Mar 19, 2008

Purim 5768: Moderate Excess

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Happy Adar! Li
ght-heartedness, fun, and friendship are in the air. It is nice to stop taking ourselves too seriously and just enjoy ourselves.

A wonderful explanation of Purim by Lois Goldrich can be found here and is pasted below for quick reference. A powerful new tradition, brought to my attention by friend and teacher Marcia Brooks, for drowning out Haman's and Zeresh's names is to bring to shul boxes of pasta to use as graggers, shaking them for noise, and donating them once the Megillah is completed.

One of the customs of Purim, deeply connected to the sense of joy and relief of the Megillah's message of Jewish survival in the world, is to drink. The recent trends of childhood alcoholism in our world, documented at length by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (and found
here), lead me to reflect on how we conduct ourselves as adults, and in front of our children. I enjoyed the etrog schnapps on Simchat Torah, and believe that drinking in moderation, defined in detail here and roughly defined as either 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor can be a fun thing to share with others. I am concerned, however, with the possibilities of excess in the name of a mitzvah.

The Talmud states that "One is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until one cannot distinguish between "cursed is Haman" and "blessed is Mordechai" (Megillah 7b). What might that mean?

  • Some have pointed to the exactly equal numerical value (gematria) of the two phrases as an instruction to recognize that delineating bad from good shouldn't seem easy when reading the Megillah. While the cause and characters shift roles, violence is one of the constants in Megillat Esther.
  • Some have suggested that it is impossible to drink to the point at which one could not distinguish Mordechai and Haman and that the Mitzvah of Purim is to go to sleep. Through the replenishing act of sleeping and gaining the strength Haman would have destroyed, we experience dreams in which the world of stark contrasts and potential threats fade and vision begins.
There are those, of course who believe that drinking in severe excess is a mitzvah. And while we share vibrant and diverse communities, there is simply not room for destructive behavior in our sense of tradition. Joy is the mitzvah, not self-destruction. Jewish communities are not immune to alcoholism. JACS: Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others is demonstrative of our need to remain aware and supportive of healthy decision making in our communities.

Especially in the presence of children, I ask us to demonstrate that losing ourselves in joy is something that can be found healthily. Purim is a chance for "Nafoch Hu", to turn everything upside-down. Frowns into smiles. Despair into incredible joy.

We celebrate the mitzvot of Reading and Hearing the Megillah, of Mishloach Manot (sharing food with friends and neighbors -especially people we don't typically reach out to), of Matanot La'Evyonim (gifts for those in need), and of Se'udat Purim (the festive meal on Purim Day). We dress in masks, resembling the Megillah in which God is absent from the text but hidden in the meaning.

May the masks we wear this Purim bring out the best in each of us!

Mar 9, 2008

Links for "Living a Mythic Life 2: Mythic Places"

Shalom Chevreh,

Here are the links I mentioned in our discussion today, "Mythic Places", the second part of our Living a Mythic Life series at Netivot Shalom.

Axis Mundi (Wikipedia)
Devir to Davar: A Portable Sanctuary (Ismar Schorsch)
The Jewish Connection to Jerusalem (
Rabbi Ed Snitkoff

Kol Tuv, and Looking forward to learning Torah together again!

Rabbi Creditor

Mar 6, 2008

What Does it Mean?

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

in memory of Scott Silberman, z"l

In Dara Horn's work of spiritual fiction "The World to Come", she portrays Marc Chagall and the enigmatic Yiddish poet Der Nister (The Hidden One) as teachers at a Ukranian school for Jewish orphans. Der Nister sees a blue painting Chagall has just completed and asks "What does it mean?" Chagall's response is mystifying: "It means blue."

When texts, headlines, and faces are searched for deeper layers of significance; when disease and tragedy are "explained" by survivors and those who would be comfortors; when we, in our helplessness as observers, try to fill up the void that inevitably follows loss - that is when we forget that sometimes meaning is exactly what we feel: blue.

There aren't always redemptive answers. How can we possibly explain the death of eight Yeshiva students in Jerusalem, gunned down just today in their learning? The death of a young person? The death of any person? When we say Kaddish, are we truly extolling God as "Magnified and Sanctified"? Are we instead standing with Allen Ginsberg who composed a radical and original Kaddish for his mother, writing: "Toward education marriage nervous breakdown, operation, teaching school, and learning to be mad, in a dream -- what is this life?" Are we saying what we mean?

Stating the pain, accepting a comforting hug - screaming Oh God! - they "mean" the emotions behind them. Saying "Baruch Dayan Emet", a ritual blessing, when we hear of someone's death is not an answer, not an explanation, not a justification. These rituals - the hug, the crying, the blessing - they are useful even without expressible meaning. They force us to hear our own voices, to recognize that we have a body, to know that we're not alone. But they mean "blue." They mean "happy." They mean "sad."

I sat on a Beit Din today, witnessing the spiritual births of individuals, young and old, as Jews. As soon as I emerged from the Mikveh, I heard news first of an attack in Israel and then of the death of a precious young person. Mikveh/Birth, Life/Death. What does it mean?

As soon as we emerge from our own birth waters, we experience the cold air, the unfamiliar bright lights, heightened vulnerability. Life is not soothing.

The world-controllers of Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World" pacified their inhabitants with a powerful drug taken to escape pain and bad memories through fantasy. And there are moments where fantasy does sound a whole lot easier than the worries of our world. But life calls, bringing unsolicited rapture along with complicating pain. Being born is not easy. Horn writes:

"What does a child resemble while it waits in its mother’s womb? As a boy, Der Nister had been taught the answer: a folded writing tablet. Its hands rest on its temples, its elbows rest on its legs, its heels rest on its backside, and a lit candle shines above its head. And from behind eyelids folded closed like blank paper, it can see from one end of the world to the other. There are no days in a person’s life that are better or happier than those days in the womb. When those days must end, an angel approaches the child in the womb and says, The time has come. But the child refuses – wouldn’t you? (Didn’t you?) Please, the child begs, please don’t make me go. And then the angel smacks it under the nose so that it falls from the womb and forgets – which is why babies are always born screaming. But before that they are happy, and they wait. ("The World to Come", p. 81)"

We are not handed happiness in this world. But we are not purposeful before we are born.

Each of us has that angelic impression under our nose. Each of us experiences moments of jolted memory, blinded again by the candle we saw through closed eyes, called back to consciousness by shocking events, both happy and sad. These moments mean just that: happy and sad.

Blue... Gold... Sunsets... Life is too precious, too full of unfolding remembering to willingly miss.

As Horn writes, "The World to Come will come." May we not lose ourselves in a search for meaning beyond Life.

May God be a Presence in our lives when all we can mean is what we are.

May we feel less alone, day by day.

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