Juneteenth: When We Got the Message

One of my favorite mishnayot in Perkei Avot starts:

Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi said: every day a bat kol (a heavenly voice) goes forth from Mount Horev (Sinai)… ( Avot 6:2)

Surely Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi believed that there was an event of transmission of the Torah at Sinai. If it was a singular event, what did he mean? Is it the a same message going out from the Mount Horev daily or does that message change? If it does changes did he think that that revelation at Sinai was incomplete?  What are the implications of a daily progressive notion of revelation?

This idea seems to be connected to the teaching of Ben Bag Bag who taught:

Turn it over, and [again] turn it over, for all is therein. And look into it; And become gray and old therein; And do not move away from it, for you have no better portion than it. (Avot 5:22)

There was an event of revelation which is immutable and there is an additional mandate to help that message go forth and be turned into something that is relevant.  This work is not reserved for one period in our lives.  This is a daily practice that is year-round and life-long. While the Torah might have gone out at Sinai centuries ago, it is our work to make sure it is heard every day.

I was thinking about this on Thursday when President Joe Biden signed into law legislation establishing June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day, a US federal holiday commemorating the end of slavery in the United States. The holiday is the first federal holiday established since Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 1983 and becomes at least the eleventh federal holiday recognized by the US federal government. The US Office of Personnel Management announced Thursday that most federal employees will observe the holiday today on Friday since Juneteenth falls on a Saturday this year. Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union Major General Gordon Granger announced the end of slavery in Galveston, Texas, in accordance with President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation. Only a handful of states currently observe Juneteenth as a paid holiday. (CNN)

17 Ideas for Teaching Juneteenth in the Classroom - WeAreTeachers

While that day was a revelation of a truth that we are all free and equal, it is clear that our society is still not living up to this promise of treating people equally. It has been 156 years and there is still much work for us to do every day to ensure that we are all living up to this truth. We can be happy that Juneteenth is a federal holiday and know that there still so much work to be done. What do we need to turn and turn again in our society to uproot systemic racism? what do we need to do to reform our police force that targets people of color? We still have so much work for do to deal with bias at every level of our society.

I am not sure what we need to do, but I know that we need to do more. I do want to offer one insight from Rabbi  Yehoshua ben Levi. In the same mishna he taught:

And it says, “And the tablets were the work of God, and the writing was the writing of God, graven upon the tablets” (Exodus 32:16). Read not harut [‘graven’] but herut [ ‘freedom’].( Avot 6:2)

Even when it is written in the law – harut that we are all free, there is still a lot of work to do to make sure we are actually all free- herut . We cannot hide behind the law, we need to do the daily work of making sure that we are living up to our aspiration and that all of us are safe and free. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. taught:

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

This new occasion of Juneteenth reminds us that the revelation of freedom is incomplete until we all treat each other with respect and dignity.

-last year’s post on Juneteenth: Between Revelation and Relevance

Some great sources on the day I got from my colleague Rabbi Stacy Rigler:

RESOURCE LIST:

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Summer Harvest: On the Joy We Need

Many of us have been waiting for summer to start for a long time. But, when does summer start? Technically June 20th is the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere, but that does not seem to capture it. We look forward to the summer as time to congregate and mingle outdoors after being isolated all winter. However, we have been shut-in for a lot longer than one season, and thirst for a world of human connection post-pandemic. When will summer begin? 

For some it was finishing that last test or final in school. With this, we get to close the books on that wacky zoomed-out academic year of 2020-2021. For others it is packing for camp. Ah- the joy of putting nametags on clothing that might never return home. Personally, for many years of my life, summer began when I saw the little red schoolhouse on the way up to camp. For many campers and staff members, summer does not really start until they get off that bus or get out of their car and find themselves running across a field to embrace that friend they have not seen in 11 (or in this case 22 or 23) months. 

Still there is an argument that summer does not really start until that first Shabbat at camp. Everyone shows up as their best and cleanest self. We feel special and unique and lose ourselves in a sea of Shabbat whites. Amidst this calm, we take a moment to take a picture with people we love or pause to smell the fragrance of freshly cut grass. Or maybe it is Shabbat services by a lake or in the woods. And who can deny the inviting waft of chicken soup as we enter the dining hall. 

Each of these moments are surely special, worthy of note, and are reasonable markers for the start of summer. And still, not the experience I have been yearning for. For me, this summer will start when the camp comes together after the first Shabbat dinner to sing Shir HaMaalot (Psalm 126) before Birkat HaMazon, grace after the meal. Weaving their voices together in devotion as one sacred community, blurring of time and space. In this, the community will step beyond the two dimensional world of zoom and into a joyful, uplifting celebration of multidimensional connection to one another, to Jewish tradition, to holiness.

Pausing to reflect on the words, we hear a spectacular expression of gratitude in Shir HaMaalot:

Hazorim B’dima Yiktzoru B’rinah- They that sow in tears shall reap in joy. Though he goes along weeping, carrying the seed-bag, he shall come back with songs of joy, carrying his sheaves. (Psalm 126)

reap the wheat 2011 - YouTube

While our experiences of events have varied greatly, over the last 16 months we have all been dealing with a lot. We have had to contend with the health, safety, and social impact of this global pandemic. We have been confronted with the harsh realities of systemic racism and violence. We have been enmeshed in a painful domestic political process. Recently we had a war between Gaza and Israel. And we have endured a huge spike in antisemitism. What else did they pack with them in their bags?

Over the last 16 months, we have sowed many seeds in tears of sadness, disappointment, frustration, and anxiety. We have pushed off or canceled many social engagements. Can you imagine the joy of a group of young Jewish people safe, secure, and away from their parents’ homes singing together in community? 16 months of tears and 22 or 23 months of yearning transformed into unlimited joy. This moment will mark a transition from sorrow to joy, from scarcity to abundance, and from the long long winter of COVID to the summer of what will be next. We will reap joy from the fertile ground of our understanding of sadness. The things we took for granted now are a source of profound happiness. It will be a moment when we can bask in the simple pleasure of each other’s presence and the community can reflect on the power of being together IRL. It is not that after this moment we will no longer have any medical, natural, political, or social problems, but this will close one difficult season and open us to another. For me this experience of the communal singing of Shir HaMaalot will lift us up because it is that song of joy. This summer we will harvest the joy that we so desperately need. 

And just like that, summer will begin.

For a window into the joy that this summer brings, follow your local camps and Foundation for Jewish Camp (@JewishCamp) on social media.

-reposted from eJewishphilanthropy

What We Mean When We Say Blue Lives Matter

The other day I was walking with my sons and we saw Blue Lives Matter flag. What does this really mean?

Blue Lives Matter is a countermovement in the United States advocating that those who are prosecuted and convicted of killing law enforcement officers should be sentenced under hate crime statutes. It was started in response to Black Lives Matter after the homicides of NYPD officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in Brooklyn, New York on December 20, 2014. Criticized by the ACLU and others, the movement inspired a state law in Louisiana that made it a hate crime to target police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical service personnel. This law has been heavily criticized for extending hate crime law protections outside of characteristics such as race, sexual orientation, or gender identity, to include career choice. Also, evidence that violence against police officers is decreasing has been used to call into question the motivations for the law.

This movement for Blue Lives matter is clearly being done in the face of the Black Lives Matter movement. While the lives of all matter and those who serve as well, it ignores the core issues which is that Black identity and history is constantly under threat of erasure. Police officers do not face the threat of not mattering. Police officers are typically respected and honored in communities while African Americans in urban areas are suspected of criminality. This Blue Lives Matter movement also intentionally or unintentionally supporting a system of discriminatory policing and racial profiling.

There is no excuse for one person to hurt, let alone kill, another, but I have to say that I am particularly outraged by police violence. Dealing with difficult situations is their job. I am not saying that it is an easy job, but that is what they signed up for when joining the police force and taking an oath to serve and protect. Mind you, if it was not for cell phones we would not even know about these situations. It is only recently that so many citizens have devices to keep an eye on the police who were supposed to be keeping an eye on us. Its makes you think about how deep the history of police violence has been.

And for us as a society not admitting that there are profound and deep issues around race is a problem. Seeing how this is compounded by issues about policing makes fixing these problems intractable. Confronting or avoiding the history of racism in this country seems to be played out in the tired volley between “Black Lives Matter”, “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter”. One need not be against police to want to see them do their jobs and make sure that black and brown men and women are not being targeted.

Following the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol many have called Blue Lives Matter hypocritical as many in the mob were showing support for Blue Lives Matter, yet they assaulted capitol police officers. One African-American Capitol Police Officer even described being beaten with a blue lives matter flag. This has led some to argue that Blue Lives Matter is more about suppressing minorities than supporting law enforcement.

I was thinking about the Blue Lives Matter movement when reading Korach, this week’s Torah portion. In his efforts to get power for himself he claims, “All the community is holy (kulam kedoshim)” (Num. 16:3). Rashi relates the following midrash in order to explain the nature of Korah’s attack:

What did Korah do? He arose and assembled 250 men who were fit to be the heads of the Sanhedrin . . . and he dressed them in four-cornered garments (tallit) made entirely of blue wool. They came and stood before Moshe and said to him: “Does a four-cornered garment made entirely of blue wool require fringes (tzitzit) or is it exempt?” Moshe said to them: “It does require tzitzit.” They began to laugh at him: “Is it possible that a tallit made of some other material and then one string of blue makes the tallit ritually fit and, yet, this tallit which is made entirely of blue is not already ritually fit?!”(Tanchuma Korach)

On the surface Korach is arguing that everyone should share power because they are all equal. While his words are noble, his actions are not. In reality he shows up with his posse to demand power for himself. Like Korach, when people say “All Lives Matter” their language of equality is but a thin veil. While Korach was using the blue of the Tzitzit to get power for himself, people who say “Blue Lives Matter” are trying to preserve a racist status quo and keep power in the hands of a system working against the interest of black and brown people. If that was not the case the “All Lives Matter Movement” would be leading the protests against the police. Were not all of the Black people killed by the police in America also people? Did their lives not matter?

I cannot imagine that the people who say “Blue Lives Matter” actually think that they are racists. I am sure they are just concerned for the lives of people in the police force. But as my son said, no one hates the firemen. Everyone knows that they are their for our safety. The fact that we cannot say that about the police is the issue. It is too easy for us all to point our fingers at the bad apples in the police force or the leaders like Korach’s who overtly misuse their power. What is our responsibility?

If we do nothing to dismantle the system of oppression we are part of the problem. As a white person I must accept my responsibility that other people are being hurt to maintain a status quo to support my life. So lets just say “Black Lives Matter”. It does not mean that their lives are the only things that matter, but it gives voice to the fact that we need to change our racist system. I do believe that words matter too, but in the end we will be judged on our actions. Sadly I have been writing the same blog post on Korach since 2016. When will be learn? Let’s choose to be on the right side of history. I am afraid that if we do not deal with these issues the violence will swallow us whole like Korach.

2020 version of this blog

2017 version of this blog 

2016 version of this blog

We Need to Vent: Holding Complexity and Shelach

We all know what a Venn diagram is, but what is a Vent diagram? A Venn diagram is a widely-used image style that shows the logical relation between sets, popularized by John Venn in the 1880s. While that was helpful in math class, that is not what is most interesting to me. A Vent diagram as an image of the overlap of two statements that appear to be true and appear to be contradictory. You do not label the overlapping middle.  This is a collaborative social media and art project started by educator Elana Eisen-Markowitz and artist Rachel Schragis, two queer white Jews in Brooklyn in our 30s.   

As they write on their website:

Making vent diagrams as a practice helps us recognize and reckon with contradictions and keep imagining and acting from the intersections and overlaps. Venting is an emotional release, an outlet for our anger, frustration, despair — and as a vent enables stale, suffocating air to flow out, it allows new fresh air to cycle in and through. We’re trying to make “vents” in both senses of the word: tiny windows for building unity and power, emotional releases of stale binary thinking in order to open up a trickle of fresh ideas and air.

Here are some vent diagrams about vent diagrams… or, vents that best describe what this project is and why we’re doing it:

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I would encourage you to check out their sight for other examples. A good vent draws out a tension that we don’t have language for because that non-binary overlap isn’t really part of our public discourse yet.  

I was thinking about Vent diagrams this week while reading Shelach, this week’s Torah portion. There we learn that Moshe sends twelve spies to the land of Canaan. Forty days later they return, carrying a huge cluster of grapes, a pomegranate and a fig, to report on a lush and bountiful land. But ten of the spies warn that the inhabitants of the land are giants and warriors “more powerful than we”; only Caleb and Joshua insist that the land can be conquered, as God has commanded. Why did the spies give a bad report?

I think they needed to vent. These ten spies were not able to “recognize and reckon with contradictions”. Inspired by Elana Eisen-Markowitz and Rachel Schragis I made a Vent diagram for Shelach:

 

Like these ten spies many of us find ourselves navigating the complexity of two opposing truths. We all need to find a way to vent like Joshua and Caleb.

Nazir and Love: Beyond the Victory March

In Naso, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the laws of becoming a Nazir. The Nazir is someone who  takes a vow to “consecrate” or “separate” themselves. This vow means that they need to abstain from wine, wine vinegar, grapes, raisins, and eating or drinking any substance that contains any trace of grapes. It also means that they are going to refrain from cutting their hair. The final aspect of this vow is that they cannot become ritually impure by contact with corpses or graves, even those of family members. Why would anyone want to do this?

One answer given is that the laws of Nazir come right after the laws of the Sotah. This is not a case of a woman who is known to have actually committed adultery, but rather one whose behavior makes her suspect of having done so. Her faithfulness to her husband must therefore be established before the marriage relationship can be resumed. This starts with the husband expressing his suspicion that his wife had an improper relationship with another man. In this context he warns her not to be alone with that individual. If the woman disregards this warning and proceeds to seclude herself with the other man, she becomes a Sotah, forbidden to live with her husband unless she agrees to be tested with the “bitter waters.” The woman is warned that if she has indeed committed adultery, the “bitter waters” will kill her; if, however, she has not actually been unfaithful, the drinking of these waters exonerates her completely. In fact, the Torah promises that, having subjected herself to this ordeal, her marriage will now be even more rewarding and fruitful than before her “going astray.”

What is wrong with their relationship that you need this entire ordeal? The Torah goes right from these laws to a discussion of our law of the Nazir. One interpretation is that anyone who might see this play out would be driven to become a Nazir. But that seems to only get to the surface level. What else is going on here?

Lucas Cranach d. Ä. - Samson's Fight with the Lion - WGA05717.jpg

It is not at all surprising that the haftarah coupled with this Torah portion is the origin story of Shimshon, the most famous Nazir in the Bible. Shimshon is not a normal Nazir in that he has superhuman strength. He also not a particularly good Nazir in that he appears to break his vows, by touching a dead body (Judges 14:8–9) and drinking wine (he holds a “drinking party”, in Judges 14:10). 

What is not covered in the origin story is the tragic end of his life. His immense strength to aid him against his enemies and allow him to perform superhuman feats came from his hair. There we read:

He said to her, “No razor has ever touched my head, for I have been a nazirite to God since I was in my mother’s womb. If my hair were cut, my strength would leave me and I should become as weak as an ordinary man.” (Judges 16:17)

Shimshon was betrayed by his lover Delilah, who used the secret of the origin of his strength against him. She ordered a servant to cut his hair while he was sleeping and turned him over to his Philistine enemies.

I got thinking about all of this when recalling the spellbinding lyrics of Leonard Cohen‘s Hallelujah. He sings:

Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah

Here Cohen seamlessly remixes allusions to King David’s lust for Batsheva, Shimshon’s succumbing to Delilah, and a contemporary lover. Maybe this gives us some insight into the connection of the suspicious lover in the Sotah case and the drive for self destruction in the Shimson and the case of the Nazir. If we see love as something to be won, it can also be something to be lost. In that version of love, there will always be causalities, people getting hurt, and people’s needs not being met. As Cohen so eloquently comments ” love is not some kind of victory march”. Love makes us do crazy things. A lesson of the Nazir is that we need to move beyond transaction to relationship if we hope to sing the song of Hallelujah.

Encampment, BaMidbar, and Building Back Better

At the start of BaMidbar, this week’s Torah portion, we read of the desert encampment of Israel. There we read:

When the Israelites set up camp, each tribe will be assigned its own area. The tribal divisions will camp beneath their family banners on all four sides of the Tabernacle, but at some distance from it.  ( Numbers 2:2)

The Desert Tabernacle: Collection of the Tabernacle Illustrations | Exodus  bible, Bible knowledge, Bible scriptures

I want to think about the need for the “distance” , but first I want to explore the meaning of the banners. According to Rav Hirsch the banner   דגל is related to דקל, which is a tree that can be seen all around.  Rav Hirsch also explains the phrase תמרות עשן similarly – like a תמר tree (דקל), that can be witnessed in all directions (and from all perspectives). Their banner was their signature stand out trait. They needed to maintain distance so that they could witness and appreciate each others stand out traits.

This seems like a wonderful model for pluralism for our community. We should strive to come together with people who you are different from us and make sure that we give each other  space to witness and appreciate our differences. This year with Covid and others are immersed in a war- this idea of needing “distance” takes on new meaning. The act of war means that no “distance” is enough to foster civility. In a different way Covid showed us even with civility, we needed our pods and other divisions to stay safe.

As we sit hear and pray for peace in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza and we start to imagine some emergence from Covid restrictions it is helpful to focus on this image of the tribes. Maybe this will provide us a healthy and safe frame for building back better .

This is the Way

This week’s Torah portion is Behar Behukotai. At the start of Behukotai we read:

If you walk in My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. ( Leviticus 26:3-4)

It seems clear enough that the Torah instructing us to keep the rules. What is the differences between walking and observing them? What are the differences between laws and commandments?

Sforno explains this:

laws- chukkot are like Royal decrees, something person has to be guided by if he expects his endeavors in life to prosper. The Hebrew expression describing the fact that one abides by them is called הליכה, “walking.”…The thrust of our verse then is as follows: “if you will conduct yourselves in accordance with the practical part of My Torah, i.e. the performance of commandments requiring deeds, and you will study these laws in order to understand their purpose and in order to give meaning to your performance of these laws, you will accomplish that you will deserve the description of being a creature which reflects “God’s image.” ( Sforno on Levitius 26:3)

We are instructed to study and try to understand the rules and also to just do what needs to be done. This resonates for me as to the very nature of הלכה, Jewish law- the way we walk.

This was elegantly written about by Deirdre Sullivan in her iconic This I Believe essay, ” Always Go to the Funeral“. There she wrote:

“Always go to the funeral” means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don’t really have to and I definitely don’t want to. I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex’s uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.

I really enjoyed how this idea has been explored in Disney’s Mandalorian. Beginning five years after the events of Return of the Jedi  and the fall of the Galactic EmpireThe Mandalorian follows Din Djarin, a lone Mandalorian bounty hunter in the outer reaches of the galaxy. He is hired by remnant Imperial forces to retrieve the child Grogu, but instead goes on the run to protect the infant and reunite Grogu with his kind. One of the things I love about the series is how it explores the creed of the Mandalorians. They are an exilic people trying make stay safe away from Madalor and make meaning in the universe. I relate to the way that they live in service of their duty. They do what needs to be done because, ” This is the Way”.

While it is not my favorite show I do relate to the ideas of walking Behukotai and the Mandalorian way. We too are an exilic people trying make stay safe in diaspora and make meaning in the universe. Just as some of the Mandalorians are devoted to keeping on their helmets, I always wear a Kippah to remind me of my duties. That is enough for now. I need to cook for Shabbat, because this is the way.

Being Enough: Rashbi, Lag B’Omer, and Covid

According to tradition Lag B’Omer, the 33rd day of the Omer, marks the death of the Rashbi (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai). For this reason thousands go to Har Meron every year to commemorate his yahrzeit. Sadly last night, after what seems to be a collapse of a ramp and a stampede of people, over one hundred people were injured and at least 45 died at Har Meron. Even before this horrible tragedy I have been thinking about the Rashbi and this moment in history. The iconic story of the Rashbi and his son in the Talmud is a poignant frame to help us reflect on our protracted period of social distancing due to Covid and the prospects of emergence from isolation . (Shabbat 33b-34a)

At the start of this story, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai is debating the merits of the Roman Empire with Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Yose. When the Rashbi’s harsh critique of Rome gets reported to the authorities, he is condemned to death. He goes on the lamb with his son Rabbi Elazar. At first, they hide in the Beit Midrash, but then they find shelter in a miraculous cave with a carob tree and brook. With their physical needs of safety and nourishment taken care of, the Rashbi and and his son spend the next 12 years immersed in prayer and study. After 12 years in isolation, Elijah comes to tell them that the emperor died and it is safe to leave the cave.

As we contemplate, what life might look like after Covid, the story of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar needs a closer analysis. The story continues:

They emerged from the cave, and saw people who were plowing and sowing. Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai said: These people abandon eternal life of Torah study and engage in temporal life for their own sustenance. The Gemara relates that every place that Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar directed their eyes was immediately burned. A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Did you emerge from the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave. They again went and sat there for twelve months. They said: The judgment of the wicked in Gehenna lasts for twelve months. Surely their sin was atoned in that time. A Divine Voice emerged and said to them: Emerge from your cave. They emerged. Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike, Rabbi Shimon would heal. Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Elazar: My son, you and I suffice for the entire world, as the two of us are engaged in the proper study of Torah.( Shabbat 33b)

For the Rashbi and his son, after spending 12 years in isolation the transition to society was not easy. It is hard to imagine that our reemergence after more than 12 months will go any smoother. Similar to the Rashbi and his son, as we come out of our caves we all have to reconcile the divergence of practices around Covid. Do we all mask or gather? We will not be keep the same standards. Do we understand that the process will be iterative? Will be get stuck being judgmental? Will we burn up our relationships as we reemerge?

What is our role with our children or students? We will both want to act out. As adults we need to give them limits. We also need to help them fail as they mediate this experience of reemergence. This story helps us communicate that this is not new. We will need to rethink how we discipline out children. We also need to understand that “time-outs” might not be so effective.

Their story of reemergence continues:

As the sun was setting on Shabbat eve, they saw an elderly man who was holding two bundles of myrtle branches and running at twilight. They said to him: Why do you have these? He said to them: In honor of Shabbat. They said to him: And let one suffice. He answered them: One is corresponding to: “Remember the Shabbat day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), and one is corresponding to: “Protect the Shabbat day, to keep it holy” (Deuteronomy 5:12). Rabbi Shimon said to his son: See how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel. Their minds were put at ease and they were no longer as upset that people were not engaged in Torah study..  (Shabbat 33b)

What about this man’s behavior that placates them? In a simple way he was able to wed together the life of learning (in the cave) and the real world ( plowing and sowing). The old man was able to show his understanding of the two versions of the commandment of Shabbat in a embodied practice. On a deeper level he was able to help the Rashbi and his son reemerge from society. What did they want to remember and protect from their life in the cave and their lives in the real world?

Covid has been and continues to be horrible. Many have died. In turn this has left so many to mourn them. Still more have been hurt physically, emotionally, and economically by this plague. For almost all of us social distancing measures have been difficult if not just annoying.

And for some of us, this time in isolation has itself been a blessing if not a miracle. Yes, balancing work and the kids has been challenging, but it has not been all bad. While we might feel guilty saying it, we might have enjoyed our time in the cave with our family/pod. Similarly, I might complain about the monotony of carobs for dinner again, but I love the time I save in not worrying about my wardrobe or commuting.

Focusing on what is worth remembering and protecting allows us to express the wisdom of the Rashbi. We have and are enough. We maintain an isolation because we have shame that we are not enough. Brené Brown teaches that a pervasive sense of shame makes many of us—particularly in America—feel unworthy of human connection. Why do we experience this shame? Because in this perfectionistic culture, most of us believe we’re “not good enough…not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough” to be worthy of love. So we can’t afford to let our guard down, become vulnerable, because letting others see us as we really are would mean we’d be rejected out of hand. Better to avoid emotional risk, avoid vulnerability, and numb ourselves to any pain we can’t escape, even if we ran away to a magical cave. 

We will only by happy with our re-emergence when have a renewed sense that we are enough.

After Death: Working for a Renaissance

This week marked the conviction of Derek Chauvin in the murder of George Floyd. This is far from justice, but does give us a glimmer of accountability. This week also marked two weeks since my second vaccination. I am filled with gratitude and feel very blessed. This is my first glimpse of what life will look like post-Covid.

I was thinking about these things when reading the start of Achrai Mot- Kedoshim, this week’s Torah portion. Following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, God warns against unauthorized entry “into the holy.” There we read:

The Lord spoke to Moshe after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the Lord. The Lord said to Moshe: Tell your brother Aaron that he is not to come at will into the Shrine behind the curtain, in front of the cover that is upon the ark, lest he die; for I appear in the cloud over the cover. (Leviticus 16:1-2)

What does life look like after death? After the death of his sons Aaron is instructed how he should show up for work. After something cataclysmic, how or can things go back to normal?

Looking back into history we see that after the Spanish Flu of 1918 things went back to normal. According to one article :

The Spanish flu virus was persistent and wiped out a huge proportion of the globe during its deadliest second wave in the autumn of 1918. A third wave came in the winter of 1919, however by summer of that year, very few cases were reported. Science journalist Laura Spinney has fervently researched the Spanish flu and analysed how it was concluded. She reasons that every pandemic is shaped like a bell curve as the pathogen runs out of susceptible hosts, therefore the Spanish flu ran its natural course. There could be a similar pattern for the current pandemic. So, what have we learnt from the 1918 pandemic? That preventative measures – however difficult and limiting – do make a difference in slowing the spread of disease. That no matter how developed a health care system can be, there will still be problems. Yet positively, we can see that pandemics do all come to an end. As 100 years ago, the nation basked in a euphoric ‘roaring’ 20s, we too will experience our own roaring 2020s.  ( Microbiology Society)

I keep asking myself will life post Covid look like the roaring ’20s or will we seek out another model? After the Black Death we had the Renaissance. That sure seems better. Is that a choice we can make?

Similarly, now that we have started the process of holding law enforcement accountable, will we do the hard work of making sure that we have a justice system that is just? There needs to be one system of justice for all us. People of color should not live in fear. What kind of work do we need to do to overhaul our justice system?

“After death” we should not opt for a return to normal, rather we should choose a renaissance of art, culture, medicine, and justice. I know that this is the harder choice. There is so much desire to go back to normal. The choice of a renaissance would mean a lot of work and we are all so tired of it all. A lesson taken from this Torah portion is that even “after the death” of his sons Aaron was told to go back to work. We should not take a beat to reflect, but we need to keep our eye on the prize. “After death” we need to work for a better life and not be satisfied with normal. In the words of Randy Pausch, ” Don’t complain just work harder.”

Complaining At Work Quotes. QuotesGram

Celebrating Our National Viability: Pesach Sheni

Recently I was learning a Mishnah in memory of a dear friend’s mother’ s passing. I got to learn the Mishnah Bechorot. There I learned a fascinating law:

If the firstborn son dies within thirty days of birth, although the father gave five sela to the priest, the priest must return it. If the firstborn son dies after thirty days have passed, even if the father did not give five sela coins to the priest he must give it then. If the firstborn dies on the thirtieth day, that day’s halakhic status is like that of the day that preceded it, as the obligation takes effect only after thirty days have elapsed. Rabbi Akiva says: If the firstborn dies on the thirtieth day it is a case of uncertainty; therefore, if the father already gave the redemption payment to the priest he cannot take it back, but if he did not yet give payment he does not need to give it. (Bechorot 8:6)

While there is some discussion about the particularities of the 30 days, it is clearly the age of viability. In a pre-modern civilization infant mortality rates were so high that it would not make sense to even mourn a new born who did not make it a month. Regarding the first born son a whole array of other obligations kick in after 30 days.

I was rethinking this in the context of Passover. This is when we learn Of the obligation to redeem being the Petter Rechem– first born. It becomes very important with the 10th plague with the death the first born. The symbolic national manifestion of this idea happens when we emerge from the Red Sea as a new nation.

This is front of mind today on Pesach Sheni. This holiday is the grand do-over for anyone who missed being part of the Passover sacrifice. Pesach Sheni takes on new meaning in light of our Mishnah in Bechorot. Today,30 days after our birth as a nation, we achieve a level of viability. In some cases ways our whole history as a religion has been a process of striving to redeem ourselves.

In light of our customs for Pidyon HaBen- this begs another read of Natan Alterman’s Silver Platter. Chag Pesach Sheni Sameakh


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