Twelve years ago, you were born on (Shushan) Purim, a day of contradictions – I cannot think of a more appropriate time for a Jewish girl to be brought into this world.
Though Esther is one of the few female heroes who is not universally described as beautiful, the mere fact that her appearance is described and debated reminds us of the inescapable reality that you face as a young woman; it breaks my heart to write these words as it is terribly wrong, but the world will likely judge you by your appearance. And yet, while it is her beauty or grace that gets Esther through the palace doors, it is her courage and cunning that establish her place in Jewish history. I pray that you never lose sight of what is eternal and what is fleeting; that skin decays but the spirit lives on, that the world may get stuck on superficialities but what is truly important – your inner world, cannot be seen.
Orphaned at a young age, sent away by her uncle to live a life among the Persians, forced to create a family with a non-Jewish king, Esther describes herself as utterly lost; ka’asher avad’ti avad’ti. And yet, she is not lost. In fact, she is the source of the Jewish People finding themselves. In truth, there is no such thing as being lost; even when our parents are no longer with us, we always have a caring Father. God hides Himself not just in the Purim story, but He hides in Esther herself;“Anochi haster aster es panai, I will hide my face.”No matter what choices you make in life, I will always love you. I may not agree with every choice you make in life, but you will always be loved by Mommy, by me, and by God NO. MATTER. WHAT.
A spiritual holiday of the highest order, on par with Yom Kippur, and yet we spend the day with food and drink, costumes, and fun. Though it took me years to understand, your mother, my mother and grandmothers taught me a life-altering lesson; a meal can convey more love than a poem, a hug more care than words, and a smile or sigh more spirituality than a prayer. I pray that you learn this lesson too; that as Jews we do not fight the physical world, we do not even infuse the physical with the spiritual. We, as the women in my life have taught me, find the spirituality that exists within. Purim appears as a paradox only because we cannot properly see. I pray that you follow in the holy footsteps of the women that came before you, uncovering the beauty, the spirit, and the Godliness that can be found all around us.
Tehila, you were born on a complicated day into a complicated world as a member of a complicated faith. With your sensitive soul, you already have questions and I am sure you will have many more. The women that came before you did not accept what was broken, they challenged the status quo. They did not quietly fade into the background, they boldly made a difference. They did not solve the world’s problems but they learned to live with them while still pushing for meaningful change. May you follow in their footsteps as you blaze your own trail. Yesimeich Elohim k’Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel, v’Leah.
With more love than you can imagine,
Although one should not have a meal before hearing the Megillah, one is permitted to eat items that are not considered meal-type items. One should therefore not eat bread or items made from the five grains which one would say Mezonos on. All other foods may be eaten in any quantity before the reading of the Megillah.
There is an ancient custom to give three silver coins to Tzedakah before Purim. This is in commemoration for the Half-Shekel that was given by every Jew at this time of year when the Bais HaMikdash stood.
Most shuls have half-dollar coins that individuals acquire by giving the monetary equivalent and then giving the silver coins to maintain this custom. To do so, one places a minimum of $1.50 in the basket with the coins, lifts the coins, thereby acquiring them, and returns them to the basket.
One of the Mitzvos of Purim is to give gifts to the poor. To fulfill this Mitzvah, every adult must give a meal or the monetary value of a meal to two poor individuals. The Mitzvah is to specifically do this during Purim day.
Practically speaking, one may give as little as $5 for each poor individual for a total of ten dollars.
I will be distributing money to those in need on Purim. One can donate through the shul website and put Purim in the memo of the donation or give me checks or cash on Purim.
This Mitzvah can only be fulfilled Purim day. You can give me money to distribute before Purim as I will only distribute it on Purim day.
Mishloach Manos – one fulfills their obligation by giving two food items to ONE person. It is a wonderful opportunity to show people we are thinking about them. I strongly encourage you to take the time to think about who such people may be. This Mitzvah can only be fulfilled on Purim day.
One is obligated to have a festive meal on Purim day.
This room is filled with many accomplished people; there are those who are accomplished professionally, some who are accomplished morally – people look up to them as role models, others who are accomplished socially – they’re exceptionally popular. There is a lot of expertise in this room. But guess what?
Statistically, about 70% of the people in this room experience something called imposter syndrome. What that means is that they feel like they are an imposter, a fake, a fraud. That one day someone will catch them. That one day their coworkers, friends, or family will corner them and yell, “Busted! We know who you are! And you are not as good as everyone makes you out to be!” 7 out of every ten people in this room have that nightmare. Maybe not with the same details, but you know what I mean…
We took two Torahs out today; one was Parshas Terumah, which Riley read, and the other was Parshas Zachor, which was read by Avri. The reason Avri read the second section is because that reading is considered to be the only Biblically mandated Torah reading we do the entire year. Because of that it has to be read by someone older than Bar Mitzvah. This is the only section that is a Biblical Mitzvah to read, it must be really important. Right? What’s it about?
It’s about an enemy nation. A nomadic tribe called Amaleik who attack the Jews as they leave Egypt. We are told that there is an eternal battle against this nation. Which is hard to understand because we don’t really know who this nation is in 2021. They are lost to the dustbin of history. So what relevance does this passage have to me and you?
The mystical commentators point out that the name of this nation is a contraction of two words – Amal, which means ‘toil’ Kof which means … ‘of a monkey.’ The toil of a monkey. That’s the idea that Amaleik represents. What does this mean? Well, what do we know about monkeys? Monkey see, monkey do. Monkeys are known to imitate; to just perform external actions. In other words, they are imposters. What this nation Amaleik represents to us in 2021 is that voice inside of us that tells us, “This ain’t you. You are not as good/ as talented/ as kind as everyone thinks you are. You’re just a good faker. You’re nothing but a monkey.”
Imposter syndrome is not just a nightmare, it has terrible consequences. It causes people to downplay their accomplishments and avoid feedback. It prevents people from asking for help, causes people to refuse new opportunities, fail to start or finish projects, and overwork themselves to the point of burnout. That battle against Amaleik is certainly still relevant.
So how do you defeat it? How do you overcome imposter syndrome, this modern day manifestation of Amaleik?
The Torah has a fascinating approach to dealing with imposter syndrome, and with the nation of Amaleik. We are taught that the way Amaleik is defeated is by remembering Amaleik. Not by forgetting them and erasing their memory from this earth. It’s the opposite. After all, this is Parshas Zachor – the Shabbos of remembering Amaleik! Remember what they did to you! Remember what they still do to you!
Because you see, imposter syndrome for all of its negative impact, also has a positive; a big one. In one study, doctors who reported more imposter syndrome-related thoughts had better bed-side manner than their peers. They collaborated better with others and were more empathetic.
One possible explanation is that people who experience imposter syndrome are more self-aware. They know that who they project is not who they are. Those are two separate things for better or for worse. The world may think I’m the greatest, but I know I could be better. The world may judge me by my mistakes, but they are not who I am.
To live with imposter syndrome is to live with a deep knowledge that we operate on two levels; internally there is a world of wants, aspirations, desires, and potential, and externally, a world of action, a world that never properly reflects the inner world; a world of the monkey. And there is an eternal gap between the two.
Ignoring that gap, living as if how we represent ourselves IS our reality, dulls us to our inner world. By remembering of its existence, we dance between the poles of who we are and how we project ourselves; of what we can be and how we’re doing on the outside, of what I want in my life and where I am today. That tension is the fuel of a meaningful and ever-growing life. One of the great thinkers of our day, Christian Wiman once wrote that, “Poetry itself – like life, like love, like any spiritual hunger-thrives on longing that can never be fulfilled and dies when the poet thinks they have been.” If we think we’ve defeated the imposter, we’re just fooling and defeating ourselves.
And that’s why we are told to remember Amaleik and not forget them. By remembering that we live in two dimensions, that we need to define ourselves, not based on how others perceive us, but based on who we know we could be, that life is a monkey-dance between our projections and our inner world, the more we remember that, the more we aware of that gap, the greater we can be.
February 25, 2017
This morning I’d like to share with you three stories; the names and details have been changed and you will quickly see why. I received an email from CHANA, Baltimore’s Jewish center for abuse prevention, informing me that February has been designated as abuse awareness month in our community. The email concluded with a request to speak about this complicated, sensitive, and all-important topic. And so I would like to do that today.
Story number one involves a young boy, who we’ll call Avi. Avi was a bit of trouble maker, he was always getting himself into conflicts with classmates and with teachers. One day he confided to an adult family friend that his father was touching him inappropriately. The family friend informed the school that Avi was attending, but the school, knowing this boy and his attraction to controversy and attention seeking behavior, they dismissed the allegations and did nothing about them. “The boy’s a liar.” “The boy’s a trouble-maker.” “It doesn’t involve us so we’re not getting involved.”
This patter continued for some time; Avi would again confide in this adult, the adult would follow up with the school, and the school would ignore it.
Finally, two years too late, the family friend called the police, who stepped in, arrested Avi’s father, and put Avi in the care of a foster family. At this point, Avi had been sexually abused for years, scarred beyond belief, and would need intensive therapy to teach him to trust others and to not be ashamed of himself.
Someone once asked me if the Torah speaks about child abuse. While it is not mentioned explicitly, I would suggest that it is the Mitzvah mentioned the most times in the Torah.
“Do not oppress a convert, an orphan, or a widow.” Variations of that prohibition are mentioned 46 times in the Torah! This week’s Parsha, which is all about social justice and how to build the fabric of a healthy society, begins and ends with this prohibition. This prohibition is not limited to converts, widows, or converts. It is a principal demanding of us to look out for those who are vulnerable. “G-d hears their cry,” the Torah tells us. And we are enjoined to emulate G-d and to listen ever so closely to the voice of the vulnerable and to the pleas of the powerless. There is no one more vulnerable in society than children as they are powerless and completely dependent on adults. So yes, the Torah does speak of child abuse, 46 times, and it teaches us to listen to their cries.
I hope this goes without saying, but a story like Avi’s should have never ever taken place. When a child, regardless of how big of a “trouble-maker” or “liar” they may be, shares with us an allegation, we have an obligation, a legal and moral obligation to pick up the phone and inform the police. We have an obligation to help the child and his family and care for them. Does an allegation mean something is true? Not necessarily. But if someone cries, especially a child it’s our responsibility to hear their cry and help them. And let me emphasize, helping them and supporting them is not synonymous with passing judgment on the accused. No, A person is innocent until proven guilty. But we cannot ignore these children and their cries.
Is Child Protective Services perfect? Far from it. Do people get accused for things they did not do? That can happen. But I would hate to be the one who made that decision on my own and turned out to be dead wrong. A good society, a righteous society heeds the cry of the vulnerable, and children are most vulnerable of all.
Story #2 involves a different type of cry. There are audible cries and there are silent cries and this story is about a silent cry. Sarah was a quiet, well-liked sweet young teen. At one point, in her freshman year of high school, she started to withdraw from her friends and family. Her grades began slipping and her usual put-togetherness was replaced with a complete disregard for hygiene.
Her friends were so caught up in their own lives that they stopped checking in with her, and just moved on. Tragically, but also tellingly, she didn’t have much of a relationship with her parents and although they saw many red flags they didn’t really know what to say, and so they said nothing. Sarah fell and fell and fell.
Sarah was being abused by a sibling, emotionally, and eventually sexually. She was crying, she was sobbing, but they were silent tears that no one bothered to listen for.
As a community, as good citizens, we have an obligation to make ourselves aware of these silent cries inasmuch as we do to the audible ones. Being attuned to the silent cries means being aware of family members, or friends who have a change in behavior and start acting differently. And it may not be abuse that’s going on. But when someone suddenly starts acting very different, when someone is behaving and speaking in a way that they never did before, it may be their way of crying out to you – help me!
But it’s more – Listening to those silent tears means that you are a person who your friends and family could turn to and share with the darkest of secrets, knowing that you won’t judge them.
A colleague of mine once commented that he thought there are no issues of abuse in his shul because no one ever spoke to him about it. And then one Shabbos he decided to talk about abuse. He spoke about it in a compassionate and understanding way; child abuse, spousal abuse, elder abuse. Following that Shabbos, people began approaching him and sharing their stories of abuse and he quickly realized that of course abuse exists everywhere. It’s a universal problem, and it exists in our community as well. If we want to save people from harm, which we all want to do, we need to transform ourselves into people who are so accepting, so loving that others can share anything with them.
And here I’m going to add something you’re not going to like. There’s a international organization called Stop It Now. It is a hotline for men with deviant attractions. It is set up for people who have not acted on their attractions, but are desperately in need of help controlling them.
I don’t envy their fundraiser. That’s a hard sell. But it’s also such a crucial service. The opening section of this week’s Parsha speaks of a thief who instead of throwing into jail, the Jewish courts give him responsibilities in the hope that this will help change the criminal. Judaism believes in rehabilitation, in trying to help even the sinner, and most certainly to help someone before they’ve ever committed a crime.
Are we accepting enough that if, just maybe, a friend of ours had issues that we would justifiably be disgusted by, would they feel comfortable turning to us? Would we be their destination?
Because those people are also crying silently. They are drowning in shame, in self-loathing, and they could be helped. If someone listens to their silent cries, whether that’s by checking in when we see warning signs or by being an available and accepting person, letting our friends and family know that we are there for them always, no matter what. Helping them is also helping the victim. Those are silent cries we cannot ignore.
We’ve spoken about ignoring cries, we’ve spoken about silent cries, but far more important than those two is preventing those cries in the first place. As a community, as a Jewish community, strides have been made in dealing with abuse and abusers. Thank G-d, most schools would not ignore the claims of Avi and will do what they are mandated to do by law. Most schools and institutions would not ignore the signs of Sarah being a victim and would get her help. Recently, many of the Jewish schools participated in a community-wide program called Safety Kid, under the auspices of CHANA, that educates children about personal safety. If your child’s school did not participate, I urge you to speak to them and ask them what education and tools they are giving your children.
But in addition to the institutional changes, there is a basic change that needs to take place at home. Our children have to be showered with unqualified love and acceptance. Our children have to know that there is nothing they can do that would make them undeserving of our love. Our children have to know that they could turn to us and confide in us. Our children have to know that we are their rock. Because that is one of the best ways to prevent abuse.
Institutions can come up with the best practices and policies that will limit the possibility of abuse. But the best prevention starts at home. The safer a child feels, the stronger connection the child has with his or her parents, the more educated the child is as to what is acceptable and what is not, the safer your child will be.
Which leads me to the third story, a story about Michael. Michael was about as average as a 7th grader could be; he had some friends but not too many, he was a B student, nothing special.
Michael went to sleep-away camp. A counselor at camp befriended him, gave him lots of attention, and they developed a close relationship. One night, the counselor tried to make sexual advances on Michael.
Michael felt very uncomfortable, and he had been taught to trust his intuition. And so he said, no. And that was it.
Then, Michael called his parents who he knew loved him and who he knew accepted him and who he knew would listen to him and believe him. He told them what happened and they called the camp. The camp had protocols which they followed and put the counselor on leave and immediately called the people in to investigate.
That’s my favorite story and that’s the story line we’re all shooting for.
G-d calls us a holy people in this week’s Parsha. As a holy people, it is incumbent upon us to listen when people cry, to not act as judge or jury, to simply follow the law, and call the police. As a holy nation it’s our duty to look out for friends and family, to hear their silent cry, both actively by being attuned to our surroundings, and passively, by being non-judgmental and accepting. And as a holy nation, it is incumbent upon us, more than anything else, to foster trust, love, and acceptance in our households so that there will be no more cries.
וּבַעֲבוּר, תִּהְיֶה יִרְאָתוֹ עַל
You learn new things all the time. I always thought that the word ‘return’ means to go back to where you started. And so you would think that when you click ‘return flight’ on an airline website that they would make sure your return flight takes you back to the same airport. Well I learned something this past week…
Apparently, they return you to anywhere within a 100 mile radius of your outbound flight. And so, with my car already parked at Raegan International in Virginia, I learned that my return flight, for me and my family, would be going to BWI.
I made a few phone calls and to make a long story short, it would have cost a fortune to switch return flights for my entire family from BWI to Raegan. And so instead, we decided to switch only one flight. One of us would pick up the car and meet the rest of the family in BWI. I offered to fly alone – with my infant, a two-year-old, and my wife would take the older children. Sounds like a great idea, no? I thought so too.
I made it through customs with everyone cooing and smiling at my daughter, she was smiling back and being adorable. I got this, I thought. I got on the plane, she sat on my lap, looked through my pictures, laughing, smiling. We even made it through take-off without a hitch.
And then, with no warning at all, my daughter freaks out. Juice, candy, nothing can get her to calm down. I try to walk around with her but of course, the seatbelt sign is on and the stewardess doesn’t let me. I finally realize if I lock myself in the bathroom, they can’t ask me to leave and no on will hear my daughter screaming. So I spent twenty-five minutes in an airplane bathroom with my daughter screaming on top of her lungs. We finally go back to our seat after she seems to calm down… and then she goes at it again. Now she’s kicking the seat in front of me like it’s a soccer ball. I’m trying to hold her down, which makes her even more aggravated, which makes her start to stop screaming and start screeching. And so it went, for approximately one and a half hours out of a two-hour flight.
And of course, the entire time, I am getting these deathly, threatening stares from everyone around me. Because apparently if you stare hard enough at a parent they will magically make their child quiet. I KNOW SHE’S SCREAMING! It’s bothering me too!!!
As this was going on I realized it’s not my fault that this is happening. Yeah, okay, I know I was feeling a little defensive. But hear me out, I think there’s some truth to this:
Imagine this would be taking place on a subway, a New York Subway. People might get irritated at a crying baby, but there wouldn’t be the same level of indignation, of what are you doing here with a child who is screaming, of why are you being so insensitive!
None of that takes place on a subway. You know why? Because a subway is advertised and understood to be a means of going from point A to point B. It’s transportation. Yes, the person next you smells bad, the other person is talking too loud, the driver is going way too fast and your coffee is spilling out of its cup, and there’s a crying baby. But it’s no big deal. I am here because I need to go from point A to point B.
But a flight? A flight is an experience, they tell you. You could watch movies that are still in the theater! Free drinks! Stewards and stewardesses dressed to the T to make you feel like you’re being waited on!
Why is there a crying baby ruining this perfect ambiance?
And so if we fly like we take a subway and frame a flight for what it really is, as transportation, then we could deal with the turbulence and any other disturbances. But if we see it as a beautiful, relaxing experience then every single bump is going to bother us.
Defensiveness aside, for the record, after the flight I apologized to everyone who was anywhere near me.
But I think this dual-perspective is a great analogy to something we read about today and something that is probably one of the most fundamental questions we have to ask ourselves as Jews. Today, we read the giving of the Aseres HaDibros, the first ten Mitzvos presented to the Jewish People.
What’s it all about? Why do we do Mitzvos? What should our motivation be in performing these acts?
Well about a thousand years ago, we started what I consider to be a dangerous game. And by we, I mean some of the leading teachers of Judaism. They started explaining, conjecturing what and why we do Mitzvos. Some explained each and every Mitzvah. Some explained things in a more global sense. To generalize, they suggested the following reasons for Mitzvah observance: self-perfection and betterment of society.
When you think about it, you realize that those are all self-serving reasons to follow the Torah. Not necessarily in a bad way, but the message they were conveying was, do the Mitzvos because it will benefit you. You will live a happier life, or you will have a better society in which to live your better life.
And the truth is, the Torah itself gives us self-serving reasons to perform the Mitzvos – we say it every day: “V’haya im shomo’ah tishmi’u, if you listen to my commandments,” what happens? “I will make it rain, I will make you rich,” etc., etc.
Maimonides, the great philosopher, makes it very clear that all these things are true. There are incredible perks to living a Torah-centric life. In modern terms, those perks are a day of rest from a frenetic lifestyle, moments of introspection and meditation through prayer in an ever-fractured day, self-restraint as expressed though the laws of Kosher, an emphasis on family, a moral compass to navigate a radically changing moral landscape. And a sense of fulfilment by knowing what you’re supposed to do and doing it. The perks of Judaism are immense.
But Maimonides explains that those perks are the Torah’s way of advertising. It’s like an airline telling you to fly with them because they offer on-flight WiFi and really good peanuts. It’s a hook. We could serve G-d for the perks and that’s okay. But the ideal, he writes (in Peirush Hamishnayos and Hilchos Teshuva), is to serve G-d because it brings us close to Him. It’s not about me. It’s not about us. It’s about G-d. This is what G-d wants and so I will do it.
When G-d presents the Torah to the Jewish People in today’s Torah reading, He makes it very clear. There is no mention of reward. Rather, “If you listen to my voice, and keep my covenant, you will be my treasured nation.” That’s it. The Jewish People hear this and they say, na’aseh v’nishmah, we will do, and we will listen. No agenda. Certainly not a self-serving one.
The Torah, in this framework, is a subway ride. It takes us from where we are and brings us close to G-d. It’s spiritual transportation.
Later on, in the Torah, reward is mentioned as an incentive. Later on, in the writings of the prophets, the Torah is framed as a book of social-justice. Later on, in the writings of Maimonides and other philosophers, the Torah is framed as a book of self-perfection. Later on, in the mystical writings, the Torah is framed as a book of perfecting the world in the highest of spheres. And later on, on Jewish websites like Aish.com, the Torah is framed as a book of self-growth, and of something that can provide us the highest and deepest levels of pleasure.
And Maimonides would say, that’s all true; a Torah-based lifestyle can guide us to a more perfected self, to a more cohesive society, to a more enjoyable life, physically and emotionally. But the ideal is that we serve G-d because he asked us to, because it brings us close to Him, even if we can’t feel that in any shape or form.
What I realized on this flight from hell is that there is a big danger when we confuse the perks for the purpose. When we lose sight of what it’s really all about – we end up having a really lousy flight. If Judaism is only about making me feel good, then what happens when Judaism doesn’t make me feel so good? If Judaism is only about social justice, what happens when Judaism’s view of social justice is inconsistent with mine? And then we want our money back because it’s not what we signed up for.
If we’re flying on “Torah-Air” to get from point A to point B, if we see the Torah for what it’s supposed to be, then we could deal with the turbulence, with the yelling, and even, gasp, no in-flight movies. At the end of the day, the Torah transports you and gets you closer to G-d.
However, if we fly the plane of Judaism only for the perks – we have a much more challenging time, because while there are usually perks, and really good ones! sometimes you just get a bad plane, or a lousy pilot, or a grumpy stewardess, or a crying baby… How we frame our flight impacts the way we experience it.
Which brings me to a third perspective from that flight that I’d like to share with you. There’s the purpose flier – that was me. There was the perk flier – that was the people giving me death-stares. But then there was the perspective of my two-year-old. Throughout this flight, she saw me as this terrible monster who was simply trying to make her uncomfortable. She wanted to walk around – I made her sit down.
She wanted to kick people’s seats – I held her feet.
From her vantage point, the flight was one big fight against this terribly evil version of her father, in which she tried to outmaneuver and somehow get around me.
Tragically, we also sometimes take that perspective when it comes to our religious experience. Sometimes we see the laws of Judaism as simply getting in the way of what we really want to do. I can’t eat this. I can’t say that. And I can’t do anything on Shabbos. And like my precious daughter, we try our hardest to get around it. We try to find any way to avoid these draconian laws that are getting in the way of my life!
And what my daughter failed to realize is that these “restrictions” were an actually expression of values.
I needed her to sit down because I cared about her safety. If she’d really understand that, she would not only sit down nicely, she’d probably wear her seatbelt the entire flight.
I needed her to stop kicking the person in front of me because there is a value in being sensitive to those around you. If she’d understand that, she wouldn’t be fighting me, she’d probably be really quiet.
There is a time and place for legal loopholes, but there’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Torah, if all we’re doing is looking for them. The Torah is a set of laws that represent a theory of values. While we need to stand vigilant against those who create unnecessary stringencies, we need to also develop a deeper appreciation for the values that the Torah does attempt to impart upon us. At the very least, especially when we do not fully appreciate those values, we need to remind ourselves that G-d, and by extension His Torah is not a draconian set of laws that we need to avoid so we don’t “get out”. They are principals that we need to cherish. Sometimes there’s a leniency, sometimes there ain’t. But the perspective we take will deeply impact the comfort of our flight.
Torah, Mitzvos, Judaism, is a spiritual flight with a myriad of perks; a happier life, a more disciplined life, a more gratifying life, and a healthier society. At its core though, its goal is to somehow get us from where we are to G-d. There may be bumps, there may be disturbances, but it will always take us to where we need to go. And yes, there are rules and there are regulations. But as the pre-flight safety announcement states, “these rules are here for your safety and your security.” So buckle up and enjoy your flight.