Holiday Rituals

Purim When You’re Not in the Purim Mood

This Thursday evening, the Jewish world begins celebrating the raucous holiday of Purim, when silliness prevails over seriousness and levity wins the day. But some years, Purim feels harder than other years, and levity just doesn’t feel accessible on demand. This year, many of us are thinking back mournfully to Purim last March—our very last uninhibited communal gathering before we went into lockdown and life as we knew it changed forever. Since that gathering, Covid-19, has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands in our world, leaving loved ones to grieve in solitude—without hugs and touch, familiar rituals, or company. Lives have been disrupted, insulted by the harsh effects of the Covid-19 economy and its prolonged, painful fallout. This Purim may feel like a hard one to throw yourself into.

And yet Purim’s coming, whatever our mood. It’s always a curious proposition when a Jewish holiday comes along on which a strong emotion is commanded: whether the command is to “rejoice on your festival,” revel on Purim, or be tragically sad on Tishah B’Av. We know what the mood in the room is supposed to be, and that sanctioned mood confronts us, as individuals, with a choice—whether to participate with the community when this is what the community is meant to feel, or whether to just sit this one out. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, our tradition almost always lands on the side of participation. 

This traditional Jewish preference for participation in the prescribed emotion of a special day expresses itself in a host of ways. For instance, when we’re in shivah—the first week of mourning after a death, and Shabbat rolls around, which is meant to be a day of joy and contentment, we are not to display the outward signs of grief that we do the rest of that difficult week. During the first year of mourning for a parent, we are not to join in the dancing and singing at a wedding, lest we appear happy in the face of our loss, but we are still encouraged to attend the wedding ceremony and even take on a role, like serving the meal afterwards. Poskim hold that our suffering may only be increased if we suffer the additional loss of communal participation, especially in an event we were once looking forward to sharing with people that we love.

Jewish people are always shocked when they hear that a festival like Pesach or Sukkot cancels the formal mourning period—the seven days of shivah or the thirty days of shloshim after a death. How can this be? Our grief doesn’t stop, but we stop expressing it? For the sake of participating in a festival whose joy we’re really not in the frame of mind to absorb? My soul used to writhe against the thought of this practice. Until one year, I was at a Jewish convention, the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial, and on the second morning, I lost a beloved uncle unexpectedly; he died after what should have been a routine surgery and recovery. I didn’t know what to do with my grief—should I just go home? Was it wrong to stay? Did my family need me? Would I even get anything out of being at the festival? (And yes, when 5,000 Jews show up for a convention that only meets every two years, travel there, and look forward for months to learning and singing and joining in stirring worship together, yes, that is our contemporary Jewish chag—our pilgrimage festival of holy time together.) I wasn’t sure I wanted to give up all I’d invested to be there, or all that I’d hoped it would fill me with spiritually. The truth in my heart was that I wanted to stay, because this wasn’t just some party—it was, rather, exactly what my soul needed to cope and begin to heal. My purposes for being there hadn’t changed with my uncle’s death. In fact, they’d amplified: I longed more for connection, more for communal opportunities to pray, more for a community to say Kaddish alongside other mourners, and a shoulder to lean on. More, for moments of levity to pull me out of my own head and take me to another place, if only for fleeting moments of relief.

The Biennial—festive though it was—was exactly where I needed to be, and my religion gave me permission to be there. I didn’t ignore my grief. My shivah wasn’t cancelled in that sense. In what was probably one of the first online memorial services, I “gathered” with my broken relatives on my computer screen, while in my hotel room colleagues from rabbinical school and past congregations where I’d interned sang and chanted psalms. My roommate and I planned the ceremony together, which was in itself a healing act and a learning experience, as she faced my raw grief so ably and compassionately. And in the days that followed, I let my mind be carried off to wherever the speakers took me—my rabbinic teachers, the keynote address by President Obama, the musicians that made my heart soar and my eyes sore from crying.

Somehow, the tradition knew that’s where I needed to be despite all, and because of all, that life had thrown at me that week.

So how should we approach the unrelenting expectation of festivity on Purim, if we happen to find ourselves in a struggling state of mind? If you are someone for whom levity feels possible, delight in it fully. Laugh heartily. But if you’re not in such a place, after a difficult year, then maybe Purim offers a different but healing path, and blessings you have yet to discover. Perhaps sitting it out will only increase loss and exacerbate pain, because something will be happening that you’re meant to be a part of. Where there’s a place carved out just for you. 

You don’t have to feel happy every minute in that place. A curious rule on Purim is that we should not send mishlo-ach manot—Purim gifts—to someone in mourning, because we shouldn’t force joy upon them while their dead lie before them—and yet the mourner is not exempt from the Purim mitzvah of sending gifts to others. We’re also taught that while a mourner on Purim needn’t act silly and rejoice, they should still partake of the Purim feast. Our forebears knew how much a communal meal could nourish body and soul.

Our sages found ways that we could grow spiritually, even in the darkest times, by participating in the life of the community even when we’re not in the mood.  Our participation is perhaps a prayer for finding levity again after a hard year—and in those days, for the Jewish people, they were all hard years. The wisdom they gleaned and passed down to us is our guide in times of confusion. May their memory bless our days.

Rabbi Nicole Roberts is Senior Rabbi of North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.

High Holy Days Holiday

Open the Gates: A Reflection during Elul 5781

The month of Elul, leading up to Rosh HaShanah, is a time of increased soul-searching and God-searching. Traditionally, it is also a time when we draw closer to those we love, those we have hurt, and those we want to celebrate the New Year with. As this year, 2020, brings with it distance instead of closeness, and yearning instead of fulfillment, we tap into prayer to connect with our loved ones, ourselvesand God. Here, Rabbi Nicole Roberts shares a poem about preparing spiritually for the High Holy Days during this unprecedented time.

אדון הרחמים
בשנה הבאה
פתח לנו שער בעת נעילת שער
שערי חיבוקים ושערי פנים מלאים
שערי ביתינו ושערי חברינו
שערי סבא וסבתא ושערי משפחה רחוקה
פתח לנו שער כי אנחנו
רוצים לראות את פניך גם בתפילה
וגם בחיוך של אדם בלי מסכה

Adon haRachamim—dear God of mercy
In the coming year,
P’tach lanu sha’ar, b’et n’ilat sha’ar—
Open the gates for us, open them wide:
The gates to hugs and unmasked faces,
The gates to our homes and tea with a friend,
The gates to visits with grandparents,
And our family overseas.
Open the gates for us, open them wide,
That we may once again see Your face, not only in prayer,
But in the full-faced smiles of those we hold dear.

Rabbi Nicole Roberts serves North Shore Temple Emanuel in New South Wales, Australia.


An Imperfect Union: Reflections by a Home-Sick American

America is a country at war with itself.  Some might even call this a civil war, although the country is split not only in two.  Today, we have the haves and have nots, the dark-skinned and light, Democrats and Republicans, religious liberals and evangelical conservatives, biased judges and traumatized victims, gun lobbyists and outraged gun control advocates, law abiding citizens and terrorists.  Those who live within our borders do not interpret our fundamental values in the same way as each other: “the pursuit of happiness,” “the right to bear arms…”  We disagree on what trumps what, and in the meantime there’s gunfire.  How is this not war?  “War” is a strong term, but it is apt when there are weapons, killing, and brutalization involved, and on a shockingly regular basis.

Who is losing this war?  “We the people.”  Those of us who want so much to partake of our patriotism without the bitter side order of national shame and sadness constantly being slopped onto our plate.  We who cherish the ideals for which our country is supposed to stand—which the sight of our waving flag is supposed to inspire around the world.  “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”  Such noble and appropriate aspirations for a society, being shot down, one by one… by every bullet fired that could have been prevented.  By every unjust court verdict privileging sex or race or social standing.  By every casualty of a dysfunctional healthcare system.  By every million dollar bonus paid out of taxpayer bailout money.  How can we the people boast of our perfect union, of justice and domestic tranquility, of common defense and general welfare, of the blessings of liberty, and of united states?  We are not achieving this.  We the people, are losing this war.

Three years ago, after ordination, I moved to Sydney, Australia for my first pulpit.  Twice a year my husband and I return to the States, and our most recent visit was a particularly “patriotic” one.  At customs, we were greeted with two words that unfailingly bring a tear to my eye when uttered by someone with stars and stripes sewn on their sleeve: “Welcome home.”  We visited Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 Memorial for the first time.  In an airport, we stood alongside the USO, a troupe of bagpipers, and applauding onlookers, as aged army veterans returned from a visit to the Washington war memorial.  When we headed back to Sydney, the flags were still flying at half mast in honor of Memorial Day.  At each stop along our unintended “national pride” tour, my tears flowed.  I love America.  “I’m proud to be an American.”  “God bless America, land that I love.”  “America, America,” may “God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.”  Again, the tears…

But patriotism is a funny thing – seductive, and deceptive.  In Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, author Sebastian Junger argues that humans have evolved over millennia to crave solidarity—being part of something greater than ourselves, and the sense of purpose that comes along with looking out for the larger group.  We’ve evolved communally.  It’s natural for us to feel sentiments like patriotism – pride of peoplehood and country.  The problem, he suggests, is that today, many of us who call ourselves patriotic are all about feeling and expressing pride in our country, but we’re not so willing to make the sacrifices that really earn it.  We want to be “we the people,” but we’re not really willing to do what it takes to be a people.  Certain individuals are, like the vets we applauded, who paid the true price of the freedoms and luxuries that the rest of us enjoy relatively free of charge.  And there are others who work for our common welfare and fight in some way for the values enshrined in our Constitution: the fire fighters who ran up the stairs of the burning towers; the Stanford sexual assault victim who relived her horrid experience in a 7,000 word court statement in pursuit of justice; politicians who stood on the senate floor for 15 hours to push for sensible gun legislation.  But most of us just want the feel-good part of patriotism without working in the trenches for it.  We want the reward without the duty.

The Torah cautions against this disconnect.  A census is taken; every person is counted and assigned a duty.  Each of the twelve tribes brings an offering for the dedication of the communal mishkan.  In Tribe, Junger laments that “the beauty and tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good” – not so back in our tribal days!  Everyone had to serve the common good.  Even those who didn’t want to enter the promised land had to fight for it.  Want to stay on this side of the Jordan?  First fight with your brothers for the land that’s important to them.  And once everyone is settled and luxuriating in that land, don’t attribute your easy life to the work of your own hands, warns God.  Don’t take pride in the things you didn’t earn; give thanks for them.  Recognize them as holy, through blessing.  Give something back.  Offer something up.

“The beauty and tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good.”  If it’s “we the people” we love, then we need to see our service to that people as commanded, not voluntary, and rekindle our tribal sense of social responsibility and personal sacrifice.  If we’re going to sing songs of patriotism, we need to get some skin in the game.  America, America, God shed His grace on thee.  And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea.

May “we the people” prevail over fracture, and embody the values for which we stand:  Perfect union – shleimut;  Justice – tzedek;  Domestic tranquility – shalom;  General welfare – briut;  Blessings – brachot.

Rabbi Nicole K. Roberts serves North Shore Temple Emanuel in Sydney, Australia.