Torah for the Day
Torah for the Day - Thursday, April 2, 2020
The Israeli writer, Leah Goldberg, renowned for her poetry and insight, penned a piece called "In Everything." Marcia Falk translated her words -
In everything, there is at least an eighth
of death. It doesn't weigh much.
With what hidden, peaceful charm
we carry it everywhere we go.
In sweet awakenings,
in our travels,
in our love talk,
when we are unaware,
forgotten in all the corners of our beings-
always with us.
And never heavy.
Such is the role of suffering - and growing - and emerging - and developing - we carry it with us always. Sometimes it is forgotten and sometimes it is overly present. I think it can be heavy, but it need not be. The Zohar, a teaching and source of Jewish mysticism of the Middle Ages, teaches that "A soul learns more from suffering than from rejoicing." (Zohar iv 232b)
It is not that we seek suffering, but when it comes, we learn from suffering. We learn from adjusting. We learn from reflecting. We learn from distancing - because distancing gives us perspective. Physical distancing right now is critical for our global health. Social distancing is dangerous, for we need connection. In this moment of physical distancing - do not be confused, for we are socially connected and so we must be.
Torah for the Day - Wednesday, April 1, 2020
It is rare to hear people say, when commenting on a blessing in their lives, "It's enough." When it comes to goodness, we are often not satisfied. We want an abundance of happiness, and sometimes even feel entitled to it. There is one poem in the Haggadah which addresses this issue of "enough" directly. I am guessing that most of you know it and many of you sing it at your seder. It is called Dayenu.
Dayenu consists of 15 stanzas referencing different historical moments the Israelites experienced as they left Egypt and made their way to the land of Israel. After each stanza, we sing the chorus DAYENU. When we sing DAYENU we are saying that if this were the total of God's miraculous intervention into the lives of the Israelites, it would have been sufficient.
The point of the poem is to help us cultivate gratitude. There are many blessings. Indeed. There always are - or so we pray there will be.
So what does it feel like to say "Dayenu" THIS year? What does it mean to apply the important lessons of gratitude to our lives THIS year?
Perhaps the following questions will help lead us to find some measure of blessing during these difficult days:
Is there anything about the last few weeks that has surprised you in a positive way?
Is there something you have experienced or heard about that went beyond what you thought was expected?
Has someone in your life surprised you by being especially attentive or caring?
Is there anyone you have heard from or reached out to in the last couple of weeks? After the conversation, how did you reflect positively on the conversation?
What have you done to make others in your life feel safe? Feel cared for? Feel remembered?
Our Jewish sages, looking many centuries AFTER the Exodus, penned Dayenu. It is hard to say if the Israelites, during the actual journey to the Promised Land, would have written that poem. I suspect we all felt ready to say "enough" to COVID-19's necessary life-restrictions within hours of their imposition. But given the road we have already walked and the unclear journey in the weeks ahead, it is upon us to find those moments of "dayenu" - those things for which we say: we have what is enough. We have gratitude for the unexpected and desired blessings which this time period have allowed or created. Yes, of the hard and bitter outcomes, we can readily say, "enough, already" - but Judaism calls upon us to remember the positives as well and thus cultivate an approach of gratitude to help us through the journey into the midbar - the wilderness ahead - on our way to a Land of Promise.
Torah for the Day - Tuesday, March 31, 2020
The wisest of kings, Solomon, decided to challenge one of his ministers. The king instructed him to search for a ring that could turn a happy person sad, and a sad person happy. King Solomon doubted the minister would be able to find such a thing. Still, the intrepid minister set out. The minister traveled the kingdom, but to no avail; returning to Jerusalem, he found himself in a shabby neighborhood where there was a market. He noticed a man selling some odd pieces of jewelry spread out on a threadbare rug. Desperate, the minister explained to the merchant what he was seeking - a ring that could "make a happy man sad, and a sad man happy." The merchant smiled, and handed him a ring with the inscription: "Gam zeh ya'avor, This too shall pass." The minister returned to King Solomon, and presented him with the ring. Smiling at the thought of winning the challenge, King Solomon took one look at the ring and was immediately humbled.
I like this story because it teaches us that nothing lasts forever. When life seems especially challenging, I am reminded it won't last forever. And when I am on top of the world and feeling especially blessed - I am reminded to savor the moment, it too is fleeting.
I first heard the phrase "Gam zeh ya'avor/This too shall pass" from my grandfather. Whenever I was upset about something, he would hold me, look me in the eye and say "Amala, gam zeh ya'avor/this too shall pass." He shared these words to comfort me and remind me that no difficult situation is forever. When I would get anxious or upset, he wanted me to remember that there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Coming from my grandpa, this was an important lesson to learn. He had a difficult childhood. Orphaned at a young age, he had nothing and no one when he came to this country.
I have often felt that if my grandfather could meet adversity with faith, darkness with light, despair with hope - so could I. And these days, if I feel myself feeling low, or getting tired, I imagine my grandfather and the conversation we would have. And slowly, I find myself smiling.
A Message from Rabbi Katz - Monday, March 30, 2020
The design of the seder itself has to be different. I can't imagine just reading the Haggadah on Zoom. There are many creative ways to engage your guests. I want to share an idea I have.
One possibility is to talk about a 20th century version of the Exodus, the grassroots efforts of the American Jewish community to free Soviet Jews. This is an incredible episode in American Jewish history. The movement shaped the Jewish identity for a generation of Jews. One way to engage participants in your virtual seders is to have a conversation about American efforts to free Soviet Jewry. My guess is many in your family or at your virtual seder table are too young to recall the story and this isn't a topic taught in history class (yet). So ... I have several articles I have read, which are interesting summaries of this important time in American Jewish history. And I am happy to share them with you.
How a Quest to Save Soviet Jews Changed the World
Timeline of the American Soviet Jewry Movement
Soviet Jewry: The Struggle to Lift the Iron Curtain
The Free Soviet Jewry March: A Moment of Unity for American Jews
How to use these films to start a conversation?
First, I invite you to ask participants who are old enough their recollections of the movement. Enjoy some first-hand stories about the Save Soviet Jewry movement. Will there be people at your table who come from the former Soviet Union? When did they arrive in the US?
According to the Book of Exodus, and the Haggadah, God intervened to help the Israelites when they cried out - it was as if God was waiting for for them to express their distress. Was it many of the Israelites or a few? The Torah and the Haggadah do not say.
In the Soviet Union, a few activists including Sharansky protested, and then others joined, and then people in the outside world were awakened to the plight of the refuseniks.
What situations do we know of today in which a few people protest injustice and then others join - what makes it possible for those others to join and not just sit silent?
Sit in a comfortable chair. Take three settling long breaths. As you breathe, call to mind a few good things that happened to you this week. Try to remember all the details of these experiences. What made these experiences positive?
Can you hold on to these precious moments as we make our way to Shabbat?
Can you imagine how you might bring joy or light or companionship to someone in your world who is struggling?
Now consider saying the following prayer, before lighting candles.
I am on a journey to the unknown. Be with me God. Protect me and my loved ones from illness and from all the dangers of this unchartered path. Strengthen along the way those who would care for me. There are so many people in my world who care for me - in so many ways. God, bless them. Bring me to a new place of calm and gratitude so I can find my own way in this challenging time.
Bring comfort to those who know people who are ill and to those who have already lost loved ones. Help me learn how I can be of service as a source of healing in the world.
May God's angels of peace bring wholeness to us and to the world as Shabbat enters.
Shalom Aleichem Malakehi hashareit - I invite you to sing Shalom Aleichem!
Now light Shabbat candles:
At its best, the American Dream has meant that we could come from anywhere and be a part of a free, pluralistic and multicultural society. Sadly, in many ways the American Dream has become about owning our own home and bowling alone. John F. Kennedy tried to inspire us in his inaugural address when he said, "ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." JFK was calling on Americans to do what is right for the greater good. He was asking Americans to not only consider their own needs, but to also consider the needs of their neighbors and their society more broadly.
Leviticus uses the Hebrew word korban for sacrifice. The root of the word means "near," creating this sense that through the process of sacrifice one is drawn closer. All of us are being asked to sacrifice. We are being asked to worry not only about ourselves, but also about the vulnerable and fragile. We are being asked to stay home so that we can flatten the curve of this pandemic.
As I do my part to flatten the curve, I find myself feeling nearer to my neighbors. While I see fear in many eyes, I also see gratitude and connection. I have walked more in the last 10 days than I have in the past 10 years! By walking in the neighborhood, I see my neighbors. Yes, I stay far away - but our eyes meet and I feel a connection that I never felt before. We are all in this together. Also, I am so grateful to the people working in the supermarket, or CVS, or the gas stations. I can't say thank you enough times.
Thankfully, I haven't had a need to see too many health care professionals. But I know they are there. I think about the doctors, nurses, technicians, volunteers, hospital administrators and custodial staff and I am grateful. All of these individuals are at risk and they are all sacrificing in ways they probably never considered when they chose the work they are doing.
So yes, this week we began reading the book of Leviticus and the timing seems just right. I needed to be reminded that we create a holy community through sacrifice. May we each do our part as best we can. And may God watch over us at this most vulnerable time.
There always has been.
The image of the sliver of moon - reappearing in the darkness and growing nightly into a full sphere, only to wane again - can be interpreted as a metaphor for:
our individual stories,
the stories of the Jewish people, and
the story of humanity.
At times we suffer in darkness; we may even fear utter extinction. But just as the moon's light is continually renewed, so, too, do we draw reassurance that we will again have a future that shines. There are times when the spirit of humanity shrinks and other times when it expands. Times when the spirit of humanity grows dull and routinizes, and other times it is reignited and reinspired.
As we celebrate Rosh Hodesh Nisan we must remember that after darkness there is light. Our world will be renewed, reinspired, and reborn. There will be sunny days again. And we will enjoy being in the presence of the people we love. This difficult time will pass. Eventually. We must be patient. We must do our part - wash your hands, stay home and reach out to family, friends and acquaintances who might be lonely.
I hope to see you this evening at 7:00 pm, as we look to the future for possibility. Click here for our website, then on the left side of the page click on "Chapel Services Live" for the service.
An Invitation for This Year's Passover
I am writing to invite you to the first seder on April 8 at 7:00 pm.
However, I am not going to feed you, and I am not going to purchase afikoman prizes. Unfortunately this year, I am proposing to do a virtual seder. This is a once in a lifetime (hopefully) experience, so don't miss it.
I am proposing to do an abbreviated seder via Zoom. We will each use whatever haggadot we have in our own homes, and I will identify some online materials to supplement our discussions about slavery, freedom and the birth of the Jewish people. As always, our seder will include spirited conversation and laughter. But to my great disappointment, this year we won't sing together -- virtual sing-alongs induces headaches! One other thing, I will not be cooking for you. No carrot fluff, no lemon meringue cake, no five kinds of haroset for this year. You also will have to do your own dishes and hide your own afikoman. Also, if you want one, you will need to make your own seder plate.
As to the wine, yup - that's on you as well. But the good news is that you can really drink all four glasses without having to worry about driving home.
I have notified Elijah of this year's seder plans. I want him to visit each of our homes. He is neither contagious nor susceptible. Despite my repeated pleas, Elijah has advised me that he does not think it wise to visit all these homes so he and Mrs. Elijah will be having their own private seder this year. Nonetheless, we will have a glass of wine for him if he changes his mind.
It is not lost on me that those of you who have only a fleeting interest in the holiday might be tempted to binge on Netflix during the seder. Please be advised that I have asked Alexa to keep an eye on you. You know who you are.
So, if you are interested in participating, please let me know. I will be emailing you materials and a link for a Zoom conference call number prior to the 8th.
The clean of hands and the clear of heart, those who do not say "By my life" when they do not mean it,
who do not swear to that which is a lie.
Such ones will carry with them a blessing from God,
a blessing of justice from the God of salvation.
(Pamela Greenberg translation)
The psalmist is saying that a good person, who is honest and full of good intention, will receive a blessing from God. I don't think the psalmist is describing his reality, I think he is prescribing what he would like to see. The psalmist wishes that a person who does the right thing, and who uses his words well, will be blessed by God. Until these past few Sundays these were my thoughts on these verses.
But with all this hand washing... something else came to mind yesterday.
The verse begins by saying that a person with clean hands shall receive a blessing from God. Lately, I have been interpreting the verse literally - clean hands will keep me healthy and that is a blessing from God.
If I can keep my hands clean, if I use enough hand sanitizer, I will be OK. Well, that is what I want to be true. I know that what I want to be true and what is reality are not always the same. Psalm 24 is teaching an important lesson - behave as if clean hands will keep you safe. If we all lived by that rule, we would be safer. Perhaps not safe, but safer.
So for me right now, the beginning of Psalm 24 is not a psalm for Sunday.
It can be an any-day psalm.
Or an everyday psalm.
Or an all-day psalm during a pandemic.
May we have clean hands and may we receive a blessing of good health from our God.
Jews have lit Shabbat candles for thousands of years, connecting us through generations of history, reminding us of our commitment to our tradition. Lighting Shabbat candles is a way to bring a little light into your homes and into your lives. Lighting Shabbat candles is a way to connect you with your people. No amount of darkness can withstand the light we bring into this world.
Candle lighting in our community is at 6:45 pm. I am suggesting that this evening we all try to light Shabbat candles, connecting ourselves to our past, and to your future. Connecting ourselves to our families and to each other. If you don't have Shabbat candles at home, use some other candle that happens to be in the house.
Consider reciting the following kavannah (intention) before the bracha:
As I light these candles, I connect myself to thousands of Jews around the world. Together, hearts woven, we usher in Shabbat, praying for health and well-being of those that are ill, spreading sparks of healing and sparks of hope. Provider of Comfort, let these flames illuminate the darkness of the night. Shabbat will hold us together. May this light inspire us to be a source of peace, blessing and love. Amen
Barukh ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melekh ha'olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hadlik ner shel Shabbat.
Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to light the Shabbat candles.
May it be a Shabbat of calm.
A Shabbat of rest.
A Shabbat of peace.
A Shabbat of rest.
A Shabbat of reflection.
A Shabbat of connection.
Consider that Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was alive about 2,000 years ago. In talking about the phrase "we are all in the same boat," Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: "It can be compared to people who were in a boat and one of them took a drill and began to drill under his seat. His fellow passengers said to him: 'why are you doing this!' He said to them: 'What do you care? Am I not drilling under me?' They replied: 'Because you are sinking the boat with us in it!'" The entire world is in the same boat. If we do not help each other, we are in danger of sinking the entire boat.
It turns out that as we fight the spread of COVID-19, we are all literally in the same boat. It is tempting to imagine that our decisions do not impact our neighbors. But they do! That is why - at this time when there is a risk of transmitting contagious diseases through physical proximity - Judaism demands that we separate ourselves physically from one another.
Robert Alter translates the verse quite differently. He writes "Worry in a man's heart brings him low but a good word will gladden him." In Alter's translation, the person who is anxious should receive a good word from someone else. Alter's translations suggests that we have a responsibility to sooth the anxiety of those around us.
What I have learned over the years is that we all manage anxiety differently. Some people deal with anxiety by putting it out of their mind for themselves, while others find comfort in talking about it with other people. Some manage their anxiety alone, and others rely on neighbors or friends or family to reframe and find calm.
So first I ask you - how do you deal with anxiety? Do you put it out of your mind? Or do you prefer to talk about it with someone? This may explain why some of us can't watch any more news, and can't read any more newspapers or magazines about coronavirus, and others of us can't get enough news. Second, I ask you to consider what the people around you might need. Some of my friends need to talk with me to manage their anxiety and others quash their anxiety and want to talk about anything but their anxiety.
There is no one way to cope. But we would be wrong to assume that others cope the way we do.
This quote is attributed to Jackie Robinson. I imagine most of you know that Jackie Robinson was an American professional baseball player who became the first African American to play in Major Leagues. Robinson broke the baseball color line when he started at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. I share this quote because I am inspired by Jackie Robinson's faith. I think about the lonely difficult times Robinson experienced as an African American baseball player, especially in the beginning. I have read that over time Robinson's teammates accepted him, but initially they were not happy to be playing on an integrated team. Robinson was a man who believed in God. And that faith grounded him.