Tisha B’Av 5780 / 2020

This week we observe the 9th of Av, aka Tisha B’Av. It is the anniversary of the destruction of the 1st Temple in 586 BCE and the 2nd Temple in 70 CE.

Without the Temple, Biblical Judaism was impossible. The sacrificial cult was an essential element of Biblical Judaism, and without the Temple standing on that particular bit of real estate, the sacrifices are not valid.

Each destruction remade the Jewish world. After the return from Babylon, Judaism changed: we had a big scroll we called the Torah for public readings, which we had not had before. We had a large body of prophetic writings. Most importantly we knew that though we had a covenant with the God of Israel, it was not a guarantee of safety. We had been beaten, badly. To survive as a people, we developed additional institutions (Torah, synagogue) to maintain our identity even when we did not have access to the Temple.

We needed those institutions, because in 70 CE it happened again: the Romans punished us for insurrection and tore the Temple stone from stone, forbidding us to rebuild. A few years later, after another revolt, they scattered us to the four winds. We remained in exile, in Galut, for almost 2000 years.

In the face of the destruction of our old way of life we used imagination and ingenuity to remake Biblical Judaism into Rabbinic Judaism. The new Judaism was still linked to the Land of Israel, but it could survive anywhere, and survive we did.

We are living today in a time of destruction. The institutions of democracy, which have been mostly very good for the Jewish people are now under attack, not only in the US but in much of the world. A pandemic of Covid-19, a deadly and poorly-understood disease is sweeping the world, killing hundreds of thousands. Some old institutions are dying as well, and the world economies are straining. Climate change is reshaping the planet under our feet.

People are frightened, for good reason. Our lives are changing in unpredictable ways, and the “normal” we remember from December is not likely to return. Frightened people are irrational people, and we see evidence of that in public tantrums, irrational decisions by leaders, and in the general level of anxiety in our culture. We are living in a time of cataclysmic change.

This Tisha B’Av I will listen to Lamentations, and I will think about the fact that the Jews of 586 BCE and 70 CE were able to mourn their losses and find enough strength in their hearts to let go of the past (eventually) and move on into the future. They were willing to do what they had to do to keep Judaism alive. I will pray for their strength, for their stubbornness, and for their creative will. I will pray for young leaders with good ideas, and for the humility to accept their leadership.

We are only beginning to deal with the changes ahead of us. I have no idea where we will wind up. I only know that the Jewish people have endured and I am committed to my own small part in our survival.

What to do? I shall keep on living a life of Torah. I will keep what mitzvot I can, and I will teach mitzvot to others. I will keep learning and studying and teaching. That’s what our ancestors before us did, the reason there are still Jews today.

May the day of sad memories stiffen our spines while our hearts stay supple. May the map of Torah bring us safely home.

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.

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.”)

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.

Song for a Plagued Passover

Image: Meir Ariel’s portrait on the jacket of his “Best Of” collection

I have discovered an Israeli song that really speaks to me – my modern Hebrew is rough, so I hope that the translation below isn’t too far off. Avarnu et Paro – Na’avor Gam et Zeh is a song about things that wear at our humanity, and the impulse in Jewish tradition to persevere anyway.

There is an expression in Hebrew: gam zeh ya’avor — “this too will pass.” In this song, the singer, Meir Ariel (1942 – 1999) sings about all the things that annoy and discourage him, and finishes each verse with “We passed over Pharaoh, and we shall pass this too.”

Passover this week calls up our communal memory of slavery in Egypt, and of our deliverance from that terrible situation. We are now in the midst of what I can only describe as a plague, a miasma of disease and in some places, mismanagement as well. It is one of those terrible times in history in which many individuals do not survive, and it is a struggle to retain our humanity. Still we can survive it as a people, if we persist.

This is my mantra for Passover of 2020 / 5780: “We passed over Pharaoh, this will pass over too.”

Income tax, they made me pay extra
Value Added Tax, they got me with that too,
The electric company has cut me off,
The Water Administration shut me off -
I saw that I was deteriorating into a crisis, I started hallucinating ...
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

A computer error cost me a million, ATM swallowed my account balance, 
An electronic secretary denied me an interview, 
The DMV denied me a license 
To a mechanical lawyer, I dropped a token in the mouth slot ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

I learned a useful and necessary profession 
So I don't get pushed and pressed, I persevered, 
I was diligent although the system was failing, 
I found myself with the work getting sparse ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

Sometimes I am trapped on a crowded bus 
Or coming out of an exit, I am tense and urgent, 
Sometimes in the street jostling and rubbing, 
In demand for some relief, 
In the back, in the ribs, sometimes in the face, that elbow ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

I turned aimlessly for a while, Without definition and without compromise, 
I lost height and consciousness, I thought maybe that defined it, 
To give an sharp and clear answer - I was torn about it. 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.
 
And now I'm stuck in the cutting edge, 
And to be honest I'm pretty indifferent. 
The situation is bad but I don't feel, 
I have no heart for all the stuff the screen presents. 
And the people's government goes down the road again - to my disgust ... 
But we passed over Pharaoh, we'll pass over this too.

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.)

Tu B’Shevat Approaches!

Image: A snowy landscape with bare-branched trees. (Ina Hoekstra / Pixabay)

Tu B’Shevat this year (2020/5780) will begin at sundown on February 9, and end at sundown on February 10.

Because our history goes so far back, many Jewish holidays evolve over time, but this one has changed a lot since its inception, when it was the beginning of a fiscal year for fruit farmers. To learn more about the holiday, check out Tu B’Shevat for Beginners.

It is sometimes called The New Year of the Trees, one of four days that mark a new year for the Jewish people. For more about the other new years, see Four New Years Every Year?!

In this era of worries about climate change, some of us are cultivating a new respect for the trees. Have you ever planted a tree? Saved a tree? Been saved by a tree? Please share your stories in the comments!

It’s Rosh Chodesh Tevet!

Image: Candles on the menorah are nearly out. (Ri Butov / Pixabay)

Welcome to Tevet!

Tevet is the month that begins in the middle of a holiday. We are celebrating Chanukah, and when we light the sixth candle, the month of Tevet arrives to join us.

Despite its fancy beginning, Tevet is a quiet little month for Jews. The biggest thing to happen in it is not a Jewish day at all: the Gregorian New Year (January 1) usually falls in the month of Tevet.

The only other official Jewish day of observance in this month is Asara b’Tevet [10th of Tevet] on which some Jews fast to remember the day in 588 BCE when the army of Nebuchadnezzar, emperor of Babylon, laid seige to Jerusalem. In the month of Av, a year and a half later, they would enter the city and destroy Solomon’s Temple, which we refer to as the First Temple.

Rosh Chodesh is the first of every Jewish month. It means “head of the month” and it lines up (more or less) with the New Moon.

One of the quirks of the Jewish calendar as we know it today is that it is in some ways a hand-me-down from ancient Babylon. Before the destruction of the first Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent exile, we know that Jews followed a lunar calendar that began its months on the new moon and that had adjustments to keep the agricultural holidays in their proper seasons. We have a few month names from that calendar in the Torah, but most of the months seem to have been like modern Hebrew days. They went by number, “In the First Month” etc.

But the names of the months we use today came back from Babylon with our ancestors. Tevet in Babylon was Tebetu or something similar. If you are curious about the Babylonian calendar there are a few Internet sites that explore it, including this one.

Enjoy the last remaining nights of Chanukah and don’t forget to add the greeting, Chodesh Tov!  Happy New Month!

Feeling the need for a good Jewish calendar? You’ve got one in your smartphone or computer!

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.)

Ask the Rabbi: Why Can’t Jews Have a Christmas Tree?

Image: Golden Christmas tree shape on a red background. (monicore / Pixabay)

When I try to imagine the person asking this question in this way, the first person who comes to mind is someone who loves Christmas trees and is living with a Jew who does not love Christmas trees. They have said to the Jewish roommate/spouse/friend, “Why can’t we have a Christmas tree?” and the Jew has replied something like, “Because Jews aren’t allowed to have Christmas trees.”

As a way to get at the real question, may I suggest a little exercise?

You and your partner/roommate/spouse each take a piece of paper, go to your own corner for a bit, and answer these questions in writing. Then come back together to share your answers.

  • What feelings do you experience when you see a Christmas tree?
  • What do Christmas trees mean to you?
  • What is your earliest memory of a Christmas tree?
  • What feelings do you associate with that memory?
  • What is your strongest memory of a Christmas tree?
  • Why is that memory so powerful for you?
  • What other things give you the feelings that a Christmas tree gives you?

Notice that I am not even once asking for your rational thoughts. There is nothing rational about Christmas trees, unless you count the ones put up in shopping districts to encourage people to spend money. A home Christmas tree is an object of emotion. Also, don’t try to anticipate what the other person will say. Just write about what is true for you.

Then: trade pieces of paper and go back to your separate corners. Read what the other person has written. Sit with their emotions. Do not judge their emotions. Think about that last question: what gives you the kind of feelings that Christmas trees give that other person? If you love that person, read with the eyes of love, if you can.

Then you will be ready to have a conversation.

The person who loves Christmas trees may talk about any number of things, including: love of Jesus, love of secular Christmas, times of family closeness and warmth, fantasies of family closeness and warmth, memories of a particular relative, colorful lights in a dark room are beautiful! Presents! Or: I couldn’t have a tree as a child, but now I am an adult and I am finally able to have that tree! I want my children to have the experiences I remember from my childhood Christmases.

The person who doesn’t love Christmas trees may have all sorts of things on their list, too: Christmas trees make me feel like an Outsider, they remind me of mean things people did to me when I was a kid, Christmas trees are fire hazards and therefore scary, a Christmas tree has no place in my house because I am a proud Jew, Christmas trees remind me of presents that were never for me, the alcoholic in my family always got drunk at Christmas. I do not want my children to be confused by a Christmas tree in the house.

It may be that as you pay attention to each other’s emotions, things sort themselves out. For example, I do not keep bees because they are horrifying to my wife. My desire to keep bees is not as great as her horror at the thought of them nearby. On other things, we compromise: she collects Star Trek memorabilia but keeps it in her personal space, not all over the living room.

It may also be that the partners can get what they need, without resorting to a symbol that’s upsetting to one of them. There are many ways to experience family warmth and to make memories without having a tree in the house. Shabbat, for instance, comes once a week, involves candles and lovely lights (see The Lovely Lights of Shabbat and Havdalah: A Sweet Finish to Shabbat.)

But it may also be that there is no easy answer, that one partner loves the tree and the other is horrified by it. In that case, getting some counseling to help in sorting things out is vital if you want the relationship to thrive.

Pro tip: Don’t approach a rabbi wanting them to tell you it’s fine to have a Christmas tree in a Jewish home. Most rabbis have strong feelings about cultural appropriation, whether it is about Christmas trees in Jewish homes or the Southern Baptists deciding it’s fun to have a “Christian Passover Seder” for Easter.