Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Purim Mitzvot

Purim is coming!

Close your eyes and listen carefully: can you hear the peals of children’s laughter? Can you smell the hamentaschen? Are you ready to laugh with (at?!) me and the others in the shpiel?  Can you feel the undeniable urge to be silly celebrating the ancient victory of our People over the Evil Haman in the far away land of Shushan?  Adults and Children of all ages are searching for and designing their Purim costumes. 

Purim is a joyous time, and such an easy way to throw yourself deeply into our Jewish traditions.  It engages the whole family, and the mitzvot (commandments) of Purim are easy to fulfill.

Often you will hear, for example, the word mitzvah translated as “a good deed” or “a blessing.” The mitzvot are indeed wonderful to perform and a blessing in our lives, but as Conservative Jews we also believe that they are our sacred duties to perform.  The word mitzvah in Hebrew means a “command.” The Jewish way of life, known as Halakhah, is based on that understanding.    Fulfilling our sacred obligations was never more fun than now.

So let’s review: What are the mitzvot of Purim

They all come from the Book of Esther, more commonly known as the megillah.

…the fourteenth… of Adar every year… the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which had been transformed for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy.  They were to observe them as days of (a) feasting and (b) merrymaking, and as an occasion for (c) sending gifts to one another and (d) presents to the poor.
- Esther 9:22

Here we have four specific commandments (a-f).

(a)   The Purim Seudah – a Festive Meal.  Commanded to eat!  Wonderful!  Certain simchas are connected to an actual obligation to have a feast (for example, a Bris or a Wedding).  The Purim seudah should be festive and full.  As is proper, we celebrate this on Purim day (not Purim night), Thursday, March 8.
(b)  Merrymaking.  Rabbinic tradition offers Purim as a day for great mirth and frivolity.  One custom allows a bit more alcohol than you might ordinarily take, with care.  Purim, in essence, should be joyful.  Our Gala Fundraiser in the evening, and the Purim Carnival during the day will be wonderful examples.
(c)   Mishloach Manot – (sometimes called “shalah manot” or “shalah manos”)Gifts of Food. We fulfill this obligation by giving at least two different people each two different types of food.  The idea is that they should have plenty for their feast, and we should remember our friends.  Our annual Purim Basket drive allows you to sponsor baskets to your friends, families or teachers by having your name listed on a basket that is given to them at Purim.  It is a wonderful fundraiser, and part of this mitzvah.
(d)  Matanot L’evyonim:  “Gifts to the Poor” is always a mitzvah in Judaism, as our traditional generosity as a people through tzedakkah demonstrates.  But on Purim it is even more commanded to give gifts directly to alleviate poverty of individuals.  Support of Food Banks, Mazon, or direct gifts to the needy are all ways to fulfill this important Purim Mitzvah.
(e)   Reading the Megillah:  The Megillah is to be chanted at services both in the evening and in the morning, and is traditionally read from a kosher parchment similar to a Torah scroll.  The Megillah reading has become the most famous and well observed Mitzvah of Purim.
(f)   And finally, there is Ta’anit Esther: The “fast of Esther” is one of four minor fast days, so called because it does not begin on the evening before (like Yom Kippur does), but lasts only through the daylight hours.  This fast commemorates the loss of life associated with saving the Jews from Haman’s evil plot, and mirrors Queen Esther’s courageous preparation to confront the King to save our people.  This year it will take place on Wednesday, March 7th.

There you go!  Maimonides, in the 11th Century C.E. codified the 613 Mitzvot that are found in our Tanakh (Hebrew Bible).  Those are the 6 that are specific to Purim.  I look forward to sharing their observance with each and every one of you.

Chag Purim Sameach!

Rabbi Robert L. Tobin

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Jeremy Lin and the Jews

Judaism is the story of the underdog.   Abraham is the younger son of Terach.  Isaac is the younger son of Abraham.  Jacob is the younger son of Isaac. Joseph is the 11th son of Jacob. Ephraim is the younger son of Joseph. The Priestly tribe of Levi begins as a secondary Tribe to Reuben. The Israelite nation is of lesser size than its neighbors.  Judah is smaller than the Kingdom of Israel.  And our nation as a whole were slaves to Egypt, Captives to Babylon, and Exiles in the world until 1948.  Our psyche as Jews is one of the lesser child, born with no silver spoon in his mouth, making it on the world stage as beloved partner with God in history.

As such, underdogs always play well with the Jewish people.  We love stories like Jeremy Lin of the N.Y. Knicks - sitting on the bench two weeks ago unknown to the world. He tweeted last month that security guards at Madison Square Garden where still asking him for I.D. and thought he was a team trainer.  In a moment of desperation, with the multi-million dollar starters out with injuries, the Knicks let Lin onto the floor.  Since then, 6 games later, they have not lost a game.  He has been beyond steller, scoring more in his first 6 starts than any player in N.B.A. history.

The startling rise of the lesser son to prominence is the assertion that every person, every soul, has a destiny.  That destiny is never known to people until it is fulfilled.  Our lives proceed on the path of our choosing, but are flooded with the influence of others and God.  Very little is actually under our control, other than our choices each moment we live. What we have been given, like Mr. Lin, is a chance.

Politics are brewing as a result of Mr. Lin's success.  He parents are from Taiwan, and he has become an instant sensation in mainland China - among the people, not the government.  Mr. Lin is Taiwanese, American, and religious.  These are not China's favorite adjectives for a role model.  It will be interesting to see how such flash points in the large world react to the arrival of Jeremy Lin.

Israel knows the tension well.  As an exile minority among the nations, we kept our stories tradition and identity alive for 2,000 years. And as refugees in the wake of World War II, the world looked at us with sympathy and wonder, voting to create the State of Israel nearly 62 years ago. But once we became a power, a winner, the world became less impressed.  1967, Yom Kippur, Lebanon and the Intifada have all cast Israel as the military power.  And the west dislikes anyone *else* with power, casting all conflict as the cruel oppressor and the noble victim.  In this world view, Israel is no longer seen as the under dog.

Of course the difference between a Basketball game and an international conflict is that the former has a time clock, and when it is over it is over.  Count the points, declare a victor, and move on.  The 1969 Mets became immortal in similar fashion.  Had the war of 1967 or the Yom Kippor war ended the conflict, the majesty of our history would be recognized by all.

AIPAC and others have always made a great deal of hay about the population of the Arab world versus that of Israel.  The argument is a waste of time as long as Israel continues to "win" on the battlefield.  If Israel wants to retain its "miracle status" like Jeremy Lin, we need to find a precipitous road to two states and put the past behind us.  The buzzer needs to sound.