Tzav (and Esther)

This Shabbat we read the Parshah Tzav.  It continues the theme of the offerings that were brought to the temple.  It describes the motions of the ceremony that was itself the invocation of holiness and God’s presence. These chapters are about bringing people closer to God through offerings, in Hebrew called, Korban, from the root verb k.r.v which means to come closer.  In contrast, the Book of Esther which we read on Purim, this year, Thursday, March 24th, God is not mentioned.   Yet, one could wonder if God is not present somehow in the story.

Esther does one of hardest things to do.  She comes out about her identity.  She reveals something that she had been living with in secret.  Have you ever lived with a secret that you weren’t who people really thought you were?

Esther says to Ahashverosh, “If your Majesty will do me the favor, and if it pleases Your Majesty, let my life be granted me as my wish, and my people as my request,” (JPS Translation)  Next, she tells how her people are about to be “destroyed”, “massacred” and “exterminated.”  In order to stand up for her people, Esther risks her life to tell Ahashverosh her Jewish identity.

18 years ago in Cairo, Egypt, my husband was doing an immersive program in Arabic at the American University of Cairo, and I was spending several months living with him in an apartment near Tahrir Square.   I became quite friendly with a woman named Hoda.  Hoda was the wife of our Baabwab, a man whose role was a combination of doorman and superintendent.  Hoda’s family lived in the building and I spent a lot of time with her and her two young daughters.  We spent many hours drinking tea together, talking in her halting English and my emerging Egyptian vocabulary.   She showed me how to shop in the local market, how to cook, and how to get around the town.   Hoda always presumed that as an American I was Mesichi, Christian.  At first this didn’t bother me.  My husband and I were being careful with whom and how we shared our Jewish identity.   But, as Hoda and I spent more time together and trusted each other more, the issue became difficult for me.  I remember some vivid dreams and uncomfortable nights not able to reconcile being considered Christian by someone who otherwise knew me well.   Being Jewish was too much a part of who I was to be able to keep it a secret any longer.   Finally, one day I told Hoda that I wasn’t Mesichi, I was Yehudi.   By the time I told her, it felt imperative to speak my truth, and not to pretend to be anything other than who I really was. We all have truths about who we are. We value when we and our truths are seen, heard and understood.

It was hard to watch her expression change and to feel a cooler distance over the next few weeks.  But, slowly she warmed back up and said to me one day, “It can’t be that all Jews are bad.”  Over time, I was able to talk with her about the subject.

Sometimes it is hard to express our full selves in the world and share that which is really in our hearts, or our sense of truth.  I think that in our lifetime, the korban, the gift that we can bring to God in order to grow closer, is sharing ourselves with others, telling our truths, and accepting people for who they are.  Hopefully, we can learn to do this without someone like Haman threatening our lives.  Or perhaps, there is always the threat of evil and danger when we are not being true to ourselves.

While in the Torah, the Israelites serve God by bringing offerings and through the gift giving feel closer to God, I think in our modern life, we grow closer to the divine, when we grow closer to each other, when we share our personal gifts with each other

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