The Arrogant are Brought Low

aLOnE

During this time of isolation and quarantining, we are all learning a lot about ourselves and those with whom we share living space. This experience is not as harrowing as what others have faced in the past, but it is traumatic nonetheless.

There is a kind of leveling experience about the whole thing. The COVID-19 virus has struck the powerful and the weak, the wealthy and the poor, the famous and the obscure. Suddenly, whatever sense of security we might think we have has been challenged. It is a humbling experience for sure.

Jewish Mussar teaching tells us that humility is not about “bashing one’s self;” it is not making one’s self a doormat for others to walk all over. Rather, it is about filling one’s proper place and space in God’s creation. There are times when we must promote ourselves and speak up; there are other times when we must take a step back and keep silent. Being humble means knowing which is which and then acting (or not acting) accordingly.

Moses was considered to be the most humble servant of God. There were times when he had to speak up, chastise the people, and even challenge the Lord. Other times, he had to take direction from God without question or let others assume leadership in given situations. He knew his place; Moses was humble before God and his fellow human beings.

Our weekly Torah portion, Vayikra, hints at this trait in Moses. The very first word in Hebrew, Vayikra, concludes with the letter Alef. In Torah scrolls there is a longstanding tradition to write the Alef smaller than the other letters; it is quite striking. The word means “And [God] called out….” God was calling out to Moses but was able to do so in a diminished way–represented by the small Alef. God didn’t need to scream to get Moses’ attention. Moses could be reached in a soft way due to his humility.

I don’t know what we are supposed to learn from this whole COVID-19 crisis. Perhaps one of the lessons is about our absolute vulnerability as human beings. Look how our lives have been turned upside-down in just a matter of a few weeks. That vulnerability should lead us all to be a bit more humble. We should recognize that we are not all-powerful and cannot control everything. At the same time, as Mussar teaches, we should understand that we are made for great things; we have the power to make the world better and to overcome adversity.

Wishing us all a little more humility in these COVID-19 days…and after as well.

As If We Ourselves Were in Egypt

Alive

This evening at sunset begins the Hebrew month of Nisan; if it is clear tonight, you can see (or not see) the new moon.

Nisan is a very special month in Jewish tradition. It is the month that contains the holiday of Passover, the celebration of the Hebrew’s liberation from Egyptian slavery millennia ago. The entire month takes on certain observances–most of which eliminate mournful practices.

There is a lot of getting ready for Passover: cleaning, purchasing special foods that can only be eaten at Passover, getting rid of the food that cannot be eaten (because it contains leavening), and preparing for the festive Seder meal. It is a lot of work, complicated further by the current COVID-19 situation. It is difficult to go out and purchase the special foods. Many of us are used to hosting a lot of people for Seders; that won’t be happening. The whole thing is rather disconnecting.

There is also spiritual preparation for the holiday. For weeks leading up to Passover, there are liturgical additions on Shabbat that get us thinking about the meaning of the holiday. It is, of course, about freedom and redemption–and not just from Egyptian slavery, but every day in our lives and in history. We live our lives trying to make the world a better place–redeeming a broken creation and trying to restore the correct balance. In essence, this is what God was modeling to us when were brought out of Egypt.

It is difficult for many to relate to the story of Passover. It took place so long ago and so far away. Most people sitting at the Seder (unless they are Holocaust survivors, former Soviet Refuseniks, or former inmates), have never experienced slavery. We don’t really know what it was like for our ancestors. The Haggadah (the book we use to guide us through the Seder) tells us that each participant must see him/herself as if s/he personally went out of Egypt. How do we do that?!?

This year is the first time that many are getting a tiny taste of what it might have been like (with obvious big differences). We now know what it means to be cooped up in a small place unable to leave. We know what it feels like to not have a sense of what tomorrow may bring. In short, we realize that our destiny is not totally in our hands; this is always the case, but now we sense it more strongly.

This is not Egypt. There are parallels, though, and perhaps we can draw on them to make the festival more meaningful. We may not be able to control events around us right now (can we ever?), but as Victor Frankl pointed out, we always have a choice about how we want to face what is going on. Can we find purpose in this moment? Can we draw meaning from the inconveniences and suffering of COVID-19? The choice is ours.

We can sit and sulk. We can grieve. It is appropriate to do so. For a while. Then we must accept what is going on around us; we must adjust to whatever the new normal will be. We must rise above it. We must find ways to connect with others through new media. We must continue to take care of ourselves and the vulnerable in our midst. We must find ways to enrich ourselves. We must become more sensitive to the suffering of those around us.

None of us was in Egypt, yet every year we focus on the story to draw inspiration, courage and wisdom. Right now, we are not in Egypt, but that shouldn’t stop us from learning and deriving meaning from our experience today.

Happy Nisan! And stay healthy!

The Comfort of Familiar Faces

Image result for faces

Today the Personal Trainers from the JCC joined in on a Zoom call. It has been 10 days since our facility closed and there is no determined end in sight. It was great to see co-workers–even if over the internet.

We spent most of the call talking about what we have been doing to reach out to clients, etc. As many of you know, I have been offering almost daily workouts (light weights, body weight & cardio) through Facebook Live. You can find the FB group at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/657944601631108/. Other trainers have been sending videos to clients, Skyping workouts, or emailing training plans to them. One of the trainers noted that she was wary about doing her own workouts online since it seems like nearly every fitness professional out there is doing it. One of our supervisors noted–and I think she is correct–that while there may be lots of videos and live sessions out there, people like to see a familiar face. There is something familiar and comfortable about seeing your own trainer leading the video or showing you a workout. This is especially true now when we are socially isolated. It is wonderful to see a face you know.

Who knows how long we’ll be in this COVID-19 mess? Follow the rules recommended by the CDC and your local government. Also, keep active; don’t let the progress you’ve made disappear. There are so many resources available on-line…but remember to reach out to the fitness professionals you know best. They know you (or are willing to get to know you) and understand your needs and interests. Reach out. We are happy to help!

Extraordinary Times

2019/Paweł Jońca. Wall calendar.

We are in extraordinary times.  Judaism has something to say about that.

In Hebrew, there is a term:  Sha’at Had’chak, which roughly means at the time of an emergency.  I would argue–as have many of my colleagues across the observance spectrum–that we are in such times right now.  As you may know, in Jewish laws there are often various rabbinic opinions on observance.  Some positions are more stringent while others are more lenient.  During Sha’at Had’chak, it is permitted to follow a more lenient position if necessary.  Our tradition also records majority and minority opinions.  Typically, we follow the majority, but during these times there are those who suggest that it is permitted to follow the minority if necessary.
The overall guiding principle here is that we must do whatever we can to save lives; we are required (not just allowed) to violate all but three laws in Judaism in order to save lives; these are committing murder, committing a sexual offense, or denying the nature of God.  Otherwise, we must do what we can to save lives–and even to prevent illness when the chance of a fatality is low.

Most synagogues are following the principles of Judaism by adhering to the current CDC recommendations on social distancing.  This is why most congregations are not holding Shabbat services–or any services for that matter. We are all finding creative ways to carry on the life of the community, stay connected and sane using the technology available to us–some of which many will not use on Shabbat and holidays.  

Because of Sha’at Had’chak, most JCCs and other gyms are closed. They are also adhering to the CDC recommendations. That doesn’t mean that our fitness has to be delayed as well. There are many ways that we can stay in shape and maintain social distancing. I’ve been offering daily workouts for free through Facebook. The Mandel JCC here in Cleveland has virtual workouts several times a day that are free as well. Do some research. Find out how you can stay active and stay healthy. BTW, it is OK to get outside as long as you follow the rules there as well.

I pray that all of these measures will be temporary–although no one knows just yet what that means.  Once the Sha’at Had’chak ends, we will (God-willing) return to the regular activities in the community, perhaps with some adjustments that may become permanent.

Over the years, the Jewish people have faced massive changes.  We were thrown into slavery in Egypt and centuries later miraculously and spectacularly freed.  We settled a new land, were exiled, resettled, were exiled again and resettled again.  We have survived pogroms, plagues and mass murder.  Through it all, we remained true to ourselves, our tradition, our observances and to God.  

We will get through this with God’s help–and with each other’s help too!

Wishing you an early Shabbat Shalom!

This is Not Just Hitting the Elderly: Underestimating what This Is Doing to Our Youth

Empty Computer Room

My daughter stood at the top of the stairs crying. I asked her what was wrong and she simply said, “I don’t want to be here.” She loves us, but she is supposed to be enjoying her college year on campus with friends, exploring new opportunities, meeting people and expanding her mind. Instead she is cooped up in this house with mom and dad–not just for a few days, but until…who knows?

I told her that she is right to feel as she does. This is not fair. She is being robbed of a formative experience. I look back on my college years as transformational and fun. Those days at Kalamazoo College made me who I am and pointed me in the direction of service to others. I cannot imagine what it would have been like to have that taken away–even if only for a few months. She has every right to be upset now.

I reminded her that eventually a new normal will settle in. We have no choice for the time being. I told her that this whole thing reminds me a little of Anne Frank (with obvious major differences); she was a young girl who found herself suddenly cut off from the outside world and her friends. We have the advantage that we are still able to connect to the outside world…but what we share is a sense that there is something very dangerous (and possibly lethal) lurking outside. Anne never lost her spirit; she found ways to preserve her humanity in the midst of great inhumanity. Even so, there can be little doubt that this COVID-19 experience may be traumatizing for our children–especially if the quarantines drag on for weeks and weeks (which to young ones seem like years). No one is really talking about that–the aftercare that will be necessary.

We are all muddling our way through this and I hope that we can find the best in others and in ourselves through it all. When Anne was alive, we saw the worst of humanity and the best of humanity. The choice is ours. It is up to us how we want to face this crisis. We decide how we treat each other. We decide how we treat ourselves. We also decide how to heal ourselves and those most traumatized. Many fear that the lead-up to the crisis was left to chance rather than careful planning; let’s not allow the aftermath to be left to chance. The stakes are too high. Our youth are counting on us.