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Jonah’s whale of contemplation

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Parshot/Festivals

If we didn’t know the book of Jonah so well, (or have vague memories of it on Yom Kippur afternoons – pre-COVID-19, of course), the second chapter would catch us by surprise.

Think about it: the first chapter is filled with movement and excitement: Jonah running away, the ship and the sailors and the storm, with a grand conclusion as we see in our mind’s eye Jonah being thrown off the ship into the heaving waters.

Then it all stops in chapter two. Suddenly, there’s no movement. One could say that Jonah is in lockdown. In a fish. While the dag is called a whale in children’s stories and there are arguments about what sort of fish it is, whatever marine species it was, it couldn’t have been very pleasant. As a Biblical narrative, we need to consider what the reason for this chapter is.

The first two verses have Jonah sitting in the fish for three days, before he begins to pray. Why does it take him so long? Israeli bible scholar Nechama Leibowitz explained that this fits with what we know of Jonah up until now. He is running away. He gets on a ship, descends into the hold, and goes to sleep. Each of these movements constitutes an escape from reality. So being in a still, dark place – even if it smells fishy – is where Jonah prefers to stay, away from the turbulent waters and the demands of a G-d who he doesn’t agree with.

But then something changes, and he begins to pray. What sort of prayer is this?

Given his position, one would think it’s a request – and in fact, most people assume that this is so – as we said, it’s rather fishy, so it would be logical that he prays to leave the belly of a fish. But if we read it carefully, we see that isn’t so. Let’s take a look at some of the wording.

He said, “In my trouble, I called to the Lord, And He answered me; from the belly of sheol, I cried out, and You heard my voice.”

And then, When my life was ebbing away, I called the Lord to mind; and my prayer came before You, Into Your holy temple.”

Notice the past tense, as well as the theme. It resembles many of the thanksgiving psalms found in the book of Tehillim. But how is it possible that while he is still in the fish, Jonah is giving thanks for being delivered?

Some modern scholars feel that this chapter was placed here from elsewhere in order to fill out the story. But this doesn’t make sense, after all, if you’re going to choose a psalm, you’d choose one that asks for deliverance, to fit your story. Therefore, it seems more reasonable to assume that this is part of the narrative, and we must ask rather, what is he thanking G-d for at this point in the narrative?

To answer this, we must consider Jonah as a character.

When Jonah asks the sailors to throw him into the sea, he is asking to die. He’d rather die than go to Nineveh, it seems, and then the story could end there. But it is possible that, while he was prepared to give up his life (for reasons that are unclear in the book), now as he thrashes in the water, struggling to breathe, he realises the stark fact of death that stares him in the face, and perhaps it doesn’t seem as great an idea as before.

Suddenly, Jonah is swallowed by a fish. There’s air, silence, darkness, and he sits there, hour after hour, waiting to drown. Three days and three nights pass, and finally it dawns on him that he is, in fact, saved. At this point, he realises that G-d hasn’t given up on him even if he gave up on himself. At this point, he sees G-d not as a strict commander of prophecy, but as a saviour and a G-d who cares about creation and creatures, something that G-d says directly in the last verse of the book. But it takes time alone, time without movement, to contemplate and reach this conclusion.

Each stanza of this poem reflects this reality, as Jonah speaks of a yearning to return to the presence of G-d. The poem then is one of thanksgiving, at his joy in being saved and being given the chance to return and begin again.

This then is the chapter perfectly positioned to inspire us on the afternoon of Yom Kippur when we may feel a little dwarfed by the immensity of the distance between mortal and creator, wondering if our teshuva has been enough. It’s then that we are called upon to consider that even someone who actively ran away – to the bottom of the ocean – can change and is forgiven. It becomes our own thanksgiving for the opportunity to rebuild a relationship with the almighty.

  • Ilana Stein is head of education of the Academy of Jewish Thought and Learning, where she also lectures on Tanach and Jewish environmental ethics.

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Purim: a four-point plan for embracing uncertainty

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As we approach Purim this year, it’s hard to escape the feeling of disappointment. This is the second Purim since the beginning of the pandemic, and the world remains upside down. Our lives at the moment seem reduced, our Purim celebrations muted.

But maybe it’s the opposite. Maybe this is the year for a Purim like no other.

Think about what we are all grappling with at the moment – the pervading sense we have is of living in a world of uncertainty.

Purim is all about embracing uncertainty. In fact, the very word “Purim” means “lots”, referring to the lots Haman cast randomly to select the day to carry out his genocidal plan.

In a world so full of threats and danger, Purim gives us a game plan. In fact, the four mitzvot of Purim constitute the perfect formula for coping with an uncertain world.

First, the mitzvah to hear the reading of the Megillah in the night and again on the day of Purim teaches us about faith. The Megillah inspires us to see Hashem’s presence everywhere, even when it isn’t obvious. The name Esther – the Megillah’s chief protagonist – comes from the word hester, meaning “hidden”, a hint at G-d’s hidden presence in the world (Talmud, Chulin 139b). Famously, the Megillah, which relates the miraculous story of how the Jewish people were saved from annihilation, doesn’t mention Hashem’s name once. Even when we cannot see Him, we are reminded that He is there, looking out for us every moment of every day.

He was in ancient Persia when Haman rose up against us, and He is here with us in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. We can take comfort in knowing we are in His loving embrace, and that everything He does is ultimately for our best.

The third mitzvah of Purim – matanot l’evyonim (Esther 9:22), giving money to those in need on the day – reminds us of the power of giving. There are many who have been hit financially by COVID-19. Our incredible institutions, too, are buckling under the strain. This year in particular, when so many of us are vulnerable, we need to reach out and give according to our means.

Then there’s mishloach manot (Esther 9:22) – sending gifts of food to our friends and family on Purim. Now is the time to invest in our relationships. We need them more than ever. We need to lean on one another. Our relationships feed us, giving us the strength and emotional well-being to withstand these difficult times. At a time of isolation and dislocation, mishloach manot remind us to fortify our connections to the people around us as we draw strength from them and they draw strength from us.

Finally, there is the seudat Purim, the celebratory meal on Purim day. The Purim seudah is a feast of gratitude and thanksgiving. We are grateful to Hashem for our miraculous deliverance on Purim, and it reminds us to offer thanks to Him also for the daily miracles we all experience, to truly savour the divine blessings we have in our lives, and to live with gratitude.

And so, as the world gradually moves to the next phase of this great global health struggle, let’s embrace Purim. Not with big gatherings, but with immersive engagement in the four mitzvot of the day which, together, provide a game plan for living in a world of uncertainty, guiding us to the four things we need right now: faith, kindness, love, and gratitude.

May we all merit the “light and joy and celebration and glory” (Esther 8:16) which the Megillah tells us filled their world after the miracles of Purim, and may these divine blessings flow into our lives and into our world.

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Valiant heroes and dark villians – why Purim is like COVID-19

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We all love fairy tales. Beautiful, clever heroes who use their charm to bring frightening dramas to a quick denouement after which everybody lives happily ever after.

From nursery school, this is how the story of Purim has been told to us by well-meaning educators: gorgeous young Esther, blessed to have won an empire-wide beauty contest to become the new Queen of Persia, lives in wedded bliss with the King. As soon as a threat is levelled against her people, she manages to sweet-talk her husband, Achashverosh, to nullify the plan. And they all live happily ever after.

I apologise in advance if I’m spoiling a childhood dream. A thorough reading of the Book of Esther, aided by the commentary found in Talmud Megillah, shows each of the statements in the above paragraph to be untrue. Esther was neither young, gorgeous, nor happy. She was dragged, against her will, to join the King’s harem. Though she secured the role of spouse, she still lived a miserable double life, and had to vie for the monarch’s attention against many rivals.

By the time she heard of Haman’s evil plan, she hadn’t seen the King for more than a month. And here’s a little challenge: for an audience with the King, you need to be invited. Nobody, even Achashverosh’s wife, simply marches into the throne room and says, “Howzit!”, as Mordechai expected Esther to do. Trespassers are executed!

Esther’s approach to the King could only have disastrous consequences for her. At worst, she would lose her life for her breach of royal protocol. At best, the King would extend his golden sceptre to her, signifying forgiveness for her breach (which, as we all know, is what happened). This outcome would actually be far from pretty. But first let me introduce you to another fact you are unlikely to have been taught by your nursery – or even primary – school teacher.

As per the Talmud, prior to her abduction to the harem, Mordechai and Esther were husband and wife. For years, she lived a double life, halachically married to one man while prisoner to another’s whims. Yet, from the moment she volunteered to approach the King and seduce him into saving her people, her marriage to Mordechai would have to end by Jewish law (which tragically is precisely what happened).

Mordechai’s request of Esther was to make an ultimate sacrifice for both of them. It involved pain and deprivation for individuals for the sake of the entire nation. A sacrifice Esther took upon herself, with the famous words, “Thus I will come to the King, contrary to the law, and if I perish, I perish.” (Esther, Chapter 4). A verse heavily loaded with double meaning. “Contrary to the law” – Persia’s or G-d’s? “I perish, I perish” – in this world or in the world to come.

The past year has been no fairy tale, just like the Purim story. But these magic stories often involve villains and heroes. Here the parallel applies.

The hero and heroine of Purim are Mordechai and Esther, a couple prepared to make huge personal sacrifices (hers far greater than his, of course) for the benefit of a community.

So many heroes have emerged in the past year and a half. These are good men and women, giving up what’s precious to them for the common good. Tribute has been paid to the angels of Hatzolah and to frontline health workers who have worked tirelessly under horrid conditions to save lives and minimise pain. In my position of chairperson of the South African Rabbinical Association, I also want to make mention of the heroic efforts of my colleagues to give spiritual guidance and hope to our community, this with our sanctuaries shuttered for the greater part of the past year.

The real hero is each one of us, in our own personal life, who has made and continues to make huge personal sacrifices for the good of the wider community. The many of us who stay home, cut down on socialising, give up on parties, glamourous weddings, Barmitzvahs and Batmitzvahs, and other life-cycle celebrations, and have radically modified our lifestyle to save others’ lives. Not to mention the wretched mask wearing, an altruistic act, according to experts, who say that most of the benefit is for those around us. The cost to this year’s Purim observance has been huge, accustomed as we are to large, merry gatherings.

The mortal danger in the Purim story took close to a year to disappear. To be exact, from Pesach to Purim. (Haman’s edict was promulgated on the Eve of Passover; the threat ceased about 11 months later, on 14 Adar, later to become Purim.) That’s the precise timeline of the current peril we are facing. We pray for Hashem to give us another Purim miracle, with total and complete deliverance from the current danger. As we read in the Book of Esther (Chapter 9), may we experience “transformation from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning to festivity”.

Purim sameach!

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Less is more: friendship is the essence of mishloach manot

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Purim is easily one of our most social and communal holidays. The festivities begin at nightfall, and flow through to the following day. There is dress-up, a seudah (festive meal), and our communal web is activated as people send mishloach manot (food parcels) to friends near and far.

With so much socialising as well as giving and receiving, Purim is often a day to acknowledge one’s connection to people and feel grateful for community.

Yet, a group of Jewish doctors issued a caution recently about mishloach manot, saying that the circulating of these food parcels isn’t a good idea during a pandemic. These doctors advised keeping the mitzvah to its minimum, which is to send mishloach manot, (a minimum of two items of food), to one person.

Should we resign ourselves to saying Purim is yet another holiday suppressed by the pandemic, or might there be something valuable, even deeply connecting in reducing the mitzvah to its minimum requirements?

In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Megillah, we are told that Rabba, an impoverished yet highly esteemed Amoraic Sage who became head of the Yeshiva at Pumpedita, would send a sack of dates and a cup of roasted flour with Abayei to the esteemed exilarch Marei, the son of Mar. Abayei the student of Rabba, functions as a kind of quirky commentator.

Appraising the dates and the flour he says, “When Marei the exilarch sees this, he will say, ‘Even when the farmer becomes the king, the basket doesn’t hang low.’” In other words, when Abayei looks at the modest package, he thinks that Marei, an exilarch, might find it a little … spare.

Marei the exilarch then sent Rabba in return a sackful of ginger and a cupful of long peppers, an eminently more expensive gift. At this point, Abayei comments, “Rabba will say, ‘I sent him a sweet treat, and now he has sent me pungents in return.’” In other words, Rabba will say, he has sent me something smelly!

This humorous anecdote relaying an exchange between a rosh yeshiva and an exilarch touches on the underbelly of mishloach manot: sending food parcels to your friends on Purim can be complicated.

Who would have thought that bag of Fritos and that almost stale hamantaschen actually touches on complex socio-economic issues, class stratifications, egos, and interpersonal sensitivities? Purim is a day where dates and flour might be misconstrued as a little frugal, where ginger and peppers might be received as a subtle insult.

Indeed, sometimes a mitzvah can become entangled in other stuff: how many mishloach manot did I receive? Am I popular? Do I have money to send fancy mishloach manot? Is my mishloach manot as nice as the one I’m receiving from others? Did we receive from so and so? So and so delivered to us, but we hadn’t prepared any for them.

Mishloach manot is almost akin to getting likes on Facebook. You feel loved when you get lots of them. What’s more, the very next day, you find yourself sitting with a pile of confectionery that you want to give away. Between longing to receive it and then giving it all away, what’s the point?

As doctors advise us to return to the minimum practice of the mitzvah, perhaps it’s also a chance to return to the essence and meaning of the mitzvah. The words in the Megillah tell us “mishloach manot ish le’rei’eihu” (food parcels from one person to his/her friend). If this is about sending a gift to your friends, perhaps Purim is a day to consider where we are in terms of our friends and friendship. What does it mean to truly give and receive as a friend? What does it take to recognise the true needs of your friends, and to offer yourself without over-reaching or under-reaching.

Perhaps this focus on reaching out to your friend is because the story of Esther is really about failed relationships. On a micro level, Achashverosh isn’t a guy who has deep and meaningful relationships! He gets rid of Vashti when she challenges him, he doesn’t summon Esther for days on end, and his relationship with Haman is based on power and flattery. The failed interpersonal relationships have ramifications for the wider level of society. As Vashti is punished, all women in Persia are further subjugated, and as Haman hates Mordechai, he seeks to kill all Jews.

So this Purim, as we adhere to our doctors’ orders and prepare mishloach manot for one or maybe two people, let’s return to an examination of friendship and consider the ways in which bonds have been strained through social distancing.

Let’s offer our reduced mishloach manot with simplicity and genuineness, a nourishing yet humble gift to a friend who could do with it, and receive what’s offered without judgement or expectation. But more than a food parcel, let’s remember how to be a friend, and how to cultivate friendship.

If Rabba and Marei’s mishloach manot manoeuvres were complicated, the Talmud in Megillah ends with a meaningful and touching tale about two other rabbis. We are told that Abayei bar Avin and  Rabbi Chaninah bar Avin would simply exchange their meals with each other, thus fulfilling their mishloach manot obligation.

The Talmud seems to tell us that through this simple, humble, and uncomplicated exchange, without fanfare or ceremony, they were satisfied and complete, and all obligations were fulfilled. They understood the essence of the mitzvah.

  • Adina Roth is a clinical psychologist in private practice, and a teacher of Jewish Studies. She runs an independent Barmitzvah and Batmitzvah programme in Johannesburg, and teaches Tanach to adults.

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