The Lesson of COVID-19

Image: The world pictured as a giant coronavirus. By Miroslava Chrienova from Pixabay

COVID-19 is teaching us a lesson: every one of us is interconnected. Within a species, we are intimately connected: we have the same vulnerabilities and we breathe the same air. We are not separate beings, not really, and what happens to one has a potential effect on everyone else.

I got a powerful lesson about this last Sunday morning. I’ve spent my week recovering from a fall on my patio last Sunday about noon. I tripped and fell, unable to keep my forehead from hitting the concrete. I’m on blood thinners, so this is potentially very serious: it could start a hemorrhage inside my skull and kill me.

I was able to get up unassisted, and I never lost consciousness: good signs both. Still, I had instructions from my doctor to go to the emergency room if I hit my head. Linda and I immediately went for help. I could tell that the hospital triage folk deemed it serious; they swept me into a treatment room and got an IV started immediately. A doctor came in quickly to look me over, order tests and a CAT scan.

As it turned out, I was lucky: no brain bleed. I have a nasty black eye, a bruised nose, and assorted scrapes, but I am alive.

I was even luckier to be living in Alameda County, California, where we have a relatively low COVID-19 transmission rate. I needed an emergency room and skilled docs and nurses and I got them. I needed a CAT scan, and I needed to sit for 12 hours so they could watch me to see if I was going to have a problem.

In Alaska and in Idaho, I’d have had a very different Sunday afternoon. There entire hospitals are overwhelmed and they cannot do much for aging ladies who trip over their own feet, even if they might die.

COVID-19 is teaching us a lesson: every creature on earth is interconnected. Within our species of homo sapiens, we have the same vulnerabilities, we breathe the same air, we need the same resources. We may like to talk about being “free” but a virus knows and cares nothing about “freedom.” The virus crossed over from the animal kingdom, and it is chewing its way through humanity as I type this. We have the means to slow it down — vaccination — and to some of us, getting vaccinated seems like the smart thing to do.

For other people, it is a harder decision. They’ve heard rumors about reactions to the shots. They’ve heard misinformation from the Internet and from sources they thought reliable. For some people, it’s about not wanting to be told what to do by a bunch of people they experience as smug and annoying.

I can understand all that. But I also understand that in Alaska and Idaho they are unable to take care of people with heart attacks and possible brain bleeds, because they have had to move to “crisis standards of care” also known as rationed care. If one individual chooses not to get vaccinated, other people may lose their chances at life.

The ER was pretty busy Sunday. There was a person with chest pains, and another who had had a gnarly commercial kitchen accident. There were others I don’t know anything about, they just came and went during my 12 hour vigil. Care was available for us. That was because outside the hospital (and inside it too!) people are wearing masks, 77% of residents are fully vaccinated and 90.4% of residents have had at least one vaccination.

I am grateful that my fellow Alameda County residents are looking out for me. I’ll do my best to look out for them. When we thought COVID was “over” in July, and we ditched our masks, it came roaring back at us. Luckily for us, the mask mandates and high vax rate has brought all that back under control. Because it is under control, there was room for me in the ER.

A portion of the Book of Leviticus is known to scholars as “The Holiness Code.” A chunk of it addresses this interconnection of people, our responsibilities to take care of one another. I think it’s worth pondering in this context:

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.

You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I am Adonai your God.

You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another.

You shall not swear falsely by My name, profaning the name of your God: I am Adonai.

You shall not defraud your fellow. You shall not commit robbery. The wages of a laborer shall not remain with you until morning.

You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am Adonai.

You shall not render an unfair decision: do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich; judge your kinsman fairly.

Do not go about as a talebearer among others; deal basely with your countrymen. Do not profit by the blood of your fellow: I am Adonai.

You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but incur no guilt because of them.

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen. Love your fellow as yourself: I am Adonai.

Leviticus 19: 8-19.

We Jews are commanded to pay attention to our connections with others. We are commanded to take the needs of strangers seriously, to treat the rich and poor equally, to love our fellow as ourselves. There’s nothing there about “the deserving poor” or the “innocent victim” or any other such loophole that will allow us to exclude someone. There’s nothing about an exemption for wishing evil on people with whom we disagree. Just “love your fellow as yourself.”

We are all part of the web of connection: the healthy and the sick, the wealthy and the poor, the clever and the simple, heck, even Democrats and Republicans. Like it or not, we’re in this together.

“Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht”

The title of this post is an old Yiddish saying, meaning “People plan, and God laughs.” We can plan all we want, but sometimes things turn out in unexpected ways. I thought I was done with Coffee Shop Rabbi and this blog– then God laughed.

I will definitely continue to teach Intro to the Jewish Experience, but in a new place: Jewish Gateways, in Albany, CA. The classes will all be online, via Zoom. Classes will start in September, 2021, after the High Holy Days. I will tweak the syllabus a bit. More about that in future posts.

I will return to keeping this blog, although I’m not sure exactly what I mean by that, yet. There will be new posts from time to time, and they’ll have to do with topics that interest me. Again, more about that as clarity emerges.

Here’s a question for regular readers: What topics interest YOU? What would you like to hear more about? You can reply in the comments.

Image: A photo of a little lemur with a surprised look on its brown and black face. Image from Pixabay.com.

Changes at Coffee Shop Rabbi

Image: Logo of HaMaqom | The Place

As Ecclesiastes 3 points out so eloquently, there is a time for everything.

I began Coffee Shop Rabbi and this blog in March of 2010. I wanted to write simple explanations about Jewish life, and to correct misconceptions about Jews and Judaism. At that time, if you Googled “Talmud” the first page of citations that came up were antisemitic web sites. Thanks to changes made by Google, and an explosion of Jewish participation in the World Wide Web, that’s no longer the case. MyJewishLearning.com came into being, with articles from genuine experts, not just one rabbi. Sefaria.org came into existence, making Jewish texts available to anyone who wishes to “Ta Shma” — Come and Learn!

Over the past four years, my mission shifted: I tried to address the challenges of living in a world of what seemed like increasing darkness. What I learned was that in such a time, we Jews need community, not lone voices. I spent more time teaching classes at HaMaqom, more time on social media, and felt that here on the blog, I was mostly repeating myself.

Then came March of 2021.

HaMaqom | The Place has hired me as their new Executive Director. I will still teach Intro to the Jewish Experience on Sunday afternoons and evenings, but the bulk of my time will be spent nurturing its brilliant staff, raising funds, and representing the organization in the community.

HaMaqom | The Place creates inclusive communities through Jewish learning and practice. That is its mission statement, which is perfectly in line with my own mission, which you can read in another post, Passing the Torah. I’m going to put my heart, my soul, and my energy into building HaMaqom into a place — The Place — where Jewish friendships and connections are nurtured and from which new Jewish leadership can bloom.

I invite my readers to join me on this journey. How?

I haven’t decided what to do with this blog. I suspect that its job is done. I will keep the domain name and make sure it is maintained — it is, after all, ten years of work, still useful when someone wants a quick answer to a simple question! — but I don’t expect to post new material here, unless I use it to tell you about programs at HaMaqom.

Thank you for reading, thank you for your questions, your feedback, and your encouragement. I hope at least some of you will follow me into my next chapter.

We pass the Torah from hand to hand
and make sure all the Jews who want can hold it:
can write it on their hearts,
speak of it in their homes,
teach it to their children,
bind it on their hands,
hold it before their eyes,
and write it – in golden letters! –
on the doorposts of their gates.

Rabbi Ruth Adar, Passing the Torah

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

Jewish Mourning in the Time of Pandemic

Image: Jewish cemetery/ (Michał Buksa /Pixabay)

I just taught a class on mourning in Judaism, and it was a sharp reminder of how strange times are right now. Funerals are strange right now: we cannot gather in a chapel, we cannot crowd together for comfort at graveside. Some of my colleagues have officiated at funerals with only themselves and cemetery staff present, using a smartphone camera to allow the mourners to see. Shiva tends to be virtual these days, too, and I weep for the mourners who have to sit at home, alone.

So how can we help, those of us who want to observe the mitzvot of comforting mourners?

First, we can check with our rabbis about how they are handling funerals right now. They will have directions about what is helpful and what is not. Please don’t argue with the rabbi, or tell them that you have a great idea for a better option. I promise you, they have agonized over every bit of the arrangements already.

We can help by letting others know about the shiva, or about the death itself, without adding gossipy bits.

We can help by not criticizing the family about arrangements that are not ideal. They are already aware that things aren’t normal, and they should not be bothered with things that are out of their control.

We can help by attending the virtual funeral, if that is the arrangement. If it is not set up as a virtual event, we can help by not causing a fuss if we are not one of the very few who are invited to attend in person.

We can attend virtual shivas, even if we’ve already spent six hours on Zoom that day. Mourners need to see that they are not abandoned at such a time. They need us to be present, even if the only possible presence is virtual.

We can help by checking in with mourners by phone, or by text message, or by email.

We can help by not complaining if they take a while to answer.

We can help by sending notes of condolence – you know the old fashioned kind, on paper?

We can help by sending mourners our good memories of the person who died.

We can help by sharing photos, if we have some.

We can help by offering to bring food by, to drop off no-contact style, by the door.

We can help by sending food via a local restaurant or deli.

We can help by continuing to keep contact, even after the first week or month.

We can listen, and keep listening. Sometimes mourners need to tell stories again and again. One of the kindest things we can do is to say, “It’s OK, don’t worry about it” when they worry that they are talking too much about their loved one.

We can help by notifying clergy, if we get the sense that the mourner is getting depressed or otherwise suffering. Rabbis and cantors want to know when a member of the congregation is suffering, but they can’t know if no one tells them.

The day will eventually come when we can have proper funerals and shiva again. But until then, our mourners need us, the people they may only barely know in their Jewish community, to be there for them.

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.”)

A Jew on Christmas Day

Image: My neighbor’s house is amazing. (Photo by Adar.)

My neighbor’s house is amazing, like a branch office of Disneyland.

My house has a menorah in the window. One of our poodles is mesmerized by the menorah; we don’t know why.

Many Jews are gathered for a family party, because this is the day that most of us have time off.

Some Jews are gathered with Christian relatives.

Some Jews are going to the movies, and out for Asian food.

Some Jews are feeling awkward about all the “Merry Christmas” greetings, and some are not.

Some Jews have really been enjoying all the wild lights in their neighborhood (that’s me.)

Some Jews are glad they don’t have to clean up the mess afterwards (again, me!)

Some Jews are working, having traded the day with Christian co-workers; they’ll be off for synagogue next Rosh HaShanah.

Some Jews hope the rabbi doesn’t stop by and see their Christmas tree.

Some Jews are feeling really conflicted about all of it.

Some Jews and many others are working today: cops, firefighters, EMTs, doctors, nurses, people at the power company, people working transit, clerks at the 7-11.  (Thank you!)

Some Jews are feeling left out.

Some Jews are ladling food at soup kitchens.

Most Jews and their neighbors wish for Peace on Earth, today and every day.

Because there is too much hunger, too much poverty, too much war, too much disease, too much pain, too much sorrow, too much tsuris in the world.

May the new secular year be a year in which we can find a way to work together against war, poverty, hunger, and pain.

May be new secular year be a year in which we have the courage to see new ways of listening and talking, walking and running.

May we have courage. May we have heart. May we have strength.

May we remember this feeling of being the Other the next time we are tempted to Other another.

Amen.

(Adapted from a previous post, in a different year. Time flies, and things change.)

Update #2: So Far, So Good

Image: The poodles say, “Gosh, the air stinks! What’s burning?”

We have power back here at home, as do both of our sons. Our niece, however, is still in the dark. All of us may lose power again tonight, depending on what PG&E decides. Yet another “wind event” is coming tonight, and PG&E is trying to prevent more fires.

There’s a lot of anger at PG&E these days. There is no doubt that management there has bungled by deferring maintenance and paying themselves bonuses. However, something should be said about the whole business of dividends. Investors, including small investors as well as bigger fish, hold utility stocks because they are known to pay good dividends. (Click link for what those are.) So it isn’t just the PG&E bigwigs who have pocketed money that should have been trimming trees and undergrounding lines – it’s anyone who has invested in PG&E stock in the past decades. That includes many small investors, many funds in which small investors invest, and many funds that benefit people who don’t directly invest in the stock market — foundations that operate charitable funds, etc. (Full disclosure: I’m one of those small investors.)

This is just to say that as usual, Pogo was right: We have met the enemy and he is us. Or as someone once told me, if I point my index finger at someone, notice that three other fingers are pointing back at me.

We are going to have to look at our choices, not only here in California but also in other places where climate change is beginning to shift balances. Things that worked in the past are no longer working. Privately held utilities with stockholder owners may have worked in the past, but do we need a different system now? If we want the state to do more, who is going to pay taxes to make that happen?

Also, as tempting as it is to yell at the PG&E employee who works on the local lines to get the power going, remember that their family is likely in the dark, too, and they are not making a zillion bucks as they climb up utility poles. We can write the corporate offices to tell them how mad we are, and that will be much more effective: here’s their contact info.

I’m grateful for all the first responders. I cannot imagine being a firefighter; the dangers they tackle boggle my mind. I had a roommate for a while who was an EMT, and sometimes he would come home hollow-faced from the horrors he’d witnessed and assisted.

I am also grateful to all the people who have checked on me and Linda, and who have expressed concern. We really are ok, although I am cautious and like to say, “So far, so good.” Fire weather is still all around us, and I don’t like to tempt fate.

Update: The Lucky Ones

We’ve been without power for 24 hours and I must say this is a very strange experience. I’ve never seen anything like this windstorm: there is no rain, no clouds, but the wind comes in ferocious gusts which tumble patio furniture and rip stressed trees to bits. It truly is a storm, only with sunshine.

I titled this “The Lucky Ones” because I have to acknowledge our good luck. So many people around the region are now under evacuation. They won’t know if their homes were spared until they are allowed back. Some know their homes are gone. Some survived only with the clothing on their bodies and maybe a dog or cat.

We’ve tried to make the best of the quiet here at home. I finished a knitting project during the daytime, and tonight, like last night, I’ll go to bed early. I’ve checked in on friends via text message, but had to cancel my afternoon online class. I have no Internet, and trying to teach from an overcrowded Starbucks… no, better to wait!

Such situations as these fires raise theological questions. Why do some people suffer, when others are lucky? Why does God allow these destructive winds? Did we do something bad? Are we being punished?

Jewish tradition has lots of different answers to these questions. The book of Deuteronomy seems to suggest that bad things happen only to people who deserve them — but you and I both know that that can’t be right. Bad things happen to both the innocent and the guilty.

Every human being will experience tragedy sometime in their life. These days every Facebook feed seems full of good luck and virtue, but if you look deeper than the PR, pretty much everyone has troubles. Many people have pain they don’t advertise.

And yes, some people seem to enjoy boundless luck. It isn’t fair. All I know to say is that we never know as much as we think about other people’s lives.

Jewish tradition teaches us that the relief of suffering is OUR job. Waiting around for miracles isn’t likely to succeed – miracles are very, very rare. God does not usually fiddle with the laws of nature.

So if you feel lucky, look for someone to help. If you feel unlucky, look for someone else unlucky and help them. If you feel grateful, express that gratitude by helping someone.

We are God’s hands in this world.

Fire Season

Image: Sunset over San Francisco Bay.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area we are in the midst of another fire and weather emergency. Another fire burns up in Sonoma County, to the north. A dry, hurricane speed wind is lashing us all over the region. Because of that, the utility company has turned off the power to many homes, including mine.

Frankly, I do not begrudge the power outage. It is inconvenient but if it can lower the likelihood of a firestorm in my neighborhood, I am grateful.

Don’t worry about me. My family and I are ok. There are thousands of people displaced by the fire, and a number who have lost their homes. There are firefighters putting their bodies on the line, fighting the Kincade fire. They are the ones who need our support and our prayers.

I’m posting using my smartphone, and I need to conserve power. I will post as I have the power to do so.