The Masks We Wear and the Masks We Remove...on Purim
Patrick Rothfuss, in “The Name of the Wind” writes, “We understand how dangerous a mask can be. We all become what we pretend to be.”
There are many instances of hiding in the Purim story. The name “Mordecai” comes from the name of the strange god, “Marduk”, and perhaps he was named as such to hide his intense piety in a society that didn’t encourage it. Esther, too, was originally named “Hadassah,” but she changed it to “Esther,” which is reminiscent of the goddess “Ashtart,” and may also be a concession to her environment and to hide her Jewish identity. Esther disguises her motives and asks Haman and the king to two banquets. Two courtiers disguise their malevolent motives to kill the king. Even Achashverush hides his intention to assimilate the many peoples to his religion by intoxicating them with constant feasting. All these disguises and masks are eventually removed and the naked truth is revealed. Esther held as secret her Jewish identity. She covered it over with Persian coating. We, living in a modern and secular society, often do something similar.
A symbol of the masks worn by the characters is the hamantashen! Just as the Hamantaschen is sweetest in its inner core, it’s important for us to find expression for our Jewish essence, which we so often bottle within us.
Purim actually demads a removal of masks through its four mitzvoth. The mitzvah of “Shalach Manoth,” sending dainties to our friends, reminds our friends, family and neighbors of how they are valued by us, noticed and appreciated. So often we are oblivious of our neighbors and friends. Distractions, work obligations and deadlines have us “cattle chuted” to such an extent that we often don’t have the opportunity to meet with our friends and family, and they don’t see the “real” us–the part of us that values them.
Purim requires of us (with warm intent) to engage in the mitzvah of matnoth leevyonim, in which we seek out the poor who would appreciate a meal. We suffer from “tzedaka fatigue.” Many agencies send us emails, letters and phone solicitations, and we are so overwhelmed by them that we hide behind a mask of irritation and resentment.
This past Friday night/Shabbat, February 6th, we had a simply amazing Religious School Dinner, which was attended by in excess of 150 people! It was by far the largest turnout that I can recall for a Shabbat dinner at our synagogue in a very long time. What a joy it was having over 70 children of all ages present with their parents, all enjoying and experiencing a traditional Shabbat meal which included all of the traditional prayers, songs and customs that elevate our experience of Shabbat. There were many people involved in the planning and orchestration of this special event, thus guaranteeing its success. However, I would like to recognize Karen Schweitzer, who arranged many of the important details pertaining to this wonderful event. I would also like to recognize our totally dedicated and talented Education V.P. Melissa Kurtz for her ongoing efforts on behalf of our vibrant Religious School.
Our annual Cholent Shabbat is fast approaching and will take place on Shabbat/Saturday morning, February 28th beginning at 9:00 a.m. In past years, we have always a had a large, boisterous and hungry crowd in attendance, all of whom are attending lichvod Shabbat–to honor and enjoy Shabbat together. This year will certainly be no different! We will also celebrate our Daled & Hay Shabbat at the same time, which will absolutely enhance the service. These are our two senior classes in the Religious School and they will, without doubt, sing beautifully as they perform some of the prayers.
This year, I will be preparing a few different cholents as compared to past years. We will have chicken and beef, veggie and a special new brown rice cholent (my wife's recipe) as well. In addition, Amy Wisotsky will prepare some delicious kugels, we will have "homemade" gefilte fish, tuna, Israeli salads (babaganush, techina, chumus), pita bread, etc. I invite you to join us as we have a fabulous celebration of Shabbat in conjunction with a wonderful social event.
As is noticeable, I have focused on two particular events, both of which enhance our enjoyment and appreciation of Shabbat, but simultaneously, bring us together socially as a congregation and community! Both events also raise our awareness of the importance of the ENJC 's efforts to provide each and every congregant, young and slightly older, with the opportunity to pray and sing together, in conjunction with enjoying the warmth of sharing special times together.
When you joined the ENJC, we asked that you fill out paperwork to give us important information about your family. Please watch for e-mails or USPS mail that we will be sending out, giving you the opportunity to confirm or revise that information. We’re very interested in making sure that we have your family yahrzeits in our database, and of particular interest are documenting the professions of our congregants. In today’s busy world, having an ENJC network can be beneficial for our families. Finding someone from our congregation to provide many of your business or service needs can be easy and beneficial to all. I also believe that while many of our members do not have the time to serve on a committee, they would love to offer their expertise to provide assistance. Please, when you receive these e-mails and/or mail, take the time to check the information we currently have in our database and change anything that will bring it up to date.
In the next two months there will be small committees formed to look into various ways to make the ENJC operate more efficiently and cost effectively. This may mean that there will be some changes we can make for the betterment of our congregation. Remember the Burger King commercial “Have it your way?” No worries–ENJC will remain flexible and continue to serve all our congregants’ religious and community needs. There has been discussion for many years about establishing a strategic plan for the ENJC. I am happy to report that conversations have started and our Future Planning Committee will be meeting soon to map out one, three and five year plans. Please contact me and get involved. Help us help you.
When we look at the parasha we learn of a potentially disturbing aspect in the story of the Exodus. “Don't worry,” says G-d, “for I shall harden Pharaoh's heart and he shall not let my People go... All so that I may widen and disseminate my miracles and signs in the world and in order that I shall put my hand against Egypt and bring out my myriads my people from the land of Egypt with great judgments. And Egypt shall know that I am God when I do this and bring the Israelites out from their midst...”
Well of course we have no problem with the idea that G-d can prove that he is a powerful phenomenon in the world and that His presence can impose itself in history. But we do have a problem with the methodology described in the Torah. Pharaoh seems to be simply a foil. He will have no free will. He will have no choices. He cannot help himself or repent for his evil ways; and in the process, G-d shall punish him and all of Egypt. Many sages are perplexed. How can it be that this is fair? As Ibn Ezra says, "if Pharaoh has no choice and his decisions are predetermined, how is it that he can be punished for them? "Does the judge of all the earth not do justly?" The question is an important one and sages have attempted to grapple with it.
Nachmanides claims "G-d forbid" that Pharaoh be prevented one iota from making a moral decision on the basis of it being good or bad. Pharaoh was aware of what was good and what was bad in his choices. By hardening one's heart the Torah means that G-d prevented him from making the decision on the basis of what was good for his own people or for his economy–he was prevented from doing the politically smart thing. But he was never stopped from making a moral decision. This helps, but still is weakened by G-d preventing these things from entering his moral decision-making. Only an unfettered choice is a truly pure choice, and Pharaoh should have had a pure choice in determining the moral imperative. Without such a pure choice presented, could he be held accountable for his decisions?
Maimonides makes this case in terms of Judaism being a coherent religion. If a person doesn’t have the pure capacity to know right from wrong and choose right or wrong, what logic is there for the idea of repentance? Why have a Yom Kippur? Why give humanity judgment, reward or punishment? Without freedom of choice there is no Judaism. To explain the term “hardening the heart” some have made an even stronger point. The Torah tells us that for the first five plagues there is no mention of Pharaoh being forced to choose to enslave and to deceive. He does this himself. He hardens his own heart. He makes his contrariness and his stubbornness more entrenched. It is only with boils, the sixth plague, that G-d does the hardening. What could this mean? Perhaps that stubbornness has a way of becoming even more stubborn; that unwillingness and sinful conduct begins delimiting the choices away from it. The force of habit becomes the addiction to poor choice; habit becomes the heart of stone petrified in its own vice.
First and foremost, I wish you all a happy, prosperous and healthy 2015!
My wife Avrille and I had the z'chut (pleasure and privilege) of just returning from a marvelous, meaningful and enjoyable visit to our Holyland, Israel. It was truly spectacular, as we now have an abundance of family members who live in Israel, which made our visit amazing. Israel is currently one of the fastest growing countries per capita in the world and the construction throughout the country is amazing. Magnificent apartment/condo complexes, shopping malls and highways are literally being constructed wherever you drive. Unfortunately, thousands of Jews living in countries where a high degree of anti-Semitism exists are arriving in Israel and creating this increased need for apartments and stores, etc. Obviously, this is, however, having a very positive effect on Israel's economy.
When one visits Israel, you immediately feel an amazing sense of Judaism and the pride of the people who have chosen to live in Israel. We did not feel any tension whatsoever and in point of fact, besides seeing young soldiers constantly in the streets going or coming from their homes, there was no fear of terrorism or danger. There are just two experiences that I would like to share with you.
Visiting the Kotel in Jerusalem is still the most powerful and moving experience that I have ever had, in spite of the fact that I have had the pleasure of visiting Israel probably in excess of 15 times over the years. When one stands at the Kotel with hundreds of other people, the feeling of holiness and sanctity is very apparent. There are probably 20 or more minyans taking place at any given time of the day or night, and people are just standing facing the wall praying or trying to connect with G-d. While I was davening with one of the many minyans, an entire family joined us– an ultra-Orthodox father with at least 7-8 children ranging in ages 2 to 13 or 14. All of the older children were praying with absolute kavanah (dedication and concentration) with the minyan. Even the younger children were very quiet and fully engaged in the knowledge that they were at the Kotel and therefore, the sanctity of this special place had to be maintained. Standing at the Kotel is an experience that can't be adequately described!
Whenever I have been in Israel during the past 12 years, we have always stayed with our family, most of whom live in Rananah, a beautiful suburb of Tel Aviv. My nephew belongs to a rather observant Chareidi Congregation and I have always been privileged to lead services there on Friday nights. We all, I am sure, know that Israelis are not exactly softly spoken and are rather boisterous in a wonderful way. Imagine in excess of 180 people singing and chanting the prayers together, certainly not shy to sing and chant as loud as possible! I would start chanting a particular prayer and the other voices simply took over. In point of fact, most of the time I did not even need to begin–they simply took over and sang the prayer. I decided to sing one cantorial recitative as a solo. But it was absolutely not a solo, as 180 other "cantors" joined me–a few in the same key that I was singing, most of the boisterous singers in multiple keys. As a result, half-way through this recitative, I made the smart decision to move quickly to the next prayer! It was actually very humorous and could only have occurred in Israel, for sure.
I hope and pray that you will all seriously consider visiting the Holyland of Israel, which will be an experience never to be forgotten.