Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Walk Article II-Purim

ALTERNATE UNIVERSE

Purim-5774

Rabbi David Walk

 

            I know that I already sent an article this week, but I had the idea and couldn't resist.  So, here goes:

One of the most famous plot devices in science fiction is the alternate reality.  In these stories the authors make their point by placing the action in another dimension where things are just different enough to teach an idea but similar enough to our world to get the idea.  This was done many times in the old Twilight Zone series.  One of the best examples was the episode called In the Eye of the Beholder, in which there is a world which can't tolerate the truly ugly, and surgically 'improves' people deemed to be hideous.  Those who can't be saved from their deformity are sent to a distant land, hidden away from the attention of the attractive citizens.  The only problem is that when we finally get to see the faces of the actors we discover that their idea of beautiful is truly repulsive to us.  But who are we to say?  This idea is also becoming common place in astrophysics.  When Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson, director of the Haydn Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History and star of the remake of the television series Cosmos, was asked what recent discovery would have excited Carl Sagan, the star of the original series thirty-four years ago.  He replied 'multiverse'.  What is that?  According to Wikipedia they are the hypothetical set of possible universes that together comprise everything that exists and can exist: the entirety of space, time, matter, and energy as well as the physical laws and constants that describe them. Believe it or not, this concept from both fiction and science will help to answer a major question about the book of Esther, and help us understand the message of Purim.

            The question comes from Rabbi Yoel bin Nun, who is the rav of Ofra and is featured in the recent book They Were Dreamers, and this discussion appears on VBM, the Torah web site of Yeshivat Har Etziyon.  The article is called The Upside-Down World of Megillat Esther, and in it Rav bin Nun lists the differences between the book of Esther and every other book of our Bible, the Tanach.  The most famous difference is, of course, God isn't mentioned in our book.  But that's just the beginning.  The book seems to be totally secular without any mention of religious practices or even religious points of view.  The salvation seems to come totally through human devices.  And the way Esther becomes the hero is most peculiar.  She enters history through the harem.  But perhaps the greatest oddity of the book is the lack of any identification with Israel or Jewish destiny.  Mordechai was exiled with the leadership of Judea at the time of the Babylonian destruction and the Jews seem content to remain on Persia Island, adrift from our homeland.  The book seems more about Persia and its customs than about Judaism and our Torah way of life.

            So, Rav bin Nun asks, 'Why does it present the events in such a secular manner, bereft of even the slightest dimension of sanctity? The entire Tanakh is a record of God's relationship with mankind in general, and with Benei Yisrael specifically.'  Great question!  And his answer is, 'In other words, were the Megilla to have been omitted from the Tanakh, we would have recognized the Almighty only under circumstances when His Name may be uttered, within a reality where spirituality can legitimately be maintained. Megillat Esther is thus indispensable, as it demonstrates God's existence even in places where His Name may not be introduced, even in situations where one may not pray, study Torah or be engaged in anything sacred. The Megilla shows us the reality of Divine Providence in the topsy-turvy world of Shushan, where everything appears to happen by chance, through a random lottery, with no spiritual dimension whatsoever.'  Good answer, but I'd like to present another.

            There are epochs of Jewish history.  The first describes the period of the Patriarchs.  It portrays a wandering tribe called Hebrews.  The second begins with the exodus and is about our people in the land of Israel as a nation among nations, and we were called B'nei Yisrael.  The Megilla begins the third era when our people primarily are in exile and we find ourselves searching for the way home, back to Israel and a normal nationhood.  In this third time frame we are called Jews.

            The Megilla presents a new universe for the Jews.  One in which our frame of reference isn't Israel and Torah tradition but that of a host nation.  We had to learn to adapt to a new and alternate reality.  There are two major changes to which we had to reconcile.  First we had a new type of enemy and second a new paradigm for salvation.

The old style enemies were very logical; they attacked not our Torah and life style but our country.  They attacked as a normal geopolitical attempt at conquest of our land.  The new genre is more mysterious.  These enemies attack us because we are different.  They want to destroy our religion as much as they want to kill us.  Each villain has to be analyzed as to specific motive and methodology.

The other new reality is called hester panim, or the hiddeness of God.  Biblical history in Israel is replete with amazing miracles when God intervened on our behalf to save the day.  That scenario would be no more.  From now on we would primarily rely upon ourselves to right the ship of Jewish destiny.  Heroes like Mordechai and Esther would lead the Jews in efforts to survive the vicissitudes of exile. The great danger would be being 'scattered and separate (Esther 3:9);' the cure would be Jewish unity, as when Esther gathered the community (4:16). God would support our efforts in the background, rather than initiate miraculous interventions.

I believe that's why the Megilla is so very different from the rest of our Tanach.  It's a new style for a new and altered stage on which we must perform.  There are alternative universes and they are all around us.  These changing realities are dangerous and require new communal skills to navigate.  Purim teaches us how to survive in this new environment, and we celebrate its victory and its guidance.  Purim Sameach!         

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Walk Article-Zachor

 

GOOD & BAD

Zachor-Purim-5774

Rabbi David Walk

 

 

My students at Bi-Cultural Day School in Stamford, CT are often upset with me because of my slightly warped sense of humor. I often see things from a different perspective than these young people who are two generations separated from me. These dissimilar takes on life produce (at least for me) many humorous opportunities. Often these jokes take the form of puns. This punny point of view is even more fun (for me) when the word play crosses over into multiple languages. This approach to language and, perhaps, humor has a long and venerated history among our Sages. Hundreds of rabbinic homilies are based on puns. Probably the most famous of these is recited every Shabbat morning, and by Sefardim every day. This idea from the end of tractate Berachot (64a) begins with the proposition that the disciples of the rabbis increase peace in the world. The proof to that assertion is a verse: And all your children shall be learned in the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children (Isaiah 54:13). But then comes the weird word play. The rabbis tell us not to read the word for 'your children' as banayich, but as bonayich, which means your builders. Those who study Torah are building a world of peace for God. It's a beautiful idea, but the proof text is a stretch, to say the least. Well, the Sages did it again with an idea which is important to this week's special reading, Zachor, remember the behavior of Amalek.

 

Before we get to the pun, we need a little background. We read the annual reminder to remember Amalek the Shabbat before Purim, because we identify Haman, the Purim villain, with the nation of Amalek. There are two reasons for this assertion. The more conventional approach is that Haman is referred to as Agagi in the Megila. This is the name of the King of Amalek who was spared by King Shaul back in the book of Samuel. So, many authorities see this as a proof that Haman was related to that ruler of our nemesis. The other way of thinking is, for me, more compelling. The Talmud assumes that all the gene pools of the world were mixed up by Sennacherib the head of the Assyrian Empire, when he forcibly exiled all conquered people to other lands, including the famous Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. This means that we can no longer identify any ancient ethnicity. Therefore it would seem that we can't continue the search and destroy mission against Amalek. Maimonides to the rescue! He explains that Amalek is identified by behavior patterns, not DNA. Now as promised we're ready for the word play homily.

 

Towards the end of tractate Chulin (139b) the rabbis ask for a source for the character Haman in the Torah (Five Books of Moses). This question seems to suggest that the Torah predicts all future events and contains information about them. Maybe. In any case, here's the allusion to Haman: hamin ha'etz (Genesis 3:11). These words are the admonition of Adam for eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. The weird allusion to Haman is in the word hamin, which in the voweless Torah scroll is spelled with the same three letters as the name Haman. The Maharshah (Rabbi Shmuel Halevi Eidels, 1555-1631) in his classic commentary on Talmudic Aggadata explains that this isn't about linguistic games. It is teaching us that Haman and, indeed, all of Amalek are the snake in the grass, or the snake in the Garden. I agree that the Sages weren't just playing word games, but trying to teach us about the nature of Amalek. However, I would like to suggest that Haman isn't the snake but is the tree.

 

There are so many interpretations of this Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad that I can't begin to survey them. Allow me to jump into the explanation that I believe is significant to understanding Haman and Amalek. There was always good and bad, and humanity always had the ability to choose freely whichever seemed appropriate at the time. If this weren't true Adam and Eve, couldn't have sinned. Here's what changed with the consumption of the fruit: Previously good and bad were discrete units outside the human being, now good and bad were not only mixed with each other, they became internal attributes within the people themselves. Once this characteristic of badness is internal within humans, I can make the mistake of assuming that that there are humans who are irredeemably bad. Now that Amalek is a personality trait and not an ethnicity, I can identify that trait. They are those who judge people because of their race or ethnicity, not because of what they're deeds or actions. That's how Haman identified the Jews in the Megilla: There is a certain people...their laws differ from those of every people, and they do not keep the king's laws;...therefore let it be written to destroy them (Esther 4:8-9).

 

I learned this concept from Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, who passed away a few weeks ago. Rabbi Joe was a passionately proud Jew. He lived to spread Torah and its message. But to him a major part of that message superseded just following the laws (which he did punctiliously), it extended to demonstrating the dignity of humankind. To him the most important verse in the Torah is 'This is the book of the activities of humanity (Genesis 5:1).' This is why he could meet with Christians and Moslems, and advise both Anwar Sadat and Pope John Paul II. More important than their religion was their humanity. This is also why he could criticize superficially observant Jews. He would visit an old friend from Yeshiva who was serving time in prison for defrauding people of their retirement funds. He would cry compassionate tears for his friend's inability to understand God's moral demands, while scrupulously following God's rituals.

 

Rabbi Joe was the anti-Amalek. He loved God's creatures because God created them. He never categorized others, but tried to understand what made them tick. His love of humanity will be sorely lacking down here, but I think that he'll make heaven a better place. I will miss him as a friend and mentor, but will always cherish him as an inspiration. May his memory be for a blessing, for all mankind.  Happy Purim!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

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