It feels so normal. Walking around seeing the painted faces, super heroes, queens, parent volunteers making hamentaschen, Early Childhood Center kids going for a spin around the parking lot in a brightly colored choo-choo train. Stopping on the Irmas Campus bridge, I reminisced with Anne Kessler, our lead art teacher. “Remember Rabbi?” she began. “Two years ago we were sitting right here in Vashti’s nail salon. Remember?”
I completely remember. Plans for our all-school celebration were abruptly canceled. We turned on a dime and just made the carnival work. Then the world shut down.
The holiday of Purim marks for us the two-year anniversary of “the before times,” the time when masks covered the upper part of your face on Purim with bright smiles shining through. Sometimes it seems like a wonder to me how we got through these past two years. Learning how to teach online; figuring out zoom; how to celebrate Shabbat and holidays online; and how to do back-to-school night and Yom HaAtzmaut in a way our generation had not experienced before. But here we are stronger than ever. Innovation, resilience, and perseverance, I believe, are baked into our Jewish DNA and as ancient as a famous Queen named Esther.
How did Esther, while living in a harem among non-Jews, remember her Judaism? Esther knew her real name was Hadassah yet she hid her real identity because, as she understood her situation quite well, it would not have been advantageous for her true identity to be revealed. The ancient rabbis in sections of the Talmud surmise that Esther kept track of her true self, of her Jewish identity, by keeping basic Jewish traditions alive. The ancient rabbis describe Esther as an innovator as unwavering in her faith whose prayer and rituals were at the core of her practice.
One example the rabbis give is that Hadassah was assigned seven servants while she was in her quarters. She rotated the servants each day so that she could keep track of the days and preserve a sense of Shabbat, to remember the passing of time can be infused with purpose and meaning when it is in service to a greater good, a higher calling, a preeminent power.
Hadassah had a way of turning basic elements and parts of her life into prayer. She knew, as we know very well, that ritual, prayer, and joining with community are the essence of our survival. We, too, maintain rituals and we remember we have the power of prayer just as Queen Esther. Queen Esther lived her life as a prayer. Her actions and decisions, the way she chose to conduct her life, were all types of prayer.
How shocking then that God is not mentioned at all in the Megillah! How then can we gain understanding and inspiration from Esther and reenvision our life as prayer?
I was recently in a Temple board meeting and our Associate Executive Director Jodi Berman delivered the closing prayer. I think it is the perfect way to think about how we, like Esther, can use our lives as holy vessels to bring light and meaning to life. I hope you enjoy Jodi’s words as much as I did.
“Here’s something you don’t need me to tell you, there’s a lot going on in the world. In a way, writing a closing prayer just feels silly - do we not have enough people in the world praying for healing, praying for peace, praying for justice? When we step back and reflect, it feels like a fat lot of good all these prayers are doing. Right now, prayer feels a lot like screaming into the void. Maybe it feels good, but what’s it really accomplishing?
And then there is the matter of God. If I pray, am I distracting God from God’s current task of stopping war, healing relationships, relief for the ill, inspiring the work of scientists, and all of the other things we expect from God? Shouldn’t God know what God is supposed to be doing without my supervision? Is prayer just one more thing for my to do list? What’s the point?
It’s hard to get satisfaction from prayer in times like these. So I’m looking for other kinds of prayer - like Temple meetings, Temple meetings are prayer (not just for those of you praying for it to finish) in that they are aspirational, communal, they are hopeful.
And my weekly meetings with staff and congregants are prayer in that they are reflective on what we do well and what we can do better.
Our quiet moments are prayer, our exercise is prayer, our giving tzedakah is prayer, and even our tears are prayer.
Prayer reminds us of life’s truths.
Private prayer reminds us that even when we are alone, we are not alone.
Communal prayer reminds us of our obligations to each other.
So, when the world is a real mess and we are asked to pray, we can muster words, we can embrace deeds, and we can find prayer anywhere we choose. For now, for me, that will have to be enough.