Strength in “Numbers”

Bamidbar 2014 – The Count : The Oisvorfer Ruv

Every year on the Shabbat preceding Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, we read parshah Bamidbar. “Bamidbar,” Hebrew for “in the wilderness,” is commonly known to the English-speaking world as The Book of Numbers. The first parshah shares the name of the Book. As we have touched upon before, we currently live in a world rife with numbers in the place of human beings. Is it a coincidence that New York State has a plan to reopen from economic shutdown in 4 phases? The first three Books of Moses are Bereishit, Shemot, and Vayikra. The 4th book? Bamidbar, The Book of Numbers. That is just a bit of synchronicity to chew on for those who are interested in such things.

“‘Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male by their polls; from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel’” (Num. 1:2-3). G-d begins Bamidbar by asking Moses to take a census of all men who are of an age that is deemed fit for engagement in warfare. To make matters a bit confusing, the Levites, who are in charge of service to the Sanctuary, are left out of that particular count. Rashi tells us that the Levites are left out of the larger count to serve the Sanctuary. They are the “Divine King’s Legion,” and deserved a different census. With the counting complete, all “military-aged” males totaled 603,550, while all Levites who were at least one month old amounted to 22,300. The Hertz Chumash implies that one of the many possible reasons for the census-taking was simply discipline and organization. As the people of Israel trekked toward Canaan, G-d seemed to want them to appear as a solid unit, not as a disorganized conglomeration of runaway slaves.

As states across our own country begin to reopen, or wrestle with reopening, certain benchmarks and guidelines are being put into place. We hear of death rates, hospitalizations, available beds for the potentially ill, testing, and contact tracing. All of these categories must meet certain standards for New York State in particular to begin its phasing in of economic reopening. In other words, there is a lot of counting going on in order to organize. If we all just ran outside of our homes and out into retail stores, hair salons, and restaurants, the results would likely be dire. We trace and count methodically in order to maintain a semblance of discipline. This is a concept that is right in front of us in this week’s Torah portion. Counting people is nothing new, and we see the old become new again before our eyes. Everyone is given a task and a position in Bamidbar, just as we have “contact tracers” identifying the “position” of the infected and collecting information. Numbers and tracking have always been important.

All of this counting, all of these years in the wilderness, and all of this preparation. Let’s reflect: If G-d was going to reveal the Torah to the people of Israel, why did He wait, and not just give Torah to them immediately upon their exit from bondage in Egypt? Why did G-d not lead the people directly to the Promised Land through Philistine Territory after exiting Egypt? According to the sages, and Rabbi Isaac in particular, perhaps G-d wanted to make sure the people were ready. I would like to share with you a very relevant parable from the Talmud, particularly the Aggadic writings. There was once a king’s son who had just recovered from severe illness. The boy’s tutor asked the king to let the boy go back to school. The king immediately said no, because the boy’s “look of good health has not come back to him.” The king commanded that his son be given proper food and drink for three months, allowing him to fully recover before returning to school. Like the king from this story, G-d knew that His children (of Israel) did not have their “look of good health” back after having been slaving away with clay and bricks in Egypt for so long. He wanted them to be given time to recover in the wilderness and be fed manna and have their thirst quenched for a while before receiving the Torah and eventually marching readily toward Canaan.

What do we take from all of this? Certain factors must “add up” before we act in haste. Today, most schools around the country are closed for the remainder of this school year, and will hopefully not reopen until time has sufficed for our society to recover enough to make a comeback safe and worthwhile. The king from the parable knew not to rush his son back as soon as possible. G-d knew not to thrust the Israelites into Canaan, or give Torah to a people who likely needed time to prepare for such profound responsibility.

The Torah, in all of its beautiful insight, makes sure to list the names of every tribe being counted. Would our current leaders take a different approach to “the numbers” if they were to see families and names attached to them? G-d knew of the importance of humanizing, and our Torah portion takes the time to do so. We can hope and pray that our current leaders are using the numbers well before asking us to return our children to school, our loved ones to work, and those who know not better into the crowded streets of a city or aisles of a shopping mall.

Parshah Bamidbar ends with a phrase related to the breaking down and moving of the Sanctuary. “But they shall not go in to see the holy things as they are being covered, lest they die” (Num. 4:20). “K’valah et ha’kodesh” or “as they are being covered” might translate better to “as the (Sanctuary) is being taken apart.” What of this final verse? Many believed that if people were to see the Sanctuary and all of its pieces being disassembled, they would lose the great admiration that they had for the Sanctuary. During the time of this virus, we seem to have been given a glimpse “behind the curtain,” so to speak. Our leaders appear more prone than ever, and their strengths and weaknesses glaring. As they count and plan, hopefully meticulously, we can look to our Mishkan T’filah once again for a short prayer:

“Grant our leaders wisdom and forbearance.

May they govern with justice and compassion.”

Our lives, and the lives of those we love must be protected as G-d protected our ancestors in the wilderness. The moment of truth is coming. History repeats itself. May we all travel safely in the wilderness–Bamidbar–thinking of our neighbors as our loved ones, and protecting the vulnerable with the spark of Divinity that eternally burns within ourselves. May the Shechinah rest within our midst as it did in the tents of our forebearers.

Shabbat Shalom.

-Joshua

Are We Listening?

What Is Shmita, the Sabbatical Year? | My Jewish Learning

God warns us of the consequences of not listening: “I will appoint terror over you, even consumption and fever, that shall make the eyes to fail, and the soul to languish…” (Lev. 26:16).

This seems harsh, but there are some issues that we desperately need to tackle as human beings and Jews. The Jew has never shied away from challenging discussion, and we certainly will not today. To begin, we have seen massive deforestation for purposes of creating timber, urban development and non-expensive agricultural use. It is thought by many scientists that human movement into wild territory might even have contributed to the spread of many viruses, including our current “consumption and fever,” COVID-19. As animals interact with one another and humans in an unnatural manner, the possibility for the emergence of foreign pathogens goes up. Climate change and the melting of the ice caps linger. The list could go on and on. Are there corners of the earth untouched by humankind’s arrogance? Human beings have stripped the gift of our earth to her very core, and she, being more powerful than we, will take back control. Also, it is estimated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization that 815 million people worldwide are the victims of food undernourishment. That is approximately one in every ten people, with most of these individuals living in what we refer to as “developed” countries. We see modern slavery in the form of human trafficking, forced labor, and domestic servitude. American wealth inequality is nefarious at best. To put it simply: earth and those that inhabit her are exhausted.

The ancients knew the risk of exhaustion. God himself rested on the seventh day and made it holy. In parshah Behar, we are exposed to the idea of the “Sabbath-year.” God said, “Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather the produce thereof. But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land” (Lev. 25:3-4). According to Perles of the Hertz Chumash, the freedom of the individual is a fundamental principle of the Torah, as is the freedom of the land from absolute ownership of man. God made it very clear that every seventh year, the land should be used primarily for the feeding of the poor who needed it, and the wild animals who would come across it. This is similar to our prior discussion regarding leaving the corner of the field unharvested, yet, in this case, an entire year should be dedicated to allowing the earth that God has given us to take a break from the strains that human beings put upon her. 

In Leviticus 25:23, God says, “…The land is Mine; for ye are strangers and settlers with Me.” We as human beings, contrary to how many would think and behave in the modern world, do not own the land. We have settled upon the land that has been provided to us by the Divine, and we must respect it, cherish it, and allow it time to reflect, recoup, and re-energize. As we force our way into the wilderness, are we doing so in order to take what we need to sustain us? Are we doing it out of greed? When smog lifts from a city after 7 weeks of semi-isolation to reveal a blue sky previously veiled, we know that the earth is feeling the negative impact of our presence. We pour salt in her wounds, and she is upset. We must listen.

We must remember the Sabbath-year. How can we be a partner in giving the earth a respite? What can we do? Perhaps we can be more mindful of where our food is coming from. We can reduce our emissions, and truly commit to protecting the land God created. Remember, the Torah begins with: “Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz” In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. This earth that God created must be respected and protected. It is written that Flavius Josephus said of the Jewish people, “As for us we do not delight in merchandise, but having a fruitful country for our habitation…” (c. Apion. I. 12). We have been given all of the ingredients to survive and thrive here on earth…have we misused and abused this privilege for material gain? Why, with all of our technology and widespread overdevelopment, are 815 million people hungry in this world? Something is not right. 

We live in a country where the 400 wealthiest Americans own more of the country’s bounty than the 150 million Americans who represent the bottom 60 percent of the wealth distribution. Believe it or not, the Torah provides specific safeguards against exactly this. Enter the “jubilee year.” To put it concisely, God commanded that every fifty years, or after 7 cycles of Sabbath-years, all slaves would be freed along with their families, and property would return to its owner of origin. While some particular caveats existed, the jubilee year was meant to serve as a safeguard against crippling generational poverty, and to prevent the majority of properties from being monopolized by the hands of an elite few. The Talmud tells us very simply, “Wealth in abundance–bad; in moderation–good” (B. Git 70a), or “The more you get, the more you fret” (Avot. 2:7). Does this sound all too familiar? Too few seem to have too much, while most have too little. While human trafficking and egregious forms of slavery still exist in this country–what of the single parent working paycheck-to-paycheck who is underinsured, underpaid, and overworked? Is this not a form of slavery as well? 

To be Jewish is to understand that we are to work with the precious earth we have been given, not against her wishes. We must find a way to provide the earth with something akin to a Sabbath-year again, even in our own micro fashion. We must also look to our neighbors and how we are treating them. Even the slave of the Torah was treated with more respect and dignity than some of our modern workers. In God’s eyes, we are all “…servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 25:42). We do not own the earth or her people. Hunger must cease, the earth must rejuvenate, the wealth be distributed, and the modern slave be freed.

As we are currently forced to give the earth her Sabbath, we must reflect upon these challenges in order to improve. What we were doing before was not working–has God responded? How will we answer? As our Mishkan T’Filah says:

This is the hour of change, and within it,

we stand quietly

on the border of light.

What lies before us?

Shall we draw back, my brother, my sister,

or cross over?

Shalom,

-Joshua

Souls, Not Data

Jews Mourning in a Synagogue', Sir William Rothenstein, 1906 | Tate

“Our thoughts turn to those who have departed this earth: our own loved ones, those whom our friends and neighbors have lost, the martyrs of our people whose graves are unmarked, and those of every race and nation whose lives have been a blessing to humanity. As we remember them, we meditate on the meaning of love and loss, of life and death” (Mishkan T’Filah). 

It is impossible to be alert and alive every single day and not hear about death. We hear about death on our television screens, and we read about it on whatever news websites we choose to consume our onslaught of information from. We hear stories of those we know who have lost loved ones, neighbors, and friends. Perhaps we have lost someone, or a multitude of people. We are all experiencing death as a society in a way that is difficult to compare to anything else (at least in my lifetime). There are those who have lived through the horrors of war, and recall death counts on nightly news stations, and this is apparently reminiscent. Talk of death permeates our current air and airwaves. 

It is now that I believe we have run into the problem of data. We hear and read about numbers. Mortality rate, case fatality rate, rate of infection, active cases, recovered cases, hospitalized in critical condition, simply hospitalized. As of this moment, some experts have projected 3,000 deaths a day by June, and a total of over 230,000 deaths by the end of August. These are horrific numbers. What is even more horrific? The prospect that we become completely desensitized, and the numbers become just that—numbers.

Every single case, every recovery, every fight for life and breath, and every loss is a human soul. We are not losing numbers–we are losing mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, cousins, friends, neighbors. It is vital that we not let go our sense of humanity in the midst of the latest day’s numbers, projections, or models. We can maintain our own sense of well-being without forgetting the uniqueness and singularity of every life that is lost to this pandemic. Judaism teaches us to value life, and is seemingly much more focused on life than on its varied views of death. Deuteronomy 6:2 promises that if one keeps the commandments and the statutes, “…that thy days may be prolonged.” Deuteronomy 5:30 tells us that, “Ye shall walk in all the way which the Lord your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess.” What do we gather from these verses? It seems that from a Jewish perspective, our reward for living well is in the here and now, not in the promise of an unknown afterlife. To put it simply–We want to live. 

Inevitably, our time does come, and sometimes it comes in an abrupt manner. We see that right now with much ferocity in the face of COVID-19. As we experience, either directly, or vicariously, so much suffering and death, it might be comforting to remember that while Judaism focuses much on life, it is likely due to the fact that we can never truly be departed, and the legacy that we leave here lasts forever. This is reminiscent of the moment of Jacob’s death in Genesis. Knowing that he is living his last moments, Jacob blesses his sons and says, “I am to be gathered unto my people; bury me with my fathers…” (Gen. 49:29). During Jacob’s last moments, he speaks of being with Abraham, Sara, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah. WIll Jacob see his ancestors in some sort of afterlife, or is he only giving explicit directions regarding his literal location of burial?  According to Ecclesiastes 12:7, “The dust returns to the earth, where it once was, and the soul returns to God who gave it.” Remember Genesis, which tells us that man was born of “ha’adamah,” which is literally “earth” or “dust.” Perhaps we return to the place from whence we came to be with those who came before us. Perhaps we are not sure. What we do know is that we remain a part of those who come after us. The soul of every person is unique and beautifully important. Perhaps this is another aspect of what made the Holocaust so egregious. Numbering the arms of the Jew, who is anything but able to be categorized numerically is contrary to reason. The treasure of life is one that is passed down, living and breathing in every moment that comes next. 

It is important that we mourn these earthy losses, as perhaps even God does. According to the Talmud, and Rabbi Joshua ben Levi in particular, The Holy One summoned an angel and asked of them, “When a king of flesh and blood loses a dear one and he wishes to mourn, what is customary for him to do?” After telling God that “He hangs a sackcloth over his door,” God agreed to do the same: “I clothe the heavens with blackness, and I make a sackcloth their covering” (Isa. 50:3). We are all kings of queens of our own flesh, and it seems as if this verse could apply to any person. Maybe, right now, the heavens are clothed with a blackness, and we are a group of souls who are mourning with God, not in spite of Him. 

Most of us know of the Mourner’s Kaddish, which, according to the Shulchan Aruch, is to be recited for 11 months after the death of a parent, and 30 days for a spouse, child, or sibling. If one looks at the English translation of the Kaddish, you find nothing about grieving or death. We find the exaltation and praise of God’s name instead. It is considered a great deed to recite the Kaddish for one who has passed on. By saying these words, we are conveying a trust in God’s greatness, and His ability to do what is good. We honor those who have passed by honoring God, and realizing that, perhaps, we are all part of the Divine. Again, we focus on life and legacy, living a life in a present and future that is represented and flavored by the deeds of the past and those who have gone before us. We light candles on deceased loved one’s yahrzeits, and take part in yizkor ceremonies. If someone is truly gone, why do we honor them? It seems that we honor them because they are never truly gone. I was once in a synagogue with a non-Jewish visitor. After seeing the numerous Yahrzeit plaques encompassing the sanctuary, they asked me, “is Judaism very focused on death?” They seemed to feel as if the whole thing was a bit morbid. I mentioned the joy in remembering, and explained what had been told to me by a rabbi: Remembering who they were keeps them alive and a part of who we are. In Judaism, death seems to be only a continuation of the celebration of life. So, yes, Judaism is focused on some aspects that surround death such as burial location, and the reciting of the Mourner’s Kaddish, and the Yahrzeit plaque. What Judaism is not focused on is death as finality. Judaism is to live on always, and that is more powerful than any virus or even death itself. 

As we continue to read the papers, listen to the news, and learn of the inevitable death that is to come, it is important to remind ourselves that it is okay to mourn. God is not distant because we are grieving, but likely grieving alongside us as we all experience a difficult time on this earthly plane of existence. It is more important than ever to live Jewishly in our deeds and actions, and not to become a victim to the numbers game. Death can be viewed as a continuation of life, and is certainly treated that way in Judaism. Every action we take, every moment we have with those around us, molds us into who we are, which becomes who we were, and finally, who they are. 

To those who have gone before us, due to COVID-19, or for any other reason, we say–

”Zichronam liv’rachah.” May their memories be for blessing.

Shalom

-Joshua

Save a Corner

On One Foot - Jewish Stories

This week’s parshah, Kedoshim, is possibly one of the most significant in the Torah. Not only does this parshah signify the middle section of the Book of Leviticus, but it is also considered by some to be the “heart” of the entire Torah, Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses. In this parshah, we are reminded of the ever-so-important commandment, “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Lev. 19:18). There is a famous Talmudic story that tells of the great Rabbi Hillel conversing with a potential convert. The intended-convert approached Rabbi Hillel and said, “Teach me the whole Torah while I stand only on one foot.” Rabbi Hillel responded quickly, “That which you despise, do not do unto your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” While Rabbi Hillel was not undermining the value of the vast remainder of the Torah not mentioned, this reductionist comment seemed to be driving home the fact that the essence of Judaism is the ability to relate to other human beings in a positive way, full of good will. If we cannot treat our fellow human beings with respect, we are not setting ourselves up for spiritual success in any fashion. 

Of particular interest in parshah Kedoshim is the consideration for the poor. In Leviticus 19:9-10, we read: “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corner of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleaning of thy harvest…thou shalt leave them for the poor and for the stranger.” The Torah tells us that when we are gathering our bounty, we should refrain from stockpiling crops from a corner of our field. We are also encouraged not to pick up the gleaning, or fallen crops, from the ground. 

Even the gathering of our food is a task which contains holiness. “kadosh” is holy, and “kedoshim,” the name of the parshah, roughly translates to “holy ones.” Let’s run with that translation.

We can be “kedoshim” by always leaving a little for someone who needs a bit more than we do. The challenge is certainly not always in the giving, but it is in the giving for the sake of giving, and not for the receiving of any attention. How can we truly aspire to altruism? Notice how the Torah asks us not reap a “corner” of the field. This “corner” is different from the “center” of the field, in that it allows for privacy. We should perhaps feel compelled to give without causing undue embarrassment or shame to one who is in need. There is a story of Rabbi Yannai who once saw a man giving a shekel to a poor man. This giving was done in the presence of a large group of people. Rabbi Yannai approached the man who gave, and said: “It would have been better not to have given it to him than to have given it and put him to shame” (B. Hag. 5b). The Talmud also asks us “Which kind of charity saves a man from death? Charity given without knowing to whom it is given…” (B. BB 10a). It seems we should aspire to charity for the sake of holiness, not for the sake of the public square’s affirmation. 

What “gleanings” can we leave behind for those who need it? When we think of “helping the poor,” money is often the first thing that comes to mind. But, are there other ways to give? How can we part with some of the “gleanings” in our lives? In other words, what do we have enough of, that were it to fall from our possession, we could still survive and thrive? Yes, we can give money to the poor if we are in a financial place to do so. But, we can also give some of ourselves in a myriad of ways. Especially in these trying times, a little means a tremendous amount. When we feel as if we have even a modicum of kindness to spare, we can share it. What of a phone call to a friend or family member with whom we have fallen out of contact? How about a nice card or even a kind email to someone whose spirits seem low? Kadosh is in gesture and the intention. Holiness is the smile that alters an entire day. Kadosh is leaving a care package (while socially distancing) on the doorstep of a friend. As our own Mishkan T’Filah Tell us, “entrances to holiness are everywhere.” If our eyes are open, they certainly are. 

Rabbi Hillel has made it clear that the Torah, in all of its beautiful verses and analyzed texts, can be summarized as the way to learning to treat others with kindness, dignity, and respect. Would you want it done to you? If not, then do not do it to someone else. Sir Moses Montefiore, the famous Jewish-English public welfare devotee, said that from the Jewish perspective, the person who gives to the beggar should thank the beggar for the opportunity that has been given him to give. What kind of world would we live in if we all strived to comprehend this unique perspective? Perhaps a world free from selfishness, harshness, and cruelty. One day, when we ourselves are in need, we need not announce our temporary plight in the center of someone else’s field, but simply take from the corner, as we will do for our fellow human beings again when we are able.

I wish to leave you today with a few questions. Do you reap your entire field, leaving not a corner of it unharvested? What areas of your life can you afford to give a bit of yourself without expecting to receive any recognition or attention? If we are to live Jewishly, it seems that we must look at the self-satisfaction gained from giving as we would an idol. “Turn ye not unto the idols…” (Lev. 19:4). “Idols” in this case would literally mean non-entities, or things that do not exist. Pay no mind to the idea of rewards gained from kindness. Leaving a corner of our field, and that which has fallen, or the glean, for others, is the very essence of treating others with kindness, dignity, and respect. The way to “kedusha,” or holiness, is in the manner in which we treat our fellow human beings: the wealthy, the poor, the neighbor, the stranger. 

We have a responsibility: “Ye shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Lev. 19:2). Remember those entrances to holiness as existing in all things. May we all be blessed to leave the corners of the fields of our souls rich with the bounty of a life lived in search of the holiness that is intrinsic in all things. 

Shabbat Shalom.

-Joshua

A “Clean” Soul

8 Lepers in the Bible (and Midrash) - What Do You Think? - Parshah

This week, we delve into two parahshot that are mostly famous for their dealings with the condition known as “leprosy.” The Torah describes a very specific protocol for how to identify, treat, quarantine, and eventually purify someone who has been afflicted with “tzaraat.” Leviticus chapter 13, verse 2 says, “When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.” There is certainly a great deal to unpack regarding the attention given to “tzaraat” in the Torah, and how we, as moderns, can consume and digest this ancient information in a meaningful way. 

When reading through the Torah’s chapters on “tzaraat,” one could take all of the information and prescriptions quite literally. A person afflicted with “tzaraat” was considered physically impure and was thus barred from entering the Sanctuary. In fact, someone who was affected was largely considered dead to the people of Israel until they were deemed to be cured. Talmudic Rabbi Yohanan even once said that a person should be forbidden to walk four cubits to the east of a leper. Rabbi Yohanan’s colleague Rabbi Simeon, not to be outdone, said that one should not walk even one hundred cubits east of a leper. It turns out that both were in agreement, but Rabbi Yohanan was referring to a time when the wind was not blowing. It seems that the Torah and the scholars of the Talmud were in agreement that something was quite amiss when “tzaraat” had been inflicted upon an individual. 

There are some issues to explore before we move any further. What was once called leprosy is a diagnosable medical condition called Hansen’s Disease, and it is actually quite difficult to transfer from one person to another. The CDC makes it clear that Hansen’s Disease transmission from person-to-person requires prolonged exposure to an infected person over many months, and many of the signs and symptoms are not quite consistent with what is described in the Torah. The word “tzaraat” that is so often translated to mean “leprosy,” is a questionable translation that likely has its roots in the Septuagint, or “Greek Old Testament.” When being translated into Greek, ‘tzaraat” was replaced with the Greek word for “scaly,” which is “lepra.” Talk about an affliction that was likely lost in translation.

So, what to make of “tzaraat” in the Torah? I am inclined to agree with 19th century German Rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsh. According to Rabbi Hirsh, the scripture only mentions treatment of “tzaraat” by kohanim, or priests, and no medical experts or healers are mentioned at all. So… 

Perhaps “tzaraat” should be examined as a physical manifestation of a malady of the soul. 

According to the tradition of the Rabbis, a person who has been infected with “tzaraat” is known as a “metzora.” This word, “metzora,” is a Hebrew contraction of the words “motzi” and “ra,” and translates to “a person who spreads slander.” Hertz’s commentary mentions how the Rabbis actually referred to “tzaraat” as a punishment for tale bearing or slander. Essentially, a person who talks about others, spreads falsehoods, and does damage by lying and deceiving, should be removed from the people of Israel. When we are talking about ailments of the soul and spirit, kohanim, or priests, being the primary caretakers begins to make sense. “When the plague of leprosy is in a man, then he shall be brought unto the priest” (Lev. 13:9). Notice how the plague is in a man, and not on a man. Interesting wording for a skin disease, no?

We do damage to ourselves and others when we act as a “metzora.” The Torah talks of raw flesh rising, boils, and white spots of infection. Physical manifestations of what our soul might go through when we slander others, or act selfishly. We all know people who we deem to be “toxic.” we can have toxic friends, toxic family members, and toxic co-workers. Intimate relationships, and even marriages can become what we refer to as toxic. Do we imply that the relationship is literally poisonous? Of course not. When we are involved in toxic situations or with toxic people, it leaves us feeling drained, stressed, anxious, and even sick. People who act in a toxic way tend to bring those around them down as well, and the contagiousness of their toxic behavior can sometimes only be avoided by creating distance. Sometimes we must quarantine ourselves emotionally and spiritually from the toxic person or situation. This is not a COVID-19 type of quarantine, but one of the soul. As Jews, we make up only about 0.2 percent of the world’s population. Our communities are often small, and it is easy for a toxicity of behavior to disrupt the well-being of an entire community. The Torah makes it clear that the plague can infect ourselves, our homes, even our garments. No area of our life is untouched by one who acts with toxic intentions. “This is the law of the plague of leprosy…” (Lev. 13:59). “The law,” referring to the prescription of how to remove “uncleanliness” from the people of Israel.

It is important that we look at not only who we choose to surround ourselves with, what relationships to nurture, and what situations to attend to–but also that we look inward and reflect upon our own behaviors. How can we lift people up instead of putting them down? Are there any toxic behaviors or tendencies that we can work on rectifying? Is my soul bogged down with “tzaraat?” The next time we act, perhaps we should envision that the intentions of our actions will manifest themselves on our skin. What kind of beauty or boil would my actions create on my outer-self? If our answer does not satisfy, perhaps it is time to isolate and destroy the toxic “tzaraat” in our souls. And then, “…after that may [we] come into the camp” (Lev. 14:8) and rejoin our people, who need us to have a clear mind with good intentions. 

May we all be blessed to “clean” up our own toxicity, and to remove the “tzaraat” from our daily lives. We, as Jews, must always be looking to improve and lift up the world and those who inhabit it. 

Shalom.

-Joshua

For Yom HaShoah

7 Ideas for Observing Yom HaShoah from Home | ReformJudaism.org

As we observe Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day on a yearly basis, we are told the stories of death and the stories of survivial in the midst of the most tangible evil imaginable. The 6 million Jews who were murdered, and also the millions of others killed, can never be forgotten, lest we allow this evil to rear its head once again on this earth. As famous survivor and eventual “Nazi hunter” Simon Wiesenthal once said, “For evil to flourish, it only requires that good men do nothing.” I would alter that to say “good people.” In the Talmud, Rabbi Assi said: “At first the impulse to evil is as thin as a spider’s gossamer, but in the end it is as thick as a cart rope” (B. Suk 52a).

What do we make of Rabbi Assi’s words? Let’s examine for a moment. The gut-wrenching scenes of death, murder, and genocide that were left in the wake of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” did not happen overnight. The seeds of all hatred and evil are sown and take time to grow. They need to be nourished, watered, and given sunlight in order to blossom into the full-fledged and realized nightmare that was the Holocaust. “At first the impulse to evil is as thin as a spider’s gossamer…” The evil impulses that sparked the Shoah or any other hate-filled evil campaign likely began as what one might call a series of microaggressions. A microaggression can be something as seemingly miniscule as a dirty look or an off-color comment. “They are all like that, or, “Those people all do that.” Have we ever seen someone cross the street to avoid even passing by someone who was perceived as different? An eye roll, a rude sigh, the feeding of a stereotype–all of these microaggressions are the ammunition that can ultimately culminate in actualized shots fired.

We must ask the question–How do people get to a place where others are perceived as somehow less than human, or how does the spider’s gossamer become as thick as a cart rope, as Rabbi Assi would say? Psychology tells us that the group that is being dehumanized is first categorized, not as human at all, but as beast or sub-human. The Nazis were well-known for propaganda that crudely depicted Jews as rats and parasites. The categorization, along with vivid imagery and metaphor are meant to evoke an emotional reaction from the dominant group. If a rat is perceived as dirty and needing to be exterminated in someone’s mind, how does one convince them to feel the same way about a Jewish person? The Jew is described, depicted, and compared to something less-than-human, and becomes, over time, in the mind of those who are being fed the information, less than human. The screams of a Jew exiting a train at Auschwitz, or being ripped from their homes and families, become nothing more than the equivalent of the squeals of a rat caught in a trap.

This process is systematic and sneaky. This is why a microaggression is never “just a comment,” or “just an isolated incident.” There is not “just,” and there never can be, if we wish to prevent the horrors of the Holocaust from ever happening to the Jews, or any other marginalized group, ever again. We must cut the gossamer long before it ever becomes a cart rope.

We know that we must remain vigilant, remember, and continue to teach the horrors of the Holocaust to future generations. But, what about G-d? Perhaps we have heard people question the existence of G-d altogether based upon the Shoah. “How could G-d let this happen?” or, “If G-d exists, wouldn’t He have stopped such horrific things from occurring?” While these questions are large, and perhaps mostly unanswerable, it does not mean we should avoid broaching them. Remember, “Israel” quite literally means to wrestle with G-d. Jews do not have to be wary of questioning. Rabbi Nahman of the Talmud brings up an interesting scriptural insight into man’s capacity for evil. In reference to Genesis 2:17, Rabbi Nahman points out how the Hebrew word “Va-yitzer” is spelled with two yods. “Va-yitzer” translates to “He formed man.” Why are the two yods in the word? Rabbi Nahman attributes this spelling to the fact that G-d created two “yetzers,” or “impulses” in man. One impulse was created to good, and the other to evil (B. Ber 61a). The good impulse is referred to as “yetzer hatov,” and the evil as “yetzer hara.” The Talmud tells us that the evil yetzer hara can be reined in completely by yetzer hatov.

What can we take from this? Good can overcome evil, and the light of our deeds and mitzvot will outlast the darkness of evil. We can garner evidence of the ability of good to overcome evil directly in the Torah. In Genesis 8:21 G-d says: “…for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” If evil is the original dominant impulse of man, how does there exist so much good in the world? How could Anne Frank write in her famous diary at such a tender age that, “Despite everything, I believe people are really good at heart.” Perhaps it is because G-d is in Anne’s diary. Even as Anne and her loved ones faced unimaginable hardship and death, Anne saw the overwhelming and unflappable goodness of G-d in humankind. G-d is in even what seems like the smallest act of tzedakah, or the seemingly flash in the pan mitzvah. If a microaggression is the seed of the flower of terrible evil, then the smallest act of good is the seed of an entire tree of kindness, good, and righteousness.

We see the good among evil in our world right now. How many beautiful acts of kindness do we see in response to the current and brutally unforgiving pandemic? We hear stories of selfless heroism in the form of “essential work.” When hope appears hard to come by, it does seem as if people really are good at heart. Yes, the yetzer hara exists, and it is our job to make sure that yetzer hatov addresses evil impulses and then exiles them into oblivion. It is our job to do good. The Mishkan T’Filah says “Pray as if everything depended on G-d. Act as if everything depended on you.”

The presence of evil in the world does not imply that G-d does not exist, it proves that we still have work to do.

We must “overreact” to words, actions, and hints of hatred and evil. We must cut the rope of evil while it is in its gossamer-like infancy, never letting it reach the actualization of a sturdy rope. The snowball of hate is like a thief in the night, so we must keep the lights on at all times, remembering that evil has happened, but G-d has given us all the blessing of preventing it from ever happening again. We are armed with knowledge, tradition, and awareness. We must never forget the 6 million Jews of the Shoah. Their memories are even more than for a blessing, but also an impulse to do good now and in the future–the breath of yetzer hatov.

I would like to close with the prayer El Malei Rachamim (God Full of Compassion)

Fully compassionate God on high:

To our six million brothers and sisters

murdered because they were Jews,

grant clear and certain rest with You

in the lofty heights of the sacred and pure

whose brightness shines like the very glow of heaven.

Source of mercy:

Forever enfold them in the embrace of Your wings;

secure their souls in eternity.

Adonai: they are Yours.

They will rest in peace.

Amen.

Joshua

Please Take Off Your Shoes

Printable Please Take Off Your Shoes Sign – Free Printable Signs

I think it is safe to say that we are all currently worried, if not preoccupied, about germs, viruses and bacteria. We live amidst constant reminders that the world is not safe, and that we are in danger. There is a new hand-written sign outside of my house directly adjacent to our mezuzah that says, “Please take off your shoes.” Oh, how we have always blamed those shoes for tracking in a myriad of creepy crawly microscopic bacteria. If science tells us anything, taking our shoes off before entering a home is certainly an idea based in sound logic. With a newborn safely inside, and Covid-19 rampaging outside, taking off our shoes seems like the least that can be done in my own home. After some consideration, I have realized that this sign, which was constructed by my wife, could also be interpreted as something rooted in the Divine. 

I am proposing that we all take off our shoes–but perhaps not only to reduce the spread of germs and bacteria. Remember that G-d said to Moses: “…put off thy shoes from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). While it might be easy to continue reading the Torah, and sort of ruffle through that whole bit about footwear, a closer look is certainly required. I was reading through the Book of Joshua a night or two ago, and this whole shoe (or sandal) issue came up again. “The captain of the Lord’s host answered Joshua, ‘Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy” (Joshua 5:15). While there are many commentaries and interpretations regarding why G-d asked this of two of the most famous prophets, Martin Buber gives a simple and beautiful explanation. In Buber’s “Ten Rungs,” he tells us that G-d has commanded Moses to take off his shoes due to the fact that there exists no rung of being on which we cannot find the holiness of G-d everywhere and at all times. 

G-d is not only everywhere, but always there. While we are confined in our homes, G-d is there as much as G-d is in our synagogues or with us as we travel. G-d is there. I remember eight-plus hour days at work–wearing shoes from the early morning until late in the evening. My feet would be tired and suffocated, seemingly longing for the glorious freedom of the floor. Since we are all better off being home now, it might be the best time to “take off our shoes,” if even in a spiritual way. In Bereishit we are told, “Vayitzer Adonai Elohim et ha’adam, afar min ha’adamah” or, “And the Lord G-d created man, of the dust from the earth” (Genesis 2:7). Since we have come from dust, perhaps we should embrace some of it with our own feet. Do we not put shoes, or barriers, between ourselves and G-d all the time? 

I know that I am guilty of this myself. I have a beautiful newborn baby, but do I ever miss a moment when her incredible blue eyes are open to read the latest news about the spread of Covid-19? I am sure I do. How can we live in this moment without shoes? We use them to complete an outfit, to make us taller, to give us status. Now is the time we are permitted to let those pressures fade away. While we are all required to be barefoot, should we not take some time to really feel our feet on the ground? The hustle and bustle of our routine lives requires us to wear many pairs of shoes. Now, we can take time to wiggle our toes in the sand of our spirits, and find something holy in everything. Happiness, which is such a packed term, can perhaps be located within what we view as the minutiae or humdrum of our own homes. Martin Buber said that, “Happiness settles the spirit, but sorrow drives it into exile.” Sorrow is around us, and the challenge is to find G-d, holiness and happiness in an uncomfortable and new setting that is void of footwear. 

If we are having trouble finding beauty and the Divine in our homes, it is perhaps helpful to recall that G-d did not first appear and speak to Moses as some majestic gesture in the sky, but in the form of a simple bush that was burning unconsumed. How many bushes on the ground do we miss while always looking up and searching for glorious redwoods? Our tradition tells of Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah, who replied to a question regarding why G-d chose a bush instead of a grander sort of tree to communicate with Moses. Rabbi ben Korhah replied that no matter what kind of tree, be it a sycamore or a carob tree, the same question would still have been asked. He said that G-d used the bush to show us that no place on earth, even a bush, is devoid of G-d’s presence. (Exod. R. 2:5). Perhaps we can take the time to notice the bushes a bit more as we walk barefoot for the foreseeable future.

As my family got home from a quick drive around town (we stayed in the car, I promise), I took off my shoes before entering the house as the sign commanded me. I was holding my large five-year-old boy, and it would have been easy to wince and complain, but I decided to root myself in bushes and bare feet. How blessed am I that my son still wants me to hold him? After the world became quiet with sleep, my newborn daughter and I were left awake. I found myself smiling, and putting my hands upon her, her big blue eyes wide open, saying these words that I wish to share with you today as well:

Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishm’recha.

Ya-eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka.

Yisa Adonai panav eilecha

V’yaseim l’cha shalom.

May G-d bless you and keep you.

May G-d’s light shine upon you, and may G-d be gracious to you.

May you feel G-d’s presence within you always, and may you find peace.

She quickly stared at me and burped. I laughed, felt my bare feet on the floor, sensed the happiness Buber described, and attended to this bush-like moment. 

May you all be blessed to feel the ground beneath your feet, and to feel the presence of the Divine in your own homes as we inhabit them more often than we usually do. If you begin to feel overwhelmed with fear, or out of touch with that which grounds you in joy and happiness, Remember that you can always rely on a seemingly simple act rooted in the Divine. Please take off your shoes–for you are standing on holy ground. Always.

Shalom.

Joshua

Something to Nosh on

What Makes Certain Foods Kosher?

Rabbi Avdimi of Haifa is said to have taught that: “Before a man eats and drinks, he [being distraught] has two hearts. After he eats and drinks, he has but one heart” (Baba Batra 12b). It is no secret that historically, the Jewish people have a strong relationship with food. Yes, many traditions have a notable bond with edible nourishment, but Judaism seems to be very specific regarding just what to eat and how to eat it. This connection between human beings and food is given special consideration in this week’s parshah, Shemini. The overall laws pertaining to living a pure life are given in Vaykira (or Leviticus) chapters 11-24, beginning with the Jewish dietary laws, or laws of kashrut, in Chapter 11 of Vayikra.

While it would likely be redundant to call out all of the laws to you today (Read Leviticus chapter 11 for the comprehensive guide), let us focus on the why of these dietary prescriptions. According to Proverbs 11:17, “He who does good to his own person is a man of mercy.” Also, the great Rabbi Hillel once said to a disciple, “Is not my poor soul a guest in my body–here today and tomorrow here no longer?” (Vayikra Rabbah 34:3) What it seems like we are seeing a glimpse of is a call for the original Jewish version of the popular term “self-care.” Hertz’s commentary tells us that all of the dietary laws of Judaism are meant to maintain a healthy soul  within a healthy body. In short, can we not use food as one way of taking care of our bodies while our souls are blessed to be in them? 

While reading through the Torah at face value, the reasons for excluding pork, and “all that have not fins and scales in the waters…” (Lev. 11:9) might seem odd or trivial, but rest assured that the intentions are truly holy. The Jewish people were brought out of the land of Egypt in order to be a holy people, and the dietary laws differentiated the clean from the unclean, and the detestable from the honorable. It is even written that in the Middle Ages, during horrific epidemics, the Jewish people tended to fare better than many of their neighbors. This health boost has been attributed, in large part, to the laws of kashrut. This tidbit hits particularly close to home given the current state of world health. There is certainly both an earthly and Heavenly method and interplay to the rules. We were always told as youngsters, “you are what you eat,” and the dietary laws appear to agree with this notion. If what we put into our bodies is clean, so will our souls be. Now, I am not here to prescribe to you a strictly kosher diet, or to ask you if you “keep kosher.” This can be a subject of great emotion for many, as adhering to a strictly kosher diet has been something that has kept the Jews for generations. Many Maccabees, as one example of many, chose death over the breaking of the dietary laws. While different Jewish people often view these laws disparately in the modern world, I must take a cue from Hermann Cohen who stated that, “The mere striving after holiness in itself sanctifies.” We all have different perspectives and experiences which have led us to our current paths. 

I only wish to give a simple reminder that we must take care of our entire selves, and I believe that there is much we can take from the dietary laws in terms of the grand scale. When someone is sick, we say “r’fuah sh’leimah,” which is a complete healing of the body and spirit. How do we engage in self-care, ensuring that our bodies and spirits are running at optimal capacity? Do we eat healthy foods as often as we can? Do we exercise and practice deep breathing or something else that can calm down our excited sympathetic nervous systems? What are your own personal means to a healthy mind-body-soul connection? I make it a point to ask as many people as I can reach to tell me three things that they do exclusively for themselves in a day. If people cannot think of three things (which happens very often), I tell them that they have some thinking to do for the night. In a Jewish sense, regular self-care practices that we engage in can serve not only to bring us good physical health, but can also enable us to cultivate a more fruitful relationship with The Divine.

If you do adhere strictly to the laws of kashrut, I hope that you find health, joy, and connection with G-d in this practice. For those who are on a different path, I hope you are also able to find all of these things, and be confident that you are worth taking care of. 

For all of us, food can certainly be a good place to start along the path to wellness. As Rabbi Meir said, “Grind food well with your teeth, and you will find in your feet the strength to carry your body” (B. Shab. 152a). I wish you all good health of the body and soul as you continue to sojourn toward your own holiness. Nosh responsibly.

Shalom,

Joshua

Erev Pesach

The Death Angel Passes Over an Israelite Door Marked with the ...

As we approach Erev Pesach on 14 Nisan, we seemingly find ourselves in a situation that is frightening, isolative, and odd. We either read the news, or experience directly (or both), the horrors of a plague that have shaken the world. Some might find it strange to be talking about freedom from enslavement in Egypt during a time when many of us feel trapped– but this is not a time to despair– but a time to be aware, to be smart, to hope, and to take time to look back. Yes, this Passover seder will feel different than most. While we are told to distance, we are used to sharing the beautiful experience of a seder with loved ones, friends, and even strangers. While we talk of the 10 plagues during our respective, and perhaps small, Pesach seders, we will be in the midst of a current plague. What is so frightening about this plague we are currently experiencing? It is said to be…many things, and not other things. It is one thing one day, and another the next. The fact is that we do not know very much about this plague yet. The unknown is as scary as darkness, locusts, boils, or many of the other afflictions described in the Torah. Perhaps we can find some comfort in the age-old Jewish response to the unknown: resilience and courage. 

While being a bit isolated at home, it has become difficult not to think about solitude. If we look back to the story of Pesach in the Book of Exodus, or Shemot, we can find an interesting bit of text:

“…and none of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side-posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you” (Exodus 12:22-23).

According to Rashi’s commentary, G-d said to the people of Israel, “I will direct my eye to see whether you are occupied in obeying my precepts, and then I will spare you.” 

Directly in the Torah, G-d tells the Israelites to stay in their houses. If they do not follow some very specific instructions, they will become victims of a sudden and mysterious demise. Just ponder the phrase, “And none of you shall go out of his house until the morning.” Are we, as moderns, not currently experiencing an extended version of this night? We are wise to remain in our homes, lest we be afflicted with the terror of the modern plague. We hunker down so that we might avoid “the destroyer” setting foot into our own homes and infecting us with disease. We are told to obey the command to socially distance so that the angel of death or the destroyer will pass over our own homes, and spare those whom we love and care so deeply for. 

Most of us know how the rest of the story of Pesach plays out, and many of us will literally play it out with Haggadah in hand during our soon-to-come Pesach seders. The people of Israel follow the commands of G-d, and are eventually led by Moses into the wilderness, and finally (after many years) across the Jordan, and into the promised land. How do we, as Jews, deal with the night before, and how do we look for the light in darkness? Fortunately, we are experts as a people. Remember when Abram (later Abraham) left his land, and faced the unknown? How about the more recent pitch black night of the Holocaust. Pesach Seders were held in secret, and Shabbat candles were lit discreetly, under threat of death, during what was perhaps the longest night in Jewish history. Eventually, Abram became the father of a great nation, and the Jews survived the Shoah in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. We are accustomed to night, and we have always been awake to see the light of morning–even when the darkness was so overwhelming that it felt thick and infinite. 

What can we do right now? It can feel easy to talk about the nights of the past–but experiencing a night is vastly different than reading about those gone by with the light of midday sun illuminating our reflection. As the people of Israel were given instructions as to how to remain safe when the angel of destruction was passing through, we have been given instructions in a different way, and through different channels. We have been instructed to stay home (sound familiar?), to wash our hands, to only go out for essentials, and to maintain a safe distance if we encounter others. While these instructions are not necessarily those of G-d, they can still provide us with safety during our current arduous night. I have recently spoken of Rabbi Ishmael, who believed that Heaven had given physicians the power and permission to heal. According to the Mishneh Torah by Maimonides, health care is the most important communal service that can be offered to a community (Hilchot De’ot 4:23). If this is true, can we not look to Dr. Anthony Fauci and other experts during this time of crisis for practical guidance? We can listen, but the unknown is undoubtedly still present and scary. 

It will however, end. According to Rabbi Akiva, G-d brought the people of Israel out of Egypt during the month of Nisan because the weather was right. It was not too hot or too cold. G-d intended for the people to have proper conditions for their upcoming journey. While a Divine plan might not always be clear, clarity does seem to eventually illuminate the darkness.

When the night ended in Egypt, G-d told the people Israel not to forget about what had occurred. “And this day shall be unto you for a memorial, and ye shall keep it a feast to the Lord; throughout your generations ye shall keep it a feast by an ordinance forever” (Exodus 12:14). When this long and uneasy night inevitably ends, we can look to the past in order to face the future. We can remember never to let the lessons we have learned, and will continue to learn, vanish in the sun. When our children and grandchildren ask us about this night, we will tell them how we were frightened, how we felt alone, and then how we stepped out of the darkness with our trademark resilience and courage intact. We can tell them how we listened to instructions, and how we did all we could to keep one another safe. We can tell them of the Heavenly work of healthcare and other amazing workers who helped to sustain us all the way through. And with even a bit of faith in G-d, we can tell anyone who asks that G-d brought us out as He did from Egypt, when the time and “weather” was just right to begin our newest journey. 

Chag Pesach Sameach.

Joshua

Laying in the Field

Image result for sunset over field of bluebonnets painting

In a Talmudic parable, the sages tell us of a time that the great Rabbi Akiva was traveling along the road and approached a town where he decided that he would seek lodging for the night. Not a place or person in the town would give Rabbi Akiva a place to rest his head for the evening, to which he replied to his companions: “Whatever the Holy One does, He does for good.” Rabbi Akiva went on his way to spend the night in an open field with a rooster, a donkey, and a candle as his only possessions. In the night, a gust of wind came, and extinguished the candle. Soon after that, a cat approached and ate the rootster. Finally, a lion came upon Rabbi Akiva’s donkey, and devoured the animal. Still, Rabbi Akiva told his companions: “Whatever the Holy One does, He does for good.” Rabbi Akiva was now alone with his companions. That night, an army came into the city that had denied him lodging, and took the entirety of its population into captivity. Rabbi Akiva had no candle to give away his location, and no noisy donkey or rooster to make a sound that could be heard by the soldiers. Rabbi Akiva turned to his companions and said, “Didn’t I tell you, ‘whatever the Holy One does, He does for good’? (B. Ber 60b-61a). 

As we all know, we are living in what seem to be unprecedented times. The novel coronavirus, which we now so intimately know as COVID-19, has taken over many of our minds, and some of our bodies as well. There is no need to sugarcoat the fact that people are suffering, whether it be emotionally, spiritually or physically. Fear of the unknown while sitting in our homes can take over our lives. WIthout our regular physical interactions to ease our minds, it can be a time of great spiritual turmoil for many. What is happening? Why is this happening? What will life be like afterward? Why? If we put ourselves in Rabbi Akiva’s shoes, we are laying in the open field, our candle has blown out, leaving us in complete darkness, and our rooster and donkey have just been eaten by wild animals. This is the time when many do the most questioning. How could G-d let this happen, and what did we do to deserve this? Rabbi Akiva was confident that G-d had a long-term plan, and all of the suffering and hardship that he was prescribed to endure in the short-term, was actually for the best. In what seemed like a dire situation, Rabbi Akiva was actually being protected by G-d. Is this to mean we are not meant to question? As we have talked about before, the word “Israel” quite literally means to wrestle or struggle with G-d. So, it would seem that questioning, wondering, and doubting are all very Jewish ways to handle the situation. If we look closely at Rabbi Akiva’s words, he does not say that everything G-d does is or feels good, but that it is all for good. When the soldiers stormed the town that had denied him, Rabbi Akiva’s macro view of G-d’s good intentions had come to fruition. 

While parables can be quite nice and fitting, they do not always calm our anxieties or questions about G-d. it is quite fathomable that perhaps we cannot quite even begin to imagine G-d, or G-d’s intentions or actions. In fact, G-d is so unknowable to human beings that to even begin to try and understand would be impossible. Remember back to Moses in Exodus 33:18 when he says to G-d, “Oh, let me behold Your Presence!” In Exodus 33:20, G-d says to Moses, “‘Thou canst not see my face, for man shall not see Me and live.’” How can man fathom the unfathomable? My mentor, Rabbi Norman Mendel, would commonly refer to the Shema prayer when people were having difficulty with G-d. “Shema Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad-Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.” Rabbi Mendel would say that perhaps we can interpret “One” to mean “One at a time.” G-d can mean different things to us at various places and points in our lives. Rabbi Jacob Staub likes to imagine G-d as some sort of air that is everywhere, both external and internal to us all. He reminds us that the Hebrew word, “ru’ah,” means both spirit and wind. Perhaps everything is interconnected. Rabbi Staub describes how he asks G-d “What is the invitation in this?” when troubling things occur. The situation surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is certainly a time during which we can all ask G-d, no matter our interpretation of The Presence, “What is the invitation in this?”

Are we now invited (or semi-ordered) to stay at home, or to “socially distance?” Is this a time to think about all that we could be doing outside of our own home, and how many of our favorite factory outlets and restaurants are closed? Perhaps we are mourning the suspension of our favorite team’s basketball or hockey games. What about our own conception of “shalom bayit,” or peace in the home? Is this not a time to look at our spouse or partner in the eyes, and share a genuine conversation and laugh without distraction? Have we actually taken a real moment and played with our children enough? Judaism takes place as much in the home (if not more) as it does in a synagogue. We can strive toward a peaceful, communicative, and understanding home during these trying times. We have no choice but to appreciate and surround ourselves with those closest to us, and to work toward a harmonious life within the confines of our own residences. 

Perhaps this is also an invitation for our own planet to begin to heal. As human beings have retreated into their homes, have we not seen a decrease in air pollution in quarantined countries? Will our planet begin to heal and be an example for some of the relationships in our own lives? We can only look away for so long. This is a time to examine our own relationships with our planet, with our souls, and with one another. 

This is also an invitation to appreciate and respect. The doctors, nurses, healthcare workers, and so many others who are putting their own health at risk for the healing of others is truly inspiring. The sages of the school of Rabbi Ishmael thought that Heaven had given physicians permission to heal. This inference is based upon Exodus 21:19, which says: “He shall cause him to be thoroughly healed” (B. Ber 60a). It seems to me that all healthcare workers are doing the work of The Heavens during this pandemic. If we are not healthcare workers, we can refer to Leviticus 19:18, and “…love thy neighbor as thyself.” This “Golden Rule of Judaism” essentially tells us to treat others how we would like to be treated. Staying home seems to be the best way to love our neighbors right now. A phone call, FaceTime, or a Zoom session is showing much more love than a handshake or a hug currently. While the healthcare workers fight to keep sick people alive, we can do our part to keep less people sick. 

On Friday nights, we often recite a prayer responsively which says, “Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency; Make us dissatisfied. Dissatisfied with the peace of ignorance, the quietude which arises from a shunning of the horror, the defeat, the bitterness and the poverty, physical and spiritual, of humans” (Mishkan T’Filah p. 55). Most of us have been disturbed, ruffled, and shocked with the current state of the world. Has the greater world become complacent in the face of human and planetary crisis? Have we ourselves become complacent? This is, of course, open to your interpretation and opinion. If G-d does indeed send us messages, this appears to be quite a powerful one. Our job is to take the message or invitation, and do with it what we can in a constructive manner. 

I hope that as we eventually peer and step outside of our houses, we will look up from our phones and greet one another with a gratitude that was perhaps lost before. I hope we never take for granted a pat on the shoulder from a friend, the kissing of a grandchild, or even praying in a shared space. I hope we can hit the reset button and fix some of what had been broken, or allow what was broken to begin to heal itself. 

As the dust settles, perhaps we can all begin to anticipate the beauty that will come from the seemingly broken. We can all look to the day when we will collectively hear Rabbi Akiva’s voice asking, “Did I not tell you that ‘whatever the Holy One does, He does for good?’” 

In the meantime, I wish all of those suffering r’fuah sh’leimah, a complete healing of the body and spirit. Let our suffering, both physical and mental be the means to a beautiful and good new beginning. For now, let us enjoy laying in the open field.

Shalom.

Joshua