Posts Tagged 'COVID-19'

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 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.

FOMO 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:

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.

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 our children miss. Our campers and staff members who will be stuck at home feel homeless without camp. 

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 we call home is a foundation upon which to build. We will figure out  our do-over to reconvene as a community, but today on the answer of Pesach Sheni let’s honor the question. Let’s honor our children’s yearning. 

-cross-posted at FJC Blog

Deference for the Old: A New Look at Biomimicry

In Aharei Mot -Kedoshim, this week’s Torah portion, we learn the practice of honoring the elderly. There we read:

You shall rise before the aged and show deference to the old; you shall fear your God: I am the Lord. (Vayikra 19:32)

It is interesting to think about standing as means of expression of honor. But what does it mean “to show deference to the old” beyond standing? And what does it have to do with fearing God?

On one level I have been thinking about this amidst COVID-19 differently. During this crisis our elderly are really at risk and many are locked away from society. How are we showing them respect? In many ways we are not standing but rather sitting at home to show them deference. Social distancing is making sure that we are avoiding the proximity in which we would need to stand for them at all. Are we doing enough to reach out to them during this period?

On another level I have been thinking about this commandment in light of the positive environmental impact of COVID-19. this got me thinking about the inspiring work of Janine Benyus biomimicry, which is the imitation of the models, systems, and elements of nature for the purpose of solving complex human problems. Benyus has a message for inventors: When solving a design problem, look to nature first. There you’ll find inspired designs for making things waterproof, aerodynamic, solar-powered and more. In this compelling TED talk she reveals dozens of new products that take their cue from nature with spectacular results. Please take the time to watch:

In this talk she says:

In so many ways I hear her message as an invitation to “show deference to the old” in a different way. 

Benyus created a website that organizes all biological information by design and engineering function to meet our current needs. Check it out at AskNature.org . Perhaps if we gave deference to the ancient geniuses in the natural world all around us we might learn a way out of this intractable COVID-19 epidemic. Maybe having a deep appreciation of the richness of the millions of years of wisdom in the natural world would help us connect with a deep awe if not fear of God.

Peppercorn, Perchik, and the Pandemic

Before COVID-19 I was focusing on the failing Trump administration, now with COVID-19 I am fearful of a failed state. Will America survive this?

This question reminds me of Tevye. Yes, recently I was doing hazara on Shalom Aleichem’s Tevye the Milkman and I came across an extraordinary quote. There Tevye is telling Shalom Aleichem, who is a character in his own story, about his daughter Hodl.  Peppercorn, or Perchik as we know him from Fiddler on the Roof, is a student revolutionary who comes to Anatevka and falls in love with Hodl. He leaves for Kiev to help in the efforts to overthrow the corrupt government, is arrested, and exiled to Siberia. Tevye is embarrassed to share the news that Hodl is also leaving Anatevka to be with Peppercorn in Siberia.

 Fiddler On The Roof. Amazing Movies, Good Movies, Hot Men, Hot Guys, Paul Michael Glaser, Fiddler On The Roof, Broadway Plays, Character Development, Moving Pictures

There we read:

That did it! I couldn’t keep it in a second longer. You see, just then I thought of my Hodl when I held her as a baby in my arms… she was just a tiny thing then… and I held her in these arms… please forgive me, Pani, if…if I… just like a woman… but I want you to know what a Hodl I have! You should see the letters that she writes me… she’s God’s own Hodl, Hodl is… and she’s with me right here all the time…deep deep down.. there’s just no way to put it into words… You know what, Pani Shalom Aleichem? Let’s talk about something more cheerful. Have you heard any news of the cholera in Odessa?

We see Shalom Aleichem’s comedy of trying to lighten the mood my changing the conversion from his daughter being swept up in the politics of the day to a plague. Today this quote seems prescient. Before COVID-19 Trump was just horrible and an embarrassment. With COVID-19 the Trump administration’s maleficence and gross incompetence is causing suffering and death. I would love to go back to the comedy, but that is just not possible. When will we be able to take a break from the pandemic to fixing the state by changing the government? I am worried I sound like Pani Perchik.

-Another piece on Fiddler of the Roof: Fence on The Roof- 50 Years Since Fiddler

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.

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

 


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