On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -- Tzav: Courageous Choices

This week's Torah portion, Parashat Tzav, is read around Purim, a story of mythic (and even improbable) proportions that remains enduringly relevant to Jewish Diaspora life and anti-Jewish persecution throughout the centuries. Rabbi Rick Jacobs talks about how sometimes, just like Esther, we are called upon to make risky, dangerous, and courageous choices.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome back to “On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah,” a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the weekly Torah hour portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Tzav. And he speaks about it in reference to Purim, teaching us about courageous choices.

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Tzav in the book of Leviticus. But it is also a very important Jewish holiday this week-- the holiday of Purim. So, we're going to focus our attention very specifically on not only the holiday, but also on the M’gillat Esther, the Scroll of Esther.

Now, I'd assume that many of us have had experiences with Purim and has some of the basic storylines. But let me just remind us that in the Hebrew Bible, there actually is the Book of Esther. But it turns out the ancient rabbis were not convinced that this book belonged within the sacred canon. And they had a debate. And we actually have a record of that debate.

And they argued some against including the book in the Bible, saying it really isn't an edifying message. And it has all kinds of problematics about how it talks about Jewish life. The opposite argument is made that it is such a beloved and powerful message that it is included.

Turns out in history-- and I'll recount some of those arguments-- it turns out in history, Martin Luther and various Christian commentators also thought the book of Esther was devoid, they said, of religious content.

Abraham Geiger who was one of the early ideologues of Reform Judaism found the book to be too nationalistic and too devoid of spiritual edification. What scholars all agreed is that it's not so historically factual. But it has some unbelievably powerful messages.

Now, you have also some of what we'll call a little bit of exaggeration. The m’gillah says that King Achashverosh ruled 127 provinces. Herodotus, the great historian, attributes only 20. Haman erects gallows 50 cubits high. The gallows he built, if you do the math in terms of feet, is 83 feet high.

There's a whole dimension of the m’gillah that feels like it's more myth than history, more message than fact. And yet that is its enduring power. The word Purim means lots. It means life is a lottery. It's precarious. It's uncertain. And our fate particularly in the Diaspora seems at times to be very much in question.

Now, if we are setting the book in a wider context you have to actually think about Persia where there were many acculturated Jews. And they appear to be indifferent to Judaism. But in the moment that counts most, they step up and save the Jewish people. And, of course, the heroine-- we know the heroine's name is Esther.

And we know that she is remarkable and courageous. And she's chosen from all the other potential queens by King Achashverosh Now, you don't have to be a modern-day Rabbi Alexander Schindler to know that King Achashverosh is not Jewish.

But Esther, in this moment of being chosen for this leadership role, is able to marry a non-Jewish King And yet retain her allegiance to her people. And remarkably, when all is on the line, she not only speaks up, but risks her life to save the Jewish people.

Just think about that story. In the Diaspora, a woman saves the Jewish people. Sometimes we think that everything important has ever happened in the land of Israel-- and I'm the first one to say remarkable history in the land of Israel.

But there's some who would say the Diaspora is just deluded Jewish life. But it turns out wherever Jews live, if they have the courage and the willingness, they can find themselves at the exact crucible of history to stand up and to speak out. And that's what Esther does.

And that's why we have the merry-making and the celebrating and the dressing up in costumes. Because it turned out well. But it could have been another horrific story of persecution and death for our people. Now, was there really a guy named Haman? Was there really a queen named Esther?

What we know is Jewish history has many Hamans, and also has many Esthers. So, in its mythic proportions it talks to us about categories. And there have been too many people who have not only wished us harm but have mobilized to bring that harm to reality.

On Purim, we actually do things. We give matanot la'evyonim. We give gifts to the poor. It's not just about celebrating and feeling good and having a party. It's also about thinking of those who are usually left out.

We also have a tradition of shalach manot-- mishloach manot, if you use a more formal Hebrew. That's giving sweet baskets of goodies to our friends and our neighbors. It's a beautiful holiday.

Now, in 1912, a group of women gathered at Temple Emmanuel of New York City and they formed an organization. Take a guess. You're in your car, you're washing dishes. What's the guess? What's the name of that organization?

I heard you. I heard you. You guessed Hadassah. Exactly right. Why do they call this new Jewish organization 1912, Hadassah? Because Hadassah is the Hebrew name for Esther. And what do the good women of Hadassah do? Well, like Esther they stand up and take care of their people.

I love that this is also a holiday of women's leadership. Vashti, the queen who simply wouldn't follow the commands of the King-- she's a noble heroine. Esther is a heroine. And we think about women in Jewish life-- Vashti, Esther, and us.

We think about also in contemporary terms that women are disproportionately poor when you do the demographics of poverty. And disproportionately, they earn less. And to have a holiday where we celebrate women's leadership is a holiday that also requires us to, as a Jewish community, act differently and act better towards the women who not only make up our people, but in very key ways lead our people then and now.

So just a last few couple of thoughts, none of which are random. But turns out in Jewish history there are special Purims that communities have created to commemorate wonderful moments of deliverance. I'm just going to name two of those communities and two of those moments.

The Jewish community of Belgrade celebrates a special Purim on the 19th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan since 1822 when they were saved from destruction during that Turko-Serbian War. I know you're thinking, “I kind of forgot about that war.” But this community had a deliverance as real as the story of Purim. And they continue to commemorate it.

The second one I would mention is the Jewish community of Sarajevo celebrates the fourth of Cheshvan since 1807, when 10 leaders of the Jewish community were freed from prison and saved from execution.

These are just examples. There are dozens more. And the last one I would share is a bit overwhelming. It seems that even Adolf Hitler understood the profundity of the holiday of Purim. And amazingly, the last example I would give is in 1941, Hitler banned the reading of the m’gillah.

He banned groggers and even the mention of Haman in occupied Poland. He obviously understood. In 1944, on January 30, the New York Times reported a speech by Hitler. In it, Hitler said if the Nazis went down to defeat the Jews could celebrate a second triumphant Purim.

It's hard to quite imagine that this demonic Haman of our 20th century understood something about our Jewish history. Well, we were able not to celebrate that second Purim. Because we lost six million of our people.

But I would say that this holiday of laughter, this holiday of joy, this holiday of dressing up in costumes has a very serious underbelly. And we can't lose that, certainly in this 21st century in which we find ourselves.

So, I hope that you're going to have a great time on Purim. That you're going to laugh, laugh at ourselves, laugh at the things that give us joy, to see our little ones dressed up in their costumes, to read the m'gillah to drown out the sound of the name of Haman.

But let's also remember the serious dimension of this holiday. And let's also never forget that in the Diaspora as well as in the land of Israel, courageous, vibrant, gutsy Jewish leaders like Esther have saved our people over and over again through their imagination, through their courage.

We pray that there will be no new need to save our people. But we know we can count on our leaders. Let's celebrate Esther. And let's commit ourselves to making our whole community a place that honors women, women's leadership. Let's pay women fair wages.

Let's make sure that poverty is not something that disproportionately affects our women. No, there's much for us to do. And there's much for us to celebrate. Chag Purim Sameach. May yet be a joyous and meaningful holiday for all.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of “On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah.” If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on Apple Podcasts, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. “On the Other Hand: 10 Minutes of Torah” is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week -- l'hitraot!