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Terrible Things Without Empathy: Yom HaShoah in the Year of COVID- 19

Recently my colleague Teri shared this children’s story by Eve Bunting. Here is the story:

The clearing in the woods was home to the small forest creatures. The birds and squirrels shared the trees. The rabbits and porcupines shared the shade beneath the trees and the frogs and fish shared the cool brown waters of the forest pond. Until the day the Terrible Things came. Little Rabbit saw their terrible shadows before he saw them. They stopped at the edge of the clearing and their shadows blotted out the sun. “We don’t have feathers,” the frogs said. “Nor we,” said the squirrels. “Nor we,” said the porcupines. “Nor we,” said the rabbits. The little fish leaped from the water to show the shine of their scales, but the birds twittered nervously in the tops of the trees. Feathers! They rose in the air, then screamed away into the blue of the sky. But the Terrible Things had brought their terrible nets, and they flung them high and caught the birds and carried them away. The other forest creatures talked nervously among themselves. “Those birds were always noisy,” the squirrels said. “There’s more room in the trees now,” the squirrels said. “Why did the Terrible Things want the birds?” asked Little Rabbit. “What’s wrong with feathers?” “We mustn’t ask,” Big Rabbit said. “The Terrible Things don’t need a reason. Just be glad it wasn’t us they wanted.” Now there were no birds to sing in the clearing. But life went on almost as before. Until the day the Terrible Things came back. “We have no tails,” the frogs said. “Nor do we. Not real tails,” the porcupines said. The little fish jumped from the water to show the smooth shine of their finned tails and the rabbits turned their rumps so the Terrible Terrible Things could see for themselves. “Our tails are round and furry,” they said. “By no means are they bushy.” The squirrels chattered their fear and ran high into the treetops. But the Terrible Things swung their terrible nets higher than the squirrels could run and wider than the squirrels could leap and they caught them all and carried them away. “Those squirrels were greedy,” Big Rabbit said. “Always storing away things for themselves. Never sharing.” “But why did the Terrible Things take them away?” Little Rabbit asked. “Do the Terrible Things want the clearing or themselves?” “No. They have their own place,” Big Rabbit said. “But the Terrible Things don’t need a reason. Just mind your own business, Little Rabbit. We don’t want them to get mad at us.” Now there were no birds to sing or squirrels to chatter in the trees. But life in the clearing went on almost as before. Until the day the Terrible Things came again. Little Rabbit heard the rumble of their terrible voices. “We have come for every creature that swims,” the Terrible Things thundered. “Oh, we can’t swim,” the rabbits said quickly. “And we can’t swim,” the porcupines said. The frogs dived deep in the forest pool and ripples spiraled like corkscrews on the dark brown water. The little fish darted this way and that in streaks of silver. But the Terrible Things threw their terrible nets down into the depths and they dragged up the dripping frogs and the shimmering fish and carried them away. “Why did the Terrible Things take them?” Little Rabbit asked. “What did the frogs and fish do to them?” “Probably nothing,” Big Rabbit said. “But the Terrible Things don’t need a reason. Many creatures dislike frogs. Lumpy slimy things. And fish are so cold and unfriendly. They never talk to any of us.” Now there were no birds to sing, no squirrels to chatter, no frogs to croak, no fish to play in the forest pool. A nervous silence filled the clearing. But life went on almost as usual. Until the day the Terrible Things came back. Little Rabbit smelled their terrible smell before they came into sight. The rabbits and the porcupines looked all around, everywhere, except at each other. “We have come for every creature that sprouts quills,” the Terrible Things thundered. The rabbits stopped quivering. “We don’t have quills,” they said, fluffing their soft, white fur. The porcupines bristled with all their strength. But the Terrible Things covered them with their terrible nets, and the porcupines hung in them like flies in a spider’s web as the Terrible Things carried them away. “Those porcupines always were bad tempered,” Big Rabbit said shakily. “Prickly, sticky things!” This time Little Rabbit didn’t ask why. By now he knew that the Terrible Things didn’t need a reason. The Terrible Things had gone, but the smell still filled the clearing. “I liked it better when there were all kinds of creatures in our clearing,” he said. “And I think we should move. What if the Terrible Things come back?” “Nonsense,” said Big Rabbit. “Why should we move? This has always been our home. And the Terrible Things won’t come back. We are White Rabbits. It couldn’t happen to us.” As day followed day Little Rabbit thought Big Rabbit must be right. Until the day the Terrible Things came back. Little Rabbit saw the terrible gleam of their terrible eyes through the forest darkness. And he smelled the terrible smell. “We have come for any creature that is white,” the Terrible Things thundered. “There are no white creatures here but us,” Bit Rabbit said. “We have come for you,” the Terrible Things said. The rabbits scampered in every direction. “Help!” they cried. “Somebody help!” But there was no one left to help. And the big, circling nets dropped over them, and the Terrible Things carried them away. All but Little Rabbit, who was little enough to hide in a pile of rocks by the pond and smart enough to stay so still that the Terrible Things thought he was a rock himself. When they had all gone, Little Rabbit crept into the middle of the empty clearing. “I should have tried to help the other rabbits,” he thought. “If only we creatures had stuck together, it could have been different.” Sadly, Little Rabbit left the clearing He’d go tell other forest creatures about the Terrible Things. He hoped someone would listen.

This story Terrible Things is a wonderful allegory of the Holocaust which is clearly based on the classic by Martin Niemöller. He famously wrote:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

In both forms of this story- we hear the clarion call for empathy and to stand up for people who are not like us. Image result for empathy

Much of education resolves around identity formation which often runs up against our capacity to empathize with those that are different from us.

With Yom HaShoa being today, I pause to contemplate the lessons of the Holocaust in the time of COVID-19. What does “Never Again” mean today?  So yes we need to call out and confront antisemitism in any form, but even with this vigilance we cannot forget everyone deserves our empathy. The universal nature of COVID-19 reminds us all to care for others. Our ignoring people who were suffering with this plague early on has literally put more people at risk. If we can relate to others  and stay home we can flatten the curve and build on that love. One of the lessons of Yom HaShoa is a demand for deep empathy.

Solemn Silence: In the Wake of the Splitting of the Sea, COVID-19, and the Holocaust

Just yesterday we celebrated our salvation at the splitting of the Red Sea with the concluding days of Passover. There we were witness to God’s miracles and the death of other people’s children. Our response was to sing a song. The Gemara says:

The Egyptians were drowning in the sea. At the same time, the angels wanted to sing before God, and the Lord, God, said to them: ‘My creations are drowning and you are singing before me?’ (Sanhedrin 37)

Here we see God silencing the angels for their callous behavior. By implication this Gemara is teaching us a lesson in compassion. There seems to be moments for silence, or at the least not singing. If this is true for our enemy, we can only imagine the response for a friend of a loved one.

As a parent it is hard to imagine how I would respond upon hearing the death of one of my children, let alone two of them. In Shemini, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Aaron’s response to hearing the death of two of his sons. There we read:

Then Moses said to Aaron: ‘This is it that the Lord spoke, saying: Through them that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified.’ And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:3)

I could imagine many responses, but not one of them is silence. What can we learn from Aaron’s deafening silence?

Silence LP by Hunter/Game @ Kompakt Shop

This year I think about the callous nature in which we looked at the suffering in Wuhan. It was too easy to see the suffering in China as far away on another shore. With every day I learn that someone else has been impacted directly and indirectly by COVID-19. And like Aaron, I have no words. But there is a world between ignoring and solemn silence.

With Yom HaShoa being commemorated this week, I am shocked as to the tremendous amount of literature still being written about the Holocaust. All of these years later, we cannot even imagine slowing down or stop talking about this topic. And when I really think about the nature and scope of the Holocaust I feel speechless like Aaron.

When I pause to reflect I realize that the world is very crazy right now. We are all in the middle of many things. And from all of them we learn that we need to have compassion for all those who experienced and are experiencing pain and suffering. We need to treat everyone with respect and dignity. In the wake of the splitting of the Sear we need to remember that we can try to drown our sorrows, but never our memories.

-For similar post see Listening for Silence

No Need to Ask: On Love, Spring, Vulnerability, and the Splitting of the Sea

This year I have been completely absorbed by Yishai Ribo‘s music. Ribo is an Orthodox Israeli singer-songwriter who’s music reaches across the religious divide in Israel and beyond. For me it started with Seder HaAvodah in which he retells the story of the High Priest’s service in the Temple on Yom Kippur in a way that is completely touching and accessible. He has a way of taking tradition and making it relevant today. Most recently he released Keter Melukha, a stunning study of his life through this year of COVID-19 in light the Jewish calendar. Ribo does not sacrifice depth to get his message to the masses. I guess it is not shocking that I love his music.

In preparation for the last days of Passover I have been listening to Lev Sheli- My Heart. Here is a live version he performed recently under COVID-19 social distancing guidelines. Enjoy:

There is so much I have to say about the lyrics to this song. I am actually in a process of making another contemporary page of TalmudI am not done yet, but I just could not resist sharing a thought on this song for Passover. The song starts off:

My heart is split in two

What the maidservant did not perceive by the water

Like a storm from the sea, it throbs

Like Miriam’s timbrel, it beats

And there is no cure in the world

My heart hold hands up

I stumble, can no longer stand on my feet

Just a wreck with no purpose

And the skies are like a wall to me

How shall I pass through the sea on dry ground

Ribo masterfully weaves together the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea and a love song. On Passover we escaped from Egyptians by walking through the sea on dry ground with the water on each side of us like walls.  After the miracle we hear the Song of the Sea and then Miriam leads them in her song with timbrels. Reading the lyrics in the context of Passover I have a few questions. Is Lev Sheli a normal love song? Is it a song about someone expressing his/her love for a partner or an aspiration of divine love?

To explore these questions I wanted to share a Mekhilta that Rashi points to in his commentary on the Song of there Sea in his explanation of the words “This is my God, and I will glorify God and I will extol God.” (Exodus 15:2). We we learn in the Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael: 

Rabbi Eliezer says: Whence is it derived that a maid-servant beheld at the Red Sea what was not beheld by Ezekiel and the other prophets, of whom it is written (Hoshea 12:11) “And to the prophets I appeared (in various) guises,” and (Ezekiel 1:1) “The heavens opened and I saw visions of God”? An analogy: A king of flesh and blood comes to a province, a circle of guards around him, warriors at his right and at his left, armies before him and behind him — and all asking “Who is the king?” For he is flesh and blood as they are. But when the Holy One was revealed at the sea, there was no need for anyone to ask “Who is the King?” For when they saw God, they knew God, and they all opened and said “This is my God, and I will extol God (“ve’anvehu,” lit.: “I will ‘host’ Him”)!”(Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael 15:2:2). 

Unlike the prophecy of Ezekiel that needed interpretation, what the maidservant perceived needed no framing. And yet Ribo’s love is beyond, “What the maidservant did not perceive by the water”. This love is so profound that he is open like the sea that is split open. This love is painfully obvious that everyone. When you see them in love there is really “no need for anyone to ask”.

As Brené Brown, my Vulnerability Rebbe, writes:

Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.

Ribo is writing about vulnerability of being in love. Unmitigated love is an overwhelming and transformational experience. The holiday of Passover invites us to leave the darkness, hibernation, and solitude of winter to pursue the infinite light of spring. On Passover we own our story and lay our heart open to love again. Lev Sheli, like Song of Songs, which we also read on Passover, celebrates human love giving a holy voice to the lovers yearning. It is no mystery that Ribo is able to have a cross over hit between the religious and secular in that he has a cross over hit from the divine to the human. Now that is a popular love song.

-see earlier post on this long:  My Heart: A Different Love Song

-see other posts on Brené Brown and vulnerability:

 

Leaning in to Interdependence

We are instructed to lean during the Seder. But why?

My friend Gabe Miner put together a really interesting resource for Seder this year when so many people will need to do Seder by themselves due to COVID -19. Virtual Seder is library of short videos from 50+ educators, clergy, and scholars from around the world helping people use technology to bring learning and discussion to their Sederim this year. Check it out at tinyurl.com/VirtualSeder5780

There you will find my answer to the question as to why we are instructed to lean during the Seder ritual.

So my question for all of us for this Seder is how will we lean into being more interdependent this year?

Check out other ideas for your Seder at the Virtual Seder.

Have a wonderful Passover and remember to stay safe and connected.

The King is Listening: The New Year and COVID-19

How many new years do we have? As we learn in the Mishnah in Rosh HaShanah:

There are four new years:The first of Nisan is the new year for kings and for festivals. The first of Elul is the new year for the tithe of beasts. Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon say: the first of Tishri. The first of Tishri is the new year for years, for shmitta and jubilee years, for planting and for [tithe of] vegetables. The first of Shevat is the new year for trees, according to the words of Bet Shammai. Bet Hillel says: on the fifteenth of that month. ( Rosh HaShanah 1:1)

It seems clear that Rosh Hodesh Tishre beat out the other three to be the Rosh HaShanah. Tishre is the ” new year for years, for shmitta and jubilee years, for planting and for [tithe of] vegetables”, but what about Nisan and “the new year for kings and for festivals”? Maybe with all of the darkness I am searching for a new beginning, but I still think that there is something here to explore the New Year of Nisan. But to do this we need to explore the lead up to Tishre.

According to Hasidic thinking the days of Elul from the ” the new year for the tithe of beasts” are the time when “the King is in the field.” The metaphor follows that gaining an audience with the King during Tishrei is a whole to-do. We must travel to the capital city, arrange an appointment, and then get permission to enter the palace. It may be days or weeks before we are finally allowed to enter. And even then, when we do finally get to see the King, the audience is likely to be short and very formal. Lost among the throngs of people, it is hard to imagine it being a deeply personal interaction. Since very few of us actually live in the capital city, these royal surroundings we experience during the High Holidays makes us feel out-of-place. By the time we get there we might have even forgotten why we came to seek the audience of the King in the first place. It hardly seems like a good plan for a meaningful experience.

Once a year, the King leaves the capital to visit the various constituents of the Kingdom. According to the Rabbi Schneur Zalman (the first Lubavicher Rebbe) during Elul “anyone who desires is granted permission and can approach the King and greet the King. The King received them all pleasantly, and shows a smiling countenance to all” (Likkutei Torah, Re’eh 32b) Now a King can’t just enter a city unannounced. This explains the shofar blowing throughout Elul. Here in the field the formality is transformed into familiarity. We the common folk are allowed to come out to greet the King and receive personalized blessings. During Elul, with limited effort, the King is accessible. We just need to go out and greet the King.

This idea that God is accessible during the month before Rosh HaShana got me thinking about the time we are in now. We know that on Passover God is passing over our homes, but where is the King  during the month leading up to Passover? We read in Exodus:

And the Lord continued, “I have marked well the plight of My people in Egypt and have heeded their outcry because of their taskmasters; yes, I am mindful of their sufferings.I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey, the region of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Now the cry of the Israelites has reached Me; moreover, I have seen how the Egyptians oppress them. Come, therefore, I will send you to Pharaoh, and you shall free My people, the Israelites, from Egypt.” (Exodus 3:7-10)

In this period God is up on high, but the King is not deaf to our collective suffering. The Prime Mover is moved by our crying and suffering. When we are preparing to “see ourselves as if we were slaves in Egypt”, God removes the barriers so that God can hear our crying.

Exactly a month prior to Passover we celebrate Purim. There the Megilah depicts Haman putting into motion a plan to kill all of the Jews. When hearing about the plan Mordechai is deeply saddened. There we read:

When Mordechai learned all that had happened, Mordechai tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and ashes. He went through the city, crying out loudly and bitterly,until he came in front of the palace gate; for one could not enter the palace gate wearing sackcloth. ( Esther 4:1-2)

But who is there to hear his crying? In the story of Purim there is no God. The King is absent from this story. Interestingly,  later on we see the story shift when Ahashverosh cannot sleep in his castle. There we read:

That night, sleep deserted the king, and he ordered the book of records, the annals, to be brought; and it was read to the king. There it was found written that Mordecai had denounced Bigtana and Teresh, two of the king’s eunuchs who guarded the threshold, who had plotted to do away with King Ahashverosh. “What honor or advancement has been conferred on Mordecai for this?” the king inquired. “Nothing at all has been done for him,” replied the king’s servants who were in attendance on him. ( Esther 6:1-3)

In the story of Purim the King is hidden. But it seems that the King hears our crying via agency of  Ahashverosh.  While this king sleeps, we know from Psalms that the King does not. There we read:

Behold, God the protector of Israel does not rest or sleep  (Pslam 121:4)

It is not immediate, but the story shift from a tragedy to a comedy because Mordechai’s cries are answered.

While the month before Tishre is a time when “the King is in the field” , the month before Passover is a time when the King hears our crying. While playful, the Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev explained that Pesach literally means pehsach, “the mouth (peh) talks (sach).” On Pesach, the mouth talks about the wonders and miracles of liberation. On the most fundamental level, our greatest freedom is using our voices. But before we can experience liberation we need to be able to articulate our suffering and give voice to pain.  The lead up to the new year of Nisan and Pesach is God reminding us that God is open to hearing our pehsach- our voices crying.

We do not need the God of Elul now. Even if “the King is in the field”, most of us are stuck at home. We need the God from the run up to the new year of Nisan. This year more then ever in my life people around the world are crying, isolated, living with anxiety, or are suffering from being sick. We need liberation. We need to support the Moshes in the medical profession who are working non-stop to save us. We need to cry out for what is important and hope that God will be moved by our tears.  I hope that the King is listening.

-Drawn from a similar post from Elul

 

Cinderella Story: Liberation from COVID-19

Hodesh Tov. With the advent of Nissan many of us have Passover on the mind. I am sure we all are looking forward to a new month, new fortune, and getting one step closer to liberation from COVID-19. With this is mind I was excited today when I saw Dictionary.com’s word of the day. (Yes, I am a devotee of getting to learn a new word everyday. It is no daf yomi, but I like growing on the daily.)So today’s word is Cinderella which is a person or thing that achieves unexpected or sudden success or recognition, especially after obscurity, neglect, or misery. As I learned on Dictionary.com:

Cinderella is a partial translation of French Cendrillon “Little ashes,” from Charles Perrault’s Cendrillon ou la petite pantoufle de verre “Cinderella or the Little Glass slipper” (1697). The story of Cinderella is ancient: The Greek geographer and historian Strabo tells the earliest recorded version of the folk tale in his Rhodopis (written between 7 b.c. and a.d. 24), the name of a Greek slave girl who married the King of Egypt. The first modern European version of the folk tale appears in Lo cunto de li cunti “The Tale of Tales” (also known as the Pentamerone), the collection of fairy tales written in Neapolitan dialect by the Neapolitan poet and fairy tale collector Giambattista Basile (1566-1632), from whom Charles Perrault and the German folklorists and philologists the Brothers Grimm later adapted material. Cinderella entered English in the 19th century.

The familiar plot of Disney’s Cinderella revolves around a girl deprived of her rightful station in the family by her horrible stepmother and stepsisters. Forced into a life of domestic servitude, she is given the cruel nickname “Cinderella” as she is forced to tend the cinder from the fireplace. She accepts the help of her fairy godmother who transforms Cinderella so that she can attend the royal ball and attract the attention of the handsome prince. But, the spell will only work until the first stroke of midnight. While at the party Cinderella loses track of the time and must flee the castle before she blows her cover. In her haste, she loses one of her glass slippers, which the prince finds. He declares that he will only marry the girl whose petite foot fits into the slipper. Cinderella’s stepsisters conspire to win the princes’s hand for one of themselves, but in the end, Cinderella arrives and proves her identity by fitting into the slipper.

It seems that the story of Cinderella is very similar to the story of Passover. We were lowly slaves in Egypt and then out of nowhere Moses comes in as the fairy godmother to invite us to the big ball  ( insert 3 day holiday here). Pharaoh and his court play the role of the stepmother and stepsisters afflicting the Israelites with back-breaking work.  We were not prepared for this moment and at the first strike of midnight we had to run off (insert Matzah here). It is interesting how we commemorate this anxiety every year by mandating that we finish eating the Afikoman by midnight.

At this point in the yearly narrative, we have had our first encounter but still longing to rejoin God who is playing the role of the prince. While Cinderella was counting down to be discovered by the prince, the Jewish people are counting “up” to Shavuot. We are reminded that we are but slaves and we are on the march to complete freedom. It is understandable that we might get lost in the excitement of being asked to elope with God, but we are not yet secure that we will be discovered and ever escape our slavery. We are waiting for God to return to see if the slipper fits (slip on Torah here).

COVID-19 is a reminder that no matter our station, wealth, or class we are but human. Nissan and the word of the day are reminders that even a dirty human can ascend to great things. Ah, you got to love stories with happy endings. I hope that this COVID-19 story ends well and soon.

Assembling Big and Small

As we come to the close of the book of Exodus with Parashat Vayakhel-Pekudei we come together to  assemble. At the start of this week’s Torah portion we learn:

וַיַּקְהֵ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה אֶֽת־כָּל־עֲדַ֛ת בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל  

Moshe then assembled the whole Israelite community… (Exodus 35:1)

On a related note Rav Nachman of Breslov the 18th Century Chasidic Master taught:

The essence of Teshuva– return is in the month of Elul because it is during these days of favor, when Moshe ascended Mt Sinai to receive the second set of Tablets and opened an yet-charted path in which to go. Now, the path which Moshe made is this: Moshe bound himself with even the smallest Jew, and gave of himself for them, as it is written, “But if not, please blot me out!” (Exodus 32:32). This is also the meaning of: “And Moshe assembled…” (Exodus 35:1)—that Moshe would gather, unite and bind himself with all of Israel, even with the smallest of the least. This is the meaning of “They have entirely withdrawn; together” (Psalms 53:4). Even when I see a Jew who has totally withdrawn from God, I nevertheless need us to be “together”—I must unite and bind with him, just as Moshe did. (Likutei Moharan, Part II 82:3:1)

I was thinking about this Torah from Rav Nachman this last week.  This last week was supposed to be FJC’s Leader’s Assembly. In this biennial conference we bring together 800 Jewish camp professionals, lay leaders, and supporters of the field of Jewish summer camp Sunday- Tuesday in Baltimore. In addition I was planning to spend last Shabbat with over 40 camp directors from outside of North America.  Alas with the onset of COVID-19 – this did not happen. A week prior we called it off and then within 48 hours the team turned it around and produced an amazing virtual conference.

It was an amazing experience to get together with that many people in the cloud when so many of us were quarantined at home. The FJC team did an amazing job helping the field of Jewish camp chart a new path to assemble and connect with each other. While we know that the coming weeks and months we find ourselves in uncharted territories, together we must keep our eyes on the future of the field, its continued growth and the important, life-long community that camps build. Despite the mandate for social distancing we know that we still need to assemble.

Amidst these tumultuous times it is clear to me that camp leadership are acting as Moshe did giving of themselves and doing whatever it takes to draw our community together no matter the barriers or challenges.  Like the days of Elul- in coming to Jewish camp we return to a utopian vision of the world and do Teshuva to return to better versions of ourselves. Camp is the opposite of social distancing. Camp is the place of belonging. From the smallest camper to our teens, to new staff members, to year round professionals, to their families, to board members, to all of our supporters Jewish camp brings them “together”. It is at camp that any Jew big or small can connect to Jewish Life, develop a passion for Israel, feel like a part of a vibrant Jewish community, or even discover God.

This Leaders Assembly was proof that people really just wanted to assemble. I am in awe of these leaders’ capacity to give of themselves. Right now the world needs Jewish camp more than ever. We all seek belonging and they are playing a critical role. Together we need to “unite and bind” us and assemble all of Israel.


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