Monthly Archives: February 2012

Drinking on Purim

Yesterday at shul, I taught some texts relating to the well known tradition of drinking on Purim until one doesn’t know (ad d’lo yada) the difference between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordecai”. The origin of the tradition is a single sentence in the Talmudic tractate of Megilla in which Rava says that a person is obligated livsumei bipurya, which can be translated in many ways but seems to have some relationship with drinking wine on Purim ad d’lo yada.

For many, this turns drinking wine or liquor to excess on Purim into a religious obligation. I do not have any problem with those who can drink alcohol doing so on Purim and there were a couple of Purims when I was younger when I clearly drank too much. But, the idea that this “mitzvah” to get drunk on Purim means offering liquor to kids  below the drinking age or not taking into account the danger of driving under the influence of alcohol is offensive and dangerous. This is not just a modern concern. Rabbis throughout the ages have tried to find ways to tone Rava’s statement down a bit: to claim that he meant something different or to lower the threshold for how much alcohol consumption fulfills the responsibility.

There are many different approaches to the question. Maimonides wrote about the need to drink just enough to insure that you sleep soundly because while asleep one certainly can’t tell the difference between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordecai”.

Other commentaries point out that the numerical values (gematria) of the words arur Haman (Cursed be Haman) and baruch Mordecai (Blessed be Mordecai) are in fact identical showing that one needs to have a clear mind to be able to distinguish between the two. Likewise, the difference between blessing and curse and between good and evil is sometimes very narrow and even the slightest amount of alcohol might dull our ability to tell the difference. Thus, one need only have the smallest amount to drink before one has fulfilled Rava’s teaching.

Then there are those who say that there was a long piyyut, a religious poem, from Rava’s time for which the chorus of each verse was either “arur Haman” or “baruch Mordecai” and that one needed to be very clear thinking in order to say the verses correctly. Thus, once you started garbling this rather complicated song, you stopped drinking.

But, of all of the answers my favorite is that which says that the text in the Talmud doesn’t have to be read: “one gets drunk on Purim” but “one gets drunk with Purim”. The letter bet in Hebrew can mean either on or in or it can mean by means of. So, some say Rava’s tradition is that we need to become intoxicated with the joy of Purim until we lose sight of the difference between Haman and Mordecai.

I like that interpretation the best because while it doesn’t eliminate the idea that one would choose to celebrate Purim with feasting, which is entirely appropriate, it stresses that it is the holiday itself which should be the focus not the eating and drinking. And, it also reminds us that on occasion any celebration can get out of hand. The moment that we lose sight of right and wrong, the celebration should stop. That is true whether we are talking about losing sight of the messages of the holiday or when Purim’s playfulness and mockery begins to hurt people. We need to celebrate but we need to never lose sight of the difference between good and bad and right and wrong.

One way to remind ourselves of that is to observe the fourth of the four mitzvot of Purim. We need to hear the Megilla being read, celebrate, give gifts to friends (shalach manot) and to make sure to engage in an act of charity (matanot lievyonim). That final mitzvah is mentioned in the Megilla. Mordecai tells the Jews of Shushan to celebrate the first Purim by giving gifts to friends while when he speaks of future Purim celebrations, he makes sure to add that they should give tzedakah as well. Perhaps that first Purim celebration was just a bit too self-indulgent and Mordecai wanted to make sure that for future years, Jews would keep in mind that our celebrations need to be moderated and one way to do so would be to give charity to make sure there was good that come from our celebration. 

Enjoy this happy month of Adar and enjoy a happy, meaningful and safe Purim!

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When a Voice is Lost

I often joke with people that I love contemporary music but that, for me, contemporary music means any music which dates from approximately 1967-1980. It’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the music of today or the last few years but I will confess that those voices I listen to and  find myself most connected to are the ones I grew up with, listened to and loved as a teenager and a college and graduate student.

So many here and throughout the world are mourning the death of Whitney Houston whose talent was so great and who was a favorite of so many.

I would not profess to be as familiar with her as perhaps I should have been had I not been living in the past musically but in listening to the retrospectives and hearing her marvelous voice, I understand how she touched the hearts and souls of people throughout the world. I also understand how deeply she will be missed by those who loved her performance and her talent.

But, without meaning any disrespect to her memory, Whitney Houston’s death and the reaction to it among her fans reminded me of a moment 30 years ago when a tragic accident took the life of my favorite singer, Harry Chapin. I can remember the moment I heard of his death like it was yesterday and when I go back to listen to his music, I still find myself thinking what might have been.

Harry Chapin was a storyteller and a singer who touched the hearts of so many. His ballads were stories of real people, often stories of their disappointment and sadness. But, he also sang of dreams and of hopes not only for individuals but for the world. And, in addition to singing, he was part of the great tradition of activist musicians as he was a tireless worker for humanitarian causes, particularly for causes fighting world hunger.

If you never heard of Harry Chapin or if you only have heard a song or two of his, you owe it to yourself to go to the internet and find video of his performances. I saw him at Brandeis in 1976 and remember among other things, his determination to stay after the concert and sign autographs and shake hands with anyone who wanted to meet him. It was an inspiring evening and inspired me not only to continue to follow his career but to tell my stories from the bima and in print. We all have our songs to sing, our stories to tell.

I want to end this posting with a quote from Harry Chapin and it is difficult to choose which one to use. There are so many songs that touch me so deeply: Mr. Tanner, the story of a man who tried a musical career at the urging of friends only to be humiliated in the reviews; Stranger with the Melodies which tells the story of a singer who broke up with his lyric writing partner and was left with only the melody and no words; There Only Was One Choice, a long rambling autobiographical song which ends with the conviction that we are fortunate if we find a role in life that we seemed to destined to play even if it is frustrating at times and Mail Order Annie, a love song from a North Dakota farmer who meets his “mail order wife” and promises to share his life with her.

But, I’ll choose one which I’ve been thinking about quite a bit lately. It comes from a song called  I Miss America in which Chapin lamented the fact that people weren’t dreaming of a better world as much as they used to. He concluded his song with these words:

Well my little boy he told me something just the other night

He whispered it as I kissed him before I turned out the light

And of course he said it simply as only children can

He said: “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy please… I’m ready to dream again”.

Lately, I’ve been listening more and more to Chapin’s music. I find that I need d the inspiration it provides to continue to believe that this world can be a better place and that it is worth it for us to spend our time dreaming and working for better times.  We can never give up dreaming and working for the better world that the singers and the poets have helped us envision.

May the memory of all of those whose voices have been lost be for a blessing.

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A New Name- Tomato Rabbi

I’ll start right off by saying I don’t particularly like the name because this isn’t about me or my colleagues. It is about others, people whose experience in life is so different from mine  and who live in a place so different from Ann Arbor. But, we all have a role in this issue and I am proud to play my role even if it means being called a Tomato Rabbi.

I was part of a  group of Rabbis from across the country who spent the last two days in the town of Immokalee, Florida- not the part of Florida many of us have vacationed in but a dusty town in the middle of Florida’s tomato growing region. We came there as the second group of Rabbis brought by Rabbis for Human Rights North America to learn about the plight of workers in the tomato fields whose working conditions have been the subject of much attention over the past several years.For many years,clergy have made a similar trip and I am proud to work with RHR-NA as part of a bigger picture.

Immokalee attracted the attention of many because of several well publicized, horrendous cases of slavery which took place in recent years. Workers were chained, kept locked in boxcars overnight, charged exorbitant fees for basic necessities and then forced to remain working for the same bosses in order to pay off debt which they never could succeed in doing. The living conditions were barbaric and their treatment an absolute disgrace in any country, let alone this country of freedom. As Jews who remember slavery each Pesach, who know the “soul” of the slave, we are obligated to raise our voices and do whatever we can to see that these types of crimes never take place again in this country- or anywhere.

But, there is more to the story. For even those that are not chained and who receive a paycheck, our faith’s ethical demands for justice and fairness and human dignity compel us to speak out even if the word “slavery” may not be the precisely correct word.

We spent two days talking with farmworkers and with members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization which is fighting for those who work in the fields. We saw the destitute conditions many of these workers live in. We heard the stories of the hard, backbreaking work and stood in the parking lot in the middle of the town at 6 a.m. as workers boarded old school buses to take them out to the fields.

And, we learned of the efforts that are starting to make real changes in the lives of the workers because of the dedication of the leaders of the coalition and volunteers who have come to their aid. What has transpired in the past 16 months is remarkable. In October of 2010, one large farm: Pacific Tomato Growers was the first to join with the CIW to adopt a “fair food” agreement which mandated changes in the way that farm work was done. They were joined one month later many others and now 90% of the tomato growers are part of this agreement.

In addition to mandating better working conditions for the pickers including guaranteeing them minimum wage even if they do “piece work” and other important changes, the agreement raises the price paid by corporations for the tomatoes one cent a pound with that one cent passed along to the pickers. Now, a 32 pound bucket of tomatoes earns the picker 82 cents instead of 50 cents, still a low wage but an improvement.

We had the honor of having a tu bishvat seder with Jon Esformes, the owner of Pacific Tomato Growers, members of his staff and members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. He spoke of “doing the right thing” and that is what this is really about. And it is what it is all about for many of the large corporations which have agreed to the one cent increase and to buy only from those farms which are part of the agreement. McDonalds, Taco Bell, Subway, Whole Foods and many more (you can see the whole list at ciw-online.org)  have “done the right thing”. ‘

Sadly, many have not including, for those in our area,  Kroger’s. (UPDATE: TRADER JOE’S WAS ON THE LIST BUT JUST TODAY HAS SIGNED ON TO PARTICIPATE IN THE FAIR FOOD AGREEMENT. THAT IS WONDERFUL NEWS AND A TRIBUTE TO ALL WHO HAVE WORKED SO HARD FOR SO MANY YEARS TO ADVANCE THIS AGREEMENT. I am proud to have participated in this trip but I am such a newcomer at this- I had never been to Immokalee before this week and hadn’t heard of the whole struggle until a few months ago. Yasher Koach to all who have worked so hard for so long as another milestone is reached. Please say a thank you to your local Trader Joe’s manager and follow the developments on the CIW website.

I was deeply moved not only by the sadness of the difficulties faced by these workers but also by the optimism, the progress, the glimpses of “redemption” that these two days offered. The issue is difficult, with many different angles but the most important one is that, as Jews, we are obligated to care for those who work for us. While we are not their “bosses”, we are the ones who reap the benefits of the picking that is done in Florida and we are responsible for doing what we can to improve the situation.

I will speak on this issue at Beth Israel during a Shabbat morning to come and we will plan a program to discuss this issue in more depth. Thanks to the miracle of modern communication, I’m writing this message on a bumpy flight home from Florida. In a world, in a country, where such “progress” is taken for granted, we can never take for granted those who work for us, those who put food on our tables.

To those in Immokalee, both the brave workers and the owners working with them- hazak v’ematz- be strong and courageous.  May we all “do the right thing”.

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