Thursday, March 24, 2011


Shabbat Parah
Parshat Shemini
17 Adar II

My friend Rabbi Jacob Fine’s dad, Dr. Lawrence Fine, is a scholar of Kabbalah. I was a rather hardheaded and foolish student (such may not have changed), and derided all things mystical. Hearing Dr. Fine teach was the first step into a now deep relationship with Jewish mysticism.

At the time he was researching mystical fellowships - haburah, they were called - that were created for the spiritual ascension of their members. One feature of these haburah struck me then, and stays with me still: a promise to accept any and all criticism from another member of the haburah, with an open heart and without complaint. 

This sounds like a nightmare. The world is plenty full of people willing to tell others, in excruciating detail, just what they’re doing wrong. 

Nonetheless, something in my soul yearns for this kind of honesty in my life. People believe that morality and a sense of right action are innate in us, but I do not know how find wholeness without recourse to the wisdom of others.

Good criticism is quite rare. Most of our reproof, consciously or not, addresses our own struggles and not the reality of the other’s character. It is also full of blind anger, and to criticize well one must care deeply for the other. Few of us achieve such elevated perspective.

But when it comes, it is a gift. Without the careful corrections of others, we are adrift. Their words set us aright.
Do not criticize a fool, for he will hate you;
Criticize a wise person, and she will love you.
Mishlei (Proverbs) 9:8 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wear a Costume

Wear a Costume
Ta’anit Esther
Shabbat Zakhor
11 Adar, 5771
March 17th, 2011

You know, there are still places and times left when adults wear costumes: Carnival in Brazil, Halloween in the Village and in West Hollywood, every time I put on a suit.

Somehow or another, Purim isn’t one of them.

My rabbi, Sharon Brous, is very mahmir (strict) about this. Young and old, you best, shall we say, show up in costume. Not only that, but it had to be a costume that reflected something real inside of you – some aspect that doesn’t get expression in the real world.

She dresses up as a hippie. I don’t get it.

It’s all found in Esther’s name, really. It’s so similar to word hester - hidden – that our rabbis fell all over themselves interpreting the revelation of hiddenness as the deep meaning of the holiday: Purim is where what’s inside comes out.

To be an adult often means to be charged with stability, mostly for the sake of children and productivity. This requires us to divide between the internal and external life, so that others don’t suffer the vagaries of our emotions. But though life may ask us to conceal our inner life, it is not the same thing as saying that the inner life doesn’t exist.

What stays away from the light fades and withers. It’s time to bring the hidden into the sun. Wear a costume.

Purim Sameah
Happy Purim,
Rabbi Scott Perlo   

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Disturbed Sleep

Parshat VaYikra
3 Adar, 5771
March 9th, 2011

...בלילה ההוא נדדה שנת המלך
That night, the king’s sleep was disturbed.
Megillat Esther, 6:1
אמר רבי תנחום, “שנת מלכו של עולם”
Said Rabbi Tanhum, “that is, the sleep of the King of the world was disturbed.”
Talmud, Megillah 15b

Megillat Esther is a see-saw.

It’s a strange image, I know, but accurate. The book begins with inanity, chaos, instability, and the threat of death despite the worth of its Jewish characters.

But within Esther is a fulcrum, after which entropy becomes order, hatred is defeated, and our fate rises (can you see the see-saw?) towards redemption.

The verse you see above is that fulcrum. It is roughly the center of the book and exactly the turning point (clearly a term well-fashioned) of the story.

Interestingly, our rabbis rarely read this verse as applying to Ahashverosh; rather, it was God’s sleep being disturbed. The Holy One, finally, decided to wake up and intervene upon our behalf.

This interpretation is shocking. Not only does it imply that Holy One can choose to be absent from human affairs, but that God is also open to changing God’s mind. The Kedushat Levi, a brilliant hassidic commentary, teaches that the righteous in each generation possess the power to persuade the Holy One onto a different course.

In this case, let us be Godly rather than righteous. If the Divine can change opinions, it is certainly human virtue to allow oneself to be persuaded. Sometimes changing our principles is the best evidence that we have them.

Friday, March 4, 2011

It's Obvious

27 Adar I, 5771
March 3rd, 2011

It seems to me that in order to advance knowledge or create great art, one must be both persistent and really annoying.
That perseverance is necessary to genius has already been beautifully said (you know the quote). So let me explain why insufferable annoyance is required as well.
Imagine a child, about three or four years old. This child asks unbelievable amounts of questions about the world: why is the sky blue? why are tall people tall? why does the sun rise and set? why aren’t there dinosaurs anymore like they showed me in the museum? why do I have to share my toys? Next to this child is a fond if rather exasperated parent responding as best as she can. This scene a treasured experience of every parent I know.
Now imagine a 33 year old asking the same questions at a dinner party. Said grownup generates plenty of exasperation and exactly zero fondness. Ask people such perfectly obvious questions, and blank stares are the sparse reward.
It is of course, the quality of those adults to whom we ascribe genius that they have refused to let such questions go. It was their unseemly questioning of the obvious facts of life as the blue sky, etc. that birthed what we know about physics, genetics, astronomy, evolution, and morality, respectively. Charles Darwin was, I’m sure, beyond irritating until he published On The Origin of Species at age 33.
…lo habayshan lomed, ve’lo hakapdan melamed
…shy people cannot learn, brusque people cannot teach (Avot 2:5)
May we always have patience for obvious questions.