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

Don't Hesitate this Shabbat - do everything to fight the coronavirus

It should go without saying; but sometimes you need to repeat, over and over again, what should go without saying.

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.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Thank the Heroes

Joel Bergstein wrote me today about the righteous gentile who hid his father's family in Nazi occupied France, Rene Dartau. Joel had spoken to the guests at his son's wedding about Dartau, explaining that Dartau had hidden the Bergstein family on his farm and shared his meager food with them. Joel then announced that without Dartau, there would be no Bergstein family and no wedding.

Joel wrote me this because he wanted to draw my attention to another group of heroes: the frontline medical professionals who are taking on the coronavirus. They are working endless hours, and exposing themselves to significant risk to save the lives of others. This, Joel noted, is an act of profound heroism.

Heroism is very often a misunderstood concept. In the ancient world, the hero was very often the powerful one, the soldier, general and king who could overcome his adversaries. In the contemporary world, the hero is the celebrity: the jet setting businessman, actor and sports star whose life is chronicled in the society pages of the newspaper. But in the Jewish tradition heroism is something very different. There is a passage in the Talmud Megilah 31a, that explains that whenever the Bible makes reference to God's divine power, the Bible immediately afterwards mentions God's sense of humble charity to those in need. The lesson of the Talmud is that power is not meaningful on its own; God's greatness is found in the service of the weak and the vulnerable. Judaism believes that heroism is about self sacrifice and acts of kindness.

Around the country, emergency room doctors are working double shifts to deal with the new influx of patients. Nurses and hatzolah volunteers are ministering to those with the coronavirus, risking exposure while selflessly serving others. If you're searching for a real hero, take a look at any hospital and you'll find one walking the hallways.

It is our obligation to recognize these heroes. Caroline Bryk wrote to me today about the medical professionals in our community. She asked: "Is there any way we can support them at this time? They have limited energy and are barely home. Perhaps we can send them heartfelt emails of gratitude...?"

Caroline is right. We must support our community's heroes, our medical professionals. They are going above and beyond to save lives and to protect our community. Please thank them, and tell them how much you appreciate everything they do. 

And if you children ever ask you what a hero looks like, point to these medical professionals. They are sacrificing everything to save lives.


There is Nothing Holier than Embracing Life

We closed our synagogue last Wednesday. There will be no more prayers services until the coronavirus goes away.

In hindsight it was an easy decision to make. But at the time it was anything but.

I was part of multiple conference calls with other rabbis about whether or not synagogues will close. Many were extremely resistant to closing. Even those who closed their synagogues found it extremely painful to do so. This anguish is understandable. To close a synagogue feels like a betrayal of Jewish history. Jews have always taken pride in their resilience and determination in the face of crisis. Even in the worst of times Jews have surreptitiously gathered for prayers in hidden corners, quietly defying their persecutors. Just this past Rosh Hashanah, our synagogue used a remarkable shofar that was sounded in Auschwitz, and smuggled out during a death march. Even holding the shofar would have been a death sentence for anyone caught. Yet with enormous heroism and determination these people held prayers in the shadow of death. And now here I was, a Rabbi, canceling prayers and locking people out of the synagogue. What sort of Rabbi does that?

Retreating into one's home is not something we would ordinarily consider heroic. As one internet comic put it: "Your grandparents were called to war. You are being called to sit on your couch. You can do this.". But today, there can be nothing holier than social distancing, because life comes first.

We have closed our synagogue to protect the health of our members. But more than that, we have closed our synagogue to do our part in slowing the spread of this disease. Social distancing is not just a good prophylactic, it is an ethical imperative to help others. 

In Halakhah, preserving life is the most important commandment. Maimonides writes that it is the leaders of the community must be the first to violate Shabbat to save lives, and in the face of a danger to life, we treat Shabbat as an ordinary weekday. 

But the priority we give life in halakha is not simply a pragmatic concept; it is a profound Jewish value. We consider life to be sacred. Each morning we read a prayer, אלוקי נשמה, that says:

"My God, the soul that you placed within me is pure. You created it, You formed it, You breathed it into me, and You preserve it within me."

Life is a gift from God, and it is absolutely sacred. And it is this the reason why closing the synagogue is not just a concession to practicality, but an absolute imperative. And if closing a synagogue will protect life, we shall do so immediately. 

Some time in the future, we will return back to KJ. But I hope the lesson of this time remains with us well: that there is nothing holier than embracing life.


Sunday, March 15, 2020

The Gathering Storm 3/15

The Coronavirus is coming.

A week ago we held to the illusion that with a few simple precautions we could continue to live our normal lives. Now we realize that quarantine is no longer the fate of the unfortunate few, but will probably be more or less the reality for everyone. As we huddle in our homes, the worries begin to pour out: How bad will this plague be? Will it touch someone close to me? How long will it last for?

It would be wonderful to make believe these questions don't exist; but denial is a luxury we can't afford in challenging times. Yet we are uncertain about almost everything. Vacillating predictions echo through our minds, and our hearts bounce between hope and worry.  And it is this constant change of outlook that creates a sense of anxiety.

Anxiety is not fear. Anxiety is the loss of our sense of control, because you don't know what the outcome will be. Uncertainty is more destabilizing than fear. There is an old rabbinic saying "there is no joy like the undoing of doubts"(אין שמחה כהתרת הספיקות), because anxiety only exists in the realm of doubt.

Anxiety is particularly difficult for contemporary man. One of the great illusions of modernity is that somehow we can overcome any obstacle that comes in our path. And modern man has done an incredible job of taming the cosmos. We have found a way to overcome disease after disease, we have created technology after technology which enhances life, and we seem to have a solution for almost everything. But now we have the Coronavirus, and, (for the time being), are out of solutions.

This is a profound challenge for a generation that has not faced any existential threats. The previous generation faced a Holocaust, a World War, and the struggles of immigration; and our generation has been the lucky inheritors of their success. We have never before dealt with anything like the Coronavirus, and we are anxious. And that anxiety actually undermines our own self identity; we realize we are no longer in complete control of our destiny. Two weeks ago we all saw ourselves as far more powerful and in control; now we recognize our own fragility.

But I am not writing this to be depressing or frightening. On the contrary, we will find that this crisis can inspire us. As Rav Soloveitchik reminds us, it is at this time of our own defeat that we find a new strength. We begin to recognize that even the vulnerable can make moral choices that are heroic. We can always love, we can always hope, and we can always dream. We may be facing a threat we don't fully understand, but one thing we do know for certain: the human soul is stronger than anything else.

This morning when I was saying the tachanun prayer my eyes were drawn to the first verse which is a quote from the book of Samuel:

וַיֹּ֧אמֶר דָּוִ֛ד אֶל־גָּ֖ד צַר־לִ֣י מְאֹ֑ד נִפְּלָה־נָּ֤א בְיַד־יְהוָה֙ כִּֽי־רַבִּ֣ים רחמו [רַֽחֲמָ֔יו] וּבְיַד־אָדָ֖ם אַל־אֶפֹּֽלָה׃

“David said to Gad, “I am in great distress. Let us fall into the hands of the LORD, for His compassion is great; and let me not fall into the hands of men.”

King David is a powerful king. But one day that power is taken away from him; and his only prayer is that he be left in the hands of God. There are days when we recognize that some things are out of our hands; our human hands are just too short to do the feats of God. And that is exactly the time when we need to reach deep into our souls for something more than brute physical power.

Anxious times require more love. Anxious times require more prayer. Anxious times require more hope. And that is where we must turn now.

I am deeply inspired right now by how many people have asked me how they can help. They want to know how they can help the vulnerable, they want to know how they can help their friends, they want to know how they can help their Rabbi.

Nothing gives me greater strength in these anxious times than the spirit of our community.