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?

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.

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.

In the Face of Pandemic: Mitzvot

Image: COVID-19 virus against the image of DNA. (Pete Linforth / Pixabay)

If you are looking for information about COVID-19 (“coronavirus”) then I recommend you look at the FAQ on the CDC website. I’m a rabbi, not a doctor, and I’m sticking to my area of expertise: how does Torah figure into this picture?

However big or little a deal COVID-19 turns out to be, Torah provides us with guidelines for dealing with the situation. There are opportunities for mitzvot all around us. A few of them:

Pikuach nefesh (Preserve life!) – One of the most pressing mitzvot, one that outweighs even the keeping of Shabbat, is the preservation of life. What does that mean, in this case? It means that we must be vigilant so that we do not knowingly or unknowingly pass the infection to someone at risk of dying from it.

Lishmor haguf (Guard the body!) – It means that each of us has a sacred duty to stay informed and to follow the practices that medical experts recommend for preventing the spread of the virus: handwashing, covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home if we are sick with a respiratory ailment. Even if we don’t know someone at risk of death from it, we do not yet fully understand the ways that Covid-19 damages the body in the long term. Taking every precaution against it is a mitzvah.

Veahavtem et ger (Love the stranger) – Xenophobia (fear of strangers) and racism are always wrong. People of Asian descent have been experiencing a rise in anti-Asian attitudes and action since the outbreak of the virus. They are no more likely to be a source of infection than anyone else. It is important that we not fall into such behavior or tolerate it in our presence. Jokes give permission. Sarcastic comments give permission. Don’t give permission.

Lo telekh rakhil b’amekha (Do not run around telling tales to people) – Make sure that everything you repeat is from a reliable source, and cite your sources. Don’t spread gossip or unreliable information. Don’t do it on social media, don’t do it in the workplace. Don’t speculate (“I bet they are going to start rationing Tylenol!”) because that can be repeated as a “fact” by someone careless and cause panic.

Give tzedakah – As with any other misfortune that affects the whole of society, the poor will be hardest hit. Contribute to organizations that care for and feed the poor. Malnourishment and homelessness make people more susceptible to disease. Anything we can do to relieve the suffering of the poor will reward all of us.

Those are just a few mitzvot that occur to me. What about you? Are there mitzvot you think particularly apply to this situation? Please add them to the comments!

“A Tzaddik Knows the Soul of His Beast”

Image: Three domesticated alpacas. (Kasjan Farbisz / Pixabay

Parashat Noach (Noah) tells the Biblical version of the story of Noah and the Ark. Makers of children’s storybooks have long focused on a sanitized version of the story to tell a charming tale about a boat full of animals that boarded “two-by-two.” Midrash offers us some hair-raising details – definitely not for kiddos! – about what happened on an ark with lions, tigers, and bears.

This Torah portion also offers an opportunity to talk a little bit about Jewish values regarding our treatment of animals. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out that there are a number of Torah passages that address our behavior and attitudes about the beasts around us:

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God: you shall not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements.

Exodus 19:9-10

If, along the road, you chance upon a bird’s nest, in any tree or on the ground, with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over the fledglings or on the eggs, do not take the mother together with her young.

Deuteronomy 22:6

You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together.

Deuteronomy 22:10

You shall not muzzle an ox while it is threshing.

Deuteronomy 25:4

There is a Jewish legal term for these laws and their corollaries, which are developed further in discussions in Talmud and elsewhere. It is tza’ar ba’alei chayyim, the prevention of cruelty to animals. Human beings are permitted to make use of animals to do work, and we are permitted to eat some animals, within limits, but we are not allowed to be cruel.

The laws of kashrut specifically forbid cruelty in slaughter, including frightening the animal. The method of slaughter is a swift severing of trachea, carotid artery, and esophagus by a scalpel-sharp knife in one stroke, so death is very quick and as painless as possible. Some Jews go a step further and eschew eating meat altogether.

Our tradition regards careful attention to animals as the mark of a tzaddik, a truly righteous individual.

יוֹדֵ֣עַ צַ֭דִּיק נֶ֣פֶשׁ בְּהֶמְתּ֑וֹ וְֽרַחֲמֵ֥י רְ֝שָׁעִ֗ים אַכְזָרִֽי׃

A righteous man knows the soul of his beast, But the compassion of the wicked is cruelty.

Proverbs 12:10

Pittsburgh Yahrzeit: How You Can Participate

Image: Tree of Life Memorials (White House Photo)

A year has passed since the murders of Jews in Pittsburgh. I was glad to hear that the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) has come up with a way for those of us who live far from Pennsylvania to participate and honor their memory.

The JFNA are calling on all Jews and allies to take a moment to pause on this coming Sunday, Oct. 27 to mark one year since the Tree of Life Congregations shooting in Pittsburgh, Pa. Eleven people were murdered there on Oct 27, 2018.

Use this link to sign up to participate.

We will remember their lives and their families in a virtual service around the world. Anyone signing up will receive a text at 5 p.m. Eastern Time (2 pm Pacific Time) with a video reading of a prayer for mourning and the names of the 11 individuals who were killed. Following the prayer, subscribers will be able to tune into a live stream of Pittsburgh’s public memorial service and submit a message of support by text.

Hillel’s Bathhouse Lesson

Image: A person in a hat lounges in a pool of water. (Free-Photos/Pixabay)

A midrash about the importance of self-care:

There it is written, “The merciful man does good to his own soul (Proverbs 11:17),” this [refers to] Hillel the Elder, who, at the time that he was departing from his students, would walk with them. They said to him, “Rabbi, where are you walking to?” He said to them, “To fulfill a commandment!” They said to him, “And what commandment is this?” He said to them, “To bathe in the bathhouse.” They said to him: “But is this really a commandment?” He said to them: “Yes. Just like regarding the statues (lit. icons) of kings, that are set up in the theaters and the circuses, the one who is appointed over them bathes them and scrubs them, and they give him sustenance, and furthermore, he attains status with the leaders of the kingdom; I, who was created in the [Divine] Image and Form, as it is written, “For in the Image of G-d He made Man (Genesis 9:6),” even more so!…

Vayikra Rabbah 34:3

I love this story because the first-century sage Hillel teaches his students about taking care of themselves, and he’s very clever about it. He first intrigues his students by going on a mysterious errand after class. His students, always hoping to learn from him, ask him where he’s going. He says, “To fulfill a mitzvah!” They ask which mitzvah, and he surprises them when he says, “I’m going to the bathhouse!”

I can just imagine them saying, “C’mon, is that really a mitzvah?” And he gives them an analogy: Just as a custodian cares for the statues of kings, we care for the image of God in the form of our own bodies. The custodian is paid to do it (receives his sustenance from his job) and keeping the statue clean is a way to honor the person pictured. How much more so should we honor the Divine Image in ourselves?

Hillel was teaching that self-care is really an expression of the love of God, because we are made in the image of God. So we should keep ourselves clean, and decently fed, and exercised, and go to the doctor when we’re sick. Those things are not just “self-indulgence” – they are another way of honoring God.

Hillel lived in turbulent times in the land of Israel, and may have suspected that even harder times were ahead. By teaching his students this important lesson about caring for themselves, he was also teaching them things they needed to know if they were going to be well enough to teach their own students in the difficult years ahead.

How Do Jews Pray for the Sick?

Image: A figure is sick in bed, thermometer in mouth. (OpenClipart-Vectors / Pixabay)

One Jew says to another, “I am so sad, my mother is sick.”

The other replies, “I will make a mi shebeirach for her – may she have a refuah shleimah!”

The beginner, listening, wonders, “What just happened?”

Mi Shebeirach (mee sheh-BEH-rakh) is the name of a group of prayers the most common of which is a prayer for the sick. They may be said as part of the Torah service, between Torah readings, but increasingly they are also said both publicly and privately outside the Torah service.

The words mi shebeirach are the opening words of the prayer, and they mean “may the One who blessed.” Here is what it says, in English:

May the One who blessed our ancestors — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah — bless and heal the one who is ill: ________________ son/daughter of ________________ . May the Holy Blessed One overflow with compassion upon him/her, to restore him/her, to heal him/her, to strengthen him/her, to enliven him/her. The One will send him/her, speedily, a complete healing — healing of the soul and healing of the body — along with all the ill, among the people of Israel and all humankind, soon, speedily, without delay, and let us all say:  Amen!

Refuah schleimah (reh-FOO-ah SHLEY-ma) or (reh-foo-AH shley-MAH) means “a complete healing.” It is important to keep in mind that a “complete healing” might mean “a cure” but it also might mean a peaceful conclusion to the illness. We do not assume that God is in the business of dishing out miracles, but it is possible for there to be wholeness (shleymut) without a return to the exact same level of previous health. Therefore we can say this prayer even for someone we believe to have a terminal illness: in that case, if there is no chance of a return to health, we can hope for the easiest possible progress of disease and for shalom, peace, at the end of life.

Whether prayer can affect the course of illness is the subject of debate. It can be very comforting to a sick person or their loved ones to know that others care and are praying for healing. If for any reason the sick person is uncomfortable with the practice, however, it is important to respect their wishes.

Some congregations maintain a “mi shebeirach list” of people who are sick and who wish prayers said for them. It can serve not only as a list of people who wish for prayers, but also as an opportunity to send a card or offer a visit.

For the Hebrew and transliteration of the Mi Shebeirach, see this page on ReformJudaism.org.

Feeling stressed? Re-commit to Self-Care!

Image: A teddy bear with a stethoscope pressed to its chest. (Pexels.com)

Feeling stressed?

I’m re-committing to self-care today. In a very wigged-out world we have to do what we can to maintain ourselves. I thought I’d share my list with you, in case you’ve been feeling ragged and need some care.

A note: We all have our limits and our challenges. Your self care will have to be personalized for your situation. Don’t hurt yourself or anyone else!

By the way, all of these things are mitzvot. They fall under the headings of “caring for the body,” “preserving life,” prayer, and moderation in appetites of all kinds. The list is in no particular order, because everything on it is important.

  1. Take all medications as prescribed. I am usually good about this, but it bears repeating.
  2. Drink more water. A lot of things I like to drink (coffee, tea, etc) are diuretics, so they don’t help with dehydration as much as I like to think. Water, water, water!
  3. Pray/Meditate every day. Meditation is part of my prayer practice: there is prayer in which I say words, and meditation in which I listen for the “still, small voice.”
  4. Move the body. Sitting at the computer, sitting at the TV, sitting sitting sitting is bad for both body and soul. I need to move my body every day, joyfully if at all possible.
  5. Guard against sunburn. Wear a hat, wear sunscreen, carry an umbrella if need be.
  6. Listen to the body. Cultivating awareness of hunger and thirst, of moods, of the truth of what I’m feeling is very important for my health.
  7. Eat when I’m hungry and stop when I’ve had enough. Intuitive eating has already saved my life and my sanity more than once. I recommit to it.
  8. Get enough sleep! Sleep deprived people have more accidents and have lowered resistance to illness.
  9. Limit social media and the news. Both are a world of stress these days, and beyond the headlines there is little I truly need. It is always worth asking if an activity is contributing to my ability to improve the world, or limiting it.
  10. Talk things out in a safe place. Sometimes talking things out can relieve a lot of stress, provided I’m careful to choose a listener who is responsible and discreet: a therapist, my rabbi, or a trusted friend.
  11. Say “no” to gossip. Rechilut (gossip) covers everything from celebrity “news” to involving myself in drama that is not my business. All of it is bad for me and for the world.
  12. Hug my beloveds. Beloveds include my wife, our children and their spouses, our dogs, and my dear friends. “Hug” can mean an actual hug, a statement of love, or a decision to assume the best when I am tempted to be cross with someone.
  13. Give tzedakah. The giving of tzedakah (giving money to relieve the suffering of another) reminds me of the power I have to help others. When I am feeling stressed and powerless, it helps to recognize that I still have the ability to help another person.
  14. Perform acts of kindness to others. Just as tzedakah reminds me that I am not destitute, an act of lovingkindness (gemilut chasadim) forces me to recognize the ways in which I am able. I cannot walk up stairs, but I can still drive the car and give someone a ride to shul.
  15. Be gentle with myself. I will say nasty things to or about myself that I would never, ever say to a stranger, much less a family member. “Gentle” means gentle – it doesn’t mean making excuses! Sometimes I need a talking-to (“Ruth, get off the computer and go outside to play!”) but I commit to leaving out the cruel adjectives and names with which I am prone to hurt myself. Just like every other human being, I am b’tzelem Elohim, made in the image of the Holy One, so I have to treat myself with respect and mercy!

Do you have any other suggestions for ways to maintain our health and sanity in stressful times?

We Must Not Stop Caring

The news is full of pictures of the camps on the southern border of the United States. The photo above is from one such news item, from “What We Know: Family Separation And ‘Zero Tolerance’ At The Border” from npr.org. I know that many of you are, like me, horrified at these reports.

I have been told that these camps existed during the Obama administration. If so, shame on us- this policy does not fit with my understanding of what America is supposed to be. We are slamming the door not only to immigrants like our own ancestors, but slamming doors on refugees from violence, people seeking asylum from terrible danger. I don’t care when it started; I want it to stop, and to be replaced by a fair and coherent immigration policy, something that both Republican and Democratic administrations have so far failed to produce.

I’ve written letters and made calls for months, and the news has only gotten worse. I’ve sent donations, and seen no progress. It is very, very easy to get weary, to decide that nothing will help, and to feel how tired I am of all this worry and activity. That weariness is a temptation to stop caring so much.

Ever since I first heard about the so-called detainment camps and the separation of children from their parents, I have protested it using the verse Deuteronomy 10:19: “You must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I’ve quoted those words so often, with so little result, that they have begun to seem meaningless.

Verses do that sometimes. They become rote, syllables that I repeat. At that point I step back and look at the larger context of the thing I’ve been quoting:

Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the LORD your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.

You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:16-19

Listen to the violence in that passage! “Cut away the thickening about your hearts, and stiffen your necks no more.” This verse is sometimes translated literally as “circumcise your hearts” but I prefer this translation because it brings the metaphor closer – we are not talking about brit milah here (upon which we moderns can get sidetracked into debate) – we’re talking about heart surgery!

We who have been sending in our tax dollars to pay agents to orphan children by taking them from their parents —

We who have been leaving mothers and fathers weeping for their children —

We who have been treating strangers like animals, caging them and denying them basic needs like soap and toothbrushes —

We who have been doing this out of fear (“they will rape our women”) or out of greed (“they will get our jobs”) need to change our hearts today!

We who have acquiesced to it by blaming the bad stuff on the president and his people, by saying, “I didn’t do that” or “that’s not US!” need to change our hearts today!

O God, who knows the hearts of all, please help us cut away the calluses on our hearts, please help us to care. Help our caring to find a better way: a just and coherent immigration policy, with the support it needs to succeed.

The worse the news, the longer it goes on, the more urgent it is that we care and that we continue taking action. If you would like a list of possible actions you might take to care and to act, Slate Magazine recently posted an excellent list.

We must not stop caring!