Betzalel, the builder of the tabernacle, was a man of ruach Elohim [breath of God] and hacham-lev [“wise heart.”]  He made sense of the directions for the tabernacle and its hardware.  Goodness knows, when I sit down with a pencil and try to draw the things from those directions, I don’t get a very coherent picture.

Torah speaks very reverently of him as a man who made things with his hands, and who could understand the instructions of God.  It reminds me to be respectful of people who work with their hands and make miracles in my own  mikdash-me’at [little sanctuary]: the electrician, the plumber, the carpenter, and so on.  Without those people I would literally be without a roof, since I have no idea where to begin building one.  The comforts and practicalities of my life depend upon their work.

Our culture tends to reward (pay)  celebrities the most, then people who work with their heads, and then the people who work with their hands.  The Torah, however, has profound respect for Betzalel, who worked with his hands.

CA 99

I just finished a wonderful weekend at Congregation B’nai David in Visalia, CA.  We had a Megillah reading, Purim Shpiel, Purim carnival, Torah study, Megillah study, and Movie night (not in that order.)

I’ve always been fascinated by Purim, and every year brings new insights on the holiday.  Today a small boy ran up to me and asked, “Rabbi?  Purim is April Fools Day and Halloween all rolled up together, and better, right?”  More than any other holiday, Purim has layers and layers of meaning:  fun for the children, fun for adults, and some serious study opportunities for those who think that is fun.

I’m also thinking, as I drive up Highway 99, that there are some advantages to my peripatetic rabbinate.  Right now I serve Jews in Las Vegas, Jews in the Central Valley of California, and people interested in Judaism in the Bay Area.  All three Jewish communities are distinct:  they do Jewish differently.  All are different and appropriate to their geographical location.  When I am at Friday night services at Congregation Ner Tamid, there’s no question that we are on the outskirts of Las Vegas.  Today at the Purim Carnival in Visalia, I was struck by how “haimish” it was:  no question we were in a little country community having a great time with our kids.  We drank lemonade from someone’s home grove, and took photos of each other with “orange slice smiles” from Rob’s orange orchard.

The Jewish community boasts many large national organizations, and they serve important purposes.  The Anti-Defamation League, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and the Union for Reform Judaism etc. serve functions that isolated congregations and institutions cannot hope to serve. We need to join together to fight discrimination, to provide our rabbis with continuing education and placement, and to support our rabbinical schools.

However, I wonder sometimes if this drive to “centralize” carries a high price.  Sometimes pronouncements that come down from “above” don’t fit local conditions particularly well.  “California Jews” are distinct from “New York Jews” and “Southern Jews.”  Urban Jews and Jews in small towns face very different challenges.  Many of the foundations and funds that support Jewish communal work only support national organizations and projects.

One of the great strengths of Judaism as it developed historically was its decentralized structure.  Hitler killed 6 million Jews in Europe, but Jews and Jewish learning survived because Jews elsewhere in the world were determined that he would not succeed in killing Judaism.  The practice in the Talmud of recording even minority opinions meant that those opinions remained available to us for future generations’ use.  We have one Torah, and many opinions.  We have one God, but no Vatican.

I like it that way, don’t you?

Today I read a wonderful d’var Torah from Rabbi Joshua Boettiger of Congregation Beth El in Bennington, Vermont.  I asked for and received permission to share it here.  Rabbi Boettiger is a member of the Board of Rabbis for Human Rights, North America, and organization I admire and support.

Esther was an Activist

As we approach Purim, I have found myself lingering this year on what we might call Esther’s “Joseph moment”: her moment of revealing herself as a Jew, of choosing to say ami, my people, when speaking to the king and Haman. My cousin, Jared, perhaps intuiting this, perhaps already heavy into the slivovitz, has a tradition when the megillah is being read of crying out, over and over, “Tell ’em you’re a Jew!” as the story unfolds. Esther’s confessional moment is arguably the climax of the entire Purim story, as this sets in motion all of the events that lead to the end of Haman’s evil game. In the lead-up to this moment, we empathize with Esther – who not only fasts, but calls on all the Jews of Shushan to fast for three days before she goes before the king. What compels me about this moment is that Esther’s naming of her particular identity, her stepping into her story and her people’s story with such clarity and power, is an act of social justice in itself. Contextually it means, we need to stop what is going on. To say, I’m a Jew, as we read it in Esther, is an act of justice.

Often we fear that when we ‘particularize’ ourselves, our agenda immediately becomes more parochial, or our scope of interests become limited. Instead, it is often one of the wonderful quirks of choosing to name our belonging (in Esther’s case, to the Jewish people) that instead of narrowing our world, it opens it up. Instead of cutting the ties to those around us, commitment to the particular shows us doorways of interconnectedness and by extension, we feel the mandate to serve that interconnectedness by working for justice. Esther’s choosing to belong makes her into an activist.

Perhaps it is always like this: it is the particular that paradoxically brings us into the realm of the universal. But in Judaism, this is heightened by the notion that to be Jewish is to be in relationship with a force in existence that works to bring people out of slavery. Witness the oft-quoted way God is described or self-describes: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt. (Leviticus 26:13, Exodus 20:2, etc.). Whatever our image of God (and in Esther, on the surface at least, it seems we are left to our own devices), our identity as Jews is inextricable from what God represents: ultimate concern for ending slavery and coming into a true relationship with holy service.

Rabbis for Human Rights’ understanding of this equation between being Jewish and feeling the mandate to work for justice has been at the heart of their work for years. RHR-NA’s new Jewish campaign against slavery, launched this fall, continues this work. This Purim is the time to remember and call on our tradition’s commitment to ending slavery: there are more people living as slaves today than at any other time in human history, with estimates of 12-27 million adults and children enslaved in forced sex work, forced labor, debt bondage, and domestic service.

Esther’s naming herself as Jewish begins the season of heeding this ancient call. We see who we are, and then we see what that means. Esther’s “Joseph moment” leads us from Purim into Pesach, and all of the narratives of freedom that come with that observance. Please join us in this work (http://www.rhr-na.org/kvod_habriot/home), and in the words of cousin Jared, “Tell ’em you’re a Jew!”

Happy Purim.

3 Adar, 5770

Mi she’nichnas Adar, marbim b’simcha – “When Adar enters, joy increases.”

I was born on the 16th of Adar in 5715, and when I decided at age 48 to change my name, I thought “Adar” made more sense than any of the other choices.  I wanted a Hebrew name, I liked the way it sounded, there were no gutterals in it, and it was already connected to me.  I was an Adar baby: it seemed meant to be.

Later on, I learned other things about the name.  The first one was the quotation above, from Ta’anit 29a in the Babylonian Talmud.  Adar is the month that has Purim, and traditionally it is considered a lucky month.  It’s a time for rejoicing, for taking risks, for expansive thinking.  It’s also a challenge:  could I live in such a way that it was true at least most of the time?  It requires attending to another line from Chazal:  “Shammai said:  Study Torah regularly; say little and do much; and greet everyone cheerfully.” (Avot 1:15)  I am a long way from perfect in this observance but at least I have a specific target!

Perhaps starting a blog is not the best activity for someone who aspires to “say little and do much” but here I am.

This is a place to think out loud and to float ideas.  Not all of my ideas are joyful (not by a long shot) but a new idea is certainly an opportunity for joy.  We can float it, poke it, bat it around, run it up the flagpole, and play with it.  What could be more joyful than that?