Every morning when I awake, I do a quick read of the news on my cellphone to make sure that the world is still spinning and that there hasn’t been a nuclear incident the night before that I somehow managed to sleep through. My news sources consist of the New York Times, the LA Times, East Bay Times, and a smattering of stories my friends have posted to Facebook. Lately, with all the talk about “alt-facts”, fake news, “news spin” and flat out lies, I don’t know who to trust.
Because I no longer trust the media, I feel less inclined to weigh in on the issues of the day. I am fearful that my personal analysis is based on “alt-facts”, or spin. Spin is nothing new. All stories have two sides. I’ll bet you that Hagar would tell the story of her life with Abraham and Sarah in a pretty different light than we read in Genesis. And what if we heard the Akkedah from the perspective of the ram caught in the thicket who became the sacrifice? Grappling with issues from a variety of perspectives broadens us and deepens our understanding.
Today we are celebrating Purim, which in most shuls is a time of frivolity and Purim carnivals, and schnapps… lot of schnapps… In the megillah we read of the feminist Vashti, the heroine Esther, the ingenious Mordechai, and the evil Haman. It is a simplistic narrative in many congregations but what about the parts of the story that we sweep under the carpet? At the end of the story, after Esther and her king have sailed into the sunset, when Mordechai has risen to power, we read:
“Throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, the Jews mustered in their cities to attack those who sought their hurt; and no one could withstand them, for the fear of them had fallen upon all the peoples. So, the Jews struck at their enemies with the sword, slaying and destroying; they wreaked their will upon their enemies. The rest of the Jews, those in the king’s provinces, likewise mustered and fought for their lives. They disposed of their enemies, killing seventy-five thousand of their foes; but they did not lay hands on the spoil. That was on the thirteenth day of the month of Adar; and they rested on the fourteenth day and made it a day of feasting and merrymaking.”
When the whole thing was over, more than 75,000 people had been killed. How do we feel about the execution of 75,000 people at the hands of a mob? How do we feel about the Mordechai and the Jews of Persia acting vengefully? Are these the values that we want to blithefully pass on to our children today?
- Yes, I recognize that the Jewish community had just been threatened with extinction and it is to be expected that they would react against their would-be attackers.
- Perhaps this narrative teaches the listener “don’t mess with us, we can hold our own?”
- And yes, I know there is commentary that says that Haman was a descendent of Amalek and we are repeatedly told “you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven. Do not forget it!”(Deuteronomy 25: 19; also see Exodus 17:14 and Numbers 24:20)
- And yes, I recognize that the entire Megillat Esther could be a fantasy tale of retribution written by a powerless author akin to “Inglorious Bastards.”
But grappling with the issues raised at the end of the story is the most important part of processing our yearly megillah reading. The answers to these questions shape who we are as individuals and as people today. As clergy, it is our role to bring folks into the community but to not give them a lightweight admission ticket. How does one balance power with compassion? Are Vashti and Esther feminist role models? Is Mordechai really the “good guy” in the story, a conniving schemer willing to use his niece as a pawn to gain access and power; or a “strategic thinker with the big picture in mind?” It is our role to use these texts to bring forth the questions that shed light on the questions of our day; to elevate Purim above Hamentaschen and Purim carnivals. It is our role to help stamp out pediatric Judaism.
As I lie in bed in the morning reading the news, thinking “how am I going to stay grounded” with all the turmoil of the times swirling around me, wondering if Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner are our modern-day Esther and Mordechai, our weekly Torah portion gives me a game plan for action.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, we read among other things about the taking of a census and the ½ shekel tax, and to observe the Shabbat. What are 3 take-ways that will can keep us grounded this coming week and combine our Jewish and civic values?
- The first is the census. When the important issues that shape our world are in front of us, stand up and be counted. Use your voice.
- Secondly, the ½ shekel… Pay your taxes and most importantly, donate to causes you believe in.
- Lastly, regarding “Keeping the Shabbat.” It says …שבת וינפש – shabbat v’yinafash. “And God rested and was refreshed.” Wow, God needed rest and to be refreshed! If God is exhausted at the end of the week, I am in great company. If God needs some downtime, then so do I.
I started this post by saying “Every morning when I awake, I do a quick read of the news on my cellphone to make sure that the world is still spinning and that there hasn’t been a nuclear incident the night before that I somehow managed to sleep through.” If I slept through a nuclear incident, bad news will find me… I think it is time to chuck the cellphone first thing in the morning and to say the prayer “Modeh ani (I offer thanks)” instead. I am grateful that my soul returned to me and I don’t take it for granted. It’s a much better way to start the day.