Monthly Archives: February 2018

Zakhor 5778: Hear the Voice of Esther

I recently had a first meeting with a prospective convert and her partner. Introducing the importance of Torah study to Jewish identity, I rolled open my Megillah on the desk before them and began to share the story of Purim. It’s not often that one observes a first impression of Esther, but this woman had never heard the Megillah before, and her eyes widened with horror and outrage at the repellent and yet familiar behavior of nearly all of the men in this story. “Tell me that the King gets punished,” she said, but no, the king remains in power. The absence of justice, I noted, points to the absence of God, who is unmentioned in the Megillah, a dark and frightening book, despite scenes of comic relief. This darkness highlights the one point of light, which is the courageous speech of Esther in confronting two men who treat her like furniture.

Sadly, even Mordecai is guilty of manipulating Esther when he sends his niece to seduce the king. This is captured well in a skit from the Israeli comedy series, “The Jews are Coming,” in which Esther objects to her uncle’s plan, saying, “you want me to be a whore?” The more he insists that it’s not like that, the more problematic his plan becomes.  True, his motivation is positive, and even though he doesn’t really have an actual plan at the beginning, it works out for Esther. Still, Mordecai’s insistence that she remain silent at his command, and then speak at his word reinforces the sense that she is his puppet, not a person endowed with moral agency. Continue reading

Terumah 5778: A Tent to Stand for all Time

Tent pole technology keeps improving. Newer models have lightweight, aluminum poles that are flexible, threaded with elastic to keep together, and color-coded to help fit them in the right clips and sleeves. When you are trying to assemble a tent as it starts to rain, the wind whips up and the light fades, you really appreciate these little details! In a good year I spend about two weeks sleeping in a tent, and I always appreciate the attention to detail in making these mobile structures functional and hardy.

Tents are on my mind not only because the winter is winding down, but because with Parashat Terumah we have entered the tabernacle zone of the Torah. I find the entire structure fascinating—the triple-layer covering, the planks of standing acacia wood, plated in gold, the silver sockets, and especially the bars that hold the entire structure in place. These bars, called בריחים, are basically tent poles, except that they hold up wood walls instead of fabric ones.

Each of the three sides of  the tabernacle had 5 poles made of acacia wood, all overlaid with gold. Four for each wall were half-length, dividing between them the upper and lower portions of the planks, but there was a long pole that ran the entire length of each wall of the tabernacle. This central pole was “within the planks,” which the rabbis understand to refer to a slot grooved through the panels that the pole penetrated. Our ancestors devoted much attention to these mysterious middle poles, which were extremely long, apparently 32 cubits = approximately 48 feet. Continue reading

Yitro 5778: Singing at Sinai

Seeking inspiration to spin faster on a stationary bike, I recently searched Spotify for an old song and came up with “Swingtown” by the Steve Miller Band. I don’t think I had heard it in decades, but I was instantly taken back to my 15 year old self, at least in my mind. Tedious exercise became joyous transportation as the music summoned memories of the Canadian Rockies, where I biked for a month that summer. The sense of smell is often associated with memory, but I find music to be equally powerful. Perhaps this is why we emphasize the chanting of our sacred texts. Singing the words of Torah adds another layer of association, lending drama to the narrative and connecting us to earlier recitations, both in our lives and in those of our ancestors.

At the end of Bavli Megillah (32a) Rabbi Yohanan is quoted: “Whoever reads [Torah] without melody, or studies without song, is the target of the verse, ‘Moreover, I gave them laws that were not good, and rules by which they could not live (Ezekiel 20:25).’” Elsewhere in rabbinic literature this verse is associated with ways that a person might ruin the majesty of the divine word. Music is not a mere ornamentation but an essential accompaniment to the experience of Torah. Rabbi Yohanan’s terse statement is arguably the foundation of our system of singing scripture, though it likely reflects much older traditions that had developed over the centuries. It wasn’t until the time of the Masoretes in 9th century Tiberias that the system of “accents” was fully established, but the musical traditions associated with them developed both before and after that time. While there are many different melodies for chanting an accent such as “gershaim,” depending on the book of Bible and the community of origin, the notations themselves play a role in adding meaning to the text. Continue reading