Esther: Believe in Yourself and Other People Will Too.

21 02 2013

images.jpg-swYou do not need to study Hegel, to know that human beings are social creatures. One of the main themes of the Shmoneh Perakim of the Rambam, is that man is a social being and the purpose of the mitzvot is to bring us not only closer to G-d, but also to man.

Sociologists such as Peter Berger and Ernest Goffman talk about the “self” and the “other”. The individual, the “self” can only develop and mature, if he is connecting with the “other”, his surroundings and environment, the people around him.

In the Tenach, there are two sefarim named after women: Esther and Ruth. The moving story of Ruth, occurs in Eretz Yisrael. They are living in poverty and the emphasis is not on beauty or aesthetics. On the other hand, Esther is a story of Jews who chose to stay in Persia, in Chutz La’aretz, where there is affluence and wealth. Both these women have to cope by themselves- Ruth is a widow. Esther is an orphan. Their desperation leads them to achieve greatness. Both Ruth and Esther are forced by their circumstances to go through transformations in their characters.

I remember a shiur I heard in Yeshiva from Rav Lichtenstein, where he spoke about Esther 1 and Esther 2, and how Esther changes, develops and redefines herself as she is forced to. Pushed into a difficult situation she manages to find the inner strength and drive to adapt, however hard and unnatural it is for her.

Esther 1
Esther 1, as described in chapter 2 of the Megillah is a beautiful young woman, but one who is lacking independence. She is under Mordechi’s control; he treats her like a daughter. “And whatever Mordechi said, Esther would do—just as when she was still in his home” (2:20).
There is also a certain lack of sophistication about her, shown in her outer appearance. All other maidens come to the royal palace with every type of adornment:“Six months [of anointment] with oil of myrrh and six months with perfumes and women’s cosmetics. . .” (2:12). But “when it was the turn of Esther . . . to come to the king, she asked for nothing” (2:15). She wears no makeup; she is completely natural, simple, innocent and honest.
She merely follows events and orders. She does whatever Mordechi asks her to, because she lives in his home. She does only “what she is told by Hegai, the king’s officer, appointed over the women.”
Aside from her beauty, Esther lacks any distinguishing characteristics. There is really nothing that gives her spiritual or national prominence. Esther herself is hidden from us. “Esther did not mention her birthplace or her nationality”(2:20).

Esther 2
Rav Lichtenstein, in his shiur, then described Esther 2, from chapter 4 onwards.
She is active and assertive. She now has a role to play. She takes charge and believes she can make a difference. As a result, people perceive her very differently.
She enters the game that Achashverosh and Haman are playing. She leads Haman into a trap, arousing the anger and desire of Achashverosh. Together with her personal initiative, her spiritual and national identities also come to the surface.
The anonymous Esther, hailing from the “one hundred and twenty-seven provinces,” reveals herself and is transformed into a specific, unique, singular Esther, belonging to a “special nation.” Once she herself realises she is different, others respect her for it.
From chapter 4 onwards, Esther not only displays initiative through political manipulation, but she faces up to Haman. Here Esther takes her place as a worthy member of the royalty, a leader. Her leadership is so outstanding towards the end of the Megilla that to some degree it overshadows that of Mordechi.
Once upon a time, “whatever Mordechi said, Esther would do.” He was the one pulling the strings. Suddenly, Mordechi’s own achievements come as a result of Esther’s initiative. How does Mordechi come to possess Haman’s home? Through Esther. Who writes the Megilla? While Mordechi is still equivocating, “Queen Esther, daughter of Avichayil, wrote” (9:29), and only afterwards did Mordechi join her. Hence, the Megillah is named, ‘Megillat Esther’ and not, ‘Megillat Mordechi.’

Esther realizes in chapter 4, that she can take control. But the change comes from within:
Esther begins to awaken from her passivity
. “The queen was greatly distressed” (4:4). Esther, who indeed has the power to avert the evil decree, who lives in the royal palace, doesn’t do enough.
Now is the critical change in her character. At this point, Mordechi sends her a message:
Do not imagine that you will escape in the king’s palace from [among] all the Jews. (4:13)
Mordechi adds a further note:
For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from elsewhere, but you and your father’s house will perish. Who knows, perhaps for the sake of a time such as this you have come to join the royalty? (4:14)
Esther’s reaction is very different to what we see of her in chapter 2. Now she takes action. She makes a move and dosen’t just sit back, observing: “Go and gather all the Jews” (4:16).
Esther stops being passive, apathetic, and dependent. She becomes more self-aware and self-confident, reflecting a more healthy self-esteem. Only then, do other people take notice and start listening to what she has to say. However, the change comes from within, not without. The way she perceives herself has changed and as a result, other people also view her differently

Final thought:
We see with Esther, that the two processes go hand in hand: when Esther finds the will to achieve an important end, she finds the ability to do so as well. This is the essence of Mordechi’s message to her. If there is a will, there is a way.
So too, in our lives. If we truly believe in ourselves, then other people will believe in us and our fate will change. We can take control and forge our own destiny. However, that change must come from within. It is only when we know who we are, that other people will know, as well.

Benjy Singer.
My Shteiblech.

Does Rabbi Sacks’s message have any relevance for Jews in Israel? Yes, definitely.

14 02 2013

261182_330333840418656_15258521_n.jpg-faceThis past Tuesday evening, at Binyane Hauma in Jerusalem, we heard three leading thinkers in the Jewish world, Chief Rabbi Sacks, Rav Dr Benny Lau and Professor Moshe Halbertal, discuss issues relating to Jewish responsibility and the relationship between particularism and universalism, tradition and modernity.
The evening was in honour of the publication of ‘Radical Responsibility: Celebrating the Thought of Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks’, a collection of essays, dealing with issues and topics, that Rabbi Sacks speaks and writes about.
Rav Lau started and discussed the importance of Jews having a common language, which would lead to common identity and thought. He discussed how not speaking and understanding Hebrew, is a barrier for many Jews in the Diaspora to understanding Jewish texts and culture.
He then spoke about the Avot and compared Avraham to Yaakov. Avraham was courageous and wanted to spread monotheism and change the world-he felt he had a moral responsibility and the power to change humanity. Yaakov was concerned with his ‘Bayit’; he was local and not universally focused. Yaakov looked inwards, whilst Avraham looked outwards. He also compared Avraham to Noach. Noach was childish and parochial, whilst Avraham was the adult in the family, and took his purpose more seriously. Unlike Yaakov or Noach who were local and inward looking, Avraham was outward looking and world oriented. Avraham took his universal role seriously, dutifully, actively and wanted to spread ‘Brachah’ to the world.
Rav Lau went on to praise Rabbi Sacks, for his moral and ethical stance on many world issues, and his focus on tikun, tzadakah, mishpat and beyn adam lechaveroh. How like Abraham, he didn’t just focus locally and inwards, but wanted to spread the message of Judaism to the world and felt a responsibility to do so.
Professor Halbertal also spoke about the two concepts of human responsibility and particularism and universalism. He based his talk on a Gemarah and an argument between the Ramah and Rambam, over whether the need to give charity is subjective or objective and which falls on the individual or the community. The Ramah says that the community must give subjectively, according to the needs of the receiver, but the individual only needs to give a fixed, objective amount. The Rambam says the opposite, that the individual giver, who encounters the receiver personally and sees his suffering and despair, must give subjectively unlike the community, which just needs to give an objective amount.
Rabbi Sacks spoke in his normal polished and entertaining way. He brought texts, quotes, demographic facts, Jewish history, philosophy, anecdotes and jokes and kept everyone attentive.
What Rabbi Sacks is saying is not new in Jewish History. The Mishnah talks about ‘Torah Im Derech Eretz’. The Gemarah and Halacha discuss the relationship and balance between ‘Torah and Chochmah’ and Torah and earning a living and working. The Rambam, Saadia Gaon and Yehudah Halevi grapple with the relationship between universalism and particularism and the extent to which the Jew is part of his surrounding culture.
The assumption of the Mishna and Gemarah for instance in Baba Kammah, Baba Batra and Baba Metzia and the Halachah in large sections of the Shulchan Aruch for instance in Choshen Mishpat, is that the Jew is part of and interacts with, the society around him.
Rav Soloveichik, Rav Hirsch and Rav Kook, all had differing responses to the relationship between particularism and universalism, tradition and modernity. Rav Soloveichik saw tension, Rav Hirsch saw synthesis, and Rav Kook avoided it and opted for nationalism.
Rabbi Sacks is continuing the thought of Rav Hirsch-he sees a natural, easy and straightforward synthesis and integration between ‘Torah’ and ‘Chochmah’, ‘Torah and ‘Derech Eretz’.
Rabbi Sacks believes passionately, that the world of the Yeshiva and world of the University are interdependent and inextricably linked. He believes both ‘Torah’ and ‘Chochmah’ enrich each other. He thinks that if the connection between the Yeshiva and University is weakened, this will lead to dysfunction and imbalance. He described that the Enlightenment and Emancipation produced two responses: 1) Rejection/Segregation- the ‘Charedi’ approach, and 2) Assimilation-the reform approach.
Rabbi Sacks, like Rav Hirsch, believes in a third response, of integration and synthesis. I would think that Rabbi Norman Lamm of Yeshiva University would also follow this line, although Yeshiva University has in general moved to the right in the ‘Charedi’ direction.
As well as believing in the healthy balance and connection between ‘Torah’ and ‘Chochmah’, universalism and particularism, he also spoke about the need for each Jew, to feel a sense of human responsibility- ‘To be a Jew is to be able to hear the call to human responsibility. Whether it’s the mourner, the sick, the poor or the widow or orphan, G-d calls us to take action and change the world and not just be passive, indifferent observers. Judaism calls each of us to heal a broken world’.
Rabbi Sacks believes to be part of the world, is to be a partner with G-d in the creation of the world. He sees Judaism, as the ‘Voice of Hope in the conversation of human kind’ and that ‘Judaism is the worlds standing protest against the concept of power. When Torah speaks to the world, the world listens and when we as Jews are proud of being different, then others will respect us’. He sees the role of the Jew is to sanctify the profane- to be ‘Mekadesh the Chol’.
However, does Rabbi Sacks’s message have any relevance for those of us who live in Israel? He is not speaking to the Diaspora Jew ?
Surely, Israelis are more concerned with physical survival and haven’t got the time or patience to indulge in debates about universalism vs. particularism and the role of the Jew in the world. Here in the Middle East, are our Arab ‘neighbours’ interested in integrating with us, like the Christians, Muslims or atheists maybe, with the Jews living in Western society?
Furthermore, there are much bigger, more urgent issues that Israelis are worried about-peace, security, economic, financial and societal problems, and the unstable political system etc.
But nevertheless, I think that Rabbi Sacks’s message is very relevant for Jews living in Israel too. Israelis needs to learn how to accept and respect the ‘other’, whether he is a Jew or non-Jew. The health of any nation or society, is judged by how they treat those who are different-the outsiders. The religious institutions here, the yeshivot, ulpanot and michlalot, need to be producing graduates with more integrated personalities, who have a solid secular education and respect for secular knowledge and ideas. Religious Jews here, need to integrate more into general Israeli society and with chilonim.
Furthermore, fundamental Jewish ideals, such as Tikun Olam and sharing the belief in G-d and Ethical Monotheism, are universal and the Israeli religious education system, needs to teach and focus on them more. As Rabbi Sacks emphasizes, the Jew is a citizen of the world, as well being part of the Jewish People, and this is still an issue that many Israelis, especially the Rabbinic leadership and the religious community here, doesn’t really deal with successfully.
In order for the State of Israel to be a true ‘Or Lagoyim’- we need to take the message of Chief Rabbi Sacks seriously. Yes, Rabbi Sacks is not the first thinker in Jewish History to propose it. He follows the Rambam, Yehuda Halevi, Saadia Gaon and Rav Hirsch, but in our generation Rabbi Sacks is one of its most eloquent spokesman. Israeli society and Israelis would benefit greatly, from listening to and absorbing what Rabbi Sacks has to say.

Lonely Man of Faith or Despair: Singlehood.

7 02 2013

Summary of Shiur given by Yael Unterman, entitled: ‘Lonely Man of Faith or Despair- Singlehood.’

Those of us who frequent the Shteiblech know, that as well as davening, it is also a fun place to ‘hang out’ and shmooze, in the evenings and on Shabbat afternoon. The Shteiblech is a location where those of us who are single Olim and don’t have family here can sit, learn, talk, reflect, think, and tell each other about Shabbat meals and what is going on. I guess, yes, the Shteiblech gives us a feeling that we are part of a community and not alone-even though in reality we are.

Making Aliyah has its challenges whatever age or stage of life you are at, and moving here single is no exception. In some ways, yes, if you come here single without responsibilities of a family, you can invest far more time in adapting and integrating into Israeli society by learning Hebrew, going on Tiyulim, befriending Israelis etc. On the other hand, singles need a support system and a social network, and building that up often from nothing, in a language that is not your mother tongue, apart from when you are with your narrow circle of fellow Olim, is not easy.

This past Tuesday evening, a very well-known scholar and teacher, Yael Unterman, gave a shiur entitled,’ Lonely Man of Faith or Despair: Singlehood’. As usual with Yael, it was very well prepared and delivered, full of interesting content, jokes, anecdotes and stories, and personal reflections and insights. I think that her message was very relevant and inspiring, especially for single Olim, who are trying to make lives for themselves here and settle down.

Below is a summary of the ideas she spoke about, although I added and developed some points.

Yael suggested that there is such a thing as “the bread of yearning”, we earn things and appreciate them by yearning. In fact Adam of Beraishit Chapter 2, who in Rav Soloveichik’s terminology is ‘Homo Religiosus’, does this. Adam of Chapter 1, of Sefer Beraishit, does not yearn- he does not know what to yearn, daven and hope really means. His character is purely mechanical and technical, and therefore his ability to grow spiritually and develop a deep relationship with G-d and man is limited. Adam of Chapter 1 is dry, unfeeling and insensitive and does not know how to connect or understand people on a human level. Adam of Chapter 1 does not know the true meaning of chessed.

Yearning, hoping and the ups and downs of trying and failure, lead man to a more mature and genuine relationship with G-d. When man yearns he goes through a transformative experience and comes to the realization that he is not in total control of his fate. As a result he cleaves to G-d, because that’s all he has to redeem him. Yearning is a redemptive and transformative process, leading to maturation and purification of the self. Shir Hashirim, is a sefer about yearning and never giving up, where the process is as important as the result.

The longing for a mate, is like the yearning for Moshiach. As the Rambam tells us, we must yearn for Moshiach and we must never give up hope, even though we have to wait in the ‘waiting room’. So essentially, yearning is an authentic Jewish experience. By yearning, we become more connected to our Jewish soul and roots. Yearning can be debilitating, if you do not know how to deal with it or cope with it alone, but can also awaken us to action, creativity and growth, if you share your feelings and experiences with others and see the opportunities it provides you with. In both cases, of yearning for Moshiach and for ones mate, the redemption brings a release from the bondage of certain foreign powers.

The Tenach is replete with characters who are yearning and hoping for things to change. The yearners of the Tanach are the barren women- but only Channah truly fulfills the constructive aspect of this test, undergoing a process of transformation into a more evolved self. G-d answers Channah, when she stops her natural feeling of self-pity, anger and bitterness and turns into a more ‘other’ oriented and community figure, concerned with nationalistic and not personal and individualistic issues. Thus, unlike for Sarah, Rivke, Rachel and Leah, Channah transforms herself as a result of her yearning and hopes, and as a result G-d answers her Tephillot immediately.

We see the same character transformation, with Esther, who in in the 2nd perek of Megillat Esther, is forced to change and become more assertive and pro-active, in order to save the Jews in the Purim story. Only then does G-d answer her tephillot. Like with Channah, for Esther too, her despair and frustration leads her to change and become a more ‘other’ oriented and assertive person. As a result, her fate and ‘mazel’ was transformed automatically.

Let’s not forget that men also yearned in the Tenach. Yitzchak, the older bachelor of Beraishit, yearned to be married. He went to daven and there he met Rivkeh. He yearned with Rivkeh to have children. As a result of his yearning and davening, Yitzchak was blessed with having Yaakov and being the grandfather of the Shvatim, even though he married late, at the age of 40. Unlike Yaacov, who cannot deal with being childless and dosen’t know how to counsel his wife about it, Yitzchak sees being childless as an opportunity to deepen his relationship, both with Rivkeh and with G-d. The years that Yitzchak spent single, trained him to approach life differently in a more mature way and as a result, unlike Yaacov, he knew how to counsel and speak with Rivkeh, when they were coping with infertility.

Using the distinction from Sefer Iyov, the response of Channah and Esther is,’ What?’ In other words, what should my response be, in a positive and constructive way. The response of the Imahot is, ‘Why?’ In other words, they turn inwards and fall into a state of self pity and desperation. But, that is the wrong response and dosen’t move them forward.

From the Midrash about the splitting of the Red Sea, we can learn that we have to split from an old self to make room for the new, to open up in our core. Sometimes, we need time to break away from our roots in order to become independent and who we really are. Only once we have spent time and effort developing away from where we have grown up are we ready to settle time to married life. Many people are simply not like their parents and their personalities will only truly develop if they are given ‘space’. Without time to change, develop and mature, they will not be able to be happy and fulfilled.

From the daughters of Zelphchad we learned, that while we are free to marry whoever we want within the tribe, we can make a choice from a place of higher value. So too from Ruth. From both Bnot Telphchad and Ruth, we see that their decisions are made from a higher and moral plain, as they have been through character changing experiences.

Yael touched on the paradox that only when one can forget about what one most desires, only then can one get it. This is explained by the fact that it is important to first become whole. Only then move into being half of a greater whole, and that is true wholeness, one that lacks. Anyone feeling no lack is not yet truly whole. So we see, there is a value of going through a period of feeling lacking and emptiness. There is a value and purpose of waiting. G-d is the ultimate single and asks us to hold that aspect of Himself, according to Rabbi Nachman.

In this context of wholeness, Yael spoke about Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrskenus, Rabbi Akiva and Ben Azai, all of whom achieved spiritual greatness and levels of Torah knowledge, despite the fact, they did not have conventional family and home lives. Yael also brought the example of Deborah, as someone who becomes a very strong and successful leader as a result of her life experiences.

My own final thought, is that G-d was alone when the world was created. G-d needed man as a ‘shutaf’- a partner. G-d creating man, was not just an act of chessed for man, but also an act of chessed for G-d. G-d couldn’t be G-d, without man as a ‘shutaf’. Man is created alone. Man needs to find his ‘shutaf’, to become who he is really is. In order to live in the image of G-d, man must have a ‘shutaf’, like G-d has, with which he can experience what true chessed is. That’s why we say the phrase of ‘Le’torah, Le’chupah U’maasim tovim’ in the order we do. It is only when you are married and have a home of your own, that you realize the true meaning of chessed- so ‘chupah’ comes before ‘maasim tovim’.

So, making Aliyah as well as being single, certainly has its challenges, but it also provides opportunities for growth, maturation and development, that can be very useful and character buliding. Yearning and davening from a sense of dependency and angst can be healthy transformative experiences, if you share your thoughts and what you are going through with others and see the time period, whilst you are waiting to find your ‘shutaf’ for life, as a springboard for positive change.