Monthly Archives: March 2014

Al HaNisim- For the Miracles

NOTE:  We will be discussing this idea at our Shabbat Limmud study group this coming Shabbat morning, March 15 at 9 a.m. at Beth Israel. All are welcome.

It is traditional on two holidays to add the prayer: “Al HaNisim”, “For the Miracles” to the Amida. On Hanukkah and on Purim, the prayer is inserted into the Amida in the section known as Thanksgiving. Each day we thank God “for the miracles that are around us always” but on these  holidays, we make special mention of the miracles that God has performed, describing the story of the miracle in detail. (It should be noted that many have adopted the tradition of saying Al HaNisim on Israel Independence Day as well).

The Hanukkah Al HaNisim describes in great detail God’s role in bringing victory for the Maccabees. The prayer is written from a very “God-centered” perspective: “You stood by Your people…You defended them…You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few…” In this formulation, the Maccabees are the instrument by which God insures the survival of the people but they would never have been able to succeed on their own. In fact, while Al HaNisim acknowledges that the Maccabees were “pure in heart”, the prayer doesn’t give them much credit at all.

The Al HaNisim prayer for Purim also takes a very “God centered” perspective: “You, in your great mercy thwarted his (Haman’s) plans, frustrated his plot and visited upon him the evil he planned to bring on others. ”

This prayer has always struck me as particularly problematic. As uncomfortable as I might be seeing the Maccabees’ courage and passion minimized by the words of the Hanukkah Al HaNisim, I do not understand at all how the Rabbis could take the story of Purim, which is all about the courage of Mordecai and Esther and reduce their role to the simple statement: “In the days of Mordecai and Esther in Shushan…:”, God saved the people.

It is stunning that given that Megillat Esther  never mentions the name of God and celebrates the courage of the heroes of the story, the Rabbis would have downplayed their role to an incidental comment while giving God all of the credit for the salvation of the Jews of Shushan.

It is clear from this and certainly from other traditions as well (such as the Talmudic emphasis on the story of the “miracle of the oil” on Hanukkah rather than emphasizing the victory of the Maccabees) that the Rabbis had an agenda of  focusing on divine miracles rather than the role of humans in the redemption of the Jewish people. But, here, regarding Purim, it is especially difficult to understand what the Rabbis saw as a Divine miracle.

While there are rabbinic legends about the roles that angels had in orchestrating the finale to the story (Michael is credited with pushing Haman onto the bed that Esther was lying on, an act which resulted in his being hanged), the story is clearly a human story of courage, of taking risks for one’s people and of standing up against tyranny. One can only wonder why the Rabbis who included Al HaNisim in the liturgy might have chosen to downplay the human element of this story.

I think that this is an issue which deserves a great deal of thought. Even those who believe, as I do, in a God of creation and a God who continues to inspire and teach us must focus on our human abilities to affect the world around us rather than wait for God to save the day. According to a beautiful midrash about the Exodus, God says to Moses at the Sea: Why are you standing there screaming out to me? The hour waits only for you. Move the people forward”. Similarly, even if one believes  that Mordecai and Esther were inspired by their Creator to perform courageous acts and to have faith in the future of their people, they still had to take action  and they deserve to be remember for their efforts.

I believe that there is a miracle reflected in the Purim story. That is the miracle of the creation of the human being, capable of thinking, feeling and acting courageously. We should thank God for that miracle every day. But, we should also recognize  our fellow human beings who use the spirit of God within them to perform actions that are deserving of honor and praise.

Happy Purim!


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Comfort on a Snowy Day

Today, Ann Arbor officially broke the record for these snowiest winter in our history. After two spring-like days and the first sighting of “bare ground” since January, we got hit with about 5 inches of snow, strong winds and tonight the temperature is supposed to go below zero.

Our office was closed  so I had the chance to catch up on some paper work, read , take a nap, play with the dog and the cats and in between, of course, answer some email.

There is something about a snowstorm which makes staying home extra special. Looking out the window and enjoying the relative peace and quiet has been wonderful although I am getting a bit impatient as the day is nearing an end.

The comforts of home are a wonderful blessing and never more so than on a day like this.

But, this storm brought one additional comfort. A comfort food that took me back to my youth.

The other day, Ellen and I were reminiscing about comfort foods from when we were kids. Then, I happened to mention one that I had introduced Ellen to shortly after we were married but we hadn’t had in a long time, that being one of the classic comfort foods of New England: Grapenut Custard.

Now, I’m perfectly prepared to hear that this wonderful recipe is found in other places but in several places on the Internet, Grapenut custard is called the quintessential New England Comfort Food so I make no apologies.

It’s a simple recipe: Eggs, Milk, Sugar, vanilla, nutmeg and, of course, Grape Nuts cereal. The result is a dessert with mushy grape nuts at the bottom of the bowl, sweet custard on the top. Put some whipped cream or ice cream on the top and it rivals any dessert anywhere.

So, last night, Ellen surprised me with a huge bowl of Grapenut custard. And, it wasn’t easy. I shouldn’t eat eggs so she used Egg Beaters. I have had to, sadly, cut down on dairy (one of the prices we pay for getting older) so she made it with almond milk, and when I came home from work last night at 9:45, it was all ready but it hadn’t quite set. So, we had a little, pronounced it: “pretty good” and went to bed.

Then, this morning, with the snow beginning to swirl, I went to the refrigerator, took it out and it had set beautifully and the taste took me back 50 years and 500 miles. It was magnificent.

If you haven’t tried it, you should and you can easily find the Yankee Magazine recipe which is the best. But, if you didn’t eat it growing up, it might not live up to my raves. Such is the beauty of local foods.

But if it isn’t Grapenut Custard, I’m sure there is another food that just screams out: “Home” and what better way to celebrate a Snow Day then with a comforting taste of home.

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Adding One More to the List

I wrote a blog post in November, 2011 about my achieving the goal of being in each of the 50 states (full disclosure: I do count airports as long as I am in the terminal). It was quite an accomplishment and since then, I’ve been searching for new travel goals to set for myself.

I currently am working on two such goals. The first is to visit the burial sites of our presidents. I’m making progress on that goal: my most recent journey was to Marion, Ohio to visit the memorial to Warren G. Harding. Lots of sites remain and I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

The other goal is to visit each of the state capitals. I’m making slow progress on that goal and that promises to be a very difficult goal indeed because some of the state capitals are, frankly, a bit difficult to get to.

Having grown up in the capital of Massachusetts and being accustomed to seeing the grand  State House overlooking the Boston Common on the edge of Beacon Hill in the middle of the largest city in the state, you could forgive me for thinking, as a kid, that each capital was the same.

But, as I grew, I realized that wasn’t the case. Albany might be  a nice city but it would never be mistaken for New York City. Harrisburg sits somewhere between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. You can’t even reach Juneau by car from any significant distance.

And as I have found big cities that I’ve found fascinating: Chicago, San Francisco, Kansas City, Detroit, to name just a few, it never made sense to me that the capitals of those states were to be found in far away corners, or hiding in plain sight in the middle of the state. Those cities are smaller and less exciting in most cases and frankly, it’s hard to justify making a long journey to go to Jefferson City, Bismarck or Springfield.

But, there is still something exciting about being in a state capital and some of the smaller ones that I have been in: Augusta, ME, Concord, NH and Dover, DE to name a few still are interesting places to see, if for no other reason than that they are the capitals.

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a lovely weekend at the Conservative Synagogue in Tallahassee, Florida as a scholar in residence. I spent the vast majority of my time in the synagogue and felt very much welcomed by a group of wonderful people. I even had the surprising pleasure of seeing old friends I hadn’t seen for many years. But, the last piece to the weekend, a trip to the airport through the center of the city was important too as it reminded me that  I could add one more state capital to the list of those I visited. Passing by the state capitol building in Tallahassee was the piece de resistance of a wonderful weekend.

It’s fairly clear to me why I am so fascinated with state capitals. I love geography and maps. I love to travel and I am have discovered more and more of an interest in American history in the past few years. So, I hope I can continue my travels and maybe, one day, reach all 50.

For now, I’ll have to be satisfied with some good memories: stopping in Concord NH for a few minutes when Avi was 2 years old so that we could get him out of the car for a few minutes to play at a playground; taking advantage of the public restrooms at the state capitol building in Juneau, Alaska, a  stop which turned out to be fortuitous as we turned a corner shortly afterward our unscheduled stop and bumped into the only people we knew who lived in Juneau; the two days of our honeymoon that Ellen and I spent in Santa Fe, NM, a place we have promised each other we would return to but haven’t yet; and, a quick visit to the capitol in Honolulu, HI as we explored the city.

I hope to get to the others. But, again, it might be difficult to plan a trip to Pierre or Cheyenne when there is so much more of this country to see. Still, I dream of the day when I can do what a couple of my friends have done: get behind the wheel of their car and drive as long as it takes to fulfill this particular goal. With Tallahassee added to the list, I’m a little bit closer and  it’s time to plan for a next trip.

I’ll gladly take suggestions!




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