and justice when necessary.
2. Celebrate all the good things that life has to offer, and offer gratitude for the blessings we do receive.
3. Build positive relationships and allies with our neighbors, friends and loved ones through action, through compassion, by reaching out.
4. Always be mindful of those in need in our communities, and make the time and the effort to reach out and lend a hand.

And by doing so we build a better life, one that is able to hopefully overcome the adversities we face.

Chag Purim Sameach! A wonderful and sweet Purim!