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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


 

With Purim just about to begin, I want to share the following articles with you. The first is a list of six lessons from Queen Esther that are relevant to each one of us today. The second is about what we can take out of the Purim story to help us deal with challenges.  

Blog #1: 

Queen Esther asked that the scroll relaying her story, Megillat Esther, be written and shared for generations to come. She wanted every man, woman and child in every land for eternity to hear her timeless message. Queen Esther lived a legacy that speaks to us until today.

Here are six life lessons from Queen Esther:

  1. Master Silence

The key to Esther remaining in the palace of Achashverosh was her keeping a secret. Mordechai told Esther not to reveal her origins, that she was a Jew. The time was not yet ripe; Esther was required to master the quality of silence.

There are times in life that we must guard our privacy or someone’s confidence. How many relationships have been harmed and friendships broken because we could not keep silent? We were given a trust to keep and couldn’t contain ourselves. Or we overshared and exposed intimate details of our life. In our world of social media, we are privy to many photos and conversations that should really be kept hidden. Modesty isn’t just about dress. It's about living with dignity and sensitivity, knowing what and when to share, and what and when to keep private.

  1. You Have a Unique Life Mission

Esther is told by Mordechai that she must speak to the king and plead for her people. She replies: That’s impossible. Everyone knows the rule of the kingdom: If you enter the king’s chambers without his beckoning, you will be killed unless he extends his golden scepter. “I haven’t been called for 30 days!” she relays to Mordechai.

Mordechai’s reply gives Esther direction. “You cannot remain silent. Who knows? It might be that you were chosen to be queen just for this moment!”

Every encounter, talent and strength that we have been given is for a purpose. Each of us has our own unique spiritual fingerprints to leave in this world. God places us exactly where we need to be to accomplish our mission. Esther is asking us to discover the meaning of our existence.

  1. Live with Courage and Compassion

After accepting her mission, Esther says, “I will go to the king. And if I die, I die.”

I will give it my all. I will muster the courage to do my best.

As seasons of life pass, many people are left with their regrets, If only… but the moment is lost.

Esther is telling us to seize courage, step up to the plate and at least know forever that you tried to make a difference.

In one of my mother’s final interviews she was asked “What do you want it to say on your gravestone?”

She replied “I want it to say two words: I cared.”

  1. Look for God’s Hidden Hand

In the entire Scroll of Esther there is no clear mention of God. The name ‘Esther’ means hidden in Hebrew, ‘Megillah’ means revelation. Esther is revealing a powerful hidden truth.

How easy it is to think that life is a series of random events. The story of Purim could seem to be a natural story that took place over the course of many years. The king just happened to choose this sweet innocent young Jewish woman, Mordechai just happened to hear a plot against the king, the king just happened to suffer from a bout of insomnia, and all the pieces just fell into place.

Esther is urging us to wake up; see God’s hidden hand in your every day. It’s not only about the big miracles, like the splitting of the sea. It's about the little moments. God is in every sunrise, every soul, every success or disappointment life brings. We won't always understand God’s ways but His presence is here, even now amidst this most challenging time our world is facing.

Esther refused to lose hope when it seemed as if God’s protective presence was lost in a dark fog. She knew that ultimately, even if it feels as if God’s hand is hidden, He is directing and watching over us. He will never abandon us.

  1. Don’t Bow to Haman

Mordechai refused to kneel or bow down to Haman.

Every generation has its Haman. Any force that threatens your ability to connect to your soul or tries to cool your passion for what is right and truth is ‘Haman’. Haman descends from Amalek, the first nation that tried to destroy the Jewish People after leaving Egypt. We were on a high, connected to God, inspired to become a blessing in this world. They tried to squash our spirit.

There will always be people who belittle your desire to be better and live higher. There will be those who mock your standing for truth, for your people, and the land of Israel. Don’t crumble. Don’t bow. Never lose your passion for goodness. Stay strong as Mordechai did.

  1. Unity brings Strength

Haman describes the Jewish people as a nation “dispersed and divided” to the king. His words are jolting. "They are constantly bickering and quarreling with each other. Don’t worry about them joining together and mounting a united offensive, they can’t agree on anything. No one will come to their defense because they are hated. Get rid of them."

Esther succeeds in her mission to save her people by uniting the Jews and bringing them together in prayer and fasting. And she leaves a wish for us, her children. Esther asks that we celebrate this day together with joy, parties, charity, and sending food portions to one another. Esther is telling us to create a feeling of unity and peace. The antidote to all the bickering and hatred is reaching out to one another with friendship. Unity brings strength.

Our enemies never asked, "What type of Jew are you?" No one was spared the gas chamber based on their observance or head covering.

We don’t have to be the same. We must only know that we are brothers and sisters, one family.

Stop judging. Start loving.

 

Blog #2: 

While Purim is normally one of the happiest days on our calendar, this year it will mark a sobering milestone. Purim will essentially mark a full year of living through a pandemic that has radically changed our lives. While we are beyond grateful for the progress with treatments and vaccinations, the return to some sense of normalcy doesn’t seem imminent.

In ordinary times, when we meet someone, we shake their hand. The history of the hand shake dates back to the 5th century BCE in Greece. Shaking someone’s hand showed you weren’t approaching with a weapon. It was a gesture to communicate that you came in peace, that you posed no threat.

During this pandemic, handshaking came to symbolize a simple threat. It’s now a year since we last shook hands, a year since we hugged anyone outside of our immediate family, a year of distancing from people we want to feel close to.

Who knew a year ago that when we put on a mask for Purim, we would still be wearing a mask a full year later? How can we not be anxious for this to finally end, frustrated by how long it has gone on, and concerned with how uncertain the future is?

Towards the ends of the Scroll of Esther, we are told that the days chosen to celebrate the holiday of Purim were selected because these were the days the Jewish people “rested from their enemies.”

Isn’t that a peculiar way of choosing a holiday? Shouldn’t it be designated based on when they defeated their enemy, were victorious over their enemy? Why because they found peace and rest from their enemy?

An answer lies in a closer look at how the Torah describes Amalek, the archenemy of the Jewish people, Haman’s forefathers. Amalek wanted to eliminate the Jews entirely. The nation’s methodology is not limited to physically attacking, overpowering, and destroying. Amalek is also satisfied with crushing our spirit, with breaking our faith.

The Torah tells us that the attack from Amalek was unexpected. The people weren’t prepared. Amalek came suddenly, from behind, and startled them. Amalek thrives by confusing their enemy, by evoking a sense of panic and hysteria in their opponent. When they create a paranoia, instill a fear and worry, when they deprive the Jewish people of a sense of tranquility and serenity, they have essentially accomplished their goal; they have won.

The exile of Persia in which the Purim story takes place is characterized by chaos, craziness, frenzy, and hysteria. When they come to get Haman to bring him to Esther’s party, the Megillah says “they scramble to bring him,” – they rush and come suddenly and hurriedly. The exile of Persia is characterized as confusion, panic. The power of Amalek is to take away one’s peace of mind, to be a disrupter. This was Haman’s goal. As the Book of Esther says, “Haman had plotted to destroy the Jews, and had cast pur—that is, the lot—with intent to confuse, complicate, disrupt, destroy and exterminate them.”

There is an Amalek energy in each of us, a negative voice that says, “Panic! Be hysterical, have no peace of mind, be anxious, worried and deprived of happiness and calmness.”

We defeat the Amalek around us and the Amalek within us when we find the capacity to show faith, to stay calm, and to carry on with confidence. 

Says Rabbi Avraham Schorr, that is why the sages made the holiday of Purim not directly correspond with the physical defeat of Haman, but specifically when we rested, when we our serenity was restored and we found a way to be calm, to live with confidence, to have a peace of mind, to find faith, no matter what.

Panicking, becoming frantic, worrying about what is, what will be, stressing over things that we cannot control, is the influence of Amalek. It’s the voice of our enemy who seeks to deprive us of happiness, to rob us of serenity. It is not who we are and who we can be. We are Jews of deep faith. We believe in taking our initiative, making our effort, and then relying on our Creator.

As challenging as these times have been and remain, we should not forfeit our lives and our happiness in the very month in which we are told to be happier than ever, to have greater confidence and trust, to believe there is something so much bigger than ourselves and therefore to find the capacity to stay calm.

In 1939, in preparation for World War II and in an effort to raise the morale of the British public, the British government printed 2.5 million copies of a poster to be hung in all the major cities in England. It displayed a simple message that still resonates 70+ years later: Keep Calm and Carry On.

There is still so much we cannot control, so many variables we cannot predict. One of the few things we can regulate is our peace of mind.

As we come up on a year of wearing a mask, let us make an extra effort to be mindful of the impact of Amalek-type thinking on our lives, and pledge no matter what, to Keep Calm and Carry On.