Friday, March 2, 2001

Shabbat-O-Gram, March 3, 2001

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Pre-Purim!

A BITE OF TORAH: "Take my God, Please"

When we think of Purim, two things immediately come to mind: how funny it all is -- and how sad.  Comedians have long discussed the fact that there is a fine line between comedy and tragedy, and indeed, the Purim story is both exceedingly amusing, when you look at the outcome, yet equally pessimistic and tragic in its view of the Jewish condition in Exile. Great, we beat out this Haman guy, (ha ha), but there will be others (sob), and we'll never be safe as long as we are strangers in a strange land.

This Shabbat we read the special selection from Deuteronomy (beginning with 25:17) reminding us of the evils of the Amalekites, those archetypal arch-villains of the Bible, ancestors of Haman, the rear-guard attackers who earned eternal condemnation for their cowardly stunt. The first word of that reading, also the name for this special Sabbath, is "Zachor" (Remember). The Hebrew says, "Zachor et asher asah lecha Amalek baderech b'tzeitcham mi-mitzrayim." "Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you came out from Egypt." The line can't be more explicitly serious and urgent in tone. Yet the verse rings strangely familiar, in a manner that suggests an ironic twist is at hand and some textual mischief is at work.

Sure enough, all we have to do is go back about 29 verses, to Deut. 24:9, and we see almost the exact same verse, with noteworthy modifications. "Zachor et asher asah Adonai Elohecha L'Miryam baderech b'tzeitcham mi-mitzrayim." "Remember what YHWH, your God did to Miriam on the way when you were coming out from Egypt." The context here is a command to Israel to be careful to avoid the plague of leprosy. Indeed, Miriam was afflicted by that disease, ostensibly, at least according to Rashi, for the sin of gossip. In his new Torah commentary (whose translation of these verses I'm using here), Richard Elliott Friedman suggests that Miriam's sin was not gossip, but rather her direct challenge to Moses' leadership. I love what I've seen of Friedman's new commentary thus far, but I think here that both he and Rashi are off the track. They are missing the joke -- and the joke is on God.

And what is the joke? If we look at the two verses, crossing out all the words that they have in common, we are left with a curious and most troubling equation: God and Miriam in the first instance, are replaced by Amalek and Israel. In some subliminal but none-to-subtle way, the Torah is suggesting that what Amalek did to Israel, God also did to Miriam. Just as Amalek afflicted Israel at her time of greatest weakness, so did God afflict Miriam at her time of her peak vulnerability. Miriam wasn't the one to blame here; she was the victim! But rather than blame God directly, the Torah here does it indirectly, something Jews have gotten very good at doing over the years, through humor. These verses in Deuteronomy might well have been the first recorded example of great Jewish political satire. The greatest ancient example of such satire is, of course, the Book of Esther, in which God's name is not mentioned at all. The editors were smart to leave God out of this "Saturday Night Live" skit of a novella. Had the Name been inserted, God would have come out looking no better than a hybrid of Ahashverosh and George W. Bush. Come to think of it, the two are already one and the same...

And so, what is it that we are to "Zachor" from all this? We need to remember the unfairness of both the Amalekites and God --- in essence, the unfairness of life itself. While Amalek was burning us, God was fiddling with Miriam's health. Zachor is our call to arms against evil, and a reminder that the One doing the calling might not always be there to pick up the phone. We'll have to tackle the Hamans of this world on our own.  To quote a Purim commentary from the Jewish Outreach Institute, "In Esther, God does not step forward to save the Jews, neither does s/he step forwards to save non-Jews. In short, when we live in times where there are no contemporary prophets to guide us, we as children of God, individually and communally, must take responsibility for our own actions."

And in order to accomplish that daunting task, we'd darn well better have a good sense of humor. We'll need it!




A special "Shabbat Shalom" and "Lehitraot" to our Third Graders, who this weekend will be attending their first class Shabbaton.  Word of mouth from older siblings must have been very positive, as about 36 kids will be heading up to Camp Sloan on Friday.

Candlelighting on Friday: 5:30 PM

Kabbalat Shabbat service: 8:00

Shabbat Morning: Teen Shabbat -- 9:30 AM -- about 90 of our teens will participate in the service, to be followed by a lunch in their honor.

Children's Services: 10:30 (in the Chapel and Kindergarten room)

Torah Portion (Terumah). The Learn Torah With commentary can be found at, and Chancellor Schorsch's commentary at
I'd also like to call your attention to a Social-Action oriented Torah commentary at  Social also has some nice Purim-related material.

Shabbat Ends: 6:30 PM Saturday

Dinner Dance: 7:00 (beginning with Havdalah)

Daily Minyan: Sunday at 9, weekdays at 7:30 AM.  While we normally do have at least ten at each service, please e-mail me to let me know if you wish to be here for a yahrzeit and want to make sure we have a minyan that day.


Sunday morning

SEVENTH GRADE FAMILY PROGRAM -- 8:45 - 10:45 AM, on Sunday.
For all parents and students of 2001 Bar Bat Mitzvah class. Through videos and discussion, we'll explore what it really means to become Bar and Bat Mitzvah.  I'll also be giving each student a surprise pre-Bar/Bat Mitzvah gift.

EIGHTH GRADE MINYAN AND BREAKFAST -- 9-10 AM, Sunday, with the Hazzan

SENIOR'S LUNCH -- Noon on Sunday (This event is already sold out)

PURIM CARNIVAL SET-UP: 1PM, Sunday, for Kadima and USY
Bring creative noisemakers and come in costume (adults too).  We'll have lots of prizes and surprises, fun for all ages!  Purim is not just for Kiddies anymore.  It's a time for all of us to exclaim to the world how proud we are to be Jews and to see just how much fun being Jewish can be.

By popular demand, we'll be organizing an adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah class within the next few months, with the goal of completing the course in about a year and preparing for an adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah service in May of 2002. The course of study will be taught by our senior staff and include some synagogue skills and a basic overview of Jewish history, customs and ceremonies and texts. We will gladly accommodate all levels of Hebrew proficiency. If you are at all interested, please contact the education office (322-6901 X306).

YOM HA-SHOAH: The Legacy of the Generations
This year's community-wide Holocaust Remembrance Day program, to be held here on the evening of April 19, will focus on the second and third generations of survivors. If you are a child or grandchild of a survivor and would be interested in sharing your story, please let me know. How have the stories you grew up with changed your life? What do you feel is your special legacy or obligation as the descendant of a survivor? The program will feature brief testimonies given by people of all ages, including children, and we will be collecting additional written testimonies to be distributed that night.

Join me on Sunday, March 11, at 8:45 or at 11 AM, for an introduction to the fascinating and confusing world of Kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws.  This fourth grade family program (for our Religious School and Bi-Cultural fourth grade families) is also open to the entire congregation.  You've got questions?  We've got answers!

MINI PARLOR CONCERT: Sunday, March 18, 11-Noon, featuring the family Pasternak in a delightful mini-concert of instrumental and vocal arrangements of Klezmer, Hebrew, Israeli and Yiddish music.  Pre-concert reception at 10:30.

SPIRITUAL JOURNEYS ON THE WEB: Between Irony and Parody -- Finding Shushan and Unmasking Purim

1) A Drunken Stupor

In the Talmud, the sage Rava (Megillah 7b) comments, "A man is obligated to get drunk on Purim to the point where he can no longer distinguish between `Cursed is Haman' and `Blessed is Mordecai.'"  The Cyber-Talmudist and author Eliezer Segal notes that later authorities had trouble accepting the ruling at face value. For an arch-rationalist like Maimonides it was unimaginable that the halakhah could be condoning such actions; hence he re-interpreted the ruling to refer to drinking only enough to fall asleep. Some authorities understood that the statement was rejected by the Talmud, a view which it indicates by juxtaposing to it an incident wherein Rabbah slaughters Rabbi Zera while under the influence (Rabbah is able to revive his colleague, though the latter politely refuses an invitation to the next year's festivities).

Maybe Rava is making a comment not on the confused state of drunkenness, but rather on the confusing nature of Purim itself. For even before we've had a drop to drink, Purim leaves us in such a stupor that we can't even figure out when it falls or whether these events ever really happened.  In search of these answers, we begin our journey with some basic links about the holiday: (Jewish Community Online) is a great place to begin, along with

2) When does Purim fall?

Purim begins next Thursday night; that is unless you live in a walled city, when it falls the next day.  That is unless the next day is Shabbat, when, since we can't read the Megillah on Shabbat, it is postponed until Sunday.  Confused enough?  Click on  There you'll discover that in Jerusalem and other walled cities (you find out why walled cities there too), the reading of the Megillah and the main festivities are held on Sunday (the 16th of Adar). However, both Friday and that Sabbath take on a festive atmosphere. In this way the holiday is felt and marked in Jerusalem for three days and therefore Purim in such a year is called a "Triple Purim."  While you're figuring all that out, take a peek at these other informative Purim sites, at  and

3) Irony

...and, where I read the following informative passage:

"...There is an essential connection between the ironic style of the Megillah and the ironic style of Purim. Just as this Megillah differs totally from the other books of the Bible, so Purim is totally different from other Jewish holidays, both in the popular customs associated with it (dressing up) and in the mitzvah, unique in Jewish tradition, of imbibing alcohol at the Purim meal to the point of intoxication ("ad delo yada"). Is this a "Jewish custom"? The Jews seem to have decided to lose control on this day and to change to the point where they no longer resemble Jews. On Purim, the Jews do not only relate the story of the Megillah, they also act it out and live it anew each year."

More even than confusion, Purim is steeped in irony.  Some commentators have noted the similarity between Purim and, of all holidays, Yom Kippur (also called Yom Kippurim, or, literally "a day like Purim."). At,   you can read a commentary by Rabbi Noson Scherman.  While no two holidays would seem to be more different (which reminds me of the old joke that, while on Purim all the Jews dress up as fools, on YK all the fools dress up as Jews), yet the Talmud teaches us that when the Messianic Age arrives, the only holidays that will remain on the books will be Purim and Yom Kippur. Scherman equates the two days in that just as "Israel survived Haman's threat with renewed vigor, it survives every Yom Kippur with God's acceptance of its repentance. In place of death there is life. "

If irony is a key to understanding Purim, it also is a key to understanding the Jewish condition.  Samuel Johnson defined irony as, "A mode of speech in which the meaning is contrary to the words."  The Jewish condition has run contrary to the facts of history.  No other people has lasted so long, in such small numbers, without a homeland.  No other has survived such tragedies and yet developed such unmatched skills at generating comedy.  There is no logical reason for us to be here!  We have survived through history because we have learned how to transcend it.  In the realm of time, the Jews have been perpetually weak and in danger of extinction.  But lifted beyond history, in the sacred time that we all experience when on Shabbat the table glistens, and the home of even the poorest peasant becomes in her eyes a palace, that is where we have found our hidden strength. 

For a definition of Irony, see And to better understand the term, look at,,3266,49434,00.html,, and  The Time article claims that "Irony is dead," and at, a Globe and Mail columnist declares that a "war on irony" is on; but the Village Voice piece claims that "Irony is On the Rise."  Ironic, huh?  Irony has even infiltrated the sacred, dusty pages of the New York Times:

"Not so long ago, irony was viewed as a menace on 43rd Street, where the tone was consistently sober and any humor that crept in purely unintentional. But that's all changed. No one can pinpoint the exact date, but sometime between the arrival of Adam Moss and the departure of Abe Rosenthal, irony has received the imprimatur of The New York Times.
Consider the frequency with which the words "irony" and "ironic" appear in the Times. In fact, the Times' use of the I-words has risen steadily through the 1990s, to a record high of more than 1050 in 2000, or an average of three times a day. That's almost double the irony quotient that Times readers were treated to in 1980."

Ironic, isn't it, that this most assimilated of Jewish-owned publications has suddenly adopted that most Jewish of traits.  Will wonders never cease?  Soon they'll be laying tefillin in the cafeteria and praising Ariel Sharon on the editorial pages.

4) Parody

Irony is only part of the secret power of Purim.  Ironic wit is best expressed in parody, the Purim version of which is commonly called the Purim spiel.  The spiel (play) lifts the story from a particular time and place and gives it's message a timeless quality -- and it allows us to laugh a little at ourselves and at the world around us.  On the Web, Purim parodies proliferate (say THAT five times fast). At we see that a Pittsburgh congregation will this year be doing "The Megillah According to the Beatles." The script isn't printed, but I can only imagine the lyrics: "Hey Jew, don't be afraid, take this sad song and make it better, remember that Haman's not gonna win, Esther will begin, to make it better..."  Not bad, off the top of my head.

Art Waskow sees even the book of Esther itself as being a Purim spiel, at"Most Jews today understand the whole story of Esther not as an historical chronicle but as a novel, the first Purim spiel, a double joke on anti-Semites and misogynists. Haman is hanged on the same gallows he intended for Mordechai; the king who had denounced Vashti and said he would never take orders from a woman ends up by doing exactly what Esther tells him."

And at Eliezar Segal's commentary at we see how, in the Babylonian Talmud, an exceptional passage (Hullin 139b) serves as a model for subsequent "Purim-Torah"-- that is, playfully using some of the far-fetched methods of talmudic logic and Biblical exegesis in order to reach absurd conclusions.  The passage in question relates how a visiting rabbi was challenged to find references to Mordecai, Esther, Haman and Moses (!) in the Torah. The sage responds to the riddles with audacious, clever puns. For example, ignoring the traditional vocalization, he finds an allusion to Haman in Genesis 3:11: "Is it from (hamin) the tree..." (also hinting at the villain's hanging); and to Esther in Deuteronomy 31:18, where God says, "I will surely hide (haster 'astir) my face" (recalling Esther's refusal to disclose her origins to the king).

Typically, some of the later commentators approached the talmudic passage without full appreciation of its humorous intent. Thus Rashi gravely tries to justify the need to find an "allusion" to Moses' name in the Torah. Or to take another example, the later custom of donning masks and costumes on Purim--a practice which is first reported in Provence in the early fourteenth century, and later achieved popularity under the influence of the German Fastnacht celebration and the Italian carnivals--was afterwards tied to the idea of God's "hiding his face" as found in the Talmud!

5) Place

Once we've finally figured when Purim falls and we've gotten past all the irony and parody, we are left wondering whether the story actually happened in a real place, or whether this timeless tale has no firm rooting in geography as well as history.

The Megillah describes a city that really did exist, called Shushan, in Persia.  We learn from that, according to the noted medieval Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela, the Jewish quarter of Shushan was separated from the palace by a river.  For some information about the original city, check

And to see how Shushan impacted Jewish history even before the days of Mordechai and Esther, see are told that in the 6th century BCE, following the Babylonian Exile, when the Persian king (Cyrus) allowed Ezra to rebuild both the Temple and Jerusalem, he was worried about the possibility of a Jewish rebellion. To remind his Jewish subjects that he was boss, Cyrus instructed the builders to carve a picture of the Shushan skyline over the main entrance.  That became known as the Shushan Gate of the Temple.  Think about it.  Shushan, which has become for us the very symbol of the condition of Exile, was actually the name of a gate in the very epicenter of the Jewish nationhood, Jerusalem.

There are other Shushans on the Web, like Shushan's in New Orleans, which specializes in, of all things, Mardi Gras Clothing and Hats.  And in New York State you'll find the picturesque hamlet of Shushan, which as a beautiful covered bridge. Visit it at .  At, Michael Ross takes us on a parody walking tour of Shushan.  And if you're just in the mood for Shushan and Purim jokes, there's always  And finally, meet the Shushan family at, and congratulations to Tati on his new car, "Shimon."

6) Where does all this leave us?
This journey leaves us spinning -- right where we began, with a non-alcoholic drink in our hand yet dizzy from another day in Persian Exile.  It leaves us right we where have been all along, at the gates of the palace, with Haman's shadow lurking around the corner; and at the entrance to the king's chamber, begging his indulgence, praying for victory, and readying for the battle that surely lies ahead.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Sameach.

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