Esther vs a Hamantashen: What Would You Rather Be on Purim?

When I was three, four and five years old, my mother used to dress me as a hamantaschen (a three-cornered triangular cookie, filled with jam or some other sweet filling) for the Jewish holiday of Purim.

She would cut two large triangles from corrugated cardboard, decorate them to look like the front and back sides of a hamantaschen , thread string through them and put them over my head sandwich-board style. She would also make a triangular hamantaschen hat for me, tied around my neck with a string.

An example of a hamantaschen costume!
An example of a hamantaschen costume!

As Purim approached, I dreaded getting dressed up in that hamantaschen costume. I hated it! I thought I looked silly, it was uncomfortable and who wanted to be a hamantaschen anyway? Every Purim that I had to wear that ridiculous costume, I longed to dress up as Queen Esther. For me, Esther epitomized the ideal heroine – she was beautiful, brave, courageous, a queen, and on top of all that, she saved her people’s lives. Finally, when I was six years old, my mother made a Queen Esther costume for me and I was ecstatic! I lovingly wore that same costume every year until I became too old to dress up as Queen Esther.

Each and every Purim many young girls love to dress up as Queen Esther, their Jewish heroine. Young Jewish girls don’t have very many biblical role modes. The few women we read about in the Torah are most often discussed only in context of their relationships with key male characters.

We hear about these women only in their roles as sisters, wives and mothers. Moreover, for most of them, their stories center around their ability or inability to procreate. If we look at the biblical text, it seems that the only important contribution these women had to offer society was their offspring.

Because the Bible does not give us a complete picture of women and their roles, and since we rarely hear about their accomplishments apart from their roles as sister/wife/mother, we tend to cling to those women who appear to be strong, independent and have contributed something unique and special to the Jewish people.

Esther, at first glance, appears to be such a woman. And, she is only one of two biblical women who have a whole book named after her! Many people have declared Esther to be a heroine and a positive role model for Jewish girls. Even the rabbis of old credit Esther with extraordinary characteristics and qualities. The Talmud (Megillah 15a) says that God’s holy spirit accompanied her when she went to see King Achashversosh to begin the process of saving her people. This midrash elevates Esther’s status to that of a prophetess – someone who has been endowed with “ruach hakodesh” – the holy spirit. And because God’s spirit was with her, the rabbis say, all of her future actions were sanctioned from “above”.

There are many more Talmudic and midrashic tales which show that the rabbis see Esther as a powerful, strong and independent figure. They attribute to her great courage and authority. They portray her not only as the savior of the Jewish people, but also as an halachic authority (an authority on Jewish law) and a great political figure. The rabbis look far beyond the actual text of the Book of Esther to create this powerful heroine. For the actual text of the Book of Esther itself only shows her to be Mordechai’s puppet, unable to make decisions unless prodded to do so. The real hero in the Book of Esther is Mordechai.

The rabbis of old need to be given a great deal of credit for writing their midrashim which depict Esther in such a powerful manner. It is these early rabbis who tried to show that perhaps, the author of the Book of Esther’s portrayal of the character of Esther is andocentric, skewed and not totally appropriate as a Jewish feminist heroine. It is this rabbinic image of Esther which has been handed down to our children. It was this image which served as a model of inspiration to those who were dissatisfied with the feminine role models who exist in our Jewish tradition.

If we want our children to think of Esther as an appropriate role model, then we need to do as the rabbis of old did: we need to go beyond the text itself, to teach them the midrashim that the rabbis wrote about her, and to write our own midrashim as well.

We also need to listen to another silent, female voice in the text, the voice of Vashti. Vashti should get more kudos for sticking up for herself. Yes, Esther saved the Jewish people’s lives, but the credit, at least as the biblical tale depicts, really belongs to Mordechai.

Maybe my mother knew what she was doing all those years ago when she insisted that on Purim, I dress up as a hamantaschen and not as Queen Esther.

Chag Purim Sameach – Happy Purim!

“Press HERE for Power!”

I ran my first half-marathon (13.1 miles) this past Sunday: the Tampa Gasparilla Half-Marathon.

Banner from Gasparilla Half-Marathon 2015
Banner from Gasparilla Half-Marathon 2015

For me, this personal milestone was about overcoming obstacles. I sustained permanent neurological damage in my leg after I broke it in a cycling accident three years ago. This impedes my ability to run and train as I would like. I was determined not to let my leg “weigh me down”. I was determined to cross that finish line, despite my leg. And I did!

All along the race route, people held up posters and signs to encourage the racers. One poster in particular caught my eye. The sign said: “Press HERE for Power!” There was an arrow pointing to a star for us to “press.” The woman holding it stood along the trail with a huge smile on her face.  Each of us who passed her sign, touched her star.

This sign, and the woman holding it, made me smile. She gave me that little extra “boost” of encouragement to keep on running. And I smiled again when I saw her a second time holding her sign, cheering us on, during the last half of the marathon as well.

I’ve been thinking about this sign “Press HERE for POWER!” since this past Sunday.

Each one of us needs to find a source of strength – a source of “power” to help us through life’s struggles, life’s challenges, life’s daily strivings.

For some of us, our metaphorical “power button” is our connection to our family and friends. For others, we find strength in our connection with God. For some, that faith is strengthened even further when we establish deep and abiding relationships with a sustaining community. At times, we find “power” in the beauty of nature.  We can even find strength when we reach out a hand to help others.

For me personally, my strength comes from all of the above. I am so grateful to have wonderful family, friends and community who strengthen me, nurture me and support me.

I was able to get through the half-marathon with the wonderful support of my brother Ezra, and cousin Heidi, who ran the race with me.

My brother Ezra, me and my cousin Heidi after we completed the Gasparilla Half-Marathon in Tampa, Florida!
My brother Ezra, me and my cousin Heidi with our medals after we completed the Gasparilla Half-Marathon in Tampa, Florida!

In my every day life, my faith is an important part of who I am and informs how I interact with the world around me.

As Psalm 121 states:

I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where shall my help come?

My help comes from the Eternal, Maker of Heaven and Earth.

The Age of 80 – The Age of Strength: Happy Birthday Rabbi Dow Marmur! (An Open Letter)

Rabbi Dow Marmur at 80: Happy Birthday! (February 10, 2015)

Dear Dow,

Happy birthday! At the age of 80, you have now reached the age of strength, according to our Jewish tradition. (Pirke Avot – Ethics of the Fathers – 5:22).

At 80, your strength comes not necessarily from your physical prowess, but from the life experiences and lessons that come with living for eight decades. Each of us has a story to tell, but your particular story is a story of triumph over evil,  and success in overcoming extremely difficult beginnings. You have earned the strength of your years, the strength that comes with time and experience. (To read more, you can purchase Rabbi Marmur’s autobiography here: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/1552636283/ref=olp_product_details?ie=UTF8&me= Six Lives: A Memoir, Rabbi Dow Marmur. Key Porter Publishers, 2004).

At 80, your strength comes from the intellect that you have developed and cultivated over the many years of learning, reading, teaching and sharing. You are one of the most gifted teachers I know. People flock to your courses, to learn from your wisdom. Your prolific writing is articulate, concise, thought-provoking and timely. You like to tell people that you have no “hobbies” per se, other than reading and writing. Your goal of reading at least one book/week has always inspired me to broaden my horizons, to stretch beyond my own comfort zone. Your passion for learning has helped to give knowledge, wisdom, learning and strength to so many others over the years.

At 80, your strength comes from knowing that you have done your part to help make this world a better place. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook once said: “I don’t speak because I have the power to speak; I speak because I don’t have the power to remain silent.” You exemplified this ideal throughout your life: speaking out for those who could not/cannot speak for themselves. You taught that we have a moral obligation as Jews to speak out for injustice, to speak truth to power, to work toward a world where all God’s children can live with dignity. You taught that we must head the prophetic call and work for social justice, even if it is not popular.

At 80, your strength comes from the blessings of family and friends who surround you with their love, warmth and caring. Your family is, has been and will always be your number one joy in life. Your beloved wife Fredzia, your devoted children Viveca, Michael and Sarah, Elizabeth and Anthony and your doting grandchildren will always be your “strength of strengths” and the “heart of your heart”. Your dear friends enlarge that circle of love because you have been such a good friend to all of us. We all love you so because you have nurtured us and helped us to be the best we can be.

Dow, you have helped to give me strength. I feel so blessed to have your guidance and friendship for almost 26 years, first as my senior rabbi when I served under you at Holy Blossom Temple in Toronto. Since that time, you have been my trusted advisor and friend. We are also taught in Pirke AvotAseh l’cha rav, u’kneh l’cha chaver. – Make for yourself a teacher, and you will find for yourself a friend.” (Pirke Avot, Ethics of the Fathers 1:6) Dow, your friendship, sage wisdom and counsel always inspires me, guides me and encourages me. You have helped me become the rabbi and person who I am today.

Rabbi Dow Marmur blessing me at my Installation as Rabbi of Temple Isaiah, Stony Brook
Rabbi Dow Marmur blessing me at my Installation as Rabbi of Temple Isaiah, Stony Brook

So Dow, on this your 80th birthday, this age of strength, I wish you the blessings of continued strength, continued good health, much joy and laughter. Chazak, chazak v’titchazek. May you continue to go from strength to strength!

Happy Birthday!

Lots of love,

Sharon

To read more about Rabbi Dow Marmur, Rabbi Emeritus of Holy Blossom Temple: http://www.holyblossom.org/about-us/rabbis-and-cantor/rabbi-dow-marmur/

(Note: Rabbi Michael Marmur, Rabbi Dow Marmur’s son, suggested that as a surprise for Dow on his 80th birthday, all those who choose, email him something in writing entitled “Dow at 80″, since Dow is usually the one sending out something in writing to all of his friends. This piece is written in tribute to Rabbi Dow Marmur on his 80th birthday. May we all find the same passion for learning, the same zeal for social justice, the same love of family and friends and the same strength to live life to our fullest as does Dow.)

Remembering Daniel Pearl..and Moaz al-Kassabeh

This week was the 13th anniversary of the horrific murder of journalist Daniel Pearl by Pakistani militants.

Pearl was kidnapped while working as the South Asia Bureau Chief of the Wall Street Journal and murdered by those who supposedly had links to Al Queda.

Since his death, evil in our world has continued to grow. African rebels take children away from their parents in grotesque civil wars.

Thousands and thousands of babies and children are starving and homeless as the war continues to rage in Syria.

The Islamic State (ISIS and ISIL) commits atrocities that know no boundaries.

We are sickened as we read of the latest murder by Islamic State terrorists: they lit a fire in a cage and burned alive the Jordanian pilot Moaz al-Kassabeh watching him die as the flames gathered all around. Of course they carefully recorded everything to show the rest of the world their deadly deed.

Beheadings, burnings, killings…these terrorists have lost all of their humanity.

They do this in the name of…Allah? Allah would not require barbarity and violence.

Allah would not ask that children become suicide bombers and become “martyrs” for their people.

No God who grants life requires death and violence and evil.

We learn in Pirke Avot – The Ethics of the Fathers: “In a place where there are no men (sic), strive to be a man”. (Pirke Avot 2:5)

This world will not be healed unless each of us stands up against the inhumanity, against the terror, against the evil and shows what it means to be a human being.

Each one of us needs to express our outrage, our indignation, our disgust, our shame at the evil taking place around us.

Each one of us needs to find our voice to speak out against evil – where ever it takes place, to take action against it. This is what it means to “strive to be a human being.”

May the barbarity and violence and evil end soon.

 

 

 

 

Mt Kilimanjaro – Symbol of Strength, Fortitude and Resilience

Last Friday evening, I had a conversation with a congregant about overcoming personal obstacles to achieve personal goals.  He shared with me that one of his goals was to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Mt Kilimanjaro
Mt Kilimanjaro

Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Tanzania, Africa and the highest ‘walkable’ mountain in the world. The trek to the summit is a magnificent and spectacular five-to-nine day undertaking. It ranks amongst the greatest outdoor challenges on the planet.  One needs to train in a very specific way in order to reach the summit, as often people get altitude sickness and cannot make it to the top.

I thought about Mt. Kilimanjaro as a symbol this past week. A symbol of strength, fortitude and resilience.

This was a difficult week on many levels.

1. Strength of the Human Spirit:  Earlier this week, we commemorated the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Berkinau. As we recalled all those who perished in the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazis, we remind ourselves that we still live in a world filled with hatred, xenophobia and violence.

The Jewish people survived, despite the Nazis. We are testament to the strength, fortitude and resilience of the human spirit in the face of incredible evil.  We can overcome the obstacle of long-held enmity if we work together, just as everyone needs to work together to reach the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. We must pledge to renew ourselves to the task of making this world safe for all who dwell upon it.

2. Fortitude: The Northeast of the United States was clobbered by a severe winter storm. In parts of Massachusetts and Long Island, as much as 24-33 inches of snow fell,  high winds raged and power outages blacked out peoples’ homes. As people hunkered down to brace for the weather, they reached out to their friends and neighbors to make sure everyone was safe, warm and had enough food. People showed their fortitude and solidarity for their neighbors by helping clear driveways and walkways and cars without being asked. We cannot control “Mother Nature”, but we can deal with its effects with our patience, fortitude and helping those around us.

3. Resilience: A few days ago, I learned that a colleague and friend  was diagnosed with breast cancer. She is the senior rabbi of a major North American Reform congregation. The letter she sent out to her congregation was filled with grace, dignity and eloquence.

She wrote: “Resilience is a distinct kind of strength. It has something to do with the ability to cope when hardship comes along…Jewish resilience is a distinct kind of resilience. It has to do with time. When the Jewish People is faced with adversity, our greatest evidence that we can endure it is the past and our greatest motivator to endure it is the future…”

She spoke first of the Jewish people, then of her congregation, then of her personal challenge. Her personal “summit” which she now needs to climb – is to overcome the hurdle of breast cancer. She is the very model of leadership and inspiration for her community.

As we approach the days, weeks and months ahead, we will each face our own challenges, our own Mt. Kilimanjaro’s: either by choice or by happenstance.

If we find strength, fortitude and resilience, along with faith in God’s abiding presence in our midst, we too, can reach that summit and rejoice in the beautiful view at the top.

Esa enai, el he-harim, me-ayin ya-voy ezri?

Ezri, me-yim Adonai, oseh Shamayim, va’aretz.

I lift up my eyes to the mountains, from where shall my help come? My help comes from the Eternal, maker of Heaven and Earth. (Psalm 121)

 

Why I am a Reform Zionist – Vote for Me and Vote for ARZA!

I became Bat Mitzvah in September of 1973, immediately after the outbreak of the Yom Kippur war. I desperately wanted to be able to go to Israel, volunteer and do something.

I have been a fervent Zionist from the time I was very young. My beloved paternal grandmother, Florence Sobel, of blessed memory, an ardent Zionist and passionate Hadassah member and leader, gifted my mother, aunt and me with Hadassah Life Membership in 1967 when I was 7 years old. I was the very first child Hadassah “Life Member!”

I have strong memories of attending meetings and learning about the wonderful work that Hadassah accomplished both in Israel and the United States. My grandmother was one of the strongest influences in my life: her strong Zionist ideology, her passion and commitment to volunteering for Hadassah, her synagogue and the Jewish community all inspired me to study for the rabbinate and pursue a career as a Jewish communal professional.

So the summer following my Bat Mitzvah, I used the financial gifts I received and went on a six-week teen tour in Israel. I absorbed the history, the sights, smells and sounds. Ahavat Yisrael – Love of Israel was now forever deeply implanted in my heart and soul – more strongly than ever.

Since that time, I have lived in Israel for two years: the first time when I was 17, immediately following high school. I lived on a kibbutz for a year, doing volunteer work and studied Hebrew. The second time, I lived in Jerusalem for my first year of rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

I served for nine years as the Executive Director of ARZA Canada, the Association of Reform Zionists of Canada and organized and led many study trips to Israel. I learned first-hand about the wonderful, critical and important work that the Israeli Reform Movement is doing to impact Israeli society on so many different levels: social, religious, economic, political, humanitarian and so much more.

I helped to facilitate, deepen and strengthen the connection of the Canadian Reform Movement to the Israeli Reform Movement. Along the way, I developed a strong network of friends and relationships in Israel that are so important to me to this day.

For eight years in a row, I participated in a fundraising bike ride in Israel to raise funds and awareness for the Israeli Reform Movement (known as the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, IMPJ), raising the most funds of any individual each and every year.

Me and my group on the Israeli Reform Movement's "Ride4Reform" bike ride in 2008.
Me and my group on the Israeli Reform Movement’s “Ride4Reform” bike ride in 2008.

My life-long relationship with Israel and with the Israeli Reform Movement has taught me that it is critical for us as North American Jews to be involved with our beloved Jewish homeland.

Our voices matter more than ever. Our Israeli brothers and sisters need our support, they want to hear us speak out on issues, they want to see us as partners in their lives.

And the time for us to use our voices is NOW.

Right now elections are taking place for seats in the World Zionist Congress – the supreme body that allocates funds and makes decisions about multiple issues that affect the future of the life of Israelis.

As Americans, we have an opportunity to vote between now and April 30th. In the US, ARZA  represents the Reform Movement’s voice and has put together a slate for the elections.

I am on that slate, with over 200 other Reform Movement affiliated individuals who care deeply about Israel’s very soul.

These elections are so critical to the Israeli Reform Movement. Your vote for me and the ARZA slate could lead to the distribution of approximately $27Million dollars for the Israeli Reform Movement. This will be distributed over four years and will be used for programs, services and our beloved Reform organizations and congregations in Israel.

This election is our opportunity to make change in Israel. We are working for an inclusive Israel, a pluralistic Israel and a democratic Israel. An Israel that is a better place for all its citizens.

To vote, you must be:

  • Jewish
  • 18 years old
  • You must be a resident of the United States
  • The registration cost is $10 USD (or $5.00 for those under 30)

I have already voted for ARZA in the World Zionist elections. Please join me by voting NOW to help make Israel a better place for all its citizens. Click this link to register and vote:

Vote for ARZA and Make a Difference!

www.reformjews4israel.org/vote
http://www.reformjews4israel.org/vote

Who Will be the Moses of Today? Some Thoughts on the Crisis in France

Go down Moses

Way down to Egypt land

Tell ole’ Pharaoh, to

Let my people go!

This week, we begin reading the book of Exodus in the Torah (the Five Books of Moses). The narrative begins with the story of the Israelites enslavement in Egypt. We’re told how God chose Moses to go back to Egypt to help free the Israelites from Pharaoh’s grip.

This week, we are reminded that there are still Pharaohs who exist in this world. They rear their ugly heads under the guise of whatever extremist religion/ideology they tout.

The massacre in France at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in which 12 journalists were murdered by Muslim extremists is reprehensible. The world was, rightfully, outraged. Journalists should be able to freely express their ideas and thoughts without fear of reprisal or revenge.

All over social media, people were uploading images of solidarity and support “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie) – even in Hebrew (“Ani Sharlie”).

Then just as the two assailants who perpetrated the heinous crime were caught and killed, another anti-Semitic hate crime occurred in France. This time, it is thought (still to be confirmed) that an associate of the first two militants took hostages at a kosher market earlier today, on Friday, right before Shabbat. Four hostages were killed and five were injured before the rest were freed and the attacker was finally killed in the final rescue.

The Jews in France were told today to “close the doors of their businesses, to stay home from their synagogues.” Is there a fear of more anti-Semitic attacks? Can Jews in France not live safely in their own country any longer?

Over the past few years, anti-Semitism  has been rapidly growing in France. Until today, the world has not expressed its horror and indignation in the same manner that it has since the Charlie Hebdo attacks. 

An attack against one peoples is an attack against all peoples. As we are told in Genesis: God made humans in the image of God – b’tzelem Elohim (Gen. 1:27). We are all created equally and we all are created in God’s image. If you commit a hate-crime against one people, you commit a hate-crime against God.

Where is the outrage when hate-crimes are committed against Jews? Against women and children in Syria? Against so many others? Does it take an attack against journalists to make us raise our eyebrows about anti-Semitism in France?

Who will be the  Moses of today to lead us out of the slavery of the hatred and violence caused by extremists and fanatics?

When will Jews, Muslims, journalists, African-Americans and all people be able to live our lives in peace – and not be afraid?

Moses had the courage to stand up to Pharaoh. He did not back down. We too, need to find the courage and the strength to stand up to the forces of evil, of hatred and violence and not back down.

Je suis Charlie. Je suis Juif. Je suis Musulman. Je suis African-Amerique. Je suis journaliste. Je suis… humain.

I am Charlie. I am Jewish. I am a Muslim. I am African-American. I am a journalist. I am… a human-being.

May the days, weeks and months ahead enable us to find the Moses within each of us. Let us find the words, actions and deeds to rid our world of the Pharaohs , so that each of us may live in this world as a free human-being.

Shabbat Shalom.

Food for Mind, Body and Spirit

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