To Idan, on your bar mitzvah

My boy,

I have never had trouble understanding the Song at the Sea. To the contrary: For a nation emerging from slavery, the spontaneous explosion of song feels like the most natural reaction, even the only appropriate thing to do at that moment in time. The vision of the Egyptian army disappearing beneath the crash of a newly fluid Red Sea put a final exclamation point on the sojourn in that country, in a way that even the unspeakable tenth plague – the death of every Egyptian first born – could not. The definitive end of our captivity came with a deafening certainty that rings painfully true to the modern ear: Never again would we fear the Egyptian whip.

And yet, during our study for your bar mitzvah you noted the irony in the Song: Instead of celebrating freedom, the Song at the Sea largely celebrates the Egyptian downfall. We learned together the famous midrash – “the lowliest maidservant achieved a higher level of prophecy at the Red Sea than even the great prophet Ezekiel” – but we struggled with the implication of the parable. Here, on the cusp of Jewish history, the best we could manage was to jab the Egyptians once again and to raise a toast to this latest episode in the Egyptians’ suffering and humiliation?

On the other hand, the Song at the Sea is essentially a prayerful vision for the future, a moment at which the Jewish People, and the entirety of Creation celebrate the Godly ideas of freedom, justice. Az Yashir Moshe U’vnei Yisrael, the day will come when Moses and the Jewish People will sing this song to God. Many classical commentators note the Torah’s use of the future tense: The exodus from Egypt introduced the idea of freedom to the world and the birth of the Jewish People. But that is not the final goal: Our nation was born with a promise. We are commanded to become a people of destiny, a light unto the nations. Ultimately, we are called to the task of Tikkun Olam, of perfecting this broken world, of creating and ensuring justice. The use of the future tense points to a time that those lofty goals will have been accomplished, when it will truly be said that the Torah spills forth from Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

My son, as you celebrate your bar mitzvah and mark your entry into Jewish adulthood, I suggest five lessons from this special Torah portion to guide your path.

  1. Break into song. Give yourself the inner freedom to fully celebrate the positive things that happen in your life. Sing, dance, smile, savor the moment.
  2. Believe in the future, and in your ability to shape it. Dream big, and think creatively about ways you can turn your dreams into reality.
  3. Connect with and celebrate God’s presence in the world. The splitting of the sea was a critical moment in our history, but it shouldn’t take Grade A miracles to inspire you. Strive to maintain your childish curiosity, your ability to laugh easily, your innate understanding that people are good and that the world is a good place. Learn to identify the right path for you, in Torah study and in all areas of life, and learn to use your many God-given talents to succeed. Most of all, take care to be thankful for the gifts you receive.
  4. Don’t be discouraged by setbacks. Your bar mitzvah portion is filled with triumph and celebration at the Red Sea, but also with the pain and failure of life in the desert: No sooner had the Egyptians perished than we found ourselves in the desert, thirsty, hungry and scared. Be creative and determined, believe that the impossible can occur – even drawing water out of a rock.
  5. Believe that at the end of the day, justice and right will prevail in the world, and work towards bringing about that exalted day. Egypt had the upper hand on the Jews for 210 years, but the Hebrew slaves eventually paraded out of slavery in grand fashion. This can be a tough call – we live in a world where injustice is allowed to flourish, and where the righteous often face insurmountable difficulties. If you believe, however, that tzedek – justice – will ultimately prevail, your faith will give you strength and conviction to work hard towards creating a world where that is so.

Idan, you stand today like the Jewish People on the far side of the the Red Sea – looking forward towards a life of possibility and promise. May God grant you not only success, but also the ability to celebrate the journey of life itself. Go forth, my boy. Let the Song at the Sea inspire you to create a life of song, of wonder, a life of passion and love and challenges and fulfilment.




Outgoing gov’t was survival for survival’s sake

Bibi is right. One cannot govern a country while trying to navigate stiff opposition from within government ranks.

But the opposition Netanyahu has faced from Justice Minster Tzippi Livni, who was charged with conducting negotiations with the Palestinians, and from Finance Minister Yair Lapid, is more a comment on the honesty of both of those individuals than it is about their disloyalty to the prime minister or to the coalition. Far from being duplicitious, Livni and Lapid have stated clearly for years that they viewed a negotiated settlement with the PLO as an Israeli interest. Neither agreed to abandon that view, or not to push for that outcome, as a prerequisite to joining the government.

On the other hand, Netanyahu has indicated for years both his ideological distaste for a Palestinian state and his deep strategic mistrust of PLO Chairman Abu Mazen. Both are certainly legitimate positions, but how do they jive with appointing Livni to oversee negotiations with the Palestinians? Who’s being dishonest here?

Similarly, Lapid swept into the Knesset on a platform of change on a range of social issues. Yesh Atid’s 19 seats were a clear statement from the public that the cost of living here is too high, that traditional political parties are not meeting the needs of ordinary Israelis and that people want a change. Lapid’s Zero VAT plan for first-time home buyers may or may not be viable, but it was the only visible policy suggestion to emerge from the 2011 Summer of Discontent. As such, it was clear that Lapid intended to make economic and social issues a major focus. What ideas did Bibi have? Increasing the defence budget?

By forcing a political novice into the volatile finance ministry, despite his lack of any apparent qualification to set policy in that role, Netanyahu made clear that he viewed Lapid as a threat, and that he viewed his own political survival as more important than the needs of the country. Netanyahu made clear early on that he opposed Lapid’s Zero VAT proposal – something that in hindsight appears to have been a central element of Netanyahu’s political strategy. In short, by cajoling Lapid into the finance ministry, Netanyahu created a win-win situation for himself: Either Lapid would back down on the demand for Zero VAT, thus alienating his voter base, or he would fail to get it implemented, thus appearing inefficient to his voter base. Either way, Netanyahu scored a victory for his narrow political interests, middle class Israelis be damned.

If anything, Netanyahu’s complaint about opposition from with and about coalition fealty to his ideals is a damning comment about his leadership style, which seems to neatly sum up as “vanquish all potential challengers.” In that light, the goal of the current government appeared from the onset to be surivival for survival’s sake, not for any coherent domestic or foreign policy objectives.

‘National Home” Bill Raises Bitter Questions

As usual, the opposition to the bill currently before the Knesset, Basic Law: Israel – the National State of the Jewish People is overblown. As usual, opposition to a right wing-sponsored bill appears to be little more than a desire to poke right-wing MKs and voters in the eye. Once again we are treated to hysteria about “the end of democracy in Israel” and “one giant step for theocracy” if this bill is voted into law.

In reality, the current bill will have no impact on liberties guaranteed by the Declaration of Independence. The bill itself stresses fealty to “the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state in the spirit of the principles of the Declaration of Independence” – nearly direct quotes from the Declaration. The current legislation emphasises “foundations of freedom, justice and peace in light of the visions of the prophets of Israel, and upholds the individual rights of all its citizens according to law” – very much in the spirit of the Declaration of Independence. The bill provides protection for Holy Places and freedom of religion for all, and would prohibit any infringement “on freedom of access by worshippers to the places that are holy to them or on their feelings toward those places.” – hardly has the makings of the racist theocracy that opponents propose.

The supposed impact of the new bill on the Declaration of Independence

Supposed impact of the new bill on the Declaration of Independence, according to Tzipi Livni.

But do the commitments of the Declaration of Independence – which speaks of “the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State” and the declaration “of a Jewish state in Eretz Israel” – not make the provisions of the current legislation clear to all? What is to be gained by this restatement of those principles? Does the lofty phrase “Eretz Yisrael was the birthplace of the Jewish people. Here their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped” not indicate for all that the nascent state would be the national state of the Jewish People? And if so, is the current bill not superfluous?

More importantly: Is it not clear that Israel has indeed achieved the goal of a Jewish state? For whatever the (legitimate) comments about Israel’s democracy, is it not clear that Israel is a Jewish country, both in population and culture? Nearly four-fifths of Israelis are Jewish; the national language is Hebrew.  The country runs according to the Jewish calendar. What does the new legislation propose to add to this reality?

The State of Israel is also recognised around the world as a source of strength and pride for Diaspora Jews, both for those who dream of making aliya and for those who merely take deep fraternal pride in Israel’s accomplishments. Jewish anti-Zionists (Orthodox and academic alike) not withstanding, and not withstanding the drop in support for Israel amongst unaffiliated Jews in recent years, millions of Diaspora Jews continue to identify with Israel and to draw spiritual nourishment from the country. Birthright is thriving. A post-high school year in Israel has become de regeur for graduates of Jewish day schools, yeshivot and seminaries. Is there really a need to enshrine all this in law? Is there even a meaning to doing so?

Ultimately, ironically, this bill raises a bitter question, not for what it says, but rather for what it implies: Have right-wing politicians and activists along the lines of MKs Zeev Elkin and Ayelet Shaked lost touch with these realities? Is the reality of a Jewish state so insignificant to them that they need more and more confirmation that this is so? Could it be that the international boycott, divestment, sanctions (BDS) campaign – vocal on the international stage, but ultimately ineffectual and marginal to Israel’s wellbeing – has, ironically, left its mark on the very folks who profess the highest allegiance to the ideals of Jewish Israel – the right? Israel is a Jewish state, whether or not the Palestinians, the Arab world or the international community recognise that fact. What, exactly, will the current proposed legislation change?

None of which is to exempt the left, which has in too many instances made Israel’s Jewish character a poor sister to the democratic state – the inverse sin of their primary accusation against the right. Here, the Golden Mean is defined by Professor Ruth Gavison, who has spoken clearly and at length of the necessary partnership between Jewish and democracy in Israel. Gavison believes the Zionist movement won support from the international community for a Jewish state only on condition that the new country would emerge as a democracy. At the same time, the only way in the current climate (or in any imaginable climate) to ensure the democracy of Israel is to ensure the state’s Jewish character. Any other definition, says Gavison, will lead to anti-democratic measures against Jews.

Ultimately, the Jewish nature of Israel is clear – to Palestinians, I believe, as much as to Israelis. There is little real question that early Zionist settlers and pre-state Haganah and Etzel fighters devoted their lives (and often lost them) in service of creating a Jewish state. To argue otherwise is simply intellectually dishonest.

But it is unclear how the proposal Basic Law: Israel – the National State of the Jewish People contributes to this goal. In the best case scenario, the bill does little than preach to an already converted choir of Israelis about the need for Israel to remain Jewish. In the worst case, it seems to be an unnecessary poke in the eye to Arab Israelis who already feel themselves to be something less than fully equal citizens of the “only democracy in the Middle East”.

Hilary 2016? Don’t bet on it

Now that the mid-terms are behind us, the media will proceed with all guns blazing to the 2016 presidential election. There is lots of evidence that Hilary Rodham Clinton, the former senator from New York, first lady and secretary of state, will to try to win the Democratic nomination for president.

But I’ll go out on a limb: Hilary Clinton will NOT win the Democratic nomination in 2016. Here’s why.

1. Age
On January 20, 2016, Inauguration Day, Clinton will be 68 years old. That would make her nearly the oldest person to ascend the presidency, second only (by several months) to Ronald Reagan. (By comparison, Stanley Ann Dunham, Barack’s late mother, would have been just 66 years old when her son became president in 2008).

In some important ways, that should conceivably give Clinton an advantage over her competitors: With age comes wisdom, and the knowledge of how to choose political battles carefully, both on the international stage and in the domestic arena. After a stint in the Senate and four tough years as Secretary of State (not to mention eight more years as First Lady, spent in the inner circle of presidential decision making), she brings to the table a deep knowledge of American political and economic interests in Latin America, Asia, Europe and especially in the Middle East.

But at age 68, there will be strong questions about Clinton’s ability to withstand the day-to-day pressures of the presidency, her ability to command the US military through a difficult period of adjustment (and perhaps reduction, if Defence Secretary Hagel’s recommendations come to fruition) and her strength to clearly define and defend US interests in a rapidly changing world. Especially when there are serious questions about her…

2. Health
Unlike Ronald Reagan, who’s most serious health scare as president occurred as the result of an assassination attempt in 1981, Hilary Clinton had a scare in 2013 when doctors discovered a blood clot between her brain and her skull. Since then, rumours have persisted that the blood clot has developed into a tumor. Government officials and the Clinton family have strongly denied the rumours, but the notion that Clinton is simply not healthy enough to withstand the demands of the presidency, and certainly not for eight years, will dog her campaign. Even Bill Clinton’s insistence that he would only be “Hilary’s first husband”, and Chelsea’s insistence that her mother “exud[es] the energy, the vibrancy, and certainly the mental acuity” to be president” couldn’t mask the legitimate concerns that Clinton is up to the pressures of a campaign or of public office. The lady (or, at least, her minions) doth protest too much, methinks.

3. Not Likeable
There is no nice way to put this: Hilary Clinton is simply not likeable. She never has been. Starting in 1992 with her first term as First Lady, too many people have viewed her as an opportunist, not a public servant. Her husband, President Bill Clinton, appointed her to head a national task force to revamp America’s healthcare system despite the fact that she had no background in healthcare policy (or any policy background, for that matter).

Later, in 2001, she rode Bill’s coattails into the Senate despite never having lived in New York, and despite the fact that her primary qualification for the job seemed to have been eight years as the president’s wife (supporters will point out, correctly, that Clinton is an accomplished woman in her own right, having attended Yale law school. But that was nearly 30 years before her election to the Senate, and that qualification played little part in her campaign in New York).

More recently, her failure to answer substantive questions at a campaign stop in Miami in late February that media reports described as “stage managed” does not augur well for a presidential campaign (as president, Barack Obama appears wooden and devoid of emotion, but Candidate Obama was engaging and charismatic. Clinton is neither).

And the recent renaming of the Bill Clinton Foundation as the “Bill, Hilary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation,” seems to have been an opportunistic pre-campaign name change (could it also foreshadow a foray into politics by Chelsea?), more inspired by Hilary’s presidential hopes than deep passion about the Foundation’s worthy initiatives on women, kids issues and jobs

In short, Clinton is banking on the notion that the time is right for the American people to elect a woman president. She is probably right about that. But Clinton is never going to have a better shot at the Oval Office than 2008.

4. Stunning failure to understand politics
What? From the Clintons?

And yet, history suggests strongly that Clinton has made a fatal mistake (supported by her many friends in the media) by beginning her campaign too early. Conventional wisdom would suggest that Clinton has tried to keep her name in the public sphere while biding her time to formally announce a presidential bid, probably sometime in early-to-mid 2015.

But the 2008 candidacies of Newt Gingrich and Herman Cain, Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign and others suggest that the common comment made about American presidential campaigns – that they are simply too long – is true. Two years before the 1992 election, few people outside Arkansas had ever heard of Bill Clinton. George W. Bush did not become a serious contender for the Republican nomination until the primary season got under way in early 2000.

Here, too, I’m betting on an early peak-and-fizzle. Twenty-four-seven news cycle or no, I believe it will be impossible for her to “slowly build momentum” until the Democratic primaries begin in just under two years.

5. No Habla Español
Clinton is correct that Barack Obama’s presidency destroyed the old template for US presidential elections – two homogeneous tickets comprised of four white men aged 45-60. But Clinton’s gender will not be sufficient qualification to secure the nomination, let alone election.

The 2016 election is likely to be the first in American history that is truly bi-lingual. More than 37.6 million Americans, more than 10 percent of the total US population today, now speak Spanish at home, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey. Twelve-and-a-half million of these people live in California alone, making up 30 percent of the electorate there. In seven states – California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Florida and New York – Spanish speakers make up significant portions of the electorate. Together, their voices add up to 167 electoral votes – more than half of the 270 needed to win the presidency.

This fact has not been lost on Republicans, who will have a wealth of Spanish speakers to choose from as the race gets underway. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez are just two of the potential candidates with the ability to hit the campaign trail in Spanish and with inspiring rags-to-riches personal histories will resonate with voters and turn the campaign into a The Promise of America campaign.

Expect, then, for Spanish-language campaigning to become standard for both parties. That will put Clinton at an unsurmountable disadvantage against younger, bi-lingual Democratic challengers such as John Pérez, speaker of the California Senate and a veteran former union organiser. And even if she manages to win the Democratic nomination, her candidacy will pale in comparison to
Time will tell, obviously, but with the 2016 election 33 months away, this bookkeeper is offering odds away from Hilary Clinton. Yes, I think she’ll run, but the early money should move away from betting on her for the Democratic nomination two years from now.

A new view of modesty

Yet again, modesty is in the news: Haredi extremists in Bet Shemesh reportedly ransacked a synagogue to protest the hall’s use by a teenage boy with a  laptop computer (link to the Hebrew-language article is here). Without comment on the attack (I should imagine that no comment is necessary!), it seems like a good opportunity for a short piece about the Torah’s ideal of modesty.

I would suggest that the primary source from the Tanach relating to modesty comes from Micha 6:8:

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

What is good? What does God demand from you, if not the practice of justice and the love of lovingkindness, and you should walk humbly with your God. (my own free translation)

The prophet does not seem to be talking about modes of dress, attitudes about sexuality or inter-gender relationships. Rather, the prophet tells us to create deeply humble personalities. We must strive to become individuals who are guided by Divine command at every step. We must walk humbly with God at all times, in every aspect of our lives. Our lives must be defined by inner humility, that deep conviction that comes with knowledge of the Creator and our role in the creation.

I point out that the prophet draws no distinction between the male and female requirement to be tzanua, humble. Micha sees the goal of man’s existence here on earth to be a lifelong journey towards inner humility, related integrally to social justice (לעשות משפט) and kindness.

Primarily, then, modesty has little to do with modes of dress, and everything to do with modes of behaviour. Or, perhaps, modes of dress are at best secondary to the main point, or a means to an end. An arrogant, self-righteous know-it-all who takes care to cover his/her body can hardly be described as “modest”. On the other hand, it would seem unfair to withhold the title “modest” from a woman who does not observe the strictures of hilchot tzniut but who feels truly thankful for the blessings she has in life and who truly values the friendship and insight she gains from her colleagues, family and friends.

(As an aside: I am 45 years old. I feel it is only now – with three teenage sons – that I am truly discovering the true meaning of humility. I am not sure this topic is one that a younger man will truly appreciate. This is significant because the argument could be made to enforce modest standards of dress for young people, not as an end but as a “temporary” measure to encourage the eventual development of true, inner modesty. But I digress…)

How, then, to reconcile of our traditional laws of modesty (הלכות צניעות) with my understanding of tzniut as a lifelong process of “humbleisation”? Indeed, the halacha (Jewish law) details different requirements for men and women in this regard.

I suggest that the discrepancy in halacha, and specifically the stricter requirements of dress for women, is correctly viewed as a reflection of the difference between a woman’s inner psyche and that of a man. In the former case, I suggest that modesty laws reflect a sense of inner modesty that is more natural to women than it is to men. In the later case, I believe that our rabbis instructed men (to the extent that they instructed men at all in this realm) to dress and act modestly in order to create a sense of inner humility that comes less naturally than it does for women.

This is illustrated more clearly by an the laws that govern an area of life that is even more extreme than the fashion: The laws of marital intimacy (אורח חיים סימן ר״מ). In the correct context, both men and women are expected to convey their pleasure to one-another, but even at that most private of moments, we are commanded to act with holiness and sanctity. The Hollywood image of an out-of-control orgasmic woman screaming loud enough to awaken a full city block is very far from the Torah’s ideal.

For women, I suggest this means the freedom to enjoy intimacy without feeling they have to “let it all hang out.” For men, it means enjoying intimacy without announcing it to the entire neighbourhood.

So, too, with modes of dress: I propose that the halachic requirement for women to “cover up” more than men is a reflection of our sages’ understanding of the female psyche. In the modern-day context, we tell our daughters, “Don’t allow popular culture to destroy something beautiful about you. You have every right to be modest, regardless of the way “everybody else” dresses.

In both cases, I believe, modest dress is a tool towards the Torah’s ultimate goal. We turn ourselves into “holy” people by developing our inner tzniut and walking humbly with our God.

From Certainty to Doubt

Pesach to Purim: From certainty to doubt

Purim is the ultimate holiday of doubt. It is the holiday that signifies the randomness of this world (Thank you to Rabbi Yehoshua Rubin for this observation). The very name of the holiday – Purim, from the Hebrew word meaning “lots” – indicates that ultimately, the physical world is inexplicable to the human condition. There are many questions we cannot answer: Good people suffer, evil people prosper, there are infuriating situations that leave us speechless, at a loss for words, situations that we can only shrug our shoulders in frustration and move on.

Purim is the Jewish approach to that reality. We embrace doubt, and the humility it produces, and celebrate the fact that insecurity does not rule out religious life, mitzvot, God or halacha.

I. Every major character in Megillat Esther is wracked with doubt. These include


He is king of 127 countries, but he seems to endure a fundamental sense of insecurity and inadequacy. His lavish parties continue for months at a time, open for all (perhaps even issuing royal decrees ordering people to come to his parties). He suffers from insomnia. He’s royal servants are all castrated (this was have been a custom in the ancient world, but here it could indicate that Ahashverosh’s inner need to make sure the men around him were not a threat). He seems to feel his position at the top is an illusion, or perhaps he maintains an inner knowledge that he does not belong there at the top. He treats the spoils from the Beit Hamikdash as ordinary party vessels in order to humiliate  the Jews. It feels strongly like his dominion over 127 countries is worthless if the people don’t like him, but he doesn’t believe they will do so unless he buys their affection.


Thousands, or even millions, of Shushanian subjects bow down to Haman every day. One pauper at the gate of the royal palace wearing sackcloth refuses to do so, and it drives Haman nuts, to the point he (literally) wants to kill. In the fifth chapter, Haman’s idea for the king “to honour a person whom the king wants to honour” (to be led around on the king’s horse, wearing the finest clothes from the palace) stems from an inner need to have everyone recognise his greatness. He wants everyone to look at him, to say, “hey, look at Haman! The king must really love him. He must be a really special guy!”. Later, his plan to kill Mordechai was not sufficient. He wanted the murder to be carried out on an enormous gallows (and here, too, we find the situation reversed: Haman goes to the gallows while Mordechai is saved. Things don’t always end up the way we plan. In the words of the Yiddish proverb, Man makes plans while God laughs.


Esther is the epitome of an unclear existence. She is brought against her will to the palace, told to hide her identity, and then has to put her life on the line by approaching the king without a royal invitation. Later, she throws her own party but is unsure if Ahashverosh and Haman will come. Ultimately, however, she confronts the uncertainty in her life: She agrees to approach the king (this puts her in two bad situations: The king could kill her on the spot, or he could take her for the night, thus rendering her forbidden to Mordechai, her uncle and husband. The lesson is clear: Life begins when we confront our insecurities and move forward. We often do not know what lies just around the bend, but that must not deter us from continuing to move forward – carefully, perhaps, but forward nonetheless.


Mordechai is fully aware that the world is ultimately incomprehensible to the human condition. But he appears to be okay with this fact, and it doesn’t prevent him from acting, doesn’t ruin his faith. When he says רווח והצלה יעמוד ליהודים ממקום אחר he is saying “I don’t know how this will play out tomorrow. Ultimately, there will be רווח והצלה, but sorry, there are no promises about tomorrow or the next day.

The key to understanding  Mordechai is the midrash (rabbinic legend) that says he understood 70 languages. In other words, Mordechai had a keen understanding of people and of nations, and of the strong cultural differences therein – Spanish and Portuguese may be similar languages, but they are distinct and the differences between them belie different cultural references and vantage points. Most of all, Mordechai understands that despite his vast knowledge, he understands that the world is a random place and often defies human understanding. His contribution is the fact his questions do not paralyse him. His lack of clarity does not break him, or destroy his faith in God, or in the prophecy that נצח ישראל לא יישקר (the Jewish People will survive for all time). Note that Mordechai does have a measure of inner strength and security: He enjoys an inner sense of completeness that gives him the wherewithal to refuse Haman’s order to bow down But that sense of completeness comes from the knowledge and acceptance of the fact that he does not know everything.


The only secure person in the Megilla: Ahashverosh summons her to the party, to be paraded naked in front of the guests. He response forceful and final: No Way. She’s got a definite sense of herself, of who she is. But that sort of self-confidence is not part of the Megilla and the spirit of Purim, and Vashti finds herself out of the story by the middle of the first chapter.

II. The annual cycle of Jewish holidays begins in Nissan and concludes in Adar. The holiday year begins with Pesach – the ultimate holiday of certain knowledge and security. We are commanded to re-live the Egyptian slavery – the fears, the frustration, the anger – as well as the miraculous process that led to our redemption. We focus on the 10 plagues, the splitting of the Red Sea – alarming, visceral miracles that seem to erase any question about the supremacy of our God or his Dominion over this world. Non-Jewish Egyptians suffered from boils, lice and darkness, while life for the Jews in Goshen went on undisturbed. The sea stood at attention while the Jews  passed through on their way to freedom, then crushed the Egyptians as they tried to make it through. There is no scientific way to explain the “sound-and-light-show” we experienced at Mt Sinai. To walk away from those experiences without belief in God appears ridiculous

But that “belief” is fleeting. Three weeks after leaving Egypt, the people complain to Moshe about how much they miss the “good life” back in Egypt. Less than six weeks later they were dancing around a golden calf.

Significantly, the primacy of uncertainty is present at the very first moment of our holiday year, even as we celebrate God’s certainty: At the Seder meal, we begin the year by talking about miracles and clear “proof” of God’s dominion, the primacy of freedom, of our holy task in the world. [I do point out, however, that questions are a central feature, perhaps THE central feature, of the Seder night begin. At the moment we feel most certain of God, of miracles, of the justice and correctness of the Torah system, we seek out things we do not understand: Textual references, conflicting midrashim, the true nature of freedom, how could God harden Pharaoh’s heart and then punish him for refusing to release the Jews from slavery, etc.

The holiday of certainty gives us solid footing as we begin our journey from Egypt to Israel. We require the certainty of God, of miracles, of the justice and correctness of the Torah system. We need solid grounding as we begin our journey from Egypt to Israel. Strong fundamentals give us the ability to withstand the challenges of the various Amaleks and Balaks who threaten our physical existence, the Korachs who challenge our spiritual integrity, of the Midyanite women who challenge our moral backbones.

The theme of certainty vs. randomness is present throughout our calendar year. On Rosh Hashana we confront our mortality (the question of who will live and who will die is random), but we also celebrate the fact that God created the world – an act of certainty, at least to Orthodox Jews. On Succot, we pray for weather that will allow us to sit in the succa, but we also have the mitzvah of Lulav and Etrog, which represent God’s eternal presence in the world. On Chanukah, we note that our sovereignty in the Land of Israel is not at all secure, but we light candles to indicate our faith that even in a world tarred with war, there can still be light.

And, of course, Yom Kippurim – which literally translates to “a day like Purim”. Much has been written about Yom Kippur being the opposite side of the Purim coin – we pray for health and prosperity, but the fact that we may get neither does not deter us from asking. We spend the day filled with trepidation, which leads to the awesome feeling of warmth and purity that comes with the final shofar blast. But the day does not end with any sense of assurance. Rather, we feel cleansed and able to confront the randomness of the world without falling incapacitated.

III. It seems, then, that in contrast to many systems of religious belief that attempt to provide God-based answers to life’s difficult questions, the opposite is true for the Torah system. In Judaism, the opposite is true:

[On a personal note: This progression maps the human lifespan, or at least my experience. As I grow older, I continue to discover humility, in ways I could never have related to or appreciated as a younger man. At the age of 20, I was not only arrogant, but I had no idea that that my sense of self-certainty was actually holding me back from learning and achieving my goals.

This is most clear with regard to parenting: Making choices for my kids when they were small felt easy: I knew with certainty when to say “yes” and “no,” I knew how to get them to do what I wanted, and the toughest phenomenon to deal with was the occasional temper tantrum, which was frustrating but rarely lasted more than a few minutes and never created serious dilemmas. My prayers were sincere thanksgiving offerings for the blessings I have enjoyed.

But it took teenagers for me to develop a deep sense of longing and humility. As I help my teenagers (and pre-teen) navigate the choppy waters of adolescence, my “knowledge” of “correct” parenting techniques has melted away, and has been replaced by deep prayers for Divine guidance and clarity of vision. I pray for the ability to listen to my boys, to understand their emotional needs, and especially for the inner strength to subjugate my hopes to their needs. These prayers are the deepest sense of longing I have ever felt, far more intense than the feelings of gratitude experienced years ago when I simply enjoyed life with little boys.

So, too, is the journey from Pesach to Purim. We begin with miracles and passionate interaction with God and a sense of certainty – it is important for an individual and a society to know who they are, what they are, what their goals are in this world. We progress towards a mature understanding that the world is ultimately incomprehensible to the human condition, but that does not deter us from praying, celebrating and living religious lives.

A (late) note on Lag Ba’Omer

 The quality of Hod

Each week of the Omer period corresponds to one member of the Ushpizin, the mythical “guests” that we welcome into the succa during Succot. The list is as follows:

  1. a. Chessed = Avraham

    b. Gevura = Yitzhak

    c. Tiferet = Yaakov

    d. Netzah = Moshe

    e. Hod = Aharon

    d. Yesod = Yosef

    f. Malchut = David

The fifth week of the Omer period, then, corresponds to Aharon, the high priest, and to the quality of  hod. We would usually translate  hod as glory or awe, but Simon Jacobson of translates hod as “humility”. How can we understand this? More importantly, how do “glory” and “humility” combine to teach us about hod?

The first thing that bears mention is Aharon’s love of peace. The first aspect of the hod personality is the love of peace, the desire to affect peace in this world. When we love all of Gods creations, when we move to build institutions that build and ensure peace in the world, we are connecting to God’s aspect of hod.

In addition, as Aharon is tasked with serving God as the head of the sacrificial service, it is clear why he represents glory. We have a natural desire for our religious rituals to leave us awed. We want to come away from services “wowed” by the glory of God and inspired to do His holy work in this world.

The Torah and rabbinic sources describe a sacrificial service was indeed the height of God’s glory in this world. The high priest is said to have glowed when emerging from the Holy of Holies following the main Yom Kippur sacrifice. The viewing public is said to have been so moved by the experience of hearing the high priest utter the ineffable name of God that everyone instinctively bowed to the ground upon hearing. The descriptions of the scenario surrounding the Pesach offering is similarly moving. The glory of the entire picture is palpable, both in the written Torah and the rabbinic writings. It is clear how Aharon the High Priest represents this aspect of hod.

Hod and Hoda’ah

The word hod is related to the word hoda’ah, recognition. We must discover humility in order to truly serve God. An important key to serving Him is the ability to look at the world, to look at other people and to appreciate their greatness. In short – in order to serve God, we must develop the ability to look at the world around us and to say: Wow.

Aharon is not simply the high priest. He is also the older brother of Moshe. Aharon is clearly the lesser of the two brothers. But he happily accepts the fact that his little brother has far outstripped him. Moshe is the greatest leader mankind will ever know. He wins the Best Actor award, whereas Aharon will suffice with the Best Supporting Actor award. But there is no sense of jealousy or resentment. Aharon is happy to appear with his little brother in a supportive role, whether that means talking to Pharoah, trying to deal with the Jewish People when Moshe goes up on Mount Sinai for 40 days, and more.

This hoda’ah – recognition – that he will never measure up to Moshe is a fundamental ingredient of Aharon’s quality of hod. It also appears to be his greatest contribution. As a child of Amram and Yocheved, Aharon hardly needed to be taught to be humble vis-a-vis God. That was a lesson that all three children drank in “with their mother’s milk,” so to speak. But his humility vis-a-vis Moshe was not at all a given. It is that quality that opened the door for his service in the Mishkan and for his ultimate ability to grasp the glory aspect of hod.

It also bears mention that Aharon seems to be a tikkun for the repeated brotherly spats that define the book of Genesis. Whereas Cain, Yishmael, Eisav and Yehuda become jealous of Abel, Yitzhak, Yaakov and Yosef in the first book of the Torah, here we have a story where the little brother is greater than the elder one, but the first born man recognises his brother’s greatness. As such, he happily accepts his role in the world and sets about accomplishing that to the best of his ability.

Lag Ba’Omer: A turning point

All of which leads us to Lag Ba’Omer. I don’t claim to know the history of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai or when he died, or even whether Lag Ba’Omer was traditionally a day on which Jews celebrated. But if I might take a Rav Kook-like approach: If Rashbi did die on the 33rd day of the Omer – the Hod she b’Hod day – Rav Kook might argue that God chose that day to call Rabbi Shimon to heaven because it was a day imbued with special character. Perhaps Lag Ba’Omer is the turning point of our march between Pesach – pure, unadulterated chessed – and Shavuot – unbridled manifestation of God’s kingship and majesty. By developing inner humility, we develop the ability to truly glorify Him through prayer, introspection, mitzvot and especially helping others. Once we do that, we are ready to internalize the characteristics of Yosef (Yesod) and Malchut (David).