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Death Healing News

A Response to Terror in Brussels on Purim

We pray for the people of Belgium and for the families of those killed and injured in the horrific terror attacks in Brussels.

Today, as Jews around the world gather to celebrate Purim, we will pause to remember before engaging in the frivolity and laughter that we are commanded to enjoy on this holiday. On Purim we are reminded of the reality of evil and the serendipitous nature of the line that divides those who are delivered from harm from those who fall victim to hatred and cruelty. Sadly, and tragically, those killed and injured in these brutal attacks did nothing to deserve what befell them. Terror is radically evil precisely because there is no correlation between the perpetrators and their prey. There is no cause, no justice—only random destruction.

We Jews know this kind of evil. We are schooled in it from our history. The martyrs of our people from the pogroms, to the Shoah, to terror in Israel were not singled out for anything that they did. Their fate was sealed because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time when demonic hatred was unleashed. It didn’t matter their age, their gender, or their political orientation. So, too, in Brussels, the line between those who were killed and those who survived was completely random.

This is the chilling reality that we encounter as we read the Megillah. How many things had to go just right at just the right time for the Jews of Shushan to escape without harm from the decrees of the evil Haman? What if Mordechai had not learned of the plot to kill the King? What if Esther had not been at the court of King Achashverosh? What if the king had not granted her access and been attentive to her plea?

Yes, Esther’s example is one of great courage, but also of good luck. Some see the divine hand behind all the vicissitudes in the Megillah, and in life. I do not. God did not save individuals from death in Brussels, and God didn’t single out others to be killed; just as God doesn’t speak or act in the Book of Esther. Divine compassion is manifest in the world and in the Megillah when people bring it. God’s presence is felt in all places when people act in godly ways.

The Book of Esther has a dark ending. The Jews of Shushan go on a rampage of revenge against their enemies, killing thousands. It is a chilling reminder of how violence can breed more violence, and how the demand for justice can turn cruel if it is not tempered by compassion.

The ultimate answer to hatred is not more hatred. It is love. The best response to sadness is to increase joy. For every act of callousness and violence, let there be remembrance, increased vigilance, and the pursuit of justice by just means. Like Esther, let us be courageous in the face of threats to life, liberty, and dignity. And let us ever be God’s partners in making the world a kinder and gentler place for all.

Chag Purim Sameach!

Rabbi Arnie Gluck Serves Temple Beth-El in Hillsborough, NJ. 

Categories
CCAR Convention General CCAR Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

Shave for the Brave: A “Magical” Moment

I was thinking so much about Sammy this past Purim.  He was a kid who loved all things fun and magical and creative.  One of the things I learned early on with Sammy is that you have to have a gimmick with him in order to get “in” to his world.  He loved jokes and so we were able to connect a little bit over humor.  He loved Angry Birds, and so I was thankful when I learned I could get him to sit on my lap if I handed him my phone with Angry Birds already open and ready for him to play with.  He  also LOVED magic.

I’ve known Sammy since the day he arrived.  His parents are some of my best friends and I was there a few days after he was born.  I remember it like it was yesterday – I walked into their home and crept up slowly to the sleeping newborn, just to get a peek of him.  Suddenly, like magic (or my loud footsteps) he awoke and shined those bright eyes on me. It was a great moment.  And there were many great moments to follow.  Until, the not-so-great moments came.

Sammy Magic 2After Sammy’s cancer relapsed in 2013, I went to go visit him, in May, at the hospital.  Determined to bring a little something that I thought would brighten Sammy’s day, I came into the room with my bag full of tricks.  Literally!  I brought Sammy some magic tricks with lights and balls and bags.  But, the thing he loved the most, that day, was the Magic Hat I brought him from FAO Schwartz.  He could even pull a stuffed bunny out of the hat!!! It all brought a smile to Sammy’s face that I will never forget. It looked like my work as “Auntie Liz” was done!

Sadly, it was not.  I was there a few days after Sammy was born and I was there the day after Sammy died, in December.  I sat and cried with my friends and family and their family who are like my own family. I helped David, Sammy’s brother, buy clothes for the funeral.   I helped carry Sammy’s body, through the cold and snow, at the cemetery to help bury Sammy and say goodbye to his physical presence.  It was the greatest honor I could have, as his Auntie Liz, to be there for him, even when he was no longer there.

We are still here for Sammy, and we are here for many, many other families that are struggling with the pain associated with pediatric cancer.  While Sammy was sick, there were so many people from around the world that were touched by the Sommer’s story and their blog.  Everyone wanted to help, but really didn’t know what to do.  Well, now there is something that is being done.  Phyllis Sommer and Rebecca Einstein Schorr decided that they could convince 36 Rabbis to shave their heads and raise funds for pediatric cancer research, in honor of Sammy’s memory.  The “shave” is being run through the St. Baldrick’s foundation and is taking place on April 1st at the CCAR convention in Chicago, IL – Sammy’s hometown.  The intention was to raise $180,000 from 36 rabbis.  But so many people signed on that we have almost 100 people who have raised more than $420,000 for this event.  It’s almost like, magic….

And that moment, at the Shave on April 1st will truly be magical.  We will watch as Sammy’s parents, Michael and Phyllis, shave their heads.  We will watch as other Rabbis, men and women, shave their heads in honor of Sammy’s memory and in honor of so many other kids out there who struggle every day.  We will watch, in these next few weeks, as our numbers of dollars raised continue to rise and rise and rise.  I am so proud of what my colleagues have done and I am so proud to help be an event organizer for this special and magical moment.  But, most of all, I am proud that I got to know and love Sammy, that I got to be his Auntie Liz, and that he has inspired so many people to continue to work their own magic, in the world.

Sammy and Liz

Rabbi Elizabeth S. Wood serves The Reform Temple of Forest Hills, NY.

Categories
Books Israel Rabbis Reform Judaism

Purim – Time for New Interpretation

I was teaching an Introduction to Judaism class this Tuesday night about (fittingly) Purim. I was in the midst of explaining to my class the mitzvah to drink until you don’t know the difference between blessing Mordecai and cursing Haman, and how it has been traditionally interpreted (get extremely drunk), when one of my students stopped me.

“What if,” she began, “What if we’re interpreting the commandment too literally. I mean, we’ve learned how many of the commandments have been analogized, or understood metaphorically,” she said, “but it sounds like this one is always taken literally, across Jewish communities.”

“Generally, yes.” I answered. “Purim is treated as an opportunity to drink heavily.”

“But what if,” she asked, “the commandment is not meant to be taken literally, not to mean that you should get really drunk, but perhaps, that you should use Purim as an opportunity to blur the distinction between good and bad people, to imagine that everyone, even our enemies, are good and evil, that people are complex, and that cursing people is a dirty business.”

There was a long silence. This was a brilliant and beautiful interpretation, but I wasn’t sure (in fact, I highly doubted) that it was what the Rabbis intended when they suggested the minhag. In fact, knowing what I do about Jewish history, and how Purim is, in many senses, a wish fulfilling fantasy of revenge on all those who have hurt Jews throughout the ages, I knew how unlikely it was.

But we live in a different world now. We live in a world where Jews wield power (political and otherwise), where we have our own state, and where humanist values have come to inform our understanding of what it means to be Liberal Jews. We live in a world where it is possible to find the wholesale slaughter of Jewish enemies (75,810 people!) at the end of the book of Esther morally troubling, and the cursing of Haman’s name discomfiting (however much he may deserve it). So what if we can use the commandment to blur the lines to teach complexity, nuance and that the notion that only in fairytales and Disney movies are people all good, or all evil. Too often we gloss over the slaughter of non-Jews that occurs at the end of Megillat Esther because it complicates the fairytale, because it’s too hard to explain to kids (let alone adults) the moral complexity of revenge fantasies.

For the past week, I have been reading Israeli journalist (and Haaretz columnist) Ari Shavit’s book, My Promised Land which has been hailed by everyone from Leon Wieseltier to Jeffrey Goldberg as exceptional. This is largely because of Shavit’s ability to hold and wrestle with multiple narratives about the founding of the State of Israel; the horrors of the Holocaust and the nightmare of the naqba, the miracle of Israel and the ongoing disaster of Palestinian displacement. What sets the book apart is its painful – and brilliant – ability to compassionately hold all of these narratives: the horrific losses of Iraqi Jewish olim, the unthinkable trauma of Holocaust survivors in the same period, and the nightmare for Palestinians who once inhabited the city of Lydda and were displaced by traumatized Jewish immigrants. These stories are told with grace, nuance and a heart big enough to hold –  and mourn – all of them. Purim gives us a similar opportunity; to know that in every victory there may also be great loss, and in every loss there may be a victory for our enemy, and that praying for tremendous suffering – for anyone – compromises us all. Purim is an opportunity to think deeply about these contradictions, and to acknowledge the pain, and nuance, contained in this realitiy.

So what did I tell my student? “That’s a beautiful interpretation.” I answered. “Really beautiful. But, I mean, given the historical context that the commandment comes out of, I’m not sure it’s accurate.”

“Maybe” she said, “It’s time for a new interpretation.”

Maybe it is.

Chag Purim Sameach.

Rabbi Jordie Gerson serves Temple Emanu-el Beth Sholom in Montreal. 

Categories
Immigration Prayer Rabbis Reform Judaism Social Justice

The Fast That I Desire: Honoring Esther, Seeking Justice

Our world has not been perfect for quite a long time.

In every age, our people have struggled to act in ways that can bring our world as-it-is ever closer to the world we know needs to be.  Two thousand years ago, when facing ravaging drought, plaguing disease, or devastating pestilence, our ancestors would abstain from food and drink.  We read of their reasoning in the Talmud: a fast day is decreed to petition God for compassion and the removal of calamity (Palestinian Talmud, Taanit 4a.  The title of the tractate, Taanit, is the word for “Fast”).   The hope of old was that the community’s choice to deprive itself of basic necessities would arouse Divine Compassion, and change the future for the better.

As we prepare for Purim, we remember how our heroine, Esther, spoke truth to power in Persia.  When Mordechai told her of Haman’s horrendous plot, Esther advised Ahasuerus to alter the royal decree; the story of the Megillah that bears her name testifies that Esther’s bravery and leadership prevented a great calamity from befalling our people.  But if the vivid picture that remains in our mind is of the Queen daring to speak up and challenge the King, often we forget a small detail that precedes this epochal moment.  When Mordechai tells Esther of Haman’s wicked counsel, her response is simple: Esther asks Mordechai to proclaim three days of fasting for the entire Jewish community of Shushan.  Esther hoped that a community united in purpose could not just alter royal rule, but even could help avert an unfortunate Divine Decree.

Our Jewish calendar commemorates Esther’s request by observing Taanit Esther—the Fast of Esther—every year, on the day before Purim.  In my entire life, I must admit, I have never observed this “minor fast” (as our tradition calls it).  But this year is different.  From the evening of March 12th through to sunset on the 13th, I will observe Taanit Esther as I never have before: I will abstain from food and drink.  What make this year different from all other years?

This year, the National Council of Jewish Women has led the charge in organizing Jewish women to fast on Taanit Esther in order to speak truth to power—human and maybe even Divine—in our day.  A national group, We Belong Together, is partnering with SEIU and the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), in leading a month-long, nationwide women’s action involving daily fasts for immigration reform. NCJW is sharing in this project by bringing together Jewish women (and some sympathetic male rabbis, such as myself) in a religious fast on March 13th.  On that day, our community will be united in speaking up for the immigrant women and families in our communities who suffer because of a broken immigration system that divides families and keeps many of our undocumented neighbors fearfully living in the shadows.   In the spirit of Queen Esther, Jewish women will fast on this sacred day in order to rouse compassion—Divine and maybe even human—for the immigrant community in America.

I hope our fast brings not only compassion, but also justice.  Unfortunately, in today’s immigration system, justice is far from achieved. Justice is delayed for the millions of family members who face up to decades-long backlogs in acquiring visas. It is denied to the 11 million undocumented immigrants who must live in the shadows of our society, away from the protective shelter of workplace standards and legal recourse. It is delayed for the 5,000 children who entered the foster care system when their parents were deported. It is denied for the LGBT Americans who cannot sponsor the visa of a spouse or partner the same way that a straight husband or wife can. We as Americans—we as Jews—can no longer delay our own pursuit of justice. The time is now to fix this broken system.

When our ancestors faced the broken systems of winds that brought locusts, or skies that held back the rains, they organized a fast.  They wondered, as Ruth Calderon captures:  What has the power to cause rain to fall?  What can bring the abundance of the heavens down on a parched Earth? What succeeds in piercing the hardened heart of a God who withholds rain? (Ruth Calderon, A Bride for One Night, p. 4).

I wonder in our day: What succeeds in piercing the hardened heart of a Congress, a House of Representatives, the government of the United States of America, who withhold justice? Our current immigration system fails to reflect the values I hold most dear as a Jew and an American. For too long, justice has been denied to 11 million undocumented men, women, and children.  As a Rabbi, I am proud to stand with American Jewish women: united, we have the power to stand together and use the Fast of Esther to demonstrate our resolve to ensure immigration reform remains a top priority in the House of Representatives and becomes a reality for the United States of America.  As happened to our heroic Queen Esther, the time has come for us to speak truth to power.

Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of 
Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York.
This post originally appeared on rabbilimmer.cbyarmonk.org.