Chag Purim Sameach!
Spring is on its way!
In this Purim edition:
Are “Two Kinds” Too Kind, Too Cruel, or Just Too Many? - an essay from Rabbi Debra
Compassion in the Face of Evil - Free Audio.
Song Parody - some laughter for the chag.
Craig’s Corner, notes from the rebbetzin
Storefront - Find some rare treasures.
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Are “Two Kinds” Too Kind, Too Cruel, or Just Too Many?
by Rabbi Debra Orenstein
Rabbi Ed Feinstein, a gifted colleague and friend, once said from the bimah: “There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who think there are two kinds of people, and everybody else.” It’s a hilarious and profound comment on duality – and the way we divide ourselves.
There are many ways to “divide out” Jewish affinities and affiliations. Whether you are a “Purim person” or not is certainly one of them. That fault line cracks open every year around this time. Some people love the noise, the chaos, the carnival, the dress up, even the liquor. I have also heard Purim described as “distasteful” and “migraine-inducing.” Adults deliberately misbehave and encourage children to attend.
A more profound dualism associated with Purim is found in the text itself. The Book of Esther is full of doublings and reversals: the gallows Haman intended for Mordecai becomes his own; the honor he intends for himself becomes Mordecai’s; Esther the hidden becomes Esther the heroine; the beauty queen bests the King’s most respected advisor; the day of the Jewish people’s doom becomes the day of their jubilation. The world of the Megillah is dualistic, and fate is binary; it will be one way or the other.
The theme of two (divinely reversible) destinies is continued in our customs: men dress up as women; students impersonate and roast teachers; we “eat” the ears (hamantaschen) of the one who tried to consume and destroy us.
Yet the merriment of Purim, even at its most wild, is about not knowing a divide. When you can’t tell the difference between “cursed be Haman” and “blessed be Mordecai,” when you notice that the gematria (numerological equivalent) of those two phrases is exactly the same, then you begin to understand …
The Hebrew phrase “ad shelo yada” is usually translated “until you don’t know [the difference between Haman and Mordecai].” The great Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi extracts the word “lo” (no) and takes it as the main object of the sentence: “ad shelo yada” – until you know the “no.” Once you know the place and disposition of “no difference,” that’s when you really know Purim. And if you don’t know the “no,” then you simply don’t know.
There is a plane (Reb Zalman would say it’s in the world of Atzilut, associated with Spirit and the ineffable – the “highest” of Kabbalah’s four worlds) on which there truly is no difference between Haman and Mordecai. On this plane, we can see, at least, that each is indispensible and doing his best.
We spend so much energy in Jewish life dividing between kosher and treif, good and evil, pure and impure. Beneath the surface of our most dualistic holiday, where the villains are booed and the heroes are lauded, is a reminder: the ultimate perspective is “echad - One.” When we act out of our own free will, we are also, simultaneously, playing our part in the predestined drama of God.
So here’s a toast to the Haman of the Book of Esther and all the Hamans and Amalekites of Jewish history and our lives. Had you not been the full Haman, we might never have become the Mordecais and Esthers we were meant to be. L’chaim.
L’chaim brings us right back to dualism. Because “life” in Hebrew is a plural noun. We can’t live life in the echad, anymore than we can dwell in Atzilut. But we can glimpse and visit and remember. And get deliberately confused (with the help of mayhem and alcohol and humor).
When you don’t know if you know the “no,” then know: now you’re getting close.
Compassion in the Face of Evil - Free Audio
the CD Compassion Constantly
Rabbi Debra answers a question about how we can transcend the good vs. evil dualistic model in a world where there are real perpetrators and real victims. Here is track #4 from the CD:
The track and the whole album can also be downloaded from
Song Parody - some laughter for the chag.
There are many legitimate responses to evil. On Tisha B'av we cry and vent. On Passover, we reflect and consider. On Purim, we laugh and drink. The Purim story offers what I sometimes call the "Mel Brooks approach" to evil: mock it. Sometimes, in the face of life's most frightening cruelties, you just have to laugh. In the spirit of humor and laughter, enjoy this song parody from one of my favorite composers and lyricists: my cantor and friend, Lenny Mandel.
The following can be sung to the melody of "Guys and Dolls"
What's happenin' in Shushan town?
I'll tell ya what's happenin' in Shushan town!
The king is throwing a big party
Invitin' folks from all aroun'
That's what's happenin' in Shushan town!
What's in the Shushan news?
I'll tell ya what's in the Shushan news!
They hanged Haman and Zeresh all ten of their kids
For tryin' to kill the Jews
That's what's happenin' in the Shushan news!
What's happenin' all over?
I'll tell ya what's happenin' all over!
The Megillah is being read
Hamantashen's bein' 'et
That's what's happenin' all over!
Every Jew living there would be a victim,
But Mordy and Esther, well, they licked 'em!
Vashti was the queen who refused to be seen,
when the king plead with her to entertain.
He then spread the word to all lands far and near,
He would look for a queen, to sit by his side,
and help him to reign.
Esther won the prize, she was comely in size
And she pleased him no end, and that was plain.
Call it fate, call it plucky, Uncle Mordy was more than lucky
when the k i-i-i n'gs li-i-i-fe was saved.
When the time had come for the deed to be done,
Achashverosh remembered who saved his life.
Mordecai was placed on a horse so high,
Through the streets he was led, a crown on his head,
No more would he cry.
Esther led the band, with the king she did stand,
And he listened because she was his wife.
It was sad, it was hairy, might've even been more than scary,
But each Jew just kept going on with his life.
His, life, his life, each Jew just keeps going on with his life.
Craig’s Corner, notes from the rebbetzin
So should I write on dualism or should I not? Is this going to be my topic or isn’t it? Do I buy this whole dualism concept – or don’t I? What’s the difference? . . . Okay, now I’m getting in the mood . . . Purim is really a horrific story, a tale of pride, power, the will to do violence and to subjugate others who are unlike and don’t understand you. I’m not just talking about the Persians. After all, who ends up on the gallows? It is also a story of love, sacrifice, heroism, and trust. And we like that. It’s comforting.
The story of Purim could be told as serious drama. But our tradition holds that we celebrate it as a comedy – with Purim spiels, costumes, jokes, parodies, and general merriment. If it’s true that on the level of Atzilut there is no difference between Mordecai and Haman, then it seems a little cruel to be joking at Haman’s expense. In dramatic terms, he was simply sacrificed so that the Jews could feel that much more victorious. So what’s going on here?
As Debra points out, we may glimpse and visit Atzilut, but we don’t live there. Here in Malchut, the “real” world, we live fragile, impressionable, and finite lives that require distinctions be made in order to preserve l’chaim and our tradition of doing mitzvot. And here in Malchut we can laugh at the irony of fate. Perhaps it's because I’m teaching a course on Woody Allen this term at Fairleigh Dickinson University, but that line between comedy and tragic drama and those questions of moral superiority resonate strongly with me. While I'm laughing, I also find that the rhetoric of dualism becomes fungible – what values are we setting in so much opposition?
In the entire Megilah, God’s hand is not mentioned once. Yet we accept that the events and outcomes are driven by God to set for us some sort of example: Proud Haman acted atrociously for his own gain, honorable Mordecai was true to his values, and young Esther was a reluctant hero who risked her life to go before the king. These are three iconic personalities, but to me they are also aspects of character that reside in each one of us. We are inescapably all three. So have compassion both for your odd fellows – and for yourself – as we each continue our daily joyful, tearful, and vibrant process, our own spiel, to define ourselves as one.
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- Join us!
Debra will be attending the upcoming RA Convention in Las Vegas at the end of the month and looks forward to seeing colleagues there.
If you will be in the New York Area on Sunday morning, April 3, consider attending Rabbi Debra’s formal installation at Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, NJ. Information at the CBI website:
Debra will be leading a Community Seder on the second night of Passover, Tuesday, April 19th beginning at 6:15 pm at Congregation B’nai Israel. The event is open to the public, and you are invited! Join us. The evening will be an inter-generational, family-friendly event with activities for children, engaging discussion for adults, and music and celebration for all. Contact
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