Sukkot Thoughts for 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What can we do?

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

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

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

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

Speak Up for Althea Bernstein

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This tweet from Rabbi Jonah Pesner of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism sums up the story pretty well: a young Black Jewish woman was attacked and set afire by a group of men in a car in Madison, WI, on June 24, 2020.

From the Madison Police Department’s incident report:

The MPD is investigating an assault on an 18-year-old bi-racial woman as a hate crime after she was burned with lighter fluid early Wednesday morning.

     The victim believes she was driving on W. Gorham St. when she stopped for a red light at State St. Her driver’s side window was down and she heard someone yell out a racial epithet. She looked and saw four men, all white. She says one used a spray bottle to deploy a liquid on her face and neck, and then threw a flaming lighter at her, causing the liquid to ignite.

     She drove forward, patted out the flames, and eventually drove home. Her mother encouraged her to go to a hospital.

     Hospital staff believed the liquid was lighter fluid. She was treated for burns, and will need to make follow-up visits to access additional medical care.

      Investigators are looking at surveillance images to see if any of the assault was captured on camera.

https://www.cityofmadison.com/police/newsroom/incidentreports/incident.cfm?id=26640 accessed 6/29/2020.

While several “go fund me” funds have been set up, I have not been able to ascertain whether any of them will actually go to her (always, always check!). If any readers learn of a proper fund for her, please let us know in the Comments.

Change.org has a petition seeking justice for Ms. Bernstein, and you can sign it at this address.

The Bloods of Your Brother: A Study from Mishnah Sanhedrin

Image: Drawing of the Council of the Sanhedrin in Solomon’s temple, by Gerhard Schott, circa 1723-1729. (Image courtesy of the Henry Wilson Coil Library & Museum of Freemasonry.)

In the United States, multiple people have been killed without benefit of a trial by the authorities (police.) In Israel, we have just seen the killing of an unarmed autistic man, Eyal Hallaq, by Israeli police officers. It seems a good time to reflect on the Jewish teachings regarding the value of a single life.

Mishnah Sanhedrin includes discussions among the rabbis on the rules governing the workings of rabbinical courts. It was written down in 200 CE, but had been transmitted from rabbi to student as Oral Torah for as many as 400 years before that. The customs and laws described go back even further, although we do not know exactly how far.

This particular section of the mishnah has to do with instructions to the witnesses in capital cases, cases in which the accused will be executed if found guilty. As you will see, the instructions remind witnesses of the seriousness of taking a life – in this case, the life of the accused. When the passage cites a passage in Torah, I will stop to give you that passage.

I thought about writing a summary, but the words of the mishnah are so powerful in and of themselves, and so pertinent to the killings we have seen lately, that I think anything I add will diminish them.

Here’s what the rabbis said to witnesses in a capital trial. As you read it, imagine that you are in the rabbinical court, listening as the presiding judge admonishes the witnesses:

How did they admonish witnesses in capital cases? They brought them in and admonished them, [saying], “Perhaps you will say something that is only a supposition or hearsay or secondhand, or even from a trustworthy man. Or perhaps you do not know that we shall check you with examination and inquiry? Know, moreover, that capital cases are not like non-capital cases: in non-capital cases a man may pay money and so make atonement, but in capital cases the witness is answerable for the blood of him [that is wrongfully condemned] and the blood of his descendants [that should have been born to him] to the end of the world.” For so have we found it with Cain that murdered his brother, for it says, “The bloods of your brother cry out” (Gen. 4:10).

M. Sanhedrin 4.5

Then [God] said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s bloods cry out to Me from the ground!”

Genesis 4:10 (from the Cain and Abel story)

Resuming Mishnah Sanhedrin :

It doesn’t say, “The blood of your brother”, but rather “The bloods of your brother” meaning his blood and the blood of his descendants. Another saying is, “The bloods of your brother” that his blood was cast over trees and stones. Therefore but a single person was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single life to perish from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had caused a whole world to perish; and anyone who saves a single soul from Israel, he is deemed by Scripture as if he had saved a whole world. Again [but a single person was created] for the sake of peace among humankind, that one should not say to another, “My father was greater than your father”. Again, [but a single person was created] against the heretics so they should not say, “There are many ruling powers in heaven”. Again [but a single person was created] to proclaim the greatness of the Holy Blessed One; for humans stamp many coins with one seal and they are all like one another; but the King of kings, the Holy Blessed One, has stamped every human with the seal of the first man, yet not one of them are like another. Therefore everyone must say, “For my sake was the world created.” And if perhaps you [witnesses] would say, “Why should we be involved with this trouble”, was it not said, “He, being a witness, whether he has seen or known, [if he does not speak it, then he shall bear his iniquity] (Lev. 5:1).

M. Sanhedrin 4.5

And now the cited passage from Leviticus:

If a person incurs guilt— When he has heard a public imprecation and—although able to testify as one who has either seen or learned of the matter—he does not give information, so that he is subject to punishment

Leviticus 5:1

Back to Mishnah Sanhedrin:

And if perhaps you [witnesses] would say, “Why should we be guilty of the blood of this man?, was it not said, “When the wicked perish there is rejoicing” (Proverbs 11:10).]

Which says:

When the righteous prosper the city exults; When the wicked perish there are shouts of joy.

Proverbs 11:10

A little later on in the mishnah, it requires that if the accused in a capital case is convicted and has to be executed, then the first and if needed, the second blow must be given by the witnesses, for in testifying they take on responsibility for the death of this person.

Some questions for study:

  1. What are the rabbis saying to the witnesses? Can you restate it in your own words?
  2. It makes sense that a murderer is responsible for the blood of the murdered person. Why is a murderer also responsible for the descendants who will never be born?
  3. Why is a witness in a murder trial responsible for the blood of the convicted murderer, and for the descendants who will never be born?
  4. What are our responsibilities as Jews, when we are witnesses to violence?
  5. What do you imagine the rabbis would have to say about viral videos that make millions of us witnesses to violence and killings? By watching the video, do we become witnesses? What are our responsibilities as witnesses?

If anyone wants to take a crack at these questions in the comments, I welcome you!

I owe the inspiration for this post to my teacher, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler.

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.

While We are Home, Things We Can Do to Help

Image: Cat stares at a door, wanting out. (Krystyna Kaleniewicz / Pixabay)

I’m 65, with significant risk factors relative to COVID-19. My wife is 71, and has even more risk factors. We are doing our best to isolate as completely as we can. I am aware that I am a happier person when I feel useful, which is why I’m teaching more free classes. (See Growing Jewishly in a Challenging Year: Options for Study Online.)

Today the SF Bay Area county health departments asked everyone to shelter in place at home for three weeks beginning midnight on March 17 (tonight.)

Isolating is not a selfish or cowardly act. We are saving lives by staying home, washing hands, not touching our faces, not overloading the hospitals, and doing all the things the health professionals say. The example of Italy should be all the warning we require as we try to “flatten the curve” of the pandemic.

Here are some ideas for ways to spend our time and improve our lives and the lives of others while we are doing our part to flatten the curve:

  • Continue being careful at home – when were your doorknob and doorbell last cleaned with disinfectant?
  • Go through they rolodex or the directory on my phone – who do I know who may be feeling very lonely and scared? Give them a call and listen more than talk. Listening is helping right now. Reach out via email, if phones aren’t the best option.
  • On social media, I watch who spreads reliable news, and who spreads titillating rumors. I follow the reliable news spreaders, and unfollow the rumor mongers. I refuse to let their garbage work on my head.
  • Now is a great time to revive our spiritual practices, or to develop one: meditate, or pray, or exercise with spiritual intent.
  • Now is a great time to learn! Take an online class, use software to learn a foreign language, read, read, read! YouTube and other online resources can have you exchanging greetings in Hebrew in no time.
  • Public libraries often offer access to e-books.
  • Eat as healthfully as we can.
  • Get enough sleep! Sleep boosts our immune systems, and too many people are on a sleep deficit.
  • Exercise is important. Stretch, lift weights (books?), do a little cardio. I do 20 minutes of exercise every day. If you are in an apartment, call or leave a note to the people downstairs asking when the best time for you to make noise.
  • Tzedakah: for those of us financially secure enough to do so, this is a great time to give to charities that care for people with food or housing insecurity.
  • Do you have fantasies about writing a book? This is a great time to keep a diary: we are living through history.
  • We need to care for our pets. Appreciate their company. It isn’t a great time for cats or dogs to run around outside, though: if they get lost, we cannot go look for them.
  • Passover is coming! We each need to prepare according to our observance and our situation. (See Passover Prep: Begin in Egypt.) (More about Passover in a future post.)
  • Be kind to other members of our households. This is a stressful time, and it’s easy to get cranky. It’s a good time to practice appreciation and to let criticism go.
  • Find a synagogue that streams services online. Start with your local community but I will see about posting a list of streaming services in a later post.
  • Count our blessings, beginning with life and breath.
  • Be aware that there are some who are in difficult situations, with unpleasant or abusive housemates. Hold them in our hearts.

Ideas for those home with children:

  • Make and decorate cards and send them to loved ones (or save for later delivery.) Index cards or folded printer paper make great cards. “Junk mail” can make collages.
  • Reading to kids and letting them read to us – and to each other! – is a wonderful activity.
  • Beware too much scary news on TV.
  • Make puppets out of old socks, and rehearse a show for the adults to watch when they take a break from home-work!
  • Put music on – everyone dance!
  • This is a great opportunity to teach age-appropriate household skills to kids. Even little ones can “dust” with a cloth.
  • Set up phone and video chats for the kids with their friends and with family they can’t visit right now.
  • For older kids, this might be a great time to learn a craft. YouTube has lots of great videos, and both knitting and crochet can be learned with any string, if you have needles or a hook.
  • Use YouTube to learn Jewish songs, and songs from your family’s heritage.

Fasting With Esther: A Different Kind of Purim Observance

Image: Hands holding a globe of earth ( cocoparisienne / Pixabay)

If you have a good Jewish calendar, you may have noticed that on the day before Purim, there is something called Ta’anit Esther, the Fast of Esther. This is one of the minor fasts – “minor” meaning a dawn-to-dusk fast, unlike the Yom Kippur 25-hour fast.

The fast commemorates the three day fast that Queen Esther asked the Jews of Persia to keep before she approached the king about the planned massacre of the Jews.

Esther bade them to answer to Mordecai:

“Go, gather together all the Jews that are present in Shushan, and fast ye for me, and neither eat nor drink three days, night or day; I also and my maidens will fast in like manner; and so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.”

Esther 4:15-16

The usual reason given for observing the fast is that it sharpens our enjoyment of the feasting and joy of Purim. The original fast in the story had a darker meaning. Esther was about to put herself in danger, approaching the king. Meanwhile, the king had put much of the government in the hands of a bad man, Haman, whose xenophobic policies were a dire threat to the survival of the Jews. (Esther 3:8-10)

Today the human race faces some dire threats, and the governments of some nations have wrongheaded policies that are not making matters better. Genuine leadership has been in short supply, and we are in perilous times. We face climate change and a pandemic, which threaten both our physical and economic health. Xenophobia is rampant, and religious persecution, including but not limited to antisemitism, is on the rise. Economic injustice is rife, and the income gap grows wider and wider.

Some may say, “What difference does a fast make?” It is an ancient way of expressing distress at a situation beyond one’s control. It is a way of consolidating spiritual energy, of altering our experience and point of view. Sometimes fasting can produce a slightly altered state in which we see things differently. On a larger scale, my fasting speaks to my own belief that only if those of us who have more than others learn to practice a little self-denial, a little moderation, a little willingness to share, we are all going to suffer terribly in the coming years.

When Esther asked the Jews of Persia to fast, she did not know what lay ahead. She feared that when she approached the king, he would be angry and have her killed. She knew that Haman had scheduled the murder of all the Jews only a short time later. She did not know if she could make a difference. In the story, she made all the difference because she stood up for her people and took action. When she sent the message, she may not have known what she was going to do, but after fasting and prayer, she had come up with an idea that worked.

There is a growing fear of the future among us, and with fear come great evils: selfishness, xenophobia, mistreatment of the poor and the homeless. I am going to fast to express my solidarity with the people who are currently already suffering, and to express my distress at the road I see ahead. I will give tzedakah for the relief of food insecurity. I will pray for wisdom, as Americans go to the polls, as Israelis try to find their way to a new government, as governments try to mobilize against the pandemic.

I am finding – not exactly comfort, but a challenging sort of strength – in the words of Psalm 46:

God is for us a refuge and strength,

a help found easily when troubles come.

Therefore we shall not fear when the earth changes,

Or when the mountains totter into the heart of the seas,

When its waters roar and rage,

When the mountains shake as the seas rise up – selah!

A river: its channels bring joy to the city of God,

The most holy of the dwelling places of the Most High.

God is in her midst, she shall not totter; God will help her as darkness turns towards morning.

Peoples roared – kingdoms tottered;

God gave forth a sound – the earth began to melt!

Adonai of Hosts is with us,

A high tower for us is the God of Jacob – selah!

Go, behold the works of Adonai

Who has brought barren places to the earth,

Abolished wars to the end of the earth,

Broken the bow and severed the spear,

Burned up chariots in a blazing conflagration.

“Let them go, and know that I am God –

I am high above the nations, I am high above the earth!”

“Adonai of hosts is with us,

A high tower for us is the God of Jacob – Selah!”

Psalms 46:2-12 (translation from Songs Ascending by Rabbi Richard N. Levy z”l, CCAR Press.*

(Additional note: I thoroughly recommend Rabbi Levy’s translation and commentary on the Book of Psalms, Songs Ascending. They bring the ancient prayers to new life.)

Facebook Blackout!

Image:

My social media habits are shifting.

I am participating in a Facebook blackout from Nov 5 – Nov 11, 2019. A number of us are doing this for two reasons:

1. If we live in a place where we vote, we don’t want to be influenced by the political ads on Facebook,even inadvertently.

2. We are staying off until Veterans Day as a protest against Facebook’s public position that they are fine with untruthful political advertising as long as they get paid for it. In taking that position, Facebook, where 40% of the US electorate gets its news, has claimed an exception to the rules for political advertising.

I am looking for some alternatives to Facebook for my professional and family networking. I’d like to sever all relationship with Mr Zuckerberg and his policies. Until then this little blackout will have to do.

How To Win a Jewish Argument

Image: Two women arguing. (Anetlanda/Shutterstock)

Every dispute that is for the sake of Heaven, will in the end endure; But one that is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure. Which is the controversy that is for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Hillel and Shammai. And which is the controversy that is not for the sake of Heaven? Such was the controversy of Korah and all his congregation.

Avot 5:17

Arguments among Jews are raging on social media and elsewhere these days. We argue about Israel. We argue about the rights of the groups who have been historically diminished or disenfranchised by Jewish communities: women, people of color, converts, LGBTQ Jews, disabled Jews. We argue about the proper labels for friends and enemies: Christian Zionists, Palestinians, Donald Trump. We argue about anti-Semitism: where it comes from and who it oppresses. The arguments grow bitter and lately I have come to believe that we spend too much time fighting one another while real dangers circle around us.

The rabbis worked out much of what we think of as Rabbinic Judaism through a process of machlochet [argument.] First a rabbi would raise a question, then the other rabbis would share what their teachers had taught them and what they had observed. These discussions have come down to us through the Talmud, and also by way of mouth through our teachers.

In the passage above from Mishnah Avot, the writer gives us an example of “argument for the sake of heaven.” His contemporaries would immediately recognize the reference to Hillel and Shammai, which is recounted at greater length in Eruvin 13b:

Rabbi Abba said that Shmuel said: For three years Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed. These said: The halakha [law] is in accordance with our opinion, and these said: The halakha is in accordance with our opinion. Ultimately, a Divine Voice emerged and proclaimed: Both these and those are the words of the living God. However, the halakha is in accordance with the opinion of Beit Hillel.

The Gemara asks: Since both these and those are the words of the living God, why were Beit Hillel privileged to have the halakha established in accordance with their opinion? The reason is that they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted, and when they taught the halakha they would teach both their own statements and the statements of Beit Shammai. Moreover, when they formulated their teachings and cited a dispute, they prioritized the statements of Beit Shammai to their own statements, in deference to Beit Shammai.

Eruvin 13b

The rabbis of Hillel’s academy “won” the argument because “they were agreeable and forbearing, showing restraint when affronted,” and when they taught the law they would teach both their opinions and those of their opponents, prioritizing the opinions of their opponents.

In the words of Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the argument for the sake of heaven is an argument in search of the truth. Its opposite, the argument not for the sake of heaven, is an argument in search of victory. When we argue to seek the truth by hammering it out between us, that is a wonderful thing. When we argue to diminish or humiliate our opponent, it is disgraceful.

When we argue only to win, when we make ad hominem attacks, when we wreak our anger by inciting others to words and acts of hatred, we tear down Am Yisrael [the Jewish People.] When we argue out of envy, out of spite, or out of a desire to humiliate, we do terrible harm. When we speak disdainfully or hatefully of other Jews we hurt ALL Jews. When we speak disdainfully or hatefully to other Jews, we are truly losers, no matter what our cause.

So let us ask ourselves, whenever the rhetoric gets heated, whenever we feel the adrenaline flowing, whenever we are arguing with another Jew, “Is this argument for the sake of heaven?” Am I seeking Truth, or attempting to impose my truth by arguing louder, more angrily, with more name-calling? The rabbis call to us across the centuries to tell us that how we argue matters.

Yom Kippur and #MeToo Issues

Image: A tree-lined walkway in autumn, with light at the end. (Johannes Plenio /Pixabay)

I’ve written before about some of these issues, in Jewish Resources for Abuse Survivors, but Yom Kippur is approaching and I gather from Twitter that I’m not the only survivor feeling twitchy as the Day of Atonement approaches.

Issue: Loss of Control: Over the years, I’ve realized that one aspect of Yom Kippur is that we give up a lot of our autonomy for a day. For many Jews, that’s a useful thing. We have a list of things to do which fill the 24 hours of the day, and we do them, and there isn’t room for anything else. If we are born Jewish, or have been Jewish for a number of years, there is also the communal expectation that we will do these things weighing upon us. It doesn’t feel like a choice – it’s just what we must do. For a person who has had trauma involving control over their body, some of usual Yom Kippur observances can be triggering.

Reply: If the loss of control is a spiritual barrier, then perhaps some alternative observance would be more effective. If sitting in shul becomes too much, it’s OK to quietly exit and take a walk, even just a walk down the hall. If fasting is likely to trigger problems, make alternative plans. Tell yourself ahead of time that you are free to do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself. You are free.

Issue: Guilt & Shame: For many of us, shame was a big part of the abuse experience, used like a weapon by an abuser. Remind yourself that shame is different than guilt: a guilty party has something for which to atone. The person who feels ashamed is turned inward on themselves in disgust or anger. The Day of Atonement is very much about guilt, and about the cure for guilt, which is teshuvah. Shame, however, doesn’t need teshuvah; the one who suffers from shame is a wounded soul in need of healing.

Reply: Healing from shame is not a one-day project, but it can be done. For Yom Kippur this year, try resolving to be as gentle with yourself as you would be with a five year old who felt horrible. Think about a trusted person to whom you could reach out, even a little bit, with the shame that has bound you. That person might be a therapist, a rabbi, or a good friend. Then in the days after this Yom Kippur, reach out and say, “There is this thing bothering me and I need help.”

Issue: Anger: One year I felt angry during Yom Kippur. We kept reading the Vidui prayers, listing sins, and it suddenly put me in touch with my anger at things that had been done to me. I was furious! I wanted an apology this minute! I could barely sit still. I fumed all the way through the prayers, and at the same time, I knew that wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing, and I felt angry and ashamed about that.

Reply: For some of us, there’s a point at which anger is progress. If you have had trouble feeling angry, then this response to Yom Kippur is really a gift. Follow up on that gift with a call to a therapist, if you have one, or get a therapist, if you don’t. This is an opportunity to get work done. On the other hand, if anger is where you are stuck lately, maybe lists of sins aren’t the healthiest reading right now. Take a walk, get out into nature, exercise, do something else to blow off the energy.

Are there emotions or experiences with Yom Kippur that I haven’t addressed here? Do you have ways you deal with these issues? I encourage you to share what you feel comfortable sharing in the Comments section.

Here is a psalm I keep in my machzor (HHD prayer book):

The Holy One is a haven for the oppressed, a haven in times of trouble.

Those who know Your name trust You, for You do not abandon those who turn to You, O God.

Sing a hymn to the Holy One, who reigns in Zion; declare God’s deeds among the peoples.

For God does not ignore the cry of the afflicted; God who requites bloodshed is mindful of them.

Have mercy on me, O Holy One; see my affliction at the hands of my foes, You who lift me from the gates of death,

so that in the gates of Fair Zion I might tell all Your praise, I might exult in Your deliverance.

Psalms 9: 10-15

Jewish Ethics: Links to Books

Image: An Amazon distribution center work floor. Photo from 7 Examples of How Amazon Treats Their 90,000+ Warehouse Employees Like Cattle by Jacob Weindling on PasteMagazine.com.

I often recommend books on this blog, and I am certainly an avid consumer of books. I’m working my way towards some better choices, and I thought I’d share the process with you.

Every consumer has a different menu of choices for consumption. The choices available to an able-bodied suburban consumer who owns a car are different from the choices available to a consumer living in an area with limited options for transportation and severe time or energy constraints. I want to emphasize that I am NOT making a judgment on choices forced by poverty, disability, or other menu-shrinking constraints. Rather, the same method follows: evaluate your choices and pick the best for you, whatever it is.

Jewish tradition bids us to take care not to injure others, directly or indirectly. When we do business with a company, we validate their choices about labor practices, sourcing their products, impact on the environment, etc. Their choices become our choices. Therefore it is worthwhile to think through our priorities for consumption.

Years ago, I boycotted Amazon.com because I saw it as a killer of locally owned bookstores. Gradually, as the bookstores succumbed anyway, and as my disabilities expanded, I altered my behavior and began using Amazon’s extremely convenient services, including book sales. The ability to have things delivered to my home as well as the convenience of the Kindle for reading in bed drove my decisions.

I winced whenever I read about Amazon’s labor practices, poor working conditions, and other questionable policies. Still I did not see better options for me, so I kept on buying from Amazon. Even here on the blog, I linked the names of books I recommended to their Amazon pages.

However, I made an error in my ethical calculations. I framed the choice to do business with Amazon as a binary choice: buy nothing from them vs. buy automatically from them. That is an easy mistake to make, since our brains tend to frame questions in the binary. There is also a sneaky convenience in saying, “I have to buy X from them, I might as well buy Y as well.” In fact, there are more options than those two.

Instead of “all” or “nothing,” I now re-frame the Amazon decision: I will buy from that company if and only if it is the least-harmful option available to me for genuinely necessary consumption. That’s going to take some extra time and effort, but I see it as a more ethical choice.

The part of that decision that will be visible here on the blog is that I’m going to start linking book titles to other choices than Amazon. In the most recent such post, Book List: Jewish Spirituality, I’ve begun my new practice. When an author has a web page with a link for buying the book, I’ll link to that, because no matter what it links to (usually Amazon) the author will get more money for their work. When there is no such page available, I’m going to link to an independent bookseller, and I’ll mix those up among several I know. On the recent list, I linked to Powell’s Books, an independent bookseller in Portland, Oregon with a good website and excellent service. Readers can navigate to the bookseller of their choice or to a local library.

Finally, as with all such questions, I’m open to the hope that Jeff Bezos (owner of Amazon) will see his way towards treating his employees with decency. Consumer pressure makes companies improve bad policies all the time: ask Nike, for instance, which has had an ongoing conversation with consumers and activists since the 1990’s.

Some principles to ponder:

Money is power, even in small quantities. We influence companies when we choose to do business with them, or not to do business, or to do business as little as possible.

Most menus have more than two items. I thought of Amazon as a yes/no decision, when in fact it was a yes/no/sometimes choice. If the only way a person can afford something they need is to buy it Walmart, Jewish tradition teaches that it is not my business to judge them, because I will be much too busy working out my own ethical problems.

Buying “Used” is an option, too. If we are concerned about the planet and sustainability, sometimes buying used goods is the most ethically sound option. I recommend this option with enthusiasm, although it has a downside: the author gets no pay for a used book sale. Again, the choices are ours and none of them are 100% “pure.”