Divre Harav – March/2022

As I sit down to write something about our community Purim celebration, I find myself struggling a bit. How to approach Purim, a holiday on which we make fun of antisemitism and those who would try to kill Jews, when the memory of just such an attempt at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, TX, is so fresh that many synagogues and Jewish communities around the country are reassessing their security protocols and running active shooter drills?

Jew-haters are not new. Every generation has experienced its share of fear, and some generations have experienced more than their share. Yet, we have persisted in celebrating our holidays, including Purim, and we make jokes about them, summarizing every holiday in three easy steps — “They tried to kill us, we won, let’s eat!” Or the story of two Jews sitting on a park bench in Germany, 1935, reading newspapers. One looks over at the other and sees that he’s reading Der Sturmer, a notoriously antisemitic weekly, and asks, “how can your read that Nazi garbage?” The other responds, “In your newspaper, Jews are being attacked on the streets, our businesses are being looted, and our synagogues are being destroyed. In my newspaper, Jews control the banks, the world media, and are on the verge of dominating international governments. I’d rather read the good news!”

I continue to observe Judaism proudly and publicly because I can’t imagine a world without Jews. Such a world would be infinitely poorer. The teachings of Judaism inspire the world. I cannot imagine a world without Jews, who, inspired by those teachings, go on to better the world in the fields of law, medicine, physics, chemistry, literature, and more. And the practice of Judaism enriches my life in countless ways, giving me a path of Middot to improve my character, a path of Jewish ethics to improve my interactions with others, a religious practice that ties me to the repair of the world around me, a body of Jewish wisdom to keep myself intellectually engaged and psychologically healthy, all of these being piece of a journey within a covenant with God.

This month’s Purim story, the soon to arrive Passover story, both are part of the larger story of Jews in relationship with the world. I am alive in order to bring love to my neighbors. Not necessarily to bring them to Judaism, but to be connected to them in positive ways that benefits our Grand Rapids community. For every person out there who thinks about bringing chaos to the Jewish community, there are a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand who would stand by our side against evil.

Please join me in a celebration of Purim on Wednesday evening, March 16, at 6:30 p.m. that includes a joint Purimshpiel with Temple Emanuel, two options for telling the Purim story (a traditional megillah reading and a Mad Lib megillah), and something delicious to take home with you. We’ll mock the villains and cheer the heroes and imagine a world where Jews are never afraid. We’ll wear costumes and masks to remind ourselves that nothing is as it first appears, that reality is often hidden under layers of superficial garments, that the world as it appears today is not the world as it is meant to be. Set aside your fear and display your pride in living a Jewish life!

Divre Harav/Words from the Rabbi – March, 2012

Purim is the quintessential children’s holiday, right?  It’s the Jewish version of Halloween, when we dress up in costumes and and make lots of noise during the synagogue service and get treats, right? No wonder that Purim in many synagogues is attended primarily by families with grade school age children.  As the children age out of the years when they look cute dressed like Esther, a Disney princess, Haman, or the season’s hot villain or superhero (Darth Vader, Spiderman, or Superman), they stop coming.  The parents, who are only coming because their children look so darn cute in their costumes, also stop coming.

Purim is in fact not a children’s holiday, but an adult holiday. Not along the lines of a recent article in the Jerusalem Post, which reported on an Israeli retailer trying to shake things up by selling adult oriented Purim costumes. Don’t all nurses wear fishnet stockings?  Shouldn’t every cat costume come with a bondage mask and whip?  Wouldn’t a police officer costume be incomplete without a latex bodice?  And for the ultimate in bizarre religious syncretism, how about dressing as a sexy Santa for Purim?

Like all sophisticated Jewish experiences, Purim is an adult holiday that makes room for children. The story of Purim, a provocative piece of literature, raises questions about the lengths we should go to fight evil, the limits of taking revenge, and the extent to which we should hide our Jewish identity in the public sphere.  The book of Esther can be read as a revenge fantasy or a fantasy of what we would do if only we had the power to shape the world in our favor.

The news coming out of Persia these days is awfully dark. It’s not hard to find articles coming out of Iran baldly stating the desirability of a world without Jews and giving legal and moral justification for taking steps to annihilate Israel.  Just in case the lesson of the 20th century has begun to fade, Purim is a reminder that Haman is not a relic of some dark day in history, but rather a living threat in our world today.

A strong religious practice does not hide us from the reality of the world, but neither does it constantly beat us over the head with it. The function and purpose of Purim is to give us momentary relief from hatred and violence, to allow us to experience a moment of pure joy unadulterated by evil and suffering. This is something, I would argue, that adults need much more than children.  I hope you will join your Ahavas Israel family on Wednesday evening, March 7, for our Purim celebration.


Purim and Environmentalism

I was just reading an article about “being green” (reducing, recycling, etc.) and it got me thinking about the carnival prizes we give out at our Purim carnival.  I’ve been to many events like this where the kids win all kinds of plastic toys that end up broken and in the trash within a few days.  Is there another prize idea we can offer that is more environmental, in keeping with our Jewish values?

There are many environmentally sensitive prizes in keeping with Jewish values.  For example:

  • Money – each dollar bill personally signed by the rabbi!
  • A card that says “A donation has been made in your name to the Congregation Ahavas Israel endowment fund.”
  • Books (a bit expensive, but what a statement it would be if every winner received a $70 Etz Hayim Humash)
  • A FREE trip to Israel (the fine print says that they have to be 18-25, and apply via the Birthright Israel website …)
  • A little piece of papers that says “Congratulations, success is its own reward!”
  • An easily broken paper toy that ends up in the recycling instead of the trash.
  • A kosher chicken.  For the vegetarians, a hard boiled egg.  For the vegans, a beet.

Any other suggestions?