Our Hope is Not Yet Lost

In the midst of crisis the greatest gift we have as human beings is the ability to hope. In spite of whatever darkness surrounds us, we can choose to believe that better things are ahead. This impulse to search for future redemption is beautifully captured in the traditional Passover Seder. As we recall God bringing our ancestors out of terrible oppression in Egypt, we hope that God will free us from our current and future troubles.

While Passover in a time of pandemic has created stress as we try to prepare for a major holiday in such challenging situations, it is also a golden opportunity to access some of the ritual power of our celebration of redemption. In particular, the ending of the Seder, which sadly many skip because it comes after we are stuffed from the meal, is filled with moments of hope.

Traditionally, Elijah the prophet visits our homes on Passover and we pour a cup for him to drink. Many jokes have already been told about how, this year, Elijah is either the only guest we are willing to let in our homes, or someone we want to keep out because he has already been in contact with too many other people. But on a serious note, Elijah is a symbol of a hope for the future. In Jewish tradition he is the harbinger of the Messiah who will come to announce God’s redemption.

This year we can add even more meaning to the moment we open our doors for Elijah. Noam Zion and Mishael Zion have put together a beautiful Coronavirus Seder Planner filled with activities, readings, and suggestions for this year. They include a quote from a kibbutz educator who writes:

Every time I hesitate on a major question, I ask the advice of two people: my grandfather — for his opinion, and my grandson — how will the decision affect his future? It’s important to me that in answering any question, I consider both previous generations and possible effects on the future ones; not merely my own immediate future, but the farthest foreseeable unfolding of events.

As Jews we live in that tension between wanting to honor the past but also considering how to thrive in the future. This year we feel the challenge of holding those two values in balance with even greater urgency because of social distancing. Usually our Seders are intergenerational, with all ages, young and old, mixed together, but now such a gathering would be dangerous. Instead we will have to be extra creative in bringing the generations together online.

One way to do that is a ritual suggested in the Coronavirus Seder Planner:

The Hassidic Rebbe Naftali Tzvi Horowitz (Poland) used to go around the Seder table inviting each participant to pour from their personal cup into Elijah’s cup … In some families, each participant helps to fill Elijah’s cup of future redemption, while, silently or aloud, making a particular wish for a better year. May it come true with our own initiative and then with God’s help.

While we may not be able to pour our wine into one Elijah’s cup over Zoom, we can do so symbolically and then share our wishes for the future.

My wife Lisa’s family always ended their Seders with Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah as a way to culminate the story of our people’s search for freedom with a link to the creation of a Jewish state. We have included the tradition in our family Seders, but this year, the song, which means “The Hope”, will have a new resonance as we to look to better days. I know I will be singing with gusto: “od lo avdah tikvatenu, our hope is not yet lost!”

Plan B

The Jewish calendar waits for no one and no thing. Coronavirus or no, we will be gathering around our tables next week to celebrate our freedom as a people on Passover. But this holiday will feel different for so many. Pesach, the most celebrated home ritual in Jewish life, will be observed this year at a time when we are all home, but the circumstances are so unusual.

For many, Passover is a time to go to someone else’s house: your childhood home with your parents, a beloved relative who makes great matzo ball soup, friends who host raucous Seders. This year so many who join in these warm communal gathering will have to be solo.

The first thing we should do in this situation is to acknowledge our grief and mourn the loss of our ability to be together with family and friends on such an important day. The next thing we need to do is go to plan B. Our situation is not ideal, but we need to make the best of it and adapt.

Recently I was reading about the Prato Haggadah, an important medieval manuscript housed at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The 14th century document is typical of Haggadot from its time in Spain which include the liturgy of Passover evening but exclude the sections related to the meal. Scholars believe that these Haggadot were used in the synagogue, not the home. The text was read out for the congregation and then families would go home separately for the meal.

One can understand that before the invention of printing, books were rare and expensive. Families may not be able to afford either their own Haggadah or their own Seder, so they could fulfill the obligation of recounting the story of the Exodus as a community and then have a modest meal. It may not be an ideal solution, but it works.

Similarly this year, our Zoom or FaceTime Seders will miss the possibilities that are available in person. As someone who has led many a Seder, I am struggling to come up with engaging activities when I can’t do, for example, a fun game involving pieces of paper under everyone’s plate. At the same time, we will find a way to make this Passover meaningful, as we always have.

The Haggadah requires us to feel as if we ourselves went out of Egypt. To do that each year we relate our current circumstances to the Exodus story, and 2020 is no different. Perhaps we will be able to relate more tangibly to the plagues. We all know the terrible challenges of confinement and limited freedom of movement felt by the Israelite slaves. And we can certainly understand the uncertainty and fear of the unknown they experienced.

This crisis will make us better people and better Jews because it forces us to appreciate what we have and look in new ways at the things we used to take for granted. I pray that while we may be physically isolated, this Passover be one of spiritual freedom and creativity for you, your family, and our entire people.

Rewriting the Rules

So much is happening each and every day in this crazy coronavirus world, there are important news stories you probably have missed, so I am using this week’s Shabbat message to highlight some headlines that may not have reached your screen.

In Israel, the COVID-19 crisis has been compounded by political and constitutional anarchy. The speaker of the Knesset refused to hold a vote for his replacement and shut down parliament in order to force a unity government to deal with the public health emergency. The Israeli Supreme Court responded with an order for the speaker to hold the vote, which he refused to do.

The deadlock between the two branches of government was only broken when the speaker resigned and a deal appeared to be reached between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his chief rival Benny Gantz on a unity government. Netanyahu will serve as prime minister first for 18 months, followed by Gantz’s term. In the interim, Gantz will serve as the Knesset speaker.

A government of national unity is no doubt a good thing for Israel in a time of emergency as coronavirus cases and deaths increase, but there are other consequences to the deal. Gantz’s partner in the Blue and White faction, Yair Lapid, is upset with the new coalition and has announced that his party will go into the opposition. All of these developments have happened in the span of about 24 hours. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Meanwhile, with the beginning of the month of Nisan, our thoughts turn to Passover, which starts in only two weeks. At Adath we are planning some pre-Pesach virtual activities and thinking about how we can celebrate such a communal holiday in the midst of a pandemic. We will also hold a virtual Seder for the synagogue so stay tuned for details.

In Israel, a group of Orthodox Sephardic rabbis have issued a ruling allowing the use of Zoom or another streaming platform. They argue that in these emergency times it’s important for the mental health of isolated people to participate in a Seder. The Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement has also given permission to stream Seders this year.

The Sephardic ruling is interesting because it reflects a difference in opinion in the Orthodox world on the use of electricity on Shabbat and holidays. Ashkenazi authorities have responded negatively to these leniencies because that community has always viewed electricity as a violation of the rules against work on holy days, while Jewish communities from the Middle East were more willing to be permissive.

As we can see from both the political and religious worlds, the COVID-19 crisis has brought people who normally disagree together, while it has also driven some allies apart. This pandemic is rewriting the rules of our society and culture right before our eyes. If you blink, you might miss something.

Brave New World

Former mayor of Chicago Rahm Emanuel once said “you never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” In an emergency, rules and norms go out the window as we try to get by in a new reality. Sometimes, the new normal gives us chance to experiment and make things better.

This morning, Adath Israel held its first virtual service. At 7:00 AM, in our chapel, I opened an online Zoom meeting and watched as 17 people joined our minyan. The services went pretty smoothly, with only minor glitches. Some participants were using a digital copy of our weekday prayerbook, and I had to slow down because I didn’t realize that scrolling through a PDF takes longer than flipping through a book. We’re still figuring out when to mute or unmute the participants.

Overall, the experience was really wonderful as people felt connected in a virtual space. We even had a member join us from Florida. It truly felt like a real minyan, even though I was reciting the prayers in an empty room (well, empty except for my son Jonah).

Our new reality for the foreseeable future is for many of our programs to move online, and this will be a great opportunity to see what we can do successfully in that arena. This Shabbat we will be holding Kabbalat Shabbat and Havdallah services over Zoom and next week we will have chances to join together for Torah on Tap and Ripped from the Headlines on that platform as well.

Technology offers opportunities but also challenges. According to Jewish tradition, there are certain parts of the services, such as the Torah reading and reciting Mourners Kaddish, that can only be done with a group of 10 Jewish adults. 19 years ago the Conservative movement approved a ruling allowing people to join a minyan online as full participants with the stipulation that there must be 10 in the room where the broadcast takes place.

That ruling would not allow us to have a full minyan now, when synagogues are closed and large gatherings banned. This morning I read the Torah portion not from a scroll, but from a book, and we did not say Kaddish. Some felt that our Zoom minyan was missing something as a result, and so after today I have reconsidered my position. Indeed, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) of the Conservative movement has issued an emergency ruling allowing the recitation of Mourners Kaddish at a virtual minyan in which there are fewer than 10 in any one physical location.

Beginning Friday, March 19, 2020, Adath will adopt this temporary ruling for our virtual minyanim. We will recite the Mourners Kaddish as long as there are 10 Jewish adults connected to our Zoom service. As the CJLS position states, this measure is only in effect as long as government officials ban large gatherings.

Surely Judaism will be transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic as we migrate online to “do Jewish”. Who knows where these crisis-induced opportunities will lead, as Halakha, Jewish law, must adapt in ever-changing conditions. It’s a brave new world, and I hope you are ready to explore it together.

Keep Your Distance

Last week I wrote about how the coronavirus has affected Jewish and synagogue life. Communities, including Adath, are avoiding handshakes, hugs, and ritual kissing that has become an integral part of our tradition. In just the span of a week, however, our response has accelerated. Programs, classes and other events are being cancelled outright.

As of now, at Adath, we will still hold regular religious services and religious school, although we are reconsidering holding other gatherings. I have cancelled my Haggadah in Depth class that was to begin tonight. For Judaism, in which community is so important, the social distancing we are experiencing is extremely difficult. How can we celebrate our faith when we are apart?

While at Adath we held our Purim Megillah reading as usual, attendance was light. Other communities streamed the reading online with the understanding that the obligation of hearing the reading of the Book of Esther could be fulfilled electronically.

The Rabbinical Assembly of the Conservative movement has put out Halakhic Guidance from the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards about the coronavirus, including addressing the question of whether people can join a prayer minyan via the internet. The answer is that yes, one can participate in a livestreamed minyan and even say Kaddish as long as there are 10 adults physically in the room where the minyan takes place.

I have experienced communal crises as a rabbi in the past, but the coronavirus is different. When I was a rabbi in Northern New Jersey, my synagogue was damaged during Superstorm Sandy and many in my community (including me) lost power. The synagogue became a source of comfort as a gathering place. Unfortunately today, our building cannot be that physical place of refuge. Instead we will have to find other ways to support one another.

Social distancing is hard, but probably necessary as we try and stem the tide of the virus. A medical professional I was listening to on the radio expressed it well. He said to think of the healthcare system as a train with a capacity of, let’s say, 1,000 people. We know that 5,000 need to ride the train. If all 5,000 want to ride at once, the train will be overwhelmed and some will not make it, but if the 5,000 come in 500 person increments, the train can meet everyone’s needs.

The same with the coronavirus: thousands will surely get it, but if we can slow down the rate of infection through social distancing, hopefully our healthcare system will have the capacity to help everyone who needs it. I hope and pray that our communal response of staying away can save lives, the highest goal of Jewish tradition.

The Best Medicine

Synagogues are meant to be places of refuge and spiritual renewal, but in the age of the coronavirus, they have the potential to become centers of transmission for the disease. Many people today are rethinking gathering in large groups and cancelling conferences and other events. So how should a religious community respond to the possibility of an epidemic?

The COVID-19 is not yet a major outbreak in the United States and there is no reason to cancel religious services, but there are certainly precautions we can take to protect ourselves and the community. First, of course, we should wash our hands often and use hand sanitizer, but there are other ways to be prepared that are specific to Jewish life.

When we gather in synagogue, we like to greet each other with kisses, hugs and handshakes, but it probably makes sense to switch to the safer elbow bump. We Jews also engage in various kinds of ritual kissing that can be problematic. In Israel, the Ashkenazi chief rabbi has advised people not to touch and kiss mezuzot on doorposts. One could extend that to using a tallit or prayerbook to kiss the Torah. Instead, one can use those objects to touch the Torah with honor without bringing them to our lips.

The chief rabbi notes that the tradition to kiss the mezuzah is a custom, not a commandment, and certainly can be eliminated to protect communal health. His pronouncement reminds me of the case of Rabbi Israel Salanter and an outbreak of Cholera in Vilna in 1848. The disease swept through the community around the time of Yom Kippur and the rabbi controversially ate food on the bima during the fast day to convince his congregants that their health was more important than even our most sacred ritual.

Hopefully, we will not be confronted with having to forgo the major observances of our tradition in the face of the coronavirus, but it is possible that as the disease spreads, health officials may advise religious institutions to cancel services and other gatherings. Right now the Centers for Disease Control has guidance for faith communities that focuses on other concerns, such as considering “the needs of older adults, persons with disabilities, and other individuals with access and functional needs”. These are the people most vulnerable to the virus, and as a religious community we need to look out for them.

We pray that our public health officials and scientist are able to contain COVID-19, but at the same time we must remember not only the physical health of our community, but the spiritual health as well. Communal gatherings are where we find solace and comfort with each other, and how we stay united. For now, they might still be the best (spiritual) medicine.

A Place of the Forgotten

When I spent a year studying in Jerusalem during rabbinical school, the tractate of Talmud we covered was Avodah Zarah, which deals with how Jews are to interact with idol worship. One of the passages we learned addressed how to dispose of anything that was used in, or associated with, pagan worship. Jews are not allowed to own or benefit from anything with an image of a god on it.

The problem of course, is how do you get rid of a statue of Zeus, let’s say? You can’t sell it or give it to an idolater because then you are helping in the worship of other gods. Mishnah Avodah Zarah 3:3 states that one option for disposal is to grind the idol into dust and cast it into the wind, but the sages respond by saying that even that action can provide benefit because the dust can become manure, which is used for fertilizer.

The Mishnah’s preferred method of disposal is to throw the offending object into the Dead Sea, an inaccessible place where nothing grows. No one is going to wade into the Dead Sea and retrieve the idol, and I loved learning this Mishnah because it evoked such a strong image in my mind. I thought of a modern submarine, immune to salt and chemicals, exploring the sea floor finding coins, statues and other utensils with the image of forgotten gods banished by ancient Jews.

In my mind, I can see the people making the trek to the shore of the Dead Sea with various objects and throwing them into the water. How did they acquire the utensils? Was there someone who you could hire at the shore who would take you out a bit into the water to make sure the idol would sink to a deep part of the sea?

The Dead Sea as the place to get rid of the forbidden, the transgressive, the abhorrent is intriguing, especially in our own time, when physical objects are so impermanent, but digital records last forever. Today we know that our trash is never really gone, it just moves to a land fill or perhaps to a swirling mass in the middle of the ocean. In a globalized world, the detritus of life is inescapable.

So the Dead Sea is like a black hole of avodah zarah, idol worship, but it is also a place of stunning beauty, one of immense contrast: the sparkling, but deadly, blue water set against the brown of the desert. In February the distinction is heightened as wildflowers bloom, turning the sandy hills into bursts of color. This year, after a long period of rain, the wildflowers are particularly stunning.

We all need a place like the Dead Sea, to send the things we want to rid from our lives, whether it’s useless stuff or digital memories best forgotten. But we also need places like the Dead Sea, full of contradiction; places of sparseness and restoration, beauty and awe.