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!

Wo/man’s Best Friend

Today was Belle’s grooming day and she looks cute as can be. She got me wondering if there really is a health benefit to having a dog.

I have a lot of new clients who when I ask them about their physical activity tell me that they walk their dog. I usually think this doesn’t count because the pace isn’t high enough to raise one’s heart rate–especially if you’ve got a dog who loves to stop and sniff.

A little research yielded an article from the Harvard Medical School: https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/walking-the-dog-yes-it-counts-as-exercise. It surprised me in a positive way.

The research indicates that dog owners have a much higher rate of achieving the 150 minutes of exercise recommended each week for adults: 87% for dog owners as opposed to 47% for non-dog owners. Obviously the people at Harvard never met Belle; I don’t know if my heart rate increases but I’ll bet my blood pressure increases as she drags me along doing everything except for the business at hand.

Owning a dog, of course, has other health benefits. They can be calming and provide a sense of lightness in our lives. Additionally, when we walk your dog or go to the dog park it increases our social interaction; we meet others and develop a sense of connectedness to our neighborhood.

As for cats….most of them I have met are not so walkable. Dogs, though, are indeed our best friends in a whole variety of ways.

Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

These words are a paraphrase of remarks made by Franklin Delano Roosevelt at his first presidential inauguration. Those were difficult times, recovering from the Great Depression and with a World War looming on the horizon. One could argue that back then there was a lot to actually fear.

Aside from how our anxieties affect us at work, school and in relationships, I regularly see how fear plays an outsized role in the realm of physical fitness.

I have worked with many clients with a variety of fears: fear of doing a certain exercise, fear of entering in a 5K, fear of looking foolish in the gym, fear of disappointing their trainer, etc. This can often be paralyzing. It can prevent us from engaging in the fitness activities that can help us to avoid the kinds of injuries and illnesses that we should legitimately fear.

I know that every time I have competed in a race (obstacle course, 1/2 marathon or triathlon), my overwhelming emotion beforehand is fear. I am afraid that I won’t finish the race, or that I might hurt myself, or that I will do so poorly that I will be a disappointment to myself or others. It is irrational since none of these have ever happened, but still it occurs.

As someone who has dealt with anxiety and even panic attacks, I know that this fear can prevent us from living a life of adventure, fulfillment and even love. There comes a time, though, when we have to take an informed and prepared leap of faith. I wouldn’t say that a person should conquer their fear of running a 5K by waking up one morning to do one; it requires preparation and training. The process of getting ready can help give us the confidence to overcome our anxieties.

We should be aware of the crippling role that fear can play in our lives. We must remind ourselves of how strong and courageous and deserving of good things we are. We must also work hard to reach our goals. Accept the fear. Stare it down…and then set it aside. The only thing we have to fear…is truly fear itself.

When Values Clash…on Iran

Image result for confusion

This past week has been a very troubling one.  The killing of Soleimani has heightened tensions with Iran.  The circumstances of a Ukrainian airliner’s crash in Tehran are murky.  Iran has targeted US bases in Iraq.  It is a real morass.

There is little doubt that Soleimani was not a nice guy.  There is little doubt that the Iranian regime is problematic at best.  And yet, we worry about the possibility of an armed conflict and what it might mean for those who will have to fight it…as well as those who may get caught in the crossfire–including those in Israel.

I am reminded of my study of Talmud.  The Talmud’s style is to ask every question imaginable (even those you could not imagine!).  It debates each opinion and even itself.  It digs deeper and deeper until we may forget the original question.  Rabbis disagree with each other on issues of law and conduct.  It is full of “on the one hand…and on the other hand.”

What is happening in the Middle East now (as always) is more complicated than it seems.  Nothing is truly clear cut.  It is difficult to know what the US Administration’s motives are.  We cannot know what the Iranian regime is thinking. We do not know all the intelligence that is out there.  We tend to follow whatever news source confirms what we already think from our own political or emotional perspective.

It is not easy to know what to think for certain…which is why the last week has felt like a dive into the Talmud for me.  And why so many of us are so worried.

One thing that is clear from our tradition is that there are times when values may clash with each other.  Sometimes there are two options that both seem right, or that both seem wrong.  How do we know what to choose?  How do we know what to believe?  Judaism teaches us that when values come into conflict we must try to follow the example set by the students of Aaron the Priest:  we must love peace and pursue it.

There are times when war is necessary.  First, however, we must seek to avoid it all costs.  If there is a way to save a life, it must be a priority.  May our tradition guide us and our leaders through the rough waters ahead.

Shabbat Shalom!

Turning Dreams into Reality

Dream Catcher

Torah portion, Miketz, it is Pharaoh himself who dreams; Joseph’s interpretation of those dreams and his knowing what to do with those interpretations catapult him to the second highest office in all of Egypt.
Herein lies an important distinction.  It is one thing to dream (or to be a dreamer).  It is another thing to be able to interpret or understand what the dream means (like, I shouldn’t have had a burrito before I went to bed!).  It is quite another thing to take that interpretation and convert it into a plan of action–which is exactly what Joseph did.  Dreams without a strategy remain just that:  dreams.


This is a timely message for us as we approach the new secular year.  Many of us make New Year’s Resolutions which are, in a way, dreams that we have for the new year.  Making a resolution, however, without a concrete way to make it all happen is an exercise in futility and/or folly.  If we think about the resolutions that we have made in the past, how many of them went unfulfilled simply because we did not really think through how to make them a reality?  This is true whether the resolution has to do with study, work, relationships or physical fitness.  No plan equals no success.


This is a concept that Joseph understood well.  He was a dreamer and he understood others’ dreams too.  What set him apart was what he did next.  As we begin 2020, we should ask ourselves as well…what must we do next to make our dreams a reality?

Hello! (I must be going….)

Image result for hi my name is

There was a big question mark back when my 20th High School Reunion rolled around.  Would I go or wouldn’t I?  I hadn’t gone to any of my previous reunions–mainly because I was usually travelling or it took place on Shabbat, but also because I didn’t really enjoy high school that much.  I felt like I didn’t share a lot in common with most of the other students; I couldn’t get away to college fast enough.

When the time came, I did decide to attend.  I went in with the following rule:  “if you didn’t talk to me in high school, I’m not talking to you tonight.”  I was pretty defensive about it all, but as soon as I walked through the door, it was great to see old friends.  Past concerns melted away and they were replaced with warm memories and lots of laughs.

That was many years ago (when I lived in Toledo) and, while I have reconnected with a few on Facebook, most of them have once again drifted off.

That experience gives perhaps 1% of the drama and anxiety surrounding the 20-year reunion of Jacob and Esau in our weekly Torah portion, Vayishlach.  The last time I saw many of my classmates we were getting our diplomas; the last time the brothers saw each other one had stolen a blessing and the other was threatening to kill!  Despite Jacob’s trepidation and planning, the reunion went smoothly.  In one of the most touching scenes in the Torah they come together, hug and weep.  Overall, it is a fairly brief reunion and the two head their separate ways; they do come together again to bury their father, Isaac, when the time comes.

The story of these twins and memories of my high school reunion remind us all that people dear and not-so-dear come in and out of our lives at different times.  It is rare that friendships last throughout the various stages of our lives; when it comes to friends, usually there are only a few to whom we hold on over the decades.  Family, however, is another matter.  Ultimately, it is sad that Jacob and Esau were never really able to patch things up, and our tradition tells us that we still suffer the consequences of that rift.

Not every relationship can be saved.  Not every relationship deserves to be saved.  Perhaps the lesson is to make the most out of the time we have with those we love; we never really know just how long they will be a part of our lives.Shabbat Shalom!

Jacob and Esau at Thanksgiving Dinner

I always read Parashat Toldot with extra interest since I am a twin.  The story of the rocky relationship between Isaac and Rebecca’s sons, Jacob and Esau, begins in our Torah portion.  From the very beginning, we are told that Isaac favored Esau and Rebecca favored Jacob.  We are told that this is because of the different lives they led.  As we know from the rest of the story, “playing favorites” did not really work out for the family.

As a child, my parents always made sure that they supported whatever my sister and I did.  They never dressed us alike; they wanted us to have our own identities.  They also made sure that we understood that we could follow whatever path we wanted in life and we would be loved and encouraged.  To this day, my sister and I (and our older brother) have a close and loving relationship.

Just yesterday, many of sat down to a festive Thanksgiving Dinner with our families; it may have been wonderful or perhaps less than wonderful.  Often, the discomfort comes from events that happened years ago.  Sometimes we can repair, but other times–as was the case with Esau and Jacob–we understand that it may not be possible.

All the more reason for us to think carefully about how our actions today can affect the connections we hope to build and maintain in the future.Shabbat Shalom!