Sunday, February 24, 2013

Zombies in Megilat Esther (for Purim)

Just saw on Facebook: Esther 9:11 proves that zombies existed in the time of the Megilla:  
"On that day a number of people killed in Shushan came before the king...."

Happy Purim everyone!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The king's magical book (repost for Purim)

In honor of Purim this weekend, I'm re-posting some articles I wrote in past years.

The king's magical book

In Megilat Esther, the book of Esther containing the Purim story, we read in the beginning of chapter 6 that the king couldn't sleep and asked that his book of records of his life be brought to him. The usual translation is that he asked that it be read to him, but the Hebrew can be read that the book "should be made to be read to him." The Talmud (Megila 15b) says that the book opened magically to the story of Mordechai, fitting the literal reading of the Hebrew very well.

What is the Talmud trying to tell us?

I think that we can answer the question by analogy to the Harry Potter series. Throughout the series we hear magical explanations of things that seem like circumstance to non-magical people. For example, a number of magical places (such as the Qwidditch Cup stadium, and the Hogwarts castle) are enchanted such that any non-magical people that get close to them will all of a sudden remember something that they had to do in another place. Similarly, non-magical people don't see or know about Dementors, but they feel sad all of a sudden whenever in one's presence.

These sorts of details in the Harry Potter books make them fun to read, since they make us think of magical explanations of circumstances like remembering something we have to do or all of a sudden feeling sad.

The Talmud above might be teaching us that things that happen by circumstance, such as opening a book to a page ramdomly, are in fact caused by G-d to happen in a way that will fit a plan that He has for the world. Circumstance is not fitting a magical enchantment, but in a similarly magical way is fitting a Divine plan. This makes everyday events as magical as they are in Harry Potter, but the magic is Divine, not created by wizards.

The entire Purim story is in fact teaching that lesson. G-d's name doesn't appear anywhere in the book of Esther, but we know and believe that circumstances are being orchestrated by G-d to bring about the results that He wants. Even the name "Esther" reflects this, being from the same Hebrew root as "hester," meaning hidden. G-d's hand in events might be hidden, but It's there nonetheless. It doesn't take a wizard to see the magic, but it requires that we be attuned to how G-d is shaping the events in the world to bring out His plans.

I want to wish everybody a good Shabbat and a Happy Purim!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Sirius, Kreacher, and the Origins of Haman (Repost for Purim)

I wrote this a few years ago, and it certainly fits the times today as much as it did then. Happy Purim everyone, and let's hope that we merit Purim-like redemption soon!

Sirius, Kreacher, and the Origins of Haman

We read in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and several times in subsequent books, how Sirius's mistreatment of Kreacher the House Elf led to Kreacher's betrayal of Sirius to Voldemort. Harry gets upset at the implication that Sirius was at all responsible for what happened, but Dumbeldore (and later Hermione) stood firm that treating Kreacher the way Sirius did led to the hatred that fueled Kreacher's betrayal.

Ultimately, Harry learns from this, and changes his treatment of Kreacher and of others. Not only does this pay off in Kreacher's help for Harry, but Harry learns in the process that situations are complicated, and that the full story of Kreacher's life makes it very clear that he's worthy of better treatment than he received from Sirius.

We see the same thing regarding Jewish enemies. Haman, in the Purim story, is descended from the Biblical nation of Amalek, the arch-enemy of the Jewish people. Amalek attacked us on our way out of Egypt, and again before entering the Land of Israel, and again in the time of King Saul. The Amalek descendant Haman tried to kill all the Jews in the Purim story. And Jews tend to think of other enemies, such as the Nazis, as being descended at least ideologically from Amalek.

But why is Amalek the way they are? What made them our arch enemy?

Clearly all human beings have free will, and are responsible for bad things that they do even if they're pushed to do them by others. Sirius's mis-treatment of Kreacher doesn't take the blame off of Kreacher for betraying Sirius, and anything that we can say about the origins of Amalek will never take the blame off of them for things that they did to us. But by examining the origins of Amalek, we can learn something about our own behavior, as Harry did from Kreacher. 

In Genesis, at the end of the Torah portion of Vayishlach, we read a long description of the desendents of Esav. This is thought of by many people as a fairly "boring" part of the Torah, listing who "begat" who. Why do we care about Esav's descendents?

In the middle of the lineage, we read that Esav's son Elifaz had a concubine named Timna, and that Timna gave birth to a son named Amalek. What's Timna's story, and what led her son to become arch-enemy number one of the Jewish people?

The Talmud tells us a fascinating story about Timna. Timna, says the Talmud, was born from an aristocratic family. She's described as the "daughter of Kings." But she heard about Abraham's family and their belief in monotheism, and she became determined to join Abraham's movement. Abraham, we know, was accepting many many converts to his new religion. The Torah refers to "all the souls that Abraham made in Charan." Timna wanted to be one such convert to Abraham's new religion.

Abraham, however, thought that Timna was not a true believer in monotheism. So he rejected her, and apparently did so in a way that she felt was rude. But she didn't give up, she waited a while and then went to Abraham's son Isaac (Yitzchak). Isaac also said no. So she waited a while and went to Jacob (Yaakov). And Jacob also said no. She became depressed, but was still determined to join the family. She ended up deciding to become a concubine of Elifaz the son of Esav, saying "it's better to be in a lowly position in this family than to be in a high position in another family." But because of her feelings for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, she gave birth to Amalek, who in the words of the Talmud "pushed at the Jewish people with two hands."

This story is tremendously powerful. The Talmud is putting responsibility for Amalek's origins on the shoulders of the Jewish forefathers!

The phrase "push with two hands" is Talmudic terminology for treating someone as altogether bad. The Talmud elsewhere tells us that in all circumstances we are obligated to push people away (if we have to) only with our left hand, and to simultaneously pull them closer with our right. Even if we have to push someone away, we have to do so in a way that brings them closer as well.

Note that the Talmud is not saying this only about converts. It applies to teachers who have to discipline students, parents who have to discipline children, and all Jews that ever have to admonish others. The Talmud says that we have to do this "le'olam," forever, in all circumstances.

Pushing people away with the left hand while bringing them closer with the right means that if we're pushing away one aspect of a person, we have to acknowledge at the same time that the person has many other qualities that are good. The goal in pushing someone away is not that they should be further away, but rather that their problematic aspects be pushed away and that the rest of them be pulled closer.

I think that it's not at all an exageration to say that Jews pushing each other away with two hands is destroying our society. Imagine if every time a Jew had to disagree with another Jew, it was done in a way that was designed to bring the other Jew closer in the process. No throwing stones, no insulting, no disregarding, just an attempt to disagree in a way that moves us towards, not away from, Jewish unity.

If we can all learn the lesson from Amalek's origins, and can all learn to follow the Talmud's command to always push people away only with one hand while bringing them closer with the other, then hopefully, with G-d's help, we can be redeemed from all of our current problems just as on Purim the Jews of Shushan were saved from Haman's threat.

Happy Purim everyone!