Friday, May 29, 2020

Renewing and Reinterpreting Torah

People often think that the Torah provides an exact guide for leading a Jewish life. This is simply not the case. They say as well, “Herein one finds the 613 mitzvot—commandments.” Again, although these mitzvot are derived from the five books of Moses, namely Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, they are not arranged there in numerical fashion. Long ago the rabbis said there were 613 commandments, but it was not clear how they derived this number. It was not until the medieval period that commentators started enumerating this list.

And here is another surprise. Each of these commentators’ lists are organized in different manners. The details are not exactly the same. It’s not that there is debate over whether or not Shabbat observance is a mitzvah, it is instead how many commandments are contained therein or what number it occupies the list. Does one begin the list with the first chapter of Genesis: “Be fruitful and multiply” or instead with the first positive commandment: “Believe in God?” We are dependent on a body of interpretation, and generations of interpreters, in order to give us the detailed instructions, and laws, that we call Judaism.

The Torah does not describe Jewish observance and belief. It is instead the groundwork upon which we build, and continue to construct, our tradition. We are not fundamentalists. We do not point to the Torah, or the Hebrew Bible, for that matter, and say, “This is exactly how we should do things.” Otherwise, to cite one obvious example, we would be sacrificing animals rather than reciting the Shema and Amidah.

What makes us Jews more than anything else is Talmud Torah, the study of Torah. We pore over the Torah’s words in order to glimpse what God wants of us. We gain mere glimmers. These truths are refracted through millennia of interpretations. The glasses through which we look are those of preceding generations of interpreters. We continue to interpret in our own day. We look through these glasses not at them.

On this holiday of Shavuot, we renew our commitment to Torah. It’s not so much the book but the study of Torah that makes us Jews and continues to give us Judaism. And that more than anything else is what we celebrate on this holiday. If we are not sitting around the table—even if this year, it is a virtual table—and debating the Torah’s verses and words we are not renewing our Jewish faith.

Rabbi Yehoshua, a great sage, once said: “There cannot be a beit midrash (study hall) without a hiddush (novel idea).” (Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 3a).

Our holy task is to study and forever come up with new and innovative ideas. These only emerge when we go over the Torah’s words—together.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Counting Each and Every Person

We begin studying the fourth book of the Torah this week. We open to the first chapter of Numbers and read: “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral homes…”. Later the Torah reports the census’ tally. 603,550 Israelites.

That is an extraordinary number. The tradition recognizes the magnitude of seeing so many Jews in one place and so prescribes a blessing for those who might be privileged to witness the sight of 600,000 or more Jews. We say, “Blessed are You Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe, knower of secrets (chacham harazeem).”

It is a curious blessing. Why not say words that acknowledge the magnitude of the sight or the vastness of the number? Instead the tradition appears to point us away from the crowd, the mass of people, and instead towards the individual. The Talmud concurs. “Why do we say this particular blessing? It is because God sees a whole nation whose minds are unlike each other and whose faces are unlike each other and God knows what is in each of their hearts.”

It is as if to say, “Look away from the crowd. Think instead about what resides in each and every individual heart.”

According to another tradition there are the same number of 603,500 letters in a Torah scroll. Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, an eighteenth-century Hasidic master, comments: “Just as the absence of one letter renders a Torah unfit for use, so too the loss of even one Jew prevents the Jewish people from fulfilling its mission.”

Each and every one of us matters. Every individual counts.

Just as the Torah’s individual letters are beautifully calligraphed and the pieces of parchment stitched together, so too we are bound to one another.

We may be unique individuals, with different thoughts and aspirations, but we need each other. Whatever secrets we might hold in our hearts, we are bound to one another.

There should be no secret in that truth.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

Study Is Its Own Reward

The rabbis argued that Torah study is its own reward. They famously said that Talmud Torah, the study of Torah, is equal to such lofty commandments as honoring one’s parents, engaging in deeds of lovingkindness, arriving early for study, extending hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, dancing with wedding couples, accompanying the dead for burial, being devoted in prayer and making peace between neighbors. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 127a)

Why would study be of equal merit to the difficult task of visiting the sick or the uplifting duty of dancing with wedding couples? Some have suggested that it is because study leads to action. I remain skeptical that this is always the case. Study can offer its own promise. Study can provide a measure of comfort. To be honest, during these past few months, I have discovered new meaning in this practice.

Part of the meaning is uncovered in the fact that we have now succeeded in making Torah study a regular habit. Every Tuesday at 1 pm we gather to study and discuss the weekly Torah portion. Some join us every week. Others join us on occasion. Never before have we been able to sustain this regular practice. And while I am certainly not grateful that it took our present worrisome circumstances to provide this opportunity, I am thankful that this has once again become part of my weekly routine.

There is comfort in this rhythm. There is solace in reading aloud the verses of our holy writ. It’s not that we uncover answers to our many questions. In fact, more often than not we discover even more questions. Oftentimes they remain unresolved. And yet there is comfort to be gained in the practice. There is elucidation to be found in our discussions.

It is only when sitting across from others, even on Zoom, that we find new meanings in these ancient words. And so, this week I discovered something that had remained hidden. The portion begins, “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce…” (Leviticus 26:3). The Hebrew, however, does not state “follow” but instead “walk.”

One has to get up and walk. To follow suggests that God is leading us forward. To walk implies the choice is more in our hands. It is up to us to get up and go. It is our decision what we do or do not do. The Torah continues. If we walk after God’s laws, then we will receive many blessings. The rains will fall in their proper seasons and our crops will be plentiful. We will be protected from enemies and will only know peace. The list continues. If we observe the commandments, then only good will befall us.

Questions remain. There are plenty of people who do plenty of good who do not receive these promised rewards. Many, if not all of us, can cite a multitude of examples that would illustrate the injustices we see and the incompatibility of the Torah’s promise with everyday realities. The exactness of this chapter’s formula is not what we observe in the real world.

The concluding promise offers that God will be by our side as long as we observe these commandments. “I will establish My abode in your midst, and I will not spurn you. I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people.” (Leviticus 26:11) Once again the translation is more of an interpretation than exacting rendition. The Hebrew again uses the word “walk.” It should not read “I will be ever present in your midst” but instead “I will walk among you.”

Thus, the notion of walking serves as bookends. It is as if to say, “If we walk then God walks.” And I believe this translation might soften the apparent harshness of the Torah’s if-then formula.

Questions of course remain. Injustices abound. I take comfort in my study and the occasional discoveries it offers. If we walk, then God walks. Perhaps all I need to do, all I have to do, is just get up and walk.

And then perhaps God might walk. Or at the very least it might appear that God walks—among us.

Study is indeed its own reward.

Thursday, May 7, 2020

New Meanings in Old Stories

Lag B’Omer is a mysterious holiday. It occurs this coming Tuesday. Its meaning, and origins, are curious. Its name is clear enough. It is the thirty-third day of the Omer. The Omer is the period in which we count seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot. The Torah relates: “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf (omer) of elevation offering—the day after the sabbath—you shall count off seven weeks.” (Leviticus 23)

The rabbis make clear what the Torah leaves obscure. We count the days from Passover to Shavuot. We connect these two ancient agricultural festivals when our ancestors moved from Passover’s harvest of barley to Shavuot’s of wheat. We bind the freedom celebrated on Passover with the Torah given on Shavuot. Freedom must be bound to commitment.

Long ago, our people worried about the impending harvest and asked, “Would the wheat crop be bountiful?” This led to the Omer gaining semi-mourning status in which wedding celebrations, for example, are forbidden. These restrictions are lifted on Lag B’Omer.

The rabbis again elaborate. (Those rabbis can really tell some stories.) In the days of Rabbi Akiva a plague decimated his followers, killing thousands of the famed rabbi’s students. But then, on Lag B’Omer, the plague mysteriously ebbed. The sick recovered and regained their strength. People left their homes. They congregated once again in large groups. (That would be my rabbinic tale. I pray. May it be so! May it come to pass in our own day!) And thus, Lag B’Omer became a day of celebration in which these prohibitions are lifted.

The rabbis continue spinning their tales. Lag B’Omer, they teach, is the yahrtzeit of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, a contemporary of Akiva, who was spared the plague and even the destruction that the Romans meted out after the failed Bar Kokhba rebellion. It is possible that the plague was a rabbinic euphemism for this rebellion and the destruction that followed.

According to tradition, Shimon bar Yohai, is the author of the Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism. On Lag B’Omer people flock to his grave. They exclaim that he is a light that continues to illuminate our paths. They dance around giant bonfires. They cut children’s hair for the first time because this too is forbidden during the Omer.

But Rabbi Shimon was a strange, and mercurial, figure. Because he defied the Romans, teaching Torah, even after they mercilessly defeated the Jews, he was sentenced to death. He, and his son, managed to escape and hide in a cave. And there they hid, sustained by a miraculous carob tree and well, for twelve years. They continued their study of Torah while in hiding. Sustained only by water and carobs, he and his son studied day and night.

When Shimon and his son Elazar finally emerged from the cave, he became enraged that people were going about their business and not devoting themselves to studying Torah. How could they be doing mundane things like plowing and sowing? The Talmud reports: “Every place that Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar directed their eyes was immediately burned.” God then chastised them, “Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave.” And so, they returned to the cave for another year. This time Rabbi Shimon emerged a changed man. “Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal.” (Babylonia Talmud, Shabbat 33b)

“What a bizarre story!” I exclaim every year when I reread it around this holiday of Lag B’Omer. And yet this year it is taking on new meaning. Our tradition’s stories and texts appear different in the shadow of Covid-19. That is of course one of the wonders of tradition. If we hold on to its tales long enough, they speak to us in new, and different, ways. Perhaps they lead us out of our current despair. And so, while I do not very much like carobs, my home has become my cave. And your home has become your cave. There we are banished to its comforts. I am trapped within its walls, and although more often than not feasting on home cooked meals, Shimon’s fears, and even at times his scorn, of the outside world have become my own.

Perhaps that person, standing next to me in the vegetable aisle, is a danger to me.

Perhaps I could inadvertently, and unknowingly, infect someone.

The Talmud warns. The retreat to the inner world offers a tempting allure. It can make us hate what lies outside our doors. I remind myself. I did not choose to retreat. I do so for the sake of others. This cave is likewise imposed.

And I must too stay long enough to bring healing.

For now, I hold on to the stories. I hold on to the legends. I pour over their words. The ancient tradition offers new meaning and unexpected sustenance.

The light will one day emerge.

Friday, May 1, 2020

Celebrating Israel

I begin with a confession. In addition to watching all of the seasons of Money Heist, I binged on season three of Fauda, the Israeli drama that depicts the battles of a counter-terrorism unit. It is a gripping series. The season concludes on a depressing note. The cycle of violence does not end. One terrorist is killed, and his plans are thwarted only to have another take his place. Spoiler alert. An informant, and unknowing collaborator, becomes so enraged at the trickery and betrayal, that he becomes a terrorist leader and murderer.

Although the show is wildly popular, in Israel and throughout the world, and even in Arab countries, I worry about its depressing conclusion. I refuse to accept this idea that we cannot escape the cycle of kill or be killed. I do not wish to believe that we are forever trapped in what the poet Yehuda Amichai once called the Had Gadya machine.
An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan's Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the "Had Gadya" machine.
The show’s creators, Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, former counter-terrorist operatives, suggest that Fauda offers a sympathetic portrayal of Israelis and Palestinians. They have heard from Arab viewers that the show helped them to understand the pain of Israelis. And they have reported that Jewish viewers offer that the series has helped them to sympathize Palestinian suffering. There is a measure of truth to this claim. And yet I cannot escape the feeling with which the show’s conclusion left me.

We are trapped.

And so, I turned to what I often do on such occasions when such feelings overwhelm me. To the books of poetry, most especially Hebrew poetry, that line my shelves. I opened a book by a newly discovered poet. Rivka Miriam, writes:
I remained alone
and sat on a bench
speaking to God about the people I met
who suddenly left me alone.
I told him about the flowers I loved to smell,
about the wide fields.
I remained alone under the sky
and didn’t know if there was sky anymore.
I sat in the middle on a bench
And spoke to God about the sky
that I’m no longer sure is still there, or where,
whether it envelopes me
or perhaps I’m wrapped around it.
We tend to view Israel through its conflicts. We remember where we were when first heard of Israel’s victories on June 10th of 1967 or the stinging attacks of Yom Kippur 1973 or the cheers in the summer of 1976 after the rescue at Entebbe. We relish in the Jewish state’s chutzpah in the face of history. We take comfort in how Israel has overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges.

We measure one another’s commitment through the prism of these conflicts. We judge one another’s devotion to Israel by where one stands on the ongoing conflict with the Palestinians. We look at each other with judgment. We hurl accusations at friends. Love of Israel is defined in ideological and political terms.

On this Yom Haatzmaut I turn instead to the poetry of Israel’s successes. I wish to look beyond its military achievements. The Hebrew language is reborn. Hebrew poems are composed. Hebrew books are published. Isn’t that achievement enough—at least on this one day?

The Jewish spirit is rekindled. Is this a measure of our security?

At the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington DC I listened intently to Naama Moshinsky who helped create the International School of Peace, a joint venture of Israeli youth movements, both Jewish and Arab, built to make a difference helping refugees in Greece. I can still hear her words, “My home in Israel is only four hours’ drive from Damascus. But the first time I met a Syrian was in the island of Lesbos. The island holds more than 8,000 children without a country to call home.”

Here was an Israeli who felt secure enough in her home that she ventured far from the safety of its borders to help others feel at home. And I realized that for all the talk about security, and all the dramas fashioned for TV, Israel is first and foremost about fashioning that sense of home in our hearts. The Declaration of Independence states that the spiritual, and existential, problem facing the Jewish people was its “homelessness.” Zionism means the creation of such a home.

Having a home means that we can care not only for ourselves but for others.

Too often we think that the meaning of home is found in shoring up its boundaries. It is about delineating fences and borders. Perhaps the true meaning of having a home is the security it fashions in our hearts.

To write poems. And to reach out to those in need.

On this Yom Haatzmaut this is what I choose to celebrate.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

No Eulogies for the Holocaust

When preparing for funerals I often share with families that it is impossible to adequately capture a person’s spirit and character in a few, well-chosen words, sentences and paragraphs. Eulogies are imperfect. Although important, they are inadequate representations of people’s lives. No life can be perfectly summarized. No life can be encapsulated in poetry or prose.

I recall this sentiment at this moment as I reflect on the memories of the six million Jews murdered during the Holocaust. For very few, if any, was a eulogy recited. No prayers were chanted. In fact, we recall them en masse and as a single memory. “The six million!” we intone. Their individuality, their unique character traits, the large things around which their lives turned and the small things that only their families and friends knew, and perhaps loved, are forgotten. Such sentiments have never been recorded in even the briefest of eulogies.

“I remember when Sarah…. I recall when Jacob…” are words that were never said or heard. When we offer the words of eulogies, we convey that the lives we remember are valued. They signify that the lives of our family members and friends continue to have meaning. We recall what was unique about each of their individual lives.

And this is what the Nazis robbed us of as well. The six million were stripped of their humanity in life and in death. We cannot even remember them as we should. We cannot even eulogize them as they deserve. Their individuality was destroyed.

Primo Levi, one of the most eloquent of survivors, penned many words in order to give expression to these sentiments. His seminal work first written in Italian in 1959, If This Is a Man and translated into English with the inaccurate title of Survival in Auschwitz, struggles to convey the dehumanization of the camps. He writes, “Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom…. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we will have to find in ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.”

I do not know if this is possible…six million times over. And even if it is possible, there is not enough days, and months, and years, to remember each of these individual lives.

Soon after his liberation from Auschwitz, in 1946, Levi writes a poem. He entitles it “Shema.”
You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces: 
Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter. 
Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.
We continue to avert our faces. And we remain unable to write the words that might offer remembrances of our murdered six million. We question. Has this become our new prayer? Must this become our new Shema?

We have come to realize. We cannot intone enough prayers to sanctify each of their lives. We cannot recount their individual names.

Perhaps we must begin with one. And then two. Some might have the strength to read more. We must count, and recall, as many names as each of us can carry.

“I commend these words to you.”

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Swimming in Hope

In her recent article, “What I Miss Most is Swimming,” Bonnie Tsui writes:
There’s a poignancy to being a swimmer now, in that we’re not able to do it just when we need it most. But even though public pools are closed and we are limited in the wild places where we can swim, thinking about immersion in our favorite watering holes is still a balm. As the writer Heather Hansman pointed out to me recently, there is value in those places even (and especially) when we’re not in them — it’s what Wallace Stegner called “the geography of hope.”
I have been thinking about how we create such a geography of hope when we are trapped inside. (And when I cannot even swim in the chlorinated pools of our local gyms or locate the soothing balm of the ocean’s waves.). And so, I do what I often do, and lean on the ancient rabbis who even though they lived thousands of years ago, remain my teachers and guides.

Living at a time when their beloved Temple was destroyed and they were exiled from the holy city of Jerusalem, they fashioned prayers that touched on these geographies and instilled hope in the hearts of countless generations of Jews. To this day we conclude our Passover Seders, as we did only last week, with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!” It is difficult to imagine that for centuries, nay millennia, we said these words even though returning to Jerusalem was a distant, and impossible, dream.

And I would add, that we have now returned to Jerusalem, and rebuilt and revitalized the land of Israel, we too often take for granted.

At every wedding ceremony, we sing the words of the Sheva Brachot and say, “O God, may there always be heard in the cities of Israel and in the streets of Jerusalem: the sounds of joy and happiness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride, the shouts of young people celebrating, and the songs of children at play.” And then a glass is broken in remembrance of that now distant and remote sadness of Jerusalem’s destruction and we shout “Mazel tov.” We then adjourn for the dancing and celebration.

Even though these rabbinic imaginings seemed the most remote of possibilities, a geography of hope was created through their words and prayers. They transported us there even though we remained here. We may not have been dancing in the streets of Jerusalem, but we were still dancing. And in that swirling hora hope was instilled again and again.

I remind myself. If the rabbis could sustain this hope for millennia, then I can for a few weeks, or months, or even years. The memories of past horas sustain me. The promise of future dances rekindles my faith. “Next year!”

My teachers and guides did so not only by composing prayers that we lean on to this very day, but also by declaring that our homes are our temples. The home is called a “mikdash maat—small sanctuary.” It is here where we can find holiness. Our dining room tables, or kitchen tables, or even our living room couches where we watch Netflix together, can become the altar upon which we elevate our lives. Just as the ancients once did with the sacrifices, they offered in Jerusalem’s Temple we turn to our homes and its tables.

It is here that we can recite blessings. It is here where we can bless our children. It is here that we can laugh, and sing, with family members—even if they join us by FaceTime and Zoom. We need not travel to an ocean or river or lake. We need not pilgrimage to a mountain top or wilderness park or even a holy city.

It can be found here and not there. It always can be found here.

This is why this week’s Torah portion offers a religious discipline for the most mundane, and of course necessary, human acts. It offers a list of permitted and forbidden foods to eat, namely the laws of keeping kosher. We must eat. Either we can eat like animals because we must, and we are hungry, or we can pause and give thanks before savoring the meal. And one way that Judaism suggests a meal is consecrated is by saying “yes” to some foods and “no” to others. Why? “For I the Lord am your God: you shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11)

Our tables provide all the holiness we require.

Our home is the only place to which we need travel. It is exactly the geography of hope for which we long. It is the destination which will sustain us through the coming weeks.

One day soon we will dance in the waters of hope.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Embracing the Seder's Order

According to Jewish tradition, the Book of Kohelet was written by King Solomon when he was an older man. It offers a melancholy appraisal of life, suggesting that we are fated to bounce back and forth between highs and lows. Solomon laments:
A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven: a time for being born and a time for dying, a time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted; a time for slaying and a time for healing, a time for tearing down and a time for building up; a time for weeping and a time for laughing, a time for wailing and a time for dancing; a time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones, a time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces; a time for seeking and a time for losing, a time for keeping and a time for discarding; a time for ripping and a time for sewing, A time for silence and a time for speaking; a time for loving and a time for hating; a time for war and a time for peace. (Kohelet 3)
Kohelet offers a painfully true insight. It is a wisdom that Solomon’s age affords him. His years have taught him difficult lessons. Whether we like it or not, whether we are prepared for it or not, we will at some point be confronted with all emotions, with laughing and weeping, dancing and wailing. We will have opportunities to mourn and rejoice. I have never, until now, and until these days, believed one of the phrases Solomon offers. “There is a time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces.” I refused to heed his wisdom.

I have long believed, and forever taught, that Judaism is about wrapping our arms around each other. We are commanded to do so at the best of times, when we for example grab our friends and swirl about in a hora or at the worst of times, when we offer hugs of consolation. These days however demand something far different of us. For the sake of life, we must now shun embraces. And I hate the fact that Solomon was right.

This evening begins Passover and its customary seder. I would usually be running up and down the stairs, carrying additional chairs for the many guests who would soon walk through our doors and who I would welcome with embraces, with hugs and kisses. I would be adding leaves to the dining room table to make extra room at our dining room table. We would soon squeeze into our dining room, shoulder to shoulder, so that all could fit around the table.

This Passover, this familiar ritual, this usual order appears upended.

The word seder means order. This is because there is of course a time-tested order to how we perform the rituals of Passover evening. We have four cups of wine. We always conclude with the words, “Next year in Jerusalem!” The word for prayerbook as well, siddur, is likewise about ordering prayers. It is about structuring events. That’s how we do things. There is a prescribed prayer to recite when beginning our morning prayers. We say the Shema in the morning and the evening. There are words we lean on when concluding a wedding ceremony.

A religious life seeks to place order, to layer meaning, on our lives, to lift even higher our most joyous moments, and to hold us steady when we feel as if we are falling. It offers order to a disordered world. When life most especially seems upended, and most fragile, we lean on the wisdom of our forebears. We cling to the words of our rituals.

This year we will gather for Passover in small groups. We will convene our extended family members through FaceTime and Zoom and we will ask as we always do, the required four questions, but we also ask a new question. How can we find a semblance of order when the world appears so disordered? How do we order our lives today?

The tradition offers a ready-made answer. Cling ever more tightly to the words of our tradition. Embrace time-honored rituals. They will provide us with, if nothing else, a sense of order. They will steady us when the world appears teetering. It may require extra measures of strength to perform these rituals when surrounded by smaller numbers, but we must summon those resources in order to rebalance our lives and grant us needed doses of order.

One day (may it be very soon!) we will look back at this spring, and we may then very well call it the lost spring of 2020, but perhaps as well we will recall that Judaism counsels that pikuach nefesh, the saving of life, takes precedence over all other commandments. Perhaps this year’s Passover will help us rediscover this important lesson.

Perhaps this spring will help to highlight not some new, and profound, insight but Judaism’s greatest teaching of all. Every human being is created in God’s image. Every human being is deserving of life. And then, this revolutionary idea that every human life is sacred will become the universal truth Judaism always thought it should be. 

Kohelet is typically read on the fall holiday of Sukkot when the summer is a distant memory and not in the spring when summer is as it appears to be this year, looking toward an approaching season of uncertainty. And yet certainties are already emerging.

Life is sacred. Health is precious. And we have to fight to preserve these.

Perhaps this all the order we require this Passover.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

A New Torah Will Be Written

The Baal Shem Tov, who founded the Hasidic movement in eighteenth century Ukraine, approached the world in a unique way. Once, there was a terrible disease outbreak in Mezibush. Men, women and children were falling ill to this rampant disease. It spread like wildfire throughout the community. At its worst, there was not a single home in which there was not at least one ill family member. Out of desperation, and great faith in the Baal Shem Tov’s healing powers, the community leaders turned to their rabbi and asked him to pray on their behalf. They begged him to pray that the plague might vanish from their midst.

The Baal Shem Tov responded that their fate was instead in their hands. It was up to them to vanquish this disease. His prayers could not replace their prayers. His actions could not substitute for their actions. And so, the Baal Shem Tov instructed them that the solution to their travails was that the entire community, that each and every member, participate in the mitzvah of writing a new Torah scroll.

The people immediately took it upon themselves to begin writing this Torah. And, miraculously, as soon as the Torah scroll was written, and as soon as every single person, from the youngest to the oldest, from the richest to the poorest, from the most educated to the least, from the most devout to the least, the community began to heal, and the outbreak began to ebb. Thereafter, this holy Torah gained a special place in the Ark and was forever referred to as the “miracle worker.”

Although the Baal Shem Tov and his followers apparently (and I would add, mistakenly) believed that prayer and the writing of a Torah scroll, were the only cures needed to eradicate the disease outbreak, this story made me contemplate our present circumstances. I wonder. What will be the new Torah that emerges from our present extraordinarily painful times? We may not realize it, because we are in the thick of it, but we are now writing a new Torah.

We are learning how to remain a community while being apart. We are mastering how to remain close to family members while not standing in their physical presence. I may not very much like Zoom; I may not feel it is a worthy substitute for standing by each and every one of those I love and care for, but it will have to do. This will have to be my Torah—for now.

And what will remain of this new Torah?

What will we have learned when we emerge from this crisis? Let no one say, that we will not one day emerge, scarred to be sure, but stronger, nonetheless. Will we cherish community even more? Will we rejoice at the opportunity to go out for dinner with friends? I am counting on it. Will we relish in the natural world and once again discover awe in its beauty and splendor? Will we no longer take for granted the simple pleasure of opening the front door and breathing in the fresh air? I am betting on it.

Will we cherish life even more? We better. Will we come to realize how fragile life truly is and how precious it is not just for ourselves but for everyone—in the entire world? Again, we better.

Will these days, and the difficult and painful weeks that lie ahead, leave an impression that will make us stronger and better. I truly hope so. This indeed is my prayer.

This is the new Torah I look forward to reading. This is the Torah I am confident we will soon read—one day, very soon.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Two Pockets of Strength

The Hasidic rabbi, Simcha Bunim of Pshiskha, teaches:
People must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that they can reach into one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling low and depressed, discouraged or melancholy, one should reach into the right pocket, and there, find the words: "For my sake the world was created." But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and there find the words: "I am but dust and ashes."
These days I found myself reaching into the right pocket alone. I have little need for the left. These days, as my worries increase, I must rely on the words contained in that right pocket. I lean on the mantra, “For my sake the world was created.”

Rabbi Simcha Bunim was one of the key leaders of eighteenth-century Polish Hasidism. Although he never assumed a formal rabbinic role, and actually worked as a pharmacist, he was an extremely influential teacher, and produced a number of significant disciples, including Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. Unlike other Hasidic thinkers, he did not emphasize Jewish mysticism and believed that devotion to God was gained through both passion and analytical study. Most significantly he taught that people cannot understand God if they do not first understand themselves.

And so, he offers us needed insights into our own character and the challenges that now face us. He points us toward our own failings as well as our all too often hidden strengths.

He looks to the opening verse of this week’s Torah reading, “Vayikra—And the Lord called to Moses…” (Leviticus 1) and like many commentators, and as we are commanded to look this week no matter the circumstances we face, notices that the final letter of the first word, alef, is written smaller than the other letters. Even in the Torah scroll this alef is calligraphed in a smaller fashion. Simcha Bunim offers an explanation.
Even though Moses attained the greatest heights ever reached by a person, he was unmoved by that fact and remained as humble as ever. When people stand at the top of a mountain, they do not boast about how tall they are, because it is the mountain that makes them high. By the same token, Moses felt that whatever he had accomplished was due to God, and he had no reason to feel proud of his achievements.
These days, there is nothing as humbling as being confined to one’s home by the tiniest of creatures, by a virus. And perhaps there is nothing as humbling as the realization that my health is dependent on the health of those standing all around me.

How small the alef that opens the word “Ani—I” appears today. We depend on others. We require others to choose to do things (or more likely, not do things) that might very well not be to their benefit, but instead to the benefit of others they do not know, and even cannot see.  I stand on the shoulders of others—who I pray remember they carry my hopes and dreams, my health and welfare, in their very hands. Their decisions may very well determine my fate.

I am humbled to realize that the world’s fate may very well rest on my decisions.

I continue to reach into my right pocket again and again. And there find some measure of strength and reassurance.