Reflections from Rabbi Waxman
Finding Purim on Ash Wednesday in Buenos Aires
Last week, on our last day in Buenos Aires, when it was a drizzly but mild day—in the 70’s (hard to believe it was little more than a week ago that we were walking around in short sleeves), we made a return visit to the cathedral, which we had twice visited on our first trip back in 2008. Specifically, we went looking for the tomb of Cardinal Quarracino, the current pope’s predecessor as archbishop of the city. The late cardinal was what is called an Ohev Yisrael, who like his successor was a lover of Jews and had warm relationships with the Jewish community. We went to look again at the Holocaust Memorial that is near his tomb. Indeed, its location was at the behest of the late cardinal, and was dedicated in the spring of 1997, less than a year before his death in February, 1998.
It is a unique piece, worthy of a sermon---that is a hint of what you may yet hear one of these days--. Rather than a single piece of art, it is a framed collection of remnants of books and manuscripts. Most of them are from the Holocaust, including a piece from Auschwitz, but there are also pieces from the AMIA, bombed 20 years ago this past summer, as well as from the Israeli embassy, which was bombed nearly 23 years ago. (March 17th is the anniversary.) What is particularly noteworthy is the first piece selected: it is at the top of the memorial. It is a fragment of an illustrated version of the Book of Esther, written as a megillah, as a scroll.
I am sure that you recall the essence of the story. Because of Haman the Jews seemingly are doomed to extinction whereupon Esther, with some arm-twisting from Mordecai, saves the day. It is the paradigmatic “they tried to kill us; we defeated them; let’s eat” story. Its selection as the first part of this extended collage serves as a proclamation of Jewish survival, albeit of only a fraction, unlike in the original Purim story.
Purim begins next Wednesday evening—see below--. For Jews over the centuries it became a replicated festival. Many communities, faced expulsion or extinction and survived, created their own local versions of Purim to celebrate, in addition to the one that all Jews marked. Furthermore, by itself Purim undoubtedly served as a Jewish foil to Mardi Gras, marked a couple of weeks earlier. Whereas Mardi Gras was the last blow out for Christians before Lent and the countdown to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, for Jews, Purim was a chance to celebrate either while winter was still doing its thing or as spring was about to begin and it signaled that Passover was but a month away. (The first seder is 5 weeks from this Friday.) It was a time for merriment—Purim plays and costumes are an old tradition--, along with eating and drinking. Indeed, the Talmud records an episode in which two of the rabbis imbibed so much that they engaged in a fatal act of swordplay. Fortunately, the slain rabbi was miraculously re-animated. It is no wonder that that rabbi declined the next year an invitation to feast with the self-same colleague.
Alas, by and large we have relegated Purim to the children. But it really is an adult holiday, with adult themes: Esther didn’t win the position of queen because she made a good brisket---she apparently had some skills in the bedroom. And unlike the kinder we can toast the holiday with some alcohol, in addition to enjoying our hamantaschen.
In Buenos Aires, in the midst of a cathedral, the inclusion of the piece from the Book of Esther is a subtle proclamation “Am Yisrael Chai,” that the Jewish people endure. That assertion is worth celebrating. See the attached picture of a Kosher McDonalds fast food restaurant.
Hence, I hope to see you at the rabbinage next week in costume.
Shabbat shalom and a freilch (joyous) Purim.
Purim: Join us Wednesday night, March 4th at 7:30 p.m. at the rabbinage. We shall read the megillah—with noise makers at the ready--, and afterwards toast the holiday with good spirit and good spirits along with various kinds of hamantaschen.
ADULT EDUCATION Opportunities. On Sunday, March 22nd, Stony Brook Hillel in conjunction with JTS will once again offer its Jewish University for a Day. Having attended the previous sessions, I can vouch that it is an unique opportunity to be exposed to insightful scholars. The cost is nominal and includes lunch. There should be an e-mail flyer coming your way with further information.
Beginning on Monday evening, March 16th, the CHAI institute, the inter-congregational adult ed program of 7 congregations will begin again. After a successful fall semester, a six week series will start—with a break for the week of Passover-- with lectures by faculty members of JTS as well by other scholars, preceded by classes offered by local clergy, including yours truly. A brochure will be coming your way soon. See the attached Flyer.
Chadashot MeYisrael: News From Israel
A Further Genetic Step Towards Suppressing Malaria
With upwards to a million people dying from malaria annually, finding a way of suppressing the parasite’s harmful genes has been a high priority for medical researchers. Recently, two researchers, Professor Ron Dzikowski of the Hebrew University Faculty of Medicine and doctoral student Inbar Amit-Avraham have concluded a study whose promising results were recently published in the Proceedings of the [US] National Academy of Sciences.
Malaria replicates in the blood of those infected and modifies the surface of infected red blood cells. Its virulence is a result of its ability to hide from the immune system by selectively changing which surface proteins its displays. Previous research had determined that the antigens that the parasite displays are encoded by members of a gene family named var. Malaria regulates the expression of these var genes to the extent that only one is expressed at any given time.
The two researchers found that the precise moment in the cell cycle when a specific var gene is active, corresponding RNA molecules are also present. These long non-coding RNA molecules incorporate themselves into DNA and determine how the parasite selects a single gene for expression, while the rest of the family is silent. The researchers were able to active silent var genes by expressing specific long non-coding RNA molecules.
In conjunction with Dr. Eylon Yavin of the University’s School of Pharmacy Institute for Drug Research, the team developed a new way to interfere with these RNA molecules and demonstrated that they could thereby suppress the active var gene.
According to Proessor Dzikowiski: “We believe this breakthrough has exposed the tip of the iceberg in understanding how the deadliest malaria parasite regulates the selective expression of its genes, enabling it to evade the immune system. Understanding the mechanisms by which the parasite evades immunity takes us closer to finding ways to either block this ability, or force the parasite to expose it its entire antigenic repertoire and thus allow the human immune system to overcome the disease. Such findings can help pave the way for development of new therapies and vaccines for malaria.”
A Comment on the Weekly Torah Portion
The Torah portion of Tetzaveh (Exodus 28:31-29:18) is read this Saturday. It is also Shababt Zachor, the Sabbath before Purim, with a special Haftorah and Maftir (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).
28:36 You shall make a frontlet [tsits/plate] of pure gold and engrave on it the seal inscription: “Holy to the Lord.”
28:36 a plate. The usual meaning of tsits is blossom, or flowers (Num. 17:8; Isa. 40: f.; Ps. 103:15 etc.). In three other passages where the same object is referred to, the word nezer¸ ”crown,” occurs: 29:6 , nezer hakodesh, “the holy crown”; 39:30, tsits nezer hakodesh, “the plate of the holy crown and Lev. 8:9, tsits hazahab nezer hakodesh, “the golden plate, the holy crown.” In pre-Exilic times, the crown (nezer) had been worn by kings (2 sam. 1:10; 2 Kg. 11:112; Ps. 89:39 etc.). The association between the crown and the idea of blossoming is suggested by Ps. 132:18 which can be literally rendered, “his (David’s) enemies I will clothe with shame, but upon him his crown will blossom”… In the light of these passages, we must conclude that tsits here is meant to signify the crown or diadem of gold to be fastened to the turban of the high priest. This is further borne out by the fact that Sir[ach] 45:12 speaks of “a gold crown upon his turban, inscribed like a signet with “Holiness”; and that Josephus Ant. III.vii.6) says the turban of the high priest “was encircled by a crown of gold wrought in three tiers, and sprouting above this was a golden calyx recalling the plant which with us is called saccaron”. He continues with a long description of that plant. If Josephus is correct, this may give another clue to the use of the term “blossom” for the crown of gold. The Am. Tr. Is therefore justified in translating tsits zahab here as “a diadem of pure gold”…
This wearing of a crown by the high priest is another example of the adoption by the priesthood of a symbol formerly associated with the kings of Israel, like the breastpiece of judgment. (J.P. Hyatt, The New Century Bible Commentary: Exodus. Born in 1909, Professor J.Philip Hyatt taught at Wellesley College before moving to Nashville in 1944 where he served as Professor of Old Testament and chair of the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt. A prolific scholar, he authored Jeremiah: Prophet of Courage, Hope and Heritage of Biblical Faith, and The Treatment of Final Vowels in Neo-Babylonian, in addition to this commentary. Beyond publishing many articles in scholarly journals, he was a contributor the Interpreter’s Bible and the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. A collection of his articles, Essays in Old Testament Ethics, was published posthumously. He died in 1972.)