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November 26, 2014 / 4 Kislev, 5775
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Posts Tagged ‘Megillat Esther’

The Book of Esther: A Political Analysis

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Originally published at Rubin Reports.

The Book of Esther, which is read on Purim and to which that holiday is dedicated, has been interpreted many ways. Yet there is much to be understood by analyzing the story in terms of political ideology and strategy.

Ahasuerus is the powerful king over Persia and much more. He holds a banquet and invites the leaders of all of the provinces to come in order to wield together his diverse empire by showing his wealth, strength, generosity, and bringing together his political elite in terms of fellowship and equality with each other.

While drunk, he orders Queen Vashti to come to the banquet to display herself. She refuses, for unspecified reasons, and his advisors urge him to depose her and select a new queen. A young Jewish woman, Esther, is among the candidates. Urged by her uncle Mordechai, she conceals her religiosity-ethnicity, enters the competition, and eventually wins.

At this point, the story introduces a new theme. The king makes Haman prime minister. Mordechai, for unspecified reasons, refuses to bow to him. On discovering Mordechai is a Jew, Haman resolves to destroy all the Jews in the empire.

The story provides a sophisticated analysis of antisemitism:

First, Haman’s antagonism toward all Jews springs from a personal and psychological conflict. This has often been true in history including today.

Second, that conflict is then dressed up in political language to justify it to the ruling authority and the masses.

Third, Haman provides the classic, statement of non-theological antisemitism that could easily fit into the nineteenth and twentieth century and even today, mirroring the kinds of things hinted for example by nominee for secretary of defense Chuck Hagel. Haman explained:

“There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples…of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s law, and it is not in your majesty’s interest to tolerate them.” In other words, the Jews comprise what would later be called a separate national group. It is impossible to assimilate them; they are disloyal due to dual loyalty; and despite their apparent weakness they plot against you.

I’m sure that Hagel is not antisemitic in any conscious way yet he echoes the same themes that Haman used. Haman might have said that he was not a “Jewish” minister but a “Persian” minister, who would not bow down to the Jewish lobby whose interests subverted those of the nation.

A contemporary problem in understanding antisemitism today is that hegemonic political, intellectual, and informational forces in the West want to measure antisemitism by conscious intent and not by the use of well-worn historical (these are even in the Bible!) themes, though that is precisely the criterion that they do use in examining just about any other sort of bigotry. They also begin by excluding all non-Western populations from possibly being antisemitic. But Haman was residing in a non-Western society.

Fourth, antagonism against the Jews camouflages a desire to loot their wealth, in other words material gain.

The king agrees—after all, his most trusted courtier has just told him it’s a kill or be killed situation—and issues the decree for genocide.

In contradiction to these claims of Haman is Mordechai’s good citizenship. This would later become a major theme of Jewish assimilation—I don’t use the latter word in a pejorative sense here—that Jews must prove they are the best, most loyal citizens. Mordechai saves the king by uncovering a real plot against him. By his example, Mordechai shows Jews are not subversives and disloyal.Yet Mordechai’s good behavior is useless if the king doesn’t know about it. Suppose mass media existed and hadn’t covered Mordechai’s behavior but reported on all of Haman’s speeches?

Especially remarkable is the behavior of Esther. Warned of Haman’s plan, Esther wants to do nothing lest she place herself at risk. After all, she is a fully “assimilated,” even hidden, Jew. But Mordechai reminds her: Do not imagine that you will escape because of your high position.

It’s easy to suggest that this can be compared to the Nazi desire to kill all Jews on a “racial” basis. But there are many types of such situations. What’s especially interesting is that Esther’s situation shows how individual Jews can try to set themselves apart to be immune or even prosper from persecutions: converted Jews against steadfast ones in medieval times; Modernized, semi-assimilated Jews against traditionalist immigrants in America and Western Europe; and anti-Israel Jews against pro-Israel ones and Israel itself today.

Police Let Women Read Megillah at Kotel on Shushan Purim

Monday, February 25th, 2013

A women’s Megillah reading at the Western Wall took place on Shushan Purim without incident or arrests on Monday, the day after most of Israel and the rest of the Jewish world celebrated Purim.

Approximately 80 women turned out, some donning prayer shawls, others dressed as police and Haredi Orthodox worshipers, on Monday morning in Jerusalem, the Times of Israel reported.

Hallel Silverman, the 17-year-old niece of American comedian Sarah Silverman and who was arrested two weeks ago during Rosh Chodesh prayers, participated in the Megillah reading dressed in striped prison garb, Two of her younger siblings dressed as police officers leading her by handcuffs.

Israeli police have made nearly monthly arrests related to dress code violations since June related to the Women of the Wall’s monthly Rosh Chodesh service.

In 2003, Israel’s Supreme Court upheld a government ban on women wearing tefillin or tallit, prayer shawls, or reading from a Torah scroll at the Wall. The court later ruled the women can do so on Rosh Chodesh at the southern part of the Western Wall, which is less frequented.

Smartphone app Has Text of Megillah and Drowns Out Haman’s Name

Sunday, February 24th, 2013

Unique Purim apps available to smartphone users help make the holiday marking the salvation of the Jewish people in ancient Persia an even more unique experience both in Israel and across the world.

For the complete reading of Megillat Esther, there is an app available for Android users, which includes the Hebrew text of Esther, complete with vowels and cantillation marks, seven different font sizes, as well as a verse-by-verse English translation. One of its unique features is that it provides a noisemaker (grogger) to drown out the name of the evildoer Haman during the reading, with several options for noisy sound effects.

The English translation is based on the 1917 Jewish Publication Society version, whose text has been updated to replace “thee” and “thou,” “hast” and “didst,” and similar archaisms.

In addition, the app also includes the text for the Purim Service (seder Purim) with the appropriate texts for four different customs: Ashkenazim, Sephardim, Nusach Sefard and Nusach Ari.

The app is available on Google Play Store by the name of Esther by ZigZag Inc. and costs $1.99 or NIS 7.46.

Other Purim apps, which are both fun and free, include the Megillas Esther app, which was made available to Android users this year after having been available to iPhone and iPod Touch users last year.  According to the Google Play Store description, the app allows you to scroll through verse by verse with a flick of a finger and the ‘virtual’ noisemaker allows you to choose the noises, including crowd booing, air horn, firecrackers, and machine gun for the reading of Haman’s name. There is also a helpful Haman highlighter.

And finally, in order to enjoy a safe and happy Purim, there is SoberApp, developed in Israel, which helps a person monitor the intake of drinks and estimates the blood and alcohol level. By entering basic information about weight and gender and the type of drink a person has had as well as the time he had it, the app will inform if one can drive now or later or if the drinker has exceeded the alcohol limit in whatever country he is located.

The free app is available on Google Play Store and is especially suitable to those celebrating Purim with plenty of traditional drinking. Happy Purim!

Q & A: Shir HaShirim On Pesach

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

Question: Why do we read Shir HaShirim on Pesach? Also, why do we generally read it on the Shabbat of Chol HaMoed as opposed to the first days of Pesach? Finally, why don’t we recite a blessing over the reading of Shir HaShirim as we do for Megillat Esther?

Menachem
(Via E-Mail)

Answer: Rabbi Yisrael Chaim Friedman (Likutei Maharich, Seder Chol HaMoed Pesach, pages 38-39) states as follows, citing the Rema (Orach Chayim 490:9): “And it is the custom to read Shir HaShirim on Shabbat of Chol HaMoed Pesach” because it speaks of the redemption of our people from Egypt, as is written (Shir HaShirim 1:9), “L’susati b’richvei Paroh dimitich rayati – With My mighty steeds who battled Pharaoh’s riders I revealed that you are My beloved.”

Rabbi Friedman continues, again based on the Rema, “And if the first day of Pesach occurs on Shabbat or Sunday, so that there will be no Shabbat occurring during the days of Chol HaMoed since Shabbat will fall either on the seventh or eighth day of Pesach, then Shir HaShirim is read on either of the last two days of Yom Tov – whichever one is Shabbat.”

Rabbi Friedman writes further: “And the reason that it is read specifically on a Shabbat is as the Pri Megadim (Orach Chayim ad loc.) explains: ‘Shir HaShirim [allegorically] talks of the day that will be completely Shabbat – yom shekulo Shabbat.’ ” Nevertheless Shir HaShirim is not read on a Shabbat which occurs on the first days of Pesach, the Pri Megadim explains, since we already say many piyutim in the prayer for dew (“tal”) on those days, and saying Shir HaShirim would place an excessive burden upon congregants and their families, diminishing simchat yom tov. Therefore, we wait for a different day to recite it.

The question is: Where in Shir HaShirim do we see a connection or reference to Shabbat? Additionally, why can’t we read it on one of the Yom Tov days, which also possess a Shabbat element?

Rabbi Eisentein (Otzar Dinim u’Minhagim, entry for Shir HaShirim, p.414) comments: “It is our custom to recite Shir HaShirim every Erev Shabbat since we prepare ourselves to honor the Shabbat queen. Therefore, we recite praises of the (Shabbat) bride, which are mentioned numerous times in Shir HaShirim. Also, Shir HaShirim is an allegory of the love between the one who bestows (Hashem) and the one who receives (Knesset Yisrael). Shabbat is the agent that connects Knesset Yisrael to their Father in Heaven. It is therefore said to increase and strengthen the attachment and devotion between them.”

The Vilna Gaon (in his commentary to Shir HaShirim) comments on the verse, “Kol dodi hineh zeh ba me’daleg al he’harim me’kapetz al ha’gevaot – The voice of my beloved! Behold, it came suddenly to redeem me, as if leaping over mountains, skipping over hills” (2:8), that the words “The voice of my beloved! Behold, it came” refer to the promise that we heard from Moshe that G-d will come and redeem us. The Vilna Gaon notes that this verse is the main opening of Shir HaShirim. King Solomon writes “kol dodi” because there are four olamot, or worlds: the present world, the world to come, the days of Moshiach, and the era of the resurrection of the dead.

(Indeed this is referred to in the conclusion of the pizmon “Hakol Yoducha” that we say in the birkat kriat Shema of Shachrit on Shabbat: “Ein aroch lecha Hashem Elokeinu ba’olam hazeh, v’ein zula’techa l’olam haba, efes biltecha go’alenu limot ha’moshiach, v’ein domeh lecha moshieinu l’tchiyat ha’meitim – There is no comparison to you Hashem, our G-d in this world; and there will be nothing except for you, our king, in life of the World to Come; there will be nothing without you, our redeemer, in the days of Messiah, and there will be none like you, our savior; at the resurrection of the dead.”)

The Gaon explains that if we delve into this verse in Shir HaShirim (2:8), we will find these four worlds. (We can perhaps suggest that this verse was the inspiration for Rabbi Eliezer Kalir’s liturgical poem of “Lecha Dodi likrat kallah” which we chant every Friday night.)

We thus clearly see the Shabbat connection in Shir HaShirim, which is why we must read it on Shabbat. Indeed, the three latter olamot mentioned by the Vilna Gaon all relate to Shabbat, as the Gemara (Berachot 57b) states: Shabbat is one sixtieth of the world to come.

Now, even though Yom Tov is at times referred to as Shabbat, nevertheless it is on a lower level than an actual Shabbat since it does not possess the same level of sanctity. It is only referred to as Shabbat in terms of shvita mi’melacha – a day when we are proscribed from performing labor (although on yom tov we may perform labors necessary to prepare our Yom Tov food; the Ramban [Leviticus 23:7] explains that included in this exception are labors that serve our general festival pleasure).

Leftist Campaign Against Purim Hits the Web

Monday, March 5th, 2012

A leftist campaign making the rounds in Israeli cyberspace is telling Israelis to think twice before celebrating Purim because Megillat Esther promotes genocide by Jews against its enemies.

The internet pamphlet plays on a popular Purim greeting, ‘Sameach u’mevadech’ (happy and humorous), and asks rhetorically if people really know what Purim is about. It proceeds to list verses from Megillat Esther that seemingly implicate the Jewish people in genocide. It ends by asking readers if they too think that genocide is “happy and humorous.”

To dispel any idea that it was a hoax, prominent Israeli blogger Yossi Gurevich posted it on a Facebook page titled ‘החברים של ג’ורג’ with text in Hebrew saying “let’s leave Purim to Bashar Assad and celebrate festivals that are a bit more human.”

Anti-Purim Internet Pamphlet

Beyond taking self-loathing to a height that only radical left-wing Jews can reach, it’s clear that the campaign organizers are neither masters nor students of Torah exegesis.

How come the Left always manages to take the fun out of everything, anyway?

Megillat Esther: Revealing the Hidden

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

‘When the month of Adar enters, we increase our joy.’ But what if one doesn’t feel like celebrating?

Today marks the 7th anniversary of the tragic death of my beloved student, Ari Seidenfeld, a 9th grader who perished in a house fire together with three of his siblings. I remember getting the call on an early Tuesday morning, before school began. “Ari passed away,” began the broken voice of the principal on the other end of the line. As a new teacher, in my first position as a High School Rebbe, I struggled to cope with the loss while being a source of strength and support for the other students, dealing with their own grief. The Talmud compares the teacher-student relationship to the parent-child relationship. Ari was so funny, he had a joy for life, and just hours before the fire we were dancing and singing, in preparation for Purim. For me, Purim that year felt like Tisha B’Av.

Last year, we were all left shocked and speechless by the brutal murder of the Fogel family of Itamar. Walking back from Har HaMenuchot, together with the over twenty thousand who attended the funeral, I wondered how we would muster up the strength and joy required for Purim. I was left sad, confused and angry.

The same confusion and anger I felt after the senseless death of eight precious, holy souls, gunned down in Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav while studying Torah in the library on Rosh Chodesh Adar, the day that ushers in the festivities.

The joy of Adar is tempered by pain. How do we make sense of it all?

Purim is a holiday that struggles with this very question.

Purim means a lottery, a reference to the lot that the wicked Haman drew. The name of the holiday itself implies fate and chance the roll of the dice, the luck of the draw. At first glance, the story of Purim appears to be a series of coincidences. The narrative is written like a great piece of classical literature: Heroes and villains, high drama and suspense. The plot thickens with all of its twists and turns. But behind this ‘storybook drama’ lies something profound.

According to Rabbi Yosef Dov HaLevi Soloveitchik, one of the lessons of the Purim story is that man is vulnerable. One minute everything is fine and the suddenly, without warning, the Jewish People, across the entire Persian Empire, are confronted with the threat of destruction. Is the story merely a string of events strung together with no meaning? Is life just a series of events? Are we merely subject to the whim of an evil tyrant? A pliable king?

Megillat Esther is one of the books of the Bible, but God is not mentioned once. According to our tradition, He is hiding. The Talmud (Chullin 139b) asks, “Where is [there an allusion to] Esther in the Torah? ‘And I will surely hide (haster astir) My face from you.’ ” The Talmud cites the verse from the Torah’s admonition that speaks of hester panim, God seemingly hiding His face amidst Jewish suffering.

And yet, there is a tradition that in the book of Esther, “the King” is an allusion to God, the King of Kings. On Purim, we are challenged to see God, the King, in the narrative. He appears to be ‘hidden,’ but He is pulling the strings behind the curtain. The name of the book itself Megillat Esther (the Esther Scroll) can be understood to mean, “revealing the hidden.”

But it’s not enough to see God in the Purim story, we are challenged to see God in the narrative of our lives: In our trials and tribulations, in the vicissitudes if life – the ups and downs. We are even challenged to see God’s hand in tragedy and in history as it unfolds before our eyes.

Purim is a topsy-turvy day. Everything is upside down. We hide behind costumes to remind us that to truly see is to peel back the layers of perception. We drink in excess to access a deeper reality, one beyond logic or reason. We recognize that redemption can come in places we least expect it and that the plans and schemes of our enemies can be foiled just as quickly as they were hatched.

Being human, we are limited in our ability to understand. Tragic events seem senseless, without a rhyme or reason. World events can seem confusing, with the future uncertain. On Purim, we recognize that God’s Hand is guiding it all. The King is working behind the scenes, pulling the strings. We may not understand all of the twists and turns of the narrative, but we know the Author. All we have to do is put our trust in Him.

Purim celebrates the turnabout from “from sorrow to gladness and mourning to festival” (Esther 9:22). May it be so!

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2011

We just celebrated Purim, which has always stood out in my mind as unique among the Jewish holidays. Unique for the giddy exuberance it brings, the gastronomic indulgence, the focus on unity and community, the retelling of arguably the most dramatic tale of Divine salvation in Jewish history – but most of all for the strong, spirited heroine at its center.

Megillat Esther is one of only two books of Tanach named for a woman. And while the megillah conceals the hand of Hashem – it does not even contain His name – Esther’s role is not concealed but celebrated. Her femininity is not an obstacle but a path to a higher purpose. Through her beauty and charm, she wins access to Achashveirosh’s inner sanctum and to his heart, where she is later able to successfully plead for mercy on behalf of the Jews. Yet, unlike her predecessor Vashti, Esther conducts herself throughout with utmost humility, dignity, and tzniut.

A toy store recently distributed a catalogue of children’s Purim costumes. Children are shown modeling all the outfits. The selection was impressive – from astronaut to pirate to Raggedy Ann and Andy – with a host of choices for both boys and girls. So what’s the problem?

To be sure, the preconceived gender roles (boy as pilot, girl as flight attendant; boy as doctor, girl as nurse) reinforce stereotypes and subtly shape children’s sense of possibility. But what shocked my conscience so utterly is that in every photograph of a girl, the face was completely wiped out. Blanked. Blotted. Zombie-like.

The list of reasons why it’s wrong to literally erase the faces of Jewish girls is long indeed. What rankles most is that this misguided act of zealotry is carried out under the guise of Torah. The Torah belongs to each of us, to protect and keep it holy. Just as we would be concerned about the release of a faulty translation of the Bible, we should be concerned about actions carried out publicly in the name of Torah yet in complete dissonance with its ideals.

Perhaps those who treat women like a problem to be managed sincerely believe they are doing something righteous. Or perhaps they are out for attention or to out-frum their neighbors. Either way, their ever-devolving stands in the name of Yahadut do damage both within and without. How would you begin to explain the faceless photos to your child, whether boy or girl? What about to a neighbor or co-worker?

Sadly, these disturbing pictures are not the only example of this kind of thinking passing for piety. There are kollel students being advised to take off their glasses when walking down the street so as not to view immodestly dressed women. There are girls being discouraged from wearing seatbelts on dates because the cross-body straps call attention to the female figure. And then there are the infamous burqas of Beit Shemesh. Besides the disregard for safety inherent in those first two pearls of wisdom, what these practices reflect is an attempt to disengage from reality – from the world Hashem chose to populate with both zachar u’nekeivah (male and female).

I am not going to attempt a halachic exegesis on the laws of tzniut or male-female relations. I will leave that to those more qualified. But the idea that males of any age would be somehow led astray by viewing pictures of little girls in Purim costumes is so far beyond absurd that it would be funny if it weren’t so perverse. There are, to be sure, people out there with all kinds of obsessions, but that hardly means we should regulate our communal life around them.

Unfortunately, over-exposure is the norm in society today, and maintaining personal modesty requires careful calibration of our engagement with popular culture. Yet Torah is supposed to make us stronger, holier, more discerning, more focused, more respectful. That is, if we truly internalize it. What is all the learning in the world worth if at the first sight of a woman – or even a prepubescent girl – a man will lose control of himself? Of course, I don’t believe that is what normally happens. But even the inference offends.

On Purim, we celebrate v’nahapoch hu – everything gleefully topsy turvy – to remember the way our fate and our enemies’ both turned around, so that we were saved and they were slain. But topsy turvy thinking – like erasing the faces of beautiful Jewish girls – should have no place in our everyday lives.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/opinions/whats-wrong-with-this-picture/2011/03/23/

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