Thursday, February 25, 2010

Parashat Zachor and Purim

This Shabbat, at the end of the Torah reading, we read Parashat Zachor, one of four special readings for this time of year.

Zachor. Remember. Remember what the Amalekites did to you, how they attacked you from behind, when you were weak and tired. Zachor. Remember, too, the Nazis of our generation and the six million Jews they slaughtered. Never forget.

Remembering is what we Jews do best. We put on tefillin in order to remember the mitzvot. We celebrate Shabbat in order to remember creation and the exodus. We celebrate Sukkot in order to remember our experience in the desert.

Sometimes these memories are too much, too heavy for us. It is hard to live in the present and hope for a good future when one spends too much time contemplating the Holocaust. As a people we are weighed down by our memories of suffering.

And that is where Purim comes in.

We read Parashat Zachor every year on the Shabbat before Purim because Haman, the villain of Purim, is a descendant of Amalek, an example of precisely the type of evil we are commanded to remember.

On the one hand, Purim, like other holidays, is a holiday of remembering; the mitzvah is to hear every single syllable of the megillah read twice in 24 hours. On the other hand, on Purim we say that one should drink until one can no longer tell the difference, ad delo yada, between the good and the bad characters of the story, between the cursed Haman and the blessed Mordecai. One should drink oneself into a state of happy oblivion, into a state of not knowing and not remembering. This is not Zachor, but a kind of anti-Zachor.

Maybe this is part of the special simchah, happiness, of Purim. On Purim, we try to be joyful like only children are joyful; children don’t worry about the past and the future; they are present and alive to the fun of the moment. Yes, Purim is a remembrance. But with its light, carnival-like frolicking, it is also a mockery of remembrance, also an escape from the clutches of history, an escape from the serious adult task of making order out of an often cruel world.

Purim sanctifies this joy, sanctifies for one precious day this escape from memory and order, making it, too, part of the spiritual experience of the year. Psalm 35 says : Kol atzmotay tomarna Hashem mi kamokha. With all of my limbs I declare: “Lord, who is like you?” Not just with all of my limbs, but also with all of my emotions, with sadness and with joy, with seriousness and with frolicking, with memory and with an escape from memory. All are part of the religious experience.

In light of the lightness of Purim, I have included some Purim riddles as well. Enjoy!

Purim Puzzlers

Purim Riddles
1. Which one of Haman’s sons worked for Verizon?
2. How do we know that Haman was pregnant?
3. How do we know that the king used to sit on his Dr. Seuss books?
4. How do you know Mordecai liked to read the labels on his clothes?
5. How do you know that at the women’s banquet in the beginning of the Megillah, the women drank tea with soap in it (and spoke with a German accent)?
6. How do you know Vashti had 2 heads?
7. How do you know the people of Shushan were hard of hearing?
8. How do you know the Jews wore designer clothes when they were victorious?
9. How do you know Esther’s favorite servant had an ugly head covering?
10. What is the significance of each of these numbers in the megillah: 3, 7, 10, 12, 13, 127, 180?
11. (From my son, Medad) What do Tu Bishvat and Purim have in common?

Answers to Purim Puzzlers

Answers to Riddles
1. Dalphon (Esther 9:7) – “Dial a Phone”
2. The Megillah says Haman Hara (Esther 7:6). Literally this means “The evil Haman” but the word hara, spelled differently, means “pregnant.”
3. The Megillah says Sus Asher Rachav Alav ha-Melekh (Esther 6:8). Literally, this means “a horse that the king rode upon,” the word in Hebrew for horse being sus, like Seuss.
4. When Mordechai is distressed about the fate of the Jews, the Megillah says, Vayikra Mordechai et Begadav (Esther 4:1). “Mordechai ripped his clothes.” The word Vayikra here means “ripped,” but spelled differently means “read.”
5. The queen’s name is Vashti. Vash tea. Wash tea.
6. The Megillah says: Vashti HaMalkah astah mishteh nashim (Esther 1:9). Literally, “Queen Vashti made a banquet for the women.” The riddle plays on the words mishteh nashim, reading it as “Out of two women” instead of “a banquet for the women.”
7. The Megillah begins by saying, Vayehi Biyemei Achashverosh Hu Achashverosh. Literally, this means, “It happened in the days of Achashverosh, that is the Achashverosh,” but the riddle reads the word hu as “Who?” It was in the days of Achashverosh. Who? Achashverosh!
8. Layehudim hayeta Orah Vesimchah V. Sasson (8:16). Literally, “The Jews had light and joy and happiness,” but here read as “The Jews had light and joy and V. Sasson clothing.”
9. His name was Hatach – Hat –uch!
10. Third year of king’s rule; seven and 180 days of banquet; 10 sons of Haman; 12th month, Adar; 13th day of that month; 127 provinces ruled over by the king.
11. On both, “dates” are picked!

I also prepared some picture puzzles, but am having trouble transferring them to the blog. I thought I would keep these answers here in case I do succeed in getting the picture puzzles up.

Answers to Picture Puzzles
1. Matanot la’evyonim (presents for the poor)
2. Shushan Ha-Birah (Shushan, the capital)
3. Achashverosh
4. Esther
5. Mishloach Manot (baskets of food delivered to friends)
6. Mordechai ben Yair ben Shimi ben Kish Ish Yemini (Mordechai’s full name)
7. Kinim , “lice,” from the Passover story
8. Etz, “tree,” the word used in the Megillah to refer to the gallows
9. Ka’asher Avadeti Avadeti, “If I am to perish, I am to perish” (What Esther says when she agrees to take the risk of approaching the king). Esther 4:16.
10. Mi hu zeh ve’ai zeh hu, “Who is he and where is he?” (What the king says when he hears from Esther that someone has plotted to kill Esther and her people). Esther 7:5.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Parashat Mishpatim: From Suffering to Empathy

An article in the New York Times last week reported a case in Pakistan of a poor young girl who had come to work as a servant for a rich family and been cruelly treated to the point of death. This young girl and others like her have no one to aid them. They are at the mercy of their masters.

How can a society be created in which the powerful do not abuse the powerless? What is to stop those in power from treating with great cruelty those have no power, whether for reasons of poverty, class, gender, or race?

The Torah’s answer is empathy. The Torah’s answer is to create a nation that is born in a state of poverty, born as foreigners in a foreign land, as slaves to a cruel master. Such a nation knows injustice and suffering from the inside, and this knowledge serves as a constant reminder not to treat others with such cruelty.

It is no accident that this week’s parsha, Mishpatim, “Laws,” begins with laws to protect the debt slave from permanent bondage, spelling out his rights and those of the female maid-servant. The Israelites have just come from Egyptian bondage; their own unjust treatment must be turned to empathy; they must learn to be, like God, “freers” of slaves.

The Ibn Ezra argues that the central principle of many of the laws in Mishpatim is not to mistreat those who have less power. In addition to these slavery laws, there are also laws concerning the treatment of the ger, the “stranger,” as well as the poor person, the widow, the orphan and one’s animals. The Torah is particularly elaborate here and elsewhere concerning the protection of the ger. According to the Talmud (Baba Metzia 59b) the Torah contains 36 injunctions (or according to some, 46) concerning the ger!

The Torah explicitly says that one may not harm a ger “because you were foreigners in the land of Egypt,” and because “you know the nefesh hager, the soul of the stranger.” You know in a very intimate way what it feels like to be treated as an outsider; remember that feeling when you come to deal with others who are now outsiders. The root of justice is our own experience of injustice. The root of compassion is the memory of our own pain.

Rashi adds another twist to this idea of empathy. Based on the midrash Mekhilta, he says that we must not tease or belittle the ger because he can easily turn around and say the same thing to us: “You are also a descendant of foreigners.” We are all outsiders in one way or another. Remembering this truth about ourselves keeps us humble enough to be welcoming and not hurtful to other outsiders.

As a people, the Jews have seen much suffering. As individuals each of us has had his or her own measure of trouble -- some more, some less. We also watch our children suffer the (mostly small) pains of life. The challenge is to turn such troubles into opportunities for growth, for growth in empathy and understanding of others’ pain. Upon leaving Egypt, the Israelites are called to precisely this task of turning suffering into empathy.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Parashat Yitro: Still Standing Still at Sinai

Last week the Israelites were on the move, travelling through the Red Sea and on through the desert. As the Hasidic master Sefat Emet points out, the human being is a mahalakh, “a walker.” We are in constant motion, striving for improvement by moving from one step to the next.

This week’s parsha, though, does not deal with movement, but with standing still. The experience at Mount Sinai is known as a ma’amad, “a stand.” Deuteronomy, in referring to this incident, says yom asher amadeta, “The day on which you stood” (4:10), and here, in Exodus, the Torah uses a different root with the same meaning, Vayityatzvu, “They stood at the foot of the mountain” (19:17). If anything, this second root, yatzav, also the root for the word matzevah, “statue,” has an even more fixed feel to it. While the people at the Sea are mobile like the sea, here at Mount Sinai, the people stand still and grounded like the mountain itself.

What does this emphasis on standing mean? The Sefat Emet says that at Mount Sinai we were like angels, and angels are known to be standers, not movers. At Mount Sinai, we were like them, perfect and complete, with no need to climb any further steps.

For one brief moment at Sinai, we experienced the divine presence; we heard God say Anokhi, “I am the Lord your God,” and understood that such an awareness of divinity is the aim of our whole existence. For one brief moment, we escaped the human struggle forward to become, and were part of an eternal Being. We were present, not worried about past or future.

We are always trying to return to Mount Sinai, to that experience of total presence and total being. The Amidah prayer offers one such opportunity as in it we literally stand like angels – with our feet together – and attempt to concentrate on something other than our workday obligations and responsibilities.

Shabbat offers another such opportunity, as on Shabbat we stop our weekday work of becoming and concentrate just on being. It isn’t easy. Concerning the Shabbat commandment in this week’s parsha, the Torah says, “Six days you shall labor and do all your work” (20:8). The midrash Mekhilta comments: “Is it possible for a human being to do all of his work in six days? Rather, rest as if all your work is done.” Humans are not angels; we can and should be out walking, working and changing. At the same time, though, every once in a while, we need to take a moment to stand still and be present, not because our work is done – it never really is -- but in order to rekindle the feeling of total divine Presence we had at Sinai.