Adult Education Department Update
by Sharoni Sibony
As we begin to emerge from our protective Covid caves, I’ve been thinking a lot about Purim. Two years ago, my shul’s Megillah reading was the last communal event that I attended, when people were already kind of eyeing each other nervously and wondering if we should actually have been gathered together. We’ve spent the past two years masking ourselves to protect each other, our eyes still darting about for the soulful connections we need with friends and strangers on the street. And now we have the opportunity to be together again for Purim in person at Temple.
We often use the occasion of Purim to play dress-up and to share facets of our identity or imagination that aren’t often on display for public view. Masks, costumes, and intoxication can reveal as much as we imagine that they hide, bringing some aspect of the self to the fore.
The Purim story turns on Esther, whose name is rooted in the Hebrew word “hester” or “hidden,” a figure whose donning and undonning of royal garments give her a chance to mask her identity (and likely her anxiety), and to play the political part of the representative of the Jews of Persia even before she herself feels comfortable in that role.
But it’s actually another moment in the Torah that I want to think about right now, as we approach Purim together. The Torah tells us that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai bearing the Torah tablets, the skin of his face was radiant, so much so that the Israelites shrank from coming near him. When he finishes relaying the Torah laws to them, he veils his face. And then the Torah tells us: “Whenever Moses went in before God to converse, he would leave the veil off until he came out; and when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, the Israelites would see how radiant the skin of Moses’ face was. Moses would then put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with God” (Exodus 35: 34-35).
When does Moses wear this veil? It’s in the in-between moments, when he’s not directly interfacing with God or the Israelites, that he masks himself. For Moses, perhaps the veil offers the privacy he needs to relax into himself, out of his public prophetic role.
Perhaps you’ve become very comfortable at home over the past two years. Perhaps your front door acts like your own privacy veil, protecting you from the world and letting you relax (into daywear pyjamas?) in a way that you can’t always achieve in public.
But we’re here to welcome you back into being together. Because, as the great poet Rumi wrote:
Tear off the mask
Your face is
For additional resources to deepen your Purim experience, I highly recommend checking out the videos at the Megillah Project. I particularly love Alicia Jo Rabins’ song for Vashti, and Aaron Koller’s intellectually creative and compelling case for a novel eastern Diasporic identity in the Megillah. Also, check out the materials on Sefaria, which could be adapted to your family celebrations if you want to blend some text study with mask-making or other activities for kids. And finally, Reform Judaism has thought-provoking explanations of customs and celebrations that will help you contextualize why you do what you do.
I’d love to hear from you about your favourite Jewish enrichment resources – websites, organizations, and more that you love to consult for insights and ideas.
By Sharoni Sibony, Adult Education Coordinator
A few years ago, in a woodworking course at Sheridan College, I learned about Richard Serra’s Verblist – a list of verbs that animate the ways in which we relate to ourselves, to others, to place, and to the very process and materials of making. In class, I was given a block of cedar, a hand saw, a drill, some glue, and the instructions to manipulate the materials in response to one of the verbs. The structure I created, prompted by the verb “to enclose,” was a foot-tall prototype of a (not particularly kosher) sukkah. It was an enclosure that didn’t fully enclose: it was designed to be open to the elements, to honour the fragility and impermanence of life, and to create a space for contemplation and meditation. I titled the piece “in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,” after the third line of my favourite e. e. cummings poem.
Using pieces of soft cedar chipped off the block, drilled with holes and charred at the edges, I created a protective but porous, chrysalis-like space for the transformation of the soul. My design inspiration came from Mary Oliver’s image of a fragile “sky house” and from a beloved essay by Rodger Kamenetz, who survived Hurricane Katrina. Kamenetz became committed to collecting the slate roof tiles that had been torn off the roofs of New Orleans. He contrasts “the weird all-steel houses I see a few blocks from me, dropped down like alien life forms, guaranteed to survive any storm because they aren’t alive in the first place. Not houses but people-storage containers, closed systems, cubes of steel you can live inside for centuries. The wind can’t touch you; the water won’t wet you. They can’t be damaged, which is the problem: for everything that has to do with soul is thin and delicate and strong, like a slate, and can endure and can be damaged. And has holes in it.”
I’m one month into working with this beautiful community at Holy Blossom, and we’re now in Sukkot. Kamenetz’s words are sitting inside me once again, this time taking on new meaning as I think about the ways in which this synagogue has enclosed and embraced its members through a turbulent, grief-filled year that has tested our souls. One of the strengths I see in this community is its engagement with the world, a porousness that makes us both sensitive and durable. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we held a series of remarkable study sessions, headlined by the presentation of the Rabbi Gunther W. Plaut Humanitarian Award to Colonel Chris Hadfield, a man whose gaze has taken in the whole world at once. We also got to watch people like Alex Johnston and Devon Spier extend, with enormous vulnerability, their own “frail gestures” – their own expressions of grief in a panel on infertility and fertility – to reach us and connect us, to hold others of us who hurt, and to be held by us as a community.
Likewise, we’ve been building an important dialogue with our Indigenous neighbours, which didn’t only start with our panel on National Teshuvah and Indigenous Reconciliation, and won’t just end with this week’s memorial to the children of the Indian Residential School system.
In the coming weeks, we’re looking forward to sharing more education with soul. On October 26, hear from two masterful teachers of the Reform Movement at the Inaugural Annual Lecture in Memory of Rabbi Mark Dov Shapiro z”l, featuring Rabbis David Ellenson and Michael Marmur. Rabbi Splansky’s course in faith and faithlessness lets us situate our own experiences within a Jewish tradition of wrestling with these questions. We’ll get to hear from two of our in-house cultural experts: Cynthia Good shares her favourite books of the season, while Gillian Helfield tells us what she’s watching on TV and film. Mark Goodman’s weekly study groups are always open to everyone – Torah and history on Wednesdays and Talmud and halacha on Thursdays.
The HBT Adult Education Committee – Cynthia Good, Gillian Helfield, and Les Rothschild – have welcomed me so warmly to the team, and have infused their fall program offerings with the same warmth they’ve shown me. I hope to meet you at a class or a lecture soon. Moadim l’simcha!