Purim and Living Between Worlds

This week is one of my favorite Jewish holidays.  One of the very best things about Orthodox Judaism is that there are so many holidays and they’re all so different in their observances and traditions.  Purim is a particularly fun holiday for children, with costumes and candy galore.

This year, though, as we read the Purim story and prepare our treats for friends, I’m already quite a bit down.  Last week was a really rough week for our family and Adar is supposed to be a month in which we are commanded to “increase our joy.”  We did have some very good news last week as well.  We have secured a rental in our new hometown that’s close to shul.  My husband was able to see a good endocrinologist and should be getting a working pump soon, which is something he’d been fighting up here for since last June.  Still, we had some bombshell bad news on our conversion progress and then we’re still struggling to sell our house in a buyer’s market.

It’s hard to feel the kind of increase in joy I feel like I’m supposed to feel this Purim.

Re-reading the story of Purim, this year, I feel more connected to Queen Esther.  She’s the heroine of the tale, the girl who becomes Queen and uses her influence to save the Jewish people.  Yet, even as the story ends, she remains locked in the palace, married to a non-Jew and unable to join her people in their celebrations.  She saves her people, but cannot save herself.  She is trapped, living between two worlds.

Right now, my family and I are very much living between two very different worlds.  On the one side, we have Alaska.  Just yesterday afternoon, we were up in Hatcher Pass spending a bright, sunny afternoon high in the mountains watching snowboarders bravely make their way down snowy peaks.  All around us is a non-Jewish world.  We munched on potato chips because it was about all I could find in the gas station with a kosher symbol.  In the meantime, my husband makes periodic trips down to our new home to work out the logistics of our move.  There he can attend daily minyan and stand next to our childrens’ teachers.  Kosher food is plentiful and less expensive.  There are no mountains and life is far less wild and untamed.

It doesn’t help that we’re feeling less connected to our Jewish community up here.  Now that our Rabbis know that we’ll be starting over again in our new home, they’re no longer meeting with us or teaching us.  There are simply too many other pressing demands on their time.  Our children, now both past the age of bnei mitzvah, likewise are now on their own as well.  To be clear, I’m not blaming our Rabbis for using their time where it will do the most good.  There really just isn’t much we need right now or that they can help us with.  Still, it’s hard not to feel adrift through no one’s fault.

“It’s supposed to snow tomorrow,” my husband says.
“Where?” I ask in response, unsure which place he’s looking at the weather for anymore.

Did Queen Esther look out her window at her people celebrating and yearn to be with them?  Did she have a window that faced them or was her view focused inward on palace courtyards?  Did she live in two places at once or did she ever fully feel at home in the palace?

I know this Adar, I must work harder to increase my joy.  In just about 12 weeks, which isn’t long, I will be flying to a new home and starting a new journey and I’d rather not waste my last weeks here in the mountains in sadness.

May you all have a very Happy Purim and see all the hidden joys in your own lives!

A Day Without Women…and the Fast of Esther

One of the benefits of going to work so early that it’s still dark is that I am able to get in a quick meal before a daytime fast begins.  I scarfed a bowl of oatmeal and thought about Ta’anit Esther.

Esther was a leader, but a leader within a pretty brutally sexist regime.  Her husband, the King, had removed his previous wife Vashti, for defying him.  There are different versions of what exactly Vashti’s failing had been, some painting her as a modest woman who refused her husband’s commands out of that modesty and others painting her less favorably.  In some Jewish circles, she’s painted as a kind of heroine of feminism and in others she’s regarded much less favorably for her defiance.  Either way, the result was the same.

Even the Queen couldn’t oppose the King and hope to be spared.

I’ve always thought of the story of Vashti as important not necessarily on its own, but more as a backdrop that helps us understand why Esther was so afraid to approach her husband to let him know of Haman’s plans to kill her people.  Otherwise, her preparations to approach the King might have seemed overly dramatic.  Ta’anit Esther (the Fast of Esther) commemorates the fast that Esther asked the Jewish people to undertake before she approached the King.  In the story, Esther makes every possible preparation she can before approaching him.  Everyone fasts, she prays, spiritually, she does everything she can to ask G-d to be on her side in the upcoming confrontation.  She adorns herself, makes delicious foods, even her approach to request an audience with the King is very carefully planned and executed.  She doesn’t rush in and interrupt him, but carefully waits to gain his attention and favor.

Esther was a woman who knew how to gain influence not through might or force or shouting over others, but quietly, gently.

She is careful with her plans, waiting for the right time.  She is patient about getting the change that is needed.  She has support from the other man in her life (sources are ambiguous over what Mordechai really was to her) and she follows his advice gracefully.  In the end, her people are saved, free to live as Jews even in a foreign Kingdom.  However, Esther herself remains in the palace, married to a King she must fear and handle carefully.

To me, Esther and Vashti look a lot like polar opposites.  Vashti may or may not have been in the right refusing the King’s request, but the way she does it is rash.  Her downfall seems to be, as much as anything, a result of her trying to push her way against the King.  Esther faces a MUCH more dramatic challenge.  Her very life and the life of her people is under threat.  This is a much bigger thing to become upset about than any request Vashti might have been reacting to.  And yet, Esther keeps a cool head and handles the situation much more gracefully, appealing to the King’s best nature and using her influence as his Queen to help him come to his own decision which ultimately saves her and her people.

As I thought about the polarity of these two women, this week came to mind.  This week, women were supposed to leave work for a day for an organized strike of sorts, to show what a “day without women” might be like.  I have some friends who participated and others who did not.  Some didn’t due to the politics of one of the organizers, which appear to be anti-Israel to an extreme.  Others didn’t because the message didn’t resonate with them.  Still others didn’t because they couldn’t get the time off work.  The organizers also wanted women to take a day off from unpaid work at home as well, meaning household chores, childcare, and pretty much all those little things a woman does in her home.

Something about all this just didn’t seem to fit for me and I puzzled over it.  It wasn’t just politics or work ethic, but I found it hard to really put a finger on what didn’t seem to fit.

I think, to me, the approach to change I often see modern women taking, even in my own workplace and very often when I talk to women in relationships, is an approach like Vashti.  Vashti, I think, would have been very much at home in a women’s march or “Day Without Women.”  I think she would have seen the injustices that are very real and felt compelled to act and act quickly and decisively to try to do what she could to stop them.  Vashti wants to meet men where they are, on equal ground, and fight for her rights.

The problem with this approach is that it is adversarial in nature and men are primed to fight an adversary.  When we as women become Vashti, we become more than a refusal to a request or a demand for justice or rights, we become a threat that must be neutralized.  Vashti’s very public refusal became a threat to the King’s power.  If he let that threat go unchecked, then others in his court might think that they could challenge him.  It no longer mattered whether or not he cared for her.  He felt his throne was now at stake so, even if he had feelings for her, he had to put them aside.  Similarly, when we as women become adversaries to men, then they approach conflict with us just as they would another man.  Conflict quickly becomes ugly, even within marriages.  Love and tenderness are pushed aside for strength.  Everyone loses in a battle between the sexes.

Esther seems to have learned from Vashti’s example.  Esther doesn’t take up her cause in public, in a way that might make the King feel his authority is being threatened.  She plans her approach to him carefully.  She appeals to the King’s tenderness for her and helps him let down his defenses.  When the King doesn’t feel he needs to defend himself, he can be open to being generous with her.  He can hear her better.  When she makes her request, she doesn’t tell him what to do.  She doesn’t yell at him or nag him or lecture him.  She opens her heart to him and lets him see her vulnerability, her pain, her fear.  When he sees this, he’s moved to act from his own heart rather than feeling he needs to defend himself.  He wants to protect her and to help her and then she has the opening she needs to tell him that the person who has inflicted all this on her…is none other than his most trusted advisor, Haman.  Had she taken Vashti’s approach and loudly “called him out” in front of the court…the King’s reaction would likely have been very different.

Women have suffered, there is no denying that.  Women are suffering now.  Women are pressured to “have it all” and “do it all” and so many of us are wearing thin at the edges.  Unfortunately, we’re also being taught from a young age that the only way to get what little there is to go around, whether it’s love, respect, money, time, or even help from those closest to us…is to fight for it.  We’ve been taught to be Vashti at work and at home.  As a result, many of us face conflict every where and the battle just never ends and we never really feel like we’re winning.

I would rather live a life where I have influence without shouting.

I choose to live a life where I appeal to men’s better natures wherever I can and offer them the opportunity to be on the same side as me, working together against whatever the obstacle is.  Like Esther, this often means patience in waiting for change.  At home, it means letting my husband do things his way while giving to him my innermost desires and dreams and then letting go and just trusting that he will get us there, in his own time and in his own way.  At work, it means collaboration rather than confrontation.

Life is rarely, if ever a zero sum game, particularly when it comes to people with whom you have a relationship.  There is almost always a way forward where no one has to “lose.”  Esther helped the King find a way where the conflict wasn’t between him and her, but between THEM and Haman.  Vashti is on her own side, her against the world, a lonely place to be.

I’d love to see women soften, particularly when it comes to relationships.  I’d love us to be able to be more tender and vulnerable with our close friends and families, more gentle with those we love and cherish.  To me, those traits are the best and highest we can aspire to, the traits that really bring a woman’s touch into the world.

I think the problem I had with the “Day Without Women,” most of all, is that in many ways, I feel we’ve already left.  In becoming Vashti, we’ve removed Esther and the feminine from our workplaces and homes.  I’d much rather see a “Day of the Feminine,” where these traits are celebrated and brought to the forefront rather than deemed “weak” in comparison to more masculine traits.

I hope everyone has an easy fast and that we all find inspiration this Purim!

Stubborn or Stiff-Necked?

I am stubborn.

I justify it often, using my height as a handy excuse.  A low center of gravity must lend itself naturally to being hard to move, right?  Or, my red hair becomes the excuse as if its inability to choose a more common color somehow influences my brain to stay in well-trained ruts rather than create new trails.

Stubbornness isn’t always a bad thing.  I tend to lower my head and push forward through obstacles in life like a linebacker rather than give up when I meet with resistance.  It makes me a good problem solver because I don’t easily lose faith that there is a solution, somewhere.  It helps me keep commitments even when it’s not fun to do so.  It helps me hold on to things that I don’t want to lose.

It’s definitely helped me in the 7+ years since my family began conversion.

Maybe faith sometimes takes stubbornness?  Even when the world seems to want to chip away at belief, some just as stubbornly cling to it, refusing to let it go no matter what they’re told or what temptations try to peel it from their tight grip.  It’s stubbornness as much as anything else that helps me keep the mitzvos I take on even when I’m in the midst of a bit of a disagreement with G-d about some of his decisions for my life.  (I like to think he’s amused when I’m disagreeing, as if my vote has some weight here or as if I have any knowledge that He lacks that He should consider.  Hopefully He finds it cute?)

The Jews are referred to multiple times in the Torah as a “stiff-necked” people.  It’s sometimes taken as an insult and is often brought up when they’ve gone and done exactly what they were told a few passages earlier NOT to do.  However, I also think that without that innate stubbornness, the Jewish people would not have endured being so scattered throughout the world.  Their very culture and religion would have perished were it not for a stubborn resistance to assimilation.  With Purim coming up, we have a great example of stubbornness as a virtue in Mordechai, who stubbornly refused to bow to Haman or idols, even under threat of death.  Over and over, in Torah, the Jews are both find themselves on the wrong side of G-d due to their stubborn nature, but also ultimately redeemed by it.  It also seems to be that G-d stubbornly loves and sticks with the Jews, even when they give Him reason to abandon them.

There are time, though, that my stubbornness becomes a handicap.  Like the Jews in their desert wanderings, it can make me difficult to lead to where I’m meant to go.  The more I resist the signs a change is needed, the more drastic the signs become.  The message is pretty clear.  Either be led in the direction I need to go or the nudges will become shoves and eventually I’ll be forced to go that direction.  So it is right now, with my family trying to time a big move across thousands of miles to a bigger Jewish community, hopefully one where we will be able to finish this conversion journey.  All logical signs point to waiting one more year to help us make the move in a more financially responsible way.  The nudges, though, keep getting stronger and stronger to push us toward that move sooner.

So, we’re left in our davening to G-d to ask which we’re meant to be in this situation, stubborn and stiff-necked so we can sell our home and uproot our family on our timeline, feeling a little safer that when we land where we are going, we’ll have an easier restart?  Or, are we meant to be led here, ripping the bandaid off at once and sooner so that we can lick our wounds in a larger community with more resources to support us?  We’re left to try to interpret these nudges as they grow stronger, wondering if they’re just reminders that we’re not home yet or if they’re the push to make a leap of faith?

Either way, there’s always value in asking the questions, even where I resist the answers.  I know, in that deep part of myself that drew me to conversion in the first place, that this big change is coming, whether this summer or the next.  I know it’s for our best good even if it’s a little scary.  I also know that G-d will take care of us, even if it doesn’t look like what I might want it to look like, even if it involves a little pain and hard lessons.

I know all this, but I’m still stubborn.