Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Purim Dvar Torah

Purim is, in certain ways, the absolute, unequivocal and unquestioned winner of “Most depressing holiday of the year.” The underlying facts surrounding it paint the bleakest possible picture. Consider other holidays

Channukah: the temple had earlier been destroyed and Antiochus is trying to finish the job, but a rag tag band of ne’er do wells rises up and, in the Cinderella story (well, the version where she kills all the bad people) they win and eat fatty food. Awesome. Today, we won’t let anyone “finish the job” because we really appreciate fatty food!

Passover: We were slaves in Egypt and things were bad, but then a charismatic leader inspires us and we, a rag tag band of ne’er do wells up and walk out so that we can complain for 40 years even though we get breakfast in bed EVERY SINGLE DAY! We aren’t slaves like that anymore so the story won’t happen again. And Chopstix delivers.

The two Tus: In Sh’vat we talk about how great plants are, and Av, where ladies, dressed in white, run around in the meadows with no fear of getting their clothes dirty, for lo, they are protected by God and an invisible barrier available now, in new and improved Dreft.

Purim is such a downer because of something that I have missed until this year – at one point, the king, Achashveirosh, enacts a rule that people have to bow to Haman. Mordy refuses and the rabbis explain in Esther Rabba 6:2 that Haman was wearing a symbol of idolatry around his neck so Mordechai didn’t want to bow to idols. Depressing fact one – Jews are put in no win situations.

But hey, he gets away with it. For a while.

Then, in chapter 3, verse 4, the servants who observed Mordechai’s refusal finally tell Haman. Wait – what? He had an idol around his neck. He would have to have been facing the people when they bowed to him so that they would see the idol. How could he not have known that Mordechai was not bowing? Maybe he was not paying attention. Maybe he had bad eyesight. Maybe his people were pointing out that even in the future, Mordechai didn’t intend to bow. Who knows; all I know is that we would have gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids! Depressing fact two – when Jews are getting away with living their lives according to their faith, others narc on us and get us in trouble. And later, when Haman sees Mordechai doesn’t even stand or move (5:9) he decides to hang the guy. It isn’t that Mordechai didn’t bow anymore – he didn’t even rise. All Mordy was doing was SITTING THERE. Depressing fact three, even when Jews try to lie low and avoid conflict, it finds us.

And finally, when things do turn around, Esther, and her trusted sidekick Mordechai approach the king and ask him to rescind his order. Things are looking up, right? The king sees the problem and will let people defend themselves, right? Not so much. He shrugs his shoulders and says “there’s nothing I can do.” Depressing fact four – the people in charge don’t really want to help us. Sure, he tells Esti that she can think of something, but he wants no active part in helping.

OK, so if this is a depressing holiday, marked by the randomness of a lottery and the unfairness of arbitrary anti-Semitism (all of which echoes in this day and age) then what is the celebration all about?

It isn’t about “God saved us” that I can tell you. But, underneath it all, Judaism has never been about “God did the saving.” We learn in Pesachim 64b, Lo Samchinin Anisa, more popularly said as “Ein somchin al haness”, we don’t rely on miracles. And Purim reminds us that we are partners in our own salvation.

At the sea, the Children of Israel saw the Egyptians behind them and the water in front of them. They could have just prayed. They were supposed to have faith that God would save them, right? But they learned a lesson from Yaacov, who, when faced with Eisav’s army didn’t just pray, he also took proactive steps, sending gifts and preparing for battle. Simple faith isn’t enough! We have to take action. And at the sea, the medrash reports that Nachshon, instead of waiting for a miracle, walked in to the water up to his neck. This act is what triggered the sea’s splitting. The Maccabbees were stirred by the rallying cry of Mi lahashem eylai – whoever is for God is with me. But that cry was a call to arms – faith was demonstrated through action, not a crutch.

Mordechai was a man of faith. He was really informed of all things Jewish, including prayer. But while he dons sackcloth and ashes and cries, he doesn’t stop there. He stirs people to pray and fast. But is that enough? He could have dropped it at that and just let God, you know, do his thang. Instead he tells Esther that she has to act, and act now. Wait, she says, I’m gonna get in so much trouble – can’t we just wait and let the big man in the sky take care of this so I don’t get dead? He says, “NO.” We have to initiate the action, even at personal risk. You have to walk into the sea to get it to split. Yes, you have to pray, just to make it today, but the song doesn’t say “you ONLY got to pray” -- you also have to send gifts and prepare for war. Esther understands this allusion thousands of years before MC Hammer is born (possibly the true Purim miracle) and says “I’ll fast, but I’ll also take action” and it is the action, the plan (the plan was rock solid) which leads to the salvation of the Jews.

So what is the message of this horrible, depressing holiday? Is it that we will always be victims and that when the world conspires against us, we can sit back, do some prayer and rely on God to bail us out.


No, the message is that we can bring about our own survival by being proactive. Give charity, be friendlier and don’t wait til things get horrible and then start praying, expecting miracles. And when things get bad, as they generally do, don’t sit back and cry. Get on up and do something about it.

Purim reaffirms not just that God is God and that he will save us, but that we have to be Jews, rising up and accepting our responsibility, and carrying the burden of acting, being involved like the Maccabbees instead of demanding others solve our problems for us.

Friday, March 10, 2017

To A T

Let me tell you about kid number 2.

Kid number 2 is a bright, pure light. When she walks into a room, not only does SHE smile, but everyone smiles. The pets smile. Heck, inanimate objects smile. Kid number 2 is a force of joy. And maybe that's why I worry so much.

OK, to be fair, I generally worry so much. It's a thing I do. Telling me not to worry about my kid would be like telling a zebra not to worry about its kid and we all know how much zebras worry about their kids. Worry is one of the primary job elements of a parent -- I once asked my parents (after I had "grown up") when they stopped worrying about me and the response was "We'll tell you when it happens." But there are different flavors of worry. My elder is in the army so I worry. She is barely 20 and she is walking around carrying a gun. I would prefer that she not walk with scissors so the whole gun thing makes me want to buy some Rogaine so I can grow some hair so I can lose my hair from worry. But that's the kind of worry that is prompted by the natural growing up. My worry about number 2 is a bit different.

First off, I worry because she is a happy soul in a sad and angry world. The world beats down happiness and I can't protect her from the "winds of heaven that would visit her face too roughly". And I see when the world dulls her shine. I see her when the girl drama that comes from having teen-aged girls interact with other teen-aged girls swallows her up with petty squabbles and political in-fighting. I see when school and life, with their incessant demands keep her from enjoying the process of living. I see her when she is most alone, sad and vulnerable, when her inner-joy, exhausted by the attempts to drown it, simply gives up, if only for a time. So I worry.

I worry because she takes the weight of it all onto her shoulders. She gives up what she has claim to so that others will be happy. She allows others to be put first because she cares more about their satisfaction than about some phantom dream of success. She takes all the anger, pain and sorrow and internalizes it. Now, maybe you will suggest that she is "too sensitive" and that things shouldn't get to her. But you know what, that sensitivity is her strength. She feels, for herself and for others and I wouldn't have her change that for anything. Does it mean that some things rise to the level of drama that others might be able to slough off? Maybe, but it means that she can read a situation with a precision that eludes those others because her various -pathy skills are more finely sharpened.

So when she comes to me saying that she doesn't feel good, or well for that matter, I worry even more. A headache here, a stomach ache there and I start worrying. Is she stressed out because of life, or because life is beating her down? Is she cracking under the strain of trying not to crack? Is there something real and physical which I need to catastrophize about (because I, naturally, do)? Is it because she watches too much television (that girl will grow up and go into television show development, just so she can greenlight shows so that she will have something to binge watch). Is it that such a pure, shining light is contraindicated in a world like this that has gone to seed so something bad is certainly to happen? And when she demands, I worry because she is calling out saying, "I never ask for anything so just give me this one!" But sometimes, even that one is a bad idea and I have to say "no" and be more reason for her to be sad. Yes, it is my job to say "no" as a parent, but it is tough to say "no" to someone who is so frequently willing to say, "no thanks."

But she is also my hope for the future. She is not angry and she is not giving up. She is why I believe that the next generation can turn this wreck of a planet around and make it sing, if one could imagine planets sing. I see her joy when she dances for no reason, and makes jokes with her dizzying intellect, and I see her insightfulness when she asks questions and wants to understand her world. I see her interact with adults and children with a practiced maturity which allows her to connect with all others. She laughs and the world can't but laugh with her and she dreams big and works to make dreams come true.

So I worry. I worry about her day-to-day existence, her future and prospects, her friendships and her challenges. Will she find a love worthy of her and will fortune allow her to be what she wants to be. I worry about each complaint and setback. I worry about how sad she is, even when she is happy, and I hope that maybe, in some magical way, my worrying will take some of the pressure off of her and put it on to me. Here's to my second kid -- the cause of, and solution to, much of my worrying.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Unnamed

There's a new baby boy on the block and my greatness has increased by the measure of one infant. Strangely, I don't get to append another "great" onto my title of "great uncle" even though my niece and her hubban have been blessed with another child. Nor does my title expand even though they now have a boy and a girl. But what is strangest is that, for the next week, the child will be he who has not been named.

In the Jewish tradition, a girl is named at the first Torah reading that the dad (or proxy...I've seen proxy) can make it to after the birth, so a girl need not go without a name for more than 3 days (assume a birth right after prayers on Monday morning). But a boy, barring medical delay, waits until the 8th day, at the circumcision to get a name. Girls, it seems, mature faster than boys even in this department. Why do we wait to confer a name (read: identity) on a boy? According to one site I found, the original bris was made in conjunction with a name so we commemorate that by delaying the naming until the bris. I guess that since Sarah was not "named" in connection to a mitzvah ritual, her name needs only to be announced in a public setting, like a Torah reading. But I've been mulling this over like a good cup of cider and have come to a strange conclusion -- the Jewish boy doesn't achieve a position of communal relevance until he has been ushered into the group by means of the circumcision and therefore his name, while the girl belongs to the community as soon as we can all get together and celebrate her arrival! This doesn't mean that we shouldn't be caring about the child until then, only that the boy lacks a certain innate spiritual position and needs to have his place physically marked, whereas a girl is automatically connected to our heritage and can have her name within the Jewish people practically immediately!

When God changed Avram's name to Avraham, at the time of circumcision, he changed Avraham's status from a local father (Av Aram) to a father of a multitude (Av hamon). Sarai ("my princess") became a princess to all. But nothing happened to her. She could have become that princess to all at any time -- she had to wait for Abraham to get his act together and achieve HIS new status. She was already there -- a princess and a princess in waiting, while he needed God to step in to make him into something proper via the circumcision. Her status as barren changed with a new name so her name was not allowed to be changed any earlier; she could not be the mother of Abraham's child until HE was Abraham, even though she, on her own merits, was spiritually where she needed to be.

So back to this baby, whatever his name will end up being. In one week he will be on his path to greatness, with a name which influences and reflects a strong family, a heritage worth commemorating and a destiny which will, God willing, have him become another pillar in the Jewish community.

Though I'm sure I should wait until the bris and for his official welcome into the community, I figure that with the time zone difference, it is already next week in Israel so I say Mazal Tov to the parents, grand and great grandparents, family, friends and other relatives.