In A Time of Fear

Image: A mail bomb on display at the National Postal Museum (Wikimedia) Some rights reserved, see link.

Mail bombs were sent yesterday to prominent African-American political figures, to prominent women in the Democratic Party, to a prominent Jew, to leaders in the Democratic Party, and to the offices of a major cable news outlet.

Let that sink in – this how low the situation in the United States has gone. With an election only days away, and in some states already underway, some Americans have chosen to vote with bombs. They have chosen domestic terrorism – the spread of fear – as their strategy of persuasion.

The rhetoric of the President and his party over the past weeks has been full of dire warnings about a “caravan” of Latin hooligans and Middle Eastern terrorists headed to the U.S. Journalists, doing their job, investigated the “caravan” and discovered a group of desperate people, mostly from Guatemala and Honduras, mothers with children, a few men, and no Middle Eastern terrorists. By all accounts, the evidence is that they are people seeking asylum from the extreme gang violence in Central America.

It is perfectly legal to approach the border and ask for asylum. All of the evidence suggests that this is a peaceful group of people who are begging for safety.

The President, when asked for evidence of his claims, said, “There’s no proof of anything. But there could very well be.” In other words, “Don’t think. Just be afraid.”

Jewish tradition offers an alternative to mindless fear. We see the beginnings of it on the beach at the Red Sea:

As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the Lord. They said to Moses, “Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn’t we say to you in Egypt, ‘Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians’? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!”

Moses answered the people, “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again.14 The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.”

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on. – Exodus 14:10-15

The Israelites are terrified of the Egyptians. Moses tells them not to be afraid, that God will take care of them. God says to Moses, “Quit crying and praying – get going!” The miracle comes only after the Israelites move to save themselves.

The refrain “Al tira-oo!” [Do not be afraid] appears regularly in the Bible. According to Maimonides, this is actually one of the 613 commandments. We are commanded not to fear.

In fact, there is only one fear permitted to us: fear of God. Yirat Adonai – fear of the Holy One – is considered a virtue. Any other fear borders on idolatry, because we are commanded not to fear anything but God.

The world is full of things that scare us. Jews have always had to deal with plenty of scary people. Our ancestor Abraham was so scared of two different kings that he swore his wife Sarah was his sister! Isaac did the same thing. Every time it got them into trouble. Every time it did them no good at all.

In Egypt, it was Pharaoh. Fearing Pharaoh did not get us out from under his thumb. Fearing God got us out of Egypt. Fearing God propelled us across the wilderness, to the edge of the Land, where Moses sent in the spies, who brought us back more scary news:

So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. 33 And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” – Numbers 13: 32-33

… and back we went to the wilderness to learn to fear God, not anyone else. Many centuries later, brave men and women settled the land of Israel again, and again there were scary things: war, and terrorism, and evil dictators flinging SCUD missiles. And again, the smart thing to do is to not be afraid: al tira-oo!

Al tira-oo: Do not be afraid.

Al tira-oo: Do not let your fears dictate to you.

Al tira-oo: Feel the fear, and go right on walking in the right path.

This is another testing moment. This is a moment not for violence, but for voting, for the peaceful practice of democracy. My vote-by-mail ballot sits on my desk, waiting to be filled out. For each American reading this, a ballot or a voting booth is waiting.

Don’t bomb. Don’t be afraid. VOTE.



A Blessing for Voting

Image: Photo of an “I Voted” sticker with an American flag. (Photo by Ruth Adar)

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All that Is, who knows the hearts of human beings.

Let me bring my best self to the marking of this ballot. Let me think clearly and fairly to elect people of judgment and good character. If this ballot also contains other matters, let me bring deliberation and good judgment to my choices.

Let no pettiness or selfishness inform me, but rather my best hopes for the greater good. May I not be influenced by fearmongerers or the words of fools.  Keep greed, fear, and smallness of spirit far from me.

May I vote like the tzaddik, the righteous person who  pursues justice and prizes peace.

May my vote join with other votes, counted fairly and in full, to bring about a just and peaceful society in which each may dwell “under the vine and under the fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4;4)

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of All that Is, who has given the citizens of this land the awesome power of self-government.

I Voted! – Did You, Fellow Californians?

Image: My vote-by-mail ballot, which I will hand in tomorrow. (Photo by Ruth Adar)

I just filled out my vote-by-mail ballot for the June 5 Primary Election in California. Tomorrow I’ll take it by one of the collection points and drop it off.

I like voting by mail. I can think things through and give each choice the attention it deserves. I like reading the instructions, considering the choices, and making the marks that are my participation in the democratic process.

My grandmother felt strongly about voting. She was in that first cohort of American women who were eligible to vote after ratification of the 19th Amendment on Aug 18, 1920. She used words like “sacred” to describe the right and the duty of each person to vote. She told me that she’d come back and haunt me if I didn’t vote in every election I could: “If you can, you must!” she said, poking my arm for emphasis.

So here you go, Meme: I voted again. Thank you for teaching me that it is important.

I regard voting as a sacred duty. There is no commandment that says specifically “Thou Shalt Vote” but almost every item on the ballot has sacred implications. When I vote for a legislator, I am choosing someone to be my voice in Washington or Sacramento, or on a more local body. They will make many decisions with ethical implications – I need to choose someone who will make ethical choices. When I vote for a judge or an executive, I am voting for someone who will have tremendous power to do good or to do evil. To make it even more complicated, I have to think, too, about the chances each candidate has: under what conditions should I vote for the good-enough person who can get elected, instead of the perfect candidate who can’t?

I understand why some people are so sunken in despair that they think their vote doesn’t matter. I have less sympathy for those who choose not to vote because they are cynical: I want to say, “You think you are so smart, why are you throwing away your power?”

I’m not going to tell you for whom I voted. (That was my grandmother’s advice, too.) But I will ask you: Did you vote? Will you vote when you next have a chance?


How Israelis see the American Presidential Election

Image: Rabbi Stacey Blank blowing a shofar. Photo courtesy of Rabbi Blank, all rights reserved.

Rabbi Stacey Blank serves as the rabbi of the Reform/Progressive Kehilat Tzur Hadassah, outside of Jerusalem. I found her take on the election really interesting, and I look forward to sharing it with you.


9 Steps Across the Narrow Bridge

Image: Narrow suspended footbridge. Photo by skeeze/pixabay.

Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar me’od.
Veha’ikar lo lifached k’lal.

The whole world is a very narrow bridge
and the main thing is to have no fear at all.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov

Rabbi Nachman’s advice, “the main thing is to have no fear at all” seems like a bit of black humor. If a bridge is high and narrow, how can we NOT be afraid?

And in times of political uncertainty, how are we not to panic? But at the same time, the stakes are far too high for panic – the real question is, how are we to endure?

Here are nine Jewish strategies that will keep us grounded as we cross the “narrow bridge” of the coming years:

  1. Choose One Issue or Institution and Make it Yours. A young man I know who lives with a mental illness has been wonderfully calm through the past several weeks. I asked him how he did it, and he said, “If I try to pay attention to everything that is happening that is bad, I’ll just panic and get sick. Instead, I called Planned Parenthood and volunteered. I decided that my issue is reproductive rights. Someone else will have to take care of other things.” For those prone to anxiety, this seems to me to be a genius move. Pick one thing, and pour yourself into it.
  2. Make a Routine of Activism. Just as water is both gentle and powerful, trickling through stone to make the Grand Canyon, you can make a powerful routine of activism. Make a certain number of phone calls every day or week. Write a real letter to your congressperson and/or senators every week. Staffers tell us that phone calls and “snail mail” are the most powerful way to persuade elected officials, especially if they arrive regularly. Consider making a regular “writing date” with some friends over coffee or tea.
  3. Plan a Budget for Donations. Tzedakah, giving to relieve suffering, can be a very empowering mitzvah. Even a small donation, combined with others, can be helpful to a struggling organization. However, it is important to give the right amount for our resources: not too much, not too little. Review your monthly budget, and then come up with a figure for monthly giving. Then you will know that you are doing what you can to support good organizations or people but you are not giving beyond your means. Jewish tradition teaches us that it is forbidden to give beyond our means, because if we do it too much, we’ll wind up in need of tzedakah ourselves.
  4. Choose News Sources Wisely. Don’t get your news from Facebook or Twitter. Subscribe to a respectable newspaper or two, learn to recognize the names of good journalists. If subscriptions are too expensive, your public library has free access to all the main papers, either electronically or in print form.
  5. Use Social Media Wisely. Be a canny consumer of social media. As tempting as it is to click on “clickbait” headlines, ignore them. They are garbage.  I follow some of those journalists I like on Twitter, and they often point me to articles in respectable media that I might have missed. I use Facebook to connect to friends, and I minimize contact with people who seem excitable and who pass along that nasty “clickbait.”
  6. Join a Synagogue. Synagogues keep us connected with other Jews. We combine for social action. We learn together about anti-Semitism and ways to fight it. We pray and study Torah together. We equip our children to live as Jews in the world. Joining a synagogue is both a gift to yourself and an investment in the Jewish future.
  7. Pray. Find a Jewish prayer that works for you. A regular siddur (prayer book) will have prayers for the government. It has prayers for sleep. It has prayers for all sorts of things. I have some articles on this blog that look deeply at certain prayers, and I’ll post more. Find prayers that speak to you, and say them again and again. Prayers can help us shape ourselves into the people we want to become. Attend services both to pray and to learn more prayers.
  8. Study Torah. Torah study can ground our activism, and remind us of things we might otherwise forget. I have been posting weekly lists of sermons on the Torah portion every Friday. It’s as much for my own benefit as it is for readers. What are you doing to deepen your engagement in Torah?
  9. Attend to Ordinary Mitzvot. Political activism is important, but the needs of our neighbors are important too. Visit a sick friend. Take food to someone who needs it. Help make a minyan at a shiva house. Rejoice at a wedding. Keep Shabbat. Do deeds of kindness to friends and to strangers. Study Torah. Invite friends over for a meal or coffee. Smile and be patient with the immigrant at the cash register. All these things make a real difference in the world, and each of them grounds us in mitzvot that will strengthen us.

All of these are things that will perform two jobs at once: they will make the world better, and they will keep us calmer, as well. All the world may be a narrow bridge, but if we put one foot in front of the other, we’ll get across.


Where is the line?

Image: A country road with dotted lines travels into the mist. Photo by Unsplash / Pixabay.

A thoughtful post from a senior rabbi whose sechel (wisdom) I respect. Rabbi Stephen L. Fuchs is the author of Finding Ourselves in Biblical Narratives. I’ve linked to posts on his blog before. I hope you find this as thought-provoking as did I.

14 Ways to Cope with Anxiety

Image: Art by PeteLinforth via Public domain.

I have family, friends and students who call and text me:

  • “Rabbi, I haven’t slept a full night since the election.”
  • “I am overwhelmed with anxiety. I can’t function.”
  • “Ruth, every day I shake and then break down in tears.”
  • “I looked on Facebook and then I threw up.”
  • “I have no idea how I am going to get through the next four years.”

I hear you. I hear your fears, and I hear your paralysis in anxiety. This post is my way of giving some rabbinical-friendly-motherly advice.

If you were not a fan of Donald Trump, you’ve had a bad shock. News reports from respectable sources led us to believe that Hillary Clinton would win the election. They were wrong: she won the popular vote, but Trump won the electoral vote, and that’s the one that counts. So you were misled, and you were surprised with bad news.

Now the news from both reputable and other sources is full of really scary words. I won’t repeat the words, they’ve already piled upon your surprise and created anxiety. You read them or heard them and now they are hurting you. Oof.

Here’s the facts: we are going to have many opportunities for mitzvot in the coming years, if Mr. Trump keeps his campaign promises. There will be work to do. If you are going to be useful in helping to preserve human rights, first you have to take care of yourself.

Remember: It is a mitzvah to attend to your physical and mental health.

Some ideas for taking care of yourself:

  • As you know, your favorite news source was wrong about the election. It’s OK to not listen to the news for a while if all the news is doing is paralyzing you.
  • Take a break from social media. It is full of clickbait stories that will needlessly upset you. Even if Facebook bans the ads for them, naive friends may be reposting “news stories” that are clickbait lies. At the very least, least don’t click on anything. Just connect to friends there.
  • Get outdoors. If you aren’t watching TV or using social media, you now have free time. Take a walk or if you are on wheels like me, take a joyride outdoors if you can.
  • Exercise.
  • Notice which friends calm you, and which ones upset you. Spend more time with the calmers, less with the upsetting people. Activism is one thing, anxiety is another. If you feel trapped with your anxiety, that’s not useful activism.
  • Meditate.
  • Go easy on caffeine. If you must drink coffee in the morning, stop drinking it by noon.
  • If you or anyone else are thinking of suicide, seek help immediately. You can do this by calling 911. “Thinking of suicide” includes joking about it, planning it, imagining it, and/or thinking about it a lot. It’s a serious matter.
  • Did you know that some strains of marijuana can exacerbate anxiety? Other strains may be helpful. If you have a prescription, check with your doc and see if the sort you are using is making your anxiety worse. This article has some information on anxiety and pot.
  • Pray. I find it helps to pray with a minyan. The repetitive good words of Jewish prayer remind me of the person I want to be, and connect me to the world beyond myself.
  • If your sleep or eating patterns are disrupted for more than a week, seek medical help and/or counseling. Short term anxiety over real fears can snowball into an anxiety disorder if it goes unchecked for too long. Take care of it.
  • There is still time to sign up for health insurance. Knowing that you are covered for the time being is one less thing to worry about.
  • Here’s what I do to get through difficult times: Living on the Mitzvah Plan.
  • Take action. Many felt helpless right after the election, but really, we aren’t helpless. There are things we can do. Here are some ideas for taking action against hate in America.

You are a human being, priceless beyond all imagining. Jewish tradition teaches that you are made b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, meaning that there is a spark of the Divine within you. Take care of yourself, and you will be able to take care of others. That is how the world will become a better place.

News v Gossip: Let There Be Light

Image: Hands with smartphone, the word “NEWS.” Art by geralt at Public Domain.

וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי-אוֹר

And God said, “Let there be light, and there was light. – Gen 1:3

In the Creation story, God uses words to create the world and almost everything in it. Only human beings are different; God uses his hands to make them.

This story in Torah is about many things, but one of the most important to Jews is that words are immensely powerful. Words create worlds.

Today I read about a case of words creating worlds that shocked me to my core. This story by Caitlin Dewey in the Washington Post reports:

Paul Horner, the 38-year-old impresario of a Facebook fake-news empire, has made his living off viral news hoaxes for several years.

Let that sink in. “Fake-news.” “Fake-news empire.” He has made his living for years selling something he calls fake news.

I’m reading messages on Facebook, and I see a link for a story: “Donald Trump wins popular vote!” If I’m a Trump supporter, I think, “Wow! this is great!” and I click for the story. If I was a Clinton supporter in the election, I think, “Wait, that can’t be right!” and I click for the story. Either way, I read the story and I see all the ads that come with it. Paul Horner makes money. Cha-ching.

This example comes from an article on this phenomenon by Madison Malone Kircher. She includes a link to a list of fake-news sources, and I strongly recommend that you take a look.

OK, so this is very bad. A guy writes lies, labels and markets those lies as News, and markets them to people on the Internet, making his money on ad sales. It’s legal, but it’s also wrong by any moral code I know, and reprehensible according to Jewish tradition.

But it gets worse.

In the interview in the Washington Post, Paul Horner brags that “I think Trump is in the White House because of me.” He outlines exactly how he made up stories and planted evidence to support those stories. He talks scornfully about people who take his stories as truth and never fact-check them, sending them along to others. Note that he wasn’t a Trump supporter – he just thought it was funny to fool Trump supporters. He appears to have soothed his conscience about this by characterizing his writing as satire.

Paul Horner creates worlds with his words. He does not do this alone: he has thousands and thousands of helpers, people who blindly click on headlines, accept articles from websites they know nothing about and send links along to their friends, who trust those words because they came from a friend. They post the links to Twitter and Snapchat. The lies spread like a virus.

And Paul Horner isn’t the only one. Paul Horner is the representative of an industry. To learn what sites not to trust, sites that pride themselves on clickable headlines and viral lies, see this list.

According to Jewish tradition, gossip is a sin. Listening to “news” of unknown reliability and repeating those words, those fall under the heading of rechilut, listening to or spreading gossip.

I confess I’ve clicked on some headlines like that.  I confess that I’ve read the articles, been shocked, once or twice tweeted them.  I (naively) believed that things labeled “news” that seemed possible to me were actual reportage of facts, and I spread those lies by sending the links to others. Chatati – I sinned.

Teshuvah is a process for recovery from a sin. I have realized my sin. I take responsibility for it – I didn’t always check to see if the source was reputable. I’m deeply sorry I did that (and I did know better, because usually I do check to see if a reputable journalist wrote it.) Now for the hard part: a plan to make sure this never happens again.

Tempting as it is to get news from Twitter and Facebook, from now on, I get my news from journalists and nowhere else. I am an online subscriber to the WaPo, the LATimes, the NY Times, and my local news organizations. Sure, I may follow breaking news on Twitter, getting first-hand reports from eyewitnesses, but I will always remember that those witnesses are not journalists. Real journalists are bound by a code of ethics, and when they are caught breaking that code, there are consequences. While there are bad apples in every bin, most journos are trying to find the truth and tell it, and they stake their professional reputations on their words.

News from a professional journalist can be relied on as news. Later facts may change the way we interpret the news, but if one of those journalists is caught in a lie, much less spreading lies for profit, that’s the end of their time at a respectable institution. Also, notice that politicians of all stripes dislike the big newspapers – real journalism annoys ideologues on the left AND the right. If a politician seems chummy with a news organization, something is wrong.

Paul Horner and his ilk are not professional journalists. They don’t even pretend to be journalists. Their excuse is that they are making jokes. In my world, unless their words come with a recognizable label (like The Onion, for instance) it’s a sinful use of words. When we pass along clickbait, we become complicit in the sin.




Turning Mourning into Meaning in the Post-Election Period

We Jews and all peoples of faith and moral purpose need to put one foot in front of the other and not get lost, to perform deeds of loving-kindness constantly, to pursue justice and peace unrelentingly, to be agents of hope always, and to be an “or la-goyim – a light unto the nations.” – Rabbi John Rosove

Regular readers know that periodically I repost entries from Rabbi John Rosove’s blog. He’s one of the rabbis I read regularly and trust. This sermon for Temple Israel of Hollywood spoke straight to my heart.

I hope that it gives you the comfort that it gave me.

L’shalom, Rabbi Ruth Adar


Prayer After an Election

There was bitterness before it even began, and bitterness follows it.  Whatever we think of the results, now we are a nation in need of healing. We have to come together. We need insight, we need a truer sense of justice, we need to learn mercy.

A prayer adapted from Moses’ prayer for his ailing sister, Miriam, in Numbers 12:13:

El na, refah na lanu!

Please, God, please heal us!