Friday, June 10, 2016

Parashat Bamidbar, and packing up my own Tabernacle

Shabbat Shalom. This week’s Parasha is Parashat Bamidbar, mainly containing the census. The tribes are each counted, but the tribe of Levi is left out of the census. Instead of being counted as among the potential warriors of Israel (as only the men over 20 of each other tribe are counted - “everyone who goes out to the army”), the Levites are instead appointed to tending to the tabernacle. When the Israelites are about to move on, it is the job of the Levites to break down the Tabernacle. When the Israelites settle at a new campsite, the Levites set the Tabernacle back up. Rashi comments that this appointment also carries over to the job of carrying the Tabernacle while the Israelites are actively in transit.
There is something ritualistic to the way the Levites are the facilitators and logistics team for this important and holy necessity of the nomadic Children of Israel. They need the Tabernacle to be the visual representation of God’s presence among them, and they need it to be able to come with them every time they move. They need someone among their mixed multitudes to be responsible for ensuring the Tabernacle makes it safely from place to place. It seems practical that the safest way to carry it around would be to dismantle and reassemble it at each place, but it also seems that that require a lot of extra manpower, again requiring that those responsible should be dedicated, appointed, authoritative. Who better, then, than the tribe from which Moses and Aaron and all the kohanim descend?
I am staring down the barrel of my own move and contemplating what is necessary to take with me, what is holy and needs to be transported carefully. Though I can pay movers and ask family for help, it's not really the same as having Levites who are intimately familiar with my most valued personal belongings, and specifically appointed by God to help me. I have been encamped here at Temple Beth Emeth for the majority of my time here in New York, and now I am preparing to leave. In August, I will be moving to Virginia to serve as the part-time rabbi of a small Reform congregation, and I'll be using my surplus time to explore unserved Jewish communities in the DC area. Although I'm remaining in the city for the summer, I'm already starting to pack up my own Tabernacle, mostly metaphorically so far, but soon I will have to literally start packing. I'm breaking down pieces in a holy and ritualistic way, trying to ensure that all the most important things make it to the next encampment.
It has been a wonderful experience working here these past years. Thank you all for being a part of my life and my journey toward my dream rabbinate. If you ever find yourself wandering bamidbar, in the wilderness, of the Manassas or Arlington areas of Virginia, please blow a shofar to me and come visit my encampment. You will enrich my Tabernacle there, too. Shabbat shalom.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Parashat Emor

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Emor, and it is mostly a list of rules for the priests to follow, though it also includes an explanation of holidays for all the Israelites to observe, and ends with story about a blasphemer that sets a strong tone for justice in the Israelite camp. In the last parasha, the Torah tells us multiple times, “You shall be holy,” but in this week’s parasha, as the Torah tells us of the extra responsibilities of the priests, that “They shall be holy” (Leviticus 21:6). Rashi comments on this use of the third person that it means they should be holy, even if against their will. A Midrash called the Torat Kohanim explains that this is to teach us that though the kohanim have extra responsibilities and carry a heavier burden of holiness, this extra load is not theirs alone. It is up to the community to continue to do their own work toward holiness and support the priests in their work. It is up to the community to hold the priests accountable for their actions and to see to it that the priests are indeed being holy.
            Later in the parasha, God commands that there should be one law for all in the camp, whether native Israelite or proselyte. This follows the story of the blasphemer, who was the son of an Israelite woman and an Egyptian man, and whose status was questionable. Nonetheless, God declares that the man’s cursing is on par with the cursing of an Israelite, and thus he should be shut out of the camp and stoned. When the Torah says that we should have one law for all, it is explicitly talking about those who are considered in-group and those who are considered resident aliens. However, I think it could also be interpreted that when the Torah teaches that we should have one law for everyone, in the same parasha that teaches that the community is responsible for the holiness of the priests, it is telling us that we must also apply law equally across tiers of structural hierarchies. Those in higher positions of power must still be beholden to those whom they serve, and the civilians below must take up their civic duties to ensure holiness is enacted at every level of the community.

            I’m sure this didn’t always happen in practicality in the Israelite camp. It certainly doesn’t always happen now. People in power often get away with corruption and the civilians below often allow it because they feel too disconnected from their civic duties to properly enforce them. Different treatments for in-groups, strangers, and leadership, are all unfortunately common practice. However, with the Torah reminding us of our responsibilities to each other, our duties to ensure each other’s holiness as well as our own, and the importance of equality and fair law enforcement for all people, we can hopefully continue to work toward bettering these systems and ousting the corruption in leadership. May we remember to see the holiness in others, may we encourage the holiness in others, and may we strive toward doing our own best in sharing the responsibilities of our communities. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, May 6, 2016

Parashat Acharei-Mot II

Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Acharei-Mot. In Leviticus 18, God command us not to do that which the Egyptians or Canaanites do, and rather to follow that which God tells us to do. These days, it is hard to hear the commands of God. Not all of the laws in the Torah make sense to us anymore, and some are not even possible for us to follow. So how do we know what it is God wants of us and what are the rules of other people that we aren't supposed to follow?

One of our earliest rabbis, Hillel, would say, “That which is hateful to you, do not do unto others. That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary, go and learn.” The Divine Spark in each of us drives us. We have our conscience and our innate passions and quirks. I believe these inner voices are the commands of God now. And so, being true to ourselves, being honest about our needs and giving freely of ourselves, is how we can live out that which God wants of us.

We don't live among oppressive Egyptians and Canaanites anymore. Instead, we live in a beautifully diverse nation where sharing cultural differences is a positive. In the Torah, it's likely God is talking about separating from the people around the Israelites and condemning those who don't follow the same God. But today, the lesson from this Parasha instead, may be for us to be sure to follow our conscience and do that which we know in our hearts is right, even if it's not what those around us are doing.

Often in our lives we face peer pressure to do something we know we shouldn't or to ignore something that we know we really should do. Contrary to most public service announcements, this peer pressure is rarely explicit. It's more often a subtle process of socialization. It's seeing everyone around you doing something and assuming you should do it too. It's people slowly and subtly ostracizing those that are different, all the while with a polite smile on their faces. I think this quiet form of peer pressure is actually worse than the harsh demands the PSAs depict. When someone puts an ultimatum to you: “Do drugs or you can't be my friend”, you know they aren't really your friend. It's not actually that hard to walk away from that. When they're nice and encouraging about something and make it seem normal and innocuous, it can be harder to even realize when you're making the wrong choices or that you're choosing certain styles for the wrong reasons.

That is why it is so important to take the time to listen to your heart. To follow your conscience. To do that which God drives you to do and ignore that which those around you are doing. May we all find ourselves, our Divine Spark. May we find the courage to be true to ourselves and follow through on that which the Holy One expects of us. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Parashat Acharet-Mot/Passover/Yom HaShoa

 Shabbat Shalom. Tonight marks the conclusion of Passover for those of us in the Reform world and for many in the State of Israel. For the last week we have celebrated our liberation from Egypt, and hopefully we have enjoyed time with family, in song, with festive meals and wine. But in so many ways, liberation is not just a noun or something that happened to our ancestors in Egypt. It is also an act in motion, a constant state of being, something to be actively worked on in every generation. We say at our Passover tables, “B'-chol dor va-dor, cha-yav a-dam lir-ot, lir-ot et atz-mo k'-i-lu hu, ya-tza mi-mitz-ra-yim; In every generation, each person must regard himself or herself as if he or she had come out of Egypt,” but for many this is figurative. And when it is, we must remind ourselves that it is our duty as Jews to be a part of the liberation of others who still struggle to escape Mitzrayim. The narrow places of narrow minds, the oppression of laws that restrict movements and identities and loves and societies that discriminate against those that are different. We work for freedom and equality and justice for the sake of our Jewish brothers and sisters who are also queer or trans or black or homeless and who also fear racism and homophobia and transphobia and classism in addition to antisemitism and who still feel the weight of Pharaoh's slavery today. And we do this for the sake of our non-Jewish neighbors who also deserve liberation because we were slaves and now we are free, because we know the bitterness of oppression and we know that we would not wish it on anybody.
This coming week is Yom HaShoa, the Jewish day of memorial for the 6 million lost in the Holocaust. As you may know, I studied genocide and terrorism in college. The Holocaust was a watershed moment in history. Before it, we had no international laws to safeguard against such actions. The word “genocide” and the legal concept of “crimes against humanity” stem from this atrocity our people faced. But in sociological terms, the Holocaust is not unique. We know as Jews, that it was certainly not the first time our people were nearly wiped out. Our tradition is full of stories that may or may not be true: the Pharaoh in Egypt, Haman in Shushan, Antiochus in the Hellenistic-controlled land of Israel. Nearly every holiday we joke, “This story is the same as all the others: they tried to kill us, we won, let's eat.” But our history, documented and very real, also tells these stories. Pogroms and expulsions, forced conversions, the Inquisition, and ethnic cleansings that remained smaller than the Holocaust only because the governments carrying them out didn't bother to occupy other countries first to ensure their ethnic cleansings would be coordinated.
And of course, it hasn't just been the Jews either. Before the Holocaust, the Turks carried out genocide against the Armenians, who still have not received official acknowledgment or reparations. Every inch of our country is soaked in the blood of the Native Americans. In my lifetime, I've witnessed from afar the genocides of Bosnians, Albanian Kosovars, and Rwandans, and learned about the dirty wars of Central and South America, where people were simply disappeared by their governments. And there are countless more such stories from nearly every culture around the world. Next week is Yom HaShoa, a day of commemoration for Jews, but back in January we also had International Holocaust Remembrance Day, where the world mourned with us. Do you know the day that the Bosnians commemorate the seige of Sarajevo? That the Rwandans celebrate the end to their quick and bloody conflict? Any of the dates that the Kosovars have tried to declare independence from Serbia? I don't even know those dates off the top of my head, and I have actively studied those dates. We don't have an International End Genocide Day, and we as a Jewish community often don't do enough to stand in solidarity with those whose pain we know so well or work alongside them for their liberation.
This week's Torah portion, Acherei Mot, contains the description of the ritual for atonement, which becomes the Yom Kippur ritual in the time of the Temple. In the ritual, the High Priest “effects atonement onto it,” which Rashi explains means the priest confesses upon the goat, and then the goat is sent off into the wilderness to carry away the sins of the people, and die away from the camp. This is the origin of the “scapegoat,” a term well known by those who have studied political violence, and understood by any who have experienced it. It manifests in different ways, but the outcome is the same. In the story of the Passover, the Pharaoh was worried about losing control of his Kingdom, so rather than confront his insecurities as a ruler or contemplate different modes of governance that might incorporate the growing Hebrew population, he scapegoated them and attempted to halve their population through infanticide and attempted to break their spirits with slavery (which, by the way, is not unlike the tactics of the cultural genocide the Chinese impose on Tibet, for example). Hitler want to rise in power and saw the scapegoat of the Jews an easy way to direct the fear and angry the poor German population was feeling in the aftermath of World War I in order to gain their trust and support. Milosevic felt his people were entitled to more land after the break up of Yugoslavia, so he scapegoated the Bosnians for being the first to secede. And the Hebrews, and the Jews of Europe, and the Bosnians, and so many others, were trapped like goats, forced out of their camps, forced to carry burdens that were not rightly theirs, forced to their deaths. Like goats shoved off carrying the sins of others, but not like sheep to the slaughter, a metaphor that was once often repeated about Holocaust victims, erasing the memories of the Resistance movement, and the Partisan fighters, and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. I don't know of all the similar stories of resistance from the other scapegoated cultures, but I am certain they exist.

Over the course of the next year, we will all find ourselves faced with opportunities to help others achieve their liberation. We will hear about injustices around the world or in our backyards. We will learn about the scapegoating of a new population and the unfair rules meant to police their identities, a policing that is almost always tied to a body count, even if those death tolls are in suicides and hate crimes rather than purposeful government sponsored terrorism. I implore you, and Jews all over, to be a part of the solution. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “In a world where terrible crimes are committed, some are guilty, but all are responsible.” If the Egyptians had refused to act as slave-masters, how might our story have turned out? If more righteous gentiles had stepped forward and spoken out against the early signs of the Nazi regime, what might our population be today? If the UN had allowed their Peacekeeping troops to actually interfere in Rwanda, how different might April 1994 have been for the million Tutsis whose stories we will never know now? Let us refuse to buy into scapegoating, let us stand in solidarity with those whose pain we understand too well, let us work toward a liberated world for all people. And may we find next year a world a little closer to the messianic age. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Parashat Shemini

This week I have the unusual task of delivering a d'var Torah on both Friday night and Saturday. The crowds at each service are pretty different, Friday night being mostly an older group, and Saturday morning being mostly the Religious School students and their parents. The blessing and core Torah of both drashes are the same, but there are significant differences in their deliveries, so I'm sharing them both. 

            Shabbat Shalom! Last week, we celebrated Purim. Now, soon enough, it will be Pesah. Wine is a central symbol in Jewish tradition: the only beverage that gets its own blessing, it is used as a representation of creation, abundance, God’s blessing, and more. We use it for bringing in the Shabbat, saying a Kiddush over at least a symbolic sip of wine even if a full glass doesn’t accompany our Sabbath dinner (although, often it does that as well!), we use it in our Havdallah service to say goodbye to Shabbat, not only to take another symbolic sip but also to extinguish the Havdallah candle. And of course, for the two nearest holidays to this time of year, it plays a particularly central role. At Passover, our seder marks four distinctive times to refill our wine glasses, which depending on the size of your pour, could amount to close to a bottle per person over the course of the evening. At Purim, according to the Talmud, one should drink until one can no longer tell the difference between “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordecai.” However, the Talmud also tells the following story: Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira were celebrating Purim together, and they got so drunk that Rabbah rose up and butchered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, sober and vexed, Rabbah prayed for a miracle, and Rabbi Zeira was brought back to life. The next year, Rabbah asked Rabbi Zeira if he would like to celebrate Purim together again. Rabbi Zeira said, “One cannot count on a miracle every time.” Party on with caution.
            In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemini, God speaks directly to Aaron, something that doesn’t happen all that often, as most of the communication between God and the rest of the Jewish people, including Aaron and Miriam, goes through Moses. But in this parasha, God speaks to Aaron, saying, “Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is the law for all time throughout the ages, for you must be able to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.” Rashi explains that these verses refer specifically to one who has become drunk through wine, though he permits the priests to drink watered down wine before performing their duties, assuming their thinking does not become impaired. He, along with several other commentators, also agree that no one should teach while intoxicated, for the laws of ritual and the mitzvot of the Torah are very holy and to make a mistake in teaching these matters could have terrible consequences for the whole community. The line in this section of Parashat Shemini which specifies, “that you may not die,” indicates that while teaching under the influence is generally discouraged for anyone, a priest who does so may face capital charges since his duties are of utmost importance and should be undertaken and taught with a sober and clear mind.
            Jewish tradition’s relationship to wine could be confusing to one who is not very careful with their own limits. We are told to use it in all our rituals, and that it is one of the central ingredients to making holidays festive, but then we are told not to imbibe too much before performing those rituals or teaching others about the holiday. We are told to drink to excess on Purim, but then told this awful story about two rabbis who did and one ended up killing the other. There is sometimes a silence around the problem of alcohol abuse in Jewish communities, and the tradition offers much ambivalence when it comes to tackling the question of substance use in Jewish society. This is why my colleague from the Academy for Jewish Religion has founded Beit Yosef. Still in its beginning stages, Beit Yosef is modeled after Beit Teshuvah on the West Coast, and seeks to be the first East Coast addiction recovery program that comes from a specifically Jewish focus. Eventually, I think Beit Yosef plans on offering in-patient rehabilitation as Beit Teshuvah does, but as of right now there is no facility on the East Coast to offer that. Founder Rabbi Ellie Shemtov has her own personal reasons for establishing Beit Yosef and naming it as such, and you can find her story at www.thebeityosef.org, but what rings out to me is that it comes from a teaching from a 14th century rabbi, Yosef Caro, who responded to the Talmudic decree to drink to excess on Purim with a resounding no. In his first book of Jewish law, called Beit Yosef, he said, “It’s written in Orhat Hayim [a volume of an earlier book of Jewish law] ‘one is obligated to mellow himself with wine,’ but not to become inebriated. This is totally prohibited. There is no greater sin than this. It causes sexual immorality and the spilling of blood and other sins besides these.”

            May we have merriment, abundance, and show appreciation for all of creation. May we also keep clear minds, behave honestly, and act in ways that show proper respect to our tasks. And may we always have balance in our lives. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 


            Shabbat Shalom! Think about a time when you were daydreaming in class and then a teacher noticed and called on you. You suddenly snap to attention, but you actually have no idea what’s going on, so you just answer with whatever comes into your head first. Maybe it is complete nonsense and is entirely related to what you were daydreaming about instead of what the teacher was talking about. Maybe you really tried to remember what the last thing you heard was before you started daydreaming so that you could offer a real answer anyway, but what you say is so far off from where the class has gotten while you were daydreaming that it still completely gives you away. Maybe you don’t even try, and you just answer some smart aleck thing because you know you’re busted anyway and why not go for broke.
            In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemini, God speaks directly to Aaron, something that doesn’t happen all that often, as most of the communication between God and the rest of the Jewish people, including Aaron and Miriam, goes through Moses. But in this parasha, God speaks to Aaron, saying, “Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is the law for all time throughout the ages, for you must be able to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.” The great medieval rabbi and Torah commentator, Rashi, offers some explanations about the wine and the drinking, and the other sages agree with him about how clear headed people should be when taking on their holy tasks. I hope I can assume none of you are drinking wine in school, but I think the lesson still carries over to other ways of clouding our minds. When you are in school, you are carrying out holy tasks of learning, of preparing yourself for life, and of teaching others your own special knowledge. We all have something to learn and something to teach, and if we are not fully present in mind as well as body, then we miss important opportunities to learn and to teach. Maybe this is why God spoke these words directly to Aaron about his special task as High Priest, even though God usually spoke to Moses: so that Aaron would know that he has to take his role seriously and to understand that he is every bit as important as Moses.
            Of course, we can’t constantly be in teaching and learning mode. Sometimes, it is ok to let our minds go blank, or to do things that are just for us, our own ways of enjoying life without regard to what they teach us or how others are viewing us in that moment. The key to all of this is to know when to do which. May our lives be full of fun and appreciation for all of creation. May we keep open minds, behave honestly, and act in ways that show proper respect to our tasks. And may we always have balance in our lives. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Parashat Tzav

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Tzav, an explanation for the priests on proper sacrifice rituals. There are five basic types of sacrifices: a burnt offering, a meal offering, an offering for well-being, a sin offering, and a guilt offering. Last week’s parasha really explains what they are and when each is merited, while this week focuses on how the priests are to carry out the sacrifices. But the language remains ambiguous enough that some of our great rabbis of old still needed to explain what some of these sacrifices meant in their commentaries on this portion as well. For example, for the offerings of well-being, this portion seems to make distinctions of three types of sacrifices of “well-being”. The first, which has its own ritual for the priests, is an offering of thanksgiving and the rabbis explain that it is required to be brought to the priests by someone who has recovered from illness, returned from a long or dangerous journey, or otherwise experienced something particularly good following a period of uncertainty. The other two have the same ritual for the priests but are still somewhat distinct. There’s a votive offering, which the rabbis explain is made in fulfillment of a vow, the vow being made of freewill but the offering to fulfill it being obligatory. And there’s a freewill offering that is an entirely spontaneous act of pure devotion.
            We no longer deal in animal sacrifices or priestly rituals, but these distinctions in the sacrifices of well-being really spoke to me as I was preparing this parasha for this Shabbat. Imagine you make a complete recovery from a terrible illness, and you didn’t call your friends and family who had been worried about you. They’d of course be relieved when they heard you were well, but they might also be a little frustrated and/or confused that you didn’t tell them sooner. Imagine if it were OBLIGATORY that you notify people at your earliest possible convenience, that you celebrate your health, that you shout from the rooftops how grateful you are to be healthy again! It might be pretty annoying, actually, if we were forced to always express expected emotions all the time, but think of it as cultivating an attitude of gratitude, of creating a practice for yourself to actively show your thanks for small miracles every day. Imagine you are in a great mood one day, for no particular reason. You haven’t just gotten over an illness, or been on a journey, or even have a vacation coming up anytime soon. It’s just a nice day, the weather is good, and you woke up on the right side of the bed. And you say to yourself, “I should spread some cheer today.” You think you will be extra polite to strangers on the commute to work today, you’ll compliment a colleague, give your kid an extra couple dollars on their allowance this week, maybe even donate some tzedakah midweek just because you feel so fortunate on this lovely day. But then the traffic is bad, or your colleagues weren’t particularly impressive that day, or you simply forget about the extra dollars by the time you hand over the allowance. Again, it might be impractical to DEMAND you follow through on all those things, but think about how much better life would be for everyone if we set our minds to really complete our promises to ourselves to be more sharing, caring, and courteous. Now imagine, you’re just walking down the street, and you come upon a homeless person. You are suddenly filled with a great sense of gratitude for all you have and spontaneously give the homeless person a couple dollars or buy them lunch.

            In some ways, these are all still sacrifices. They require time, energy, intention, and possibly even money, depending on which manifestation you choose to show your gratitude for your own well-being. Like all sacrifices, though, they are for a greater good. They enrich your life, help you to appreciate what you have, spread your joy and wealth at least a little to those around you, and I believe that they do express love and thanksgiving for God, even if they are not offered directly to God the way the Temple sacrifices were. May we all endeavor to show our gratitude a little more openly, and share what we have with others. In this way, may we find ways to give modern day sacrifices that spread a little extra Divine joy over the world. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016

d'var Esther

            Chag Purim Sameach! One of the most significant and yet least noticeable details about the book of Esther is the absence of God and prayer. When Haman demands that Mordecai bow down to him, Mordecai refuses and when asked why, he responds simply, “Because I am a Jew.” He does not expand, as one might expect, “And as a Jew, I bow only to the Almighty God of Israel.” When Mordecai learns of Haman’s plot to destroy the Jews for his disrespect, he puts on sackcloth and stands outside Esther’s gate in conspicuous mourning, but he does not pray to God for help or for forgiveness for having brought this onto his people. When Esther contemplates the terrifying decision to approach the king unbidden, she fasts and asks all the people to fast with her. She does not pray to God for guidance or ask the people to pray for her protection. When the Jews are given permission to arm themselves and save themselves (killing thousands of people who may or may not have had anything to do with Haman and the plot for Jewish annihilation), they rejoice and Mordecai declares that there should be an annual holiday marking this victory, and yet again, no one gives thanks to God.
            There is a lot to learn from the Purim story: there are many layers of political satire, feminist themes, warnings against our own violent natures when given the opportunities to be in the role of aggressor, and more. But the lack of God has always been interesting to me and Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg’s chapter on Esther: “Mere Anarchy is Loosed Upon the World,” from her book, The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, offered new insight for me. Rambam says that in the messianic era, when all the tales from the books of the prophets, the stories of sin and Divine punishment, will be forgotten, the story of Esther alone will remain with the five books of Moses. To explain this claim by Rambam, Zornberg offers a parable by Rabbi Yitzhak Hutner:
“Two people are charged with the task of recognizing a face in the darkness. One lights a candle and examines the face to identify it. The other, without a candle, trains himself to identify people by the sound of their voices alone. The person achieves a clearer recognition, by sight, than the other can, merely by sound. However, the second person has taught himself a new talent, of listening to the voice of the other. And when dawn breaks, the first person will extinguish his candle but will be none the wiser as a result of his nocturnal experience; while the other will emerge from it with a newly developed capacity for listening as a channel of recognition.”
Though most Bible stories show a people Israel with a candle, able to clearly see and identify God, Esther shows a Jewish leader and population who have had to learn a new capacity entirely. Zornberg calls Esther a “prophetess without revelation, [who] finds a dark light within herself.”
I feel that I’ve had the experience of being one with a candle and one whose candle has been extinguished before the dawn has broken. Throughout my late adolescence, after a spiritual experience at Jewish leadership camp, I felt called to the rabbinate and felt I had a personal relationship with God. It wasn’t that I believed in God as a person, or that I had direct conversations with God or any of the sorts of clear depictions that the Bible gives us of God. It was just that I felt there was a clear line of communications between myself and God, messages that I could clearly decipher, a path that was lit toward my future of faith and a commitment to the Jewish people. Then, around the time I was graduating college, that line of communication was cut. It took time to crawl out of the hole of depression that surrounded that severance, and it took a lot of soul searching before I found that I was still committed to Judaism and the Jewish people, and I was able to form a new relationship with God. But that relationship was irrevocably altered. I developed new ways to experience faith, to find the path toward the rabbinate in darkness, to use my other senses in the darkness to identify my surroundings.

I know that many people can relate to this. In my circles of relatively unobservant Jewish friends, probably more can relate to finding God or identifying our brethren in darkness than can relate to the experience of the one with the candle. We can all draw inspiration from Esther in this. Even when we are not sure that God is with us or if God is answering our prayers, we can draw strength from the faiths and traditions of our people and make difficult choices. We can still find the courage to stand up for what is right and be ourselves and we can still rejoice with our communities when we are successful. Then we can find Divinity in the darkness.