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.

Thought for Shabbat – Coronavirus Edition

Community Can Be Beautiful

I won’t be at the congregation where I serve as rabbi this Shabbat…and it’s not because I am afraid of the COVID-19.  Under normal circumstances, I would be there in order to ensure that we have a minyan during this difficult time.

The virus has found its way into NE Ohio and into the Jewish community.  Unfortunately, there seems to have been a fair amount of exposure to those who attended the AIPAC Policy Conference recently in Washington, DC.  This includes the clergy at a number of congregations here in Cleveland.  I was asked by our friends at another congregation where I am also a member and attend services on Monday and Thursday mornings if I might be able to deliver the sermon this Shabbat since both of their rabbis are self-quarantined; of course, I said yes.  It gives me satisfaction to know that the members of my congregation will be able to carry on (pun intended) without my presence this Shabbat, and I am grateful to be able to help out others in the community.

None of knows exactly where this pandemic will lead.  Social distancing makes us uncomfortable–especially in the Jewish community.  While we may not be able to be physically close to each other, this is a time to draw close and help each other out.  Make sure to reach out to friends and family who are stuck at home.  If you are healthy and not at risk, find out how you can help.

I pray that this pandemic will not be as serious as the worst predictions.  We cannot know fully what the impact will be.  As Rabbi Harold Kushner suggested, though, what we can do is be there for each. Coronavirus makes this complicated, but the last thing we need right now is to cut ourselves off from each other.

Wishing you all a peaceful and healthful Shabbat!

We Are All Connected…For Better or For Worse

Friends

Today was a surreal day.

It was my mother’s 12th Yahrzeit (anniversary of death on the Jewish calendar). It was also Purim, one of the most joyous and fun days in Judaism. But that juxtaposition wasn’t what made today surreal.

On a Yahrzeit, it is traditional to attend a prayer service in order to recite the Kaddish prayer at each of the three services on that day. Last night, I was at the congregation where I am the rabbi and was able to say Kaddish. This morning, I was at the synagogue down the street where I was also able to say Kaddish. The problem was finding a place to go this afternoon. Most places hold afternoon services later–precisely at the time when I am working at the gym. The rabbi at the congregation where I went this morning (whose wife was a participant in a youth group trip to Israel and Poland that I led over 30 years ago) spoke to another rabbi who mentioned that there would be a service at 2:05 pm at a small synagogue in the basement of someone’s home about a mile away. Are you following this? I got there and what a crowd! I was able to say Kaddish which was the main thing.

As I was about to leave, a man came up to me and asked me for directions to a store nearby. I looked right at him and said “you’re….” and before I could finish he said his last name. I introduced myself and his face lit up. He was the rabbi at the Orthodox synagogue in Toledo at the same time I was the rabbi at the Conservative synagogue in Toledo. We had worked in the same community for five years but hadn’t seen each other in well over fifteen years. We filled each other in briefly on what was going on in our lives and it was great to catch up.

He reflected on how appropriate this was for Purim. The story of Purim is based on the Book of Esther. This is a book that is filled with disparate plot lines that seem random at first but which ultimately all come together. Without just one of the plot twists, the story would not work and–according to the Book of Esther–the Jews of Shushan would have been slaughtered. His point was that what sometimes seems random may actually be part of God’s plan.

This was a good point. He had moved to Israel many years ago but moved back to the US. He and his wife live in the Chicago area where they usually spend holidays but they decided (in the midst of Coronavirus) to drive to Cleveland to be with their daughter and her family. I didn’t know they were in the US. He didn’t know I was in Cleveland. And we both ended up at the same prayer service; consider that in Cleveland every day there are literally dozens of places to pray. Under normal circumstances, I would have prayed on my own, but because it was my mother’s Yahrzeit, I had to find a service to go to. How did we end up at the same place, and why did he approach me to ask for directions?

We are all connected. Even when we think life is random, little signs can show us that there is order, or we may even sense God’s actions in our world. That connection made my day. It was great to see an old friend.

This happened on the same day that my daughter was informed that her classes after spring break will all be done via computer in order to avoid Coronavirus contact. We found out yesterday that it has spread to Ohio, and to the county in which I live, and to individuals in the Jewish community. Organizations are closing. The JCC has cancelled some events. People are “self-quarantining.”

This was all inevitable. How could it not spread? We are all connected. For better or for worse.

I only hope that the current health crisis will not be as dire as has been predicted. I pray that it is only a “close call” that will help us be better prepared in the future. Most fervently I hope that despite our inability to literally connect physically (shaking hands, etc.), we will not forget that at a most basic level we are connected to each other in many positive ways. Those connections are a gift from God.

Today was surreal. Connected spiritually and disconnected physically. I look forward to the day when we can truly be connected in every way.

Stay healthy!

Clothes Make the Wo/Man

Image result for high priest

After getting all the instructions for the Tabernacle in last week’s Torah portion, this week’s portion turns to the furnishings and clothing for the priests as well as the ordination of the Kohanim.  There is a fairly extensive list of the garments to be worn.  It is reminiscent of what we read last week in that no detail seems to be left untouched.  If we believe that what is important is on the inside and not on the outside, why is there an emphasis on the clothing?  Why can’t the High Priest wear what he (back then it was only men) feels like that day?

The Torah does not answer this directly but we can relate to these questions from our own experiences.  Often we behave differently due to what we are wearing.  For example, when we “dress up” we may feel a little more “formal” or special and it may affect the way we behave.  The opposite might be true if we are wearing sweats and a t-shirt–not at all formal.  When we go to the gym, we may feel more “powerful” when we wear the proper gear or a particularly stylish pair of shoes.  Putting on a tallit has a special effect as well.

One can imagine that the Priest’s garments were meant to influence the wearer; this helps to explain why the headdress says on it “Holy to the Lord.”  Ideally we should not judge a book by a cover…but often the cover is reflective of the contents of a book.  The lesson here is that the book’s cover is important…and so is what’s written inside; both are necessary and complete the picture.

What Does Judaism Have to Say about Coronavirus?

MERS Coronavirus Particles

Coronavirus has been on nearly everyone’s mind the last few weeks. Although the impact in the US has been relatively light, there are legitimate fears that it could cause major disruptions to our daily living–not to mention the suffering and possible deaths of many people.

What does Judaism have to say about all this? The virus is new, so it’s not like the Medieval commentators talked about it, let along the modern ones. There is a parallel, however, in a section of the Torah that deals with a skin affliction that is often thought to be leprosy. Two Torah portions–Tazria and Metzora–deal with questions of bodily fluids and disease; they are rather mysterious and represent the best guesses of the ancients about how to deal with medical situations they did not fully understand.

It is significant that the Torah talks about it at all. These two Torah portions seem out of place. With regard to the leprous condition, there are precise instructions about what to look for, who would determine what the condition really was, and what the process would be after that. Surprisingly, the ones who would administer care to those afflicted were the Kohanim–the priests–who in most other circumstances were to avoid any kind of impurity. Here, however, they were to do the examination and all the follow-up as well. This sends an important message. If the holiest in our midst are to concern themselves with the ill (and contagious at that!), how much more so should the rest of us see to the welfare of others?

A few other important points: 1. Elsewhere in the Torah there are instructions for us to do whatever we can to prevent injury to others, such as fencing off a pit or building a parapet around one’s roof; we must go out of our way to make sure that others do not get hurt. This can be further interpreted to mean that we must do whatever we can to prevent disease and its spread, including washing our hands, etc. 2. The Torah does not specify that only those who can afford treatment should get it; from the most prominent to the least among us, care is to be given. In the end, we do not really know the value of each person–what their hidden talents might be, what holiness they bring into the world. 3. The Talmud teaches that to save one life is as if an entire world is saved. The fatality rate may only be 2%, but those in that 2% are created in the Divine Image; they are God’s children and we cannot simply write them off.

Finally, 4. Judaism sees humans as partners with God. We cannot just pray on this or hope for a miracle. It is up to us to support research for prevention and treatment. We cannot twiddle our thumbs and wish that it goes away. We must use all our God-given talents to prevent and ease suffering.

Readers of my blog know that Judaism has lots to say about how we treat our bodies. They are holy vessels loaned to us by God and it is up to us to care for ours…and others as well. Let us hope that our leaders and medical professionals take these lessons to heart and help to prevent what could be a major catastrophe if we don’t act wisely and quickly.

My prayers go out to those who are ill and I send comfort to all those mourning the loss of loved ones. May we come together to prevent further tragedy. May we preserve our health and the health of those around us so that together we can help to make God’s world a better place.