Monday, March 20, 2006

Is Frume Sarah AWOL?

No such luck. my treasured readers. Just overwhelmed with the pre-Purim preparations. I've got many things to report. Finding the time, however, has been a challenge. So I will do my best to share some of my recent musings over the next day or so and then I am off to Boston for a conference -- without -- HORRORS -- access to the internet!

Stay tuned...

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Today's Lesson

Today was a day of frivolity. Of masquerading. And of carefree joy. Were it not for brave Esther, who took an unpopular and potentially fatal stand so many years ago, we would certainly not be here today.

Purim is a holiday free from normalcy and rules. Not only are we encouraged to gamble, cross-dress, and drink to excess, but we make fun of a sacred text and of ourselves. Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking that Purim is a trivial or minor holiday. In fact, so important is Purim that it will be the only holiday celebrated during Messianic times for even in a perfect world, we will still need to laugh at ourselves.

The story of Purim takes its name from the Hebrew word, pur, which means “lot” (as in lottery), for in the Megillah, Haman cast lots to pick a date for the slaughter of the Jewish people.

This story is without a doubt the oddest one in our Bible. The name of God does not appear – not even once! Its sexual shenanigans, philandering king, and violence are the stuff of soap operas and melodrama. Its dark undertones and giddy triumph over mortal danger, though, has always made it a favourite among a people with a long history of persecution and unhappy endings.

Is bravery reserved only for folktales and legends? Can we measure up to the valor of our ancestors and take the risks necessary to preserve Jewish life in contemporary times? Or if given the opportunity, will we take two steps back just because it is easier than taking that one step forward?

Ugly voices call for our destruction. Not in Babylonia. Nor in Shushan. Nor in Berlin in 1938. But right here. And right now. The President of Iran calls for our demise. And we do nothing. Hatred pours forth on college campuses across North America -- indeed even in my very own neighbourhood -- and still we do nothing. What will it take for us to gather together and say “no more!” When will we rise up in the manner of Esther and Mordechai and say “enough!”

On this day of rejoicing, O God, point the way to peace for all Your people. Give us the strength to stand up in the face of derision. On this day of remembering our deliverance, O Gracious One, deliver us from all hatred. Point us to a place of tolerance, partnership, and peace.

One Shot Too Many

Dear Loyal Readers,

I have many thoughts to share as I have not had the chance to write at all this past week. However, I have a pounding headache and it's got Slivowitz written all over it!!

I just returned to my desk after hearing the least satisfying Megillah reading I've ever heard in my life. One of the agencies in our building (there is a reason I'm a diehard BJE supporter) arranged for a Megillah reading. 5 people came. This is not a misprint. 5 people...out of all the Jews who work in this building. Well, 6 if you count the reader. Or maybe just 2 if you only count the men. The reader was from Chabad and in fact the only other man present recited the blessing on our behalf. Although women are also commanded to hear the reading, we can't actually say the blessing. Um...someone explain this to me. And a real explanation -- not just a cynical, pseudo-Ortho explanation.

The reading of the Megillah on Purim is one of those time-bound mitzvot that women are actually obligated to observe. The reason is, according to Rabbi Yehosua ben Levi, that they too were involved in the miraculous rescue from certain death at the hands of Haman.

What does this mean? The Rashbam (in Pesachim 108b) points out that it is a woman (Esther!) who brought about the rescue in the first place. I think that this is a great reason. The Tosafot, however, disagree with this reasoning. I suspect that it is not a slight to Esther. Rather, the Tosafot, in true Tosafot-form, focus on the grammatical problem presented by the phrase "they too." How could ben Levi's statement point to a woman's primary involvement in the story (e.g. Esther) when this phrase seems to indicate something else? So the explanation favoured by the Tosafot is that since the women were equally threatened by Haman's evil decree, so too were they equally saved. Also, a great reason.

Now Rashi points out that since women have an obligation equal to that of men, women are eligible to read the Megillah and any men hearing that reading will fulfill his obligation. A man way beyond his time. Sadly,his opinion is contested by the Baal Hilchot Gedolot, who states that the obligation for women is to hear the reading not the actual act of reading...while men have the obligation to read it. Therefore, when one man hears it read by anbother man, it is considered as if he has read it himself. Not the case if a woman has read it. If you'd like to take a closer look at this and try to come to a comfortable conclusion (good-luck!), check out Orach Chaim 689:2 (that's in the Shulchan Aruch, compiled by your friend and mine, Joseph Caro).

Back to this morning's reading -- so the Megillah chanter sped through the reading so fast that it was damn-near impossible to follow along. The law clearly states that every word must be heard in order to fulfill the mitzvah of reading the Megillah. I'm sorry but there is no way that the Speedy Gonzales method of reading would have satisfied the Sages of old.

There is a tradition that I'd never seen (I think that few Reform shuls observe it)until today and that is the congregational participation in the recitation of four key verses, known as the verses of redemption:

1. There was a Jewish man in Shushan, the capitol whose name was Mordechai, son of Yair, son of Shim'i, son of Kish, a Benjaminite. (2:5)
2. Mordechai left the King's presence clad in royal apparel of blue and white with a large gold crown and a robe of fine linen and purple, then the city of Shushan was cheerful and glad. (8:15)
3. The Jews had light and gladness, and joy and honour. (8:16)
4. For Mordechai the Jew was viceroy to King Ahasuerus; he was a great man among the Jews, and popular with the mulititude of his brethern; he sought the good of his people and was concerned for the welfare of all his posterity. (10:3)

A nice tradition actually, and one that I would love to introduce to my shul. Needless to say that at this morning's reading, I was the only one in the "congregation" reading the verses and to be honest, I didn't read all that well. I was too busy trying to figure out where we were. And the man who was the only one kosher enough to recite the brachot on our behalf -- well, he didn't say much.

So what did we learn today children?

I learned that I like the way we do things in the Reform community -- most of the time, that is. I like that our Megillah reading is in a language that we all understand. I like that it is read slowly and with feeling. I like that men and women must take equal responsibility for their own obligations to God.

And now, I am going to take more medicine for my headache and head down to get ready for our Purim carnival. I shall return with further Purim musings.

In the meantime, be happy, it's Adar!!

Chag Purim Sameach!

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Jewish Choices

Dear "Emily,"

I've been thinking about you ever since you rushed up to me two weeks ago with the news that you'd broken up with your boyfriend. "I wanted to tell you because I knew that you'd be happy!" you exclaimed. "And I'm dating someone from school, which I also know would make you happy," you continued.

You're right -- I am happy that you are no longer seeing your former flame. Not because I wish you unhappiness or angst, but because I want you to marry a Jew. And even though you are only in high school, "Em," you are already establishing the dating habits that will one day lead to marriage.

Before you jump up and accuse me of racism or prejudice, let me point out that my desire for you to marry a Jew is not motivated out of a dislike of non-Jews. It is out of my concern to preserve our heritage. In other words it isn't "them" -- it's me!! A political conservative who chooses only to date other conservatives is not being racist. Nor is a vegetarian who refuses to date a carnivore. It is not racist to limit one's dating options to those who share certain interests or beliefs. When a certain position is important to us, it is understandable that we would choose only to date like-minded people. Remember also that anyone can potentially become Jewish through conversion. Racists wouldn't invite the people they hate to join their group -- and we do!

"Emily," I've had the honour to watch you grow from a cute little girl into a lovely young woman, and I care a great deal for you and your family. As one of your rabbis, I have partnered with your parents in instilling in you the values and teachings of our Tradition. And one value that is incredibly important is that you marry Jewish.

Your parents have done an admirable job in this area. They've connected with our shul and have maintained their affiliation as active members long past the Bat Mitzvah services of both you and your sister. They send you to a Jewish Day School, belong to the JCC, and support your participation in our local Bureau of Jewish Education programs. Judaism is a living part of your home, and they've done everything they could do to show you how Judaism is important to them.

Now it's your turn. From the moment you leave for college in the fall, you will determine your own Jewish choices. Hillel or not? AEPhi or another house? Missing class on the holidays or not? Dating exclusively Jewish or not?

The statistics are overwhemingly against you. Just under 50% of our young people are marrying out of the faith. So if you are committed to marrying a Jew, the odds are not in your favour. And for those who are not committed to marrying Jewishly, the evidence shows that Judaism will stop with them and not continue to the next generation. "The truth is, not more than about a third of the products of mixed marriage identify Jewishly," said Jonathan D. Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. "There is a great fear that if a small Jewish community simply acquiesces to a situation of high intermarriage, that pretty soon, do the math, that a small community, which is really an endangered religious species, will simply disappear."

Given all of this, the most important reason for marrying a Jew is because I want you to find a life partner who will join you on your own Jewish journey. Not because I want you to rear Jewish children (which I do) or because I worry about statistics (which I also do), but because ultimately I believe that Judaism is the language of your soul and I want you and your soulmate, your b'shert, to speak the same language.

So yes, "Emily," I am happy for you. Happy that you came to your own conclusion to end a relationship with a non-Jew. And happy that you are seeing a "nice Jewish boy" from school. And proud that you are making good Jewish choices.

May the Holy One continue to bless you on your journey...

Friday, March 03, 2006

Purim is Coming!!

All I needed to know about being a Jewish parent I did not learn in Rabbinical School. You see, Rabbinical School was only five years and in my case, BC – Before Children. I learned much important and practical information. However, it is the ongoing journey of Jewish parenthood that has been the impetus for ritual creativity.

Take Purim. To some, our annual costumed festival might look like a Jewish Halloween. These two holidays could not be more different. Purim costumes are always for fun with no intention to scare others. Also, Purim is all about giving rather than getting. The focus is not on receiving candy. Rather, it is our custom to give Shalach manos (gifts of food) to friends and tzedakah to the needy.

As I have mentioned before, I’m not a lover of Halloween. I am, however, a huge fan of Purim. I love the costumes and the frivolity of this holiday. The raucous and bawdy behaviour that is forbidden in shul but this one time of year. Our family really gets into this holiday and talk of what we will be wearing to shul has been a favourite topic over the past few weeks.

And this sparked a moment of sudden creativity – to take an annual family picture in costume. By no means an original idea as I suspect many families do this around Halloween. However, why not take this opportunity to remind our kids that we have our own “dress-up” holiday? It is, what we professionals like to call, a teachable moment! When we parents make a very big deal about a particular practice or behaviour, we draw our children’s attention to it. Purim is a very big deal. Its silly nature veils the serious lesson of the day; that the world is a changeable and sometimes dangerous place for minorities, and that in order to survive, we have had to take risks and stick together. We look to Esther as a role model of a Jewish woman who is not only a beauty queen, but a real person who acts to save her people.

So it's time for a new Purim tradition. I dog-dare, double-dare you to make Purim a delightful celebration in the life of your family. Pull out those costumes, head over to the portrait studio, mug for the camera, and then head over to shul for the megillah reading. I promise – you’ll have memories to last a lifetime.

Be Happy, it’s Adar!!

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Whose Rules?

Cancer happens to other people. Right? It doesn't happen to you. Or me. Or the young. Or the good.


Cancer does happen to you. And me. And the old. And the young. And the good. And the bad. It crosses socio-economic, racial, religious, and political lines. Cancer does not discriminate.

And this past month, I learned of three pre-menopausal women diagnosed with breast cancer. Two of them under the age of 38.

So guess what? Cancer doesn't follow our rules. Cancer plays by its own rules. It's aggressive and lethal.

Our tactic should be equally as aggressive. What are you doing to help in the war against cancer?

Susan Komen Foundation
Retinoblastoma International
Leukemia and Lymphoma Society
American Cancer Society
Important Breast Cancer legislation(Lifetime Channel)
Sharsheret (Linking Young Jewish Women in the Fight Against Breast Cancer)
Y-ME National Breast Cancer Organization
The Breast Cancer Site

Each link will take you to a site that provides patient services, medical information, and ways that you can help. A Google search will yield even more cancer resources. These are just a few of the cancer sites I visit on a regular basis.

Baruch Ata Adonai rofeh hacholim.
Blessed are You, O God, Healer of the sick.