When I think of the Purim holiday, I tend to think of noise-making, carnivals, costumes, and cookies. It was definitely one of the more fun Jewish holidays when I was a kid. But, as an adult who has actually read the Book of Esther, I realize that there are many parts of the story that are not so kid-friendly.
1. While I did dress up as Queen Esther for at least one Purim carnival as a child, it turns out that the story does not treat women well. Ahasheurus’ first wife, Vashti, was asked to parade naked in front of the king and his friends. She refused, and was replaced as Queen because of her unwillingness to appear nude before a group of drunken men. It was Esther, a woman who was willing to do this, who was rewarded by the King and became a hero of Jewish tradition. Throughout the text, there are several troubling details about how women are treated throughout the story, including in the king’s harem, where women were kept as concubines whose role it was to please the king.
2. There is a lot of murder in this story. The Jews felt threatened during the story until thanks to Esther, the king decided to save the Jews. The catch was that the decree to kill the Jews could not be reversed, so the king instead allowed the Jews to defend themselves. The oppressed (Jews) become the oppressor, killing not only their attackers and the sons of Haman, but also 75,000 Persians. Personally, I find it hard to claim that murdering more than 75,000 people was self-defense.
3. Revenge is a powerful theme associated with the Purim holiday. On the Shabbat prior to Purim, the traditional Torah reading is the story of the defeat of Amalek. The Bible speaks of the Amalekites as cruel people, and thus the Israelites were commanded to destroy the Amalekites. The connection to Purim is that its villain, Haman, is said to be a descendant of the Amalekites. Thus, when one reads about wiping out the Amalekites and then reads about the Jews committing murder at the end of the book of Esther, one might conclude that violence and revenge are celebrated in these texts.
4. Drunkenness is celebrated on Purim. In the Talmud, it says that one should drink to the point where he no longer can distinguish between the bad guy (Haman) and the good guy (Mordechai). This is clearly an adult angle of the holiday.
5. And remember those good cookies? Hamantaschen! I always learned the three-cornered cookies were representative of Haman’s hat or his ears. It turns out that they may more closely resemble female genitals. Lilith Magazine’s Rabbi Susan Schnur writes:
So … . can I prove that hamantaschen are contemporary sacred vulva cakes? No. But it certainly makes academic and gut sense to me: that parthenogenetic (self-fertilizing) hamantaschen—pubic triangles traditionally filled with black seeds—are pre-spring, full-moon fertility cookies, suggesting the potency of female generative power, and heralding women’s and the Earth’s seasonally awakening creativity.
What does all of this mean? Should we skip the Purim fun for kids just because the holiday has adult themes as well – and in some parts, disturbing messages? I don’t think so. I think it’s important to celebrate the holiday across the ages. And, then, my hope is that every child grows up and wants to learn the “rest of the story” because those details are fascinating and important as well. They shed light on the biblical authors and their worldview.
This week our Torah portion (Tetzaveh) will open commanding the Israelites to “light lamps that will burn day into night and night into day,” eternal lights. If I read our sacred mythology as Jung would read a dream, every object is the dreamer—me/us, and so I wonder what it is to be a flame always burning. A lamp generates heat and light—energy. What might my role be as a ready source of power maintained in a perpetual state of warmth and illumination?
The Book of Proverbs teaches: “The human soul is the lamp of the Lord.” Does this means that we have the capacity to light God’s way, or, even more significantly, to light God’s fire, warming God’s heart, arousing God’s creative and sustaining impulse? To be a lamp of the Lord suggests that I am empowered to fashion myself as a medium of divine accomplishment. Perhaps I have what it takes to nurture God in God’s work. Perhaps God welcomes, or even needs, my participation. If my soul is a flame fueling God’s spiritual irrigation of the world, then keeping my wick wet and my fire burning gives me agency in the outcome of it all, and agency give me hope in the face of the very real darkness that exists.
I like to imagine a circuit of energy that connects me to my Creator in a give and take that quickens the flow between us. Our relationship is in that flow. God streams spiritual light into the world on what the Zohar calls a River of Light. God’s light imbues all I encounter with a vitality that has the potential to transform the quality of my life and all life. Our mystical tradition teaches that it is our human work to discover and release the sparks of godliness embedded in Creation so that they fly free, revealed. Affected by God’s light as I encounter it in the world, I can be moved to raise my behavior in the manner that we call “mitzvah,” acting with awareness and appreciation. In turn, God is gratified by all that I notice and honor, and God’s desire is stimulated so that She overflows Her bounty yet again and more light flows from Eden.
I even like to imagine that, as a lamp to the Lord, my dedicated attention to particular mitzvot can shine light on specific needs in our world, inspiring God’s empathy to express itself in ways that stream divine grace into those suffering sectors.
Our Torah portion calls for “pure oil pressed from olives” to fuel the eternal light. Proverbs also teaches that “mitzvot are a lamp and Torah is light.” The Midrash says that we fuel the wicks with which we warm and ignite God, and light Her way, with a purity of action pressed from us like oil is pressed from olives. Pressing ourselves, we put pressure on ourselves to continuously behave in ways that respect all inhabitants of the earth and all that we borrow from God’s Creation. Our mitzvot bring light to the world directly, of course, making it a better place, but through this lens acts of goodness also empower us to affect God, increase God’s light and the way in which it shines upon us.
God’s job is to perpetually renew the act of Creation, ours is to perpetually light God’s fire. Maybe that’s what it means to partner with God creating our world.
Note: This post is inspired by a teaching offered by Rabbi Sara Leah Schely on the occasion of the end of her year of mourning for her mother, may her memory be a blessing.
Growing up I had fond respect for the senior rabbi of my congregation. I learned much from him, but I never truly connected with him on a personal level. Other rabbis around town were the ones with whom I had more meaningful discussions and the rabbis I would later point to as influences for my own path toward the rabbinate.
I was thinking about this recently when I was asked what a successful rabbi looks like in the 21st century. Certainly, rabbis today must be intelligent, engaging, personable and funny. That hasn’t changed since the time of the Mishnah. The questioner found my response intriguing when I included that a successful rabbi today watches popular television shows and goes to the multiplex to see the latest movies everyone’s talking about. What did I mean by that?
Pop culture unites us. An office environment in which both the rank and file employees as well as the boss not only watch the same television shows but also gather around the water cooler (or Keurig) to discuss them the following day will enjoy a camaraderie that leads to more collaboration and productivity. A school teacher who can engage her students by discussing the latest trends in Hollywood will earn their respect and show she is able to talk to them about their interests. A politician who doesn’t only talk to his constituents about politics, but also connects by talking about the latest sports story will remove the barriers that often exist.
So too it is with rabbis, or any religious leader for that matter. I’m not suggesting rabbis should ease up on their scholarship or reference jokes from How I Met Your Mother in all their sermons. Rather, in the 21st century I think people are looking to connect with their spiritual leaders through different access points. A generation ago if people felt their rabbi was there for them in their time of need or was a kind presence during a family celebration, then that was enough. Today, rabbis score points if they can connect to the teenage youth group by discussing the latest Twilight movie or recount the best highlight from that morning’s Top Ten on SportsCenter. If they open a sermon with a reference to last week’s episode of Homeland, they will grab everyone’s attention.
When people say they love how easy it is to connect with their rabbi, they don’t just mean that “rabbis are just like us” in an Us Weekly sort of way. Rather, they appreciate how their rabbi is able to connect a message – ethical, spiritual, historical, ritual, etc. – to pop culture. A few years ago, together with an Orthodox rabbinic colleague, I created PopJewish.com. The focus of this blog was to give rabbis a forum to connect Jewish teachings with the pop culture of the day. Essentially, it takes what people are talking about anyway and brings in the Jewish message.
The times when a rabbi wasn’t considered a regular person who took out the garbage, had cereal for breakfast or binge watched an entire season of House of Cards are over. There might be some negatives to rabbis letting their guard down and schmoozing with congregants about a mindless fiction book they just downloaded to their Kindle or what they thought of the Oscars last week, but ultimately it makes us more human and more relatable. And that’s a good thing.
Today I was in the Georgia Capitol to speak against a bill entitled the Georgia Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The battlelines have been drawn, for the most part in familiar places. Supporters tend to highlight that the bill protects the rights of the religious and does not impinge too much on the lives of anyone else. Opposition to the bill emphasizes that the measure would legalize discrimination, especially against those whose sexuality, gender identity or expression are deemed forbidden by another’s beliefs. The fear of government overreach into people’s personal lives, a powerful reason given by some of the bill’s supporters, is not something to be taken lightly. However, as a Conservative rabbi, and what is often called “a person of faith,” I find more harmful the way my state’s current denial of the legality of same-sex marriages affects my own religious life greatly.
Within the Conservative movement, I have seen great scholars of Jewish law struggle with how to understand the holiness of a loving relationship between two men or two women or a family that is built on these relationships. My inspiration to become a rabbi, however, came hand in hand with a strong sense that Jewish teachings of the holiness of sexuality and recognition of the image of the Divine in every human being had to point toward fully including and celebrating loving relationships across the spectrum of human sexuality and gender.
I became a Conservative rabbi despite that the movement’s official policies at the time did not reflect my own support of gays and lesbians becoming rabbis and being recognized in marriage. However, I believed that the Conservative movement would embrace this position as they now have. I have had the honor of performing same-sex weddings in Massachusetts and elsewhere. However now, despite my religious beliefs and the official permission of my religious institutions, I am told by the state of Georgia that weddings I would perform according to my faith would be considered invalid. And I am of course not alone. Many Christian, Jewish, and other religious leaders represent branches of our faiths that recognize and sanctify same-sex unions in matrimony. In this way, I believe that commitment to religious freedom, as well as freedom to act according to conscience, would call for supporting state recognition of same sex marriage rather than legislation that would allow only certain religious beliefs to hold sway over the way others live their lives.
Freedom is a powerful value without which our country’s greatest achievements would be meaningless. For me, what Jewish tradition teaches us about freedom is that it goes hand in hand with the respect for human dignity and the call to be holy that are core values of our Torah. The continuing recognition and support for all, regardless of how and whom they love and regardless of how they identify and express their gender, is for me a vital part of living in good faith.
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In recent weeks, several of my colleagues both on this blog and elsewhere, have written thoughtful articles on current issues of national concern. Issues such as immigration reform, vaccinations, perspectives on scientific research, and more. Like all the pieces that we share here, these articles are designed to stimulate thought and dialogue. Sometimes they express a strongly-held opinion, but more often they seek to contribute to an ongoing conversation by bringing in personal experience, or pastoral experience from working with others. Often they bring some Jewish textual wisdom into their writing, usually to demonstrate the existence of Jewish conversations throughout the centuries that might provide ethical or spiritual narratives that embed the contemporary debate in something much larger and older.
As I’ve read these various articles I am, of course, also interested in the commentary – the comments – that are generated by a wide variety of readers. Those who agree and those who disagree. Just as with the commentaries upon commentaries that we find in the Talmud and centuries of Jewish debate, the commentary can add considerably to the depth and impact of the article itself. Many times my own personal perspective on an issue has been broadened when, having read something with which I thought I was in wholehearted agreement, I then read comments that present cogent and thoughtful arguments for an opposing point of view.
However, in recent weeks I’ve noticed a different kind of commentary that, while perhaps not surprising in the broader context of the culture of social media, nevertheless causes me enormous sadness. Commentary that, rather than presenting a counterpoint to the article, responds to the author with utter disdain for their audacity to offer an opinion on the topic altogether as a rabbi. Some commentary seeks to diminish the very essence of people who do their work with care and the utmost of integrity using language that I cannot imagine would be used in any genuine face-to-face encounter. While I wish to call for all who wish to enrich and broaden the thoughtful debate on issues to do so in a way that holds firm to Jewish ethical principles of human interaction (see teachings on Derech Eretz – respect, Bushah – causing embarrassment, for example), I also wish to address the deeper question of what rabbis speak about, how we speak about them, and why.
When we study Torah, and the vast vault of Jewish literature and wisdom that the teachers of our tradition have generated over centuries, we quickly see that Judaism is infinitely more than a set of ritual practices or ancient stories of our origins. It is a path through life, with wisdom teachings on every aspect of that life, from health and safety issues, to business ethics, to ethical ways of engaging with and treating foreigners, to the obligation to create a just society that takes care of its poor and takes steps to protect the most disenfranchised. Now, it is the case that we often cannot simply lift a quote or a law from a particular moment in time or place in those texts as a proof-text for a particular perspective on a contemporary issue. But these texts often provide us with very worthwhile guidance on how to sift through both the fact and the opinions on a contemporary issue. They can sometimes offer us another way to frame the conversation (a conversation on giving tzedakah that might start with judgments on how the tzedakah will be used, gets broadened to a consideration of the dignity of the receiver when viewed through the lens of Jewish teachings, for example). And yes, sometimes, there is a clearly expressed ethical position in our tradition that, while not perhaps helping us determine whether a specific piece of legislation is well-worded or designed or not, can point to a Jewish way of thinking about what kind of changes get us closer to a vision of the best society we can be. And it’s never black or white. Society has changed a great deal over the centuries, and the sources we might consult may no longer do what we need them to do in a contemporary situation.
We live in an age when experts of all kinds are being challenged and questioned. That is not a bad thing, although it does sometimes make it harder for a society to chart a clear path forward on certain issues. When rabbis speak on issues of pressing relevance to our lives – issues that are also being debated by scientists, by politicians, by doctors, and more, it is to add to the breadth of perspectives that are to be found in the public square on these issues. Because if we believe that our faith tradition has more to offer than lighting candles on Shabbat, celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or keeping kosher, then it is the job of the teachers of that tradition to bring to light the enormous wealth of material from our tradition that can continue to help us navigate our path through life today. That life is shaped by a myriad of forces, decisions, expert guidance, and ethical choices, each and every day. And that is why rabbis need to talk about these issues too. And if you disagree with what you hear or what you read, present your arguments and offer alternative points of view. I believe that we can do all of that… amicably.
Should the Jews of Europe move? And if so, to Israel or to America?
“To the Jews of Europe and to the Jews of the world I say that Israel is waiting for you with open arms.”
– Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu after a second terrorist attack in Europe within just a few weeks.
After an a murderous terrorist attack in Copenhagen, killing a cartoonist, two policeman, and a Jewish man walking out of the main synagogue in the Danish capital , Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu went to the media and announced that it was time for the Jews of Europe to move home.
“Israel is your home. We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe,” he said. “To the Jews of Europe and to the Jews of the world I say that Israel is waiting for you with open arms,” Netanyahu said.
He said these things and I was confused. Anti-Semitism is hideous and frightening wherever it pops up, European anti-semitism terrifies some of us in a unique way – the Shoah (Holocaust) is still fresh in our collective psyche. Part of me thought, “Yes, get out of Europe. Go with Bibi. Go to our Promised Holy Land.” But there was another part of me, a darker, deeper place inside me that said, “Yes, leave Europe, but come here, to America – It’s safer.” These might be the voices you would expect from a duel American-Israeli citizen. But it also speaks to the popular narratives of modern Jewry. Where does Yentl (Barbara Streisand) go when she realizes that Europe, the old country, could no longer be home? America. At the end of Schindler’s List, after having ‘saved’ by Oskar Schindler, the group of Jews come upon a Russian soldier.
“Where should we go,” one of them asks.
The soldier answer, “Don’t go East, that’s for sure. They hate you there. I wouldn’t go West either, if I were you.” And, more or less, the credits roll as we watch the real survivors walk with the actors that portrayed them to place a stone at the grave of Oskar Schindler in Israel.
“I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that You have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps.” – Jacob’s prayer before reuniting with Esau who swore to kill him (Genesis 32:10).
Has the Jewish people become two camps?
There can be no replacement for our home:
כי מציון תצא תורה, ודבר ה’ מירושלים For the Torah shall come forth from Zion, and the word of the Holy Blessing One from Jerusalem.
And yet, we cannot ignore the importance, and historic roll of the Diaspera (those Jews dispersed in lands not our own). Judaism has been deeply influenced by the cultures in which we have lived – Even the Torah was given to us outside of the land, not to mention the encyclopedia of rabbinic thought, the Babylonian Talmud.
Some will argue, but I do not think all the Jews of France and Denmark should leave their homes. Freedom is work standing up for. And yet, and yet. The primitive, fear-driven part of my brain wonders: “Might it be that we have indeed become ‘two camps’ for the same pragmatic reasons that Jacob once divided his family? If one should be attacked, at least the other would survive.”
If a chicken and half takes a day and a half to lay an egg and a half, and if an eastbound train leaving San Francisco travels at twice the speed of a southbound train leaving Chicago, how long will it take the organized Jewish community to argue about it and place the responsibility (blame?) on other Jews?
So if you’re smiling, I understand. If not… I understand that, too, because to be honest, I am weary of the arguing and perhaps wearier still of the seemingly ceaseless effort devoted to what I call “talking about talking about it.” Or in some cases, “arguing about arguing about it.” Intra-faith conflict is in the news every day—here, in Israel, and elsewhere—as if we don’t have enough to be concerned about from external detractors.
And to my mind, the damage it causes places Jewish life in greater peril than any, or perhaps all, of the issues being disputed.
So here are my naïve question: Has the squabbling brought us a scintilla closer to unity? Of course not. Devil’s advocate question: Are we so secure in our theologies and ideologies that we are convinced that others are categorically wrong? When do our attempts at grasping and articulating the “right” way to engage the sacred devolve into hubris? And if that happens, are we truly concerned with the sacred?
Even as I write this I am hearing possible responses and bracing myself for them. Am I more right in my thinking than anyone else is in his or hers? No. I’m not trying to be. I am just trying to understand why we continue to employ failed methods of communication, kick dead horses and blame one another for the poor outcome. This is what one friend calls making ourselves right by making other people wrong.
Yes, there will always be serious differences with which we must engage. So I am reminded every day—like recently—when a man called to say that his mother, who had just died, wasn’t really Jewish and neither was he. Why? Because he learned that she had been converted, before his birth, by a Reform rabbi. Now, he, who was raised in a strong Conservative life, is in the depths of an identity crisis, agonizing because he “knows” that if he wanted to make Aliyah the Orthodox would not “accept” him, period. He had lost his mother, and felt his link to the Jewish people was not valid. His grief-stricken response? Walk away from what he sees as tragic mishugas (madness).
I am not mentioning this to debate his reasoning, but rather, offering it as an example of the frustration, pain and misunderstandings that can result from a toxic combination of ignorance and ideological zeal.
So when we wonder why Jews seem detached from Jewish life… maybe it’s not because our programs are at the wrong time of day, or because we do or don’t have music at Shabbat services, or because our events weren’t well enough advertised, or because empty-nesters are busy on Tuesdays at 2pm. Maybe we need to look a little harder at how organized Jewish life is perceived by those who have stepped away.
It is a shame, in my eyes, that we say that if anti-Semites come for us we would all be seen as Jews. Just Jews… no matter our backgrounds, line of decent, movement of lack thereof, level of observance, sexual orientation… yet it is so difficult for many to see one another as “just Jews” the best of reasons—for the sake of our present and future, so we can get on with reviving the soul of Jewish life. It is only through greater heartfelt devotion to our people, faith and tradition, than to our investment in conflict that we can attain growth.
Will it require risks? Of course. But, in my opinion, it is far riskier not to engage in these difficult conversations for the benefit of the greater cause. We may need to draw some lines in the sand, and let others be washed away. And most importantly, we need to be sure that our motivations are unquestionably positive and for the sake of healing—and holiness.
There is something both absurd and profound about the existence of a Jewish bathroom prayer. Bathrooms have the distinction of being one place where prayer and Torah are to be avoided. The underlying assumption being that what takes place in a bathroom is fundamentally at odds with the holy name. And yet Jewish tradition mandates a blessing be said upon completing our business and exiting.
As a child, this blessing was the bane of my existence. The words, which seems endless and cumbersome to my 6 year old self, were a chore. Not simply irrelevant, in my no so humble opinion, they stood between me and recess, returning to class, or hanging out with friends. And in all honesty, even when I grew to understand the words, I could not fathom the need for such a prayer.
Whether or not we see ourselves as particularly religious, few among us do not feel awe when confronted with a rainbow, a beautiful seascape or mountain view. And for those moment when our own words may fail us, our tradition provides us with options. These moments are so obviously praise worthy.
By contrast, the goings on of the bathroom by contrast seem base, necessary but by no means extraordinary. That is until they don’t work exactly as we need them to.
If you have ever toilet trained a puppy or a child, eaten the wrong foods or maybe too much matza at Passover, you know that the internal plumbing of a being is a finely tuned system not to be taken for granted.
And this speaks to the profound truth of the bathroom blessing.
Grand vistas may appear, extraordinary moments will happen but we do not need to wait for these to appreciate the holiness of the miracles of everyday life. Within the realm of healthy, everyday living, we can easily take for granted the small stuff. The ability to wake, to get out of bed are usually chores. Our tradition, by encouraging us to bless these moments provides us with the opportunity to reframe our understanding of what a miracle is.
The bathroom may not be a place for uttering the holy name, but that does not mean that what happens inside is not holy and miraculous. On the contrary, the very contradiction of Asher Yatzar points to a vision of everyday holiness that if taken seriously, as our tradition encourages us to do, has the power to imbue every moment in life with significant and profound meaning.
“Praised are You, Lord our God, King of the universe who with wisdom fashion the human body, creating openings, arteries, glands and organs marvelous in structure, intricate in design. Should but one of them, by being blocked or opened, fail to function, it would be impossible to exist. Praised are You Lord, healer or all flesh who sustains our bodies in wondrous ways.” (Translation from Siddur Sim Shalom).
Yes, its true. An era is ending.
Jon Stewart, who hosted the Daily Show—the “fake news” program on Comedy Central—for the past 17 years, announced he was stepping down yesterday. Jon Stewart, the Jewish kid from New Jersey whose wit and satire helped shed light on the hypocrisies of government and society, who became for a generation a primary news source, who though humor took on the most serious of subjects, is moving on to new projects.
At seemingly the same time, NBC announced that Brian Williams, the host of NBC Nightly News for the past 10 years will be suspended without pay for six months after it was recently revealed that he had misrepresented facts of a helicopter incident while he was covering the war in Iraq in 2003. While he had claimed that he was travelling on a helicopter that was brought down by a rocket propelled grenade, it recently came to light that he was not entirely truthful in his account.
In a way, both of these stories can point to the blurring of the lines between news and entertainment. Stewart, who always claimed that he was not meant to be a “real” news outlet and was anchoring an entertainment show, nevertheless provided real social commentary that both reported and reflected the zeitgeist.
At the same time, Williams, who is one of the most well respected news anchors today since taking over the anchor chair from Tom Brokaw a decade ago, played off that serious persona to comic and entertaining effects. He made the rounds on Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock and as a frequent guest on the Daily Show. One wonders if his attraction to the world of entertainment led him to embellish the facts of his experiences.
The “real news” pursues entertainment, while the “fake news” pursues seriousness. As I joked on Facebook yesterday commenting on the parallel announcements, “Maybe Jon Stewart has been tapped to take over NBC Nightly News.”
But it would be too easy to draw these dichotomies. It is hard to say what is “the news” and what is “entertainment.” The elements of both are found in the other. Hard news is conveyed in entertaining ways, either though colorful graphics and flashy presentation, and entertainment sometimes reflects and comments on real events.
And perhaps we need a mix of both; the Torah tells us as much. In the weekly Torah reading this week, portion Mishpatim, Moses is on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah from God. God enumerates all of the different laws (“mishpatim”) and practices that the people are to follow. We then read, in Exodus 24:3-8,
Moses went and repeated to the people all the commands of God and all the rules; and all the people answered with one voice, saying, “All the things that God has commanded we will do!” Moses then wrote down all the commands of God. Early in the morning, he set up an altar at the foot of the mountain, with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. He designated some young men among the Israelites, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed bulls as offerings of well-being to God. Moses took one part of the blood and put it in basins, and the other part of the blood he dashed against the altar. Then he took the record of the covenant and read it aloud to the people. And they said, “All that God has spoken we will faithfully do!” Moses took the blood and dashed it on the people and said, “This is the blood of the covenant that God now makes with you concerning all these commands.”
The laws are serious. But the laws are delivered with pomp and spectacle. The Torah is telling us something about ourselves that Stewart and Williams confirm: we like our news, and we like our entertainment. And indeed, we can’t have one without the other.
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I’ve been looking for meaningful full-time work since crash-landing in Philadelphia in August. After living in Boston for eight years and being known and seen as a resource in the community, I suddenly found myself a stranger again, trying to make it as a rabbi in a new city – one full of other talented rabbis, no less.
I am impatient to move from Point A to Point B: from part time work to full time work, from assistant rabbi to rabbi, from teacher to director of education.
We easily fall victim to the idea that we’ll only be happy when we find ourselves in the perfect situation: the perfect job, the perfect partner, the perfect house. This is what a friend of mine refers to as “the myth of arrival.”
If we stop and pay attention, we notice both the world around us and our sense of what we need and want are in constant flux. No situation will ever be perfect, and if it is, it won’t be. Opposed to our obsession with “making it,” this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim, proposes we focus on the journey.
When the Jerusalem Temple existed, Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot were each harvest festivals which culminated with people bringing offerings to the Jerusalem Temple. We no longer make a pilgrimage to a place like the Temple, but we do make a sacred journey through time: from the barrenness and desolation of winter to the mucky renewal of spring, and the color and heat of summer. During each of the three agricultural festivals, God instructs, “none shall appear before Me empty handed” (Exodus 23:15).
According to this week’s reading, the pilgrim travels to the Temple on Passover: “for in it you went forth from Egypt”: each year, we start by recognizing that we are journeying from slavery to freedom and to clarity.
What are we to carry with us?
On Sukkot, the pilgrim brings “the first fruits of your work, of what you sow in the field”; and on Shavuot the pilgrim brings “the results of your work in the field.” As we make the first tentative steps on our journey, we gather the first fruits of our labor, relishing in our small successes: the dissertation proposal, the first performance, the fact we even got up early to write. We then bring the results of our work in from the field.
We pause three times each year to savor our accomplishments.
The Torah also instructs, “They shall not appear before God empty-handed, but each with his own gift, according to the blessing that God has bestowed upon you. (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). During this dark, cold time of year, the Torah asks us to free ourselves from others’ ideas of success by using the gifts we have been given. To recognize if we have been using our gifts we will have something to offer. Our role in this journey is to serve That which is Greater than Us by using our unique gifts – as gardeners, artists, caretakers, healers.
A midrash that connects our verse to the Book of Ruth (a text about Shavuot) says that “every place the people of Israel entered, they did not leave empty-handed.” This commentary suggests that God does not ask us to bring anything in particular, but is simply promising us that if we fully enter our lives, “none [of us] shall appear before Me empty handed.”
For now, as much as I look forward to finding meaningful full time work next year, I am also beginning to remember to cherish my small successes: the moments I sense warm connections forming with my patients and their families in my hospice work; the time I am making to write in the morning; the joy I feel when my teaching lights up my students’ faces with insight.
Perhaps what is most important is to “arrive” by being present to what is in-between Point A and Point B – to the journey of life, itself.