Tonight, on this eve of our New Year, I’m not going to deliver a formal sermon in robes. Without any of you here listening, in this year of pandemic, it just doesn’t seem fitting, and anyway, that sort of formality just doesn’t work very well on ZOOM. Instead of making us feel the grandeur and gravity of the day, formal robes on a bimah on a screen in a room where you aren’t with me only highlights the distance and separation, and I want to feel as connected as is possible through this medium…
My parents were the type of parents who when they would get really made at us as adults, they would cut us out of the will. It was usually about who we were marrying, or some perceived insult that we weren’t even aware of. At different times, all three of us were out of the […]
SHAKE OFF YOUR DUST – WAKE UP! When we talk about Lecha Dodi, the center of the Friday Night Kabbalat Shabbat, we usually talk about love, about greeting the bride, and about the peace of Shabbat when our divided selves come together. That is all true, but there is another aspect to the poetry of […]
QUARANTINE, SOCIAL DISTANCING AND THE ETHICS OF CONTAGION IN THE TORAH
This week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzorah is all about contagion, epidemics, social distancing, and quarantine. It is focused on what to do about a mysterious outbreak of an illness called “Tzara’a’t.” It is often translated as “leprousy” but is not what we today call leprosy or Hansen’s Disease. It starts on the skin, but can also infect the walls of a house, and even old stones. The portion is focused on how to prevent the disease from spreading. It is eerily familiar to us now…
This time we are living in has come to be called “The Great Pause.” It reminds me of times I’ve been at yoga or meditation retreats and was asked to pay attention to the space between inhaling and exhaling, the rest, the time between what was and what will be.
It is not like America to pause, or the global economy to pause, and we’ve already noticed some interesting things.
First of all, we’ve found out that we can actually stop. That is profound in itself.
We’ve seen the canals in Venice turn clear, and the skies over China clear. The “Great Pause,” as writer Julio Vincent Gambuto calls it, is producing the following: “A carless Los Angeles has clear blue skies as pollution has simply stopped. In a quiet New York, you can hear the birds chirp in the middle of Madison Avenue. Coyotes have been spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge. These are the postcard images of what the world might be like if we could find a way to have a less deadly daily effect on the planet.”
On Sinai, Moses and God are having another serious meeting; let’s think of it as a Zoom meeting on Sinai between two beings who can’t really be in the same space safely. They are discussing important business matters, like who is going to lead us out of the wilderness. Moses says, ‘you have to do it,’ but God is hedging, so Moses convinces God to say, “OK, enough with this, I’ll go in front.”
At the end of the First Book of Samuel, we find King Saul, near the end of his life and rule, the Philistines are massing on his borders, and he doesn’t know what to do. He is afraid, overwhelmed, and needs to make a plan, but when he consults with the High Priest and with God, there is no answer. He becomes so desperate to know what will happen, to know how to plan that he disguises himself and goes to the town of Endor to consult the Witch of Endor who will raise up the ghost of Samuel to give him advice. Samuel’s ghost is furious for having been disturbed and only tells him, to paraphrase Larry David paraphrasing Bernie Sanders, “you’re doomed!”
I wrote my Rabbinic Dissertation on this part of the Bible…
This week, we finish reading the book of Breishit, Genesis. Think, for a moment, about how much of the world’s literature is rooted in the stories of Genesis. In many ways, the stories in Genesis with their heroic but deeply flawed characters, messy family dynamics, dashed hopes and rising from adversity – these capture so much that is fundamental about what it means to be human.
But there is one aspect of Genesis that feels particularly touching today…
As you know, Hanukkah is not a holiday found in the TaNakh, the Hebrew Bible. The Mishnah, the first collection of Jewish law after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, barely mentions Hanukkah, and then in oblique ways. The early rabbis that preserved and transformed Judaism in this period, especially those living under Roman occupation, might not have thought celebrating a holiday of violent rebellion was a good strategy. And yet the holiday persisted and grew, and over time gained special prayers in the Amidah, and the holiday prayers called Hallel are recited.
First of all, I want to congratulate David Shiman, chair of our Social Action Committee here at Sinai, who was recently awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award from Human Rights Educators U.S.A.
This week’s Torah portion is Vayeitzei, from Breishit, or Genesis. It starts in medias res after Jacob has stolen Esau’s birthright and tricked Isaac into getting the blessing for the first born. Both of Jacob’s parents have told him he needs to go immediately to Abraham’s old home in Harran, but for completely different reasons. Rebecca tells him to flee because his brother Esau might kill him for stealing the blessing.