Are You Curious About Judaism?

Image: Three people learning, and the HaMaqom Logo. (hmqm.org)

Are you curious about Judaism? Have you ever wanted to have a chance to ask a rabbi a few questions?

I’m offering a class titled “Sampling Judaism” online this month and next, three meetings in which I’ll make a 30 minute presentation about:

  • What do Jews think about God?
  • What is Torah, exactly?
  • Who are the Jews and what do they want?

Then in each class, students can ask questions about the presentation or about anything else about which they are curious. This is a very basic class, an introduction to Jewish learning and life, and it is built around YOUR questions. No Hebrew required, no credentials required.

If this is something that interests you, Sampling Judaism is easy to sign up for. Just click the link to go to the HaMaqom website and there you can get all the info about cost, times, and registration.

The class is offered on a sliding scale and financial aid is available. Class will meet on Monday nights from January 25 through February 8, from 7-8pm Pacific Time.  

10 Survival Strategies for Tough Times

Image: Toy boat floats on green pond water. Photo by SofiLayla/Pixabay.

Here are the things that keep my boat afloat during these difficult times.

  1. Rituals. Life’s small rituals are very important. When I get up, I want my coffee. But I don’t want someone to hand it to me, I want to make it, because the making of coffee is one of my morning rituals. I measure the coffee, put it in the cone, heat the water, pour it over, and… coffee! After I have drunk the coffee, I’m ready for the world. For others it may be a bedtime ritual, or a bathing ritual, or the ritual of putting on cosmetics. These little rituals of life orient us so that we can keep our equilibrium.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. Tzedakah helps me keep my perspective.
  4. 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. Or I cook some food to share, and drop it off on someone’s porch.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. Creative action, aka Arts and Crafts. I am not a great artist, but I enjoy putting the colors together for my knitting. I draw cartoons — mostly pictures of turtles or lions– on blank cards, for my wife to color. She loves to color, and I love to draw the cards. Then we put notes on the bank and mail them as postcards to friends. Finally, we cut each others’ hair and laugh at the results. Making a little bit of beauty in the world makes us feel better. Getting our hair out of our eyes is a relief!
  8. Saying “I love you” and “Thank 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. Another daily vitamin for the spirit is gratitude: thanking someone. They might be a public person who has done something I like, or someone who has done me a kindness, but I try to give thanks to someone every day. Thanking God is good, but I find that thanking people has a special oomph of its own.
  9. 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.
  10. Music and Art. I try to read something good, or look at art, or listen to good music every day. I need the art of others. The arts affirm the 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. If you have a little Jewish knowledge, you may also have noticed that most of these things are mitzvot, commandments. Torah is an excellent guide to living!

What keeps you going in these difficult times? What keeps your boat afloat?

Basic Jewish Books: 5781 Edition

Image: Two of my bookshelves. Photo by Ruth Adar.

Every year I take a hard look at the list of books I recommend to the Intro to the Jewish Experience students. This year’s list omits some oldies and adds many new books. No one needs to own ALL of these – I offer this list as a browsing list for your next step in growing your interest in specific Jewish topics.

*Books with an asterisk are those I strongly recommend to my Intro students. If I weren’t so concerned about their budgets for time and money, I’d require all of them.

Required Texts for Intro to the Jewish Experience

*Settings of Silver by Stephen Wylen. I chose this as a text because it is a good book, at a reasonable price, and it has an index that will allow students to use it as a reference book after the class is done.

*Tales of the Holy Mysticat: Jewish Wisdom Stories by a Feline Mystic by Rachel Adler. A simple story that introduces the reader to the language used to talk about observant Jewish life. Excellent glossary included.

*Judaism’s 10 Best Ideas: A Brief Book for Seekers by Rabbi Arthur Green. When people ask me for a “first book” about Judaism, this is the one I offer. It is little but it gets at what I regard as the heart of the matter.

General Introductory Texts on Judaism

Exploring Judaism: A Reconstructionist Approach, by Rabbis Rebecca Alpert and Jacob Staub. A good Intro text, and the best introduction I know to Reconstructionist Judaism.

Here All Along: Finding Meaning Spirituality & a Deeper Connection to Life in Judaism After Finally Choosing to Look There by Sara Hurwitz. New and highly recommended.

Judaisms: A 21st Century Introduction to Jews and Jewish Identities by Aaron J. Hahn Tapper. This is a college text, a little more challenging but a truly wonderful book.

What is a Jew? by Morris N. Kertzner. Another good basic text.

Living a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant. 

Jewish Literacy by Joseph Telushkin. More of a reference book than a basic introduction, but it covers such a broad scope that it seemed to fit best here in the list.

Jewish Bibles

*Every Jewish home should have a Tanakh, a Jewish Bible. Many Reform and Conservative synagogues use a JPS Tanakh in the pews and for study. (JPS is the Jewish Publication Society.) 

If you are curious as to how the Jewish Bible is different from the Christian Bible, read Beginners’ Guide to the Jewish Bible. For a discussion of the various translations of the Tanakh available, read Which Bible is Best, Rabbi?

If you would like to own a commentary on the Torah, a book with footnotes that explain things in the text, I recommend any of these:

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, ed. Tamara Eskenazi and Andrea Weiss. In this commentary the JPS translation has been amended slightly to deal with the most egregious cases of gendering God. This is by no means a book just for women.

The Torah: A Modern Commentary, ed. Gunther Plaut (in many Reform synagogues)

Etz Chaim: Torah and Commentary, ed. JPS (in many Conservative synagogues)

About the Bible

Jewish Study Bible by Adele Berlin. An excellent one-volume resource for text study, no Hebrew required.

The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman’s Commentary on the Torah, by Ellen Frankel. One of the first books to wrestle with Torah from a feminist point of view, and still with excellent insights on the text.

What’s In It for Me? Finding Ourselves in Jewish Narratives by Stephen Fuchs.  This little book is helpful for those who wonder what a collection of old stories and rules has to say to modern Jews today.

Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliot Friedman is a basic, readable explanation of the “documentary hypothesis,” the idea that the Torah is a blend of several different voices.

Jewish Prayer

A Guide to Jewish Prayer, Adin Steinsaltz. This is a guide to prayer by one of the most respected rabbis in recent memory.

Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration, by Naomi Levy

A Book of Life, Embracing Judaism as a Spritual Practice, by Michael Strassfeld

Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life, by Alan Lew

Minding the Temple of the Soul: Balancing Body, Mind & Spirit through Traditional Jewish Prayer, Movement and Meditation, by Tamar Frankiel.

Lost in the Service? by Ruth Adar. For the person who feels completely lost in a Jewish service. (article, accessible online)

How do Jews Pray for the Sick? by Ruth Adar. (article, accessible online)

Jewish Ethics & Social Justice

There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition, by Jill Jacobs

The Passionate Torah: Sex & Judaism by Danya Ruttenberg

Confronting Hate: The Untold Story of the Rabbi Who Stood Up for Human Rights, Racial Justice, and Religious Reconciliation, by Deborah Hart Strober, and Gerald H. Strober.

To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility, by Jonathan Sacks

The Book of Jewish Values: A Day to Day Guide to Ethical Living by Joseph Telushkin

Jewish Holidays

Seasons of our Joy by Arthur Waskow.  This book is rather old, but it is my favorite because of the format, looking at the origins of the holidays as well as how-to’s of observance.

Guide to the Jewish Seasons editor Peter Knobel. 

*The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel The greatest book ever written about Shabbat. Essential reading.

Preparing Your Heart for the High Holy Days: A Guided Journal by Kerry M. Olitzky and Rachel T. Sabath

The Days of Awe by S.Y. Agnon (High Holy Days) This is a collection of facts and quotations about the entire High Holy Days cycle, from Elul to Simchat Torah.

This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation by Alan Lew (High Holy Days) 

My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays and One Wondering Jew by Abigail Pogrebin

Passover & Haggadah

Every Jewish home should have at least one copy of the haggadah, the script by which we lead the seder every year at Passover.  There are many to choose from, from some rather uninspiring free haggadot to very expensive art books. Some of the best fall in between those two extremes. The best way to find one is to go to a bookstore during the month before Passover and browse them until you find the one that speaks to you. Some households write their own haggadot; that’s a project that’s best done after you’ve been to a few seders and have seen what you do and do not want in your haggadah.

Keeping Passover by Ira Steingroot 

Jewish Home

How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household by Blu Greenberg. Ms. Greenberg is the wife of an Orthodox rabbi and a thoroughgoing feminist. Her book offers us a view inside traditional observance. (Hollywood depictions of traditional Jewish observance are often problematic – don’t believe everything you saw in a movie.)

The Jewish Home: A Guide for Jewish Living (New Edition) by Daniel B. Syme. A basic guide to keeping a liberal Jewish home in the 21st century.

*On the Doorposts of Your House, CCAR Press (also in .pdf format) This book includes very detailed explanations of home rituals, from hanging a mezuzah to lighting the Chanukah candles. It is a great reference book to own.

Jewish Lifecycle

Mourning and Mitzvah by Anne Brener. A superb guide for mourners. Rabbi Brener is both a Reform rabbi and a psychotherapist.

Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle by Simeon Maslin

The New Jewish Wedding by Anita Diamant

A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort: A Guide to Jewish Bereavement by Dr. Ron Wolfson and David J. Wolpe

Living a Jewish Life, Updated and Revised Edition: Jewish Traditions, Customs, and Values for Today’s Families, by Anita Diamant

Jewish Passages: Cycles of Jewish Life, by Harvey Goldberg

Jewish Parenting

Nurture the WOW by Danya Ruttenberg. The author is a rabbi and a parent.

Jewish Spiritual Parenting: Wisdom, Activities, Rituals and Prayers for Raising Children with Spiritual Balance and Emotional Wholeness by Rabbi Paul Kipnes and Michelle November, MSSW

How to Raise a Jewish Child by Anita Diamant

The New Jewish Baby Book by Anita Diamant

Putting God on the Guest List: How to Reclaim the Spiritual Meaning of Your Child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah by Salkin, Lebeau, and Eisenberg

Conversion to Judaism

Choosing a Jewish Life by Anita Diamant (conversion)

Choosing Judaism by Lydia Kukoff (conversion)

5 Things to Do If You Want to Become a Jew, by Ruth Adar (article)

Jewish Thought

*Finding God: Selected Responses by Rifat Sonsino and Daniel Syme. Clear and simple approach to the question, What do Jews think about God?

Thinking About God: Jewish Views, by Kari Tuling. An excellent new book by a Reform rabbi.

Surprised By God: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Religion, by Danya Ruttenberg.

God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism , by Abraham J Heschel. A beautiful, challenging book outlining Heschel’s theology of radical amazement.

Standing Again at Sinai: Judaism from a Feminist Perspective, by Judith Plaskow. One of the first books to address Judaism from a feminist point of view. A classic.

Radical Judaism: Rethinking God and Tradition, by Arthur Green.

LGBTQI & Gender

Mishkan Ga’avah: Where Pride Dwells, edited by Denise L. Eger. A collection of essays, prayers, and blessings, specifically around LGBTQI issues.

Queer Jews, by David Schneer & Caryn Aviv, Published in 2002, this is already a little out of date but it will acquaint you with many of the queer Jewish voices out there.

A Rainbow Thread: An Anthology of Queer Jewish Texts from the First Century to 1969, by Noam Sienna

Chanah’s Voice: A Rabbi Wrestles with Gender, Commandment, and the Women’s Rituals of Baking, Bathing and Brightening, by Haviva Ner-David

Unheroic Conduct: The Rise of Heterosexuality and the Invention of the Jewish Man, by Daniel Boyarin. Just as interesting as its title: eye-opening about gender roles and Judaism.

Engendering Judaism, by Rachel Adler. Not an easy book, but a groundbreaking 1998 book that demonstrates that “Jewish Law” need not be a patriarchal straightjacket.

Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture, by Daniel Boyarin. Heavy going but worth the effort. Boyarin is a major talmudist, and in this book he looks at the sexual lives and preoccupations of the sages of the Talmud.

Jewish History

Your choice of history book will depend on your taste and preferences. Choose the one that works for you. *Do read at least one of these!

The Story of the Jews by Stan Mack This is in graphic novel format and is quite good. It is an excellent choice if wordy books put you off.

A History of Judaism by Martin Goodman. I have not read this yet, but have heard good things about it.

Wanderings: Chaim Potok’s History of the Jews by Chaim Potok Potok is a great story teller, and this history reads like a novel.

A History of the Jews by Paul Johnson An outsider history of the Jews, very well done. Strikes a balance between scholarship and storytelling.

A Short History of the Jewish People by Raymond Scheindlin A shorter history, good if you want “just the facts, ma’am” history.

The Story of the Jews, 2 Volumes, by Simon Schama. This is a take on Jewish history through the eyes of a British Jew and art historian — quite different than a rabbi’s point of view. The link given is to volume 1, but don’t miss the second volume.

“Jewish History” is an enormous subject, crossing both thousands of years and nearly the entire globe and many, many cultures. Therefore I include this list of more focused histories:

The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience by Jane Gerber. A solid history of Sephardic Judaism.

Secret Jews: The Complex Identity of Crypto-Jews and Crypto-Judaism by Juan Marcos Bejarano Gutierrez 

The New Mediterranean Jewish Table: Old World Recipes for the Modern Home. Joyce Goldstein. Explore Sephardic and Mizrahi culture through their food.

*JIMENA.org — Not a book, but a website full of stories, photos, news and information. You can also follow the organization on Facebook and Instagram.

Antisemitism & Holocaust

Antisemitism: Here and Now by Deborah E. Lipstadt.

Antisemitism: What it is, What it isn’t, Why it matters. by Julia Neuberger.

Pogrom: Kishinev and the Tilt of History by Steven J. Zipperstein. A close examination of the best-documented pogrom before the Holocaust.

Auschwitz and After by Charlotte Delbo. It is a literary memoir by a resistance leader, a non-Jewish woman.

*Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Psychiatrist Frankl wrote a memoir of his time in the Nazi death camps, and wrote this book of lessons for spiritual survival.

Night by Elie Wiesel. The classic first-person account of the Holocaust through one man’s eyes.

The Last of the Just, by Andre Schwarz-Bart. An excellent novel about the Holocaust.

Israel

Israel: A History by Martin Gilbert A detailed history of Israel from 1862-1997. Predominantly Zionist in its point of view.

Israel is Real by Rich Cohen Very readable. There are a few minor errors, but it is remarkably clear-eyed about the complexity of Israel and its emotional connection for American Jews.

A History of Israel: From the Rise of Zionism to Our Time by Howard M. Sachar A scholarly approach, staunchly Zionist.

The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements 1967-1977 by Gershom Gorenberg. Gorenberg is an Israeli journalist. If you are curious about the roots of the current situation and the occupation of the West Bank, this is a good choice.

The Israel-Arab Reader: A Documentary History of the Middle East Conflict, 7th Edition by Walter Laqueur A reader of primary documents. Better if you already know a little bit of the history of Modern Israel.

My Promised Land: The Triumph and the Tragedy of Israel by Ari Shavit. The writer is controversial, but the book is excellent and centrist in stance.

The Star

I saw it tonight: the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn that people are calling the Christmas Star.

I looked for it without much hope. My patio has a wonderful view of the San Francisco skyline and the peninsula to the south, but I was sure the lights of the cities would obscure the light.

Still, there it was, right where it was supposed to be: a bright light in the Western sky.

I watched it for a while. It glimmered and winked, as “stars” do in urban pollution, but it was definitely a bright point that hung still amidst all the airplanes coming and going from the three major airports nearby.

And I thought: those two planets came together, tonight, and they are brighter than they’ve been in hundreds of years, brighter than they will ever be for hundreds more. They look down on a hurting world, a world in a lot of trouble.

At first I thought: they hang up there, oblivious. They don’t care.

It is true, the planets can’t care, but that doesn’t change the miracle that I can see them. I can see them despite the fact that there are a million lights shining just below me. I can see them despite growing cataracts in my eyes, despite everything. They are just there, objects of wonder.

The miracle is not only that they are there, in alignment. The miracle is that they are there, and we know what they are. They are two huge planets, “gas giants,” and they reflect the light of our sun so brilliantly that I can see them from my patio tonight.

We human beings make messes all the time, but we are capable of science, and art, and insight into matters much larger and infinitely smaller than ourselves.

If two planets can come into alignment, why not we?

If we can recognize the wonder in the sky, maybe there is still hope for this messed-up world. Maybe we can recognize the wonder in each other. Maybe we can SEE.

It was cold on the patio, and I had to come inside. That “star” is so bright I can see it through the window. I can see it hanging there, telling me:

“Miracles are all around you. All you have to do is look and see.”

Image: Night sky with large star. Image by Evgeni Tcherkasski from Pixabay

Parashat Mikeitz: Joseph Weeps

Image: A man crying. (Daniel Reche / Pixabay)

Parashat Miketz begins and ends with tests.

The first test: Pharaoh summons Joseph from prison to interpret his dreams. In telling Joseph about the dreams he changes tiny details in the dreams to see if Joseph is really the seer that the servants claim. (Midrash Tanchuma, Miketz 3) Joseph passes the test: in his interpretation of the dreams, he smoothly corrects the details without comment. Pharaoh trusts him immediately, declaring that he is full of ruach Elohim, the spirit of God, and appoints him vizier of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself. Thus Joseph passes Pharaoh’s test.

The second test: At the conclusion of the Torah portion, Joseph tests the brothers who sold him into slavery. His brothers arrive and do not recognize him; he has disguised himself in Egyptian finery. (Genesis 42:7) Seeking to see if they have changed, Joseph administers an elaborate test, holding first one brother and then the other hostage.

Joseph’s mistrust runs deep. He is so overcome with emotion that at one point he leaves the room to weep. By the end of Miketz, he is still testing, wondering if these men have changed, if he can trust them enough to reveal himself as their brother.

In the first test, Joseph is supremely capable and at the same time humble. He shows no anxiety. In the second test, his emotions overcome him. What is the difference? In the first case, he has little to lose and everything to gain. In family matters the stakes are much higher. The secular world encourages us to focus on career and accomplishments, but trouble in family relationships reduces even the Vizier of Egypt to tears.

Here in the United States we have all but made a god out of business. The Supreme Court has ruled that corporations are people. Business ethicists tell corporations that their first duty is to stockholders, over all the other stakeholders in a situation. Civic leaders have been given a false choice between “the economy” and “curbing the pandemic” as if money and human beings are an equal exchange.

He turned away from them and wept.

— Genesis 42:24

The second most powerful man in Egypt wept over his estrangement from his family. Nowhere else in the long Joseph story does Joseph weep: not when his brothers dump him into a pit to die, not when he is sold into slavery, not when his employer’s wife framed him for rape and sent him to prison. Only at the sight of these brothers is he moved to tears.

We human beings are social creatures. Relationships are key to our spiritual lives and our physical health. People are more important than business. People are more important than money.

Human life and relationships are priceless. Whenever we talk about the good of the economy over the good of human beings, we flirt with the grave sin of idolatry.

Ask Joseph. He knew.

Spread the Light: Hanukkah 2020

Image: A lit chanukiah (esbeitz / Pixabay)

This Hanukkah is a special one: we’ve all been stuck with the horrors of pandemic for SO long that the pleasures of this little holiday are especially sweet. The pleasures add up to two things, sweetness and light. I’d like to offer you one thing to DO and one to NOT DO to increase the joy of this week.

To DO: Join me for the “Eight Days of Light & Learning” with HaMakom | The Place. HaMakom (formerly Lehrhaus Judaica) is where I grew up as a Jew: I took Intro there, I learned Hebrew there, and now I teach there. For Hanukkah we are offering a short program each night at 7pm (Pacific) with a little bit of learning, a little bit of light, and a little bit of silly happiness. It’s free to all, and I hope you will join us. All you have to do is follow the link above and register to get the Zoom link. (P.S. – I am teaching on Sunday night.)

To NOT DO: The darkness and confusion of conspiracy theories has been a plague upon us during the election and the coronavirus crisis. Please do your part by refusing to pass on far-out theories, even as something to laugh about. If something seems intriguing, check it out with Snopes.com or some other fact-checking site. Be skeptical, especially if the “news” excites you: that’s how these things spread.

Chag Urim Sameach! Happy Feast of Lights!

This time next year, we will hug our cousins and gather to celebrate. This year, we will gather online. Chag Hannukah sameach!

Thoughts for the 1st Night

Image: Menorah with two candles lit, on the first night. (Photo: NashvilleScene.com)

I love the first night of Chanukah. I love the bravery of the two little lights, the shamash (“helper”) candle and the 1st candle. The dark is so very dark, and those little lights shine brightly against it.

The world has felt like a dark night for so long. Whatever your political persuasion, surely the state of American democracy is distressing. The fact that we cannot even agree on the facts is terrifying. A frightening virus has completely disrupted our lives for nine months, and while a vaccine has been developed (a miracle in itself) the logistics of a just distribution of that vaccine is a daunting prospect. Over 290,000 lie dead from coronavirus in the United States.

Tonight I’m going to take comfort in two little candles. One lights, the other is lit. We never have one without the other. There is never a lone candle in the dark.

In some ways, the shamash is the “extra” candle. It isn’t counted, doesn’t get credit for its light. But it stands for all the helpers out there in the world, who spread the light to others, often without credit for what they do. This year it stands for the healthcare workers, the journalists, the delivery people, the “essential workers” who do their work in danger and often for low pay.

I will remind myself that none of us is ever a lone candle in the dark. There are always other lights, and I will focus my eyes on them as I read the news and make my way through social media.  Fred Rogers suggested that the best way to navigate a scary world is to “Look for the helpers.” I’m going to look for the people who are spreading the light.

Chag urim sameach – Happy holiday of lights!

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.