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.

From a Tree-Hugger

Tree Row

An Improvised Ode to Trees

O Trees, how do I love thee?

I love thy fruits:  apples, pears, coconuts, and oranges.

I love thy leaves:  they provideth us with shade on hot summer days, their rustling sings to us on breezy days, and their color guard in fall is without parallel.

I love thy barks:  Root Beer…enough said.

I love thy roots:  they holdest together the soil and preventeth erosion.

I love thy branches:  they providest homes for the birds and iguanas, children climb them and create memories.

I love your boughs:  they are the stuff from which we build our homes, schools and shules.

I love thy pulp:  there is nothing like holding a paper book in one’s hand, and without thee there would be no toilet paper (only leaves–from you as well!).

I love your photosynthesis:  I do not know how thou dost it, but thank thee for thy oxygen-producing nature.

O Trees, how do I love thee?  Thy manifold beauty and purpose is beyond sufficient praise.  I will show thee my love by vowing to forever safeguard you.

This coming Sunday evening and Monday, we celebrate Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees.  It is a kind of “fiscal year” described in the Mishnah to help us observe the mitzvah of not eating tree produce during the first three years they bear fruit.  More recently, it has become a day to honor trees, plant trees, and work to preserve our environment.
We have messed up our planet.  I am not sure what can save us…but I think trees may have the answer…and they might be the answer.

What Moves You to Act?

empathy

Parashat Bo–the Torah Portion read yesterday morning–contains the last of the 10 Plagues that God visited upon the Egyptians.  The last, the death of the first born of both human and beast, was the most devastating of all of them; it was the plague that finally convinced Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go.

Much interpretation has been written about the final plague.  It is clear that this plague personally touched Pharaoh and his family.  All the previous plagues may have affected the rest of the Egyptians, but Pharaoh’s powerful position may have prevented him from their full force.  With the death of the first born, not a house in Egypt did not experience the loss–including Pharaoh’s palace.

There is a recognizable truth in this.  We know that often we are not moved until something touches us directly.  We may hear about injustice or war or suffering, but we don’t do anything about it if we are not affected by it.  If it comes knocking at our door, however, we are the first to step up, complain, and act.Judaism teaches us that we cannot take this approach.  We must remember our experience as outsiders to feel what others feel and act accordingly.  This is called “having empathy.”  It is something that Pharaoh seemed to lack.  It is something that is often missing in our society as well.  It is found at every level; unless we are somehow inconvenienced or aggrieved we are silent.

The price for not acting is a high one.  When we do not stand up for others, when we do not feel what they feel…we cannot expect them to do the same for us.  Setting that aside, wee stand up for others because it is the right thing to do? It is our sacred duty to be empathic.  We know it means to suffer, and we should work to prevent others from having to experience it as well.

Labels Stick (double-entendre)

Hello my name is...

I am re-posting a post from my brother, Joel, on LinkedIn. We grew up in a home where athleticism wasn’t really a thing. Don’t think my mom every worked out–aside from walking. My dad used to swim, but not real heavy duty. Now my sister, brother and I are all gym regulars.

I never thought of myself as an athlete until a few years ago when my doctor referred to me as “athletic.” My brother encapsulates a lot of what I felt growing up and what the change has meant to him.

Enjoy!

https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/really-im-athlete-joel-ungar/