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Uncover the Light Kavanot, Essays and Video Teachings

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To celebrate five years of this sacred work, we are designating the month before Purim as a time in which we fulfill the line from the Book of Esther, “The Jews had light/ Layehudim hayeta orah.” During this month, we will publish and distribute materials related to light and Purim. Enjoy these resources below and check back weekly for new materials!

Weekly Kavanot

This week, on the Shabbat before Purim, we read the weekly Torah portion Tetzaveh. In it, we read about a seven-day period in which the priests, Aaron and his sons, are inaugurated into service in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The Torah provides exacting detail about how the priests should dress, and what and how the sacrifices should be made, including how to smoke the sacrificial animals to create a pleasant odor. The Torah warns that the priests will die if they don’t wear the proper attire. It’s all about how to be holy in the presence of God, the ultimate judge.

In contrast, the Purim story begins in King Ahasuerus’s palace in Shushan. He has thrown a 180-day drinking party, followed by another seven-day party. At the end of the seven days, he summons Queen Vashti to appear naked before him and all the party guests. She refuses. After consulting his advisors, the king banishes Vashti and likely has her killed.

Everything in Tetzaveh is designed to heighten the senses and cultivate awe of the Divine. Everything in the Purim story is designed to deaden the senses, resulting in chaos and death.

Tetzaveh begins with a commandment to bring oil to light the lamps in the Mishkan, a light that must burn continually. While the lamp is physically located in the Mishkan, symbolically we understand it to represent the Divine presence, teaching: Layehudim haytah orah, “the Jews had light.” We therefore are compelled to shine light on chaos and injustice and to bring holiness into this world.

Purim and Pesakh each fall on the full moon.

Each is preceded by a fast day.

Each is a celebration of ge’ulah, redemption.

And each presents an opposite face of their shared theme.

Purim is the last festival of the year, Pesakh the first.

The Exodus is sacred myth, the Purim tale  satirical farce.

We read the Megillah verbatim from parchment; we adlib and improvise with the Haggadah.

In the Pesakh story God commands, intervenes, wages war.

In the Megillah, God goes unmentioned.

But together, these two festivals connect the end of the year with its beginning.

Just like the last word of the Torah, “Yisrael,” loops back to touch the first word “Bereishit,” so does the month of Adar clasp itself to Nissan.

There are four special Torah portions* (in addition to the weekly portions) bridging the last month with the first. These highlight different aspects of the arrival of Purim and Pesakh. Through this device, the veiled miracles of Purim sit within the same frame as the overt miracles of the Exodus.

At the weary end of the storyline where events seem random and wild, when justice seems to have no part to play  we return to the beginning.

We juxtapose two stories and invite them to speak to each other.

In the light of Pesakh, God is Present even in Purim’s Hiddenness.

We cultivate joy to suffuse our survivors’ relief.

We sing gratitude for a lucky turn.

We celebrate.

We hope.

*The four special portions are: Shekalim, Zakhor, Parah and HaHodesh.

The myrtle is a lovely plant. Evergreen. Fragrant. Humble. You would never know by looking at her that the myrtle harbors a great secret: Once a year, with the first stirrings of spring, the myrtle transmogrifies into a distant star.

Yes, it’s true. She unroots herself, tumbles up through the heavens. Her leaves ignite with tiny sparks that explode into a great, fiery sphere. Her blinding light travels out to the distant edges of infinity. For 24 hours, she reigns as the Queen of Heaven.

What fun it is! Her light somersaults out through the great expanse. She plays laser-tag with her sisters, the Pleiades; tickles Orion until he loses his hunter’s stance. She paints the faces of rocky planets with glitter, weaves miles of tinsel through distant galaxies, dresses the comets in drag-queen flamboyance. The heavenly bodies glow and twirl with delight.

As the Queen of Heaven, she dreams big! She will seduce a vain and powerful king, hang her enemies on the tallest of gallows, slaughter the wicked en masse. She is omnipotent Goddess, her light cascading through history with glee. She screams herself hoarse with joy.

Back on earth, a dark night has fallen. The oppressed, the haughty, the pious — sinners and saints alike — turn their faces upwards towards the heavenly light. They feel the tug of the Queen of Heaven’s audacity and joy; their hearts expand with her light to the edges of infinity. They succumb to hilarity, mock their pieties, embrace the absurd. Fervently, for one night, they shed their petty concerns and worship the glittering stars.

After 24 hours, the giddiness subsides. Weary from her exuberant romp, the myrtle gently floats back to Earth. Content. Re-rooted. More fragrant than ever. A delight, once again, to all who behold her humble beauty.

But the discerning will notice, as spring unleashes its raucous bloom, that the myrtle shimmers with a light she didn’t possess before. Is it just the strengthening glare of the spring sun? Or are there tiny embers still burning within her leaves? Look closely. See if you notice the change.

Note: The name Esther is a cognate of Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess known as the Queen of Heaven.  But hidden under this flamboyant mask is her true, more humble name: Hadassah, the myrtle.

The story of Esther is one of garments and hidden truths. Queen Esther withholds her identity as a Jewish woman from her husband, King Ahashverosh, and she uses her royal attire to win his favor and support. The Zohar teaches us that Torah, too, is clothed in a garment: “Fools of the world look only at that garment, the story of Torah. Those who know more do not look at that garment, but rather at the body beneath that garment” (The Zohar: Pritzker Edition, vol. 8, p. 520.)

For the past few months, I’ve been studying sofrut (scribal arts) and writing my very own Megillat Esther. Many people have a distant relationship to the physical Torah and rarely come into direct contact with a scroll. Scribal training has been my attempt to remedy this — to build greater personal intimacy with the physical body of Torah. It’s been a chance to see beneath the garment, beneath the velvet covering and beyond the story.

In this scroll, I can see my anxiety, my rushed writing, my tentative and rough erasures, and I can see the places where I am starting to flow. I’ve learned that the Torah scroll is sacred, but it is not foreign. It is not other than us in the way that divinity can sometimes feel. It is of us. The scroll, the body of Torah, comes into the world through the work of our own hands. It sheds light on the truth of our imperfections, but also of our capacity for artistry, beauty and great care.

A famous Talmud teaching relates that it is obligatory to become intoxicated on Purim to the extent one cannot tell the difference between “Blessed be Mordecai” and “Cursed be Haman,” which, if you don’t know Hebrew, you have a 50-50 chance of mixing up anyway.

However, the Talmud goes on to share a story about how the sage Rabbah, in fulfillment of this commandment, murdered his friend Rabbi Zeira. The next day while nursing a hangover, he realized what he had done, prayed to God for mercy and revived his friend. The next year, Rabbah invited Rabbi Zeira over again, and he wisely declined the invitation, (snarkily) saying, “Miracles don’t happen all the time.” (Megillah 7b)

The lesson seems to be that while we should have fun and let loose a bit on Purim in order to embrace the tumultuous nature of the world, we also must be careful that we don’t overdo it.

But to fully understand this story we must ask, who was Rabbi Zeira? The Talmud relates that Rabbi Zeira would destroy his friends’ golems for fun (Sanhedrin 65b), got kids to take his tests for him (Menahot 29b), would sit outside the study hall just so he could suck up to Torah scholars (Berakhot 28a) and would passive aggressively get all up in people’s faces to get them to apologize to him for some perceived slight (Yoma 87a).

This puts the story in greater perspective. For while yes we should have fun on Purim — and yes, we should be mindful of excess — sometimes literally ghosting the jerks in our lives by killing and resurrecting them is a good way to get rid of them.

Toward the end of the book of Esther, we read, “The Jews had light and gladness, happiness and honor” (Esther 8:16), which also came to be a part of our havdalah liturgy, and thus a weekly part of experiencing Jewish time.

We often imagine light to be the opposite of darkness, and in that imagining, have associated light with “good” and darkness with “bad.” These ideas of light/good and dark/bad have also been mapped, often unconsciously, onto our racial imaginings, in which white joins light/good, while Black joins dark/bad. When the book of Esther and the ritual of havdalah invite us to celebrate light, how do we reckon with this problematic binary? A closer look at light itself, with some assistance from Hillel and Shammai, reveals a more complex reality.

In Mishnah Brachot 8:5, we read an early disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai about what the appropriate blessing is to say over the havdalah candle. In Shammai’s version, the liturgy uses the phrase “me’or ha’eish/the light of the flame” while Hillel uses the phrase, “me’orei ha’eish/the lights of the flame.” As is almost always the case in debates between the schools of Hillel and Shammai, Hillel’s practice became the norm and remains the blessing that is part of havdalah to this day.

The debate unfolds in the gemara about the difference between these two liturgical choices. “Beit Shammai holds that there is one light in a fire, and Beit Hillel hold that there are many lights in a fire” (Berakhot 52b). If you have spent time looking closely at a flame, be it a havdalah candle or otherwise, you can likely imagine arguing both in favor of Shammai or Hillel. On the one hand, a flame is a flame–there is one flame that rests on a wick. On the other hand, a closer look at a flame reveals not a single light, but multiple lights. Rashi, the medieval commentator, tells us that the many lights that Beit Hillel refers to are the “flame of red, white, and green-ish.”

Light, for our ancestors, was never just the white light of a fluorescent or halogen bulb, but rather the full spectrum of colors. By standardizing Hillel’s “lights of the flame,” our tradition lifts up the multiple colors that are present in light. So when we recite “layehudim hayta ora/the Jews had light” on Purim or as part of our weekly havdalah liturgy, we can move beyond the binaries of good/light/white and bad/dark/Black, and be reminded of the dancing, multicolored lights of our ancestors, as well as the dancing, multicolored lights of the Jewish people.

Video Teachings about Light & Purim

"Ten Zohars" with Professor Joel Hecker

In keeping with the theme of  layehudim hayetah orah, “The Jews had light”, Professor Joel Hecker of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College offers a short teaching from the Zohar, the foundational text of Jewish mysticism.  

"Adam Uncovers the Light" with Rabbi Mira Wasserman, Ph.D.

Why do Jewish holidays and the holidays of so many other peoples and cultures coincide with the shortest days of winter? Mira Wasserman, Ph.D. offers this Talmudic teaching from Avodah Zara that touches on light, the turning of the seasons and ritual. This story emphasizes the commonalities among people and that all human beings are children of Adam, the first human.

Evolve Web Conversations & Podcast Episodes

Confronting the Legacy of Amalek

On Monday, February 13, at 1 p.m. EST, Dr. Adam Strater discussed his Evolve essay, “Confronting the Legacy of Amalek” with Rabbi Jacob Staub.

The Purim villain Haman was descended from the nation Amalek, the arch enemy of the Israelites, whom they are commanded to exterminate. Dr. Strater explores the identification of enemies of the Jews as Amalekites through Jewish history, including by some people in our day.

The Grand Canyon, Evolution and Pope Francis

Rabbi Daniel Swartz, the director of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, talks about the philosophical and theological questions he’s wrestled with as he’s marshaled his energies toward activism. He demonstrates his philosophy in action, recalling a 2021 gathering of global religious leaders at the Vatican in which participants shaped an important statement on Climate Change. And he shares his impressions of meeting Pope Francis. 

Evolve Essays exploring the meanings of Purim

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