A Purim Meditation

By Rick Gwynallen

I was standing outside in the cold looking at the first sliver of the waxing moon in February when it struck me.  Purim is upon us, and though our joy is supposed to increase with Adar I cannot help but be reminded of what a tragic anniversary it represents this year.   We are drawing upon one full year when our synagogue, like so many places in the world, went dark, and we all shifted to work from home and virtual events and meetings. That Purim was the last big event before a grim understanding of what we were facing sunk in.  We were all celebrating, here and throughout the world, interacting freely, and, in places, unwittingly, giving free reign to COVID-19. Only the briefest glimmer of the rise of COVID-19 had been released to the public, and wholly underplayed.  So, we celebrated.  It’s not that no one knew. Some of the elite did know. The rest of us just weren’t being told. And there were those who became sick in that very period of early March of 2020, and some who later died. Some might have been saved had we all been told not to gather. Those of us who have survived after a year and more than 500,000 deaths in the United States alone are grateful to reach this point when so many did not.

Even with this weight bearing down upon us the moon is now nearly full and there was a taste of spring in the warmer evening and now in the early morning. More than ever E. B. White’s comment comes to mind: “I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”  The answer, of course, is to find the way to do both.

It’s not been all bad in the last year.  Fissures in our society have been widening. The public health crisis came on the heels of mass movements exposing systemic racism, further laying bare the injustices and inequalities that are a daily reality in our society and igniting more mass resistance.  More people have come to see workers they ignored in the past as essential to making the society function.  More people are openly reconsidering how we think about our history. At the same time, the very isolation we experienced seemed to let the rest of the world heal a little.  The clock is ticking on climate change, on the earth itself, and what kind of society we will build. And the possibility for a lasting response exists.

The line in the Megillah of Esther that draws my eye every year, and haunts my footsteps, is close to the last line of the megillah, after the Jews are victorious: “King Ahasuerus levied taxes on both the mainland and the islands.”  (Megillah of Esther; 29)

At first glance it seems such a mundane thing to insert after such a dramatic story. I think most of us read and ignore it. I did so for years. But it’s important.  Several years back, one person in a Torah class offered that the line intends to convey that the danger has passed and that things have returned to normal.  The question, of course, is whether or not normal is okay.

The Jews were once again saved, for a time.  Queen Esther established the days of Purim. Mordecai became viceroy and was able to look out for the well-being of his people.  But actually little had changed.  The king was still king with all the powers he had previously.  As long as Esther remained a favorite with the King, and as long as the king valued Mordecai, things should be okay.  But if any of that changed, the king could again be the king that condemns the Jews, or the king that follows him.  As we have read, a pharaoh arose in Egypt who did not know Joseph.  (Shemot; 1:8) The power dynamics shifted a little, but they did not change fundamentally.  And that is the final lesson with which the Megillah of Esther leaves us: Nothing fundamental has changed.

But we celebrate.  And why not?  After such a potential horror a people breathes a collective sigh of relief.

Even temporary victories are victories.  And in Shushan the Jews did not wait for an obvious miracle.  They rose to ensure their safety themselves.

When I began political organizing as a teen, one of the trainers said we should not enter this field with illusions.  Whatever victories we have will have to be defended the next day. But we still celebrate those victories because they are steps forward on a long road and life would be too hard if we forgot to have joy.  In this respect, Purim is very much like Shabbat, where we are commanded to be joyous despite the struggles that surround us. Purim reminds us that things are not always quite what they seem; that human society does not have to be what it is; and that we have agency to create change.

We must always be mindful of what a beautiful world this is, and what a gift living every day is.  Yet, that beauty, or our sigh of relief after escaping a tragedy, should not seduce us into complacency.  To cleanse this beautiful world of oppression, inequality, and violence is in the end the only fundamental change that will allow everyone to enjoy the world to its fullest.  

To my mind, to fully have joy in Adar this year, we need to consider how we emerge from our pandemic isolation better than we were before, not just recreating a previous “normal”, more committed to the kind of change that removes the injustices the pandemic laid bare, and to forge a world where the last lines of the story are not that the king “levied taxes on both the mainland and the islands” – not new leaders same system – but the beginning of a great liberation.

Day to day they pour forth speech – Listening before it is too late

4 February 2021

by Rick Gwynallen

It was a beautiful morning. Snow on  the ground. Sunny. Birds singing. After several days of slate grey skies the bright sun seemed to beckon the choruses of birds. Even though the snow blankets the ground, this is the time of year when minds turn toward spring.  Crocuses start to push through the earth and the frozen snow.  Seeds deep in the earth begin putting out roots.  I went out on the balcony to daven and meditate in the cold, bright early morning.  I wrapped my tallit around me. It was the wings of an eagle in the wind.  As I chanted and sang, birds flew by enjoying the sun and the taste of an increasing warmth in the day.  

In Psalm 9 we are reminded that we find the Divine in the experience of nature: “Day to day they pour forth speech; night to night they communicate knowledge. There is no speech, there are no words, their voice is not heard. Yet, their music carries throughout the earth, their words to  the end of the world.”  Commenting on this psalm in Out of the Whirlwind, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that G-d reveals G-d’s own self through the ontic experience, the experience of being, through Creation.

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Doing what is needed of us

by Rick Gwynallen

The prophet Jonah was an unusual servant of G-d.  G-d gave Jonah the mission to urge the people of Nineveh to repent. This was not dissimilar from the mission of many other prophets.  Yet, Jonah turned away from his assignment, fleeing Israel by ship. Ultimately, knowing he was the cause of the storm that endangered its crew, he implored the sailors on the ship to toss him overboard so they could save themselves.  Continue reading

All Our Relations – Standing In the Garden In the Beginning

by Rick Gwynallen

Just as the plant world draws steadily back to its roots in autumn, so I have found myself this year being drawn back to my roots. The longer we live the more complex we make life and even our own thinking.  Whether you are a musician, a philosopher, or a silversmith, it’s often good for one to get back to the basics as it were, and sometimes that means the origins of one’s thought before experience and learning added complicated layer upon complicated layer to it.   

One of my earliest experiences about the Bible was to be drawn into the story because of the first book in Genesis.  I was drawn in because it did not start with the story of humans.  The creation of the world was more than 70% complete before humans made their appearance.  When humans did make their appearance they intimately a part of that place.  Many, many years, and long spiritual paths later when I was first entering Judaism, I had a similar sense of place looking up from the synagogue’s garden at the Siskiyou mountains hugging the valley.

Maraji spent most of her career as a Montessori teacher, administrator, and school owner.  Recently I mentioned to her that in B’reishit it seemed to me that G-d began the creation of the world like a Montessorian.  In the first five days of creation, G-d made the rest of the world, and only then created human beings.  It was like G-d was creating the environment within which humans could live and grow and for which they are responsible, much like a Montessori teacher creates the prepared environment within which the child lives and grows and for which they are responsible.  Continue reading

SUKKOT REFLECTIONS – From within the sukkah and emerging from it

by Rick Gwynallen

This year the sukkot went up on the communal Green in our apartment complex, and throughout the community, as they always do, though not as many as last year. Due to the generosity of a neighbor in our building, we shared a sukkah.  Ilan and I put up the schach while Maraji made straps to tie the roof poles in place. It was a moment of exchange that is rarely possible in the public health crisis.  How different it was this year for everyone. The community sukkah at our shul got little use.  And no one had the number of guests they might normally have.  Mostly single families ate in their sukkah – sometimes just couples or even single people.

Yet, the moment is paradoxical.  One the one hand there is the enforced isolation caused by the pandemic.  On the other hand, the pandemic has fostered heartbreaking layer upon heartbreaking layer of empathy for each other, the recognition of working people like grocery store clerks and cleaning services as the most important people in keeping our society going, and myriad ways people have reached out to help one another. We may actually be experiencing a dramatic increase in interpersonal solidarity and a moment in which a realignment of society is possible – if, of course, this turn toward relating to one another virtually does not become a preference.

But back to the sukkah.  After the intensity of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur it would be easy to sink back into our routines.  The sukkah allows us to transit from the high ritual of Yom Kippur back to our daily world.  Between these two poles we are in the sukkah, only a thin veil separating us and the rest of the world around us.  This experience is rich in so many ways, and it is these layers of richness I reflect on in this essay.

In a 2017 drash, Rabbi Etan Mintz at B’nai Israel Congregation in Baltimore taught that the closeness of the world to us in our sukkah reminds us not to trap ourselves in our houses, in our jobs, in the limited boundaries we place on our lives, but to go out into the world, to get wet, to get dirty, to experience it, and to redeem it.

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Oxen, Ice Caps, and Avoidance


by Rick Gwynallen

לֹֽא־תִרְאֶה֩ אֶת־שׁ֨וֹר אָחִ֜יךָ א֤וֹ אֶת־שֵׂיוֹ֙ נִדָּחִ֔ים וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ֖ מֵהֶ֑ם הָשֵׁ֥ב תְּשִׁיבֵ֖ם לְאָחִֽיךָ׃

If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow.

 -Deut. 22:1

וְכֵ֧ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֣ה לַחֲמֹר֗וֹ וְכֵ֣ן תַּעֲשֶׂה֮ לְשִׂמְלָתוֹ֒ וְכֵ֣ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֜ה לְכָל־אֲבֵדַ֥ת אָחִ֛יךָ אֲשֶׁר־תֹּאבַ֥ד מִמֶּ֖נּוּ וּמְצָאתָ֑הּ לֹ֥א תוּכַ֖ל לְהִתְעַלֵּֽם׃ (ס)

You shall do the same with his ass; you shall do the same with his garment; and so too shall you do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.

-Deut. 22:3

לֹא־תִרְאֶה֩ אֶת־חֲמ֨וֹר אָחִ֜יךָ א֤וֹ שׁוֹרוֹ֙ נֹפְלִ֣ים בַּדֶּ֔רֶךְ וְהִתְעַלַּמְתָּ֖ מֵהֶ֑ם הָקֵ֥ם תָּקִ֖ים עִמּֽוֹ׃ (ס)

If you see your fellow’s ass or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it; you must help him raise it.

-Deut. 22:4

The text seems to point out something that should be a natural response from anyone – to help someone in need, or to relieve suffering, in this case the suffering of the ox in Deut. 22:4. 

My long standing reading of the passage was that it pointed to:

  1. the obligation to help one another, and
  2. the need to extend our compassion to include all species.

I still regard these as bedrock matters. Helping one another requires us to connect with other human beings.  Indeed, how can you have a community if you ignore each other’s needs? From a purely transactional point of view,  in small communities or tribal societies you may well need that other person’s help at some point. Further, it has long seemed to me that the real measure of a person’s compassion is if that compassion and concern for life is extended to all life forms, not just our own species.  

However, back when I was doing the daf yomi (I never finished it), I realized that the passage gets to something very pertinent for our world today.  Rashi’s comment on the passage is that the verse tells us to not close our eyes “tight as though one does not see it” or “cover our eyes,” thus pretending to not see our fellow’s ox or sheep in distress or gone astray. Continue reading

“Hearing” and “Seeing” During the Age of COVID

by Rick Gwynallen

Re’eh has long been my favorite parsha because it was in Re’eh that I learned to read Torah in a different light, perhaps to “see” in a different way.

In early 2013, I read an essay by Rabbi Dov Linzer, Rosh HaYeshiva of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, commenting on Parshat Mishpatim, Does the Torah Approve of Slavery?. He argued that not everything in Torah is an ideal.  Rather, some of what we read in Torah is grounded in what was possible in the social formation of the time, but pointing toward an ideal which society must grow toward achieving.

“So slavery is not the ideal. Which means that there can be mitzvot in the Torah which represent not the endpoint of our religious and moral journey, but rather the first step towards it. . . If this is true, then, it puts upon us a weighty responsibility. When we find ourselves deeply challenged by the values or ethics that seem to be expressed in a given mitzvah, we need to strive to understand where the mitzvot are pointing us, we need to ask ourselves if the Torah’s ideal is embodied by this mitzvah, or lies beyond it. [The laws in Mishpatim] represent the human attempt to understand the meaning and values behind the mitzvot.” Continue reading

Tying the Red Thread – Sh’lach and the American Civil War

by Rick Gwynallen

The story of the taking of Jericho is perhaps one of the best known stories in Jewish history, but how does it relate to the American Civil War?

Behind the lines in Jericho

In the haftarah for Sh’lach, Joshua has taken the baton from Moses and is preparing the military campaign to conquer the Promised Land. Joshua sends two spies into the city of Jericho to survey the region and provide intelligence for military planning. Joshua  sought to know if the time was right for battle, and he needed to know the layout of the city to develop tactics that would result in its conquest.  The spies lodge with a woman named Rahab, who lives along the wall built around the city.

The king of Jericho discovers that there are Israelite spies in the city and puts the city on high alert.  The men are seen entering Rahab’s home and she is ordered to produce the men. However, Rahab is able to hide the men on her roof while her home is being searched. She then successfully convinces the king that the spies have already left and can be caught if the king’s men give chase. Continue reading

Will We Sleepwalk into Oblivion?

by Rick Gwynallen

I came across an article from 2015, Arctic 2015: Things are not look­ing good!. At the center of the article is Professor Kevin Anderson.  Anderson has impressive credentials. He holds a chair in Energy and Clima­te Change at the School of Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Eng­ineer­ing at the Uni­versity of Manchester, is a scientific advisor to the Welsh Go­vern­ment’s clima­te change comm­issi­on, and is the Deputy Director of the Tyndall Centre for Clima­te Change Rese­arch. This man, deeply immersed in the world of science, and at the forefront of examining the causes and impact of climate change and how to mitigate the crisis, reflected that “We need to recognize our failure, bow our heads in shame and take a short time for ref­lecti­on before start­ing anew.” In short, we need teshuva, repentance.

A science article is not where I expected a proposal for repentance. Continue reading

Rising from the Seder Table – A Meditation on Liberation

by Rick Gwynallen

It is hard not to draw the comparisons between the Pesach story and our circumstances today, and, indeed, a great many people do so.  We are confined to our homes the way that the Israelites confined themselves to their dwellings. Outside their dwellings, as with us today, a plague raged, and they kept themselves confined in the hope that death would pass them by.  

In a previous essay I wrote that what matters is what we do when we leave our seder table, what happens after Pesach. Do we pursue a redeemed world?  The plague that sweeps across the world today has put a bright light on the enormous inequities in our health care and economic systems. It is a moment for action.  Not that these problems weren’t known before COVID-19 or that movements for change were not already gaining momentum. COVID-19 made them even more apparent.

But what does the Pesach story have to do with any of this today?  Even more than most years I am drawn to that question of what happens when the Israelites emerged from their dwellings, and when we leave ours.   Continue reading