Anywhere in the world, Purim is observed on the 14th day of the Jewish month of Adar. However, it is celebrated a day later in Jerusalem because Jerusalem falls under the rules connected to a “walled city” in our holy books.
And so, on Wednesday evening and Thursday, March 6 and 7, costumes, parades, festive meals and parties occurred around Jerusalem.
Non-Jews, often compare Purim to Mardi Gras or Halloween because of its connection to dressing in costume and boundless merriment. But it is pretty different. It is a profoundly spiritual and meaningful Jewish holiday with material and spiritual components.
Most people are aware of the material aspects. It is celebrated by young and old with enthusiasm and delight, the wearing of costumes, performing ad-hoc plays, exchanging gifts of food, shelach-manot/the sending of portions, and all this is followed by a festive family meal, a seudah, in the late afternoon before the end of the holiday.
The spiritual aspect is connected to the Hebrew reading of the Megillah, which tells the story of Purim. Women have a special connection to Purim as listening to the main text of Purim, the Megillah, is one of the few commandments incumbents on women, and of course, the heroine of the text, Queen Esther, is a woman.
The Megillah can be chanted in synagogues or private homes and is repeated many times so that everyone can conveniently participate in listening to the chanting.
This year I attended the evening Megillah reading at Simhat Shlomo, my previous Yeshiva in Nahlaot, close to the Jerusalem open-air market, the shuk. The shuk was wild, with all the stalls open, selling their usual wares, Purim masks, and goodies. And restaurants blaring music and people jostling and dancing into the night. Here is a small insight into the festivities as you enter the shuk.
Some merriment intruded on a cell phone service store at a Jerusalem mall where I happened to be. I also took some videos inside the Yeshiva at the time of the megillah reading. So here we are, getting into the spirit of Purim.
We were all gathered, men, women and children, waiting for our megillah reader, Rabbi Leibish Hundert, and amusing ourselves with stories and singing.
And then Leibish began the megillah reading.
In the afternoon, I was invited to join my nephew, niece, and their family to join their friends and have a shared seudah.
In Moses’ fifth book, known as the Book of Deuteronomy or the “second telling,” Moses revisits his story and journey with the Children of Israel. He reviews their forty years in the desert since their redemption from slavery in Egypt. This journey is significant for the generation of the desert and for all time.
Moses includes his reflections and sorrows just before he is about to join his Creator. He shares how he beseeched his G-d over and over to be able to enter the promised land but was denied. The book of Deuteronomy has been described as Moses’ “last will and testament,” reviewing his experience and sharing his regrets and instructions for future generations. Near the end of life, we must examine our successes and failures to leave a legacy for future generations. Our yearly task during Elul is a period of personal introspection as we approach the Day of Judgement, Yom Kippur.
Rosh Chodesh Elul always occurs forty days before Yom Hakippurim. This period echoed the experience of the people of Israel when Moses tarried coming down from the mountain, and they decided to create a Golden Calf to replace Moses. G-d was appalled and threatened to wipe out the whole tribe.
“I have seen these people,” the LORD said to Moses, “and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.” (Exodus Ch 32: v9-10)
But Moses challenged God, saying:
“Why should your anger burn against your people, whom you brought out of Egypt with great power and a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out, to kill them in the mountains and to wipe them off the face of the earth?’
And Moses urged G-d to forgive them, adding:
“But now, please forgive their sin—but if not, then blot me out of the book you have written.” (Exodus 32:32 New International Version)
Moses confronted the disaster with the people and G-d and went back up the mountain.
Forty days later, Moses came down with the second set of tablets, uttering G-ds message, the fateful words:
“Salachti k’idvarecha/I have forgiven as you, (Moses), requested.”
This is the day we continue to celebrate every year as Yom Hakippurim,/Yom Kippur/The Day of Judgement.
Here the Divine One demonstrates for us, for all time, justice with mercy – din v’chesed – not demanding perfection, but only that we improve our ways. The Supreme Judge reviews all behaviour and offers second chances if we only improve a little. G-d is our Final Judge. For Jews, there is no other.
On Yom Hakippurim, our communal prayers catalogue every possible sin, but you alone can give an account of your sins. For example, have you treated your fellow man with respect? Have you cheated anyone of his wages? Only you know what you have done or neglected to do.
Our confession through our prayers is private and silently uttered between man and G-d alone. And we know that the ultimate judgement is up to G-d. On Yom Hakippurim, we say the fateful prayer, popularized by Leonard Cohen’s song, which enumerates how each of us may reach his ultimate fate, the only proper punishment in the coming year.
“Who by Fire… Who by Water…”
Legend reports that Moses died at one hundred and twenty years old, and the traditional Jewish blessing for longevity is “ad meah v rim,” which means “May you live to one hundred and twenty!”
Moshe Rabbeinu gives us the blueprint for leadership in the example of his life, a life of service to others.
In this Book fo Deuteronomy, Moses also repeats many of the biblical commandments already received. But in addition, he gives us a blueprint for creating a just community, a challenge for all time.
As a sample, I quote some of the commandments reviewed in this week’s Parsha/Torah Reading – Ki Tetze/When you go out (to war). It will give you an idea of Moses’ instructions. The Parsha begins with the case of Eshet Y’fat To’ar, the beautiful non-Jewish woman who is taken captive in war. Next, the Torah outlines the procedure to be followed if a Jewish soldier wishes to marry a beautiful woman captured during the war.
Other topics among the 41 Mitzvot included in this week’s parsha are:
How to deal with the rebellious son;
the command to shoo away the mother bird before taking her young (“shiluach haken”);
the prohibition (“sha’atnez”) of mixing wool & linen together,
adultery, & kidnapping;
the permissibility of divorce when a marriage fails;
the need to pay one’s workers (especially day labourers) in a timely fashion.
And in this chapter again, Moshe warns us to show extra care for the widow & orphan, due to their increased vulnerability;
Andthe mandate to be honest in all our business dealings (this is one of 3 Mitzvot that promise long life).
We are bidden to recall on a daily basis the Exodus from Egypt, (This is frequently mentioned throughout our daily prayers/tefilot and in the Kiddush/the brief prayer/blessing of sanctification of the Sabbath and holidays/Shabbat & Chag, performed over wine at our tables before every holiday meal.)
Our Parsha closes with the admonition to utterly wipe out Amalek & their progeny – (the nation that attacked the nation of israel while they journeyed in the desset, falling even on the weary and the women and children, for no evident cause) until no memory remains of them or their hateful, barbaric behaviour.
Watch Rabbi Stewart Weiss’ Parsha discussion on Ki Tetze below for a more nuanced understanding of these laws.
These values and living principles are essential to “always keep top-of-mind” and are worth regularly reviewing, just as one may repeat one’s marriage vows.
The Haftora – the reading from the prophets – assigned for this week is Rani Akara, Isaiah 54/Yeshayahu 54. It continues the five “Haftorot of Consolation for Churban Yerushalayim,” which is the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, a second chance for the people of Israel promised by this prophecy of Isaiah (ch.54).
The prophet speaks of a future when Jerusalem expands its borders and welcomes new residents who will fill the streets with joy and celebration. It is a prophecy that some belief has been fulfilled after two thousand years of exile by the current return of Jews to their promised land.
In January 2012, I attended the naming ceremony of my niece, Shefa Rachel, at the Stanford Hillel House in Palo Alto, California. I noticed that Rabbi Lew would give a talk during the coming week. I’m familiar with his books, which were profound meditations of Jewish practice from a Zen point of view.
I extended my stay to hear him speak and film his talk, a part of which appears below. He did not disappoint. His lecture compared Judaism and Zen Buddhism and how each tradition deals with suffering.
The Fourth Noble truths expound the Buddhist philosophy of existence and attaining nirvana, which overcomes everyday suffering. In the first two Noble Truths, the Buddha diagnoses the problem – universal suffering is the natural state of affairs – and he also identifies its cause – craving or wanting what you do not have. The other two Noble Truths are the prescriptions for curing suffering, mostly finding ways to let go of desires.
Rabbi Lew mentions that when he shares the First Noble Truth – that everybody suffers – with Jewish audiences, he always hears a sigh of relief. “You mean it’s not just us!”
He then refers to the Jewish discussion about suffering, which occurs very early in the first Massechet of the Talmud Berachot 5B. As typical of the Talmud, the subject is discussed extensively from many angles. Is there value in suffering? Is it reasonable to suffer? Is it better to suffer than not to suffer? Is there a reward for suffering? As is typical of Talmudic discourse, the Gemara continues to discuss the issue of torture and affliction for pages without reaching any conclusion and then ends with the following story:
Rabbi Yoḥanan’s student, Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba, fell ill. Rabbi Yoḥanan entered to visit him and said, Is your suffering dear to you? Do you desire to be ill and afflicted? Rabbi Ḥiyya said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward, as one who holds this suffering with love is rewarded. So Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: Give me your hand. Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba gave him his hand, and Rabbi Yoḥanan stood him up and restored him to health.
Similarly, Rabbi Yoḥanan fell ill. Rabbi Ḥanina entered to visit him and asked: Is your suffering dear to you? Rabbi Yoḥanan said to him: I welcome neither this suffering nor its reward. Rabbi Ḥanina said to him: Give me your hand. He gave him his hand, and Rabbi Ḥanina stood him up and restored him to health.
The Gemara asks: Why did Rabbi Yoḥanan wait for Rabbi Ḥanina to restore him to health? If he could heal his student, let Rabbi Yoḥanan stand himself up.
The Gemara answers, they say: A prisoner cannot generally free himself from prison but depends on others to release him from his shackles.
After the class ended and we were sharing food and conversation, Rabbi Lew revealed that he had been a carefree and happy Zen Buddhist priest in San Francisco until he met his wife and fell in love. This experience prompted him to move from becoming a carefree Buddhist to becoming a husband, father and practicing Jew.
So what is the essential difference between Judaism and Buddhism? Suppose you look at the third and fourth Noble Truths. In that case, you get to the 8-fold path to amend suffering, which consists of eight practices: right view, right resolve, right speech, proper conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right samadhi (meditative absorption or union). It seems to enlist the person on a moral path that will amend suffering: Buddhism aims to amend suffering.
Rabbi Lew states in the above clip, “it is not the program of Judaism to amend suffering. Judaism is not indifferent to suffering”. But, he adds, “if I were to stand on one foot and say what the program of Judaism is, it is to realize the sacred in every moment.” And how do you realize the sacred in every moment? Judaism would answer by following the prescriptions regarding ‘How to live at every moment – how to eat, how to relate to your wife and children, to your fellow man – this prescription is called the “halacha” – the way – the 613 mitzvot/directives for living the good life – deduced from the Torah – the first five books of the Bible – and enunciated in the oral Torah – the Mishna and Talmud.
So, in the end, “right living” in Judaism is “bringing the holy to every moment,” and it also happens to be the Jewish way to alleviate suffering.
So ultimately, although the narrative is very different, the underlying theme is the same – “right living” is the key to alleviating suffering in this world.
I was to meet Rabbi Lew once more at his home before he suddenly died of a heart attack in 2009.
May his memory be a blessing.
I hope I have done justice to Rabbi Lew’s message.
Rabbi Lew’s books include:
One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi
This Is Real, and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation
Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life
Addendum: Recently, while going through my books, I discovered and read Rabbi Lew’s One God Clapping: The Spiritual Path of a Zen Rabbi. It is a wonderfully straightforward and honest biography of a man and his struggles with his family of origin, his wives and children, his navigation of the spiritual paths available to him in California in the sixties, and how he then found his way to Judaism and to becoming a hospice worker, and later an ordained rabbi with a growing congregation in San Francisco.
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz was the spiritual leader of Congregation Congrégation Tifereth Beth David Jérusalem (TBDJ), a synagogue in Montreal (1996 to 2016). In January 2016, Rabbi Steinmetz left Montreal to assume the pulpit of a prominent New York synagogue, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun (KJ), on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
I often volunteered to film short five-minute sermons during his time in Montreal. I also share nine of Rabbi Steinmetz’s addresses on the Kehilat Jeshurun (KJ) website. I found each one exceptional.