Posts Tagged ‘purim’

In Search of Hidden Miracles

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

By Sam Glaser

The other night over tofu curry my wife was explaining the concept of fiscal vs. calendar years to my kids. Times they are a-changing: my seventeen-year-old Jesse just opened his own E-Trade account so that he can play the market on his own. He used to hunt bugs in the backyard; now he’s studying corporate cash flow! She told him that most individuals in the US seem to follow the January to December calendar model, making January the back to work month following a holiday vacation and a drunken New Years Eve. My dad’s swimwear business went summer to summer since we shipped everything by May and then had to figure out what to do the next season.

We then discussed that most synagogues work on a fiscal year that begins with the High Holidays since that’s when they put on the “big show” for the crowds of the penitent and do most of their fundraising. That schedule holds true in my business also since my gigs follow the ebb and flow of synagogue life. It seems to make sense to start the Jewish calendar year on Rosh Hashana, literally the “head of the year,” but indeed, that’s not how it goes in the bible. In fact, just as we are about to leave Egypt with great signs and wonders, our first commandment as a nation is to keep a calendar. Once we become free men and women, we are personally accountable for the passage of our time and must learn to use it wisely. We also have to know when the fifteenth of the month is so that we can properly conduct our national homecoming party, the seder. Therefore the Jewish year actually begins in Nissan, the month of Pesach, which makes this month, Adar, the last month of the year and both a time to party and a season of reckoning.

What exactly we’re supposed to be feeling in this final month of the calendar is concealed behind the mask of our beloved Adar holiday, Purim. Yes, it’s a great holiday for kids but the real magic requires deeper analysis. The scroll that we are commanded to read, Megilat Esther is one of the final entries in the chronology of the Jewish biblical canon and interestingly, has no mention of God’s name. We start the year with the Pesach Haggadah and it’s manifold recitations of gratitude to God for the plethora of miracles performed on our behalf. Missing from this text is the mention of the story’s hero, Moshe! By the end of the Jewish calendar year, no discussion of God and it’s all about Queen Esther. What has changed? Evidently over the Jewish year we move from emphasis to God’s revealed hand in our redemption (Exodus) to a focus on the action of individuals with God operating behind the scene (Esther). I think the message here is that God is always with us even when that isn’t clear, and that we’ve got to get into the game.

The rabbis teach that the ten plagues in Egypt transpired over a nine-month period. This was our national gestation; we morph from Avraham and Sarah’s mishpocha (family) into a great, holy nation. Over the course of the next few millennia we read about the fits and starts of our spiritual adolescence traveling to and living in Israel and then finally, by the time of Esther, we renew our covenant as adults. No more need for coercion, no more need to have Mount Sinai held over our heads, we accept the yoke of the commandments willingly and with joy, knowing that God’s intimate Presence follows us wherever we wander. In fact, the title of our text holds the answer to the puzzle of Jewish survival through this long exile: Megilat Esther can be translated as “revealing the hidden,” it’s a lesson plan in adopting a world view where we perceive God’s hand behind all events.

Therefore, the vibe of this month of Adar is to bask in the emunah (faith) that we have crafted over the Jewish calendar year. Every holiday that transpires, beginning with our national homecoming (Pesach), reenacting the receiving of Torah (Shavuot) and then the High Holidays, serves to build this invisible shield of Divine love and protection. By the time we’re getting ready for Purim we rejoice in the seemingly “God-less” story knowing firmly in our hearts that God’s grace is behind all the events in our lives. In fact, the word emunah alludes to “craftsmanship,” sharing the same root as the word “amanut,” the arts and crafts that we used to do at camp. The subliminal effect of full immersion in the Jewish holiday cycle forms a level of belief that is real, tactile, or as my Rosh Yeshiva used to say, offers “five finger clarity.”

One of the gifts of Judaism is the feeling that we are part of a big-picture national destiny, that time is marching towards a goal and we are here as Jews to do our part to bring that ultimate tikkun olam, or fixing of the world. When one is focused on a greater goal, the day-to-day mishaps become trivial. This eschatological passion has kept the Jews on track through millennia of abuse and deprivation. As Monty Python’s Black Knight might have said, “it’s just a flesh wound.” That’s because in our hearts we know we’re on an important mission as a people and that God is cleverly guiding history towards a powerful goal. When Queen Esther is given the chance by Uncle Mordechai to be the hero, he warns her: if you don’t take a stand here, our salvation will come from somewhere else. In other words, as Jews we can opt in to this great adventure or relegate ourselves to the sidelines. God will get the job done regardless. I say: let’s get on the playing field and go for it! My generation is sadly, for the most part, opting out and it is this bitter fact that keeps me packing my bags for yet another trip rather than sitting in the comfort of my recording studio.

There’s another aspect to this evolution that began with overt miracles to God’s working subtly behind the scene. Imagine that you are imprisoned and have a prison guard right outside the cell. Obviously with the watchful guard on the scene you are on your best behavior. When the guard goes on rounds, however, that’s when you can do headstands, scrawl graffiti or go back to digging that escape hole with a spoon. The God of Nissan is an overwhelming presence that limits our freedom of choice, whereas the God of Adar gives us the space to express the fullness of our human gift of choice. I believe that all history is following this same principle and more than ever we live in age where we are stratified into believers and “secular.” That intelligent people can deny God’s presence fills me with mirth. Just look at how powerful God is, like the guard on his rounds, giving us the freedom to perceive God, or not. Amazing!

I also see a remarkable shift of the power center of humanity moving from a single leader into the hands of the masses. In fact, Judaism teaches that we are on a continuous down-slope of leadership as we move farther from Sinai. But there is a simultaneous elevation of the individual as we move towards our ultimate redemption. The internet is one of the best examples of this modern revolution of self-empowerment. As of 2014 the majority of folks in the developed world have smartphones in their pockets. That means they have Google readily available for any question under the sun, not to mention the over a million remarkable apps at their bidding. When our greatest leader Moshe Rabbeinu came down from Mt. Sinai his face was glowing. His light was so bright that he had to wear a mask just to deal with the regular folk. Perhaps Moshe had to die before they went into the Land of Israel so that the Jews would learn to stand on their own two feet and become leaders in their own right. Hold up a candle in daylight and it’s light is irrelevant…but in a darkened room it can light the way. Fast forward three millennia and we have democracy, ipads and near total literacy. Our leaders may not be as monumental as those of the bible or even those of our previous generations but we live at a time when more than ever, every individual soul can shine.

The most important theme of this, our final month of the year, is that of joy. Living in a state of simple faith brings on the greatest joy. The month of Adar is the capitol of joy and Purim is its headquarters. At the end of days our sages tell us that Purim will be one of the only holidays that we celebrate. Because it’s all about joy in the end. We’re commanded to lessen our joy in the month of Av since we commemorate the loss of our national sovereignty and our beloved Temple. When Adar comes in we’re told to increase our joy. Reading between the lines reveals that we must ALWAYS be joyous. Lessening joy means we’re still serving God with joy! All the disasters foretold in our Torah occur because we forget to serve God with joy. When our service becomes a burden…look out! The true goal of Adar is seeing that the seeming “bad” breaks in our lives are all for our good, that we must accept them without despair. Jews can never despair. Gam zeh l’tova…this is also for the good. It’s one level to have acceptance. The Adar challenge is to accept pain with JOY.

Seven times every nineteen years our rabbis instituted a system of leap years to keep our lunar calendar in sync with the solar calendar. This is required because according to the Torah, Nissan, the season of our redemption, must occur in the spring. Some argue that the rabbis chose the month of Adar to double because it is the last month of the year. I believe that there is more to it. If one is choosing which month to double, make it the most joyous of months! Imagine a double Av…yuck! Furthermore, when we get the chance to go through an experience a second time we can enjoy it so much more. We may have “been there, done that.” But if we take advantage of even more wisdom and perspective the second time around it’s much more powerful. In this case, Adar 2 can double our joyful emunah!  The Talmud debates whether it is better to seize the day and celebrate Purim in the first Adar. It then concludes that it is more important to celebrate in the second month of Adar in order to maintain its thirty-day proximity to Pesach. That way our holidays of redemption at the end and beginning of our canonic saga are juxtaposed. Just like we go right from finishing the Torah on Simchat Torah to starting immediately with Breshit (Genesis), we flow from our cycle of God’s hiddeness right into a deeper appreciation of God’s light revealed.

I urge you to go to a place where Purim is celebrated with joyful abandon. If you live in LA…just walk Pico Boulevard. Take advantage of the transformative power of the four mitzvot on this special day: hear the megila, give substantially to the needy, give a few items of food as a token of friendship and eat a hearty meal at the end of the day. For many of us, intoxication gets us to a place where the heart is opened, we love more readily and tears of joy can flow. For some of us getting intoxicated is a mistake. I find that when I’ve had a few l’chaims my empathy muscle is stronger and charity becomes more natural. Maybewalk over to a 7-11 and take care of the people outside. Acknowledge the miracle of God’s stewardship in the your life. Take a stand for a friend with a gift of food, the gift of time and a patient ear. Be deeply grateful for the feeling of belongingness to this remarkable nation. Make this Purim the day you emulate Queen Esther, becoming an integral part of the solution to the issues that face our people and the entire world.

Better Run Away

Monday, February 28th, 2011
by Sam Glaser  

max partyMany a morning I bask in the sunlight on our front porch surrounded by fragrant jasmine, birds of paradise and bougainvillea. It’s my power spot for the Shachrit prayers.  I’m bound up in my tefillin, enveloped in my tallit and connected to the Source of all creation. This sunny spot conceals me just enough from the few passersby on our quiet street but some know to look for me and wave as I shuckle back and forth.  Our new neighbors have two adorable kids, the oldest a loquacious, blonde three-year-old with a favorite game. While I daven I can’t help but notice him try, often successfully, to run away from the house and down the street as his nanny panics and bolts after him.  Every time he gets a little farther and she freaks out a bit more.

We did the same thing with our dad.  We’d stand in front of his comfy leather easy chair and he’d trap us between his knees saying, “run away!”   We’d wait for the trap to open and before we could charge out of his grasp he’d grab us with his enormous hands and whisk us right back where we started.  Every third or fourth time we’d actually escape, sometimes with too much velocity and crash to the floor.  We’d pick ourselves up, stop laughing and try it again.

Of course I performed the same shenanigans with my own precious offspring and when they grew bigger, made an art form out of chasing them around the house.  Any Soap Soup fans know well our game of Better Run Away (Before I Grab You) as codified in the song by the same name.  The kids know that when I catch them I freeze and count, “five, four, three, two, RUN,” giving them time to escape.  As they grew older and could outrun me I devised a corollary to the game called Anger Bottle.  I drink most of the water out of a 12 oz. plastic bottle and then huck it at them with all my

sam bday cakemight.  It has to have just enough water to serve as ballast for a good throw but be empty enough that it scares the pants off them when it strikes the wall just behind where their heads were moments before.  I scream insults at them in my best Pirate tongue and we run until we’re too sweaty or until someone gets hurt. Many neighborhood friends come over specifically to have me terrorize them with my handy Arrowhead.

I’m writing this month’s essay about the evolution of this chase because I feel like the rules are shifting once again.  Now my kids are running away from home.  As far from their parents as they can get.  They aren’t quite cutting the cord completely.  But the stage is set for their inevitable escape.  I left home at seventeen.   I was fiercely independent and confident, with a love for the world, people and adventure and blithely left my three brothers and dear parents to deal with the impact of my disappearance from the family dynamic.  I was busy with Berklee College of Music, new friends and summer piano jobs in Montana and Greece.  I never stopped loving and appreciating my family, but I did so with occasional calls and postcards from the road.  My son Max is sixteen. The writing is on the wall.

I remember when it was clear to Shira and me that God did not plan on giving us any more children.  I had to make an appointment with my rabbi to share my distressed feelings of leaving the reproductive years behind.  I never stopped loving babies and still grab them any time there’s a willing parent.   My wife made it clear that the store was closed and I felt like I was just getting started!  I have a hunch that this melancholy will not hold a candle to the advent of empty nest.  I love the metaphor of the archer…as parents we pull the bow back with all our might and aim it to the best of our ability. Then we launch our beloved offspring on a lofty trajectory and PRAY for a good landing.  That sounds nice in theory…but right now I’m desperately holding on to every hike, every trip to the mall, every conversation at Coffee Bean.

My next CD is called Father’s Day.  It’s about being a dad, loving my own dad, the passage of time and the bitter sweetness of our lives.  Yes, I’m trying to get it out on the market before Father’s Day.  I have a line in one of the songs that sums up this new chapter: “I could hold your hand in front of all your friends, then I became an idiot.”  Max is hiding more.  Creating his own sense of self away from the shadow we cast.  Welcoming anywhere from

max mariachi10-25 friends over every Shabbat afternoon and hinting not to subtly that I find my own friends to play with.  He looks so damn handsome and has such a winning smile.  But that smile is more often reserved for his peers and if I want a conversation I have to bribe him with an occasional fancy meal or force him on an outing.  Even then I don’t have his full attention; I’m trying to teach him that it’s not OK to text while in a conversation with a live human.  He tries to comply until an “important” message comes through.

Jesse, my fourteen year old, is affectionate and demonstrative.  He’s as easy going as Max is willful.  He insists that he is going to be a rich doctor and build us a guesthouse for our retirement on his expansive property.   This too will change.  In fact, on our way to a recent family friend’s bar mitzvah, Jesse warned my wife and me that we were not allowed to dance.  Max chimed in, “don’t even talk.”  Thankfully Sarah was willing to party with us while her brothers cowered in shame.

I’m grateful that my kids still beg for bedtime stories.  I make them up every night from scratch; fully realized adventures, mysteries, business sagas and tales of spiritual rendezvous.  They each give me two random nouns that I must somehow incorporate into the story line.  I accept this challenge in order to keep their curiosity piqued throughout the fifteen minutes of drama. I owe them a dollar if I forget their word and I rarely mess up.  This past year Max stopped asking for stories and no longer will volunteer words.  A few nights ago I caught him underneath his covers with his headphones on during an especially intricate tale.  Like I said, the times they are a-changing.

By now you are probably wondering why I am taking you down this lonely road.  Of course, there’s a lesson in this and it’s acutely applicable at this time of the year.  You see, my friends, we are now entering Adar sheni, the final month in the Jewish calendar. This is the season when we heighten our joy and celebrate Jewish Mardi Gras, otherwise known as Purim.   We then launch into the first of the biblically numbered months, Nissan, during which we experience the week of Passover.  The Jewish year begins with the commemoration of the Exodus, reliving the plagues, splitting of the sea and revelation at Sinai.  Pesach is the holiday of homecoming and rebirth and logically occurs in the springtime.  We return to our infancy as a nation when we witnessed nine months of plagues and then were carried like a baby through the dangers of the desert, depending on God’s constant beneficence for our survival.

On the other hand, the megilah or scroll of Esther that we read on Purim is the only book in the canon that does not mention the name of God.  And yet God is surreptitiously operating behind the scenes in the formation and then foiling of Haman’s genocidal plot.  The word Purim refers to the game of chance that the villain in the saga employs to determine the date of our extinction.  This eternal tale leaves the reader with the option of perceiving either chance or the hand of God at each turn of events.  So too can we learn to see God’s presence in our own lives, both at times of turmoil and triumph.  In other words, when we reach spiritual maturity, when seemingly random events occur we might remark, “large world, well managed,” rather than, “it’s a small world.”

The Jewish year begins with revelation and ends with concealment.  Moses is God’s agent in bringing the Shechina down to earth and Esther’s name has the word “to hide” at its root.  Jewish history takes us on a journey from vulnerability in the desert to the formation of a people capable of agriculture, Talmudic discourse, defense and technology.  We spent an extra thirty-nine years in the desert because we didn’t want to leave the womb.  Our lives progress from dependence on our parents (and our Parent in heaven) to independence and as Stephen Covey would insist, ideally to interdependence where we grasp our role in the greater society.

In 1990 my father’s company went bankrupt.  This was a serious rupture in our family’s security and this forty-year enterprise was my dad’s raison d’être.   It’s highly likely that his four boys would have gone into the business. Instead, I became a full time musician and fell in love with my Judaism, eventually marrying the two in this unusual career of mine.  Two of my brothers became popular rabbis and the other brother is now a well-respected lawyer.  We don’t have the silver spoon in our mouths anymore and I think that’s a good thing.  We’ve had to fight for every last nickel and we’ve learned the value of hard work and perseverance.

In the desert we enjoyed manna from heaven and in Israel we had to perform backbreaking labor to cultivate our crops.  Adam was commanded to work and guard the Garden of Eden, not recline in a lounge chair drinking mai-tais.  To have any sense of pride and accomplishment, my children must strike it out on their own and wean themselves from the open tap of our generosity.  I fully understand the importance and inevitability of this process but I don’t have to like it.

The consolation for parents of teens is that yes, they will move out of our homes but not our lives, and that God willing, grandchildren will follow! Now when I look around my Shabbas table I am poignantly aware that in the ensuing years there will be empty places.  This sensation of always being in high demand as they compete for my attention will wane.  OK…I’m getting depressed again! I wish I had a freeze frame or at least a slow motion button on the video of my life.   Life is so good.

I’d like to offer my loyal readers the blessing that “those that

Glasers Hawaii sow in tears will reap with joy.”  Treasure your challenges and strive to see God’s loving hand in every facet of your life.  Take your spouse out on a regular date night so that when the house empties out you remember what one another looks like.  And in the immortal words of the psalmist, James Taylor, “Shower the people you love with love, show them the way that you feel, things are going to work out fine if you only will.”


The Genesis of the Exodus

Thursday, December 16th, 2010

by Sam Glaser

I was famished after my concert last night in Princeton, NJ.  Finding kosher food on the road is a perennial challenge and this well into the second week of a frantic Chanukah tour.  Man cannot live on salad alone! Thankfully, a dear fan in the area offered to cook up her homemade chicken specialty for me and we drove through the New Jersey darkness towards her home in East Windsor.  At one point I heard her exclaim, “oh, dear!” and sure enough a full-size deer carcass lay right in front of us. At 40mph she didn’t have time to react and we rolled right over it, dragging it under the car for several feet.  As I was sickened by the thud of hitting this once beautiful animal I was reminded of the commandment not to put a stumbling block before the blind.  Since I was the last one to witness the hazard it was now my responsibility to move it.

I didn’t move it.  We drove on joking that we could have had venison for dinner.  A few miles later we saw a bad accident.  A fresh accident, with steam pouring from the engine of a smashed compact car and an unconscious woman in the driver’s seat.  As we swerved around the scene we saw someone running to extricate the woman from between the seat and the air bag.  My first instinct was to stop and help but I wasn’t at the wheel and I reasoned that others were already helping.  We just drove on.

Our eventful ride culminated in a lovely dinner and the lighting of the Chanukiah.  In spite of the good cheer, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should have stopped the car, that I missed an opportunity to reach out and help.  What would I want done if I was stuck in that car?  Some call it Jewish guilt.  I call it the Hineni (here I am) Response. Jews are incapable of standing on the sidelines.  Something in our spiritual DNA goes haywire when we perceive someone in trouble, see justice unrealized, witness lives in jeopardy.   The question is where does that response come from?

One could cite the intransigence of our forefather Avraham when faced with the potential annihilation of Sodom.  He had just entered into an eternal partnership with God and God chose to include Avraham in the plan.  Avraham’s impassioned argument to rescue any righteous Sodomites earned him the title of First Jew in History.  Noach obediently built the ark.  Avraham fought a knockout round with the Creator of the Universe to save even a despicable nation.

I’d like to argue that a far more subtle but equally powerful biblical anecdote contributes mightily to our Hineni Response. By mid-December we can feel the glow of the Chanukah candles and are reading the last Torah portions of the book of Genesis.  Chanukah is a time of wintry weather and gloom, during the shortest days of the year.  It’s at this time that we light the lights, offering hope and illumination to a besieged world.  True, we are described as a nation of priests, but we are also a nation of dreamers.  Our mere existence is proof of the Eternal and our return to Israel after a 2000 year exile is a testimony to the power of our dreams.  I think there’s no coincidence that it is at this time of year we read about four sets of dreamers in the weekly Torah portions, Yaakov, Yosef, the baker and wine steward and Paro (Pharaoh.)  While all their dreams reveal much about human nature, I’d like to focus on an easily overlooked nuance regarding the dreams of the baker and wine steward.

Shortly after being sold into slavery, Yosef had been framed by Potifar’s wife and thrown in jail.  He spent over a decade in an miserable Egyptian prison, which I imagine was not quite a Club Med.  In spite of the dire circumstances, Yosef still was able to notice the downcast expressions on the faces of the baker and wine steward.  This is the key moment, the Genesis of the Exodus.  Like Moshe who stopped to notice the phenomenon of the burning bush when everyone was walking right by, Yosef took the time to perceive their mood change and comfort these two prisoners.

Big deal, you might say.  But because Yosef had his eye out for the downtrodden in his midst and ACTED on that sense of compassion, the wine steward referred him when Paro needed his seven-skinny-cow dream interpreted.  Thanks to Yosef’s small gesture, he became the CEO of the country, the Jews obtained salvation from the famine in Canaan and the stage was set for our eventual miraculous exodus from bondage.  Case in point: we never know when our small gesture will change history.

The fact is that God operates through history in a series of small gestures.  The intriguing saga of Esther saving the day in the Purim story is another such step-by-step tale of national salvation.  God’s name is never mentioned overtly but it is impossible to read the script and not see God’s hand on every page.  This is one of the last books of the bible, as if God is preparing His people to live in the realm of small gestures rather than overt miracles.

My wife and I often regale Shabbat guests with the circumstances of our meeting.  We are both avid cyclists and our precious paper cut ketubah, lovingly created by my artist mother, features a pair of bikes parked at the base of a family tree. Twenty years ago my friend Mark Nathan from the Semester at Sea program called to encourage me to join him on the Rosarito to Ensenada bike race.  At the finish line I met an enterprising young man who was launching his first charity bike ride to raise funds for the American Lung Association.  I talked my brother Yom Tov into taking the ride across the island of Catalina with me.  In the meantime, Shira’s roommate Karen had heard of the ALA program at her urban conservationist job.  Had Mark not called to invite me, had Yom Tov not been willing to come, had Shira’s roommate not taken the job at Tree People…I rest my case!

When the slavery in Egypt became unbearable “God heard our cries.”  Our rabbis teach that the word “cry” is plural because God hears the cry when we are totally fed up AND the cry before we actually scream.  How many of us are screaming right now?  With increasing financial burdens, job-search woes, health issues, aging parents, kids at risk.  God hears these cries even when they are silent murmurs that keep us awake at night.  Jewish law maintains that it is meritorious to help someone financially well before they are on the street, to be aware of our fellow man’s struggle when on the surface everything seems fine.

The point I’m trying to make is that everyone you know has worries and fears.  Imagine how you feel when someone takes the time out of his or her busy life to hear you, to help you, to care.  Just like with Yosef and the baker, he or she may not be able to make the problem go away.  We are judged not by the result but by the initiative. In fact, the merit of any given mitzvah does not require the completion of the act.  If one is thwarted from the full performance, for example, if you ran out of a gas on your way to visit the sick, you still get heavenly reward for your intention.  Taking a moment to share a word of kindness can be enough to restore the recipient’s faith in humanity.  What we really need these days is our faith restored.

Social scientists have espoused the Broken Window Theory which states that allowing for broken windows and graffiti as the status quo in a city creates further disarray.  Broken windows lead to more broken windows and eventually, squatters, fire and theft.  The societal norm becomes “trash the city, no one cares.”  We live in a world where our faith in humanity is trampled.  Worldwide poverty, terror, crime, drug abuse and graft are ever on the rise.  It seems outrageous that fixing a few windows can change the crime statistics on the urban scene.  But it works!  Every random act of kindness has ripple effects that rock the heavens.

Here’s a beautiful way to read the language that the Torah uses when we were redeemed from slavery: at the seder table we recite, “God will redeem you with an outstretched arm.”  I had such a powerful “aha moment” when a rabbi pointed out that the sentence could be read: “God will redeem YOU WITH THE OUTSTRETCHED ARM,” in other words, when we create a world where people have their arms outstretched to help others, only then do we merit redemption.  Avraham started the Jewish people with a mission of action and compassion.  Yosef’s pivotal moment transpired because he had the presence of mind to be aware of another individual’s suffering.  And the ones who actually got out of Egypt to form the Jewish people were the ones who looked out for their fellow man.

Here’s my blessing to all those who had the patience to read to the bottom of this essay: may you have the peace of mind to hear the music of creation.  May you have eyes to perceive God’s hand behind all the events in your life and be grateful for every moment.  And may you play a leading role in the perfection of the world by seizing every opportunity to practice random acts of simple kindness.  As for me, next time I find someone in need on a frigid New Jersey night, I’ll stop!