The Rabbi Who Juggled Fire

Image: Rabban Gamliel was famous for juggling lit torches during the Sukkot celebrations in the Temple. (Sukkah 53b) (Vagengeim / Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

When I was a little child, I would read history and think enviously, “That must have been exciting – I wish I had a time machine!” Now that I’m older, and I’ve lived through a few such times, I know better. It is frightening and draining to hang on as the world seems to spin out of control. We in the United States are living through a simultaneous replay of 1918, 1929, and 1968, with a few added extras.

For me, study has been a refuge. I’ve been teaching and preparing classes nonstop, working harder and longer hours than I have done in years. I’m learning new material in order to be able to teach it. I’m co-teaching two other classes, and find comfort in the partnership with colleagues. I think of the generations of rabbis who have served the Jewish people during terrible times, and I know in my kishkes (Yiddish for guts) that Torah sustained them too.

Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).

Pirkei Avot 1:18

Shimon ben Gamaliel (10 BCE – 70 CE) lived during the run-up to the First Jewish Revolt. He was the president of the Great Sanhedrin during his last years, and he died when the Romans beheaded him, along with the High Priest, Ishmael ben Elisha. Rabban Shimon saw his world disintegrate through terrible divisions in Jewish society and under the cruel rule of Rome.

It is interesting that this, likely his most famous quotation, is a drash on a verse from the prophet Zechariah. Zechariah lived in a very different time, a time of rebuilding. He wrote after the Exile in Babylon was over, after Cyrus of Persia authorized a return to Israel and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. Zechariah did not live in an idyllic time (see the books of Ezra and Nehemiah for details) but it was a time of building, not of destruction.

What I learn from this is that one way to survive terrible times is to remember that history is full of cycles: some live in troubled times and some live in times of rebuilding. We can use the memory of better times to guide us forward towards better times in the future.

I’m not talking about “the good old days,” some idealized past. I’m talking about looking back for the values that brought out the best in us. Shimon ben Gamaliel looked back to a time when the guiding values were justice, truth, and peace:

  • Justice: that none should be treated as less than others.
  • Truth: that there is such a thing as truth.
  • Peace: not the absence of disagreement, but the presence of justice and truth, so that the world can be built instead of torn down.

We are living in a time like Shimon’s time, in a society polarized to its limit and beyond. The federal government of the United States is pursuing policies that bring out the worst in people, and that prey upon the weakest among us. The line between facts and opinion seems to have disappeared for many people. Peace is nowhere to be found.

I cannot guarantee that things will improve. I can’t promise that they won’t get worse. What I can say for sure is that the Jewish people have been through bad times in the past, and that the sages of the past can offer us guidance. Shimon suggests that justice and truth make peace possible, even in the darkest of times.

May we work for justice.

May we tell the truth.

May the world – our world – know a true peace, a peace based on justice and truth.

And let us say, Amen.

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.”)

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.

How to Bring Food into Your Home SAFELY in the age of COVID-19

A video about safe grocery shopping and takeout.

Preserving life is a Jewish value. The Hebrew for that value is pikuakh nefesh (peh-KOO-akh NEH-fesh.)

Human beings cannot live without eating, but right now we need to be vigilant about the coronavirus, a disease that is highly contagious and for which there is as yet no treatment or cure.

This medical doctor offers training on how to safely handle groceries, and how to handle groceries you are taking to someone else.

May all of you reading this be safe and well.