Friday, March 27, 2020

It is in Our Own Hands

It is in Our Own Hands

At the beginning of each Shabbat, people gather around the table and raise a glass to say Kiddush, and sanctify the Shabbat.

On the face of it this is a strange ritual. Shabbat arrives whether or not we make Kiddush. Sundown to sundown on the 7th day is Shabbat, with or without our declaration.

And yet Chazal, The rabbis who authored the Mishnah and the Talmud, insisted that we recite Kiddush and declare that we are sanctifying Shabbat.

And I believe what the rabbis meant to convey to us, on this day of rest which is the most passive day of the week, is to never forget that even Shabbat is still in your own hands.

Shabbat may arrive on its own, but the quality of how we experience Shabbat is up to us.

Yes, even Shabbat is in our own hands.

And this lesson is more important today than it ever was before.

We are now confronting the greatest health crisis in the last hundred years, and the greatest economic crisis in the last 90 years.

We are locked into our own homes, unable to enter our offices or visit our friends.

What we must remember is that how we encounter this crisis is in our own hands.

There are of course heroes who are battling on the front lines against this disease. Doctors, nurses, orderlies and hospital staff who are risking their own health, and working double and triple time to battle this disease. Ambulance drivers - I know personally many of the volunteers on Hatzalah, and how this disease has taken a toll on them both medically and personally.

There are healthcare volunteers who've come out of retirement, tens of thousands of them, to man the frontlines in the battle against this disease.

But even those of us who are not on the front lines can take matters into our own hands.

We can call people we know that are sick, vulnerable, lonely or anxious.

We can spend more time FaceTiming with friends and family to make everyone feel less isolated.

Each phone call builds morale and builds community.

And for those who can, find a way to volunteer. Our synagogue has over 70 volunteers who have signed up to be a part of our chesed volunteer committee.

They are making calls to our older members to see how they are doing, they are making purchases and deliveries for those who can't go out. They are sending meals to overworked doctors to give them a break.

One of the chairs of our Chesed volunteer committee told me a powerful anecdote. She was making deliveries to one of our older members. By that point, the doorman had realized that all of these packages were being brought by members of the community. The doorman looked at her and said: "You must be from that Temple. You're doing such a wonderful job taking care of each other".

I thought about what the doorman said, and realized it should not be the work of one committee. We all need to take care of each other. We all need to call the healthcare professionals in our lives, and tell them how much we appreciate what they are doing. We need to spread more love to our family, our friends and our acquaintances. We all need to build the morale of our community so that together we can fight the coronavirus.

That is in our hands, and we must grasp it.

In years to come, when we sit at our seders, the Coronavirus crisis will be a memory.

We will look back at this time, and take pride in what we did for others and what we did to fight this disease.

And hopefully we can look back and say that for us, this was our finest hour.

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Monday, March 23, 2020

Mazel Tov! It's a Boy/Engagement/Bar Mitzvah!!

(baby pictured is not actual baby!)

The headlines seem to get a bit darker every day. More people are in the hospitals, more businesses are closing, and there is more pessimism in  the news. But those weren't the headlines at KJ today. Here, we had no less than 3 smachot: a bris, a pre-Bar Mitzvah celebration, and an engagement. Amidst all of the bad news, we had plenty of good news.

This conjunction of joy and anxiety is jarring. Kohelet talks about how "there is a time for everything under the sun...a time to cry and a time to laugh…". But today was both a time to cry and laugh, all mixed at once.

This roller coaster day carries with it powerful lessons about life. First, it reminds us how precious simchas are. In a large community, there are many opportunities to celebrate; it is easy to take them for granted, as a regular part of life. Rabbis, who go to many simchas, can at times be caught telling their spouses that "we have ANOTHER bar mitzvah this week" (or so I've heard). But a simcha in difficult times is all the more precious, and a reminder that we should cherish each simcha as a true gift from God. There is no such thing as just another simcha, and today we understand that more than ever.

The simchas teach us about despair as well. Gloom always feels permanent. It must preclude any hope for the future, otherwise that optimism would sweep away the gloom. A simcha in times of gloom refutes the dominant mood; it points to a future of love and life that we have temporarily forgotten. 

One day the coronavirus will disappear, but the simchas will continue. And when we celebrate then, let's remember how precious a simcha really is.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Thursday, March 19, 2020

Give Israel a Hand

Give a Hand to Israel

Tonight, on balconies all around Israel, ten of thousands of people went out and clapped for 30 seconds. President Rivlin had asked them to do so in honor of the heroes working in hospitals around the country. Videos of this moment are exceptionally inspiring; a group of quarantined people uniting in a powerful public demonstration of gratitude.

Community is one of the casualties of the coronavirus. When people can't gather together, they can't pray together and they can't celebrate weddings and Seders together. In halakha, the ten people in a minyan must be in the same room to count as a community; distance means that community ceases to exist. And without the direct personal connection there's something profoundly missing. A friend of mine once showed me postcards of correspondence that his grandfather, a rabbi in New Jersey in the early 1900s, sent to the major rabbis in Europe in his time. Many dealt with writs of divorce, from men who had went ahead of their wives to America, and instead of sending a boat ticket sent a divorce. The distance between the spouses ended up leaving them emotionally distant.

The clapping Israelis on the balconies teach us that doesn't have to be. Aside from personal connection, there is a second element to communities: solidarity. One can feel connected to a person they have never met before if they are related. Judaism sees the Jewish people as being part of the same family, and being guarantors for each other. Throughout Jewish history Jews who had never met before embraced each other as brothers and sisters; and a stranger visiting from out of town knew that he only had to go to the local synagogue for some help. This sense of solidarity doesn't require a personal touch, it just requires a sensitive heart.

Israelis understand this intuitively. Walking on the street, there's no such thing as minding your own business. Complete strangers will come to help you, offer you advice, and treat you as part of family. The lessons of solidarity are part of Israel's DNA.

We are now in a time where we stand at a great distance from each other, locked into our own homes. But the lessons of solidarity are this: if our hearts are connected, no distance is too far.

I'd like to give a hand to all those Israelis this evening for reminding us of that lesson.

When Berakhot is Shabbat, and Shabbat is Berakhot

One of our members, Morris Massel made an exceptional point in the KJ Daf Yomi chat. He noted that the Daf has just transitioned from Berakhot, which is a light and relatively easy Tractate (Mesekhet in Aramaic) to Shabbat which is a relatively difficult meskehet, and noted that this is meant to  push us to the next level, and inspire us to hang on for the greater challenge; and now is the time to do so. I would like to add to what he wrote, and note the following:

In actuality the very themes of Shabbat are meant to be ones of comfort: it is a day of oneg, enjoyment, and it is also a day in which we cease to work. Shabbat is meant to feel like a spiritual vacation. On the other hand, Berakhot includes very demanding themes. You stand before God. You are doing Avodah shebalev, the service of the heart. Ironically, the cadence of these two Mesechtot are the opposite of their very themes. As Morris mentioned, Berakhot is lighter and simpler. Shabbat and its companion Meskhet, Eruvin, are dense and difficult. Perhaps on a pragmatic level the rabbis wanted to start the students of Talmud off easy, and then move to greater intensity. But I think the message is deeper than that, and one that is very relevant to today. There are times when prayer is a joy and a comfort, and not a difficulty and a discipline. There are times where we find great solace and comfort in the words of prayer;  it is now a refuge, not a labor. On the other hand, there are times in which Shabbat, instead of feeling like a refuge from work, instead it feels like a continuation of imprisonment. Most times, it is wonderful to be able to stay home and not to have to go out. But now, Shabbat is just a continuation of the semi-quarantine experience we are feeling all week. And the lesson of our Mesekhet is that Shabbat is sometimes a discipline; We need to train ourselves on Shabbat to find calm, comfort, and spend the day dreaming of a better future. 

In ordinary times, Berakhot is a discipline and Shabbat is a comfort. Today, Berakhot is a comfort and Shabbat is a discipline. And our rabbis when writing the Babylonian Talmud already anticipated that possibility.

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

The Planned and the Unplanned

When the coronavirus arrived it was met immediately with denial. Nobody wanted to imagine that this annoying microbe could somehow undermine long-standing plans. How dare it get in the way of my work, social life and schooling? How dare it undermine synagogue and Shabbat? I speaking in the office about what we called then "the possibility" that perhaps some of the Passover programs will cancel, and we would need to come up with a way to have catered meals in the synagogue for those who stay home. Of course even those contingency plans got tossed out in a matter of days.

People hate their plans going awry. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert points out, the ability to dream of a future is the defining characteristic of humanity. We dream of the future, and expect it to happen. And a plan fulfilled is a thing of beauty. This week's Torah reading is fundamentally a celebration of the plan working out to the last detail. Earlier, The Torah tells us of the plans for the sanctuary in the desert; and in this week's Torah reading we see the plans fulfilled detail after detail. The Torah proudly proclaims ויעש, and it was done, כאשר צוה , as God had commanded. 

Yet in between the command to build the sanctuary and its execution there is a completely different narrative. The Torah tells us that when Moses went up to Mount Sinai to get the tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them, he returned to find the people having accepted upon themselves the worship of a Golden Calf. Moses then broke the tablets, and after a long period of penitence, the Jewish people received a second set of tablets. It was these second set of tablets, along with the broken first set of tablets, that would be placed in the Ark in the very heart of the new Sanctuary. Ironically, the very items in the center of this built to perfection new sanctuary are themselves a product of a plan that went wrong!

The lesson is clear. Even when there is a facade of perfection, at its heart are plans that were broken. 

We are now living in an time of broken tablets. A future we took for granted three weeks ago is gone, dashed, and broken. We sit in shock wondering what we should dream of now. 

We are not the first generation of Jews to live through upheaval and heartbreak. Previous generations got through their days of broken tablets by mastering the art of improvisation. Even when your plans are destroyed, you dream of a second chance, all while carrying your broken tablets with you. When this crisis concludes, we will do the same, following an example that's 3,300 years old.