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!

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.

What do You Bring to the Tabernacle?

Image result for tabernacle wilderness

Parashat Terumah contains the instructions for the building of the Tabernacle in the wilderness–the structure that would serve as a place of worship for the Israelites in their wanderings.

Rather than narrative–which is what we are used to up to this point–the Torah portion reads like an IKEA instruction manual.  It is quite specific and we don’t really know if there is any spiritual significance behind the various specifications.

What is apparent is that the work needed in order to complete the Tabernacle and its furnishings required a fair amount of expertise in various fields:  construction, woodworking, creating fabrics, treating leather, etc.  Midrashim have pointed out that the many tasks needed to bring the Tabernacle into existence meant that there was something for everyone to do, and that each individual could contribute in an area where they had competence.

This is a prime example of teamwork.  Not everyone can be a quarterback or a pitcher, but everyone working together can reach the goal.  This is no less true today in our Jewish community and in society.  Each of us brings our own special interests, skills and experiences.  None of us is a Jack-of-all-trades.  Together, however, we can build something beautiful in which not only will we feel pride and comfort, but where God will feel welcome as well.  

C’mon, Get Happy!

Pharrell Williams #1

This Shabbat we will announce the new month of Adar.  As the expression goes:  “when Adar begins, our joy increases.”  This month contains the holiday of Purim, arguably the most fun (and frivolous) holiday on the Jewish calendar; its celebration is a kind of mash-up between Mardi Gras, Halloween, and New Year’s Eve…all based on the Book of Esther.

Our tradition tells us to be happy, but it’s not like we can just flip a switch when the month begins and suddenly find our mood improved.  Making ourselves happier involves effort and practice, but it is something that most of us are capable of accomplishing.  A recent article on www.cnn.com discusses this topic along with the research showing that being happy can actually help us live longer!  Here is the link: https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/30/health/happiness-live-longer-wellness/index.html.  It turns out that we can concentrate on certain behaviors that can lead us to be happier, which has a kind of snowball effect.

Judaism gives us many opportunities to find joy–more than just on Purim.  The blessings and prayers we recite help us to focus on the many good things in our lives; they help us to recognize the beauty and wonder of our world.  The Sabbath and holidays also have elements of celebration, allowing us to transcend the often-depressing reality of most of our days.  Adar is an opportunity for us to re-focus on joy.  It is not a one-time shot, but rather an ongoing practice that cannot only make us happy, but also give us more time to enjoy that happiness.