Sunday, February 28, 2010

Breaking the cycle

An adapted version of Shalom's drash at Adas

(without the shpieling)

As a skeptical teen-ager, I read Milton Steinberg's As a Driven Leaf.  Decades later, one particular scene remains with me.  Rabbi Akiva is imprisoned by the Romans (thanks to an informant who was an apostate rabbi, but that's a longer story).  Even in such dire straits, he is still focused on responding to the urgent questions smuggled to him by the Jewish community on the outside.  One such question (p. 446): Do the Psalms of Solomon belong in Tanach?

For some reason, this question really struck me.  You mean historical figures, painted in such flesh-and-blood terms in Steinberg's novel, were deciding which books were sacred and which were not?  Then what made them sacred?  And how could someone raise themselves above such degrading circumstances as a Roman prison (described graphically in the novel) to focus on such ethereal questions?  The intimate and confusing mingling of sacred and profane in this scene has stuck with me all these years.

It turns out the novel's scene with Rabbi Akiva is based on the Mishnah (Yadayim 3:5).  But what did I know of mishnah as a skeptical teen-ager?  It also turns out the Megillat Ester is one of the books subject to some dispute.  But what is the dispute really about -- what would it mean if a given book were determined to be "in" or "out" of Tanach?

Rabbi Marouf, the rabbi at Magen David, the sephardi shul in Rockville, addressed this question recently.  He concludes, based partly on the Rambam's Hilchot Talmud Torah (laws of studying torah) that "becoming a book of Tanach is more a function of the laws of Torah Study than of a particular book's intrinsic value."  By including Megillat Esther, we are committing ourselves collectively to making it a standard part of our curriculum, worth consistent and focused attention, year after year.

Okay -- so what is that we learn from Megillat Ester?  What's the teaching that made this book important enough to include in our regular curriculum, i.e. Tanach?  Rabbi Elizabeth Richman gives one important answer.  What's the narrative fulcrum of Megillat Esther?  Surely, it's the decree that Haman convinced the King to issue (3:13), giving authorization:

לְהַשְׁמִיד לַהֲרֹג וּלְאַבֵּד אֶת-כָּל-הַיְּהוּדִים מִנַּעַר וְעַד-זָקֵן טַף וְנָשִׁים בְּיוֹם אֶחָד, בִּשְׁלוֹשָׁה עָשָׂר לְחֹדֶשׁ שְׁנֵים-עָשָׂר הוּא-חֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר; וּשְׁלָלָם, לָבוֹז

"to destroy, to massacre, to exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month -- that is, the month of Adar -- and to plunder their possessions."

The horror of this decree, and its all too familiar repetitions and implementations through our history as a people, is what requires the layers of protective and curative ritual -- the antics, the alcohol, the absurdities of Purim celebrations.  Nonetheless this is the verse that we quote, almost in its entirety, in the "al ha-Nissim" for davenning on Purim.

Rabbi Richman points out that after Haman's classic denouement, the counter-decree issued at Mordechai and Esther's request -- dramatically introduced by the longest verse in all of Tanach -- is essentially identical (8:11-12):

לְהַשְׁמִיד וְלַהֲרֹג וּלְאַבֵּד אֶת-כָּל-חֵיל עַם וּמְדִינָה הַצָּרִים אֹתָם, טַף וְנָשִׁים; וּשְׁלָלָם, לָבוֹז

בְּיוֹם אֶחָד, בְּכָל-מְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ--בִּשְׁלוֹשָׁה עָשָׂר לְחֹדֶשׁ שְׁנֵים-עָשָׂר, הוּא-חֹדֶשׁ אֲדָר

"to destroy, to massacre, to exterminate its armed force together with women and children, and plunder their possessions -- on a single day in all the provinces of King Ahashverosh, namely, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth mount, that is, the month of Adar."

Except for substituting "its armed force" for "all the Jews", all the other phrases in the decree are identical.  Is this what victory consists of?  As Rabbi Richman puts it, adopting the language of our oppressor?  That the Jews should emulate Haman, of all people, so perfectly?  Of course not -- for in the events described in the Megillah, the Jews don't actually fulfill that decree.  We do kill 75,811 men -- but no mention is made of any massacre by Jews of women or children.  And the text specifies that "they did not lay hands on the spoil" (in sharp contrast to the haftarah of Shabbat Zachor).  In fact, disdaining the spoils of war is mentioned in three different verses, and is also the conclusive response in the gemara (Megilla 7a) discussing whether or not Megillat Esther was written with Ruach ha-Kodesh (divinely inspired).

For Rabbi Richman, this lesson taught by studying Megillat Esther (and in observing Ta'anit Esther) is to "help us reflect on the transition from powerlessness to power. For both communities and individuals who have gained power, it can be easy to unthinkingly imitate those who have oppressed us."  I view the lesson as the equivalent of a Geneva Convention -- a recognition that even when doing something awful, we must still abide by certain restraints that make us human.

But I am not satisfied with the lesson, not at all.  It reminds me of what happened when I was an undergraduate student in a ROTC class (long story...).  The topic one day was chemical warfare, including what was back then a fairly left-wing proposal for a Chemical Weapons Convention (which is now international law).  All of these military officer candidates in my class, to my shock, supported the idea!  That afternoon, I talked optimistically to a good friend of mine, a campus radical, about the common ground I had found between do-gooder arms-control and hard-core military types.  But she wanted no part of it.  From her perspective, warfare was always warfare, and engaging in military action was never okay, no matter how many restraints you put on it.

I've come around to that position, philosophically if not practically.  Of course the Jews in Shushan had to defend themselves.  But in their doing so, there's nothing worth learning from, or even particularly worth emulating.  Professor Aryeh Cohen taught me that the Purim story is a graphic illustration of the "cycle of non-redemption" -- we do to them, whatever they were going to do to us.  We get the same decree issued, carry out (almost) the same slaughter, hang Haman on the very tree intended for Mordecai.  The classic reversals of Purim ("nehpach") are just another way of describing a cycle.  If there are lessons to be learned in Megillat Ester, they must be about how we break that cycle.

Indeed, the text provides a perfect redemptive antidote, building gradually through three successive attempts.  In 9:17, the Jews make the 14th of Adar a "yom mishteh v'simcha", a day of feasting and gladness.  Now, feasting, drinking and rejoicing may not do you much good when murdering hordes descend on you.  But when the cycles of history return you to power, it may lessen the thirst for revenge.  So we are required to this day, to participate in communal feasts on Purim afternoon.

But that's not enough.  In 9:19, Purim is not only a day of "simcha u'mishteh v'yom tov" (gladness, feasting, and festival), it is also a day for mishloach manot, sending goodies to one another.  That is, we shouldn't limit our community to those seated around our own table, but should extend those bonds as broadly as our means of transportation and the number of cookie sheets in our ovens can support.

But the teaching is not complete until the third attempt.  9:22 is the crowning verse of the entire Megillah:

כַּיָּמִים, אֲשֶׁר-נָחוּ בָהֶם הַיְּהוּדִים מֵאֹיְבֵיהֶם, וְהַחֹדֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר נֶהְפַּךְ לָהֶם מִיָּגוֹן לְשִׂמְחָה, וּמֵאֵבֶל לְיוֹם טוֹב; לַעֲשׂוֹת אוֹתָם, יְמֵי מִשְׁתֶּה וְשִׂמְחָה, וּמִשְׁלֹחַ מָנוֹת אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ, וּמַתָּנוֹת לָאֶבְיֹנִים

These will be as the days when the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes, and the month was transformed for them -- from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning to festivity; that they should make them days of:

  1. "mishteh v'simcha" (feasting and gladness), and
  2. "mishloach manot" (sending goodies to one another), and 
  3. "matanot la-evyonim" (giving gifts to the poor).

The third and completing element -- gifts to the poor -- extends the bonds of community even further, to forge a shared identity that can withstand sectarian strife and even warfare.  And beyond that, to redress some of the root causes of conflict: poverty, illness, and need.

These are the lessons of Megillat Esther that break us out of the cycle of non-redemption, that compelled the rabbis of old to include this text in our cannon of study.  

And of course, these are the particular mitzvot of Purim (and hopefully many other days of the year) that we have accepted upon ourselves (9:27: "kimu v'kiblu").  Their reach extends beyond that of most mitzvot: a set of obligations on all Jews, in all lands, enduring throughout time -- even in the days of ha-Olam ha-Bah (the World that We Bring), might it arrive speedily and in our days.  Purim Same'ach!

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Fri. night Zoo Minyan - March 5

The blizzard forced cancellation of our last Fri night Zoo Minyan, but fear not! We have rescheduled, and the new date is...

***** Next week - Fri. March 5th *****

The location will be the same lovely Mt. Pleasant.

We'll have spirited songful Davening and delicious dinner (catered entrees from Sienna's). We'll be in Mt. Pleasant, at the home of Ken Goldstein. We're seeking davenning leaders, and there's always room for davenning treats, special niggunim, etc., just write back to to volunteer.

Please make a donation toward dinner and/or bring a potluck contribution (veggie/dairy) -- details below.

The Details:
Next Friday night, March 5
Shmoozing plus set-up: 6:00pm
Rockin' Kabbalat Shabbat -- 6:30pm sharp!
Followed by Ma'ariv, dinner, singing, drashing, more shmoozing....

At the home of Ken Goldstein

For directions, check your Zoo mail, or email

ABOUT DINNER (it's not just a pot-luck!)

We will have main courses from Siena's! Kosher, lots of dairy plus at least one non-dairy option, all veggie, and all yummy! Vegetable lasagna, eggplant parmesan -- send in your requests

For shabbat dinner, the community provides some hearty entrees. You can:
  1. Contribute to the kitty to help pay for the entree AND / OR
  2. Bring a side dish, salad, or desert as a dairy / veggie pot-luck contribution.

Don't worry about whether your kitchen is kosher (or “kosher enough”), everyone gets to contribute. But please be prepared to explain what's in your dish, to help people avoid allergy or kashrut issues.

If you're worried about whether you'll be able to eat at Zoo Minyan, there is always a critical mass of pot-luck contributions with a heksher or cooked in someone's heksher-only kitchen. There are always hekshered challot and grape juice, plus the entree is hekshered. And you'll get to know people as you ask who brought which dish.

Questions? Ideas? Want to help? Need the address or directions? Write back to

Shabbos is coming!


For more FRIDAY NIGHT INFO, get all the details here. And for all the upcoming Friday night dates (through March) & Shabbat Morning dates (through May), check the Zoo Minyan Google calendar (yep, it's there, just to your left, top of the page).

Monday, February 22, 2010

Bake Hamantaschen - Thurs. (Feb. 25)

Eat 'em up, Yum!
Come bake Hamantaschen -
Thurs. Feb. 25th

Stop by anytime.
Casual drop-in folks or power bakers...all are welcome!

bring friends. kids welcome too.

we'll start at 3:30pm,
and put in the last batch at 7:45pm* 

Questions or to express interest:

Deborah & Shalom's kitchen

(check your Zoo-mail for directions, or email

*If you're a kid, or diabetic, or attended a bris that morning, or... are otherwise not fasting, come join us on the early side.  And if you are fasting, Ta'anit Ester ends at 6:32pm, so come break the fast with hot hamentaschen!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Mishkan at Zoo Minyan - Feb 20

Where is *your* Mishkan?

T'ruma is about people bringing voluntary offerings to build the Mishkan. As we wandered in the desert, some contributions toward becoming a single community were standard -- every person or every tribe brought exactly the same thing, in recognition of what was shared by the whole community.  But others were voluntary, in recognition of the uniqueness of the individual, and the need to combine those qualities harmoniously in order to achieve something truly lasting.

Let Zoo Minyan be your holy gathering place next week. And bring your spiritual and material contributions too.

Sign up for some leyning if you can. Volunteer to lead something for davenning, or offer to add something to enrich our kavannah (we call them davenning treats, i.e. creative tidbits, not actual food ;) Schlep a sefer torah, or bring some Zoo Minyan veggies. Write back to and be a supporting pole in the dessert tent!

*** Note for any of you long-timers, we'll have special visitors - Jeff Dorfman & family, here from South Africa. ***


We'll be gathering for davenning, lunch, shmoozing, singing, etc., next Saturday in Woodley Park (within walking distance of the Zoo, as is Zoo Minyan custom) at Deborah and Shalom's house.

For Leyning there are both short & medium aliyot this time...use self-service leyning spreadsheet, or email

The Details:

Zoo Minyan
Saturday, Parshat T'ruma, 20 Feb.
10am sharp, with a rousing Psukei d'Zimrah
Pot-luck dairy/veggie lunch -- main courses especially appreciated

At the home of Deborah Hittleman Flank and Shalom Flank. For directions, check your Zoo mail, or email

Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Blizzard preempts Zoo Minyan (Feb 5)

With great disappointment (more than 10 people had already PayPal-ed or RSVPed!) we are canceling Fri night Zoo Minyan due to the snowstorm.

While getting there would not be so bad, walking home in 9-10 inches of wet heavy snow seems an awful lot of frozen slogging.
Perhaps not so Shabbos-dik...

So, many thanks to Ken for preparing to host. Looking forward to enjoying his hospitality in the future. Stay tuned for a possible rescheduled date.

(PAYPAL NOTE: If you contributed via PayPal, please let us know if you prefer a refund or to just let it ride for a future Shabbat.)

Hope to see you at the next scheduled Zoo Minyan - Sat. Feb 20.

Warm wishes for a cozy Shabbat,
Shabbat Shalom