How to Judge a Prophet

Image: President Donald Trump listens as Dr. Anthony Fauci speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Friday, March 20, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Lately there have been a lot of people making predictions about the future: that the country will open back up over the next month or so, that if we do open up it will be a disaster, that the coronavirus is some kind of hoax, that the U.S. is on its way to being the pariah among first-world nations, this one will will the next election, no that one will….etc., etc.

Torah teaches us to be wary of people who claim to know the future. There’s an interesting passage in the Book of Deuteronomy which lays out the Rules for Prophets.

First of all, it sets out what prophets are not: they are not augurs, soothsayers, diviners, sorcerers, casters of spells, or consulters with ghosts. They were not necromancers or magicians. All those jobs are described as “abominations.” (Deut. 18:12)

Next the passage lays out a discussion about the reasons for, and requirements for prophets. A Hebrew prophet was an ordinary Hebrew whose life was taken over by God, God used that person as a mouthpiece whenever there was an important message to convey, which could be hazardous for the prophet. The role did not guarantee honor or even respect: Jeremiah suffered horribly for his prophecies, and died in a deep pit in Egypt for his trouble.

Just after that, the Torah asks an interesting question: how do you tell a false prophet from a true one? The answer it gives is slippery: if they speak in the name of God and what they say comes true, then the prophet is genuine (Deut. 18:22) If their words don’t come true, then they are false prophets and we shouldn’t listen to them.

For Jews, the Age of Prophecy is closed, but we still sometimes have to decide whom to believe when it comes to predictions about the future. That has been a sharp issue when it comes to the current pandemic: there is a lot of variation in the predictions, and the information seems to change every day. The disarray in information is extremely stressful, a state that also isn’t good for our immune systems.

Worse yet, there are all sorts of conspiracy theories circulating, and accusations about who is hoaxing whom.

Torah cuts through all of that with a simple question: what sort of track record does the speaker have? Has he expertise in this matter? What level of expertise? Do they have a track record managing pandemics? Or if not a medical expert, on what basis is this person making their claims to expertise? And what about past prognostications: is this just the latest sensational click-bait theory or have they been right about things in the past?

Torah encourages us to ask for credentials and a track record, whether we are questioning a prophet or the modern-day variations on that theme. As they say in Missouri, “Show me!”

Lag B’Omer: A Lesson on Plagues

Image: Mask, Gloves, and Hand Sanitizer (Klaus Hausmann / Pixabay)

It’s Lag B’Omer, and the year is 2020. It’s not an ordinary year.

Where I live, we cannot do a lot of the things associated with this minor Jewish holiday: no big weddings, no parties, no beach bonfires. We can have haircuts if we want, as long as we are willing to do it ourselves. This is the year of #COVID-19 and #StayAtHome.

Here’s a link to what I usually teach about Lag B’Omer. The short version is that it’s a break in the time of semi-mourning we call Counting the Omer.

This year, I’m looking at Lag B’Omer a little differently. Tradition teaches that the first half of the Omer is so serious because we are remembering a plague that killed many of Rabbi Akiva’s students. According to the story, the plague stopped on the 19th of Iyyar, so we pause today to celebrate.

A plague ended? And we are celebrating 2000 years later? Once I would have said that was a bit excessive, but that was before I experienced a pandemic.

Today, on Lag B’Omer, I’m taking the day to remind myself that this will not last forever. The plague among Rabbi Akiva’s students didn’t last forever. The Black Death didn’t last forever. The Spanish Flu didn’t last forever. COVID-19 will not last forever, either.

So today’s lesson is: it won’t go on forever. It will be over sooner if we treat it seriously. Many people talk about the conflicting needs of health and the economy: I say, those are a false competition. There’s no economy if too many people are sick, much less dead or dying. We need to follow the precepts of the scientists if we want to restart the economy successfully. We need to test, and trace, and treat the sick. We need to stop acting as if some people are expendable, because the core lesson of this horror is that we are not really individuals: our bodies are linked. Our survival is linked. We are all part of one human family.

Today, I remind myself that COVID-19 will not last forever, and I will work for the day when we see a FULL recovery: recovery from this plague, recovery of an ethical health system, recovery of a healthy economy, recovery to a true refuah schleimah, a healing to wholeness.

I await that day, and then I will celebrate.

(Lag B’Omer falls on day 33 of  counting the Omer, the count of days from Passover to Shavuot. (Follow the link if you want to learn more about the Omer and how to count it.) It gets its name from the number 33, lamed-gimel, which can be pronounced as “Lahg.”)

“There’s No Place Like Home”

Image: Ruby Slippers (XiXinXing/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

It’s a famous line from a famous movie: “There’s no place like home.” Sometimes I wish I could click my ruby slippers together three times and be magically returned to the world before the arrival of coronavirus and COVID-19.

The message of the movie The Wizard of Oz is that home is a shelter from the storms of the world. That theme is Jewish to its core; in Judaism, we talk about the home as a little sanctuary, a mikdash me’at. For Jews in the Diaspora (outside of Israel) the world outside the home runs on the calendar of the dominant culture, the holidays are the holidays of the dominant culture. Even the clocks are not Jewish: days in the United States begin at midnight, not at sundown. Outside the house, the Jew is to some extent a stranger, trading time off for Rosh Hashanah with a colleague who would like an extra day after Christmas, and rolling their eyes at the “Happy Yom Kippur” food display in the local supermarket.

Home is a holy place, a Jewish place, even if we are not religious Jews. It’s the place we don’t have to listen to Christmas carols unless we like them.

Now home is also the place we are supposed to stay unless we have important business out in the world, keeping some critical part of the society running. The nurse, the doctor, the banker and the grocery checker go to work out in the perilous outside world while the rest of us #StayAtHome, working at our laptops, trying to remember enough from the sixth grade math to help our children learn.

Under these circumstances, home can acquire a rather unholy feeling: it’s a workplace, a schoolroom, and a bit of a jail, with an angry virus buzzing outside. Days slide one into the other, forming a fog.

Jewish tradition can help us in dealing with this new situation:

  1. Shabbat – Even for the most thoroughgoing secular Jew, Shabbat can be an antidote to the foggy “What day is this?” feeling. It can be a night for a nicer-than-usual meal, or an easier-than-usual meal, followed by a day of a change in routine. Shabbat can be about permission: permission to not work, permission to abandon the algebra puzzle, permission to watch a movie together. Synagogues everywhere are streaming services online – you can visit a different synagogue in a different city every week, or reconnect with a familiar community near home. Shabbat runs on Jewish time, sundown to sundown; we begin with candles and finish by looking for three stars before Havdalah.
  2. Shabbat can be nontraditional. If traditional ideas about Shabbat have bad connotations for you, try some variations on a theme. Maybe Shabbat is the day for a long walk around the neighborhood (socially distanced, natch.) Maybe it’s the time for a No-Nagging Zone. Shabbat can be the day to look for tiny miracles.
  3. Shabbat routines – Shabbat can give shape to the days before and after, too. Since Friday night is Shabbat, have a Thursday night or Friday morning routine to get ready for Shabbat. It might be preparing to make challah – or it might be something as simple as cleaning the kitchen and setting out the Shabbat candles. Use the post-Shabbat “burst of energy” to get chores or work done.
  4. Jewish learning opportunities abound during these weeks of #StayAtHome, and many of them do not require Hebrew or any prior knowledge. I am offering free classes on Saturday mornings and Thursday nights, and HAMAQOM is offering a Spring Festival of Jewish Learning – free tastes of our offerings via Zoom. If you’ve always wanted to learn some Hebrew, there are apps for that and online programs for it as well.
  5. Jewish values and mitzvot can inform how we treat one another in the home. Kindness (chesed) is a Jewish value. Caring for the body (shomer haguf) is a Jewish value, everything from brushing our teeth to getting exercise. Here is a list of 50 mitzvot, most of which have analogs in this time of pandemic. Oh, yes. and did you know that hand-washing can be a mitzvah and there is even a blessing for it?

Most of all, Jewish history gives me hope. Our people have been through horrific difficulties over the centuries, and we have endured. This is the worst pandemic in our lifetimes, but it is only one of many plagues our people have survived, from the last terrible plague in Egypt, through the Black Death, influenza, smallpox, polio and now this. Our customs and values got us through those, as a people if not always as individuals, and they will get us through COVID-19 as well.

We do not have ruby slippers to carry us back to a happier time, alas. What we do have are the tools to survive this moment in history. Lean into your Judaism, and make your home even more a Jewish home, a little sanctuary, a safe haven in a dangerous world.

Coping in the Time of Corona

Image: Person with head on arms, worrying. (Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

When I lived in Israel during the Second Intifada, Israelis had a word that contained all the horror and terror of that period: hamatzav. It means “the situation.” In typical Israeli fashion, it provided an innocuous shorthand for conversation: “No, you don’t want to go to the Damascus Gate – you know, hamatzav.” “Given hamatzav, I don’t recommend going to Machane Yehuda on Friday.” More often, it would be the only word spoken, combined with a shrug and a shake of the head: “Hamatzav.”

The word stood in for all the bad things that could happen if we were in the wrong place at the wrong time – or even a supposedly safe place, but an unlucky time. It stood in for exploded buses, and bodies reduced to scraps on the street. It stood in for death and horror and the worries of our families.

I find myself using it again, holed up here at Beit Adar, which I have only left once since March 11. “Given the situation” prefaces all sorts of conversations, as we try to figure out how to live our lives with as little exposure to other people as possible. As before, I don’t linger on the fears that come with “the situation” lest I become paralyzed.

I pray for the dear-as-a-son-to-me EMT, but I don’t let myself think too much about the details of his days. I pray for my niece the doctor in a big Southern medical center. I pray for the adopted cousin who checks receipts at the door of Costco. I pray for family members who work from home, and I pray that my infant grandson will make it through this with his family intact. I limit my consumption of the news. and I avoid the grisly details of COVID-19 because I don’t want the vortex of fear to suck me down.

Some days, the bad stuff gets to me anyway. Yesterday was like that. I could tell because I felt terminally cranky. I would love to punch the coronavirus in the nose, but it doesn’t work like that.

Today I found a gift, an article in the Washington Post: Anxiety is high because of coronavirus. Here’s how you can feel better. Some of their coronavirus coverage is not behind their usual paywall. In case you can’t get to the article, here’s a summary:

  1. Be intentional about social connections. We have to care for our physical health by isolating, but we also need to care for our emotional health, because it affects our immune functions. Be creative with whatever technology is available to you to stay connected to friends and family.
  2. Research shows that “counting our blessings” actually works. It is important to acknowledge anything good that comes our way. Writing down three things for which we are thankful every day is a valuable spiritual practice. (Rabbinical note: the Jewish practice of saying 100 blessings a day, or at any rate a LOT of blessings daily, fits right into this recommendation.) The point is, allow yourself to feel the gratitude, or if you can’t feel it, at least note that there are things or people in your life that make it better.
  3. Doing something nice for others will make us happier than doing something nice for ourselves. The idea is to move the focus outside ourselves. That can take lots of forms: reaching out to someone lonely, tipping extra for a delivery, writing a card or letter to send to someone. (Rabbinical note: Mitzvot!)
  4. A final bit of advice: “Give yourself and your family members more self-compassion and more of a benefit of the doubt than you usually would.”

This matzav, this situation, is truly awful: there’s no way to sugarcoat it. I found that those four suggestions gave me a road map that I needed to get back on track. I hope it is helpful to you, too.

What have you found that helps you cope right now?

Pesach 2020: My Wish for You

Image: A desk and a laptop.

It’s going to be a very odd Passover. All around the world, Jews are gathering, but not at seder tables. We are gathering around laptops and smartphones to hold a “socially distanced seder” — to do our best to observe the commandments of Passover without encouraging the spread of a terrible disease.

If your house is like ours, there is also a makeshift theme to this seder. We didn’t have horseradish, so our maror will be a little bottle of hot sauce. No shankbone is obtainable, so we’ll have a drumstick on the plate instead. No nuts for proper charoset, so I’m putting an apple on the seder plate and using apple butter from the pantry for the Hillel sandwiches. This year, the role of parsley will be played by celery tops. We use what we have.

We are not the first Jews to improvise a seder plate under adverse conditions!

This Passover, we are surrounded by lachatz — stress. Instead of, or addition to Passover cleaning, we learned how to decontaminate our groceries. Invisible viruses are the new chametz, and they seem to lurk everywhere.

So don’t stress over the details of Passover. Improvise. Do the best you can. Do what you can and let the rest go. If you read the Haggadah alone over chicken soup, know that you aren’t really alone – there are many Jews doing the same thing. If you can do only part of the seder, if you settle for watching The Prince of Egypt, it is still ok. Do what you can. Remember all the Jews who have celebrated this holiday under adverse conditions, and let Dayeinu (It would have been enough!) be the theme this year.

Wherever you celebrate, however you celebrate, my wish for you, dear reader, is that some of the sweetness of Pesach come through to you this year. This year we celebrate separately; may next year we all come together again.

A Prayer for Sheltering in Place

Image: The word “prayer” in black over a watercolor. (enterlinedesign/Shutterstock)

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who instilled in humanity the urge to preserve life.

You gave us adrenaline and other hormones to encourage us to fight or flee when we faced trouble. For early humanity that was enough, and we lived to found civilizations.

You reinforced this urge to survive with your commandments.

You have commanded us concerning the preservation of life: “You shall keep My laws and My rules, by the pursuit of which the human being shall live: I am the Eternal.” (Leviticus 18:5)

You have also commanded us: “I call heaven and earth to witness you today: I have put before you life and death, blessing and curse — therefore choose life!” (Deut. 30:19)

Now we face a time when some of us are called to action, and some are called to inaction. Those who are called to action by their needs and the needs of society face great danger, but it is in the power of the rest of us to reduce that danger, by sheltering in place and staying at home.

Support us in our time of need, O Holy God. Give us the patience to sit quietly. Give us the will to be patient. Grant us the wisdom to listen to the doctors and scientists and to do what they say. Give us a will to life that will frustrate and defeat the disease that threatens us.

And keep alive the hope that the day will come when we need shelter in place no more, when we will be free to rejoice or to mourn with friends and family.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of Time and Place, source of our intellect and our patience.

Song for a Plagued Passover

Image: Meir Ariel’s portrait on the jacket of his “Best Of” collection

I have discovered an Israeli song that really speaks to me – my modern Hebrew is rough, so I hope that the translation below isn’t too far off. Avarnu et Paro – Na’avor Gam et Zeh is a song about things that wear at our humanity, and the impulse in Jewish tradition to persevere anyway.

There is an expression in Hebrew: gam zeh ya’avor — “this too will pass.” In this song, the singer, Meir Ariel (1942 – 1999) sings about all the things that annoy and discourage him, and finishes each verse with “We passed over Pharaoh, and we shall pass this too.”

Passover this week calls up our communal memory of slavery in Egypt, and of our deliverance from that terrible situation. We are now in the midst of what I can only describe as a plague, a miasma of disease and in some places, mismanagement as well. It is one of those terrible times in history in which many individuals do not survive, and it is a struggle to retain our humanity. Still we can survive it as a people, if we persist.

This is my mantra for Passover of 2020 / 5780: “We passed over Pharaoh, this will pass over too.”

Income tax, they made me pay extra
Value Added Tax, they got me with that too,
The electric company has cut me off,
The Water Administration shut me off -
I saw that I was deteriorating into a crisis, I started hallucinating ...
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

A computer error cost me a million, ATM swallowed my account balance, 
An electronic secretary denied me an interview, 
The DMV denied me a license 
To a mechanical lawyer, I dropped a token in the mouth slot ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

I learned a useful and necessary profession 
So I don't get pushed and pressed, I persevered, 
I was diligent although the system was failing, 
I found myself with the work getting sparse ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

Sometimes I am trapped on a crowded bus 
Or coming out of an exit, I am tense and urgent, 
Sometimes in the street jostling and rubbing, 
In demand for some relief, 
In the back, in the ribs, sometimes in the face, that elbow ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

I turned aimlessly for a while, Without definition and without compromise, 
I lost height and consciousness, I thought maybe that defined it, 
To give an sharp and clear answer - I was torn about it. 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.
 
And now I'm stuck in the cutting edge, 
And to be honest I'm pretty indifferent. 
The situation is bad but I don't feel, 
I have no heart for all the stuff the screen presents. 
And the people's government goes down the road again - to my disgust ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.