Missing that Touch

Free Hugs

This morning I had the opportunity to watch a webcast sponsored by the Cleveland Clinic for clergy. There was a panel of religious leaders who reflected on what COVID-19 has meant for the work they do and for their congregants/members/parishioner. A big focus was on what it means for those of us who provide for the spiritual needs of others.

One of the pastors talked about how difficult it has been since he is a “hugger.” I will admit that I am somewhat of a hugger as well, but it’s not an essential part of my rabbinate. Another pastor talked about how challenging it is to comfort those in pain or in mourning when we cannot be physically close; how do you embrace those who are ill or in mourning when that very act is hazardous and possibly fatal?

The term we all use these days is “social distancing.” I’ve stopped using that term and instead starting using the term “physical distancing.” We human beings are social animals. We are not meant to live alone and on our own. Like bees and ants (and many other animals), we can only survive and thrive in community. That is part of why this experience is so difficult for us. It’s in our make-up as humans to connect with others. We may be physically distant, but we can never really be socially distant. Luckily, we have technology today that can help us to some degree.

As hard as this is for me as a rabbi, there is an added level being in the fitness industry as well. The experience of going to the gym is an inherently social one…especially if we work out with a personal trainer. Think about it: we could all work out at home–and there are many who do so successfully; it is a solitary experience. Most who join gyms or JCCs or YMCAs want the personal connection as well. The chatting, hanging out in the schvitz (sauna or steam room), and seeing friends are an integral part of the visit to the gym. As a personal trainer, I know that one of the most important aspects of my training is building a personal relationship with my clients; when I was client, it wasn’t just about the exercises, but also about my trust in my trainer and my sense that s/he really cared about me. COVID-19 has put a huge kink in that dynamic. I can see my clients via Zoom or Facebook Live, but the personal “touch” is missing. The real or proverbial hug is now dangerous.

None of us knows how long this pandemic will be around, how much longer is will disrupt our lives. In the meantime, we need to continue to reach out to others so that they know that we are there…even if we are not physically present. We know that feeling, that sense that someone is with us even when they are far away (or perhaps even no longer living). How do we capture that? How do we recreate that? How do we recover that touch we miss? Then, how do we share it?

I don’t know the answers, but as a rabbi and a personal trainer, these tasks will be front and center until the day when once again we can truly hug each other again…providing that personal touch.

Staying Away from the Dead

The Afterlight

Jewish tradition has placed a great deal of emphasis on purity and impurity–not in terms of hygiene, but more in a spiritual sense. There are lots of laws concerning what causes such an impurity, and what to do to contain that uncleanness.

The weekly Torah portion, Emor, addresses the Kohanim, the ancient priests and the specific laws that they were bidden to follow. Among them was that they were not to come into contact with a deceased person since this is something that imparts ritual impurity. The only exceptions were for the death of a parent, brother, unmarried sister or child. All other Israelites could tend to the bodies of the deceased within the community without concern; the Priests, however, had to be ritually pure to serve in the Tabernacle and later the Temple.

It is noteworthy that many of these ideas are on our minds today in the midst of COVID-19. We are very aware of the people with whom we come into contact. We want to know with whom they have been in contact. The questions that are asked when you enter a doctor’s office or even a supermarket parallel those that might have been asked of a priest: Are you pure? Is it safe for you to be in our midst?

The parallel isn’t exact, but the Torah demonstrates that our ancestors dealt with the same questions and uncertainty as we do today. In 2020 it is COVID-19. In ancient times, it was death in general…as well as certain skin diseases. We often read these sections of the Torah thinking how quaint their understanding of medicine was back then. How quaint will we look in a hundred years when our descendants see how we dealt with our current crisis?

An Ancient Text is Still Compelling

The holy scripture

One of the beauties of the Torah is its enduring wisdom. Although the document has remained unchanged for millennia, it continues to teach us and guide us in 2020. One could make the argument that there is so much in the world today that the Torah could not have anticipated, and therefore it is of little value in our contemporary world. The authors(s) of the Torah could not have conceived of cellphones, air travel, organ transplantation or perhaps even loving, committed, intimate same-gender relationships. In a way, this is really a side issue. The Torah still has overarching themes that apply in a world that looks so different than the biblical period: building a relationship with God, looking out for others, pursuing justice, seeking peace, and bringing holiness into our lives are just a few of these themes.

There are some parts of the Torah that are clearly antiquated and we may wonder what use they have: the ownership of slaves, animal sacrifices, putting to death a child who will not listen to his parents, etc. When we dig a little deeper, we can try to identify the values that underlie these laws, and many times we find guidance and inspiration. Other times, we remain mystified…and that is okay.

The Torah portion for this week is a double-parasha; Tazria and Metzora are read together. These two portions have been viewed as being in the “antiquated” category. The understanding of medical and scientific phenomena were very limited and the laws regarding what today we might think of as mold, mildew, and a number of skin conditions seem out of date. The laws in the Torah portion represent the ancients’ best understanding of how to deal with conditions that they could not comprehend; they legislated as best they could in the face of mystery.

As antiquated as these laws seem, this year they take on a greater significance. We find ourselves close to the situation in which our ancestors found themselves. We are confronted with a disease that we do not fully understand. We do no know how to prevent it; there is no vaccine. We have no 100% effective way to treat it. We are not fully certain how it spreads. So–like the Priests in ancient times–we are doing the best we can to stop the spread and to care for those who are stricken. The similarities between Tzara’at (the skin condition often translated as leprosy) and COVID-19 are striking.

Can we gain any inspiration or guidance from the text of the Torah? The laws tell us that we are not to abandon those who are ill. The Priests had to check on them regularly to see their progress and determine when it was safe for them to return to the community. It was a process that could be quite lengthy. Sound familiar? The Torah tells us that in the face of that which we do not understand we must be cautious. We must always seek to preserve life. Through it all, we must also preserve the dignity of those who are ill. And let’s not overlook that those who were “caregivers” were given a place of esteem in society.

The most repeated commandment in the Torah is to be kind to the stranger because we know what it is like to be strangers ourselves. A text that is thousands of years old speaks to us in modern times–and especially in the age of COVID-19. Its message of love and concern for others is enduring; let the Torah inspire to be better than our fear and selfishness. Let us work to bring holiness and wholeness into God’s Creation.

We Are What We Eat

Eat This Way!

I just returned from a “trying” trip to the supermarket. I haven’t been to a grocery store in about 10 days–attempting to avoid it by buying online and having it delivered–but this trip was unavoidable the day after Passover. I stood for 15 minutes in line in the snow (yes, it’s snowing here) to get in the store as they only let a certain number in at a time.

Food shopping used to be a relatively carefree activity that didn’t require a whole lot of thinking. Now, however, it means planning in advance, sanitizing, getting in and out as quickly as possible…or avoiding it altogether and having it all delivered.

I’ve been pretty thoughtful about my food consumption and shopping for quite a while. I have been a pescatarian for about 13 years and before that kept kosher; that means I’ve always had to consider what I was eating, where and when. When I was a single father co-parenting (one week on/one week off) I had to plan meals that were balanced, healthy and that the kids would eat. Since becoming a personal trainer, I’ve had to focus on food issues even more as I counsel clients about how to meet their fitness and health goals. But most of us don’t think about it that much…ergo the proliferation of drive-thrus.

The Torah portion for this week, Shemini, introduces us to the Jewish dietary laws–Kashrut (or kosher)–for the first time. The system in the Torah is not nearly as complicated as it is today; there has been a lot of development and clarification over the years. What Shemini does is cover the animals that are permissible to be eaten and which are not. The Torah gives no rationale. It is not health-related; the vast majority of people in the world do not follow these laws and they are no less or more healthy than those who do.

The dietary laws are aimed at making us more holy–or at least helping us to make more holy decisions about what we put in our bodies. Many years ago I taught a young man (13 years old) who had been diagnosed with Juvenile Diabetes just before his Bar Mitzvah. It turned out that this was also his Torah portion. The parallels were clear. Before his diagnosis, he ate what he wanted when he wanted. After his diagnosis that was no longer possible. He had to consider what he ate and when he ate it. It made him much more aware of the role of food in his life.

Kashrut does the same thing. Hopefully, it also leads us to appreciate that we do have food on our plates…and to ensure that those who don’t get what they need. The trip to the grocery store was trying, but I don’t dare really complain; I know that there are many who are way worse off than I am. This was a mere inconvenience that led me to consider what food and the lack thereof truly means.

Not the Yeast Infection that was Expected

Passover @ Marilyn's 2007

This Shabbat is the last Shabbat Hagadol–the last Sabbath before Passover. The weekly Torah portion is Tzav, the second portion in the Book of Leviticus.

There is an interesting connection between Passover and the Tzav. Last week we were introduced to a number of offerings and sacrifices that were to be brought to the Tabernacle (and later to the Temples) for various occasions. That theme continues into this week’s Torah reading.

One of the offerings discussed is an offering of unleavened bread–matzoh! This is, of course, what we eat for the 8 days of Passover (7 in Israel) since we cannot eat anything with leavening in it. Lev. 6:10 notes that this offering for the priests is “most holy.” What makes it so holy?

A commentator, Kle Yekar, notes that matzoh is symbolic. In the rabbinic mindset, yeast is equated with sin and transgression. If you have ever used yeast, you know that when you put it in warm water to activate it, it begins to bubble. This is just like sin. It takes just the right mix of circumstances and it begins to bubble up too. Matzoh is, in a way, “sinless” bread and therefore most holy…and a symbol to the priests.

Kle Yekar explains that a truly righteous person is one who has never experienced sin; there are not a whole lot of people like this. Our tradition teaches that such individuals are actually at a lower level than those who have transgressed and then atoned. The act of atonement–of cleansing one’s self and reaching a higher level–brings one greater holiness and merit. This is reassuring to those of us who have faltered over the years.

Typically, we eat bread. The priests also used bread as part of the rites performed in ancient times. This matzoh offering, though, represents that the yeast has been removed. It has been “cleansed” in a way and that is what makes it most holy.

This idea also has parallels in the fitness world. It is always impressive when we strive to be physically fit. Some people are active in sports and exercise since youth; that is awesome! They are like bread. Many others, like myself, only came to it later in life after being out of shape; we are like matzoh…we have gotten rid of the leavening of bad habits, a sedentary lifestyle, and poor nutrition. Our accomplishments are all the more impressive.

As we approach Passover and get rid of the literal leavening in our lives, we should be inspired to remove the spiritual “yeast infection” too. We should never think that it is too late or that there is too much inertia working against us. On the contrary, the more spiritual yeast we remove, the greater the reward!

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!