Thursday, September 17, 2020

Rosh Hashanah from Home

This Rosh Hashanah will be like no other. The Cantor and I will be standing in our sanctuary. And you will be watching our services on your TV's, computers or even iPhones. You will be participating from your homes.

If you have not yet registered to access the livestream link, please do so on my congregation's website.  Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow evening with services at 8 pm and then morning services on Saturday and Sunday at 10 am. Children's services are on Saturday at 1 pm. We will gather for in person Tashlich services at Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park beach on Saturday at 4 pm. Please wear a mask and bring breadcrumbs so that you can symbolically cast your sins into the Long Island sound.

Judaism teaches that our homes are a mikdash maat, a small sanctuary. The meals that we share, the blessings that we recite, the love that we discover there, help to sanctify our homes. Our tradition has never believed that you can only observe Jewish rituals in a synagogue, or that Jewish bests can only happen in our beautiful sanctuary. In fact, it is the day of Rosh Hashanah that is holy, not the place where we observe it. Judaism sanctifies time not space, we teach over and over again. This year we are really going to have to take this principle to heart.

Given that we will not be together and that you will be celebrating Rosh Hashanah from the comfort of your homes, I wanted to offer some suggestions for how you might make your home feel more like a sanctuary. Think about which room in your house would be best to help you feel like this is a prayer experience. Discuss this with your children. Entertain a debate about this question. And then watch from there. If you are able to stream the services to a TV, do so. If this is a technological leap for you then don't do it for the first time on Rosh Hashanah.

Still this is not a Netflix movie, so I would not recommend a bowl of popcorn by your side to watch services. Then again do what you are comfortable doing and what will help you make this into a meaningful and uplifting experience. If you usually wear a kippah and tallis in synagogue then put them on. If you like to dress up for services, then do so. I know no one will see how stunning you look, but it might help to get you into the right frame of mind. But certainly, don't make outfits a fight with your kids. Let them enjoy the service and take in the music of our prayers however they are comfortable.

If you like to follow along in the prayerbook then have your prayerbook open or download the Kindle or free Flip versions.  Some of the prayers will be shown on the screen. Sing along, and sing really loudly, when you see those words. Listening to our cantor will help to lift your spirits. But singing along with her will add to your experience.

God hears all prayers wherever they might be offered—and however they might sound. When it comes to prayers it's first and foremost about the words and the intentions.

When we light the Rosh Hashanah candles on the bima, you can light your candles. When we drink the kiddush wine, you can drink some wine. Of course, you can start earlier with the wine if you like. And by all means have a plate of apples and honey, and maybe even a round hallah, waiting to enjoy for what will be your own private oneg.

If you are watching these services by yourself, and you're missing the opportunity of seeing your fellow congregants, then call them or FaceTime them before or after services. And if you know congregants who are watching services by themselves then call them before or after services. Or even call them during services. If kibbitzing with friends during services is part of what makes Rosh Hashanah enjoyable then do it.

The only rule for this year is that we need to grab as many opportunities as possible to lift our spirits.

May these services help to strengthen our spirits. May this Rosh Hashanah help to carry us toward a year of health.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Finding Kindness

This week was a good week.

I discovered a poem.

It was revealed to me as I turned through the pages of our new prayerbook, Mishkan HaLev. It called to me as I prepared for the upcoming High Holidays.
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
I endeavored to learn more about the poet who until this blessed hour was unknown to me. Naomi Shihab Nye was born in my hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. Her father was a Palestinian refugee and her mother an American who traced her lineage back to Germany. Nye spent her teenage years moving between Jerusalem and San Antonio, Texas.

I learned more about the inspiration for the poem. While traveling on her honeymoon in Columbia, the bus on which she and her husband journeyed was robbed. A man was killed, and all of their belongings were stolen. Left alone when her husband went searching for how to get themselves out of this mess, she met a stranger who listened to her tale, despite her broken Spanish, and offered sympathy and compassion in return.

The poem emerged. It was if it scribbled its own words in her journal.

I started wondering.

Is every revelation born of serendipity? Is compassion best felt from those we least expect? Can kindness only be learned through pain?

The Torah declares: “Therefore, write down this poem and teach it to the people of Israel; put it in their mouths, in order that this poem may be My witness against the people of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 31)

Is the Torah’s journey of pain intended to teach kindness and compassion?

I recognize. This is not the poem the Torah intended. And yet I remain thankful for the teaching.

I remain grateful for small discoveries—and poems that uplift a week and offer reminders that kindness can transform us, and even something so seemingly small as listening to another’s pain can redeem our burdens.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Say Your Blessings Slowly

This week we read a lengthy list of curses, beginning with what the Torah imagines to be the worst kind of people: “Cursed be the person who misdirects a blind person on his way.— And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be the person who subverts the rights of the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.— And all the people shall say, Amen.” (Deuteronomy 27)

It continues with a list of what will befall those who disobey God’s command: “Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl.” And an abbreviated list of blessings that those who heed God’s mitzvot will enjoy: “Blessed shall you be in the city and blessed shall you be in the country.” (Deuteronomy 28)

The theology is crystal clear. Obey God’s commandments and blessings will follow. Disobey God’s mitzvot and you will see a long, detailed list of curses. It is not a very comforting thought. The graphic curses are in fact frightening. They make one recoil. Perhaps they even make people uncomfortable with the Torah and its stark theology. I for one don’t find the threat of cures a particularly effective way of motivating me to do good.

The tradition appears to recognize this dilemma. When chanting this portion, the Torah reader chants these lengthy curses in a very soft voice and in a rushed manner. To recite these curses in a loud and commanding voice would be to suggest a confidence in this theology. It would be to affirm something we experience to be false. Everyone can cite examples of people who follow all the commandments and yet experience far too many calamities and likewise those who appear to subvert the rights of the stranger and appear to enjoy untold blessings. And so, what do we do? We recite these words in hushed tones.

It is almost as if the tradition is instructing us to dwell on the blessings and rush past the curses.

The Hasidic master Simhah Bunim of Pshischa notices something more. He teaches that these detailed punishments are only attached to one specific command. He hears the Torah shouting: “Because you would not serve the Lord your God in joy and gladness over the abundance of everything.”

Perhaps the rebbe is correct. And all we require is the ability of the Hasidic masters to rejoice with even the most meager of blessings. They teach. All it takes is the posture of joy and gladness.

And I am beginning to detect how to begin and how to reorient this cursed year. Quickly, and softly, detail the curses. Slowly, and loudly, enumerate our blessings.

And then let joy and gladness fill your hearts.

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Indifferent No More!

We offer prayers of strength and healing to our fellow Americans who are only beginning to survey the devastation from Hurricane Laura.

This week we read, Ki Tetzei, the Torah portion containing the most commandments. According to Moses Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish thinker, 72 mitzvot can be discerned from this week’s verses. They offer detailed instructions for how to reach out to others, of how we might best express our concern for other human beings. These rules are about inculcating the value of compassion for our neighbors.

This principle is illustrated by one example: “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow… so too you shall do with anything that your fellow loses and you find: you must not remain indifferent.” (Deuteronomy 22) The tradition adds several exclamation points to this commandment when it rules that anyone who finds a lost object or animal and does not try to return it to its rightful owner is considered a thief.

The wisdom is clear. If, when finding an object, we say not, “Look what I found!” but instead ask, “To whom does this belong?” we begin to fashion a wider circle of concern. Our failures to correct injustices, whether they be small or large, begins with our indifference. How do we begin to turn toward others and not away?

This week we were confronted by the image of a black man shot by police officers. While the specifics of this case remain obscured, we join in offering prayers for Jacob Blake’s recovery. We pray that his Milwaukee home might soon find peace. We pray for strength in behalf of those who raise their voices in protest. One fact remains startlingly clear. Black men, and women, are far more likely to suffer violent deaths at the hands of police than their white neighbors. I have known this truth for some time, but I feel as if I have only begun to see it this summer.

I shall not remain indifferent.

Do the many objects adorning my home, that bring me a measure of comfort and peace, really belong to me or are they better meant to be shared with others? Does my continued silence, and the seemingly petty efforts to correct past failings, constitute the thievery our tradition admonishes us against?

I shall not remain indifferent.

I desperately want to look away. This is not the America I know. This is not the America I love. But as I am learning more and more this is the America my neighbors know. This is the America they find difficult to love. My dream is tarnished by their pain.

I turn to the wisdom of our tradition. But even Moses Maimonides is failing me. And so, I turn to other voices.

Maya Angelou, the American poet and civil rights activist writes in her incomparable poem, “A Brave and Startling Truth”:

…We, this people, on this small and drifting planet
Whose hands can strike with such abandon
That in a twinkling, life is sapped from the living
Yet those same hands can touch with such healing, irresistible tenderness
That the haughty neck is happy to bow
And the proud back is glad to bend
Out of such chaos, of such contradiction
We learn that we are neither devils nor divines

When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
Without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonder of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

The miraculous is the neighbor I wish to ignore. I can no longer turn away. I must not turn aside. Their pain must become my pain.

Do not remain indifferent.


Friday, August 21, 2020

Rearrange the Furniture

A familiar Yiddish folktale.

Once upon a time in a small village lived a seemingly poor unfortunate man who lived with his wife, his mother, and his six children in a little one-room hut. Because they were so crowded, the once loving couple often argued. The children were rambunctious, and often fought. In winter, when the nights were long and the days were cold, life was especially difficult. The hut was full of crying and quarreling.

One day, when the poor unfortunate man couldn’t take it anymore, he ran to the Rabbi for advice. “Rabbi,” he cried, “things are really bad, and only seem to be getting worse. We are so poor that my mother, my wife, my six children, and I all live together in one small hut. We are too crowded, and there’s so much noise. Help me, Rabbi. I’ll do whatever you say.”

The Rabbi thought for a long while. At last he said, “Tell me, my poor man, do you have any animals, perhaps a chicken or two?” “Yes,” said the man. “I do have a few chickens, also a rooster and a goose. “Excellent,” said the Rabbi. “Now go home and take the chickens, the rooster, and the goose and bring them into your hut to live with you.” Although the man was a bit surprised, he said, “Of course, Rabbi. I will do whatever you say.”

The poor unfortunate man hurried home and took the chickens, the rooster, and the goose out of the shed and brought them into his little hut. When some weeks had passed, life in the hut was worse than before. Now along with the quarreling and crying there was honking, crowing, and clucking. There were even feathers in the soup and goose poop on the floor. The hut grew smaller, and the children bigger.

When the poor unfortunate man couldn’t stand it any longer, he again ran to the Rabbi for advice. “Rabbi,” he cried, “you should see what misfortune has befallen me. Now with the crying and quarreling, there is also honking, clucking, and crowing, and even feathers in the soup. Rabbi, it couldn’t get any worse. Help me, please.” The Rabbi listened and thought. At last he said, “Tell me, do you happen to have a goat?” “Oh, yes, I do have an old goat, but he’s not worth much.” “Excellent,” said the Rabbi. “Now go home and take the old goat into your hut to live with you.” “You cannot possibly mean for me to do this, Rabbi!” cried the man. “Come, come now, my good man, you must do as I say at once,” said the Rabbi.

The poor unfortunate man shuffled back home with his head hanging down and took the goat into his hut. When some weeks had gone by, life in the little hut was much worse. Now, with the crying, quarreling, clucking, honking, and crowing, the goat went wild, pushing and butting everyone with his horns. The hut seemed even smaller, and the children appeared bigger. When the poor unfortunate man couldn’t stand it another minute, he again ran to the Rabbi. “Rabbi help me!” he screamed. “Now the goat is running wild. My life is a nightmare.”

The Rabbi listened and thought. At last he said, “Tell me, my poor man. Is it possible that you have a cow? Young or old it doesn’t really matter.” “Yes, Rabbi, it’s true I have a cow,” said the poor man fearfully. “Go home then,” said the Rabbi, “and take the cow into your hut.” “Oh, no, you cannot mean for me to do this, Rabbi!” cried the man. “Do it at once,” said the Rabbi. The poor unfortunate man trudged home with a heavy heart and took the cow into his hut. “My Rabbi is surely crazy?” he thought.

When some weeks had gone by, life in the hut was even worse than before. Everyone quarreled, even the chickens. The goat ran wild. The cow trampled everything. (And the poop, well that should not be detailed.) The poor man could hardly believe his misfortune. At last, when he could stand it no longer, he ran to the Rabbi for help. “Rabbi,” he shrieked, “help me, save me, the end of the world has come! The cow is trampling everything. There is no room even to breathe. It’s worse than a nightmare!” The Rabbi again listened and thought. He offered words of support and sympathy.

At last he said, “Go home now, my friend, and let the animals out of your hut.” “I will, I will, I’ll do it right away,” said the man. The poor unfortunate man hurried home and let the cow, the goat, the chickens, the goose, and the rooster out of his little hut. That night the poor man and all his family slept peacefully. There was no crowing, no clucking, no honking. There was plenty of room to breathe. The children no longer fought. And there was no longer anything for husband and wife to argue about. They just wrapped their arms around each other, smiling and breathing in the peace that had enveloped their home.

The very next day the poor man ran back to the Rabbi. “Rabbi,” he cried, “you are so wise. You have made life sweet. With just my family in the hut, it’s so quiet, so roomy, and so peaceful. My home is filled with blessings! You have restored joy to our hearts.” (My retelling is based on It Could Always Be Worse: A Yiddish Folktale by Margot Zemach.)

Sometimes all it takes to see our blessings is a little rearranging.

Blessings are more about perspective than fact. Shaping this perspective is the essence of the Jewish command to recite blessings. We say a blessing so that we are more apt to count our blessings, so we are more likely to see our blessings.

Perhaps for these High Holidays that will be like no other, all we need to do is a little rearranging. Then our blessings will become clearer. Perhaps it is as simple as rearranging the furniture.

Today is the first day of the Hebrew month of Elul, beginning the forty days of repentance that culminate in Yom Kippur’s final shofar blast. Let the rearranging begin. Let us turn toward one another. Let us begin the task of shaping our perspective. Let us begin this new command of transforming our homes small sanctuary.

These days blessings are harder and harder to see, but they are still there, all around us. It may be as easy as moving some things around.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Build Your Own Temple

The Book of Deuteronomy emphasizes that worship in general, and the sacrifices in particular, cannot be performed in sanctuaries throughout the land, but must instead be centralized and moved to one location. That location will later become Jerusalem and its Temple. “When you cross the Jordan and settle in the land that the Lord your God is allotting to you… then you must bring everything that I command you to the site where the Lord your God will choose to establish God’s name…” (Deuteronomy 12)

Why would the one God need to be confined to this one place? Moreover, how can God be limited to one location? Historians and scholars have puzzled over this law. Biblical scholars suggest that the reasons for this law are political. In their view it was written during a time when Israel’s leaders wanted to centralize worship, and power, in the capital. The Book of Deuteronomy reflects this philosophy.

Moses Maimonides, on the other hand, argues that sacrifice is an inferior form of worship. Prayer is the ideal. Over time Jewish law works to limit sacrifice. Deuteronomy is therefore a step in this educational process. Before eliminating sacrifice entirely, it is limited. Sacrifices can only be performed in this one location.

Sefer HaHinnukh, a medieval commentary, offers an interesting explanation. It suggests that a sanctuary can only inspire people. It does so if it is unique and unparalleled. When we can do something anywhere and everywhere it loses its power and grip over our lives. This is of course why the Western Wall is such a powerful place and why it holds greater meaning to far more Diaspora Jews than Israeli Jews. For us it is a place of pilgrimage. For Israelis it is their backyard.

Yet, with the destruction of the Temple in the second century, Judaism became purposefully decentralized. Many rituals were moved to the home. Each and every home became a sanctuary and is called by our tradition, mikdash maat, a small temple. The sanctuary became not so much about location but instead about experience. Place became secondary to time. This is how Judaism remains. We mark days as holy.

The Israeli songwriters Eli Mohar and Yoni Rechter capture this sentiment when singing about Tel Aviv, a city that a mere 100 years ago was only a patch of sand.
My God—here we have no Wall, only the sea.
But since you seem to be everywhere
you must be here too.

So when I walk here along the beach
I know that you are with me
and it feels good.
And when I see a tourist
beautiful and tanned

I look at her not only for myself, but also for you
because I know that you are in me
just as I am in you
and maybe I was created
so that from within me you can see
the world you created
with new eyes.
In Tel Aviv there are no ancient walls. And yet this city is also holy becomes it teems with renewed Jewish life.

Thus, wherever we might find ourselves we mark Shabbat as holy. This day is called by Abraham Joshua Heschel, a sanctuary in time.

And so, wherever these words might find you, whether we see each other in person or virtually, I wish you and your family, a Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

No More Tests and Trials

Really? Another calamity? Now you throw hurricanes at us too.

The Torah responds: “Remember the long way that the Lord your God has made you travel in the wilderness these past forty years, that He might test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts…” (Deuteronomy 8)

And I shout back, “No more tests.”

Our prayer book adds: “Purify our hearts to serve You in truth.”

Why must there be so many hardships? And why must there be any hardship at all? How do these challenges purify our hearts? At the very least can these difficulties be spread out. Why does tzuris appear to come in successive waves? Just when we feel like we are gaining enough strength to stand up again another wave comes crashing in and knocks us down.

The tradition suggests that the righteous are tested even more than the wicked. Abraham was, for example, tested not one time but ten. Who then would we want to aspire toward righteousness? The tradition counters that what makes people truly righteous is that they do not seek the title of tzaddik. They do good for its own sake. They do not wish to acquire status and stature. Their suffering becomes added proof of their righteousness.

Still these days I find myself wanting to run in the other direction. 2020 is exhausting. It is bedeviling. Enough! No more!

Then again if we are able to find meaning in even the most difficult of challenges, and amidst this current piling of incremental difficulties, we will better for it. When we are tested our hearts grow stronger. The problem is not these tests and trials. It is found instead when we offer meaning and lessons about other people’s challenges. When we offer a cliché to a friend, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.” Or when we try to interpret someone else’s pain or explain away their difficulty, we add to the pile of tzuris. In that moment, when we think we are offering a healing explanation we do more harm than good. No one wants their pain to be justified.

During Tuesday’s storm our beautiful apple tree was uprooted and fell on our neighbor’s property. Yesterday our neighbor walked over to our house so we could strategize about the tree’s removal. I had never met Dan before. I only saw his family playing on the other side of our fence.

Perhaps a new friendship will take root. After five years of living on either side of the fence a tropical storm forced us to strike up a conversation.

The wilderness, and the tempestuous challenges found therein, is indeed where life is lived. It occupies the majority of the Torah. There is no Torah found after this last book of Deuteronomy when we cross over to the Promised Land. Our Torah is only discovered in the hardships of the wilderness.

While I am exhausted by this year’s unending tests, I have faith I will emerge stronger and even better.

Your heart is likewise in your hands. Your challenges are yours from which to wrest meaning. You must carve your own path through the wilderness.

But you never know. A new friend might be found on the other side of the fence ready and willing to walk by your side.

Together we can hope, and pray, there is not too much more wilderness ahead.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Rescuing History

Today marks Tisha B’Av, the day commemorating nearly all Jewish tragedies, most especially the destruction of the first and second Temples, and the subsequent 2000-year exile from the land of Israel.

Our weekly portion appears to foretell this cataclysm.
Should you, when you have begotten children and children’s children and are long established in the land, act wickedly and make for yourselves a sculptured image in any likeness, causing the Lord your God displeasure and vexation, I call heaven and earth this day to witness against you that you shall soon perish from the land which you are crossing the Jordan to occupy; you shall not long endure in it, but shall be utterly wiped out. (Deuteronomy 4)
Not only do these verses foretell tragedy, they also assign blame. We are the victims of our own wrongdoings. No wonder that the prophet Jeremiah castigates the people and blames them for causing destruction of the first Temple, even though it was the Babylonians who laid siege to Jerusalem. No wonder that some 500 years later, the rabbis again fault the people for the decimation of first century Jewry, the destruction of the second Temple, and the slaughter of Jerusalem’s inhabitants at the hands of the Romans.

It was all because of sinat chinam, baseless hatred among Jews, the rabbis argued. This provided an opening for Rome to conquer Jerusalem. Jeremiah earlier laments: “Jerusalem has greatly sinned. Therefore, she has become a mockery.” (Lamentations 1) We stand guilty. History is evidence of our sins.

Generations of Jews find blame for historical tragedies in our own actions. “If only we had been more faithful to God. If only we had not disobeyed the commandments. If only…” Such are the explanations offered for millennia. And while there is great spiritual power in seeing historical tragedies as occasions to reexamine our ways, and to look within our souls to discover how we might be responsible and how we might even be deserving of blame, it appears blasphemous when looking back at more recent tragedies. To suggest that the Jewish people are somehow to blame for the Nazis murderous rampage is sacrilege.

It may be in keeping with Deuteronomy’s thinking, but it has no place in my faith. Even the teachings offered by the rabbis explaining this day of Tisha B’Av cannot, and should not, be reckoned with the historical record. Sure, it is always better to ask, “What can we learn? How can we do better?” than to point fingers at some mysterious other. Isn’t that what the Nazis did? “Why did Germany lose World War I?,” they asked. And they shouted in response, “It was because the Jews stabbed us in the back.”

“Why is this pandemic raging throughout our country?” we now ask. Do we say, “It is because of him or her or them?” Or do we ask, “Is it because we think too much about ourselves and not about others?” One answer leads to name calling and despair. The other offers the potential for spiritual growth and change. It may not make for the accurate telling of history, but it can offer the opportunity for repair.

And thus, I resolve. No more blaming of victims. Look within for rescue.

The Torah continues, offering an antidote to its own stark theology. “The Lord will scatter you among the peoples…. But if you search there for the Lord your God, you will find Him, if only you seek Him with all your heart and soul…”

When you find yourself distressed and despairing, start up the search once again.

The Hasidic rabbi Menhaem Mendl of Kotzk teaches: “The very act of seeking God, the longing to find God, means ‘you shall find God’; that in itself is enough.”

For now, that will have to be enough.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Waiting for Leadership

I am losing faith in leaders.

I am losing faith in Moses.

He is given to anger. He frequently loses his temper with the Israelites. A few weeks ago, he smashes a rock and God then tells him that he will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. This week we find him standing on the other side of the Jordan River, offering the Israelites some last tidbits of advice before handing the leadership reigns to Joshua. (The entire book of Deuteronomy is in large part Moses’ farewell address, filled with a lengthy to do list of exhortations: “Don’t forget…. Don’t you ever…. You better not…. Beware of…”)

Moses appears exasperated and even exhausted. I recall that he never really wanted the job. He begs for God to pick someone else. He complains that he is not a good speaker. And now forty years later, Moses appears to be saying, “I told you so.” He castigates the people and exclaims: “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself…. How can I bear unaided the trouble of you, and the burden, and the bickering!” (Deuteronomy 1) Was his early premonition correct? Did he know that no matter how much he cajoled and how often he prodded, no matter how many times he shouted and how frequently he commanded, his followers would disappoint?

Or is this the natural course of leadership? The gap between the leaders’ expectations and the people’s behavior is sometimes too wide. It pains the leader to even acknowledge or give voice to this widening gap. I am left wondering.

I am certain that during these days I find myself increasingly disappointed in Moses. I am losing faith in his leadership. Why did he not begin with the words, “I am grateful for the privilege of leading you. We have experienced untold heights. We crossed the Sea of Reeds. We stood at Sinai. We have also experienced unimaginable challenges. I admit. Eating manna gets tiresome day after day. Running out of water on more than several occasions was indeed trying. But here we are, at the edge of what will be our new home, standing at the precipice of our hoped-for redemption. Thank you for the honor of calling me your leader.”

Instead he begins with complaints. “I can’t take your complaining and bickering.” He is exhausted by the call. He is tired after forty years. And all he appears able to say is that it’s all their fault. Moses appears unable to share their burden and pain.

The Torah offers a solution. Appoint magistrates and tribal leaders to share the heavy lifting of leadership. Rabbi Larry Kushner comments: “Insulate the leader within a bureaucracy! This is more than the simple delegation of responsibility; it is the creation of artificial, ritual distance necessary for the leader to be able to lead and love.”

Delegating helps to get the job done effectively. No one can, or should, do everything by him or herself. The big job of leading requires the work of many capable hands. Perhaps even more importantly, delegating creates a protective shield around the leader. He is not burdened by all the complaints. She is not beaten up by all the bickering.

When leaders’ hearts become filled with every trouble, they are unable to love.

Thank God for Joshua. He comes on to the scene at just the right time. I take heart in his advice: “Be strong and courageous.” (Joshua 1)

That’s what I am going to have to lean into these days.

Chazak v’amatz—be strong and courageous.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Writing Our Own Torah

We often describe the Israelites journey through the wilderness as forty years of wandering, implying that they were forever on the move. And yet the concluding chapters of Numbers delineate twenty places at which they encamped. There is the wilderness of Sin where the manna first appeared and Rephidim where the people complained about lack of water and Moses struck a rock in anger.

The medieval commentator, Rashi, observes that the Israelites were really on the move in the first year when they left Egypt and the last year when they prepared to enter the land of Israel. During the thirty-eight intervening years they were actually living normally at one place or another. They were not constantly on the run, or even on the move. Instead they journeyed from Egypt to the promised land in stages, stopping for even years at a time at one oasis or another.

Often when recounting a trip, we speak about the destination, we paint a picture of what we experienced there. Perhaps we encountered in this place great natural beauty or met unique and wonderful people in that land. And yet the Torah never arrives at its destination. It concludes with the journey’s goal incomplete. Thus, we imply that its chapters and verses are about aimless wanderings. We never arrive so our journey lacks direction and purpose.

And while there is great value in meanderings, in setting off on a walk that offers no purpose than to be accompanied by others or one’s thoughts, this might not be the most accurate description of our forty years in the wilderness. Instead “the Israelites set out from Rameses and encamped at Succoth. They set out from Succoth and encamped at Etham…” (Numbers 33)

The Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, teaches: “Whatever happened to the people as a whole will happen to each individual. All the forty-two journeys of the Children of Israel will occur to each individual, between the time he is born and the time he dies.”

For the first years of my life I lived in Northern New Jersey, and then we journeyed to the suburbs of Saint Louis and then back again to New Jersey and then back once more to Saint Louis. And then I spent my years of college in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and then it was off to Jerusalem for the start of rabbinical school and then to Cincinnati to complete my studies where I made the pronouncement, “I will move anywhere but New York.” And then we moved to Great Neck and Dix Hills and now Huntington which are all of course in New York.

Each place, that was more often than not chosen for me by circumstances, offered new adventures: the birth of children and new jobs. Each place offered new discoveries and something even more to learn.

And so now I find myself encamped in Huntington waiting out this unexpected, and unforeseen, pandemic. What will we learn of ourselves? What will we learn of each other? How will we arise from this crisis better than before and better than we can now imagine?

The Torah offers a blueprint for our lives. We find ourselves in its pages.

The destination is always off in the distance, and perhaps even after the conclusion of the book. Life, and meaning, are found in the unexpected places we find ourselves, the places at which we pause. That’s where life happens.

And that is where our Torah is written.

Friday, July 10, 2020

Don't Give the Keys to the Likes of Pinchas

Christians consider Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher sacred. It is there that they believe Jesus was crucified, buried and later resurrected from the dead. And yet the many denominations that comprise Christianity do not always agree about how this place is to be revered. 150 years ago, a compromise was enacted detailing when the Orthodox, Coptic, Ethiopian and Catholic churches are allowed to perform their rituals. A schedule is followed. By and large this has ensured peace in this holy place.

This was not always the case. On a hot summer day in 2002 a Coptic monk moved his chair out of the scorching sun and into the shade. Rival monks accused him of breaking this compromise and disrespecting their faith. A fight ensued. Eleven monks were taken to the hospital. And yet, when I visited the church a few years ago, the church appeared a freer place of worship than either the Dome of the Rock or our sacred Western Wall.

At the church no one interfered with the many different ways pilgrims prayed. Some took pictures. Some marveled at the artwork. Others posed for selfies. Many fell on their hands and knees to kiss the stone on which Jesus’ disciples placed his body. People were clearly overcome by emotion. There were many tears and many more songs and prayers. I found myself marveling at their religiosity.

I also found myself admiring their freedoms. No one policed behaviors. No one shouted that something was inappropriate. No one said, “Stop doing that! This is a holy place.”

Before walking up to Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock, from which Muslims believe Mohammed ascended to heaven and Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Ishmael, my bag was thoroughly searched. We were not allowed to take any Jewish religious objects, such as a tallis or prayerbook, up to the mount. Apparently, the authorities fear that we might then recite a Jewish prayer on the mount. It is, by the way, Israeli security officials who enforce this ban.

Once we entered the large plaza Muslim officials approached our group to explain that this is a holy site and what we’re allowed to do and not do. They examined the women in our group. Some were told that they were not appropriately dressed. They were given specific directions about how better to respect this sacred place. Some were handed scarves to cover their shoulders. I asked if I could enter the Dome of the Rock, as I had done many years before, but was told, “It is only for Muslims.”

Is it the worry about provocations that makes my entry now forbidden? Perhaps. Certainly, after the first and second intifadas there is justified concern about what might lead to another outbreak of violence. Then again non-Muslims are forbidden from entering the holy city of Mecca. Let’s be honest, there is a growing trend among the faithful that the other, the non-Muslim, the non-Jew, the non-Christian, somehow diminishes the sanctity of a holy place. Even the term “non” is an attempt to draw a sacred circle around oneself by drawing others outside. Only those who are inside the circle are holy, or chosen. I reject this tendency. I reject the sentiments of Pinchas who killed those he believed defamed God. “Pinchas, son of Eleazar son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the Israelites by displaying among them his passion for Me…” (Numbers 25)

The Western Wall is little different. I can walk up to these sacred stones wearing shorts and a T-Shirt. Women, on the other hand, must be sure their shoulders are covered and their skirts an appropriate length. If not, they are given schmattas to cover themselves. Women must pray in the women’s section. I can roam the much larger men’s section and search its broad length for a private place to pray.

I am not however free to lead a Reform service for the men and women of my congregation at the main Western Wall plaza.

And so, I find myself envying my Christian brethren.

Apparently, the situation I admired was not always the case. In the twelfth century Saladin, then the ruler of Jerusalem, gave the keys to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher’s front doors to a local Muslim family. The Joudeh family continues to hold these keys to this very day. And that might be the secret to the freedom I so desire.

It is entrusted to another.

Muslims are the religious authorities for the Dome of the Rock. The ultra-Orthodox control the Western Wall.

Perhaps if we want to restore freedoms to our own faith, we need to trust someone else with the keys.

Perhaps spiritual truths are gained, and religious experiences heightened when we don’t worry about who is in control. If we are true to our faith we should say, “The house belongs to God alone.”

We might discover that doors to our faith might be opened by giving the keys to someone else.

Friday, July 3, 2020

The Voice of Others

A few poems.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a nineteenth century Jesuit priest and English poet, writes:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And, for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And through the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
And Denise Levertov, a twentieth century American poet, offers:
Faith’s a tide, it seems, ebbs and flows responsive
to action and inaction.
Remain in stasis, blown sand
stings your face, anemones
shrivel in rock pools now wave renews.
Clean the littered beach, clear
the lines of a forming poem,
the waters flood inward.
Dull stones again fulfill
their glowing destinies, and emptiness
is a cup, and holds
the ocean.
Hafiz, the fourteenth century Persian poet, affirms:
What is the difference
Between your experience of Existence
And that of a saint?

The Saint knows
That the spiritual path
Is a sublime chess game with God

And that the Beloved
Has just made such a Fantastic Move

That the saint is now continually
Tripping over Joy
And bursting out in Laughter
And saying, “I Surrender!”

Whereas, my dear,
I am afraid you still think

You have a thousand serious moves.
And this week, in our Torah, we discover another poem:
How fair are you tents, O Jacob,
Your dwellings, O Israel!
Like palm-groves that stretch out,
Like gardens beside a river,
Like aloes planted by the Lord,
Like cedars beside the water…
They crouch, they lie down like a lion,
Like the king of beasts; who dare rouse them?
Blessed are they who bless you,
Accursed they who curse you! (Numbers 24)
So said Balaam, the foreign prophet sent by Israel’s sworn enemy, the Moabites. King Balak instructs Balaam to curse the Jewish people. Instead the prophet provides us with a prayer.

“Mah tovu ohalecha, Yaakov…” With these words we begin our morning prayers.

So records our Torah.

And so, we are reminded. Torah is about more than just listening to our own voice.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Prophet or Rebel?

The prophets of old shouted and railed against injustices. Few listened. At best they were surrounded by a small number of loyal, disciples. Most ignored their pleas. They turned a deaf ear to their screams. And yet, centuries later, we turn to their words for inspiration.

The prophet Isaiah declares:

Cry with full throat, without restraint;
Raise your voice like a ram’s horn!
Declare to My people their transgression,
To the House of Jacob their sin….
This is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him
And not to ignore your own kin. (Isaiah 58)

And yet, despite the fact that we read these words every Yom Kippur, Isaiah’s shouts and cries remain muted. He was ignored in his own generation. He is still by and large ignored today.

Perhaps it is because communities, and even countries, too easily become unraveled by such screams. Is this why the prophet Jeremiah was jailed? Prophets, with their calls for change and their demands to undo injustices, are threats to the established order. Where they see injustices aplenty, others see an unraveling of what they have come to love and an undoing of the many comforts they now enjoy.

Is it possible that Korah was a prophet? The tradition answers with an emphatic, “No.” Korah, and his followers, question Moses’ leadership. They say, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them and the Lord is in their midst.” (Numbers 16) The Torah judges these words to be the fomenting of rebellion. God sides with Moses. The earth then swallows up Korah and his followers.

I am thinking that there is a very thin line between prophecy and rebellion.

The Talmud counsels: “The world endures on account of people who are able to restrain themselves during a quarrel.” (Babylonian Talmud, Hullin 89a). The prophets quarrel with everything. They see injustices everywhere. The world might not very well endure if we are led by prophets.

Then again, the world might never change, or be made better, if we fail to heed their words.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel opines:

This is our tragedy: the insecurity of faith, the unbearable burden of our commitment…. Our faith is too often tinged with arrogance, self-righteousness. It is even capable of becoming demonic. Even the creeds we proclaim are in danger of becoming idolatry. Our faith is fragile, never immune to error, distortion, or deception. There are no final proofs for the existence of God, Father and Creator of all. There are only witnesses. Supreme among them are the prophets of Israel. Humanity is an unfinished task, and so is religion. The Law, the creed, the teaching and the wisdom are here, yet without the outburst of prophetic demands coming upon us again and again, religion may become fossilized. (“No Religion is an Island”)

We cannot quarrel with everyone and everything. And yet, we must heed the prophetic voice. Some things must change and must not be allowed to endure.

“Prophet or rebel?” is the question that continues to haunt us.

Saturday, June 20, 2020

Why Juneteenth Matters

What follows is my sermon from Shabbat Services on June 19th.  Join us every Friday evening at 7 pm on Facebook Live. 

David Ben Gurion once said:
Three hundred years ago a ship called the Mayflower set sail to the New World. This was a great event in the history of England. Yet I wonder if there is one Englishman who knows at what time the ship set sail? Do the English know how many people embarked on this voyage? Or what quality of bread did they eat? Yet more than three thousand three hundred years ago, before the Mayflower set sail, the Jews left Egypt. Every Jew in the world, even in America or Soviet Russia knows on exactly what date they left—the fifteenth of the month of Nisan; everyone knows what kind of bread the Jews ate. Even today the Jews worldwide eat matza on the 15th of Nisan. They retell the story of the Exodus and all the troubles Jews have endured since being exiled. They conclude this evening with two statements: This year, slaves. Next year, free men. This year here. Next year in Jerusalem, in Zion, in Eretz Yisrael. That is the nature of the Jews.
Ben Gurion offers a remarkable insight. Our Passover celebrations are about remembering our going free from Egypt. Every symbol on our tables is meant to do one of two things: on the one hand, to recall the pain and suffering of slavery, i.e. eating the haroset and maror or on the other hand, to celebrate the joy of being free, namely drinking four cups of wine and reclining. Why do we observe this holiday? Why do we celebrate Passover, over 3000 years after the event it commemorates? So that we might not only remember our own pain but also so that we might be sensitive to the pain of others. We eat matzah so that we might be better attuned to the suffering not just of Jews but of all people. The Torah makes clear what the symbolic gestures of the Seder imply. “You shall not oppress the stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23). You know what it feels like. That’s the Passover message in a nutshell.

The killing of George Floyd has shaken me. It has awakened in a great many people feelings of empathy, indignation, and despair. We have come to realize we are still not doing better. To be sure I should have been shaken years ago, and even decades ago. And I have spent the past weeks not only reading, and trying to learn more, but also examining my own attitudes and views. A verse in this week’s Torah portion sounds much different than it has in other years. Here is this week’s story that led to this newfound revelation. After returning from scouting the land, ten spies deliver a negative report, and fomented discord among the newly freed Israelites. They say, “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey… [But] the country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers.” (Numbers 13). My brethren are being devoured. I watched it on CNN. It unfolded right before my eyes.

Van Jones, a commentator who I find intelligent, insightful and who struggles still to work across party lines, remarked that there has always been a tension between the dreams of our nation’s founders and the reality in which they lived and thrived. Thomas Jefferson, the primary author of our Declaration of Independence, is also the man who owned slaves and fathered children with at least one of these slave women. He is the same person who wrote: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

As I look inward, as I search within my soul, as I peer into the nation that has almost exclusively offered my family and me promise and opportunity, these truths no longer appear as self-evident as they once did. I recall the history lessons of my youth. Growing up in St. Louis I remember studying the Civil War. The teacher opined, “The war was really about secession. It was not about slavery.” And I dutifully regurgitated that opinion on my test so that I might be awarded an A. Yesterday it occurred to me—and I mean literally yesterday, because until these past weeks it never even entered my mind to more closely examine that teaching—that this is like saying, “World War II was really about the invasion of Poland. It was not about the Holocaust.” This makes no sense. This makes no sense, most especially to my Jewish ears.

The Nazi’s murderous and antisemitic ideology drove it to savage Europe and slaughter six million of my people. The ideology that Jews were sub-human animated this regime. Likewise, slavery, and the ideology that Black lives are worth less than White lives, that people of color are less than human, that other human beings, who we believe, and our Jewish teachings loudly declare are created in the image of God, can be bought and sold as property, animated the South. For the soldiers of the Confederacy, the ideology of slavery led them to charge into battle. And the fact that we are still arguing about this, and denying this basic fact, and teaching that the Civil War was not really about slavery, is why we find ourselves in our current situation, a situation in which the lives of our fellow Americans who are people of color, can be killed in broad daylight by the very people who are meant to protect us—and I mean protect all of us, that is protect every single American. The safety, rescue and protection that I feel when the police drive by is not what all law-abiding Americans see. Through his tears, Van Jones, exclaimed this moment in which we now find ourselves might be different. He said, “A black man was killed, and people care.” People care. S’lach li. Forgive me for not paying attention when it was Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or the countless others. Forgive me for turning away and not doing more to fight racism.

150 years later, after the Emancipation Proclamation, there are still far too many remnants of the racist ideology that almost destroyed our nation and threatens to rip us apart once again. Things must change. And they must change now. No more statues venerating Confederate leaders. No more Confederate flags symbolizing what was supposed to be a defeated ideology. No more military bases named for Confederate generals. Sure, study their tactics in War Colleges and offer praise for their strategies if warranted, but their names do not below in the public squares of a nation that wants to truly live up to its founding dream that all are created equal.

Second, mark today, this day of Juneteenth on your calendars. Mark it as we do Passover. Remember that on this day, on June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the last remaining slaves were delivered the news that they were free. Allow that lesson, a lesson that I was never taught in all my required American history classes, to sink in. People endured more years of slavery because it took that long for the news to reach Galveston, Texas and the far reaches of the Confederacy. Juneteenth represents the very idea we celebrate on Passover and the very best dreams of this country’s founders. This is not a rewriting of history. It is instead a correcting of how we teach history. This day must come to mark an honest accounting of our nation’s struggle to square its sometimes-tortured realities with its loftiest dreams and visions of itself. Only an honest accounting, and forthright reckoning, will do.

And finally, commit to learning more about the pain and suffering of our fellow Americans. When I speak about antisemitism in general, and the Holocaust in particular, and most especially to non-Jewish groups I ask two things of my listeners: 1) that they acknowledge historical truths, namely the countless antisemitic persecutions our people have endured and regarding the Holocaust, the Nazis’ systematic determination to exterminate our people, and 2) that they understand our pain. #1 must come before #2. I never really expect that they will understand what it really feels like to stand in my shoes, that they might feel this history as I feel it and as a Jew feels it. That would be unrealistic, and even illogical.

And so, I have resolved. I am not going to ask one of my few Black friends (and that small number should in itself stand as an embarrassment and indictment) to explain his or her pain to me. I worry that may only do more to assuage my guilt than to rectify our problems. What then are we going to do in this moment? I can tell you what I am going to do first. And you are welcome to join me. I am going to redo my homework from those high school years. I am going to relearn my history. I am going to read more and learn more. Watch the documentary “13th” with me. It is eye opening. Join me for a discussion of this movie. Bring your middle schoolers and high schoolers to the discussion. Email me if you are interested in joining me on this journey.

The healing begins with a renewed call to learning and listening. The repair could very well start by adding one more holiday to our calendar. Think of all that began not only with our going out from Egypt but with our sustained, and stubborn, remembrance of that historical moment at our Passover Seders. Our fellow Americans may be uplifted by such a day just as we continue to be uplifted, every year on the 15th of Nisan. It is long past time that the pain of our fellow Americans becomes our pain. We know all too well the feelings of the stranger. And no one should be made to feel like a stranger ever again.

Friday, June 19, 2020

We Are Only as Small as We Think We Are

There are days when everything appears as giants. And every problem appears insurmountable.

How will we ever overcome this pandemic? Or its consequent economic downturn? Will life ever return to what it was once like? How will we eradicate racism from our country, from American culture and its institutions? What more can we do to uplift the lives, and livelihoods, of our fellow Americans who are Black?

The questions appear enormous. The problems feel like foreboding giants.

When the spies returned from scouting the land of Israel, they offered this report: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are giants… and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” (Numbers 13)

Why did they see themselves as small grasshoppers? Perhaps it was because they were beaten down by this new experience of wandering in the wilderness? Then again perhaps it was because they still saw themselves as slaves. After hundreds of years of slavery, they could not imagine they would be able to overcome their enemies and achieve any measure of success.

These words are why the Israelites must now wander for forty years. God determines that only a generation born in freedom can build a nation of its own.

Still I wonder. How did they know how they appeared to others? And this is perhaps the ten spies’ most worrisome, and even insidious, claim. They had such poor self-esteem and self-worth that they imagined everyone saw themselves as small as they saw themselves.

In the end, it’s one thing to see mounting problems as gigantic. It’s an added thing to see ourselves as too small, or too unprepared, or even too unwilling, to tackle these immense challenges. It’s an unforgivable thing entirely to imagine that others, in particular our enemies, whether they be viruses or other nations, see us as tiny grasshoppers who can be smashed underfoot.

We can overcome whatever we believe ourselves able to overcome! Much of our challenges can be overcome by faith, by faith in God and belief in our abilities to surmount any and all difficulties.

When King David was just a boy the Israelites’ enemy were the mighty Philistines. They were led by the giant Goliath. Every soldier was afraid to go into battle against Goliath. Even King Saul was frightened. But David was unafraid. Even though he was just a small boy he ventured out into the open field without any armor. He brought only a slingshot. And the legend was born. David killed Goliath, striking him with a small stone between the eyes.

David had faith. He had confidence. He did not seem himself as a small boy despite the fact that every other soldier was taller, and stronger, than him.

There really is only one question. Are we going to be the like the ten spies? Or are we instead going to be like Joshua and Caleb, the two spies who believed that despite immense odds the Israelites would succeed? Joshua and Caleb recognized the realities and threats, but they still had faith their people could succeed. They did not view themselves as small. Are we likewise going to be as confident as David or as cowering as the rest of the Israelite soldiers? Even the best armor, and greatest military might, cannot overcome challenges if people don’t believe they can be overcome.

Of course, it is not a matter of turning on and off a switch. It is not as stark as the stories suggest.

There will be moments in the coming weeks, months and years when we will feel like the ten spies, when we will see ourselves as small as grasshoppers unable to overcome any challenges. And there will be other moments when we will discover the confidence of Joshua and Caleb and the faith of King David, and n we will see ourselves as mighty and able to overcome even the most gigantic challenges.

My prayer is simple. I pray that these latter moments will be more numerous than the former.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

No More Complaining

This week we read a litany of complaints. There is the complaint about Moses’ leadership: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” (Numbers 12) and the complaint about the food in the wilderness. Listen to the Israelites: “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat for free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look at.” (Numbers 11)

But the manna is not meant to be looked at. It is instead meant for eating. It provides ample sustenance. Instead the Israelites just stare at it. The Hebrew implies, “There is nothing but this manna before our eyes.” I wonder. Is it the lack of variety that leads to the Israelites’ complaints? “Really, pasta again tonight!?”

Or is it instead that in Egypt the food was provided for them? Even though they were slaves, the food was free. What a bitter irony these words offer. The Israelites may not have paid for their food, or even worked to prepare it, but they toiled day and night, and lived (and died) according to their taskmasters’ yes or no. It was not really free. They paid for it with their lives. And yet, the newly free Israelites, remain dissatisfied and complaining.

Then again free people do a lot of complaining about food. “I want some of those delicious shitake mushrooms! I want my blackberries. I want, I want, I want…”. How often I have complained during these past few months about the food that was now unavailable at the store? I should not have said, “There is nothing but this…to look at,” and instead offered, “Thank God there is food enough to eat.” Isn’t that the not so hidden message of manna?

Sustenance is not about the food, but instead about the state in which we enjoy it. Think of our Jewish mourning rituals. The first thing a mourner is supposed to do after returning from the cemetery, and after washing their hands, is to eat. The foods prescribed for this meal of consolation (seudat havraah) are hard boiled eggs in Ashkenazi circles and lentils in Sephardic homes. Both foods symbolize life. This is not of course what mourners feel like doing. In fact, the impulse is to do the opposite.

Denial, or fasting, seem more emotionally appropriate. They are more in keeping with the state of a mourner’s feelings. And yet Judaism commands the mourner, “Eat.” It is not a feast of course; it is instead meant as manna. It is intended as sustenance. Even though devastated by grief, the mourner has to go on living. They are sustained not by memories.

Now, they feast on stories. They eat to live.

Their sustenance is found instead in these words of remembrance.

Monday, June 8, 2020

Maybe We Are All Racists

I recall some years ago, when I happened to be in the traffic court of a beautiful Long Island hamlet (we will leave unsaid why I was there) and I remember looking around and noticing something very distinct. The vast majority of those joining me on that day were not White, but Black and Latino. And on that day, and in that moment, I said nothing about this glaring disparity and galling incongruity. In fact, I said to myself, “I guess they are really bad drivers.” This memory has been running through my mind as I begin to take in the protests precipitated by the killing of George Floyd z”l.

Black men and boys are two and a half times more likely to die during a police encounter than their white counterparts. Individuals from minority communities are also far more likely to be stopped by police. In addition, those stops are more apt to result in frisks, searches, and arrests. Ninety percent of those in New York City’s local jails are people of color.

This is not so much an indictment of the police. It is instead an indictment of every one of us. Police, and policing, are a reflection of the communities they serve. Ask yourself these questions....

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.