Saturday, February 23, 2013

A Purim Special

I have always been enthralled with the holiday of Purim and the Book of Esther. The first unit I ever designed to teach was of the book of Esther. I explored its satiric storytelling use to create a blueprint for a diaspora community struggling to survive and maintain its Jewish identity amidst great assimilation and mortal threats. I think it went over most of those eighth graders heads.

The Book of Esther provides the basis for celebrating the holiday of Purim. Amidst a story of threatened genocide and a "miraculous" turn of events leading to revenge, the authors of the book of Esther provide a response intended to guide the diaspora community of Jews against future threats and long term sustainability. Yet unlike many other biblical guides, the book of Esther avoids any religious, theological or even the centrality of a homeland in their prescription for future success.

In Esther, Chapter 9, Queen Esther and Mordechai, the Jew, instruct the Jews, and subsequent generations to observe a holiday of feasting a drinking. During this holiday, the people are instructed to partake in four activities to remember their history and commemorate their victory. In a world of upheaval, where only by "turning things upside down" can the Jews be safe, these four activities serve as a guide to securing the one element that will provide for the future:

  1. Mishloach Manot: The giving of a portion to another
  2. Matanot L'evyonim: Gifts to the Poor
  3. Seudat Purim: The Purim Feast
  4. Megillat Esther: A Public Reading of the Book of Esther (twice)
These four activities provide the means to create COMMUNITY, in varied ways. Gift giving and feasting occur within the private domain, with close friends and family.  The reading of the holiday's narrative and providing monies to the poor occur within the public domain within a broader circle of one's community. Each emphasizes a different aspect of sustaining relationships, and relating community to past, present and future.

Here is an article exploring this theme within the Mitzvot of Purim:
So in the spirit of Purim, I would like to borrow from these four mitzvot and apply them to the field of Jewish education. Much has been said about the importance of Jewish education to do the very thing that Esther and Mordechai fought so hard for: to create a vital Jewish people in the face of assimilation outside of the land of Israel. To do this, we must enure that our community of Jewish educators remains strong and vital.

I propose the following for activities for Jewish educational leaders:
  1. Mishloach Manot: As Rav Shmuel Herzfeld explains in this article, in lieu of gifts of food, we can share Torah with others. Jewish educational leaders should find ways to openly share their wisdom and understanding. It is not just a matter of self aggrandizement, but rather in spirit of building community that each and every Jewish educational leader should create a blog, a twitter account and facebook account to be a part of a larger professional learning network and share their "Torah" with others.
  2. Matanot L'evyonim: Jewish educational institutions struggle even to provide the highest quality of educational services to their consumers/members/constituents/students, but it is imperative to fully strengthen our community for the long term that Jewish education also concern itself with those beyond its walls. How can educational leaders provide educational opportunities to those in need of quality Jewish education, but may not be able to afford it, access it or be ready for it. Projects like Harkham Hillel Academy's Project Kesher are great stars.
  3. The Purim feast: This is intended as a joyous way to bring people together to celebrate, be merry and connect. Unlike the Shabbat dinner, there are no Shabbat restrictions or rituals. This is the Thanksgiving dinner for the Jews. So let's remember to give thanks and be merry. It is so critical to bring your stakeholders together to celebrate the many accomplishments of your institution. This includes your faculty, staff, board, lay leaders, parents, volunteer AND students. By celebrating together we appreciate each other and the roles we play in creating success.
  4. Reading the Story: Every institution should share its history. Thankfully many institutions have proven success over time, but as time passes and generations of students move in, it is critical to be reminded why the school originated, what community it was intended to serve and all those that have sacrificed for its success. Yet, even when creating a mythology around history, be very careful to remember to lessons of the Megillat Esther. Being able to satirize one's narrative, and poke fun at one's authority figures is what enables creativity and innovation to thrive, rather than fear and survivalism.
These four activties, inspired by Purim, serve as a worthy guide to creating stronger community through Jewish education, internally and externally. There is one more aspect of Purim, coming from the term V'nahafoch Hu, meaning "it was turned upside down." This reference from the Book of Esther, provided over time as a source for other Purim customs, including masquerading, drinking during the Purim Feast and the Purim Shpiel (Play) and carnival. While these customs bring much joy to children, bring about false parallels to Halloween and enhance the spirit of the Purim feast, they also provide a final lessons for Jewish education.

  1. Don't take yourself so seriously
  2. Don't forget to leave time for play.
  3. Don't forget it is all about the children.

Here is a brilliantly Purimy, Stupid Video my former students did for the Jewish Journal

Happy Purim and get ready, it's just one month until Passover.

1 comment:

  1. Great connections - I like how you universalize the 4 mitzvot into some profound ideas about community building.

    I agree with your last point - it IS all about the children. However, where are they children in the megillah? how come this holiday, which has become such a 'kids celebration' day, has no mention of children in the story? Pesach is all about kids and birth. Am I right that Haman's children are the only off-spring mentioned in the megillah? Esther and Mordecai's relationship is not father/daugther, there are no royal heirs, etc. Did Esther want children, or would that have complicated the intermarriage aspect of the story too much? just wondering ...