OF NECKS, TONGUES, AND CHESTS

For those of us who are intrigued by words or phrases, there is a Purim law found in the Shulchan Oruch or Code of Jewish Law that language-wise is worthy of further ponderance:

“Whoever sticks his hand out to take (money), we give him.” One would do well to ask why the editor of the Shulchan Oruch didn’t specify: “If a poor man approaches you” or “Whoever is in financial need?” The term sticking out a hand, whether phrased in Hebrew or English, is worthy of discussion. Let’s do English.

Sticking out a part of one’s anatomy makes for perfect Purim parlance. The difference between the annihilation of the Jewish people and the preservation of the Jewish people depended upon Esther’s preparedness to stick her neck out for her people, both figuratively and literally. No different than Moses, Esther could have continued to live the lap of luxury. Taking his own initiative, Moses went out to his enslaved Israelites and took up their cause. Although the prince of Egypt never proclaimed such, he was in effect telling the downtrodden masses “You are my brethren… ”

Esther was no Moses. Neither was she a Jonah, who attempted to hightail it out of town to escape responsibility. Yet, only with the slightest prodding on the part of Mordechai, Esther decided to cast her fate to the wind (and if I perish, I perish). Like Moses, Esther realized that she had to decide whether she was part of the Jewish people or whether she should remain insulated from them, thanks to the walls of the royal palace. Given the King’s fickle nature, Esther was well aware of the distinct possibility that she would soon be resting her pretty little head on the chopping block, awaiting the effects of the executioner’s ax. Poetic justice was served, however. Esther stuck out her neck; the King extended his scepter.

Esther stuck her neck out and saved the day. Had the Jews merely stuck their tongues out at Haman and his countryman once they gained the upper hand, it would have saved us much consternation. But the Jews in the Purim story did much more than stick their tongues out. In fact, they did much more than exact revenge. Bear in mind, that not one drop of Jewish blood was spilled. Yet, the Jews were not content to hang Haman and his ten sons. In Shushan alone, they went and slew hundreds, while elsewhere in the kingdom they slew 75,000 of our enemies.  As much as our people are to be applauded for not plundering, shouldn’t we be perturbed and even abhorred for actions and behavior that were way out of proportion and defy revenge, much less justice? Perhaps, we can make some sense of what our ancestors did by employing the following reasoning. The Jews of Persia stuck their tongues out at adversaries. We of later generations must learn to stick our tongues out at adversity.

Have you ever wondered why Mordechai is referred to as Mordechai the Jew? Not once is Esther referred to as Esther the Jewess! Could it be that unlike Esther as well as all other coreligionists, Mordechai earned that title of distinction? Is it possible that Mordechai earned the title Jew for what he did to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all other Jews? Put differently, Mordechai was the only Jew who earned the right to stick his chest out with pride, because of how he acted. It wasn’t that Mordechai was proud to be a Jew (an accident of birth), it was that Mordechai had every right to be proud for stepping up to the plate as a Jew. If Haman was deserving of the nefarious distinction to be referred to as an Agagite  (Esther 3:1), then surely Mordechai was worthy of the praiseworthy distinction to be referred to as a Jew.

While the graggers twirl, perhaps a moment or two are in order to reflect on the messages and teachings of the Purim Megillah. Perhaps, Purim reminds us how necessary it is for us to stick our neck out for our people. Esther averted catastrophe by being prepared to do so. Perhaps Purim cajoles us to stick our tongues out at adversity as we take the necessary measures to confront adversity and destroy it. Perhaps Purim challenges us to stick our chests out, as a reward for stepping up to the plate. Only then, will the gladness and joy mentioned regarding the Jews in the Megillah take on real significance for Jews of this generation, as well. 

  

THE JOY OF THE TORAH

Jewish terms and names are notorious for being misnomers. Shemini Atzeret, is case in point. Simchat Torah is a combination of two words, which ought to be separated by a comma, in that those two words embody two different phrases (on the eighth – Shemini,  an Atzeret – a stoppage, should be unto you). Similarly, Chanukah is a shortened version of Chanukat Habayit, the dedication of the “House” or holy Temple. Why, even Tiferet is a misnomer, in that Tiferet means “Glory of!” Simchat Torah however, takes the cake. Simchat means “the joy of.” As such, rather than “rejoicing with the Torah,” Simchat Torah means “the joy of the Torah.” Rather than serving as the object, the Torah is the subject!

Over time, the Torah has been the object of wrath. It has served as a convenient avenue for expressing hatred towards the Jews. In their quest to inflict pain and sorrow, anti-Semites over the ages, have been known to desecrate and destroy Torah scrolls. So much so, our rabbinic sages felt compelled to provide a way of responding for distraught and devastated Jews. Accordingly, they handed down a halacha or ruling that dealt with how Jews are to mourn such a travesty. Rather than place one tear in our garments, as we are required to do when confronted by the loss of a family member, our sages ruled that we (the community) are to place two tears in our garments. One tear is to mourn the destruction of the script of the Torah; one tear is  to mourn the destruction of the parchment of the Torah. At the risk of personifying Torah scrolls, perhaps it can be said that grateful that no travesty has befallen them, the Torah Scrolls set aside one day a year to express joy that they are intact and unmarred.

We at Tiferet are blessed. Unlike other congregations that make do with two or even one Torah scroll throughout the year, we at Tiferet have ample scrolls. There is however a downside. Whether it be size or accessibility, typically the same two Torah scrolls are read from throughout the year, leaving the other Torah scroll as place markers. Rarely, if ever, throughout much of the year are those Torah scrolls removed from the ark, much less read from. Simchat Torah is different. Not only are all (or most) Torah scrolls removed from the ark, but they are carried down from the bimah, as congregants participate in hakafot (circuits) and are danced with. From the point of view of the Torah, Simchat Torah is the festival of equality. All Torah scroll are treated the same. Because of this, all Torah scrolls have good reason to rejoice. Afterall, the word of HaShem remains the same, regardless of the age of the Torah, the size of the Torah or the accessibility of the Torah.

Unlike all other ark openings throughout the year, the ark opening on Simchat Torah, is preceded by an additional 10 verses. Among them, we ask that HaShem neither leaves us nor abandons us( I Kings 8:57). An excellent case could be made that those very same sentiments could also be expressed by the Torah! Throughout our history, the Torah has been set aside and forgotten by our people. And even when the Torah was read from on an ongoing basis, its teachings were either conveniently overlooked or forgotten. The very fact that a synagogue service is set aside to mark the completion of the Book of Deuteronomy as well as the beginning of the Book of Genesis is ample reason for the Torah to express joy.

Why not set aside Monday evening, October 21 and Tuesday morning, October 22? Why not join us here at Tiferet to celebrate a festival with a misrepresented and perhaps even a misunderstood name. Join us as we witness the “joy of intact and unmarred Torah scrolls. Join us as we make a point of treating all Torah scrolls the same so that no Torah scroll is overlooked  because of age, size or accessibility. Join us the Torah scrolls at Tiferet are reminded that they are neither neglected nor abandoned. Join us as we share in the joy of our sacred Torah scrolls.

A meaningful Simchat Torah to all!