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    Right or left – Tzav

    March 13th, 2022

    The final sentence of the sidra (Lev. 8:36) tells us that Aaron and his sons carried out what God had commanded, turning (as Rashi informs us) neither to the right or the left.

    These days “right” and “left” have a political connotation. Not just in global or national politics but religious politics too. Whoever and wherever you are on the spectrum you tend to think that it is the others who are going too far to the right or too far to the left, becoming too extreme in their orthodoxy or too extreme in their unorthodoxy.

    Actually what is going on is an attempt to assess which position is right in your own situation. That does not necessarily mean that either you or others must be wrong, only that you or they are a thinking person whose opinions are in process of formation.

    How Purim was saved

    March 13th, 2022

    By Boris Shapiro

    The popularity of Purim is wildfire. Spiels, deals, meals … all are part of the celebration. You can’t visualise the year without it.

    But it was nearly squeezed out of the calendar more than once and there were times when it was in danger of being abolished, sanitised and (probably worst of all) completely ignored.

    What saved Purim and strengthened its hold is, perhaps paradoxically, antisemitism. The more that Jews were persecuted, the more they needed a light-hearted response, and Purim provided the answer.

    The Purim story is not the same as the story of Purim. The Purim story is the narrative of the weak-kneed king, the villainous Haman and Zeresh, the heroic Mordechai and Esther.

    The story of Purim is something different – the rise and fall of the festival, its rejection and rehabilitation. It took great effort before the Book of Esther was admitted to the scriptural canon. A Biblical Book that doesn’t mention God? Events that ignore Eretz Yisra’el? Preposterous, some say!

    Every now and then the scholars even question its historicity – maybe the events never happened, maybe Mordechai and Esther never were, maybe it’s just fiction, maybe it’s a folk tale that was judaised to save it from being jettisoned!

    Graetz thought it was invented in Maccabean times to raise the morale of the Jewish people. Julius Lewy thought it chronicled a foreign colony in the Persian realm. Others noted that ancient peoples celebrated the end of winter with fables about their gods.

    The Jews themselves valued the day so much that by the time of the Mishnah it was part of halachah. Haman was seen as the embodiment of Amalek, a sign that humanity must always guard against the Amalek-spirit.

    Folk frolics crept in, with a tug-of-war between dignity and indecorum. Christians thought that Jews who noisily blotted out the name of Haman and hung Purim effigies were symbolically attacking Jesus. Cecil Roth thought this was the origin of the medieval blood libels. The Jews themselves derived comfort from the thought that Purim proved that God would never let them down.

    There are serious adult themes on Purim – God’s protecting hand, the heroism of dedicated individuals, the complexity of the “dual loyalty” theory, the psychology of the victim who says gam zeh ya’avor (“This too will pass!”), and the women’s contribution to Jewish survival.

    Immanuel Lewy said, “Haman denounces Mordechai as morally inferior, because in reality he fears his moral superiority”. We constantly find new fascination in the political machinations and palace intrigues of the story.

    Jews depressed about antisemitism can always find hope in the Talmudic view that descendants of Haman learnt Torah in B’nei B’rak (Gittin 57b, Sanh. 69b).

    Purim has a future; the rabbis said that even in messianic times there will be a Purim. There will be no more sorrow, but it will always be possible to laugh.

    The playful seriousness of the Feast of Purim

    March 8th, 2022

    The following article by Rabbi Raymond Apple originally appeared on the ABC Religion and Ethics website on 8 March, 2022.

    The Feast of Esther by Jan Lievens, 1625

    Next week begins the light-hearted Jewish folk-festival of Purim, which celebrates the events related in the Book of Esther.

    The dramatis personae of the story are partly gentile, partly Jewish. But in spite of the gentile celebrities — the weak and foolish King Ahasuerus (Xerxes), the obstinate Queen Vashti, the egotistical prime minister Haman and his wife Zeresh, plus all the courtiers, the nobles, and the ordinary people — Esther is an unmistakably Jewish book and the gentiles are the supporting cast. It is not the Book of Haman or Ahasuerus, but the Book of Esther (some call it the Book of Mordecai) and its focus is on the Jews, not the gentiles.

    Immanuel Lewy counted it among “the three dramatic narratives in ancient Hebrew literature, the stories of Joseph, Job and Mordecai” — three stories, he wrote, which “portray a suffering hero”. Some Christians are intrigued by the “suffering hero” theme, but most New Testament writers ignore Esther, other than Mark 6:22-23 where the words of Ahasuerus are echoed when Herod tells a girl dancer, “Whatever you wish, I will give it to you, even half of my kingdom”. There is also an echo of Esther in the Letter to the Hebrews.

    The book has received a mixed reception from Christians. “I wish it had not come to us at all”, Martin Luther said, claiming that the book contains “heathen unnaturalities” — whatever that phrase means. Some Christians queried the nationalism of the story and its alleged vindictive spirit; they thought it had no great spiritual or moral teaching. However, Jerome regarded Mordecai and Esther as symbols of the Church and Jesus.

    Because Esther saved her people, some thought her a type of Christ. Her courage in approaching the king is seen as symbolic of human beings’ pleas to God: “Let us boldly approach the throne of our gracious God, where we may receive mercy and in His grace find timely help” (Hebrews 4:16). Some see Haman as an “Antichrist” and regard the story as a parable of the persecution of the Church.

    The book was widely debated in rabbinic Judaism before its formal reception into the Bible in about 90 CE, though other controversial books were accepted into Scripture more easily. Essenism, however, rejected the canonicity of Esther, and it is the only biblical book not in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Its major problem is the omission of any direct mention of God. Some Bible scholars find hints of God, but these are far-fetched.

    The clue seems to be geographical. There are two main versions of the story, namely the Hebrew Scriptural text and the Greek version. Western Christianity tends to use the Septuagint in Greek or in a translation, which has the conventional marks of piety, prayer, miracles, and God Himself. In the Greek texts, Mordecai prays, “O God, Lord and King who rules over all things, spare Your people, have mercy upon Your inheritance, that we may live and sing praise to Your name”. Esther dons sackcloth and prays, “O Lord our King, help me who am alone with no helper but You”. In the Greek version Mordecai uses psalmistic language to praise God’s protection and intervention.

    The Hebrew version is known for the absence of the Divine name. Jews are satisfied that God’s presence is there even though it is not overt. God controls the events of the story whether He is named or not. The omission of the Name may be because of the light-hearted spirit in which the book is read, or the fact that in Persian literature the Jewish God might not be treated with proper sanctity — though we wonder to what extent the Persians understood Hebrew or had any knowledge of Judaism.

    The story itself is a colourful novelette with much drama and considerable human interest. Its characters are fascinating and quite believable. But it also has a serious side. It reminds us of the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow: “Though the mills of God grind slowly; Yet they grind exceeding small; / Though with patience He stands waiting, With exactness grinds He all.” The book symbolises the inexorable defeat of evil — in this case represented by Haman. It exemplifies the scriptural assertion that people who dig a pit for others end up falling into it themselves.

    Vividly presenting the interplay of the Jewish minority and the gentile majority, the Book of Esther recognises the right of every subculture to maintain — albeit integrated into a dominant host society — its own identity, its usages, and ways of worship. It upholds the right of all human beings to live without menace or molestation, which is the messianic hope of the biblical prophets Isaiah and Micah, who insist that, in a good society, “everyone shall sit under his own vine or fig-tree, and none shall make him afraid”. That is, after all, why the Purim hero is Mordecai, not Haman.

    Adam was no thief – Vayikra

    March 6th, 2022

    The beginning of Sefer Vayikra gives Adam a mention (Lev. 1:2). God calls Moses and tells him what to do if Adam ki yakriv mikkem (literally, “if any man of you) brings a sacrifice to God”.

    Rashi says we can learn from this that anyone who brings a sacrifice must be like Adam, who did not steal anybody else’s property because there was nobody else on earth. Hence one cannot and must not steal something that belongs to another person and then offer it to God as a sacrifice.

    The whole principle of sacrifice is that everything you have derives directly from God and must be acknowledged as such.

    The important thing is not that the offering gives God a gift – does God want to be a rich property owner? – but it gives thanks to the Almighty Giver of all things.

    A corporate sin – Vayikra

    March 6th, 2022

    It is not only the individual who, when necessary, brings a sin-offering to God. The community as a whole can go astray and need Divine forgiveness.

    Chapter 4 of Vayikra says (verse 13), “If the whole congregation of Israel shall err… and do any of the things which the Lord commanded not to be done…”

    On Rosh HaShanah we have a section of the Musaf service which speaks of God remembering the deeds of nations and communities. Commenting on today’s sidra, Rashi utilises the Midrash to suggest that even the Great Sanhedrin is capable of sinning.

    If we move the discussion to our own much later generation, we see that even leaders can go wrong, even people who are known for their political capacity, even wise people who normally decide wisely.

    No-one – and no community – is always right. No-one can manage without submitting their thoughts, ideas and plans to the One who made us all.