Prayer For Those In Isolation

Image: Person sitting alone with Coronavirus floating outside. (Tumisu / Pixabay)

Of all the cruelties of Covid-19, perhaps the most cruel thing is the isolation it imposes.

It isolates those who are hardest hit with the disease, when the best treatment available is a ventilator. For the patient to endure this treatment, they have to be sedated, and they are left without the comfort of human interaction, even with the strangers caring for them.

It isolates all those who are hospitalized with the disease, because everyone who enters the Covid-19 treatment environment is put at risk for the disease. Family and friends cannot follow, cannot visit in person. Only healthcare workers who tend the sick at a risk to their own lives, can be allowed to be there.

It isolates all who have been diagnosed with Covid-19, because suddenly they have become not only a human being but also a vector of disease. They must isolate themselves completely from everyone, lest someone be infected.

It isolates all those who are known contacts of the infected person, because the disease is so contagious that they have to sequester themselves lest they infect another person.

It isolates the vulnerable healthy, those with underlying conditions that put them at risk for the worst of Covid-19. Every human contact carries risk for them, so to whatever extent they can they must isolate themselves. Their isolation is necessary but often psychologically brutal. Particularly for the elderly who live alone, it is painful to go months without so much as the touch of a human hand or an in-person smile.

Covid-19 isolates everyone: those of us who hide from it, and those who are perceived as carriers. It even isolates those who don’t believe in it.

Oh God, who created each of us in Your image, who created the potential for this deadly disease, hear our cries and deliver us soon from the tentacles of this misery!

Inspire us to find ways to reach out to one another for comfort, while keeping ourselves safe.

Help us to retain our humanity while we avoid this virus.

Help us to treat one another with compassion.

And please, please God, let justice and mercy guide those seeking and distributing a vaccine.

O God, who listened to the cries of Your people in Egypt, hear our cries now and heal us.

And let us say, Amen.

Planning Our Thanksgiving 2020

Image: A cartoon of pumpkin pie, with words of thanks on it. (John Hain / Pixabay)

Thanksgiving is the biggest holiday of the year in our household.

That may sound funny, since I’m a rabbi, but I’m also an elder in an interfaith family. Linda and I are Jews. Our sons are both secular agnostics. Other members of our extended family of choice are cultural Christians or Catholics. Thanksgiving may have a problematic history, but it is the day that we’re all on the same page: we love one another, and we love to eat together.

This year, after some anguished conversations with various family members, we decided that we would not come together for the day, not even the two households that share a bubble. The issue was that if we couldn’t ALL come together, we’d be leaving others out. Leaving someone out of Thanksgiving was unthinkable, so instead we came up with a new plan.

We’re dropping off goodies at each other’s front doors, and Linda and I are available to Zoom with anyone who wants to Zoom. We haven’t worked out all the details, but the emotion driving this decision is love. We love each other too much to risk someone getting sick.

There’s a Jewish name for this plan: it’s called shmirat haguf, guarding the body, or guarding health. It is based on a verse in Torah:

Guard your self and your soul most carefully

Deuteronomy 4:9

Maimonides, a physician, wrote a chapter on health in the Mishneh Torah, his great code of Jewish law:

Since the maintenance of the body in health and wholeness is God’s way, (for it is impossible that one should understand or know any of the divine knowledge concerning the Creator while sick) it is necessary for a person to stay away from things which destroy the body, and make habits in things which are healthful and life-imparting.

Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot, 4:1 (my translation)

We are all tired of COVID-19. We miss the people we used to hug so freely, and our routines, like a cup of coffee at a favorite cafe. Some of us are angry, and some are afraid. Some are worried that medical advice has been tainted with politics.

All I know is that it would break my heart if I thought someone in my family got sick from sitting at my table. This year, we will say, “Next year, at the same table!” And this year, we will phone each other and say, “I love you.” And that will have to be enough.

Kislev Tov 5781!

Image: Chanukah gelt on a dark brown table. (lisa-skvo / shutterstock)

It’s Rosh Chodesh Kislev! Rosh Chodesh means “first of the month.” Look at the sky and you will see almost no moon at all – the New Moon is the signal for the new month. This year, if the sky is clear, you may also see the Leonid meteor shower, with the sky so nice and dark.

The most famous thing about Kislev is that on the 25th of the month, we will begin the celebration of Chanukah. (On 12/10/2020, this year.)

The name “Kislev” (KEES-lev) comes from the Akkadian word kislimu, which means “thickened.” Since it’s a month in which rains come to the Middle East, perhaps it’s a reference to the mud that come with heavy rain. The Akkadians were an early civilization in Mesopotamia, and much of the modern-day Jewish Calendar comes from Mesopotamia.

Why Mesopotamia? Because that’s where our ancestors were exiled after the destruction of Solomon’s Temple in 586 BCE. There was an earlier calendar, with its New Year in the month of Nisan in the springtime; remnants of that calendar may still be found in the Torah, which speaks of the month in which Passover falls as “the first month.”

So Rosh Chodesh Tov, or Kislev Tov, whichever you prefer. I hope you have a joyful month.

Parashat Vayera: A Dead Sea Story

Image: The Dead Sea (Photo by Matthijs van der Ham from Pixabay)

Once upon a time, in the middle of the wilderness, there was a beautiful green valley.  The valley was green because a river flowed through the valley, from the mountains in the North to a lake in the South.   It was the most fertile place for miles around; food and flowers grew there, and the river and lake were full of fish.   It was no surprise that many people wanted to live in that place.  Anyone who passed by would take a look at it, and say, wow, I want to live there

The people in those towns in the valley knew it was a wonderful place, and they wanted to take care of it. They thought that they would keep it beautiful and happy by outlawing anyone who wasn’t beautiful or happy.  They especially didn’t want poor people to stick around, and so they passed a law saying that it was a crime to give any help to poor people.  They didn’t like strangers, either – so it was the custom in the town to be mean to strangers, so they wouldn’t stay around for long. 

When a poor person or a stranger left the valley, they’d look at each other and nod and say, see, we know how to keep this place nice.

A family came traveling through the valley, a man and his nephew and their wives and households.  They were not poor people, in fact they were very well to do, and they were going to settle down.  The nephew and his wife looked at the valley, and the town, and said, this is a beautiful place – we want to live here!  The uncle and his wife looked at it, and said, well, yes, but the people are not very friendly.  So the party split up, and the nephew, Lot, and his household moved to the valley.  Abram, his uncle, continued traveling, but they stayed in touch. 

Now that I’ve mentioned their names, maybe you recognize the story.  Abram was Abraham our ancestor, and Lot was his nephew the shlmiel.  (A shlmiel is a Yiddish word for a hapless fool, a mediocre sort of guy who can’t ever seem to make a wise choice.)  Lot saw the beautiful rich valley, and he chose to live in Sodom.  The Torah only tells us a little bit about Sodom, that it was a sinful place, but there is midrash that tells the rest of the story, about the law against helping poor people, and the culture of cruelty to strangers.  In the Torah story, God is so angry at the meanness in Sodom and Gemorrah, that God blasts the place with fire.  Abraham tries to bargain with God about it, but in the end, even Abraham cannot save the cities because there are so few good people in them.  Lot has to flee in the night, and loses his wife when she makes the mistake of looking back.

If you visit that valley today – which you can do! – you will not see a beautiful green valley.  You’ll see one of the most desolate places in the entire world, the desert valley around the Dead Sea.  Nothing grows.  The sand and rocks are full of salts that will burn your feet if you walk barefoot.  The water in the Dead Sea is so poisonous that if you swallow even a single mouthful of it you’d have to be rushed to a hospital.  It is so salty that any tiny cut will burn like fire when the water touches it. 

Now you may be asking yourself:  did God really blast a green valley and kill everyone in it because they were mean to poor people and strangers?   Or was the Dead Sea just such a mysterious and dreadful place that our ancestors felt the need to come up with a story about the poisoned land?

My answer to that is that I wasn’t there, and I don’t know, and what’s more, I don’t think it matters.  What I do know is that the story of Sodom and Gemorrah is a powerful story about Jewish values.    It teaches us that hospitality is not a frill, but a core value, a mitzvah.  It teaches us that tzedakah is not just charity, it means justice.  It teaches us that a city that mistreats the weak, a city like Sodom, is a doomed city.

If Sodom is a giant lesson in what NOT to do, the Torah also gives us an example of the way we as Jews are called to live.  Abraham Avinu, Abraham our ancestor, was no fool: he was an astute businessman.  But he did not confuse being “smart” with being cruel.  He ran to greet strangers, to offer them hospitality.  The sages tell us that he and Sarah had a huge tent with open sides, where they welcomed many souls. 

Nothing lives in the Dead Sea.  There are no descendants of Sodom; it only survives as the name of an evil place.  Yet the memory of Abraham is still green, as green as the Torah says the valley was before the sins of Sodom.  Let us, the children of Abraham, keep his memory green, by acting as he did, with kindness and with generosity to all in need.

Jewish History Books, 5781 Edition

Image: Several books, piled and open. (moritz320 /Pixabay)

“Jewish History” is a huge topic. The Jews have been around a long time — more or less 3000 years — and we have lived everywhere on the globe. Jewish history is an enormous tapestry of ideas, people, and events.

So when a student asks me, “What’s the best history book, rabbi?” I usually ask, “What did you have in mind?” Some people are looking for an overview to orient them in the Jewish timeline. Others have something more specific in mind. Here are my suggestions:

Overview of Jewish History:

Givertz, Gila. Jewish History: The Big Picture. This book is adapted from the two-volume The History of the Jewish People by Professors Jonathan Sarna and Jonathan Krasner.

Johnson, Paul. A History of the JewsThis is a comprehensive history of the Jewish People, written in a very accessible style. It’s probably the most exhaustive one-volume history currently in print.

Potok, Chaim. Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews. Potok is a master novelist, and this very readable history is a good introduction to Jewish history. It’s available as a used paperback.

Schama, Simon. The Story of the Jews, Vols. 1 “Finding the Words” and 2. “Belonging.” These volumes (with a third volume expected in the near future) are a cultural history of the Jews written by an art historian and scholar.  These are companion volumes to Schama’s PBS and BBC series. Schama tells this history differently than a rabbi would tell it — and I think that’s the strength of this series.

Scheindlin, Raymond. A Short History of the Jewish People: From Legendary Times to Modern StatehoodThis history is brief and very readable, by a distinguished scholar who is also a Reform rabbi. Used copies are easily available online and sometimes in local used bookstores.

Mack, Stan. The Story of the Jews . This history is written in graphic novel format. While it is not a scholarly history, it does a good job of describing the Jewish story and putting it into a chronological framework. It is a very easy read, but it still has lots of good information.

Not a history per se, but a great resource:

Barnavi, Eli. A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People from the Time of thePatriarchs to the PresentThis is an excellent historical resource, especially if you are drawn to pictures, time lines and graphics.

Is there a book you recommend that isn’t on this list? I’d be delighted if you’d share it in the Comments.

Antisemitism Hits Home

Image: The graffiti on the door of Temple Sinai. (Photo courtesy of Temple Sinai.)

The heavy old doors are weather-worn, their 106 years showing. I’ve walked through them many times and on many occasions: holidays, weddings, numberless Shabbats. Nowadays they are kept locked, because our security has to be very tight at Temple Sinai, but they are still part of the beautiful façade of the building.

We got another reminder this week of the need for security. Someone spray-painted a swastika on that old door, along with other vandalism on the facility. The first I knew of it was an email from the senior rabbi, Rabbi Jacqueline Mates-Muchin, and the executive director, Terrie Goren. As they wrote:

This is unfortunate news to share, yet we are grateful that neither the graffiti nor the perpetrator posed a direct threat to our staff or congregants. Our beautiful sanctuary has stood on the corner of Webster and 28th streets for over 100 years. It will weather this challenge, as will we.

This is just the latest such incident. Temple Sinai is an urban synagogue, and as such has to deal with graffiti from time to time, but this was unmistakable in its hateful intent. The memory of Rosh Hashanah morning in 2017 is still sharp, too, the last time someone put explicitly antisemitic and obscene paintings on the exterior of the building.

The Oakland Police Department tweeted on Wednesday evening that they have a suspect in custody. I appreciate their effort, and at the same time, I do not feel particularly relieved. I am acutely aware of the rise of antisemitism here and elsewhere in the United States.

Most minorities in the U.S. are feeling threatened in the shadow of the upcoming election. The hateful talk on social media has reached frightening levels.

I have two requests of my readers, if you are thinking, “How can I help?”

The first request is that you vote in the November 3 election, if you haven’t already done so. Nothing is going to get better until we have better leadership in Washington, and while it is already dreadful, it can and will get a lot worse if we do not change our leadership.

The second request is that you search your heart about the categories of people who are hated by white supremacists: Black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, Muslims, LGBTQ, Jews, all people of color, immigrants… such a long list and I am sure I’m forgetting someone. If there’s a category on that list that makes you hesitate, some group of people you feel squirrelly about, then do the work of growing past that limitation. Educate yourself. Read a book. Change your heart.

Hatred is tearing American apart. It’s up to us to save it.

New Online Class: Sampling Judaism!

Image: Samples of food. Photo by Jose B. Garcia Fernandez | Pixabay

Sometimes a whole loaf is too much. Sometimes we want a sample. I’ve been thinking for a while about offering something for people who want to learn a little about Judaism, without a huge investment of time and money.

— What do Jews believe about God? How do Jews pray?

— Why are Jews called the People of the Book? Which book? What is Torah? What is in Jewish scripture? What is the Talmud?

— What is the biggest Jewish holiday? How can some Jews insist on their Jewish identity, and at the same time say they are “not religious”?

Starting November 9, HaMaqom |The Place is offering a new class, Sampling Judaism. It will be a three week series of one-hour classes with short presentations by a rabbi (me) with plenty of time for questions.

This class is a short dip into Jewish culture and practice, not intended to be the equivalent of a full “Introduction to Judaism” course. The content will follow a basic structure of Jewish ideas about God, Torah, and the Jewish People, but the details will be driven by students’ questions.

For more information about Sampling Judaism, take a look at its page in the HaMaqom online catalog. Tuition is on a sliding scale, and further financial aid is available to those who need it.

If you are curious about Judaism, or know someone who is curious, please share this information with them. I’ll see you (or them!) in class!

Chodesh Tov! It’s Cheshvan.

Image: A large ripe pumpkin is surrounded by dying vines. (wagrati_photo / Pixabay)

Chodesh Tov!  [Happy (new) month!]

That’s the traditional greeting for every new month. The moon is key to the Jewish calendar, and every new moon is a new month, a Rosh Chodesh.

The month of Cheshvan is the quietest month of the Jewish year – no holidays, no fasts, just quiet. The only exception is the Ethiopian Jewish holiday of Sigd, which is celebrated in Israel on the 29th of CheshvanSigd falls on the 50th day after Yom Kippur (just as Shavuot is 50 days after the first night of Passover) and in Ethiopian Jewish tradition, it is the day to celebrate God revealing Godself to Moses. For more about Sigd, there is an excellent article in the Times of Israel.

The name Cheshvan is short for Marcheshvan, the older name for the month, which comes from Waraḫsamnu, the Akkadian (Mesopotamian) name meaning “eighth month.” (In Mesopotamia, the month we call Nisan is the first month of the year, which is how the months were counted in Biblical times, too.)

At some point in the past someone noticed that Mar is Hebrew for “bitter,” and the tradition arose that Marcheshvan was “Bitter Cheshvan.” Indeed, there are bitter dates in the month:

12 Cheshvan – Assassination of PM Yitzhak Rabin (1995)

16 Cheshvan – Kristallnacht (1938)

This year the United States will hold a national election on the 17th of Cheshvan, Nov. 3, 2020.

May this Cheshvan bring peace and clarity to us on many levels.

Sukkot Thoughts for 2020

Image: An Israeli street, with sukkot. (Shutterstock image; all rights reserved.)

It’s Sukkot, and on the rare occasions that I leave my house, Oakland looks like Israel this week.

As people lose their housing, the tent camps that already existed are growing. In Israel, the fact that there are sukkot everywhere would not be a surprise – of course there are sukkot everywhere! — but in the secular Bay Area, it is no holiday.

In a normal year, we use the sukkah to remind ourselves of the fragility of our daily lives. In 2020, we need the sukkah to remind us that the fragility we are currently experiencing is temporary.

In 2020, we need the sukkah to remind us that these should be temporary structures, not a permanent solution to anything.

In 2020, we need the table in the sukkah to remind us that the people in those temporary dwellings are hungry. We need to be reminded that while we may find the sight of the stars through the shakh (palm covered roof) quaint and lovely, there are people who see any hole in the roof of their shelter as a doorway for rain, cold, and illness.

In 2020, a study by Feeding America, a nonprofit dedicated to ending food insecurity, predicts that local food insecurity may affect 1 in 3 adults this winter and 1 in 2 children. The food banks literally do not know how they will meet the demand, especially with federal sources of food assistance drying up.

What can we do?

  1. Ask for help if you need it. Many people who were secure last year are insecure this year. Covid-19 and federal policy have destroyed jobs and left many people in a terrible spot. If you are one of them, it may be very difficult to say to the people who’ve always thought of you as a helper, not a helpee. Just remember, this year is different in ways we have never seen before. If you are in trouble, it is OK to reach out and ask for help. Remember, when we ask for help, we are giving someone else an opportunity to do a mitzvah.
  2. We can support our local food banks. Government aid takes time to mobilize, but the charities are already up and running. They know their stuff. Find the food bank nearest you, or near some community you love, and give them whatever you can.
  3. We can support our local food banks with volunteer labor. Many of the volunteers that have staffed food banks in the past are elders who cannot continue that work because they are at high risk for Covid-19.
  4. We can support organizations that help people who don’t have homes. There are a number of good lists online, both local and national. For instance, the SF Chronicle publishes the SF Homeless Project, listing local programs. Your local Jewish Family & Community Services organization has such programs which serve both Jews and non-Jews. You can also check with Google to get an idea of local organizations.
  5. We can support organizations that serve victims of domestic violence, which has been on the rise. Locally, the organization Shalom Bayit (“Peace of the Home”) continues to do great work with very little money. Use Google to find local organizations you can support with donations or volunteerism.

No money to donate? Or, like me, are you unable to get out and volunteer?

  1. Educate yourself on local issues. What’s going on in your town? Who is helping, what is making matters worse? What bills are in the state pipeline that address these issues? What’s on your ballot that might make a difference?
  2. Write letters to local elected officials (think “mayor, city council, state representatives”) insisting that the care of the hungry and homeless is important to you. Write letters to the editor of your local paper (there’s one I need to do!)
  3. Make your contacts personal. That’s what the staffers of politicians tell us: signing a big petition may be satisfying, but often it makes little impression. Write to YOUR state rep, to YOUR mayor, to YOUR city council person, and explain that they need to do something or they won’t get YOUR vote next time.
  4. Reject NIMBYism. Building lower-cost housing is an absolute necessity, but often after a developer is persuaded to include it in their plans, the neighbors have a fit. Sure, insist on sufficient planning regarding parking and transit! Insist that things be done properly! But don’t be the person who starts talking about how “their kind” aren’t wanted in your neighborhood, and call it out when you hear it.
  5. Pray. If there are solutions or people that scare you, try praying about them before you utterly reject them. Ask God’s help in being part of the solution; ask God’s mercy on those who are suffering.
  6. And I repeat: Ask for help if you need it. Remember, this year is different in ways we have never seen before. If you are in trouble, it is OK to reach out and ask for help. When we ask for help, we are giving someone else an opportunity to do a mitzvah. They may need the mitzvah every bit as badly as we need the help. It is OK to ask.

I’ve run on long enough; these are my Sukkot thoughts today. I wish all my readers safe shelter from the scary world, and blessings in all that you do.

A Map through the Wilderness

Image: Old map and compass. Image by Ylanite Koppens from Pixabay)

I’m feeling pretty wild around the edges lately, and I gather from social media that I’m not the only one. I’ve been on Covid Confinement since March 10, and here it is September 24th! My world got a little bigger in June, when we merged bubbles with our son and daughter-in-law so that we could help with childcare after maternity leave ran out. Hugging the baby every morning is one of the best parts of my day, along with limping out to the car to go home every afternoon.

Diapers and teething have been a big help to stay grounded. It’s funny, the same stuff that made me wild as a young mother (repetitive icky tasks) are now the things keeping me sane.

I’m also still teaching online, and will have news about a new class for you soon, once the powers that be at Hamaqom have figured out details like pricing.

AND here we are, in the middle of the Days of Awe, approaching Yom Kippur, during the unholiest time in my memory. We are living through some ugly stuff: pandemic, government corruption on what used to be an unimaginable scale, a bitter election, unrest around the world, and an attempt in our country to come to terms with our history of institutionalized racism. Antisemitism is on the rise, and white supremacy is putting up a fight. That is too much stuff to deal with all at once, but it seems we have no choice but to deal.

Where to find God in all of this? I have no idea where God is right now; I’m flying blind. However, I do know how to find holiness: I have a map, called the Torah, and I have instructions for interpreting it: Jewish tradition and my own conscience. Here’s my Pocket Map for Finding Holiness:

  1. Prayer. I put my worries and my hopes into words, and I either write them out or say them. When I have no words, I listen, in case God or the Universe or somebody wants to communicate. I also say the prayers of Jewish tradition that help me navigate, that remind me of my path.
  2. Charity. The Hebrew words is tzedakah, but it means giving from the cash resources I have to alleviate the suffering and privation of others. This reminds me that there are many people in the world worse off than I am AND they have to worry about all the other stuff too. Tzedakah helps me keep my perspective.
  3. Acts of Kindness. These are also known in Hebrew as gimilut hasidim. It isn’t enough for me to give money. I spend some time doing acts of kindness, which have gotten tricky in the age of Covid. Used to be, I did volunteer work. Now that I’m sequestering away from the virus, I do acts of kindness by being a better listener when someone needs comfort. After all, I’ve still got the phone and the computer.
  4. Study. Torah study serves several purposes. If I aim high enough at difficult material, studying completely occupies my brain, and gives me relief from worry. I can’t translate Aramaic-infused Hebrew AND perseverate over the government at the same time — I’m just not that smart! — and by studying Torah, I am learning more about that map I’m trying to follow.
  5. Busy Hands. This takes several forms: cleaning the house is mundane self-care, but it also reminds me that I am responsible for my corner of the universe. Gardening gives me a sense of connectedness to the natural world. Knitting literally keeps my hands busy, so that I don’t eat my emotions, and it gives me things to give away to friends and the many support people in my life.
  6. Saying “I love you.” I try not to let a day go by without letting the people I love KNOW that I love them. I might say it straight out, or I might tell them something specific for which I’m grateful. It lifts them up and it lifts me up, too.
  7. Care of the Body. Eating right, keeping clean, and exercising are not glamorous activities, but they are another way of acknowledging my place in creation. I’m a bodily creature, and I’d better take care of this body if I want to keep living in it.
  8. Music and Art. I try to read something good, or look at art, or listen to good music every day. Knitting lets me play with colors, but I also need the art of others. The arts affirm what’s best in humanity, including in me.

Looking back on this list, it seems so mundane! But it’s the truth, it’s what keeps me going. What keeps you going in these difficult times? What is your map to holiness?