Song of the Sons


The centerpiece of the third section of the Tanach, the section known as Ketuvim (the Writings), is the Book of Psalms. The Book of Psalms contains some of the most majestic poetic images in the history of the Hebrew language. They express awe at the artistic power of the Creator and express wonder at the reality of all Being. They reflect on the redemptive design of the God of history who took us out of Egypt and anticipate the ultimate redemption at the end of days. They cry out in the pain of human suffering and appeal to a God of healing. They protest the injustice that surrounds us and the domination of the powerful over the weak. They sing of the yearning for communion with God. And more.

Nowhere is the relationship between God and the Jewish people articulated with more poetic power or artistic beauty than in the 150 chapters of the Psalms. The Psalms have withstood the test of time with their undiminished power to inspire, to move, to touch and elevate the human soul.

The original purpose of the Psalms was liturgical, written to be sung by a choir of Levites during the sacrificial service in the Temples in Jerusalem. Still, in our own day, many of the Psalms are used liturgically and comprise entire sections of the prayer book, the most obvious examples being Psukei d’Zimrah (the preliminary service recited daily before the Shachrit prayers) and Hallel, (the thanksgiving liturgy recited on holidays and Rosh Chodesh), the kabbalists of Safed in the 16th century used Psalms when creating the Kabbalat Shabbat service, which introduces the Shabbat evening prayers with great beauty.

Although the Talmud (Bava Batra 14b) ascribes authorship of the Book of Psalms to King David, even the Talmud ascribes composite authorship, insisting that David incorporated earlier collections of Psalms into his own. Among those the Talmud identifies are two collections, Psalms 42-49 and Psalms 84-88, 13 in all, that were written by the sons of Korah.

It is a stunning statistic that almost 10 percent of the Book of Psalms was written by the sons of Korah. The very name, Korah, symbolizes all that can go wrong in communal life. Korah was the cousin of Moshe and Aharon and Miriam, who protested the undemocratic centralization and personalization of power in the other side of the family. Korah led a rebellion in the wilderness against the authority of Moshe and Aharon. In the guise of egalitarianism and inclusiveness, with the claim that all of the Levites are equally holy, Korah incited 250 followers to join him in his rebellion. The rebellion was immediately recognized as a thinly veiled exercise of political opportunism and a shameful power grab. The rebellion ended badly, as it should have, as it was destined to. In the final scene, Korah was swallowed up by the earth, his minions and his ideas disappearing with him into the depths.

But his sons were not with him.

One might think that because his end was so dramatic, so violent, and so final, that Korah was wiped out once and for all. Remarkably, even though Korahism was dealt a fatal blow in the wilderness, the line of Korah did not die. The sons embraced the claim of the father that they were indeed holy, and they wrote holy words. His sons became poets; they wrote Psalms.

That is, perhaps, one of the reasons why Psalm 49 was selected to be read in a house of mourning. Beyond the ideas contained in the words themselves lies the power of the Psalm’s authorship. The heading of the Psalm reads: “To the leader: A Psalm of the sons of Korah.” The message of Psalm 49, a lesson the sons apparently learned from the bad example of their father, is that death comes to everyone, rich and poor alike. The importance of wealth and status in life is exaggerated because neither can protect us from death; nor are they of any use to us after we die. What is important in life, and in death, are the relationships we have formed with loved ones, with friends, and with God. Love transcends death. Love is eternal, and lives on after us.

Korach is the symbol of rebellion and conflict and despair; his sons are a symbol of hope. Korah brought dissension and tension into the world; his sons comfort the bereaved. Through the words of the sons of Korah, and by their example, we are inspired to embrace life with gratitude, with optimism and with passion, as long as our souls remain in our bodies.

Perry Netter is rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles and author of “Divorce Is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies” (Jewish Lights, 2002). He can be reached at pnetter@tbala.org.

Pages Reveal a Whole New Esther


As far as narrative goes, Megillat Esther is one of the most exciting parts of the Tanach. It is rich in religious significance and considered a seminal text on the miracle of Jewish survival, the story of Esther, the orphan girl who is chosen in a nationwide beauty contest to become the queen and ends up saving the Jewish people from the evil machinations of Haman the Wicked, has all the elements of a good potboiler. Played out under the specter of Armageddon for the Jewish people are great and lavish displays of wealth, a mighty king who is duped by his nefarious adviser, scheming chamberlains, a harem full of nubile virgins, power plays among the king’s underlings and enough surprising plot twists to keep the pages — or the scroll itself — turning.

Megillat Esther is perennial — it is read every year on Purim in synagogues and homes all over the world accompanied by a cacophonous soundtrack of grogger noise — but the story itself has recently inspired a number of contemporary authors to spin their own versions of Esther’s compelling tale.

While two novels published in the last year take a new look at the beautiful queen, another self-help book uses the megillah as a source of business advice to young women.

In "The Gilded Chamber" (Rugged Land, 2003), author Rebbeca Kohn tells the story of Esther’s pauper-to-princess journey in way that evokes Anita Diamant’s "The Red Tent" in style and Arthur Golden’s "Memoirs of a Geisha" in setting. Much of the narrative in "The Gilded Chamber" is devoted to life in the harem, a setting that develops intrigues of its own between the girls themselves. There are many lush descriptions of the girls trading secrets and gossiping while reclining on couches and being fed and tended to by eunuchs. The eunuchs also instruct the girls how to pleasure the king, and the book is full of flowery and euphemistic sex prose, like, "My body opened to him like a rose in bloom, each soft petal unfolding until the final burst of color and fragrance."

The story of Purim is the backdrop of the "The Gilded Chamber," but the book is not a retelling of the megillah. Mordechai’s role, for example, is greatly reduced. He is Esther’s unrequited love interest and, taking great liberties with the source text, he emerges in "The Gilded Chamber" as a man largely estranged from traditional Judaism. Esther pines for him, all the while trying to figure out how she can protect herself from becoming doped and sick from the drugged wine that the eunuchs feed the virgins, and how she can keep herself in the king’s favor to eventually save her people. According to the book’s press materials, Kohn supplemented her imagination with meticulous historical research, and so while there are no surprises about how the story ends, it still manages to look different from the story we know.

"The Gilded Chamber" sticks to ancient Persia, but "Writing the Book of Ester" by Louise Domaratius (Quality Words in Print, 2003) travels across continents and time to the present day, and uses the story of Esther as a starting point for a complex novel that meditates on race, culture and religious identity.

"Writing the Book of Ester" is the story of Celia, an American English teacher who lives in Paris and is in love with Medhi. Medhi is her 19-year-old Iranian student, and the son of a Muslim father and a Jewish mother — named Ester. Ester is in prison for writing provocative journalism and, as Medhi talks about his mother, Celia becomes fascinated with her. Celia creates a "book" in which she parallels the contemporary Ester and the biblical Esther, seeing in both a fascinating feminine strength and defiance. Like the biblical Esther, who had to hide her Jewish identity in the palace but still remain true to it, the contemporary Ester does the same thing. While she converts to Islam, she remains true to Judaism in her heart and maintains her cover so she can help the Iranian Jews.

In both these books, Esther emerges as a proto-feminist hero. In the self-help book "What Queen Esther Knew: Business Strategies From a Biblical Sage," authors Connie Glaser and Barbara Smalley (Rodale 2003), continue this idea, seeing Esther as a role model for young women trying to make it in the business world. With chapter headings like "It Pays to Know the Palace Gossip" and "Communicating With the Clout of the Queen," the authors advise young girls to act "queenly" in business, much the same way that Esther did in the palace. The book keeps referring back to the megillah — "Queen Esther requested not one, but two banquets with King Ahasuerus and Haman. Why? Putting in more face time with the king before revealing [her] request was likely part of her master plan…" — but it also references a good number of other business advice books to bolster its advice, and a few contemporary Esthers, like Sherron Watkins, who blew the whistle on Enron.

"Given all that Esther knew," Glaser and Smalley write. "It’s little wonder that her story continues to inspire women — even after 2,500 years."