Friday, February 28, 2014

MEGILAT ESTHER 1:1: Time and Space

In the coming days, B'H, I will be writing about Megilat Esther, the book of Esther.  Megilat Esther records one of the most dramatic events in the history of the Jewish people.  Haman, the powerful prime Minister of the Persian Empire, issued a Royal decree to eliminate all the Jews of the Empire, "young to old, women and children", were explicitly potential targets of Haman's decree.   Miraculously, and through the intervention of Queen Esther, we were saved.        

These events, what brought Haman to issue the decree, the way Esther thwarted his plans and the Providential happy ending are all recorded in Megilat Esther. But despite being a very precise historical document, the Book of Esther it is not written in a dry prose, like the historical records of Herodotus, etc.  Megilat Esther is also a masterpiece of literature, written with a supreme literally style, intrigue, irony, and a tension that at times borders with vertigo.  In addition, Megilat Esther might be classified as a book of musar (=Jewish behavioral psychology) in that it generously describes the mental profiles of its main characters, particularly the dysfunctional personality of the Megila's villain, Haman. 
Before we discuss all these aspects of the Megila let us begin with the historical background of Megilat Esther. 

In the first verse, the book of Esther provides the time and space coordinates: 

TIME The tradition of Persian Jews, passed throughout generations, is that King Ahashverosh was the Persian emperor Khashayar-Sha. And Khashayar-Sha is no other than the King Xerxes, who reigned between 486 to 465 BCE. He is the famous King that battled the legendary 300 Spartans in Thermopylae (watch this from History Channel). This time estimation also coincides with the Jewish time-reference mentioned in the Megila: Mordekhay was the son or Ya-ir, who was the son of Shim'i, who was the son of Qish, who was exiled at the time of Yekhonya (Jeconiah) the king of Yehuda (ca.597), that is, four generations from ca. 597 to ca. 485 BCE. (There is an alternative chronology in Seder Olam. For a comprehensive discussion on this matter read Mitchell First, see here).  
PLACE Ahashverosh's Kingdom extended from India to Kush (today Sudan/Ethiopia, in those days Nubia).  The Persian Empire consisted of 127 "city-states" and it was the largest Empire in the history of humankind. It obviously included the Province of Judea (Israel) where at that time lived no less than 50,000 Jews. 


Candle Lighting in NYC        5:28 pm

Shabbat Ends in NYC             6:27 pm

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Amida (berakha 16) Please, listen (or ignore) my prayer

This is the sixteenth and last berakha of the section called 'requests' (baqashot).
In this berakha we ask HaShem to listen to our prayers, to accept and fulfill our requests. According to the Rabbis, in this berakha we could also include any particular petition that was not specifically covered in the previous twelve berakhot. For example, since there is no berakha that deals with Shiddukh (=finding a spouse) or having children, etc., we could make those request here. 
We ask God to listen to our prayers, knowing that no matter how much we believe we deserve God's attention, or how noble our cause is, etc., there is no guarantee that we will be granted what we have asked for.  HaShem always listens to our prayers, we assert in this Berakha, but sometimes His answer is "NO".

Why? Basically, for the same reason a good parent will not necessarily fulfill all of his children's request.  Many times, a parent would ignore the petition of his children, sometimes, for his children's own benefit.  Imagine you are going for a job interview, and you are eager to get this job, and you pray and beg God to  help you getting this job, if HaShem knows that this job is not good for you, or that there will be a better job, would you want Him to listen to your prayer?
Rabbenu Bahye ibn Paquda (Zaragoza, Spain, 11th Century) quotes in his famous book, "The duties of the Heart", a superb prayer, which I believe encapsulates beautifully the message that HaShem knows better than us what is better for us.  Paraphrasing it with my own words, this Berakha says:  HaShem when I pray to You, when I request something for me or for my loved ones, if YOU believe that the fulfillment of that request is not the best for us, please, do as YOU see fit, and please, ignore my petition. I trust YOUR judgment over my own judgment. I leave it up to YOU. YOU should choose to accept or ignore my request, and I will readily accept YOUR verdict. " 
This should be our state of mind when we ask haShem to listen to our prayers. At the end of the day, if HaShem decides to ignore my request, I know HE loves me, and I know HE knows better.

(heshbon hanefesh, Chapter 3)
"My God, I dare to stand in front of You, not by ignorance of my own little stature and my inadequate knowledge of Your greatness and transcendence, for I know that You are High and Exalted and I'm of too little account, too lowly and small to petition You, to praise and sign hymns to You or to sanctify Your name which is sanctified by the voices of the High and Holy angels. Rather, what gave me the courage to address You is that You have commanded me to pray to You, and You have permitted me to praise Your exalted name according to my limited understanding of You and my limited grasp of Your glory, so that I will express my service to You with humility.
And You know better than me what is best for me, and the ways in which I should be guided. I am therefore informing You of my needs, not so as to call Your attention to them, but so I will become conscious of my great need of You and of my trust in You. So, If I should ask You , out of my ignorance, for something that is not good for me or of no benefit to me, I accept Your choice rather than my choice. And so I leave the fulfillment of all my interests to Your lasting determination and supreme governance, as David said "God, my heart is not haughty, my eyes are not raised high, I do not presume to grasp things too great and mysterious for me. Thus, I have commended myself to You, like a weaned child, who depends entirely on his mother..."  (Tehillim 131:1-2)

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Amida (Berakha 15) Praying for the real Messiah

This berakha ends the section of "National Requests", the six blessings in which we pray God for our  gueula (=redemption) which is actually our desire for normalization as the nation of Israel. Our desire to be established in the land of Israel, following the Law of Israel.

This gueula process will culminate with the coming of the Mashiah. 

The Mashiah will be a King, a political leader, who like King David will be completely committed to serve God.  

But how will we suppose to recognize who the Mashiah is?  
The Rabbis did not give us an explicit list of the Mashiah characteristics.  But Maimonides did (MT, H. Melakhim, Ch.11).  

For Maimonides, everything we should know about the potential Mashiah is learned from Bar Kokhba. How so? Because Rabbi Aqiba believed that Bar Kokhba was the Mashiah, until Bar Kokhba was defeated and killed. Then, Rabbi Aqiba realized that althought Bar Kokhba possessed the necessary requisites to be Mashiah, evidently he was not. Now, Maimonides reasons, whatever rabbi Aqiba saw in Bar Kokhba is what we should expect to find in the potential Mashiah. 

He then mentions the three preconditions for the Mashiah. 
1. Like bar Kokhba, the Mashiah needs to be a descendant of King David.  

2. The second condition is that he will be committed to Torah study and meticulous observance (הוגה בתורה ועוסק במצוות), aspiring to establish a Jewish Kingdom where HaShem will be the Supreme King. 

3. The third condition, as per Maimonides, is that the candidate for Mashiah will be a military man, actively fighting the wars of Israel. Not "fighting" in a symbolic army (a sort of a Jewish "Salvation Army") but in the real Jewish Army, like the brave Bar-Kokhba who was a soldier and then the commander of the Jewish army that fought against the enemies of Israel (in 130 ACE, the Romans). 

Maimonides explains that if a Jewish leader possesses these three conditions he could be considered the Mashiah. If he also gathers the remnants of the Jewish people into the land of Israel, and he builds the Bet haMiqdash,  then he should be declared officially as our Mashiah Tsidqenu. (B"H, bimhera beyamenu!

Recommended reading on this subject 
'The Real Messiah?' 
by Aryeh Kaplan. 
                                                                           See here

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Amida (berakha 14), Yerushalayim, a city and its soul

In this blessing we ask HaShem 1. to restore His Presence in Yerushalayim. and 2. to reestablish the Throne of David. This double request alludes to the spiritual and the political aspects of Jerusalem.  

First of all, Yerushalayim is the city of the Bet haMiqdash .  The Bet haMiqdash was the Holy Temple. The soul of the Jewish people.  We Jews believe in God's Omnipresence (=God is everywhere). However, the Tora asserts that in the Sanctuary there was a special "Divine Manifestation" (Shekhina), a feeling of God's presence which could not be experienced anywhere else. It is impossible to describe with words how this "God's Manifestation" was felt.  However, if upon visiting the Western Wall (one of the outer walls of the Temple) you are overcome by an incomparable sensation of Holiness and closeness to HaShem, the feeling you experience in the Wall, is a tiny reflection of that overwhelming "Divine Manifestation" felt in the Bet HaMiqdash. In this Berakha we first request God to reestablish His Manifestation in Yerushalayim. Restoring His Sanctuary, the Bet HaMiqdash. 

We also pray in this Berakha for the reestablishment of the "Throne of David". Aside from being the spiritual center of the Jewish people, Yerushalayim was also the political capital of the Jewish Nation. All National Institutions were established in Yerushalayim. In this aspect, Yerushalayim was to the Jewish Nation what Washington DC is to the USA. The Jewish King had his palace and residence (=the White House) in Yerushalayim. Yerushalayim was the residing place of the Bet Din haGadol (= the U.S. Supreme Court of Justice) and Yerushalayim was the city of the Sanhedrin (= the U.S. Congress).  When we cry for the destruction of Jerusalem we lament not only the destruction of the Bet HaMiqdash, but also the eradication of all our political and governmental institutions.  Thus, in our Berakha, when we pray to HaShem for the reestablishment of Yerushalayim, we also pray for the restoration of the Jewish Government  (David's Throne). 

Today, Baruch HaShem, we have Yerushalayim again. But we still don't have the Bet HaMiqdash. The Bet HaMiqdash is to Yerushalayim what the soul is to the body. Now, if Yerushalayim is today the most beautiful city in the world, and this is Yerushalayim without her soul, imagine how magnificent Yerushalayim will be, once her soul, the Bet HaMiqdash, is restored!

Monday, February 24, 2014

Amida (berakha 13) Take care of those who take care of us

In this blessing we ask haShem to protect and help the righteous and pious. Those who are committed to pursuing kindness, justice, the knowledge of God and the obedience of His commandments.

We ask for the righteous in this particular section, the section which deals with "National" requests. Because the Tsadiqim are our national heroes, our role model and inspiration.

This berakha begins by mentioning two types of good people: Righteous (tsadiqim) and pious (hasidim). Righteous are those who strictly follow God's commandments. Hasidim -pious -is a level above righteousness. Hasidim are righteous people who outdo their religious duties in one particular category of Mitsvot: Hesed. Hesed means kindness. And it includes the performance of the good deeds we do for other people: visiting the sick, comforting the mourners and helping those in need. While excess in certain ritual areas might be counterproductive, objectionable or a symptom of arrogance, in the area of Hesed doing more than what we are required is unquestionable and noble.

In this berakha we ask HaShem to protect and reward the righteous and all those who put their trust in God. It is important to notice that anyone might belong to the category of righteous or pious. Depending exclusively on one's actions and intentions. Thus, we ask HaShem to inspire us to follow the footsteps of the righteous, so we could also be counted as such: "Place our lot among them, and let us never be shamed for in You we have trusted."

It seems that the Tsadiqim and the Hasidim deserve a special protection. Why? Because the real righteous and pious people live according to standards of altruism which are very different from the rest of us.  The Tsadiqim behave as if they have come to this world to give, not to take; to defend others, not themselves; and to care of other people, not of their own needs.   And while usually people who benefit from the kindness of the Tsadiqim appreciate their unselfishness, many times the noblest Tsadiqim are vulnerable and exposed to ingratitude and even abuse.  We pray to HaShem for an ideal situation in which, while the Tsadiqim take care of other people, HaShem will take special care of the Tsadiqim.