The Exile of Tisha B'Av: What Are We Mourning?

Since the Fast of Tisha B'Av cannot fall on Shabbat, it begins this year
on Saturday evening, July 21. 

Exile is one of the preeminent themes of the Torah. From the outset of Genesis, Adam and Eve are exiled from the Garden of Eden. Abraham is called by God to “the land I will show you” but famine forces him to seek refuge in Egypt. Joseph is sold off to Egypt, where, at the end of his life, he makes his family promise, “When God has taken notice of you, carry up my bones from here” (Gen. 50:25). The remainder of the Torah – all of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy – charts Israel’s pursuit of a path back home.

Jewish history works in similar cycles of dispersion and return. David and Solomon established a kingdom and a Temple in Jerusalem, but these were demolished in 586 B.C.E. and the survivors of Judah were deported eastward. They longed for Zion by the rivers of Babylon. A generation later, a remnant returned and rebuilt the kingdom and its Temple in Jerusalem. The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E., and again the Jews became a people in exile. For centuries, Jews built Diaspora communities even as stragglers returned to the Land, to pray or to die there. The advent of Zionism in the 19th century marked our most dramatic effort since the days of the Bible to return home. 

We have known different kinds of exile. There is political exile – distance from our physical home – and there is spiritual exile – distance from our spiritual Source. Zionism sought to put an end to the political state of exile, but spiritual exile continues to be our existential reality everywhere, including in the Land of Israel.

The fast of the 9th of Av – Tisha B'Av – is devoted to reflection on what it means to live in exile. The shorthand is that it is the date when both the First and Second Temples were destroyed.

But Tisha B’Av isn’t only about history, just as Pesach and Chanukah are not “only” about history. The genius of the rabbis who shaped Judaism is in the way they spiritualized history and filled it with religious meaning for subsequent generations.

Thus, the events of Tisha B’Av aren’t simply understood as historical calamities. After all, catastrophes have befallen the Jewish people on every day of the calendar year. But they are signposts for a religious condition:

Exile from the homeland
Exile from God
Exile from one another

This is the great secret of Tisha B’Av: The last two are really one. Because in Judaism’s religious humanism (or humanistic religion?), distance from other people necessarily results in distance from God:

Why was the First Temple destroyed?
Because of three things:
Idolatry, Sexual immorality, and Bloodshed….

But the Second Temple –
when people were occupied with Torah, Mitzvot, and gemilut chasadim
Why was it destroyed?
Because of senseless hatred (sinat chinam).
(Talmud, Yoma 9b)

Consider the theological outlook the Talmud is teaching. The First Temple stood at a time of rampant perversion and hypocrisy, so naturally (in the rabbinic mindset) it was lost. But the Second Temple stood during centuries that were recalled for Torah and adherence to mitzvot (commandments). Why would God allow it to be destroyed?

The answer, says the Talmud, is because of rampant hatred that existed among the Jews – even as they were living according to the letter of the Law. Service to God in the Temple was not meant to be performed with hate in their hearts.

The Temple was designed to be a place of intimacy – between God and the People, and between and among the people who gathered there. As people became estranged from one another – when they could no longer see the image of God in the face of the person opposite them – then their worship and the Temple itself became hollow. An institution based on lies and hypocrisies cannot stand. Made as trivial as a piece of tissue paper, it is as if God crumpled it up and tossed it aside – because, spiritually speaking, it was already destroyed. The assault of the Romans was just a final punctuation mark.

The astonishing lesson of the Torah is that only one creation is made “in the image of God” – human beings. To treat other people with contempt or disgust or hate is to treat God’s only image that way. As a result, estrangement from one another and estrangement from God are intertwined.

The Tisha B’Av fast marks a sad reality: this is the world in which we live, each in our own isolated cones with our own preoccupations and nursing our own hurts. This scenario illustrates what it means to live in exile; exile is the metaphysical sense of being alone, and it is our own doing.

If we find it hard to mourn the loss of “The Temple” on Tisha B’Av, no matter; mourn for something else.

Mourn for our distance from God.

Mourn for our distance from each other. 

This piece originally appeared on reformjudaism.org on July 19, 2018.

...an entire world...

Great visual midrash from @thelucidreams:

Lucid Dreams - Sanhedrin.jpg

On Sanhedrin 4:5:

לְלַמֶּדְךָ, שֶׁכָּל הַמְאַבֵּד נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ אִבֵּד עוֹלָם מָלֵא. וְכָל הַמְקַיֵּם נֶפֶשׁ אַחַת, מַעֲלֶה עָלָיו הַכָּתוּב כְּאִלּוּ קִיֵּם עוֹלָם מָלֵא

...to teach you that whoever destroys a single life is considered by the Torah to have destroyed an entire world; and whoever saves a single life is considered by the Torah to have saved an entire world... 
 

Elegy for… a Character: A Tzedakah Story

Even a poor person—one who is sustained by Tzedakah funds—
is required to give Tzedakah to another person.

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah
Laws of Giving to Poor People 10:5
 

My friend Renee was a character. She was well known in our town; you couldn’t miss her. Her frizzy salt-and-pepper hair was often bound in a pigtail like a schoolgirl’s. She drove an SUV that was constantly breaking down, packed to the roof with the telltale possessions of an inveterate hoarder. She had weary eyes that conveyed years of adventures.

She lived on the precipice of homelessness. For a while she stayed in emergency shelters—scary places that she would recount with stark tales. In recent years, she found more stable housing, finding cheap rooms to rent in residential homes around Natick. And she knew how to work the system, making her rounds to get the food, gas money, and, especially, the money for medications that she needed.

I suppose that’s where I came in. She started dropping in on me years ago at the synagogue where I worked. At first she came for Tzedakah money, knowing that people gave me funds to distribute in emergency situations. But she would linger, telling me stories, asking about my family, and, I think, looking for some human contact that can be the harshest thing people who are very poor lack.

Like many such characters, she tested the nerves of those who didn’t “get” her. When she began to show up at the synagogue—ensconced in one of the wealthiest Zip Codes in America—some people whispered behind her back. Being Jewish herself, she accepted my invitation to come to Friday night services. Sometimes the bar/bat mitzvah families with out-of-town guests would murmur about the woman who looked funny and took too much of the food that was offered before the service began. The staff grumbled when she would sit on the couch outside my office, waiting without an appointment to grab a few minutes of my time. Hebrew school parents and kids kept their distance.

She was funky. She looked funky, she talked funky, and sometimes she smelled funky. Initially our relationship was based on shnorring—she needed money, and she knew that I was usually reliable to help her pay her heating bill during the cold winter, or fill a prescription for her urgently-needed heart medicine.

Sometimes she exasperated me. I know, of course, about the social service agencies in our area that are there to provide a safety net. I begged her—I insisted—that she connect with them. She would reply that her nonconformist hippie soul wouldn’t be part of their “system.” That made me crazy; I threatened to cut her off if she didn’t take their assistance. But she would inevitably show up with a bill for heart medication, and of course I would help pay for it.

After a while, the dynamic of our relationship changed. She knew I was going through some rough times personally, so one day she invited me to lunch. I demurred—where in the world would she get the money from?—but she insisted. So a few days later, she took me out to a local diner. I’m sure we got a few stares. But the gesture meant so much to me: she considered me a friend; she knew I was down, and she treated. She didn’t even let me cover the tip.       

Yes, she was a character. She wasn’t invisible, but she became one of those offbeat folk who populate a suburban town who are tolerated as long as they don’t become too much of a nuisance.

But because she was my friend, I knew things that others didn’t.

I knew that she had a Master’s degree in counseling from the University of Wisconsin. I knew about her daughter at American University, of whom she was very proud. I knew that she had spent time in Israel, and spoke a limited but comprehensible Hebrew. And I knew she still saw herself as a “Sixties Person”—committed to volunteerism and social activism. She once told me stories about working on the Clearwater Project on the Hudson River with Pete and Toshi Seeger.

But now I’ll share something with you that very few people knew (including her daughter, until I told her). She couldn’t stand just being on the receiving end of the cycle of caring. “This isn’t me,” she’d say, insisting that her younger self was alive and well inside her rather emaciated and graying body.

So one day she handed me a large folder. “I know you see a lot of hurting folks throughout the course of the day,” she said. “So when you feel it’s appropriate, please give people one of these.”

Inside the folder were ten envelopes labeled “For You.” In each one was a handwritten personalized note. Each was a gentle message of compassion and tenderness. For instance:

To remind you
How unique and

Wonderful You
Are—
every day,
every hour

—And to wish you
extra energy for the things you’re
currently tackling…

Renees Gift.jpg

Or:

Please accept this
as a symbol

of some
great things
comin’ your way—
for example
Brightness
Fairness
HAPPINESS…
Enjoy your
wonderful
future.

And enclosed in each card was a $2 bill. (A $2 bill!) The instructions were not to keep this money for yourself, but to take it and use it to brighten someone else’s day.

Look at what an extraordinary Mitzvah that is. She did it completely anonymously; she left it to me to identify the adults, teens, or kids who needed cheering-up. I was not to tell the recipients where it came from; it was just from “a friend, someone who cares.” And the cards were designed to trigger a chain reaction of compassion and human kindness. This is Tzedakah—but Tzedakah with the personal touch, rooted in compassion and a desire to make a connection with people who may be desperately lonely.

Renee died last week; her heart finally gave out, surely not helped by the on-the-edge lifestyle she was living. There weren’t obituaries in the paper or online; few people noticed. Many who encountered her over the years may have forgotten her, or figured that she just skipped town. But she deserves a better memorial.

I know many more juicy stories that she shared with me, but I won’t tell them here. Suffice to say that she was a character, and she lived out the Rambam’s principle that everyone’s (everyone’s) task is to bring kindness and caring into the world, not indifference and lies. I just wanted to say that she was my friend, I’ll miss her, and she made a difference.

Philip Roth: An Appreciation of the Wicked Child

I am one of the Exiles of Newark, New Jersey.

My father was raised on Goldsmith Avenue, became a Bar Mitzvah at Young Israel, and went to Weequahic High School, class of ’59. His mother was born in Newark; both she and my grandfather spent their careers teaching in the Newark public school system. My great-grandparents’ graves are in Newark, in the McClellan Street cemeteries.

No doubt I would have been there too. Except that, to bastardize the words of Agnon, through a historical accident—the upward mobility of postwar Jews, the riots of 1967—I was born in one of the villages of the Diaspora.

 The Old B'nai Jeshurun building in Newark, now Hopewell Baptist Church.

The Old B'nai Jeshurun building in Newark, now Hopewell Baptist Church.

It always struck me that Newark must have been one of the most extraordinary communities of the American Exile. All the currents of Jewish life in early 20th century America—socialism, Zionism, Reform, Orthodoxy, Yiddish culture, labor—flourished in its environs. In 1948, nearly 60,000 Jews lived in Newark[1], served by scores of synagogues. The caliber of rabbis, cultural figures, political leaders, labor and social justice advocates, business leaders, and philanthropists that emerged from that place is astounding. And it disappeared so incredibly quickly.

But Newark endured in the stories of Philip Roth, and for that reason I always took Roth’s writings personally. As he dissected the psyche of the city and its expatriates, I told myself I was discovering my origins. (That’s ridiculously romantic, of course. Like many Jews of Eastern European descent, my family lived in Newark for barely two and a half generations. But we’ve got very little to go on about the Old Country—the shtetlach and hamlets that were annihilated by the Russians, Poles, Ukrainians, et al—so Newark is all I’ve got.)

Roth left Newark, but wouldn’t leave it behind. Newark—with its concentration of Jews anxious to become optometrists and entertainment lawyers and accountants; its polio terror and stickball in the streets; its racial tensions and Nazi paranoia—was a prism through which he wrote about America.

Now that Roth is dead, the American Jewish community, by virtue of that adjective “American,” can start doing what it always does: remaking him in our image. Which is rather a shame.

Because Roth at his core was the wicked child of the Seder. He dared to fling our pieties in our faces and say, “Yes—but what does all this mean to you?” Starting with Goodbye, Columbus and running like a crimson thread throughout his work, he satirized and criticized the Jewish community as only an insider could.

Consider his devastating short story, “The Conversion of the Jews” (1959). Ozzie Freedman is a bored Hebrew school kid of the sort that the Coen Brothers captured so perfectly in the movie A Serious Man. He is punished by the rabbi and other authorities for asking “dangerous” questions, the kind that the wicked child asks. Ultimately Ozzie ends up on the roof, threatening to jump unless the Rabbi and the adults answer the question that got him rebuked in the first place: “Do you think that an almighty God could make a child without intercourse?”

It’s so perfect, because Ozzie found the exact question to prick everyone’s sensibilities: the rabbi’s platitudes, the newly-emancipated liberal Jews’ boundaries with their Christian neighbors, and of course the sexual obsessions which Roth would explode in Portnoy’s Complaint.

Or consider his 1993 novel Operation Shylock. The narrative itself is outrageous. A famous Jewish writer named Philip Roth discovers that some nutjob has taken the alter ego “Philip Roth” and is spreading the gospel of “Diasporism,” leading Jews out of Israel and back to Europe—an antisemitic fantasy!

But here’s the rub: like any great critic, Roth knew intimately the subject he criticized, which ultimately rebounded back on himself. If he mocked Israel as a modern Jewish shibboleth, Operation Shylock also shows a deep intimacy with its people, its cultural, and its totems. For instance, his true (not fictional) dialogues with Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld in the book (Appelfeld died just this past January) reveal sensitive insights about what, exactly, Jewish identity means at the turn of the twenty-first century.

Ultimately Roth’s subject wasn’t Judaism, it was America. He asked: Why shouldn’t the Jewish lens be as valid as any other lens through which we can understand America? After all, Faulkner wrote about America, but through the perspective of the American South. So did Steinbeck, via the western frontier. So did Ellison, and Kerouac, and so on. America is big and complex and refracted into a thousand hues. Who’s to say that America’s freedoms and dysfunctions aren’t perfectly represented through the eyes of Bucky Cantor, a Newark playground director terrorized by polio (Nemesis, 2010)? Or Coleman Silk, the classics professor who gets caught in the wheels of the political correctness machine (The Human Stain, 2000)?

Or, for that matter, Roth’s masterful creation Swede Levov, the protagonist of American Pastoral (1997)? His name is the perfect encapsulation of Roth’s work: a Newark Jew who marries a (shiksa) beauty queen, flees to the Jersey suburbs, and expects that his Nordic looks and nickname will help him shed his history. But the shtetl, and the past, is as present as his surname.

America does fascinating things to the identities of its immigrants and their descendants. Those complexities are more than enough to stake a career on. We were blessed to be of a generation that had such an articulate master to challenge our assumptions and satirize our self-righteousness. If we grapple with Roth seriously, we will understand ourselves better—because it will be much harder to hide.

 

[1] William B. Helmreich, The Enduring Community: The Jews of Newark and Metrowest, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1999, p.30.

Broken Clocks (on the U.S. Embassy Opening in Jerusalem)

 Gen. Edmond Allenby dismounts from his horse and enters Jerusalem on foot, December, 1917.

Gen. Edmond Allenby dismounts from his horse and enters Jerusalem on foot, December, 1917.

I was wrong.

I was wrong in December when I wrote ambivalently about moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. At that time, I wrote that while of course Jerusalem is Israel’s capital, “sometimes it is better to be smart than to be right.”  It’s hard to admit being wrong, but I was.

And it’s even harder when the messenger is someone like President Donald Trump, who it seems is determined to wrap even the moments when he’s right with so much narcissism, abuse, and seventh-grade-bully smarminess that you just want to say, “what he’s for, I’m against.”

But you know the saying about broken clocks, and it is foolish to conclude that, just because another’s motives are suspect, they are actually wrong.

I was ambivalent about moving the embassy because I thought it was bad for Israel’s security, because I thought it would launch tirades of anti-Israel violence, and because I thought it would isolate American foreign policy as a broker in the Middle East.

I realize now that each of these premises was faulty. American isolation is following apace due to the Administration’s other “America First” policies and obnoxious diplomacy, not because of the embassy. But regarding Israel, in fact, a trickle of countries are tentatively indicating that they will follow the American lead and move their embassies as well (Guatemala, and possibly Honduras and Romania, although the Czechs seem to have changed their minds). This is a very good thing, and I hope we quickly reach a tipping-point of other countries following suit.

Further, the expected waves of violence in Arab countries did not follow. (The Hamas-inspired violence on Gaza’s border is not because of the embassy move. If anything, it is connected to the 70th anniversary of the Independence/Nakba, and the delusions that terrorism will reset the world’s clocks to a time when there was no Israel.) 

And I argued that moving the embassy was symbolic; no one’s life (except for the ambassador's) would be enhanced by moving it, so the risk of disaster outweighed the benefits of symbolism.

But symbols are important. Our religious and civic lives are full of symbolism. For instance, at the Brandeis graduation yesterday, I was struck again by how full of  “ancient” symbolism our academic exercises are (from caps and gowns—make sure your hood is the right color!—to the regalia that the university president wears, to the solemn intonation of an alma mater). Israelis understandably feel delegitimized by the refusal, even of allies, to acknowledge that Jerusalem is the authentic capital of the State—the place where, de facto, everyone knows the political and legal seats of government are.

The move really has nothing to do with Palestinians, and nothing to do with peace processes, or two states, or even preventing a future Palestinian state from having its capital in East Jerusalem.

So the administration was right—I daresay, even courageous in moving the embassy.

And I was wrong.  I just hope and pray that six months from now, I won’t be writing a blog that says, “I was wrong about being wrong.”

Because these people sure know how to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Instead of approaching Jerusalem with modesty and humility, as when Gen. Edmond Allenby dismounted his horse and entered the City of Cities on foot in 1917, the embassy opened with triumphalism and backslapping. Instead of celebrating Jerusalem, they celebrate themselves.

“Modesty and humility” are incoherent to these people. (“When President Trump makes a promise, he keeps it,” said son-in-law Jared Kushner, the sort of sycophantic and self-serving comment we’ve come to expect in lieu of what could have been a moment of oratorical inspiration.) The presence of uber-racist pastors, the voices of the evangelical hard right, is obscene. So, too, was the presence of the pro-Israel but anti-Jewish millenialist reactionaries (hello, Michele Bachmann? Are these people really interested in reviving this lunatic’s career?).

Supporters of the Administration love quoting the Bible. Some of them even compare Donald Trump to a modern day Cyrus of Persia! (As if Zionist history never happened! As if we hadn’t already returned to the Land!)

They might consider other parts of the Bible, such as the words of Jeremiah. Over twenty-six hundred years ago, Jeremiah (7:1-15) warned about the hypocrisy of those who spend too much time mouthing praises of Jerusalem (“The Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, The Temple of the Lord are these!!”, v.4) while simultaneously promoting injustice, moral perversion, and arrogance. Jerusalem demands morality, both personal and social. To behave otherwise is to mock its religious premise.

Moving the embassy is a very good thing. It should be accompanied by a set of moral values that represent city’s ancient heritage: a place for God to dwell among human beings, a place of seeking moral repair, and a place of yearning for real peace.

On Israel's 70th Independence Day

My prized possession:

Der Tog.jpg

The front page of the daily American Yiddish newspaper “Der Tog” ("The Day"), May 15, 1948, the day after Israel’s independence. On that day the paper was produced in blue ink. My grandfather saved it for me, giving it to me about five years after his death.

The large headline says, Iddishe Melukha: "Jewish State."

"Recognition from America"

“Ben Gurion proclaims Jewish State: 'Israel'”

Lower left corner: Truman, Herzl, and Ben Gurion


1,978 years after the destruction of Jerusalem.

!חג שמח

Reflections on a Winter Nor'easter

As I write, my family is stuck in our home, as the most recent nor’easter has brought down trees and power lines on our street. We spent last night by candlelight, cooking dinner in our fireplace.  Shabbat is arriving imminently, so a cousin will come and pick us up around the corner and bring us to her house, and we’ll get a reprieve from the cold and dark.

Much more important is the elderly couple on our block, who are being evacuated by the fire department and will be taken to stay in a local hotel until the street is cleared and the power returns, which seems to still be a few days away.

And you know what? It doesn’t matter. It’s a hassle, for sure.  But if nothing else, it should be a reminder—a reminder of just how darn easy and comfortable we have it here in these affluent suburbs. Not everyone, of course. We have neighbors in our town who struggle to make ends meet, people who have grave financial worries about their future. My wife and I know people well who have lived without a roof over their heads, who are not able to provide three meals a day for themselves and their families.

But most of us live fairly comfortable lives here—not just the wealthiest nation in the world, but the wealthiest nation that the world has ever known. 

And a little inconvenience from Mother Nature should be a reminder of just how good we have it, and how there are people near and far who know real desperation. If times like this don’t help us grow into people with deeper stores of empathy and compassion, then we are truly hopeless.

If you happen to live in an affluent place, and if you know that your electrical power, automobile, food supply, and security in your housing will regain their equilibrium pretty quickly, you should be profoundly grateful. Because that means you don’t have to count yourself among:

·      The ¼ of all human beings in the world who live without electricity, approximately           1.6 billion people[1]

·      805 million people in the world who do not have enough food to eat.[2]

·      769 million people who live (or not) on less than $1.90 per day.[3]

It means that your children, whom you would do anything to protect, need not be counted among the 1 billion children of other people who are living in poverty. According to UNICEF, 22,000 die due to their poverty every day.[4]

And if we needed reminders, America is not immune to extreme poverty either. There are 40.6 million Americans living poverty; 12.7% of the population.[5] According to the point-in-time count of America’s homeless community in 2017, there are 553,742 people without housing on a given night.[6] (Noting that there are different kinds of homelessness—chronic, transitional, episodic; plus the many thousands in America who live on the brink of homelessness, just a paycheck or two away.)

If I sound crabby, it’s not because I haven’t showered in two days. It’s simply a profound frustration of our human nature—my own absolutely included—that forgets that what we consider to be inconveniences are so ludicrous in the grand scheme of need that really exists in the world.

It’s a frustration born of living in general proximity to some of the wealthiest Zip Codes in America—and knowing that materialism, greed, and complacency co-exist (and often prevail) over empathy, generosity, and living gratefully.

A destructive winter storm like this one really stinks. Some neighbors will experience lots of property damage (and insurance claims), work hours will be lost, appointments will be missed, food in the freezer will probably go bad.

But in a few short weeks, equilibrium for most of us will return. Spring will arrive. At that time, Jewish people will sit down at their seder tables. We’ll raise a piece of matzah and say, “This is the bread of affliction… Let all who are hungry come and eat.”

In order for those words not to reek of irony and hypocrisy, we have to recognize that in our inconvenience is the tiniest taste of what real suffering is like; a flavor that a staggering number of human beings around the world know intimately.

If we can emerge from our inconveniences with a deeper sense of empathy, generosity, and an awareness of how unbelievably, undeservedly blessed we really are—then maybe this Passover will bring a bit of real liberation after all.

 

[1] United Nations, “The Millennium Development Goals Report 2007.”

[2] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2014, “The State of Food Insecurity in the World, 2014.”

[3] “The U.S. Can No Longer Hide from Its Deep Poverty Problem,” Angus Deaton, New York Times, January 24, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/24/opinion/poverty-united-states.html

[4] “UNICEF: Committing to Child Survival: A Promise Renewed,” United Nations Interagency Group for Child Mortality Estimation (UN IGME), 2014.

[5] https://www.census.gov/topics/income-poverty/poverty.html

[6] National Coalition for the Homeless, http://nationalhomeless.org/about-homelessness/

​​​​​​​Nevertheless, Esther Persisted: Purim in a Nutshell

An insecure ruler, prone to acting on his whims and accustomed to a lifestyle of outrageous luxury and recreation, loves nothing more than dining and celebrating with the wealthy elite who support him.[1] He declares a nationwide holiday, many months devoted to opulence and debauchery.

The king's holiday is a celebration of deregulation.[2]

The king has a closed circle of male sycophantic advisors[3], all of whom are outwardly subservient to the king (but behind the scenes, know that he is easily manipulated by flattery[4]). They call for the queen to perform erotically for them.[5] Vashti rejects the king’s crass locker-room talk.

Vashti, the king’s first wife and a victim of his sexual predation[6], disappears from the story, never to be heard from again. The king is excited to marry a new and younger wife, perhaps an immigrant to Shushan. In essence, the king holds a "Miss Persia" pageant which he owns (and of course has no reservations taking advantage of the young hopeful contestants).

A young Jewish woman named Hadassah—but who goes in polite society by the less ethnic-sounding name Esther[7]—against all odds ends up in the royal household. To ensure populist approval, the king cuts taxes and distributes favors among his supporters.[8]

The king appoints Haman, who has a notorious nationalist[9] and anti-Semitic record,[10] to be his senior advisor.

Mordecai, who like many Jews has achieved great success in Persia[11], uncovers a plot and saves the king’s life. When Mordecai refuses to bow to Haman, Haman issues a decree of annihilation against the Jews. He seduces the king with talk about how a third-column of immigrants threatens real Persians.[12] It is time to put Persia First; Haman posits that a sinister cabal of Jews who follow only their own protocols is holding the nation back from being great.[13] Antisemitic incidents rise; it’s worse than it’s been in anyone’s recent memory.

There is no official response from the administration.

Mordecai petitions Esther to take a stand. Esther agrees, but notes that everyone in the king’s inner circle knows that he is very prone to impulsiveness and lashing out, so who knows what will happen?[14]

Nevertheless, Esther persisted.[15] She invites the king and Haman to a most exclusive royal banquet.

Meanwhile, despite the air of general prosperity, Haman is incensed that a foreigner—Mordecai—continues not to know his own place.[16] He plots to have Mordecai killed.

The king, unable to sleep, instructs an aide read to him (rather than actually reading himself).[17] There, he discovers that even though Mordecai had saved his life, he had not remembered to thank him. Haman is forced to lead Mordecai in a royal procession through the capital. Humiliated, Haman mourns for his once-great country.[18]

Haman, the king, and Esther have their private banquet. She reveals Haman’s plot and the king, enraged, declares that his friend and former advisor has clearly lost his mind.[19] Haman is publicly executed.

However, the edict calling for the destruction of the Jews remains in effect. The arcane founding laws of the country have not evolved with current technology, so there is no legal way to prevent a massacre from happening.[20]  An edict calls upon the Jews to defend themselves against their enemies.

The resistance is successful. The Jews find success unlike any they have received in any other kingdom.[21] Esther and Mordecai are ensconced in power. In their opulence, wealth, and feasting—and in becoming accustomed to violence committed in their name, always in self-defense, of course[22]—the Jews of Shushan even start to act just like the Persians did at the beginning of the book. [23]

A holiday is declared to remember these events. Part of the observance is a reminder to give gifts to poor people,[24] who previously have been invisible in this story.

An annual day of irreverence and celebration—called “Purim,” to remind us how so much of our fate relies on chance—is established.

The king raises taxes.[25] Life returns to normal. The book ends with praise of Mordecai, who apparently saved the Jews singlehandedly.[26]


[1] Esther 1:3
[2] 1:8
[3] 1:10, 1:14
[4] 1:19-20
[5] 1:11, Esther Rabbah 3:13
[6] 1:12
[7] 2:7
[8] 2:18
[9] Esther Rabbah 7:4
[10] 3:1
[11] Esther Rabbah 6:2
[12] 3:8
[13] 3:8
[14] 4:11
[15] 4:15
[16] 5:9
[17] 6:1
[18] 6:12
[19] 7:8
[20] 8:8
[21] 8:17, 9:4
[22] 9:5, 9:16
[23] 9:17
[24] 9:22
[25] 10:1
[26] 10:2-3

The Stranger Who Resides with Us

I wrote this in 2016 for ARZA's commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Given the Netanyahu government's efforts to expel African refugees--and the massive demonstrations to protect them--it seems timely. I think it still holds up:

A walk through South Tel Aviv is not generally on the itinerary of a regular trip to Israel. It may as well be another planet from the all-night clubs, fancy restaurants, soaring hotels, and refined art galleries of what was once known as the White City. Most tourists have no idea that the place exists—and they certainly do not know about Holot.

South Tel Aviv in the flesh can break the heart of any thinking Zionist. It houses the largest concentration of Israel’s oft-hidden underclass: Africans from Eritrea and Sudan who have fled some of the world’s most vicious regimes. Any Jew who experiences the reality of South Tel Aviv—its appalling living conditions, overcrowded housing, and air of desperation—must ask, is this the best the Jewish state can muster?

Over 45,000 Eritreans and Sudanese currently reside in Israel, but the government’s treatment of them is nowhere near what we might consider the “Torah standard.”

“Refugee” and “asylum seeker” are legal terms; if these labels were applied to Israel’s African residents, a host of legal protections would kick in. Therefore, the government employs different language: a policy of “temporary protection” or “delay of removal” is in effect. In other words, desperate people who have fled to Israel find themselves in limbo: they cannot legally work or apply for citizenship; they cannot be deported back to where they came from; they have nowhere else to go. The vast majority want “asylum seeker” status, but Israel has granted that status to fewer than 1% of them; it is the lowest rate of recognition in the western world. Some activists accuse government officials of waging a racist campaign of incitement against the Africans, calling them insidious “infiltrators.”

And then there’s Holot. Located in the remote Negev near the Egyptian border, Holot is a detention facility—it’s hard to differentiate it from a prison—where Africans streaming into the country are held without trial. Over the past few years, the Knesset has tried to detain migrants for years on end; the High Court of Justice called the government’s policy “a grave and disproportionate abuse of the right to personal freedom.” As of December 2015, there were 3,300 people in Holot where they may remain up to twelve months. Its capacity is “full” according to the Israeli Immigration Authority.

While Europe dominates headlines with the refugee disaster pouring out of Syria, this subversive crisis to Israel’s soul shamefully has been absent from the American Jewish agenda.

It is difficult to read Parashat Kedoshim and not think of South Tel Aviv or Holot:

וְכִֽי־יָג֧וּר אִתְּךָ֛ גֵּ֖ר בְּאַרְצְכֶ֑ם לֹ֥א תוֹנ֖וּ אֹתֽוֹ׃ כְּאֶזְרָ֣ח מִכֶּם֩ יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֜ם הַגֵּ֣ר ׀ הַגָּ֣ר אִתְּכֶ֗ם וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ 
כִּֽי־גֵרִ֥ים הֱיִיתֶ֖ם בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם אֲנִ֖י ה' אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him.
The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens;
you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt:
I, Adonai, am your God.
(Leviticus 19:33-34)

These verses are directed towards a Jewish community that is a majority culture, self-assured and established in its own land. The Torah warns that the Jews, when they have become that majority, will have a minority community of non-Jews living among them—and they must assiduously protect the rights of that minority.

To understand this passage requires a better grasp of three familiar concepts: the “stranger,” “do not wrong,” and “you shall love.” Each of these ideas is more nuanced than may appear at first glance.

Who is the ger?

In the Tanakh, the meaning of the word ger is very specific: a minority group dwelling among a native majority. The ger is someone who has been transplanted from his native home. In contrast, the word for “native citizen” (“the ger… shall be to you as one of your citizens”) is ezrach. Biblical scholar Baruch Levine suggests that the term ezrach is connected to the linguistic root of a tree firmly rooted in its soil: “…well-rooted, like a robust native tree” (Psalm 37:35). He writes, “If this derivation is correct, an ezrach/citizen is one whose lineage has ‘roots’ in the land, one who belongs to the group that possesses the land.” The ger is the outsider, the stranger in the midst.

Thus the Torah frequently reminds Israel that we know the feelings of the ger, because we’ve had that status before. This is precisely the situation the Jewish people knew in Egypt; a displaced minority among an indigenous majority culture.

What does the Torah mean what it says “you shall not wrong” the ger?

In context, the verb lo tonu / “you shall not wrong” comes from the noun ona’ah, which refers specifically to economic deprivation, manipulation, and taking advantage of another who is in a weaker position. For instance, Leviticus 25:14-17 opens and closes with an injunction not to “wrong” one another, and in between it illustrates this “wronging” as a matter of economic injustice:

When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy anything from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another.
In buying from your neighbor, you shall deduct only for the number of years since the jubilee; and in selling to you, he shall charge you only for the remaining crop years:
the more such years, the higher the price you pay; the fewer such years, the lower the price; for what he is selling you is a number of harvests. Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I Adonai am your God.

We can conclude that from a p’shat point of view, ona’ah in Leviticus 19 means unfairly leveraging an economic situation where the other person—namely, the ger—is relatively defenseless.

The Mishnah takes this idea one step further: “Just as there is ona’ah in buying and selling, so too is there ona’ah in words.” For the Rabbis, ona’ah—the very acts which are prohibited against the ger and others—is expanded to mean “oppression, wrongdoing, or causing shame.”

Finally, we need to ask: What does it mean “to love the ger as yourself”?

Many have asked how the Torah can command love, the deepest of human emotions. Earlier in Kedoshim we were commanded to “love your neighbor as yourself”; elsewhere the Torah command us to love God (who reciprocally loves us) and, here, to love the stranger.

It is a conundrum if the Hebrew word for love, ahava, simply means deep emotion. However, biblical scholar Jacob Milgrom explains that “love” in the Torah is much more than sentiment; love necessarily entails action:

How can love be commanded? The answer simply is that the verb ahav signifies not only an emotion or attitude, but also deeds. This is especially true in Deuteronomy, which speaks of covenantal love. The ger is “loved” by providing him with food and shelter (Deut. 10:18-19). God is “loved” by observing his commandments (Deut. 11:1), and God in turn “loves” Israel by subduing its enemies (Deut. 7:8).[1]

Thus, to “love” the ger and to “not wrong him” are inverses of one another. The fulfillment of this Mitzvah means not only not to exploit a person who is politically weaker, but also to support him, to include him in festival celebrations, to allow him to rest on Shabbat, and to provide him with appropriate safety.[2]

It is hard to read these words at the culmination of our Torah portion and, again, not to reflect on our reality. Certainly, “real life” occasionally intrudes on idealism and mitigates our ability to behave according to our highest standards. But still, we have to ask: are we fulfilling what the Torah demands of us?

The words of a modern commentator are jarring:

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966) was a major figure in 20th Century Orthodoxy. Rabbi Sorotzkin was born in Belarus, served as the Rabbi of Lutsk in Ukraine, and ultimately fled to Palestine during World War II. There he became the vice chairman of Agudat Yisrael (the main Ashkenazi Orthodox party in Israel at the time); he was certainly not a “liberal” figure by any means. Which makes his comment on this verse particularly compelling:

“In your land” (Leviticus 19:33):  You should not say [to the ger] that Eretz Yisrael is just for Jews, as extremists [!!] everywhere claim that their land is just for their own people and minorities have no part in it. For the Land was given to Abraham, who was called “the father of a multitude of nations,” and each nation that believes in the God of Abraham and who clings to his descendants should not be considered a “foreigner” in the land that was promised to him. And this is the lesson of the verse, you shall not wrong him (Lev.19:33): with your ona’at devarim [wronging someone with words, above], as if to deceive him into thinking that he dwells in your land, in a land that is not his.[3]

What would Rabbi Sorotzkin say if he were to observe the plight of the Eritreans and Sudanese in Israel today?

The Torah commands us to protect the rights and dignity of the stranger no less than 36 times (and some authorities say 46 times)—it is repeated more than any other Mitzvah in the Torah. When you go home, the text implies, you have an enormous responsibility to care for those who are vulnerable. This injunction is, in fact, the moral barometer of any society. This is one of the resounding lessons of Jewish history: we know the heart of the stranger, because we’ve been that stranger many times: in Egypt, but also in Babylonia, Morocco, Ukraine, Yemen, Ethiopia, Ellis Island, and Poland. Woe to those of us who are so estranged from our past that we can’t look into the eyes of the African refugees and see the reflection of our own living history.

For more information about supporting African migrants in Israel: 
The Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, http://hotline.org.il/en/main/

[1] Jacob Milgrom, Leviticus 17-22, The Anchor Bible, 2000, p.1653.

[2] Milgrom, p.1706.

[3]R. Zalman Sorotzkin, Oznaim LaTorah, in Itturei Torah on Leviticus 19:33.

Nuclear Dreams

If you can stomach just a few more words about the State of the Union…

I have no intention here of analyzing Donald Trump’s speech—nor the First Lady’s clothes, the opposition’s behavior, or any of that nonsense. States of the Union are usually non-events, and this one was no different.

But there’s one part of his speech that chilled me to the bone, and in the newspapers and websites that I read, I didn’t see any particular mention of it.

He said:

As part of our defense, we must modernize and rebuild our nuclear arsenal, hopefully never having to use it, but making it so strong and powerful that it will deter any acts of aggression. Perhaps someday in the future there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we are not there yet.

On the page, those words are grotesque enough. But there was an insidiousness to how he said it—especially that last sentence, which had a sickly, condescending tone. It triggered some old, primal fears.

I was a teenager in the 1980s, at the height of U.S.-Soviet anxieties. I’m sure I’m not the only one of my generation who remembers waking in the middle of the night from nightmares about nuclear war. Our schools and popular culture scared the hell out of us with the prospect of the annihilation of the planet.

My memories of ‘80s pop culture echo the helpless fear that our leaders would be “forced” by our enemies to use nuclear weapons—the ultimate weapons of mass destruction. Like a lot of ‘80s detritus, much of it today seems campy and silly—but we took it very seriously. 

For instance, my favorite movie around the time of my Bar Mitzvah was WarGames, which imagined that two computer nerds (with their crackling antediluvian modems and monochrome computer screens) could inadvertently set off a chain of events that would lead to war. Today, we giggle at some of the dialogue:

 “Wouldn’t you prefer a nice game of chess?”
“Later. Let’s play global thermonuclear war.”

But back in 1983, it wasn’t so funny. It scared the hell out of us.

Pop music at the time got on the nuclear fear-stoking bandwagon, too. U2—when they were young, vaguely punky, and cutting-edge—recorded War and The Unforgettable Fire, which seemed to nod toward these themes. Pink Floyd released the vinyl quaalude The Final Cut, which droned on about nuclear apocalypse. Even a disposable act like Frankie Goes to Hollywood released a hit single called “Two Tribes” about the dangers of nuclear proliferation—this is what passed as dance music in those days!

In school, they gave us books like Alas, Babylon (a holdover of the previous generation’s atomic terror) which depicted the aftereffects of a nuclear war. But the worst, by far, was The Day After—a televised movie “event” that was considered so important that it was aired without any commercials! It was about the futility of survival after the nukes go off, because of the environmental cataclysm that comes afterwards, making the planet uninhabitable. By the end of the film, the blast’s survivors have succumbed to radiation poisoning, nuclear winter has started to settle in, and the extinction of the human race seemed assured. Everybody watched it; it was one of the highest-rated TV programs of all time.

This is what we were raised on. One night in June 1989 there was an explosion at the Hercules munitions plant in my hometown, shattering windows miles away. I remember falling out of my bed from the blast, but the worst part was the sheer terror that this was it:  it was so loud, surely that it meant that the Soviets had launched their nukes (and we all knew that Picatinny Arsenal, not far away, would be a primary target when doomsday actually came). I don’t think I’ve ever been so metaphysically terrified at any other time in my life.

Even as teens, we knew the numbers: that our nuclear arsenal was so large it could destroy the planet hundreds of times over. We couldn’t comprehend the logic: if we could only completely destroy the entire Soviet Union 178 times, was it really more of a deterrent to be able to wipe them out 212 times? 

Miraculously, the Soviet Union collapsed without any of these horrors coming to be, and the Doomsday Clock slipped backwards a few clicks from midnight. But I presume I’m not the only one who senses that keeping nukes out of the hands of terrorists and lunatics couldn’t be more important. It’s a big part of why I take Israel’s warnings about Iran’s nuclear threat so absolutely seriously: a nuclear weapon in the hands of an apocalyptic regime is the stuff of real nightmares.

So to hear the President speaking of the need to “rebuild” our nuclear arsenal triggers certain long-dormant reflexes in me. Conservatives and progressives alike should be able to find common cause in being able to restrain this insane return of a ghost that should be resting permanently in peace.

Jews, especially, should know that exponential power of nuclear weapons is a moral anathema. A tradition that demands that when you go to war, you must not destroy the fruit trees in enemy territory (Deuteronomy 20:19) should be appalled at the idea of devastating entire ecosystems with weapons of ghastly force.

Moreover, the standard interpretation of an obscure passage in the Talmud (Shevuot 35b) is that a war that would kill a massive number of civilians—a sixth of the population, an atomic proportion—is absolutely prohibited.

Furthermore… my God, do we have to do this? Do we really need religious prooftexts to say that we shouldn’t contemplate wreaking devastation on a planetary scale? Can we just call this one of those things that the Talmud considers סברא הוא, just plain common sense?

As Joshua said back in ’83—and everyone in Eisenhower Middle School in Roxbury, NJ could quote it—it is a strange game. The only winning move is not to play.