“Rava said: ‘It is one’s duty to make oneself fragrant with wine on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai.'”
– Babylonian Talmud Megillah 7b
Now it came to pass in the days of King Ahasuerus,
(this is Ahasuerus who reigned
over the great Persian empire in 486 BCE)
that the King made a feast unto all the men of his kingdom
and Vashti the Queen held a feast for the women.
On the seventh day,
when the heart of the King was merry with wine,
he demanded that Vashti the Queen dance before him
wearing nothing but her royal crown.
But Vashti refused to come at the King’s command.
Thereupon the King asked his wise men,
“What shall we do to the Queen Vashti;
she has disobeyed an order of King Ahasuerus!”
Their answer: “Vashti has not merely insulted the King,
but all the people of Persia.”
The King’s men went to summon the Queen,
but she was nowhere to be found.
Some say she was executed,
others say she was imprisoned,
still others say she fled the empire.
The legends of her fearlessness however,
are told yet to this day.
(On many a moonlit night, they say,
Vashti’s songs and laughter can be heard
ringing out across the shores of the Southern Persian Sea).
The King sent out a royal command
Throughout all the provinces of his kingdom,
to all the maidens of the land:
Come to the palace!
The one that most pleases the King
shall replace Vashti as Queen.
Now the Jews had lived in Persia for a century –
ever since the Great Destruction
and they enjoyed freedom and prosperity
throughout the land.
In those days there was a certain Jew,
whose name was Mordechai.
Although he lacked for nothing,
he could not find peace,
for the memory of his ancestors’ exile
burned within him
like a fire that raged without end.
Mordechai’s niece Esther
decided that she would go the King’s palace.
When she told Mordechai, he smiled within.
“If Esther does indeed become Queen,” he thought to himself,
“I may finally avenge the wrongs done to my ancestors
and bring ruin upon the people of Persia.”
When Esther went into the King’s house
King Ahasuerus proclaimed:
“This one shall be my Queen.
Together we shall rule over all Persia.”
When Mordechai learned his niece
would soon be crowned as Queen,
he said to her:
“This is just the moment
for which we have waiting!
You must tell me everything
you hear from the King’s palace
so that we may move against it.
For we know it is but a matter of time
before the Persian empire makes good
on its plans to destroy our people.
Be true to your kin!
Who knows, maybe you have been made Queen
for such as time as this?”
But Esther said to Mordechai,
“This I will not do, for Persia is our home.
We dwell here in security and enjoy
a bounty of blessings in this land.
If I were as to do as you instruct me,
it would bring hatred and retaliation
against the Jewish people.”
And so Esther married King Ahasuerus
and joined him in his palace.
Esther did not hide her Jewish identity
from the King or anyone else who lived in the land.
The Jews of Persia rejoiced –
for although many of their kin
had held high and respected positions
in the King’s court,
they were proud that one of their own
had become Queen of all Persia!
Ahasuerus promoted Haman the Agagite
to a place of highest honor in his court.
Though the Jews had been taught
to fear his ancestors,
Haman was a man of compassion and wisdom,
held in great esteem by all who know him.
When Mordechai learned of Haman’s rise
in the King’s court
he was filled with loathing and dread.
He gathered with four conspirators
and together they plotted Haman’s downfall
by striking a mighty blow against his people.
After a time, the King’s ardor for Esther waned
and soon she came to learn
that she was but one of the kings many consorts.
When Ahasuerus saw her face fall he said to her:
“Why are you downcast? Many are my wives,
but only one is my Queen.”
Esther did not remain sad for long.
She and Haman came to know one another
and trust one another
and soon they became lovers.
When night fell they would steal away to his bed
while the King was fast asleep
in the chambers of his concubines.
In due time, one of Mordechai’s co-conspirators
came to regret the terrible plans they had made,
and he requested an audience with the Queen.
Bowing low to Esther, he said,
“Please forgive me, your highness,
for I have committed a grievous wrong.
Mordechai has set a terrible plot in motion:
In one day, on the thirteenth day
of the twelfth month of Adar,
he plans to murder Haman while he worships.
None will be spared and all who are gathered in prayer
with him will be slain.”
That evening, Esther lay awake
with great anguish.
If she remained silent, she would allow
the death of many innocents
and the Jews of Persia would be in grave danger.
But could she betray her own kin?
If she told the King of Mordechai’s plot
he would most certainly be put to death.
With morning soon to break
Esther finally knew what she must do.
Leaving the palace quietly before dawn,
she rode to Mordechai’s home
and told him thus:
“I know what you have planned,
so hear me now:
Although you are my own flesh and blood,
I am prepared to tell the king
of your evil plot.
If you attack Haman and his people,
you will bring nothing but bloodshed and sorrow
to our people and all of Persia as well.”
Then coming closer she said to him:
“We are Jews, but Persia is our home.
As a Jew, as a Persian, and as your Queen:
I swear that as I stand here before you now,
I will turn you in before I allow you
to bring ruin upon us all.”
Thereupon Esther returned to the palace
as the sun rose on the thirteenth of Adar.
That morning, Esther woke with a start
because Haman had already left
for his morning prayers.
When he returned, she she gave thanks to God
for she knew that Mordechai had turned away
from his wicked plan.
As Esther embraced her love, she marveled
at how quickly her sorrow had turned to joy
her fear into power,
her anguish into hope.
(So may it be for us
and for all who dwell on earth).
Every Tu B’shvat,
on a hill just west of Jerusalem,
almond trees are blooming their white blossoms
down a rocky terraced hillside.
Stone rubble is laced here and there along its slope –
the only remaining traces of the village
they called Khirbat al-Lawz.
Not long ago this place was populated by
hundreds of villagers who grew
olives, grapes, figs and tended farms
with sheep and chickens.
On the hillside there are two springs
called Ein al-Quff that sent water
down ducts that led to a well
built into the hillside.
Generation after generation
the farmers of the region
would parcel and share this water
to grow their crops.
Every evening after work, it is said,
the men of Khirbat al-Lawz
would gather near a carob tree
in the village center
to talk, smoke, drink and sing
late into the evening.
This life vanished forever on July 14 1948,
when the Haganah occupied and expelled
the people of Khirbat al-Lawz during a military action
known as “Operation Dani.”
The villagers remained in the nearby hills
hoping to return at the end of war,
but soldiers from the Harel Brigade
forbade their return
on pain of death.
Soon after the Jewish National Fund
built a thick forest of non-indigenous
evergreens around Khirbat al-Lawz
and the neighboring village of Sataf.
Today, the JNF website tells us:
This site offers many stunning walks in nature,
where you can also see olive orchards
and agricultural plots on
ancient agricultural terraces.
The two springs that emerge
from the site serve as a reminder
of an almost vanished Hebrew culture
dating back thousands of years.
Here, as in the days of the ancient Israelites,
irrigated vegetable gardens grow
alongside vineyards, olive groves and almond orchards
that need no artificial irrigation
and color the countryside green all year round.
Hikers today will surely not notice it,
but not far from these well groomed trails
you can still find the village center of Khirbat al-Lawz.
The spot is marked by an ancient carob tree
rising out of the thorns and dead grass –
bent and tilted to the side, but still growing.
According to the Jewish sages
it takes carob trees seventy years to fully bear fruit.
When we plant them, they say,
it is not for our own sake,
but for the benefit of future generations.
So this Tu B’shvat, think of a hillside
just west of Jerusalem
where the almond trees are blooming
down a rocky terraced hillside
and a sacred carob tree grows sideways
where a village center once stood.
Then close your eyes and imagine
the wind breezing through its leaves,
whispering to future generations:
you are not forgotten,
the time will yet come
for your return.
to the ones who dwell in the halls
and chambers of the most high
we solemnly swear
we will hold you accountable
to uphold our rights
to ensure our safety
to safeguard our very lives.
we vow to preserve protect and defend
love support and sustain each other
through the coming storm
to the very best of our abilities.
we promise to never forget
the ones who went before us
the countless who fell
in the bright light of day
the nameless whose sacrifices
have vanished in the deep darkness
of the night.
this concludes our ceremony
but don’t be fooled
that roar you just heard
was just the latest call to action
in an endlessly unfolding struggle
it didn’t start with us
and it won’t end with you.
so you best get used to the sound
of our voices and the sight
of our multitudes pouring into the streets
because that call will keep resonating
long after this day is done
that’s right we plan to answer it without fail
and without end so help us god.
you’ve been my refuge,
or so i’ve been told since
the day i first learned how to sing
those rapturous hymns
to my stronghold, my fortress,
you may have noticed
i don’t sing those songs any more
or maybe you haven’t,
maybe the cacophony of all
these desperate hosannas
are just background noise to you –
a faint and constant buzzing
in the halls of your mansions on high.
oh yes, you’ve been my refuge.
or maybe more accurately my escape,
my pretense, my excuse.
looking back i think the moment
my song began to falter
was the moment
i came to question the purpose
of your so-called fortress:
did you build it to keep me safe
or merely complacent?
to teach me your ways
or to keep me in line?
to shelter me from the storm
or protect me from the sorrows
that inevitably lay beyond?
i’ve been singing your praises
for so long
i’m not sure if i know
how to stop.
sometimes i’m terrified
to imagine what would happen
if i even paused to take a breath.
sometimes i wonder
is this endless hymn really
just my way of avoiding
the awful truth:
that i’ve been sending
these words of adoration
into a surging swelling
if i choose to sing a new song
will you rage against me;
will you strike me down
like all the enemies
that came before me?
or will it even matter
to you at all?
when i grow short of breath
when my words grow weaker,
will you at least pretend
that these aimless words of love
somehow made a difference
Stop for just this moment
the roads you are traveling
will not lead you to my kingdom.
You journey so proudly
through this barren land
and I can abide it
Your false piety
has become unbearable to me.
You look up to the skies,
you say all the right prayers
yet somehow you cannot see
that the world is coming apart
all around you.
You look for me endlessly,
you ask me to show you the way;
how can you be so eager to know me
yet so unwilling to see my face
in the one who is standing
right next to you?
You fast on this holy day of yours
while children go hungry in your own city
and families line up for bags of grain.
You pray for your martyrs,
you recite Yizkor and Kaddish
then sell handguns and Apache helicopters,
and profit from the blood they spill.
You call for inclusion and compassion
while you build a system of racism
and oppression that grows
You march for peace
but refuse to see the difference
between the hollow peace
of domination and control
and the true peace
of justice for all.
You advocate for human rights
in far off lands
and yet you lock up and shoot down
black and brown bodies
in your own backyard.
You chant from your holy texts:
“do not oppress because
we were once oppressed”
while you occupy another people.
You wield your legacy of victimhood
like a weapon
as you expel and expropriate,
build checkpoints and demolish homes.
You preach of freedom
and yet you treat the world
as your personal fiefdom.
you topple governments of nations
that refuse to serve your interests,
prop up tyrannical regimes
to ensure your hegemony.
Your fast today is meaningless to me.
Do you really think this is the fast I desire:
to forgo food for one day
to intone the same prayers
to your confess the same sins
year after year?
Do you believe such a fast,
will make a difference?
No, this is the fast I desire,
dismantle your systems of oppression
open wide your prisons,
tear down your separation walls,
destroy your weapons of death
let justice rule in your streets.
Open wide the vaults and
share your abundant wealth so that
all are fed and clothed and sheltered.
Bring in the immigrants,
let the refugees return home
at long last.
These are the sacred sacrifices
I have been asking of you all along.
Do you think you are up to the task?
Will you offer them to me?
Will you let go of your old ways,
your hollow meaningless rituals
and find the courage to worship
with offerings that I truly require?
Are you ready to spread my healing
across this broken bleeding world,
to stop looking forward and behind,
and venture into the dark places
you would never dare to tread,
only to realize you yourselves have been
dwelling there all along?
Do you have the strength to say
to the ones whom you find there:
here I am, here I am,
here I am.
These sacrifices you offer up to me
cannot possibly be sustained.
Your well will run dry,
the source of your very lives
will be depleted and soon
you will have nothing left to give.
So let these wells dry up,
seek out the springs that give forth
life giving waters without end.
Restore the foundations of my world
Tear down the walls you have built,
Rebuild the homes you have destroyed
Erase the borders that you have drawn.
Open your sidewalks and pathways,
your roads and highways,
clear the way for all
to find their way without fear
and you will discover a place
you never dreamed could
ever possibly exist:
the place where the low is brought high
and the high is brought low:
the kingdom of heaven
that dwells right here
Hayom harat olam
On this day the world was created.
Baruch she’amar ve’hayah ha’olam
Blessed the one who spoke
and the world became.
So here is our prayer,
as the world around us
seems to wither and die,
as the nights widen and
days grow cold
and crumbling leaves float
down to the ground:
Blessed is the one
who speaks the words within,
the words that kindle fire
for the cold days ahead,
a pinpoint flame shining
through the darkness,
waiting, just waiting
for the moment that life
will be re-birthed anew.
Blessed is the one dares
to speak words of hope
to a world of hopelessness
words that defy
the fear and dread and despair,
words that whisper to
a bruised and broken soul:
you will rise, you will rise
you will rise.
Blessed is the one with the gall
to speak the truth out loud,
showing us the way to a day
we never dared to believe
would ever arrive,
to a place we thought could only exist
in the world of our dreams.
Blessed is the one who whispers
to unyielding, impenetrable rock,
coaxing out life-giving waters
so that thirsting souls
staggering on edge of death
may drink and live to see
Blessed is the one whose words
shine light into the dark places
where injustice dwells
lifting the shadows of impunity
so that all may see what must be seen
so that all may do what
they know they must do.
Blessed is the one who speaks
where words are forbidden,
who breaks the silence,
who disturbs the peace,
who speaks of worlds that might be
knowing full well the cost.
Hayom harat olam
On this day the world was created.
And today we commit ourselves
to speak the words
that will lead us
to a world re-born anew.