Friday, July 31, 2020

Against Closure: A Jewish Way of Confronting Grief (2 Minute Wisdom)

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Why This Tisha B'Av Must be Different: Short Remarks for Tisha B'Av Evening

This Tisha B'Av must be different.

There is a custom among some Chasidic Jews to play pranks on each other on Tisha B'Av. In many places to have the children throw berelach, little thistles during Kinot to lighten up the mood. Chasidic leaders felt that the Jews in Eastern Europe lived with too much difficulty and sadness, and a painful Tisha B'Av would do more harm than good.

These strange customs have a firm foundation in the themes of the day. Tisha B'Av has two sides to it. It is first and foremost, a day of mourning and grief. It is the day in which we remember not just the destruction of both Temples, but all of the catastrophes during the 2000 years of exile.

But aside from this, there is another side. Tisha B'Av is also a day of comfort. On the afternoon of Tisha B'Av, we recite a prayer, Nachem, to ask for comfort. We get up from our low chairs, put on our tallit and tefillin, and in these small comforts recall the Talmudic tradition that the Messiah will be born on Tisha B'Av.

Most years, it is more important to discuss the difficult side of Tisha B'Av. It is easy for us who are so comfortable to lose touch with the difficulties our ancestors endured. It is easy for us to become complacent and not search for a way to make the world better.

But this year, we must have a Chasidic Tisha B'Av. We have had enough difficulty and enough uncertainty. We do not need to be brought lower, to find greater sadness. Right now, we need to find as much comfort as we can, even on Tisha B'Av.

And the comfort that we have is in recognizing how far we have come. We need to recognize that the previous generations, whose tragedies we mourn, would have so much joy to see how far we have come. We have built a State of Israel, a miracle on the world stage. We have come so far.

Danny Gordis related an anecdote from the years of the intifada:

 But I’ll always remember what Siggy said to me one morning, in the midst of the intifada, as we were about to recite Yizkor.

It was a time in Jerusalem when life was sad, and often frightening…..That holiday morning, as I made my way out of shul for Yizkor (since my immediate family is all still living), Siggy, who sat not far from the door, grabbed my arm just as I was about to step outside.

“You’re going out for Yizkor?” he asked me. When I nodded, somewhat perplexed, he continued. “When we first got here, after the war, there wasn’t a single person who could go out for Yizkor.

Not a single one.” And then, he said, “Ba’u od milhamot venaflu od banim.”

“More wars followed, and more boys fell.  So for more years, no one could go out for Yizkor.”

He stopped for a moment, and I saw that his lips were trembling, ever so slightly. He pointed to the courtyard right outside our shul. “Ve’achshav, tistakel – kulam bahutz.” “And now, look!” he pressed me. “Everyone’s outside.” “Hamedina hazot nes.” “This country is a miracle.”

This year has so many of us feeling so low, after a 4-month battle with a horrible plague; but we can turn to Tisha B'Av for comfort. We can look at the arc of history, and recognize that we truly are the privileged ones. Even as we suffer, we are comforted by the fact that we already have overcome so much, and we will continue to do so in the future.

And we can be comforted that if the authors of the Kinot were here today, they would be smiling, even if it is Tisha B’Av.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

The Synagogue in the Screen: A Socially Distant Love Letter

In the last 100 days, human relationships have been completely altered. In-person interactions have stopped, and work and social life have shifted online. Many of these changes will remain long after coronavirus is gone. Businesses are already planning to permanently reduce real estate and travel costs by incorporating more telecommuting and Zoom conferencing. But for synagogues, the shift to the virtual is far more complicated.

There is a joke from the 1990’s about an avid Atlanta Braves fan, Jack, who called his Rabbi before Yom Kippur. He said, "Rabbi, I know tonight is Kol Nidre, but the Braves are finally in the playoffs, and the first game is tonight. Rabbi, I’ve been waiting for this for years; I have to watch the game."

The Rabbi responds, "Jack, you can videotape it."

Jack loves the advice. “Rabbi, thank you so much! That is the perfect solution!” And after a pause Jack adds: “Rabbi, I never knew you could videotape Kol Nidre.”

Today, the possibility of a videotaped Kol Nidrei is no longer a punchline. We have been forced to move online, with Zoom services, classes, weddings and funerals. Our synagogue is now a synagogue in a screen. But there is no way of avoiding the fact that a virtual community is a community diminished. If man is by nature a “social animal,” Jews are communal animals. It is not enough to love your neighbor; the community must join together to visit the sick, comfort the mourners, bury the dead, celebrate with the bride and groom, and welcome visitors. None of these tasks lend themselves to being “phoned in.” Without an in-person connection, community withers. That is why ten people huddled in a small corner of a room constitute a minyan, but a thousand people on Zoom do not. As far as Halacha is concerned, a Zoom community is not a true community.

The spiritual inadequacies of video technology are most apparent in grief. My father-in-law, Joe Schwartz, passed away at the end of May. Due to Canadian travel regulations, there was no way for my wife, Lisa, and her sister in Philadelphia to return to Toronto in time for the funeral. A graveside service for a carefully limited group had to suffice; Joe’s daughters, relatives, and friends had to watch the funeral over Zoom. There was a bitter irony to this: Joe was a true community man, the first to greet a new face in synagogue, and the first to volunteer to help. And now a man who exemplified the personal touch was going to be memorialized in a remote service, at a great distance from his beloved family and friends. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein wrote a responsa (OH 4:40:11) about visiting a Shiva with a phone call. He ruled that a phone call is an inferior way of comforting the mourners, and should only be used if one cannot visit in person. He explained that the Shiva is about respect and concern; and neither of those can be properly "phoned in."  But you don’t need to be a Rabbinic scholar to arrive at this conclusion; every coronavirus Shiva is silent testimony to how inadequate remote condolences are.

Yet there is another side to this. While Facetime and Zoom are hi-tech innovations, socially distant relationships are age old. Well before the electronic age, geographically distant young couples wrote each other love letters. The emotional power of the love letter is built on absence and loss. The words on the page struggle to take flight, hoping to deliver a long-distance embrace by pen and paper.

In the past three months, we have witnessed the flourishing of a new type of love letter.   Improvised communities and connections have emerged, offering love and support via smartphones and computers. The hurdles of social distancing are no match for the human heart.

Since the passing of my father-in-law, Lisa, her mother, and sisters have had a daily ritual. Each afternoon they connect on Facetime to talk and reminisce. At the end of the conversation, they fight back tears as they read the words of the Kaddish together. Listening in, it feels to me as if their words can reach from this world to the next. Despite being hundreds of miles apart, a family that loves each other can always be together. Love can skip over the mountaintops and leap over hills.

Some think that the shutdown of the last few months will undermine the synagogue. The assumption is that people have gotten used to staying at home, and that they will be content to continue sleeping late instead of attending services; and even those who want a religious experience will expect to sit on their couch and watch it on Zoom.

I think that the opposite is true. In the last three months, we have seen where our community's heart lies. We can take pride in how our community and so many others have held together, with Zooms, phone calls and volunteer drives.

The Synagogue in the screen is our community’s love letter, written by a congregation that can’t wait to see each other in person again.

Friday, July 03, 2020

What Miracle Workers Can't Do: A Donkey's Perspective

They arrive from Israel every week, with bold notices in Jewish newspapers; "evil eyes removed! only 50$. Major credit cards accepted". They are the miracle workers, Rabbis and Rebbetzins who can magically change your life. These ads are seductive, especially when you find yourself needing a change of luck; and they have a veneer of authenticity because Judaism does accept that prayer matters, and the prayers of righteous matter. But these miracle workers don't offer a sincere prayer; instead, they sell spiritual voodoo. Sadly, many chase these blessings, assured by anecdotes and advertising.


This desire to gain control of God's plan is an old one; and a lengthy section of the Torah, Parshat Balak, is devoted to rebutting this primitive theology, the belief that God can be bought off with a few sacrifices or mystically rewritten Ketubah. In Parshat Balak, a powerful seer, Bilaam, is asked to curse Israel, in hope of defeating them. In turn, as much as Bilaam desires to curse Israel, he cannot. Even though "whom he blesses is blessed, and whom he curses is cursed", Bilaam still finds himself unable to do anything but bless Israel. The lesson is simple: man cannot control God. Man cannot dictate to God who to bless and curse.


This lesson is woven into one of the literary themes of the parsha. There is an enormous amount of animal imagery. We names that evoke animal life: Balak the son of Tzippor ("bird") Bilaam the son of beor (sounds like "livestock"). We have imagery of an ox licking up the grass of the field, and the image of covering the face of the earth (like locusts - cf. Exodus 10:4). And above all, we have Bilaam's donkey. This is no ordinary donkey; Bilaam's donkey is a talking donkey.


The donkey refuses to listen to Bilaam. Bilaam whips the donkey, hoping to beat it into submission, but the donkey freezes. Eventually, the donkey speaks, and tells Bilaam that it had always been loyal; but this time, the donkey was answering to a higher authority: God.


The message of the animal theme and the talking donkey is this: we expect animals to accept human authority. Humans are given control over all living beings, able to "have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth." (Genesis 1:28). We expect animals to follow our orders. We don’t expect animals to lead.


“The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his owner’s trough”.(Isaiah 1:3). The animal imagery in our Parsha emphasizes that the animal has a subordinate status, one we expect it to play. But man needs to understand that he has a similar role to play, to be loyal to God, rather than trying to manipulate God to follow his own wishes. Bilaam tries to “lead” God, to decide who gets blessed and who gets cursed. The donkey’s lesson is this: humans are meant to serve their own master, God,  as well the donkey serves his. (Parenthetically, another character in the Bible, who wakes early to saddle his donkey, Avraham, does so in order to loyally follow God’s order, not to defy them).


The miracle working “Rabbis” who advertise cures are hucksters, pure and simple. But even worse than their deception is the upside down theology they offer. They tell their supplicants that God might ignore them, but that a small fee, the Rabbi can get God to “change” His mind. This is exactly what Bilaam said, and it is an inversion of what Judaism is all about. in the end, the donkey teaches us the fundamental lesson of Judaism: We are here to serve God, not to have God serve us.