The Book of Esther (Subversive Edition)

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Detail of a Megillah (Scroll of Esther) from 19th century France

“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!

Sometime later,
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
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).

The Sacred Carob Tree of Khirbat al-Lawz

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The carob tree in the old village center of Khirbat al-Lawz

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.

For Shavuot: They Saw the Thunder

A Palestinian farmer harvests barley on a farm near the border of southern Gaza Strip with Israel
Photo: Reuters/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

Looking up from the barley harvest
they heard the sounds, like the blaring of trumpets
echoing across the hills.

Thick smoke rose up like smoke from a kiln
and then they saw the thunder,
fire sparking and flashing
as mortar shells fell from the sky.

The orders came in:
we have set bounds for the village
take care not to cross it
lest you be put to death.

They were sent out on the third day
and headed east into the hills
to the place where the Moabites once lived.

While back home, the unharvested barley
scattered like dry grass in the wind
and homes toppled into piles of stone.

Those were the days
the judges ceased to judge.

New for Passover: “Your Child Will Ask”

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Photo:Marko Djurica/Reuters

Your child will ask
why do we observe this festival?

And you will answer
it is because of what God did for us
when we were set free from the land of Egypt.

Your child will ask
were we set free from the land of Egypt
that we might hold tightly
to the pain of our enslavement
with a mighty hand?

And you will answer
we were set free from Egypt
that we might release our pain
by reaching with an outstretched arm
to all who struggle for freedom.

Your child will ask
were we set free from the land of Egypt
because we are God’s chosen people?

And you will answer
we were set free from the land of Egypt
so that we will finally come to learn
all who are oppressed
are God’s chosen.

Your child will ask
were we set free from the land of Egypt
that we might conquer and settle
a land inhabited by others?

And you will answer
we were set free from the land of Egypt
that we might open wide the doors
to proclaim:

Let all who are dispossessed return home.
Let all who wander find welcome at the table.
Let all who hunger for liberation
come and eat.

Kevin Coval Rewrites the Haftarah for Yom Kippur – Chicago Style

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mosaic by Jeffrey Conroy

Written and read by Chicago poet Kevin Coval as the Haftarah for Tzedek Chicago’s Yom Kippur service yesterday:


atoning for the neo-liberal in all or rahm emmanuel as the chicken on Kapparot

written on the eve and day of Yom Kippur

Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
Isaiah 58: 5-6

you are the first jewish mayor of Chicago
but have not yet lit one yahrzeit candle
for constituents murdered by the police.

you vacation in montana with the governor
bring your family to Chile on a whim
and never worry about crossing borders
or encountering their patrolmen
or the rent upon return.

your grandparents sought refuge here.
escaping those trying to end them.
they came, worked, learned, created
a life that enabled your parents to raise you
in the suburbs: the immigrant face of the american dream.

when your parents took you
to visit sick children in Israel
you cried. now you clothe
feed, care and ensure
your children’s safe passage
and university of Chicago
lab school tuition, $30000
per year, but you have closed
over fifty public schools
in neighborhoods your family
used to live in. neighborhoods
you no longer live in or love
or allow your children to visit.
neighborhoods bustling with Black
and Brown bodies, whose children
must cross borders called gang lines
you are well aware of, yet wonder
why the murder rates rises.

you dismantle the same system in which your family benefited:
union pay, livable wages, park space safe enough to play outside
arts funding to take ballet, a decent well-rounded public education.

the same ladder your family climbed
you kick the rungs from.

if the schools, housing, health care
trauma centers and corners that cause trauma
are fair across this flat, segregated land-
then eat today. every day there is a harvest
on the carcass of this city for sale. the satiated
carve at a distance, plan and map and redistrict

with careless indifference. how many times
have you been to Kenwood, Woodlawn
Lawndale. what are the names of the people
you know there. what homes have you sat in.

how can you fast
this week, when food
was refused by grandmothers
and educators and organizers
in your back yard, in the front
lawn of a school Chief Keef attended
in a neighborhood you militarize;
more guns and police your solution
to poverty or an extermination strategy.

how can you fast
when those on hunger
strike you couldn’t stand
with in the same room
in a public forum
which is your job by the way:
to listen. you are the antithetical
Studs Terkel.

this not the city he loved
to listen to, not the city
your grandparents were promised

where is your apology
for sending so many jobs elsewhere
for privileging your childrens’ future
and pillaging others’

what do you know of labor
and no savings account and counting
pennies for a pass, for permission to move
or see a movie or museum in this city
of no access and grand canyons of inequity.

your middle name is Israel
it’s come to mean apartheid
in the city, you are mayor
and in Palestine, the city
your family colonized.

there is no safety
said my G-d
for the wicked (1)

for the divvier of cities
for the divider of nations
for the ignorer of horror
for the builder of walls

atone for the smug assuredness
atone for the maintenance of two cities
stratified and unrecognizable to the other
atone for the bounty of the north side
the scarcity of the south
the want of the west
atone for the erasure of the public
school, space, housing, parking
atone for the centrism, the move right
the cow-tow to corporations
atone for the inconceivable income disparity
between those funding your campaign
and those over which you reign
atone for the city’s change
it’s white wash and removable
workers who used to make it
work by working
in jobs with pensions
and benefits
atone for the benefits we have
by merely being white
on the north side of the city
country where that is enough
to make you safe and not think
about driving a car or going
for a jog or walk outside
atone for the rite to the city
that’s for some, not for all
not for real

israel means may G-d prevail

and we pray that’s real, for real
amen
____________________________
Isaiah 57:21 (1)

For Tisha B’Av: A Lamentation for Gaza

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This Monday night begins the Jewish fast of Tisha B’Av: a day of mourning for the calamities that have befallen the Jewish people over the centuries. Among other things, the traditional Tisha B’Av liturgy includes the chanting Biblical book of  Lamentations.

Given the profoundly tragic events currently unfolding in Gaza, I offer this reworking of the first chapter of Lamentations.  I share it with the hope that on this day of mourning we might also mourn the mounting dead in Gaza – along with what Israel has become…

A Lamentation for Gaza

Gaza weeps alone.
Bombs falling without end
her cheeks wet with tears.
A widow abandoned
imprisoned on all sides
with none willing to save her.

We who once knew oppression
have become the oppressors.
Those who have been pursued
are now the pursuers.
We have uprooted families
from their homes, we have
driven them deep into
this desolate place,
this narrow strip of exile.

All along the roads there is mourning.
The teeming marketplaces
have been bombed into emptiness.
The only sounds we hear
are cries of pain
sirens blaring
drones buzzing
bitterness echoing
into the black vacuum
of homes destroyed
and dreams denied.

We have become Gaza’s master
leveling neighborhoods
with the mere touch of a button
for her transgression of resistance.
Her children are born into captivity
they know us only as occupiers
enemies to be feared
and hated.

We have lost all
that once was precious to us.
This fatal attachment to our own might
has become our downfall.
This idolatrous veneration of the land
has sent us wandering into
a wilderness of our own making.

We have robbed Gaza of
her deepest dignity
plunged her into sorrow and darkness.
Her people crowd into refugee camps
held captive by fences and buffer zones
gunboats, mortar rounds
and Apache missles.

We sing of Jerusalem,
to “a free people in their own land”
but our song has become a mockery.
How can we sing a song of freedom
imprisoned inside behind walls we have built
with our own fear and dread?

Here we sit clinging to our illusions
of comfort and security
while we unleash hell on earth
on the other side of the border.
We sit on hillsides and cheer
as our explosions light up the sky
while far below, whole neighborhoods
are reduced to rubble.

For these things I weep:
for the toxic fear we have unleashed
from the dark place of our hearts
for the endless grief
we are inflicting
on the people of Gaza.

Shalom Rav Now On Sabbatical!

indexYou may have noted that my posts on Shalom Rav have gotten fewer and more far between of late. There are many reasons for this, but the long and short of it is that I’ve decided to take a brief hiatus from my Shalom Rav postings – at least until after the Jewish High Holidays.

But don’t fret – in the remote possibility that you absolutely need to read my writing on a regular basis, you should know that I’m still posting daily poetry on my other blog, Yedid Nefesh (yes, my “Psalm a Day” project is still going strong!)  So please feel free to check in and, as always, to add your thoughts and comments.

All the best for a restful and renewing summer.