Posts Tagged 'COVID-19'

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

A Public Health Issue: On Margarine, Masks, and Maris Ayin

A weight has been lifted with the circulation of a viable COVID-19 vaccine. Hopefully with this panacea and more vaccines on the way, we can see the light at the end of this long tunnel. While this is incredibly good news, we are still months away from any real salvation from this plague. 

I was excited to see that the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America put out a statement earlier this week outlining their guidance regarding a Covid-19 vaccine. Based on the guidance of Rabbis Hershel Schachter, Mordechai Willig, and Dovid Cohen, they wrote:

Halacha obligates us to care for our own health and to protect others from harm and illness. In addition, Halacha directs us to defer to the consensus of medical experts in determining and prescribing appropriate medical responses to both treating and preventing illness.

There has long been an almost uniform consensus among leading medical experts that vaccines are an effective and responsible manner of protecting life and advancing health. 

Similarly Rabbi Avi Weiss published a piece in the New York Post articulating the clear Torah obligation to preserve  life. Under advisement of your personal health care provider there is a mandate to get vaccinated for COVID-19 as soon as a vaccine becomes available. But there still remains the question as to what we need to do during this  in-between period when some but not everyone has been vaccinated. After we get vaccinated, what is our mandate before the public health officials telling us that the coast is clear?

There is an interesting chapter in halachic history that might help us reflect on our current situation. In 1860’s France, with the rising popularity and cost of butter, Napoleon III made a contest offering a considerable prize to anyone who could create a satisfactory butter substitute. In 1869, chemist Hippolyte Mege-Mouries won the prize with his invention of “oleomargarine”, now known worldwide as margarine. Serving a parve butter-like substance at a meat meal set off a halachic problem of Maris Ayin. It is prohibited to act in a way which strictly speaking is permitted according to halacha, but nevertheless give onlookers the impression that we are doing something forbidden. Or for us now, even if someone got a newly invented vaccine are they still obligated to wear a mask and maintain CDC social distancing rules? 

Unilever seeks buyer for its butter substitutes division

The original case for Maris Ayin comes from a Mishnah discussing the appropriate attire of the priests in the Temple- lest they even seem to be doing any impropriety. There we learn:

For it is one’s duty to seem be free of blame before others as before God, as it is said: “And you shall be guiltless before the Lord and before Israel” (Numbers 32:22) ( Shekalim 3:2)

In other words, although an observer has an obligation to judge others favorably, nevertheless we still have an obligation not to do things that might raise an observer’s suspicions. 

One of the more famous applications of Maris Ayin applies to cooking and/or eating  meat in pareve almond milk. To the onlooker it appears to be a forbidden mixture of meat and milk. The simple solution to this mix up is to place almonds down to show to all that there is no actual prohibition occurring. Based on this idea, at the outset when people served margarine at a meat meal they would put the container on the table to signal that it was actually parve. We would not want anyone to believe that it was actually butter. But when did this practice stop? We clearly do not do this anymore. 

When dealing with issues of Maris Ayin Rabbi Yonason Eibeshutz extrapolated a general halachic rule that any time that the questionable object (or action) becomes commonplace, Maris Ayin no longer applies, as it will no longer arouse suspicion (Kreisi U’Pleisi Y”D 87, 8). The example he gives is if in a place where cooking in almond milk is the norm, then accordingly it would not be necessary to place almonds next to the pot, as the average onlooker would simply assume that one is cooking in pareve almond milk, and not real milk. In the case of a COVID-19 vaccination, Rabbi Eibeshutz ruling is fascinating in that something being commonplace would practically coincide with our achieving herd immunity. This is to say that we will all need to keep on our masks on until none of us need them. Our obligation is not not limited to getting the vaccination. When it comes to wearing a mask and Maris Ayin, it  is an expression of physical and spiritual public health.

From Your Parents’ Homes: Migration and the Future of Jewish Life

The Roman philosopher Seneca (and the 1990s band Semisonic) said, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” 

The start of something new means that something else ends and eventually, the very thing you are starting, will end with something else’s beginning. We are thinking about this as we prepare to read Lech Lecha, this week’s Torah portion:

The Lord said to Avram, “Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, And I will bless you; I will make your name great, And you shall be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)

It might seem straightforward, but of course, Avram’s journey is circuitous. When he arrived in the Promised Land there was a famine, so he moved on to Egypt. Egypt proved to be threatening to Avram’s wife Sarai, so they went back to Canaan. What kind of faith, gumption, grit, and stamina did it take for him to start over (and over) again? What needed to end in Avram’s life for this new project of Jewish life to get started? Was Avram exceptional in his ability to keep moving – even to start his journey in the first place – or is this something we can access today?

As a country, we are on the move. We have started to see a huge population shift in light of the ecological crises burning and flooding where people live. And a recent Pew study reports that in response to COVID-19, 52% of Americans between 18 and 29 years of age are now living with their parents – just when most young adults in this country would be setting off from their parents’ homes on their own journey. The last time we saw numbers like this was during the Great Depression. 

Like Avram, we are searching for a home that feels safe and secure. And this project is only getting more challenging. An astounding 50 million people have filed for unemployment benefits since the start of the pandemic. This doesn’t include the millions who have finished collecting benefits, given up looking for a job, or have reluctantly taken a position far below their prior compensation level just to make ends meet. When it is safe to travel again, where will they move in search of work? When they are able to leave their parents’ homes, where will they journey? 

As individuals we might connect to Avram’s story from Lech Lecha, but as a society, this large-scale domestic migration is reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s 1939 The Grapes of Wrath. Set in the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s, this classic story focuses on the Joads, a poor family of tenant farmers driven from their Oklahoma home by drought, economic hardship, agricultural industry changes, and bank foreclosures forcing tenant farmers out of work. The Joads set out for California seeking jobs, land, dignity, security, and a future. There Steinbeck writes, “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past?” 

As Jews, this question drives us to craft practices that serve as regular reminders of where we come from and to whom or what we are responsible. Like a mobile hotspot, rituals allow us to connect our past to our future while on the move. Rituals like Shabbat, or reciting a blessing before eating, or tucking our kids in at night, are designed to help us be conscious of timely and timeless moments. Critically, most of these rituals pack light and are shared – deepening our connection to others. When Avram was encamped – even temporarily – he and Sarai opened their tent welcoming others to join them on their journey. They literally put stakes in the ground in order to open the door to others. Even when we are on the go, we can ground ourselves and others by welcoming them into our ritual space.  

It’s no surprise that we’ve seen a rise in Jewish engagement during the pandemic. For the majority of people still working, their homes have become their offices and even their sanctuaries. Through our screens we have discovered new ways of connecting to a larger world-wide Jewish community. We’ve heard countless stories of people streaming multiple services throughout the High Holidays – journeying across time zones to find the right fit. Rather than being part of a singular, geographically-bound community, we are discovering that we can connect on a different level. While we might be sheltering in place in one location, we have been able to join Jewish life almost everywhere. With a growth in home-based ritual – like Shabbat dinner, Sukkah building, as well as celebrations like b’nai mitzvah and weddings happening in backyards and living rooms – American Jews have empowered themselves by inviting others to join them as never before. 

We do not know what the future holds, but eventually we may find a vaccine and this period of social distancing will come to an end. Many of these 18 to 29 year olds will again leave their parents’ homes. But with that end, what will begin for them? It is hard to imagine that things will return to “normal,” and even if they could, do they want to? Can we intentionally end long-held assumptions about what it means to be a part of “the community” in order to liberate our institutions? 

How do we support those who find themselves, like Avram and the Joads, leaving home, uprooted, dealing with ecological threats, redefining relationships with parents, and reckoning with whom they want to be? What can we do to support them in their journey to find security, happiness, meaning, and purpose?

And how can we factor these questions into our planning and thinking for the Jewish future? How might our organizations – especially those designed for larger community gatherings – anticipate and even encourage multiple forms of community connection? Is it possible that Digital Judaism is here to stay? How do we prioritize the human, psychological, and spiritual needs of the traveler alongside the institution? 

It might seem like too many questions to confront as we are wrapped up in our current existential crises, but we need to look ahead during this period of migration. With Lech Lecha, we renew our commitment to continuing the journey Avram started. What will it look like for this generation to leave their parents’ homes? What is the future of Jewish engagement? We cannot afford to ignore these questions. 

Please be our guest and join us as we explore these questions in a zoom conversation about Migration and the Future of Jewish Life – Thursday, November 12th from 1:00-2:15pm ET and RSVP here

-from eJewish Philanthropy. Written with Aliza Kline who is the Co-Founder and CEO of OneTable. She has devoted her career to re-imagining Jewish ritual open to the full diversity of the community and applying a user-centered design approach to gain empathy, understand and overcome barriers to deep and enduring Jewish practice.

Cloud Based Connection

The start of Sukkot marks seven months of Covid- 19 lock down. This gives me pause to think about where we are in history at this moment. For most of us who are not working on the front line of Covid- 19 we are out of harms way at home, but we are still not out of the woods. In some ways I see that we are reliving the time of sukkot in the Torah.  About this time we read:

You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:42-43)

We are reliving our time in the wilderness having left Egypt but not made it yet to the Promised Land. We are in the space between averting risk and still not being totally free.

The porous structure of the sukkah speaks to our vulnerable state of being during this period of time between unknown and known. The sukkah is both a time and the location for sheltering in place. But what was the original structure of the sukkot? About this we learn in the Talmud:

Rabbi Eliezer teaches that the sukkot of the desert experience were “clouds of glory,” which hovered over the Children of Israel for forty years in the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva disagrees saying,  “The sukkot were real booths that they built for themselves.” (Sukkah 11b)

Both rabbis assumed that this holiday was to be a time to connect with God, but were the sukkot divine and virtual according to Rabbi Eliezer or real sukkot according to Rabbi Akiva? Both Rabbis celebrated sukkot in real sukkot, so what was the difference?

Our Covid-19 social distancing reality has made us aware that we actually want to connect.   When this started I doubted it possible to connect in a deep way virtually through a computer screen. Being forced to engage with each other through the internet seemed forced and inauthentic. After having to move many in-person conferences online and had more zoom meetings than I can count I can say it works. It might not be what we wanted but it is much more then we expected.

Blue Internet Cloud Icon , Transparent Cartoon, Free Cliparts & Silhouettes  - NetClipart

In this timely and timeless moment of Sukkot we are all vulnerable and open.  The virtual can itself be real if we are open to making the connection. As we shelter in place we realize that we are in a time of sukkot  in which Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva are actually agreeing. The cloud based connection can be a safe alternative to make real connections.

-revisited from Sheltering in Place: COVID-19 as a Time of Sukkot

The Sword of Damocles: Rosh HaShana and Parenting Today

In my preparation for Rosh HaShana I have been reflecting on the two primary narratives we read in the Torah reading for the first and second say of this holiday. The first day we read the story of Hagar and Yishmael going into exile in the desert. The second day we read the binding of Yitzhak. There is deep connection between these two stories of parents dealing with the near death experience of their children. While acting under divine command, interestingly both where caused by Avraham. He sent Hagar and Yishmael out of his house and he brought Yitzhak to Har Moriah to be sacrificed. The differences between these stories is also very interesting. While there is nothing natural about sacrificing you child, Hagar’s experience is natural and common to all parents. Her story reveals the risk that is always there. While we might not think about it all of the time, as parents we spend a lot of energy worrying about the threats our children face on a daily bases. What does it mean to be conscious of the peril our child are in all the time? And what does this awareness have to do with Rosh HaShana?

This reminds me of the story of  the sword of Damocles. According to the story, Damocles was pandering to his king, Dionysius, exclaiming that Dionysius was truly fortunate as a great man of power and authority, surrounded by magnificence. In response, Dionysius offered to switch places with Damocles for one day so that Damocles could taste that very fortune firsthand. Damocles quickly and eagerly accepted the king’s proposal. Damocles sat on the king’s throne, surrounded by every luxury, but Dionysius, who had made many enemies during his reign, arranged that a sword should hang above the throne, held at the pommel only by a single hair of a horse’s tail to evoke the sense of what it is like to be king. Though having much fortune, Dionysius wanted to make sure that he would be steadfast and vigilant against dangers that might try to overtake him. With risk looming overhead the food lost its taste. Damocles begged the king that he be allowed to depart because he no longer wanted to be so fortunate, realizing that with great fortune and power comes also great danger.

Damocles - Wikipedia

The threat might always be there dangling above our heads, but we just do not see it. It is always ever present, but we need a King Dionysius to point it out to us.

In many ways the sounds of the Shofar serves the same function as Dionysius. In one opinion this sound evokes the wailing of  Sisera’s mother (Rosh HaShanah 33b). As we learn in the book of Judges, Sisera commanded nine hundred iron chariots and oppressed the Israelites for twenty years. After the prophetess Deborah persuaded Barak to face Sisera in battle, they, with an Israelite force of ten thousand, defeated him at the Battle of Mount Tabor. After losing the battle, Sisera fled to a settlement where he was received by Yael. She brought him into her tent with apparent hospitality and gave him milk. Yael promised to hide Sisera and covered him with a rug; but after he fell asleep, she drove a tent-peg through his temple with a mallet, her blow being so forceful that the peg pinned his head to the ground. After this we read:

Through the window peered Sisera’s mother, Behind the lattice she whined: “Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why so late the clatter of his wheels?”  (Judge 5:28)

This depiction of Sisera’s mother at the window watching her son die gives us a deeper appreciation for the dread of Hagar. This is what it means to parent. While we do not always think about it, the threat to our children is real, severe, and always ever present.

Reflecting on the myriad issues facing us in 5780, it might seem desirable to return to the world before the concerns and anxieties of this past year entered our consciousness. This might not seem possible, or even desirable. Rosh HaShana is trying to make us aware that we (or worse our children) live under the sword of Damocles. So where do we go from here? How do we move forward?

On Rosh HaShana we say- HaYom HaRa’at Olam– today is the day the world was conceived. In this way God models for us what it means to parent. God is conscious of the threats that we God’s children live all around us. And despite the horrible dangers, Rosh HaShana is a celebration. The sound of the shofar, the cry of Sisera’s mother, the fear of Hagar are all reminders of how vulnerable we all are. It is holiday of profound multi-directional empathy. It should inspire us all to be extra vigilant. Not just for ourselves or our children, we also need to look out for those marginalized by society who are in more obvious peril.

After becoming aware of the sword overhead Damocles loses his taste for the king’s food. To recover from this last year and move forward in 5781 we really need the apples in honey. We cannot pretend that the threads are not real and scary. We just need to remind ourselves that despite the treat of harm, life is worth living because the world is sweet.

Tisha B’Av and Social Distancing

I have many memories of painfully sitting on the floor at camp during Eicha reading, but alas those are sweet memories in that they remind me of being in community. This year during Covid-19 I read Eicha and think about Tisha B’Av differently. What is the meaning of Tisha B’Av without community? There at the start of Eicha we read:

How does the city sit alone, that was full of people! How has she become as a widow! She who was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!  She weeps sore in the night, and her tears are on her cheeks; she has none to comfort her among all her lovers; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. Yehudah is gone into exile because of affliction, and because of great servitude; she dwells among the nations, she finds no rest; all her pursuers overtook her within the straits. (Lamentations 1:1-3)

For five months we have been sheltering in place and like Jerusalem. It is interesting to reflect on how this theme of sitting alone runs throughout this fast day. Is it possible that the whole experience of Tisha B’Av is itself touches on this idea of social isolation?

We should start to answer this question by looking at the Seudah HaMafseket– the “separating meal” eaten before the fast. The ritual is orchestrated in a very careful way. In Shulchan Aruch we learn:

There are those who are careful to not sit in groups of three to eat the pre-fast meal, so that they are not obligated in a Zimun (for grace after the meal), rather everyone sits alone and makes grace to themselves. (Sh”A O’H 552:8)

We enter into the holiday eating by ourselves in isolation. We maintain this solitude throughout the day. As we see in the Shulchan Aruch:

You do not ask for peace (greet) of your fellow on the 9th of Av, and if commoners who do not know give peace (say hello), you respond to them in a hushed tone and heavy disposition. (Sh”A O’H 554:20)

There is clearly an experience of Tisha B’Av that is founded on our solitude. But why?

The image of the city sitting alone that we saw at the start of Eicha is revisited later in the book. There we read:

Let him sit alone and keep silence, because God has laid it upon him. Let him put his mouth in the dust, if so be there may be hope. (Lamentation 3:28-29)

Here amidst all of the darkness and sadness of Eicha we see a rare glimmer of hope. It seems having to sit in silence and isolation is a means to salvation. This idea is hauntingly similar the CDC’s Advise to Prevent the Spread of COVID-19. Being responsible and practicing social distancing we will stem the spreading of this plague and be our salvation. Until we find a vaccine that is our only hope. 

Social Distancing Is Hard, But The Alternative Is Much Worse ...

-See text sheet on the topic Tisha B’Av in a Time of Isolation

 

FOMO, Family, and the Question of Pesach Sheni

On the first anniversary of Passover — one year after the Exodus from Egypt  — the people were instructed to offer the Paschal Lamb sacrifice as they did in Egypt. This  plan did not work out for everyone. Since some of the people were doing the holy work of dealing with the dead they had come into contact with human corpses, were ritually impure, and could not participate in this rite. As we read in Behalotecha, this week’s Torah portion :

Appearing that same day before Moshe and Aaron, those men said to them, “Unclean  by reason of a corpse, why must we be denied from presenting the Lord’s offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?” (Numbers 9:6-7)

Moshe asked them to wait while he asked God for the answer for their query. God’s response is Pesach Sheni. This Friday is the day when those that were left out of the communal experience of Passover are invited back for a do-over.

We jump from their question right to God’s answer: these Israelites were allowed to offer the Paschal Lamb sacrifice a month later. What the story doesn’t explore, however, are what motivated them to approach Moshe and Aaron with their question in the first place. What were their emotions while waiting for an answer? Surely, it must have been painful for them to be denied this central communal experience. These Israelites were “essential workers” who were caring for their community. They were being excluded and clearly yearned to be part of the group.  It could be argued that this was the original case of FOMO  (fear of missing out).

Experiencing 'Data Fomo'? - Appsee - Medium

The theme of “yearning” has always been poignant to me, and seems to take on particular resonance this year. Many of our children feel this sense of yearning right now after hearing that their camp will not or might not run this summer. And even though we know that someday this pandemic will pass and we can return, it doesn’t mitigate the sense of loss we are experiencing in this moment. On a personal level my mother has not seen any of her 4 children or 14 grandchildren in over 3 months. We yearn to be together.

When my father passed away, I read many books on grief and loss. One quote that has stuck with me comes from Martin Prechtel’s The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise. He writes:

Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.

Before we run ahead to meet the demands of the day — and we will —  let’s reflect on this praise for what we miss. Our campers and staff members who will be stuck at home feel homeless without camp. I still do not know when my family will be back together.

In a poem about Israel, Yehuda HaLevi, the 12th Century Spanish Jewish physician, poet and philosopher, wrote, “ My heart is in the east, and I in the uttermost west”. Similarly our teens who were going to go to Israel- long for a homeland thousand of miles away where they have never been. They are  yearning to be part of Jewish Life.  This crisis has been unsettling, but the tribute being paid to the places and people we call home is a foundation upon which to build. We will figure out  our do-over to reconvene as a community and as a family, but today on the answer of Pesach Sheni let’s honor the question. Let’s honor our yearning.

-similar cross-posted at FJC Blog

All That Breathes: Language of the Unheard

These last few month with COVID-19 things have been bad, but recently we reached a new low. The tragic murder of George Floyd has brought into focus the systemic racism in our society. And his last words have been resonating for many of us:

George Floyd: Liam Payne shares 'I can't breathe' quote after his ...

COVID-19 and the protests have come together in the expression of not being able to breathe. Seen here are two of thousands of people with masks to protect them from COVID-19 expressing outrage for a government and police force that is not there to protect them:

George Floyd protests reveal racism in coronavirus and police ...

I found myself thinking about this breathe and I found myself reading Psalms found in the liturgy. There we see:

Hallelujah. Praise God in God’s sanctuary; praise God in the sky, God’s stronghold. Praise God for God’s mighty acts; praise God for God’s exceeding greatness. Praise God with blasts of the horn; praise God with harp and lyre.Praise God with timbrel and dance; praise God with lute and pipe. Praise God with resounding cymbals; praise God with loud-clashing cymbals. Let all that breathes praise the Lord. Hallelujah. (Psalms 150)

At first glance I noticed that the symphony being described as all families of instruments represented. On this Psalm Saint Augustine (354 –430 CE) commented:

The breath is employed in blowing the trumpet; the fingers are used in striking the strings of the psaltery and the harp; the whole hand is exerted in beating the timbrel; the feet move in the dance

This Psalm gives voice to every dimension of the human experience. This comes to a head in the end when it describes human beings as that that breathe. We are beyond animals because we use that breathe to praise God. This Psalm reciprocates the creation of Adam in Eden. There we read:

The Lord God formed human from the dust of the earth. God blew into their nostrils the breath of life, and human became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

Breathing is the essence of what it means to be human. The tragic snuffing out of George Floyd’s breathe reminds us that there are many in our society who have been stripped of their rights and do not have a voice in society.

We are all reminded of the holy words of Rabbi Israel Salanter (1810-1883) who said that, “Someone else’s physical needs are my spiritual responsibility.” We are spiritually driven to secure the safety, voice, and opportunity of “all that breathes.”

We cannot dismiss the voices of those that are responding in rage to this senseless killing. We are reminded of the words of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr who said:

Certain conditions continue to exist in our society, which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.

We must all do what we can to amplify the voices of the unheard to make sure that we have “social justice and progress”. It is only at that time when we will live out the words of Psalms and enjoy the rich symphony of humanity in praise of God.

Sheltering in Place: COVID-19 as a Time of Sukkot

As we start reading the book of Numbers- Bamidbar, Hebrew for “In the Wilderness”, I wonder where I am in my wandering. Like every other year I find myself pondering the Midrash where we learn, ” There are three ways to acquire Torah, with fire, with water, and with wilderness.” (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 1:1). The midrash could be understood to mean that we acquire Torah through passion (fire), immersion (water), and through a long trek in unknown land (the wilderness). For decades this has validated my understanding of camps and travel experiences as the best ways to acquire Torah. But with the advent of COVID-19 and many camps not being able to open up this summer, we find ourselves in a new unknown land. In this new situation we are all sheltering in place spending hours connected to our computer screens. How are we acquiring Torah in this new wilderness?

This gives me pause to think about where we are in history at this moment. For most of us who are not working on the front line of COVID- 19 we are out of harms way at home, but we are still not out of the woods. We are in the space between averting risk and still not totally free. We are reliving our time in the wilderness having left Egypt but not made it yet to the Promised Land. In spirit we are reliving the time of sukkot. About this time we read:

You shall live in booths seven days; all citizens in Israel shall live in sukkot, in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in sukkot when I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I the Lord your God. (Leviticus 23:42-43)

The porous structure of the sukkah speaks to our vulnerable state of being during this period of time between unknown and known. The sukkah is both a time and the location for sheltering in place.

On Beacon, NY's Main Street, a sukkah turns townhall | The Times ...

But what was the original structure of the sukkot? About this we learn in the Talmud:

Rabbi Eliezer teaches that the sukkot of the desert experience were “clouds of glory,” which hovered over the Children of Israel for forty years in the wilderness. Rabbi Akiva disagrees saying,  “The sukkot were real booths that they built for themselves.” (Sukkah 11b)

Both Rabbis assumed that this was time of connected with God, but were the sukkot divine and virtual according to Rabbi Eliezer or real sukkot according to Rabbi Akiva? Both Rabbis celebrated sukkot in real sukkot, so what was the difference?

Our COVID-19 social distancing reality has made us aware that we actually want to connect.   When this started I doubted it possible to connect in a deep way virtually through a computer screen. Being forced to engage with each other in the cloud of the internet seemed forced and inauthentic. After having to move two in-person conferences online I can say it works. It might not be what we wanted but it is much more then we expected. In this timely and timeless moment of Sukkot we are all vulnerable and open.  The virtual can itself be real if we are open to making the connection. Torah can be acquired if we use a new pedagogue for this new wilderness. As we shelter in place we realize that we are in a time of sukkot  in which Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva are actually agreeing. The cloud based connection can be a safe alternative to make real connections.

A Different Kind of Shmitah

With the advent of COVID-19 and the shelter in place regulations we have not driven our family van. At the start I realized that we had a flat tire and eventually switched it out for a doughnut, but still the car has not moved in 9 weeks.

This whole existence has caused a forced Shmitah of sorts. As we read in this week’s Torah portion, Behar Bechukotai:

God spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall observe a Sabbath rest for God. For Six years you may sow your field and for six years you may prune your vineyards and you may gather your crop. But the seventh year shall be a complete rest for the land, a Sabbath for God, your field you shall not sow and your vineyard you shall not prune. ( Leviticus 25:1-4)

On one hand I have never worked this hard in my life, on the other hand this unique 9 week period has been a prolonged period of “complete rest”. Our car’s idle state represents our staying in one place. This has been a blessing of a prolonged family Shabbat.

On our Torah portion Rashi asks the oft quoted question, ” What is the issue of Shmitah doing juxtaposed Har Sinai?” Why is this Mitzvah getting top billing at Sinai? Was not the whole Torah given at Sinai?  What is so special about a “complete rest”?

While on Passover we were slaves, by the time we reach Shavuot we ascended to the level to receive the Torah at Har Sinai. When we were slaves were bound by our masters to work in their land and not move. While we were traveling around in the desert as refugees it was hard to forget that we were a band of lowly liberated slaves. It is Gods world and we were just drifting through it.  Eventually we will be in the Land of Israel and again sedentary working our own land. Even if we are unsettled at this moment, the laws of Shmitah are here by Har Sinai to remind us of our humble beginnings as slaves and to point us to a wonderful autonomous future. In many ways this flat tire is doing a similar thing. It reminds me that even if everything is crazy now, I am safe, with the people I love, and there is a future when everything will settle down.


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 228 other followers

Archive By Topic


%d bloggers like this: