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Monday, March 28, 2016

Get Me Out of Here! — BT Kiddushin 31b — #30

Rav Assi had an elderly mother. [Once] she said to him: “I want jewelry.” He made [jewelry for her]. [Once] she said: “I want a husband.” [Rav Assi replied:] “I will look for you.” “I want one as handsome as you.” [Rav Assi] left her and went to Eretz Yisrael. He came before R. Yochanan and said to him: “Is it [halakhically] permissible to leave the Land of Israel for the Diaspora?” R. Yochanan said to him: “It is forbidden.” “[If it is] to meet my mother?”He said to him: “I don’t know.” After a short time, [Rav Assi] returned [to R. Yochanan]. “Assi, you want to leave. May God return you in peace [to Babylonia].” [Rav Assi] came before R. Eleazar and said to him: “Heaven forbid, but perhaps [R. Yochanan] was angry with me.” [R. Eleazar] said to him: “What did he say to you?” [Rav Assi] said to him: “May God return you in peace [to Babylonia].” [R. Eleazar] said to him: “If he had been angry, he would not have blessed you.” Meanwhile, [Rav Assi] heard that [his mother’s] casket was approaching. He said: “If I had known, I would not have left.”

The story of Rav Assi and his troubled relationship with his mother comes amidst a long discussion of how far one should go to fulfill the obligation of honoring one’s parents. The Rabbis were no strangers to the complexities of parent-child relationships, nor the challenges of caring for elderly and infirm parents. Rav Assi’s story deserves close scrutiny because from all  appearances, he is dealing with a mentally disturbed parent, or perhaps one suffering dementia. Her demands are bizarre and unreasonable, yet he attempts to fulfill them until there is a suggestion that she wants to marry her own son. That is when Rav Assi says, “No more!” and leaves Babylonia to escape the situation. 

Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long on the land that Adonai your God is giving you. (Exodus 20:12)

Curiously, the question Rav Assi poses to R. Yochanan is not, “Was it permissible for me to leave my mother in Babylonia?” but rather, “Now that I am in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel), may I leave here to return to Babylonia to attend my mother?” Yet the story, which tells us that ultimately Rav Assi’s mother died while he was in Eretz Yisrael, addresses precisely that first pressing question, which is still with us today.

What happens when a child is unable to care for an aging parent whose behavior is problematic? May the child abandon the parent if the behavior is intolerable? May the child enlist others to care for the parent in his/her stead? R. Yochanan tells Rav Assi his is obligated, having come to Eretz Yisrael, to remain there, but after he learns the backstory of Rav Assi’s escape to Eretz Yisrael, he neither chastises him for leaving his mother nor requires him to return to her.  The story ends with Rav Assi’s ambiguous reflection on the news that his mother has died: Is he saying he would not have left Babylonia, or that he would not have left Eretz Yisrael to meet her coffin and accompany it to Eretz Yisrael? Did he regret leaving her, or did he believe he was not obligated to meet her coffin and bring it the rest of the way to the Land of Israel?

The story affirms that there is no simple law that covers the difficult situation of an elderly parent’s disturbing behavior; careful, sensitive, individual judgments are required in each case.  Halakhic commentators proffer two views on the basis of the situation this story lays out: Moses Maimonides, the Rambam (1135–1204) says that the child should take care of the parent as best as possible, but if the situation becomes intolerable, the child may enlist others to undertake the necessary care and leave. Avraham b. David, the Ra’avad of Posquieres (c. 1125–1198) vehemently disagreed, imagining that leaving was tantamount to abandonment; it appears that he could not imagine how the child would find someone to properly care for the parents. This was, needless to say, long before nursing homes.

Today, many adults are working and raising children and at the same time have a parent who suffers mental illness, dementia, Alzheimer’s, or another condition that requires constant care. Do they always have the time, skill, energy, and resources to care for the parent themselves? Are  the best interests of the parent served by the direct care of the child or would skilled care in an institution designed and staffed for such care be preferable? At the same time, many nursing homes provide substandard care (or, sadly, worse), raising the concern that consigning an elderly parent to such a place constitutes a type of abandonment.

No matter what the relationship was between the parent and child—whatever it was—this is going to be extremely challenging because it is not logical. There’s no way to deal with it rationally or directly. You don’t reason it out. What I’ve said to so many people is: we always must lead with our love.” (Dr. Stephen Hoag, author of A Son’s Handbook: Bringing Up Mom with Alzheimer’s/Dementia)


  1. Have you faced Rav Assi’s situation? A Yiddish proverb  holds that just as God gives burdens, so too God also gives shoulders, suggesting that we are capable of more than we realize.  Has your experience borne this out? Amy Tan wrote, “If you can’t change your fate, change your attitude.” How might this advice apply to Rav Assi’s situation, or yours?
  2. Do you know your limits? The problem faced by Rav Assi and so many others defies simple rules, in part because everyone’s ability to cope and provide care is different.  It’s important to know one’s limits. Do you know yours?
  3. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: "What we owe the old is reverence, but all they ask for is consideration, attention, not to be discarded and forgotten. What they deserve is preference, yet we do not even grant them equality. One father finds it possible to sustain a dozen children, yet a dozen children find it impossible to sustain one father. Perhaps this is the most distressing aspect of the situation. The care for the old is regarded as an act of charity rather than as a supreme privilege." (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Insecurity of Freedom, p. 70). How do his thoughts inform this conversation?

Monday, March 21, 2016

Bright Side of Anger — BT Megillah 13b — #29

At that time, when Mordecai was sitting in the palace gate, Bigthan and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs who guarded the threshold, became angry, and plotted to do away with King Ahasuerus. (Esther 2:21) R. Chiyya bar Abba said in the name of R. Yochanan: The Holy One Blessed be God caused a master to become angry at his servants in order to fulfill the will of a righteous man.Who is that? Joseph, as it says, A Hebrew youth was there with us… (Genesis 41:12). [And conversely, God caused] servants [to become angry] at their master in order to perform a miracle for a righteous person. Who? Mordecai, as it is written, And the matter became known to Mordecai… (Esther 2:22).

I recently ran across the website of the “American Humanist Association.” I don’t know anything about them other than their motto, “GOOD WITHOUT A GOD,” with which I have no quarrel: belief in God is certainly not a prerequisite to being a moral person, any more than claims to religiosity guarantee honest and decent behavior. An essay entitled, “Some Reasons Why Humanists Reject the Bible” begins: “Humanists reject the claim that the Bible is the word of God. They are convinced the book was written solely by humans in an ignorant, superstitious, and cruel age…” I’ll give them human authorship, too. But an “ignorant, superstitious, and cruel age?” Has he opened a newspaper to world news recently? Or national news? In the current presidential campaign we see droves of people flocking to support a racist, misogynistic, classist, xenophobic, homophobic, vulgar candidate whose campaign is fueled by hate and fear, rather than hopes and aspirations. But most of all, his run for the White House is turbocharged by anger. And anger, a dangerous  emotion, can be a high-powered weapon.

Come to think of it, “GOOD WITHOUT A GOD” is a great subtitle for the Book of Esther, which doesn’t mention God even once. It’s still a great book, especially for thoughtful humanists who appreciate literature (and, in particular, satire) as social commentary. What is more, I suspect that if committed humanists took a look, they’d realize how valuable it is.

R. Chiyya bar Abba makes an interesting observation: Although we usually think of anger as negative and dangerous, it sometimes facilitates a good turn of events. He provides two examples. The first concerns Joseph, whose angry brothers sell him to traders heading for Egypt, where he  becomes a slave in Potiphar’s house. When Potiphar’s wife becomes enraged because Joseph’s rejects her, he is tossed in the dungeon, presumably to rot there forever. In prison, Joseph meets Pharaoh’s baker and butler. In his anger, Pharaoh has them tossed into the dungeon, as well (Genesis 40:2). In their time with him, the butler and baker come to appreciate Joseph’s skill as an interpreter of dreams. When Pharaoh becomes angry that none of his advisors or magicians can explain his dreams, the butler—by this time restored to his post—recommends Joseph to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams. As a result, Joseph is brought up from the dungeon, performs his interpretive magic, and is made viceroy over all Egypt. 

R. China’s second example is from the Book of Esther: The eunuchs guarding the haram become angry and as a result they are careless when discussing their plan to kill the king and fail to conceal it from Mordecai, who overhears and saves the king’s  life. A notation is made in the chronicles of the kingdom concerning this event. Sometime later, on a sleepless night, the king reviews the chronicles and realizes that the man who saved his life was never properly rewarded. That is when the king summons Haman to ask his advice, and Haman suggests an honor that he feels sure the king will bestow on himself.

Anybody can become angry, that is easy. But to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose and in the right way—that is not within everybody’s power, nor is not easy.
Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Book II, 1109.a27)

Yes, anger can be dangerous. But R. Chiyya is telling us that even anger can have constructive consequences. We need not subscribe to the notion that God is the invisible choreographer behind every event to recognize the great insight and value in R. Chiyya’s observation. (Nor could God micromanage the world if we believe in our own free will.) The intricate weave of events and emotions that describe and influence other events and emotions in the rolling, roiling, raging flow of human history is far too complex to reduce to a simplistic equation: “He got angry and therefore all these many things happened in this way…” Every situation can spawn a multitude of possible outcomes. We cannot hope to control it all, but neither must we be entirely passive to the flow of events. We can seek to channel even negativity in a constructive manner, as (according to R. Chiyya) God did.


  1. Can you recall a time when something you considered bad or worrisome happened, but the consequences were surprisingly positive?
  2. A famous saying attributed to Gautama Buddha is: “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.”
  3. In an article published by the American Psychological Association, Tori DeAngelis writes: “In studies and in clinical work, [psychologists] find anger can help clarify relationship problems, clinch business deals, fuel political agendas and give people a sense of control during uncertain times. More globally, they note, it can spur an entire culture to change for the better, as witnessed by the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the earlier women's suffrage movement.” Do you agree? Does this apply to the current presidential campaign?

Monday, March 14, 2016

Evil Woman? — BT Megillah 12b — #28

Rava says: The seventh day was shabbat on which, when Jews eat and drink they begin to [discuss] words of Torah and words of praise [for God]. But when idolators eat and drink, they begin [to discuss] only indecent matters.So it was at the feast of the wicked one [Ahasuerus]: some would say that Median women are beautiful and others would say that Persian women are beautiful. Ahasuerus said them: “My vessel that I use [i.e., my wife, who is the most beautiful of all women] is neither Median nor Persian nor Chaldean. Would you like to see her?” They said: “Yes, provided that she will be naked.” For the way a person behaves is how [heaven] behaves toward them. This teaches that the wicked Vashti used to bring Jewish girls and strip them naked and force them to work on shabbat. Thus it is written: After these things, when the anger of Kng Ahasuerus subsided, he thought of Vashti and what she had done and what had been decreed against her (Esther 2:1)—as she had done [to Jewish girls] so it was done to her.

In addition to being an ancient tale of the attempted genocide of the Jewish people, the Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) is a social, political satire in which wine and sex play leading roles. Esther opens with a description of a lavish, six month long banquet hosted by King Ahasuerus of Persia for the purpose of showing off his vast wealth. The drunken men in attendance argue about who the most beautiful women in the world are. (Cue first the Beach Boys’ “California Girls,” then the Beatles’ parody, “Back in the U.S.S.R.”) Esther records that, On the seventh day, when the king was merry with wine, he ordered [the eunuchs guarding his haram] to bring Queen Vashti before the king wearing a crown, to display her beauty to the peoples and the officials…But Vashti refused to come at the king’s command…The king was greatly incensed, and his fury burned within him (Esther 1:10-12). Harriet Beecher Stowe dubbed Vashti’s refusal the “first stand for women’s rights.” Unfortunately, the Talmud does not concur.

The Talmud provides a backstory and between-scenes glimpse of the wine banquet that connects some dots we might not have ever thought needed connecting. The Rabbis notice that the discussion about who are the most beautiful women in the world takes place on “the seventh day.” In context, this is the seventh day of the last week of Ahasuerus’ extended banquet, but the Rabbis understand it to be shabbat. They fashion from this nugget a story that vilifies Vashti even  in the minds of readers who might be inclined to view her compassionately: Vashti would force Jewish girls, presumably servants in the palace, to work naked on shabbat, compelling them to both violate their religious commitments and humiliate themselves. That is sufficient to paint Vashti cruelly masochistic and merit being ordered to appear naked (wearing a crown in 1:11 is now read as “wearing only a crown”). Where the biblical account sees Vashti as a victim of Ahasuerus, the Rabbis create a backstory that conforms to the principle of middah k’neged middah (“measure for measure”): Vashti’s fate resulted from her own cruelty. When the Rabbis evoke middah k’neged middah, it is as much as to say, “it served her right.” The Rabbis transform Vashti from victim to villain.

Vashti added new glory to [her] day and generation… by her disobedience; for “Resistance to tyrants is obedience to God.” (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, The Women’s Bible: A Classic Feminist Perspective, p. 83)

Vashti’s treatment of Jewish girls, as told by the Rabbis explains why, in a middah k’neged middah universe, she was commanded to appear before Ahasuerus and his guests naked, but it does not explain why she refused to appear. The Rabbis supply two possible explanations on the same daf  (folio 12b) of Talmud: R. Yose bar Chanina says that Vashti had a sudden outbreak of skin disease; the second explanation is that the angel Gabriel made her grow a hideous tail. 

The Scroll of Esther paints Vashti as an independent woman who is, minimally, morally neutral. The king, a malleable and impressionable buffoon, is easily convinced by his advisor Memucan that, the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands (1:16) and refuse to acquiesce to their every wish and command. Could it be that in the same way that the original story of Esther doesn’t allow us to draw our own conclusion about Vashti—telling us that her behavior threatens the Persian social family social order—the Rabbis do much the same thing, trying to insure that we don’t admire Vashti’s independence or view her as a victim of the evil Ahasuerus, but rather as a woman who was, herself, deeply immoral (especially to Jews) and deserving of her fate?


  1. Do you view Vashti as a hero or as a villain? What messages do we convey  to our daughters when we recount stories about Vashti?
  2.     If we view Vashti as a strong and independent woman who refused to cooperate with the immoral behavior of her husband, what do we do with the Rabbis’ commentary? Even more importantly: How do use stories, and commentaries on stories day in and day out to reinforce social mores and values?
  3.     Artist Deena Ackerman generously provides downloaded and printable drawings of the characters in the Purim story for children to color. Vashti is depicted twice: once with arms crossed over her chest and a large serpent’s tail emerging from beneath her dress (based on the Talmudic passage cited above) and, in response to people’s objections, without the tail. How would you characterize Vashti’s expression in the picture with the tail, and the one without the tail? Does the tail, signaling her “evil nature,” influence the viewer’s interpretation of her expression? (

Monday, March 7, 2016

Why is Esther in the Bible? — BT Megillah 7a — #27

It was taught: R. Eliezer says: Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit, as it says, Haman said in his heart (Esther 6:6). R. Akiba says: Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit, as it says, Esther found favor in the eyes of all who looked upon her (2:15). R. Meir says: Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit, as it says, The matter became known to Mordecai (2:22). R. Yose b. Durmaskit said: Esther was composed under the inspiration of the holy spirit, as it says, They did not lay their hands on the booty (9:10). Shmuel said: Had I been there, I would have supplied a proof superior to all of theirs: It is said, They confirmed and took upon themselves (9:27), [which means] they confirmed above what they took upon themselves below.

How did the Scroll of Esther come to be included in the Tana”kh (Hebrew Scriptures)? Have you ever wondered why and how the books in the Bible came to be included, and what others books (perhaps now lost to us) were excluded? The two most surprising choices for inclusion are Song of Songs, which, by any measure, is secular, erotic love poetry, and Esther, which does not contain the name of God. The Rabbis recognized this lacunae early on. In another passage from Talmud (BT Hullin 139b) they claim that Megillat Esther (the Scroll of Esther) was inspired by the holy spirit because the Torah alludes to Esther in the verse, I [God] shall surely hide My face from them (Deuteronomy 31:18)—the Rabbis read the term astir (“I will hide”) as an allusion to “Esther,” which sounds similar. In other words, based on a pun. Later commentators turned somersaults and contorted all reason to demonstrate that, in fact, God is alluded to in Esther, or to claim that God’s name was originally in the text but was subsequently removed for pious reasons.

In our passage, four sages provide textual arguments that Esther was composed under divine influence, and a fifth sage rejects the previous four arguments and provides his own, which he claims is superior.

R. Eliezer, R. Akiba, and R. Meir all argue that Esther is divinely inspired based on the presumption that the narrator could not know what the text claims without divine insight. How could the writer know what Haman was thinking but did not say aloud (6:6)? How could the writer know that every person who saw Esther admired her (2:15)? How could Mordecai have known of Bigthan and Teresh’s plan to kill the king without insider information from heaven? R. Eliezer, R. Akiba, and R. Meir are scrambling for evidence from the biblical text itself that warrants including Esther in the Jewish canon. 

But these are weak arguments. First, the manner in which the story unfolds makes it clear that Haman thought that King Ahasuerus was referring to him when when he sought Haman’s advice for honoring someone.  Second, the claim that Esther found favor in the eyes of everyone who saw her is easily understood as a hyperbolic affirmation of her beauty, but at face value, the statement isn’t much of a stretch given that King  Ahasuerus chose Esther from among seemingly hundreds of beautiful young women, each of whom was was provided a one-year beauty regimen prior to her one-night audition with the king. Third, the argument that Mordecai’s knowledge of the guards’ plot to kill the king hardly requires a telegram from heaven to explain, given that Mordecai camped out at the palace gate every day. Furthermore, we are told explicitly that the guards became angry and worked out their plot; angry people often fail to keep their voices low.  Besides, even if
Mordecai had insider knowledge from above, that doesn’t prove that the Scroll itself was written under divine influence. Fourth, the suggestion that it takes the holy spirit to know that not a single Jew in the large and sprawling kingdom of Persia collected booty from the the Persians both ignores the literary nature of the claim, as well as the fact that the claim does not prove that the Scroll itself was written under divine influence.

Shmuel rejects all four arguments for divine influence in favor of his own. Had he been among the Tanna’im (early Sages) who decided to include Esther in the canon, he would have argued for inclusion on the basis of Esther 9:27, which he reads to say, They [God and the angels in heaven] confirmed [that which] they [the Jews] took upon themselves, which is to say that God gave divine imprimatur to the narrative of Esther and to the Jews’ decision to obligate themselves and their descendants to observe Purim every year thereafter for all time. Shmuel is saying that the text wasn’t so much written under divine influence, as it received the divine stamp of approval after the fact. The community’s consensus and commitment conferred upon Megillat Esther and the celebration of Purim divine sanction and holiness.


  1. Would you have voted to include Megillat Esther in the Tana”kh? Why or why not?
  2. Three dates for celebration or mourning have been added to the Hebrew calendar in the modern period: Yom Ha’Atzmaut (Israel Independence Day), Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), and Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Reunification Day). On what basis should others be added? Can you suggest criteria?
  3. In a sense, Shmuel doesn’t argue for the inherent divinity of the Scroll of Esther. He can be understood as saying: Whatever the community decides is sacred to them is sacred. Do you agree? Are their limits and parameters? If so, what are they?