About Abigail Hirsch

I am a film producer and CEO of AskAbigail Productions. Currently working on a documentary film/musical theatre production about the life and times of Moshe Kraus, a musical child prodigy and a legendary cantor/hazzan/Jewish prayer leader whose life spans the history of Jews in the twentieth century.

What the Holiday of Shavuot can teach us

Shavuot occurs exactly fifty days after the Passover seder. But in modern times, this Jewish Holiday is largely glossed over, even by Jews. Everyone knows about Passover, but fewer of us appreciate Shavuot, especially in modern times.

Shavuot, or Zman Matan Torateinu, is the Holiday that celebrates the “Giving of the Torah.”

Moses and the Ten Commandments.

Moses and the Ten Commandments. Engraved by H.Martin around 1850.

We can all recall the iconic scene In the film The Ten Commandments of Moses standing at the top of Mount Sinai holding the two tablets inscribed with The Ten Commandments, while the children of Israel are assembled at the bottom.

In a nutshell, these “commandments,” or aseret hadibrot, are the guiding principles of the Jewish people about to become a nation at Mount Sinai, something akin to a constitution that Moses brokers between the people assembled and G-d himself. Rabbinic commentaries refer to this experience as the “eternal marriage ceremony” between God and his people.

Shavuot is inclusive.

Everyone present is included, both young and old. The text even has the mystical phrase, “those who are here today and those who are not yet here,” implying all Jewish souls, present, past and future. I want you to imagine this scene.

Moses looks out and sees thousands of people.

He says to the people, “atem nitzavim hayom kulchem”.

You’re all standing here together, the leaders, the men, the women, the children, the stranger, the people who cut the trees and the people who draw water from the wells.

You’re all standing here to enter a covenant. And furthermore, the covenant between you and God is not just with you. It’s also with those who are not here today.

V’et asher einenu po imanu hayom.” (Deut. 29:13) *1

Shavuot requires the consent of the people.

In the text of the Torah, we read about Moses going up to the mountain and, as per God’s instruction, coming down to ask the people if they are willing to receive the Torah.

“And Moses went up to God.

The LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob and declare to the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me. Now then, if you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession among all the peoples. Indeed, all the earth is Mine, but you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’

These are the words that you shall speak to the children of Israel.

Moses came and summoned the elders of the people and put before them all that the LORD had commanded him.” (Exodus 19: 1-7)

The people were promised to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation if they agree.

Mamlechet kohanim v’goy Kadosh.”

What does “mamlechet kohanim,” or a nation of priests, signify?

The word “hieroglyph” is Greek for a pictorial writing system. “Hiero” is Greek for priests, and hieroglyph is “priestly writing” because in ancient times and even up till relatively recent times, only priests were taught to read and write.

Moses, however, is instructed to teach the Torah to the elders. And, the elders are to teach it to the children of Israel. Thus, every person in Israel is to be taught the Torah, and thereby become a “kingdom of priests,” a kingdom of teachers and learners.” They are to learn the Torah laws and become “holy,” i.e. sanctified by their unique relationship to G-d which exists only due to their mutual choosing.

“All the people answered as one, saying, ‘All that the LORD has spoken we will do!’

And Moses brought back the people’s words to the LORD” (Exodus 19 v 1-8)

The Rabbis wondered, however, whether receiving the Torah in the wilderness could be considered willing consent? After all, how free is your consent if given under the most vulnerable conditions in the desert with no visible alternative? And so, the contract is renewed voluntarily every year by the Jewish people on this Holiday. *2

All are witnesses when the mountain thunders, and they both “see and hear” the giving of the Commandments.

“All the people saw the sounds and the lightning, the voice of the horn and the mountain smoking.” (Exodus 20:15) *3

Shavuot celebrates this holy union, giving every Jew an opportunity to renew their vows each year. *4

The only traditional activity prescribed for the Holiday is “the study of Torah.” We read the portion of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19:1 – 20:23) and The Book of Ruth during the morning prayer service in the synagogue, and it is customary to study Torah all through the night of the Holiday. This year, due to the pandemic and curfew, a Torah study was organized in the synagogue from 6-9 pm for 25 people who registered ahead of time.

Rabbi Eliyahu Gateno *5 spoke about the meaning of the order of the Ten Commandments, which are traditionally seen as inscribed on two tablets with five on each one.

This 1768 parchment by Jekuthiel Sofer

This 1768 parchment by Jekuthiel Sofer emulated the 1675 Ten Commandments at the Amsterdam Esnoga synagogue.

The first four appear to be about the relationship between man and God.

  1. I am the Lord your God Who brought you out of Egypt.
  2. Thou shalt have no other Gods before me. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image.
  3. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.
  4. Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy.
  5. The fifth commandment, “Honour thy Father and thy Mother,” does not seem to fit here unless one considers that the respect owed to parents, our earthly creators, ought to be no less than the respect owed to the Creator of heaven and earth.

The second tablet comprising commandments 6-10 appears to be about the relations between persons.

  1. Thou shalt not murder.
  2.  Thou shalt not steal.
  3. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  4. Thou shalt not bear false witness.
  5. The tenth commandment, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife or his slaves or his animals or anything of thy neighbour,” appears again to be of a different order than the previous four. After all, “coveting” is a very hidden psychological aspect rather than the earlier acts. It would seem that coveting generally is a psychological aspect that perhaps precedes acts such as murder, stealing, adultery, and bearing false witness.

Again, the Rabbis of the Talmud share a story that illustrates how coveting will lead you to all the other sins. And yet, we have this order, perhaps to warn us that in the end, the behaviour is more important than the potential thought leading to that behaviour. And, they explain that the principle that enjoins man from coveting is perhaps a guide to a refinement of character, which will enable a person to avoid these sins, these human inclinations to murder, steal and so on.

Why do we read the Book of Ruth?

The next speaker discussed The Book of Ruth.

The Book of Ruth

Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab by William Blake, 1795.

Naomi’s husband and two sons have all died. She, therefore, recommends to her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Orpah and Ruth, that they return to their countrymen. Naomi explains that she is destitute and has no more sons for them to marry. Orpah does so, but Ruth insists on staying with Naomi, saying:

“Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. Thus and more may the Lord do to me if anything but death parts me from you.” (Ruth ch 1: v.16–17)

The story continues with what happens upon their return.

Ruth in Boaz's Field

Ruth in Boaz’s field by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, oil on canvas, 1828; National Gallery, London.

Ruth goes out to the fields to collect grain during the harvest as per Torah custom for providing for the poor – leket, shichecha and paya *6. She encounters Boaz, the owner of the field. Although he is much older than Ruth, with Naomis’ directives, Ruth and Boaz are married, fulfilling the biblical law of “yibum,” levirate marriage *7. This results in the birth of Obed, the father of Jesse, who gives birth to David, anointed as King David, the progenitor of the Kingship line and the Messiah to be, in Israel.

The short Book of Ruth reminds us of Torah laws, written, oral, and rabbinic, including caring for the weak, the widow and the orphan, and caring for the legacy of the deceased through marriage. It is a reminder of how the Torah affects Jewish life and history throughout the ages.

The Holiday of Shavuot is hence the culmination of the Jewish people’s devotion to G-d and His Torah and an annual reenactment of the eternal loving marriage between G-d and Israel in good times and bad. In this sense, it goes to the essence of what it means to be a Jew.

Addendum June 20, 20201

And for those who want a more interactive engagement with Shavuot, I recommend this Wonderful interactive guide to Shavuot: The Song of Shavuot

 

 

 

 

Footnotes:

  1. Generations Yet Unborn Are Watching, Sunday, September 15, 2013
  2. The Shadow of the Mountain: Consent and Coercion at Sinai By Gerald Blitstein
  3. Sefaria: Seeing sound making sense of Sinai offers a collection of the many oral Torah explications over the centuries and within our own time about seeing and hearing the voices and sounds at Sinai.
  4. These thoughts are based on a recent zoom teaching about Shavuot by Rabbi Asher Jacobsen of the Chevra Synagogue in Montreal
  5. Rabbi Eliyahu Gateno, Kollel Torah Mitzion, Montreal
  6. leket, shichecha, pay, (Heb. לֶקֶט, שִׁכְחָה, וּפֵאָה; ” leket, gleanings, Shichecha, forgotten produce, and paya. the corners of the field” – Talmudic designation of three portions of the harvest which the farmer was enjoined to leave for the benefit of the poor and the stranger. Pe’ah (“corners”) and leket (“gleanings”) are enjoined in Leviticus 19:9–10, while shikhḥah (“forgotten produce”) and leket, in Deuteronomy 24:19–21  Encyclopedia.com.
  7. Yibum is the marriage between a widow whose husband died without offspring (the yevamah) and the brother or relative of the deceased (the yavam or levir: Deuteronomy 25:5–6) to maintain the genealogical line of the dead. Encyclopedia.com.

 

What Can Purim Teach Us Today?

What does the Jewish Holiday of Purim have to teach us today? Purim is a story about antisemitism or Jew-Hatred, and what it can lead to when wedded to power.

Haman, the second-in-command to King Ahashverosh of the Persian empire, managed to extract from his King a formal decree to murder all Jews living in the 127 lands of the Persian Empire.

 

Esther and Mordechai

However, Haman’s plans were foiled by the Jew, Mordechai and his cousin Esther, who happened to be Ahasverosh’s Queen. The whole story is relayed in the Megillah, the Scroll of Esther, read annually in homes or synagogues of Jews worldwide. It states:

“When Haman saw that Mordechai would neither kneel nor prostrate himself before him, Haman became full of wrath. But it seemed contemptible to him to lay hands on Mordechai alone, for they had told him Mordechai’s nationality, and Haman sought to destroy all the Jews who were throughout Ahasuerus’s entire kingdom, Mordechai’s people.”

Haman said to King Ahasuerus:

“There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples throughout all the provinces of your kingdom, and their laws differ from [those of] every people, and they do not keep the king’s laws; it is [therefore] of no use for the king to let them be. If it pleases the king, let it be written to destroy them, and I will weigh out ten thousand silver talents into the hands of those who perform the work, to bring [it] into the king’s treasuries.”

The king took the ring off his hand, gave it to Haman, and said to him:

“The silver is given to you, and the people to do to them as it pleases you.”

What do we learn from this?

  1. Prejudice starts in the heart of a single person and is based on personal obsessions and assumptions that are not necessarily true. Jews do have a particular culture. However, for over two thousand years, they have lived among other cultures worldwide, and one of their principles is “to obey the law of the land” in which they find themselves and to always include a blessing for the governing entities in their daily prayers.
  2. Moreover, we see how specific hatreds rely on stereotypes that assume that all members of the group share similar characteristics. These ideas are only tangentially based on human interaction. Nevertheless, once floated and received as “truth,” they serve to separate and incriminate the hated group with no recourse to engaging with the truth.
  3. Destroying the Jews has a financial benefit to the destroyer.

Purim celebrates the fate of a minority in a diaspora. It presents us with the first literary paradigm for antisemitism/racism/persecution of a minority group.

These are the same themes one finds whenever analyzing racism towards Blacks, First Nations, Immigrants, or Ethnic minorities. Every form of discrimination has its “narrative.” As the Rogers and Hammerstein song recount:

“You have got to be taught to hate and fear. You have got to be carefully taught.”

Nazi antisemitism was founded on the notion that Jews were engaged in a deadly conspiracy against the German people. The Nazis charged that the Jews had “stabbed Germany in the back” during the first world war, thereby engineering its loss. The truth is at the start of World War l, 12,000 German Jews volunteered for the German Army. Of the 100,000 Jews who served with the German military – a very high proportion relative to their numbers:

70,000 Jews fought at the front line.

  • Three thousand were promoted to officer ranks.
  • Twelve thousand were killed in action.

Moreover, immediately at the outbreak of the war, the Federation of German Jews requested the introduction of Feldrabbiner (Field Rabbis) – rabbis dedicated to military chaplaincy in the German Army – something that had not existed before in the German Empire. In August 1914, eighty-one German rabbis volunteered to serve as Field Rabbis, and the first seven, among them, Rabbi Leo Baeck, entered service the following month. Rabbi Baeck’s service for Germany did not spare him from being incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp during WWll.

Every act of antisemitism – from shoving a Jew on the street, to mass murder – has conspiracy and demonization at its roots. In the middle ages, the common folk believed that their Jewish neighbours had poisoned the wells and were the source of the spread of the Black Death. This prompted massacres and expulsions. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a well-known 19th-century book written by the Czarist government, purports to record a meeting of influential Jews scheming to control the world’s finances. It has no basis in fact. This book continues to prompt libels about Jews and their supposed control of money and power. It has resulted in libels of Israel, the Rothschilds, the Jewish financier Soros, and a general suspicion that all Jews aim to “control the world”.

Deborah Lipstadt, the genocide/holocaust scholar, points out that demonized groups can be either successful or victimized.

“The racist “punches down” and loathes persons of colour because they are apparently “lesser than” the white person. They are, the racist proclaims, not as smart, industrious, qualified or worthy. In contrast, the antisemite “punches up.” The Jew is supposedly more powerful, ingenious and financially adept than the non-Jew. Neither of these notions is true; they serve to separate and isolate one group from the other.

The Megillah Text

The Megillah text teaches us profound lessons about the social and psychological webs that we are all entangled in, personally and communally. And yet, each of us writes our individual story as exemplified by the actions of each of the characters: Haman, Mordechai, Esther, Vashti – the King’s first wife, and Zeresh – Haman’s wife.

The Megilla text continues to tease young and old and to inspire as satire, character study, and politics and offers important messages for all of us, perhaps, especially for our times. But when all is said and done, it inspires one of the most joyous days of the Jewish year: we are encouraged to dress up in costume, drink hard stuff till we can’t tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys, exchange gifts of sweets with our neighbours, give money to the poor, have a shared feast and above all enjoy the moment with singing, dancing and homegrown plays.

This is a lot to unpack – Happy Purim!

Creating satirical theatre is one of the traditions of the Purim celebration.

Here is one I discovered on YouTube: An original play By Itzik Manger, the Yiddish playwright with subtitles: a takeoff on the Purim Megillah.

A retelling of the Purim tale:

 

 

 

 

 

January 27: An International Day of Remembrance

January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, was designated by the United Nations General Assembly, on November 1, 2005, as an international memorial day to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust. January 27 is significant because the Soviet Army liberated Auschwitz concentration camp on this day in 1945.

Since both of my parents lived through the Nazi period in Hungary and three of my grandparents, along with uncles, aunts and cousins, were murdered in Auschwitz, the Holocaust/shoah was something I had been aware of and struggled to comprehend from a very young age.Parents of Abigail Hirsch (Montreal) Unlike some families, there were no secrets regarding the war in my family. My sister Anita and I were both born after the war in Hungary, but my parents and uncle fled, escaped Communist Hungary in 1949 and arrived in Montreal in 1951. I was five years old at the time. There was quite a sizeable community of Hungarian-speaking survivors in Montreal at the time. They arrived as immigrants and, with the help of Jewish community resources, used their skills and worked hard to get started.

Both of my parents worked while I was growing up. My Mother paid a teenager to walk me to school, and I came home to an empty house.

My parents and our surviving relatives and friends in Montreal formed a close-knit community and spoke openly about their experiences whenever they got together on weekends and holidays. There was no way I could escape wondering about the Holocaust. Why? Who? How?

My search and struggles continue to this day. As a retired psychotherapist, I have come to realize that none of us escape the inherited bonds of our particular family history, whether it be the sequelae of slavery, or residential school, or the predatory governments of Africa or the Middle East, or merely the fault lines of poverty, all of us must wrestle with how these legacies impact us, even across generations.

However, we are also members of our contemporary local and international environments. Holocaust Remembrance Day is significant because it creates an opportunity for governments and institutions, locally and worldwide, to reflect upon the choices of individuals and governments that allowed this genocide to unfold and to remember, to honour the victims, and to commit to educating about the root causes of hatred to prevent future atrocities from happening.

Cover photo: Survivors from Poland disembark the US Military Ship
"S. S. General Sturgis" as they arrived in Canada on March 28, 1949.
Photo courtesy of the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre, Montreal)

 

Living with Two Calendars

Jews don’t have a double identity, but they live with two calendars – the secular, solar or Julian calendar, and the Jewish calendar based on the moon’s cycles.

The Julian calendar introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BCE recognized the need for a universal calendar. Before that date, the national calendar was influenced by Rome’s political leader’s whims, and no one could ever be sure of what the date was or would be anywhere in the world. The Julian calendar was designed to resolve this dilemma and align with the year’s seasons. It was adopted first by the Roman Empire and later by the rest of the world.

On the other hand, the Jewish calendar was initiated by Moses as described in the Torah while the Jews were still in Egypt and continues to rule the Jewish year.

“The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, saying, This month shall be for you the head of the months; for you, it shall be the first of the months of the year.” (Exodus 12:2)

According to the Jewish historical timeline, that date would be 2448 on the Jewish calendar or 1313 BCE. Similar to the Julian calendar, this calendar also aligns with the natural seasons of the year. So it can be relied on for agricultural events and holidays and commemorations. In this way, everyone knows when the different plantings and harvests occur and how they correspond with various pilgrimage holidays, Passover, Sukkot, Shavuot and all other dates.

The Jewish Calendar

The Jewish calendar has four different New Years, each with a purpose. While this may seem strange at first glance, it is not so different when you consider that the modern American calendar may have a traditional New Year (the first of January), an additional new year for taxes, yet another new year for the Government’s fiscal year (in October), and another day that marks the start of the public school year (in September).

The first new year, the month of Nissan noted above, is connected to the holiday of Passover, which marks the redemption of Israel from the slavery of Egypt in the spring of the year.

The second new year is Elul, the sixth lunar month after Passover. It usually falls in late summer and legislates economic issues such as the tithes (taxes) of animals and vegetables. It also calculates the start of the Sabbatical year (7th) when all the land in Israel was to be left fallow, and the Jubilee year (50th) when the land was again required to be left fallow, and also, all monetary debts and mortgaged land was to be rescinded. Since these practices have been defunct since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD, these dates have little current consequences but continue to be noted by Rabbis and halachic authorities.

The third new year is the first day of Tishrei, the seventh month. This is the month most Jews recognize and call their New Year, Rosh Hashanah.

The fourth New Year, Tu B’Shvat, the fifteenth day of the month of Shvat, usually falling between January and February, is considered the new year for trees. Tu B’Shvat was the starting date for determining the age of trees planted in the land of Israel since, according to the Torah, Jews are forbidden to consume the fruit of a tree growing in Israel that is less than three years old. Unlike the first of Nisan and the first of Elul, Tu B’Shvat is still widely observed worldwide as a minor Jewish holiday, and in the land of Israel, it does mark the beginning of the new sap, the budding of flowering spring trees.

Spring

The Kabbalists of Tzfat started the tradition of having a Tu b’Shvat seder, honouring the seven species of vegetables and fruit native to the land of Israel that are mentioned in the Torah. And more recently, the day has become identified with ecology and agricultural sustainability.

An analysis of the Jewish calendar reveals Jewish time’s interconnectedness, with Jewish holidays, Jewish precepts/mitzvahs and practices, going back five thousand years.

 

The Power of Words, Story, and Prayer

“It was that power of words, the gift of language, that was the greatest gift of all that  G-d gave to Adam and Adam alone.

This then becomes the “Gesher tzar me’od”– the very narrow bridge – that crosses the abyss between finite humanity and the infinity of God.

In short, Judaism is an ongoing conversation between that once-and-once-only divine voice that sounded at Sinai and the human interpretation of those words that has continued in every generation since. It is a great conversation that never ended.

The whole of Judaism is that ongoing “conversation” between Israel and God as to how we understand God’s word for all time to make it God’s word for our time.”

(Rabbi Jonathon Sacks’ speech on the inauguration of the National Library of Israel, May 2014).

The “Torah” is considered to be G-d’s communication with man. Prayer is supposed to be man’s communication with G-d. The Torah and the Jewish prayer book – the siddur – are the source texts for all Jewish culture and civilization.

The Book of Genesis

In the book of Genesis, the Torah documents G-d “speaking” with people. G-d is reported to have “conversations” with Adam in the Garden. He had quite a few conversations with Abraham throughout his life. And, G-d spoke to Rebecca when she asks about the struggling twins in her belly.

And the children struggled within her, and she said, “If [it be] so, why do I live?” And she went to inquire of the Lord.

And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from your innards, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the elder will serve the younger.” (Toldot verses 22-23)

When it comes to Jacob and Joseph, “communication” comes through dreams. However, Isaac speaks with G-d through a supplicating prayer.

And Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife because she was barren, and the Lord accepted his prayer, and Rebecca, his wife, conceived. (Toldot verse 21)

Is it possible to communicate with G-d?

The Book of Genesis

Some say that all of the Book of Genesis comes to teach us that yes, G-d is available to each of us, individually, in our personal struggles and especially in the intimate struggles of the family.

Yael Zoldan speaking about her children’s’ book on prayer, When I Daven, says that “the very basics of prayer can be shared, even with the very young. By introducing elementary concepts such as acknowledging the gift of life, being in touch with your senses, observing the world around you, thankfulness and gratitude, preschoolers can develop an appreciation of what we do when we pray each day”.

The ongoing conversation, the communication with The Divine is the essence of prayer. And, the Cantor is considered to be the messenger of the people in voicing their thoughts and feelings in the public space.