Yitzhak Rabin, z”l

Image: King Hussein of Jordan (on the left) and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (right) sign the Washington Agreement under the eye of President Bill Clinton on the White House lawn, July 25, 1994. Photo: SAAR YAACOV, GPO, 25/07/1994, some rights reserved.

This month in the Jewish calendar is Cheshvan, sometimes known as Marcheshvan, “bitter Cheshvan.” It became much more bitter 21 years ago, when on the night of 12 Cheshvan 5756, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated as he left a rally in Tel Aviv. He was murdered by a right-wing Jewish religious extremist.

Rabin, who had been a warrior most of his life, had in his later years become a fierce advocate for peace. His murder was a bitter event, indeed, and since that day the prospects for peace in Israel have diminished to heartbreak.

If you do not know much about Rabin’s life, here is the official biographical material from the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Israel. May his memory always be a blessing to his people, and may we someday achieve the state of peace of which he dreamed.

Shabbat Shalom! Noach

This week’s Torah portion is Noach. It contains two famous stories: Noah’s Ark and the Tower of Babel. It might be tempting to think, “Oh, I know those!” and skip right over, but it would be a mistake.

The great thing about Torah stories is that even though the words do not change, every year when we come back around to them, we are in a different place in our lives. When I was little, I was fascinated by the thought of all those animals: it seemed wonderful! When I was a young mother, I thought about Mrs. Noah: poor woman, all those animals and children to care for! This year, I think about the Flood itself: I feel overwhelmed – almost drowning! – in the U.S. elections, and I also worry about climate change.

So take a look at these famous stories: read the parashah for yourself! Here are some writers with different points of view on the stories in Parashat Noah:

Whence Evil? – Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Naamah, Wife of Noah, Sings as She Goes About her Work – Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild

Righteous In His Time – Rabbi Jordan Parr

End Violence and Stop Maelstrom Flooding – Rabbi Nina Mizrachi

And God Created Diversity, And God Saw That It Was Good! – Rabbi Stephen Fuchs

The Scary Side of Noah’s Ark – Rabbi Ruth Adar

Individual and Collective Responsibility – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

 

 

Georgia on My Mind

Image: “I Voted” sticker. Photo by Dwight Burdette, some rights reserved.

[Rabbi Isaac taught that] A ruler is not to be appointed unless the community is first consulted. – Berachot 55a

Next week I’m headed down to Georgia to serve as a non-partisan volunteer poll monitor. My job will be twofold: (1) to assist voters who are having difficulty finding their polling place and/or accessing a ballot and (2) to report problems at the polls. I will not be there supporting a candidate. My vote is cast in California, and it will be over and done.

Why am I going? Because the heart of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 25, 2013. (For a history of the long fight for the Voting Rights Act, read A Dream Undone in the New York Times, 7/29/15.) Since then, a number of states have instituted restrictions on voting that appear to disproportionately disadvantage the poor, the elderly, and people of color.  I’m not going to Georgia to interfere with the law; I’m just going to help insure that the law doesn’t keep a legal voter from voting legally.

I’m going to Georgia to help insure that every person who is eligible to vote gets to cast their vote. When people’s polling places have been moved, I’ll help them look up the new polling place. When people can’t get to the new polling place because it’s too far from public transit, I’ll help them access a ride there. When a polling place is not handicap accessible, I’ll report the problem and help arrange for access. If someone is turned away from the polls unjustly, I’ll help them get access to legal assistance.

I’m not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. I won’t be giving legal advice or doing anything heroic or stupid. I’m volunteering through the Religious Action Center and Election Protection, and they have given me training about the boundaries of my participation.

As a Jew, I believe that voting rights are sacred. In the quotation from the Talmud above, Rabbi Isaac gives the example of Betzalel, the chief builder of the Ark of the Covenant (Exodus 36.) Betzalel could be chosen by God, but only with the approval of all the people of Israel. That ethic of political participation and the admonishments of the prophets to include the poor, the orphan and the widow in civic life have informed the American Jewish support for voting rights for all American citizens.  That’s why I want to participate in this election: not only by exercising my own right to vote, but also by making sure that others get to exercise theirs.

If everyone has legal access to their right to vote, I’ll spend a really boring day sitting around, and then exhaust myself flying home in time to teach a class.  Let’s hope for that, shall we?

 

Have You Had Your Flu Shot?

V0016569 Mr. Punch wrapped up in blankets in front of the fire, eatin

Image: 19th c cartoon by John Leech, “Mr. Punch has the Flu.”Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.”

4,605 people died of flu in the United States in 2014 but less than half of the adults in the U.S. were vaccinated against the infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Some will say, “It’s a personal choice.” You doctor will likely say that it’s a personal choice. Your local conspiracy buff may tell you it’s all a plot.

However, under Jewish tradition, it’s a mitzvah – a commandment – that we get a flu shot unless there are strong reasons against it, such as an egg allergy.

“Where are flu shots in the Torah?” I imagine someone asking indignantly. Well, here are some places:

You shall watch your lives very well. – Deuteronomy 4:15

Torah insists that we care for our bodies, that they are gifts of God. Flu is more likely to kill infants, old people, and people with suppressed immune systems, but has also killed people in otherwise good health. Flu is mostly preventable.

When you build a new house, then you shall make a railing for your roof, so that you bring not blood upon your house, if anyone fall from there. – Deuteronomy 22:8

We are commanded not only to preserve our own lives, but to prevent death or injury to others. While this commandment specifically has to do with a roof hazard, the rabbis interpreted it to mean that anytime we become aware of a risk associated with our home or our persons, we have to do something about it. Think about the people you contact every day: are any of them very young, very old, or immunity compromised? Are any of them caretakers or visitors to such persons? Then your case of mild flu could put someone vulnerable at risk of serious illness or death.

I once worked as a chaplain in a nursing home. Someone – we never knew who – came to visit while they contagious with a slight flu. (It had to be slight, because the nurses were ferocious about visitors who looked sick.) Over the next few days, it was as if the Angel of Death flew down the hallways; resident after resident sickened and died. Likely the person who brought the bug in never knew what they had done.

I get my flu shot every year. I strongly recommend that you get yours, unless there is a very good medical reason against it. We never know whose life, whose family we might preserve.

 

 

Mental Illness in the Torah

Image: Painting of David and Saul, Franco-Flemish School, unknown Master, 19th century. Public Domain. Several characters in the Bible may have suffered from mental illness, but King Saul is one of the most dramatic depictions.

In many ways we seem to still be in the dark ages when it comes to mental illness. Treatments are far from perfect, access to treatment is often difficult, and most of all, the stigma attached to mental illness is cruel. A Washington Post article, Halloween Attractions Use Mental Illness to Scare Us, reflects a casual cruelty about mental illness that would be completely unacceptable relative to physical illnesses such as cancer or polio.

Mental illness is mentioned in the Torah. Like physical illness, it was understood to be either a misfortune or a punishment from God. It is listed among the curses in Deuteronomy 28:

Thus if you will not listen to the voice of the Eternal you God, to observe to do all God’s commandments and God’s statutes which I command you this day, all these curses shall come upon you, and overtake you… (Deut 28:15)

The Eternal will strike you with madness, and blindness and astonishment of heart and you will grope at noonday as the blind grope in darkness. You will not make your ways prosperously. You will be oppressed and robbed always, and there will be none to save you. (Deut 28:28-29)

While on the surface this might be an upsetting passage, let’s look below its surface meaning for two interesting things. The first is that Deuteronomy 28 refers to boils, scabs, tuberculosis, fevers and inflammation in precisely the same way it refers to shigayon, usually translated “madness.” There is a fundamental understanding of illness as illness, whether it is physical or mental.

The second is that verses 28 and 29 offer a striking description of the ravages of mental illness.  Lev in Biblical Hebrew is not just the “heart” – it is more accurately described as the seat of thought and emotion, what we moderns refer to as “mind.” I offer a paraphrase in modern English for verses 28-29:

The Eternal will strike you with mental illness, so that your mind will not work properly. You will be unsure of your perceptions, and your sleep cycles will be disrupted. You will find it hard to find employment. You will be vulnerable to criminals and exploitation, and it will be difficult to find help.

The author of Deuteronomy had a remarkable knowledge of the experience of mental illness. However you understand authorship of the book (divine dictation, divine inspiration or human authorship) it shows a striking familiarity with the phenomenon.

Today we no longer understand physical illness to be evidence of sin, and there is no reason to see mental illness in that way, either. The mentally ill are not at fault, and deserve the same compassion we give any other person afflicted with illness. Both physical and mental illness are curses upon humanity, but much of the misery they cause can be alleviated with human compassion.

What can we learn about mental illness from Torah? First, we can learn that it has always been with us. Thousands of years ago, it was not all that different than it is today. Secondly, we can learn that it is in fact the equivalent of physical illness: it threatens life and livelihood.

What has changed from Biblical times is that we are aware that we are the hands of God in this world. It is up to us to use our heads and our hearts to relieve the suffering of the afflicted, with the employment of science and the balm of compassion.

The whole world is a narrow bridge — One Day at a Time

This is a repost from a blog written by a regular commenter on this blog, Otir. I share it because Rabbi Marcus Burstein z”l sounds like such a wonderful individual. I learned from reading it, and I hope that my readers will, as well.

(Also, Otir’s blog is well worth following: One Day at a Time)

The whole world is a narrow bridge and the important thing is to not be afraid ~ Rabbi Nachman of Breslav כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלוּ גֶשֶׁר צַר מְּאֹד וְהָעִיקָר לאֹ לְפַחֵד כְּלַל

This was one of the favorite quotes of my rabbi, Marcus L. Burstein, z”l As […]

via The whole world is a narrow bridge — One Day at a Time

Halloween Hospitality

Image: Candy bars by Alexas_Fotos on pixabay.com. 

There’s a big bag of candy in my refrigerator, so it must be the week of Halloween.

Before I was Jewish, Halloween was one of my favorite holidays. I loved wearing a costume, and I loved handing out candy at the door. After I became a Jew in my 40’s, it took me a while to sort out what I was going to do with Halloween.

My thoughts went like this:

I love Halloween! I am not going to give it up!

Halloween has its roots in both pagan practice and Catholic practice – it’s not for Jews.

— But I love Halloween!

Halloween is a holiday when we basically license people to do mischief – not very Jewish!

— But I love Halloween!

We have Purim for costumes, without the whole “trick or treat” protection racket.

— But I love Halloween!

… and so on.

I had no problem whatsoever letting go of Christmas, partly because it carried some bad memories, and partly because the religious aspect of it was quite real to me. Halloween was a lot harder to give up, because I had a lot of great Halloween memories, both as a child and as an adult, and its religious content was not as immediate to my experience.

However, I could not escape a simple fact: It isn’t a Jewish holiday, and there are things about it that are simply not right from a Jewish point of view.

After a lot of years of study and thought, I’ve decided to celebrate Halloween as a time for hospitality. I don’t dress up. I don’t decorate. But the kids who come to my door know that they can depend on me for some really high-quality candy – stuff that they like, or can trade to others for things they like more.  And I let my non-Jewish friends know that they are welcome to bring their children by for a safe treat. I admire their costumes, I hand out the goodies, and it’s a day of goodwill all around.

Come Purim – look out! You never know what crazy thing I’ll wear!

RavAdar
Who IS this guy?