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!

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!

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.