Sun, May 31
The Jewish Festival of Shavuot was celebrated this past Friday and Saturday. Shavuot traditionally commemorates Moses and the Israelites receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai.
Whether one considers the Biblical narrative a factual account or a metaphoric aspiration of a people’s relationship with God, the story is poignant and pivotal.
The Ten Commandments received by Moses and the Israelites at Mt. Sinai is incorporated into the three Abrahamitic faiths in different ways. But neither archaeologists, historians nor theologians know for certain which of the hills in the Sinai Peninsula is Mt. Sinai. Jabal Musa (Arabic for Mt. Moses) is reputed to be the mountain Moses climbed.
Before the Sinai Peninsula, which was captured in 1967, was returned to Egypt, I used to take groups of teenagers and adults to Israel every two years. Part of the experience was climbing Mt. Sinai at sun-up and camping in the desert wilderness for four days. It was a challenging experience for American teenagers — and even more so for adults. The purpose of this segment of the Israel trip, especially for the teenagers, was to see places they had only read about. But there was more to be learned.
The thing about the desert: sleeping under the stars in thinly cushioned sleeping bags on rough ground; carrying your own packs; preparing food; keeping hydrated in the dry heat — all this was to be experienced. The enduring parts of the challenge were the life-lessons that every hiker in the desert assimilates without learning them from a book or in a classroom.
From my perspective, survival in the desert mandates three essentials: water (and it doesn’t need to be cold), food (and it doesn’t need to be tasty) and, of greatest importance, cooperation.
The luxuries and extravagances to which we too often become accustomed and upon which we depend are of no use in the desert. Climbing Mt. Sinai took strength, a level of fearlessness, stamina and, very often, a helping hand for each other. It was not a matter of who reached the summit first. Our common goal was that everyone made it to the top without injury.
For most of our teenagers the return home was unsettling. So much of what they imagined they needed to be happy had become irrelevant. And many friendships formed in the heat of that shared experience have endured.
Our past months during this pandemic have given us a taste of a different kind of wilderness. So much which we thought necessary for happiness was stripped away. We’ve been compelled to simplify our lives and the essentials are fewer. What we need are physical sustenance, health, cooperation, family, friendship and, perhaps, a dependable internet connection. Hopefully, as we leave this pandemic “wilderness,” we take some of these lessons with us.
Thu, May 28
Shavuot, which begins the evening of May 28, celebrates the giving of the Torah to Moses and the Israelites at Mt. Sinai. Fifty days after leaving the pain of slavery in Egypt, the Israelites stood shoulder to shoulder as a free people at the foot of the mountain. They witnessed a pivotal, perhaps the most pivotal, event in history, an act of revelation: the giving of the Torah. It shaped us then and forever.
Elie Wiesel once reflected: “When I am in a pessimistic mood, I feel … that those in power have more power than we, that we have no power. But when I am in a good mood, … if I manage to remain true to myself, then somehow it works on others, somehow it reverberates, and somehow other people, whether they want it or not, whether they know it or not, benefit from my loyalty to our common principles.”
The common principles to which Elie Wiesel was loyal are embedded in and born out of the Torah. It is the heartbeat and soul of the Jewish people. It is also a cornerstone of Christianity and Islam.
The festival of Shavuot focuses on the gift of revelation that has been given to us. In the book of Proverbs, it is implied that the Torah is a “tree of life to those who hold fast to it.” Elie Wiesel held fast to it. As do we. In celebrating the Festival of Shavuot, we acknowledge the Torah as the centerpiece of Jewish life.
* * *
The book of Ruth read during the Festival of Shavuot is the story of a courageous and principled Moabite woman who, rather than return to her own people after the death of her husband, chooses to stay with her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi. Ruth’s commitment to Naomi resounds through history with these words: “Where you go, I will go, wherever you lodge, I will lodge, your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.”
Listening to Elie Wiesel speak about the Book of Ruth gives it meaning and purpose.
Sun, May 24
I hope that, along with all of you, I am an unabashed patriot believing in the resilience of this nation to mindfully meet the expectations the founders of this country set for it.
In August of 1790, Moses Seixas, an official of Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island, wrote a letter of admiration and blessing to President George Washington, to which the President replied:
“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation .... For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Though political storms and lapses of leadership periodically battered our nation through the course of history, our citizenry has typically responded with courage and inspiration. And from the time of the Declaration of Independence until now, despite divisions on the home front, the members of our military have resolutely stood united on the ramparts of freedom and decency, hallmarks of our nation’s spirit.
In the imagery of “The Building of the Ship” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, our ship of state has passed through troubled waters, and yet we have persevered:
“For gentleness and love and trust
Prevail o’er angry wave and gust;
And in the wreck of noble lives
Something immortal still survives!”
This country has nourished freedom of religion and thereby has been formed one of the greatest and safest Jewish and other immigrant communities in history.
The principles of which George Washington spoke and the values anchoring our Constitution illuminate this nation’s history and formulate our national commitments to justice and righteousness and peace. At times when those principles are under attack, the men and women of our armed services have been sent forth as a bulwark against villainy. Our armed services are our vanguard of universal decency and they have been the defenders of the powerless who are caught in the clutches of murderous armies or imperious and brutal overlords.
These men and women who fought and died in faraway places may not have agreed with the policies for which they did battle, but they served our nation with a commitment to national service and patriotic duty.
On this Memorial Day weekend let the words inscribed in a Presidential Proclamation guide us to commit to our “sacred duty to remember the courageous warriors who have made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure that our great country would endure. It is our responsibility to strive to ensure that their noble acts of dedication to our country and the cause of freedom were not in vain and to comfort the families they have left behind, who bear the heartbreak of their loss.”
In Longfellow’s words this, too, becomes our vision and our prayer:
Thou, too, sail on, O Ship of State!
Sail on, O UNION, strong and great!
Humanity with all its fears,
With all the hopes of future years,
Is hanging breathless on thy fate!
In spite of rock and tempest’s roar,
In spite of false lights on the shore,
Sail on, nor fear to breast the sea!
Our hearts, our hopes, are all with thee,
Our hearts, our hopes, our prayers, our tears,
Our faith triumphant o’er our fears,
Are all with thee, — are all with thee!
Sun, May 17
In synagogues around the world, a section of the Torah was read last week which included instructions for the preparation of the oil which was to be used to light the candelabra that would burn continuously from morning to night.
The verse read, “Command the children of Israel to take clear, pure oil of crushed and pressed olives to kindle the lamps which will burn continually from evening until morning. It is a law for all time.” (Leviticus 24:1-2) (This is the origin of the Ner Tamid, the Eternal light which burns over the Torah ark in every synagogue in the world.)
The rabbis of the first centuries wondered about the relationship between crushing or pressing the olives and the purity of the oil that emerged from them. They determined that it was the pressure from without that squeezed from the olives the pure oil that had been contained within.
These ancient sages perceived that the symbol of the olives was a paradigm for their own lives. They knew that crushing pressure did not necessarily break a human being. On the contrary, they surmised that harsh adversity could bring to the fore — in any of us — a measure of strength and a purity of purpose of which we were not previously aware, or which had not been mandated by the previous ordinary circumstances of our lives.
Using the crushed olives as a symbol, we can infer that the superb essence of a human sometimes emerges in the times of greatest challenge, when the ordinary is no longer sufficient. The exceptional best in any of us may powerfully emerge in moments of the most heinous adversity.
The Greeks used to teach that “We learn through suffering.” I don’t believe that, but I do believe we learn and grow stronger from challenge and struggle, such as the ones we now face. The best of us sometimes emerges in the worst of times.
I may be an optimist, but I come by it naturally, for hope sparkles from Jewish history and tradition. As a people we have knelt before graves and suffered murderous destruction. Yet we have arisen each time with newfound purpose, blazing passion and a freshly ignited commitment to make this world better.
There is a Talmudic story about Shimon bar Yochai, a cantankerous human being who couldn’t withhold saying whatever came to mind. Eventually, his public cursing of the Romans put him in danger, and to save his life he fled to a cave to hide with his son. Miraculously a carob tree and a spring of water were created for their survival, although Shimon continued to suffer severe skin eruptions.
After 13 years of self-isolation in the cave Shimon emerged healthy, saw beauty in the world and, with newfound gentleness, became a healer.
This can be a parable for all of us as we slowly emerge from our time alone into a world which awaits our decency, gentleness, vision and gratitude for each other and the community which, with some greater purity of purpose, we can rebuild together.
The great teacher, Elie Wiesel, gave a lecture on the subject of Shimon bar Yochai onstage at the 92nd Street Y on October 25, 1990. “In the Talmud: Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai Revisited” may be viewed on 92Y’s archives.
Sun, May 10
In his extraordinary, and now iconic, poem “Life is a Journey” Rabbi Alvin Fine (z”l) wrote:
Birth is a beginning
And death a destination.
And life is a journey…
Until, not looking backwards or ahead,
We see that victory lies not
At some high point along the way
But in having made the journey
Step by step,
A sacred pilgrimage.
I’ve suggested previously in these columns that this period of “lockdown” and “self-isolation” has provided unexpected opportunities for self-reflection. As a result, I've been considering that, before I was told by doctors that I needed to stop running, long-distance running was more than exercise for me. It was an obsession beginning at age 13. Throughout my high school and college years I competed on my schools’ cross-country and track teams specializing in long distance events, even running the Boston Marathon twice before the New York City Marathon existed.
Almost all college cross-country courses had at least one “killer” hill dreaded by runners either because of its length or its “insane” percentage incline. On my college campus, Memorial Hill was the “killer” hill at mile four of the five-mile course.
Typically, Memorial Hill occupied me in preparing for and running most races. I planned how far back I could trail the lead pack in order to conserve energy, catch them on the hill and have enough reserve to sprint the last mile. Memorial Hill was a fixation until I realized that I wasn’t paying enough attention to the rest of the race. With that realization, I determined that it was far better to pay attention to every step and concentrate on making every stride count by making it the best I could. That became a metaphor in my life.
Rabbi Tarfon, a first century CE sage who lived through the devastating destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, taught: “It is not incumbent on you to finish the task, but neither are you at liberty to absolve yourself from it.” Or to put it another way: “It is not up to you to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either.” His instruction was to make every step count! The best we can do is to do our best every day.
We are all yearning to get back to a modicum of normalcy, even though we suspect there will be a “new normal” in our city and nation. Hopefully we will take with us some of the lessons we have learned during this troublesome pandemic shutdown. Our new normal might include enhanced gratitude, inclusive empathy, and a new sense of national unity. We realize that, despite differing political ideologies, we were all together in the battle against a marauding COVID-19 plague.
In a recent column, Peggy Noonan wrote: “We will all need to achieve much out of the ordinary in the next few years … Love of our country is the only place to start.”
And that’s where we come in. By making every step count we can best rebuild our country by putting patriotism above partisanship. The unity of our country will depend on civil conversations even with those with whom we disagree. If our politicians can’t do it then let us take the lead in bringing this country back to civil discourse even in the midst of civil disagreement.
Let us make that our mission and along the way I hope we understand:
“that victory lies not
At some high point along the way
But in having made the journey
Step by step,
A sacred pilgrimage.”
Sun, May 3, 2020
Empathy in an Era of Inequality
I’ve been thinking about empathy a great deal these past months. Perhaps it’s an unexpected consequence of social distancing and self-isolation which provides greater opportunity for the extravagance of free-floating ideas and uncircumscribed introspection.
So, I was captivated by an essay a good friend and college classmate, David Stringer, recently wrote in his weekly blog entitled “Basic Emotions.” He had read somewhere that all human beings share six basic emotions: happiness, fear, anger, sadness, disgust and surprise.
After offering his personal list of his own basic emotions Stringer challenged his readers to do the same, to formulate their own personal “Basic Emotions” list.
In contemplating my list, I was surprised that since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic I am more fully aware of the unexpected power, pervasiveness and constancy of “empathy” as a driving force for me. Empathy had always been part of my emotional constitution especially when dealing with the life cycle events of congregants and others. But now empathy washes over me and moves me in previously unfamiliar ways.
When I wrote to Stringer that “empathy” had recently become one of the most motivating of my emotions he replied “Isn’t ‘empathy’ experiencing someone else’s emotions?”
His rejoinder prompted an unexpected revelation for me which became the content of my response. “I think not,” I wrote. “Empathy for me is responding to someone’s life situation or predicament without knowing their emotional state. I can imagine, but not know until I talk to a person, the emotions of someone living in the City Housing Projects of New York City, especially at this time. But I don’t need to talk to them to empathize with their life situation, living as they do in a densely populated building with little space to protect themselves by social distancing in the elevators, hallways or staircases of their building. And if they’re out of work I can empathize with the unemployed without knowing their emotional state because I know that buying food for themselves or their children will be a hardship.”
I came to realize that, for me, COVID-19 has powerfully portrayed the inequities in our society. Previously, I had a knowledge and intellectual understanding of economic inequality in our country, but this pandemic has magnified and focused the harsh implications of the economic and other inequalities in our nation. We cannot be blind to the high death rate in black and other minority communities and in the densest neighborhoods in our cities. We cannot overlook the, sometimes, abhorrent condition of hospitals in the poor areas of our country or the dismal lack of basic technology in the schools and homes of the working poor — making home-schooling impossible.
I realize that empathy is limited at best, empty all too often, unless we know people from their real day-to-day experiences. Through a friend, I met a young boy from a family who does not know where they will live from month to month. This child sobs at the thought of living in a shelter. He can think of nothing else when the subject arises. Being with him, helping with real offers is an expression of empathy.
I feel an abiding empathy for the citizens of our country living in conditions which deprive them of basic rights and opportunities many of us take for granted. Inequality is no longer an intellectual construct for me. My hope is that, as we restart our nation in the months ahead, our collective “empathy” will drive us to eradicate the inherent inequalities in our society as we do more, and better, for the well-being of our country.
Sun, Apr 26
Between Despair and Hope
This past Tuesday we observed Yom HaShoah (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day) during which we memorialized the victims of the Holocaust. We commemorated, as well, the abiding spirit of heroism and courage which infused many of those victims to the very last moment when, without forsaking the core of their humanity, they died in the gas chambers.
This coming Wednesday, just eight days after Yom HaShoah, we celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day. The calendric proximity of these two observances is poignant. With the victims of the Holocaust still in mind, we celebrate the life-giving urge of our forebears who survived the Holocaust and, rather than set their sights on revenge, built the State of Israel, a new country of which the national anthem became Ha-Tikvah, Hope!
Our forebears did what we should all do. The survivors of the Holocaust and their children commemorated the past. They gathered to say the mourners’ Kaddish for the murdered victims of the Holocaust and then they arose from their muffled tears and broken hearts, and fashioned a new reality. They never relinquished their belief that there can be a better world, and that world is always within our reach.
I was in Israel on July 4, 1976, America’s bicentennial, when news of the courageous rescue of 100 hostages, captured on a flight from Tel Aviv and held in Entebbe by Palestinian terrorists, came over the airwaves. It was a miraculous mission led by the 30-year-old unit commander, Lt. Col Yonatan Netanyahu, who was the only Israeli commando killed during the rescue. Yonatan was the older brother of Bibi, Israel’s present Prime Minister.
Soon after I found a book of Yonatan’s personal letters which abounded with his passion and wisdom. On May 23, 1963, while just a teenager, Yoni wrote:
Man does not live forever. He should put the days of his life to the best possible use. How to do this I can’t tell you. I only know that I don’t want to reach a certain age, look around me and suddenly discover that I’ve created nothing. I must feel certain that, not only at the moment of my death shall I be able to account for the time I have lived, I ought to be ready at every moment of my life to confront myself and say — this is what I’ve done.
What a poignant message and wisdom left by a 30-year-old hero for all of us! This fallen soldier gives us a roadmap for our present adversity. I hope that we would carry aloft the banners of brighter days as he would if he still walked among us. Let us affirm and reaffirm the undying mandate planted within us by our faith: that we will be tireless in making this world better than we found it. Or in Yoni’s words, may each of us always be proud of what we’ve done.
Sun, Apr 19
Hopes and prayers
Throughout our history Jews have recited special prayers “for the welfare of the government.” The biblical prophet Jeremiah wrote from Jerusalem in the sixth century BCE, “Seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf; for in its prosperity you shall prosper.” Jeremiah believed that the well-being of the Israelites depended on the stability, health and justice of the ambient culture and reigning government under which they lived.
The practice of prayers offered in houses of worship further developed in this country. The earliest versions of those prayers were for the well-being of British royalty. With the Revolution a change is indicated in the liturgy of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia (1782). The royal family was eliminated in the blessing and replaced by “His Excellency the President, and Hon’ble Delegates of the United States of America in Congress Assembled, His Excellency George Washington, Captain General and Commander in Chief of the Federal Army of these States,” the General Assembly of Pennsylvania, and “all kings and potentates in alliance with North America.” The prayer was noticeably depersonalized except for the mention of George Washington. Afterwards, American Jews blessed officeholders (“the President”) rather than named individuals.
Throughout American history a prayer for the government has served as a revealing historical barometer of the relationship between people of faith and the state. The changes in these prayers point to what worshippers believe are the critical issues at the time and the complex moral tensions they engender.
Such a prayer is included in the High Holiday prayer book developed by Joseph Rosenstein, professor of Mathematics at Rutgers, now used at the 92nd Street Y.
A Prayer for Our Leaders
The fulfillment of our dreams depends in large measure
on the wisdom and courage of our leaders.
We pray that our leaders
have the wisdom to seek and find solutions
to the challenges that we face
and the courage to implement them.
We pray that they use their powers wisely and well.
We pray that our leaders practice compassion,
remembering that all human beings
are created in the image of God,
that each human life is valuable and sacred.
We pray that our leaders practice justice,
striving for the good of all,
all the people of our society,
all the people of God’s earth.
We pray that our leaders recognize
the unique opportunity they have been given
to make a difference in the world,
and that they rise above
their backgrounds and their limitations
and use that opportunity with wisdom and courage.
We pray that our leaders
reflect in their policies and decisions
the noble ideals that we all share.
We pray that You stand beside them and guide them
through the night with a light from above.
I hope all citizens of our nation find their aspirations for our leaders in these words.
Sun, Apr 12
In his classic work When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote, “God does not cause our misfortunes. Some are caused by bad luck, some are caused by bad people, and some are simply an inevitable consequence of our being human and being mortal, living in a world of inflexible natural laws … . Because the tragedy is not God’s will, we need not feel hurt or betrayed by God when tragedy strikes. We can turn to Him for help in overcoming it, precisely because we can tell ourselves that God is as outraged by it as we are.”
Though many theologians and believers would sneer at Kushner’s words, many of us find comfort in them. Personally, I can’t blame the chaos and pain through which humanity is now passing on a deity who willingly causes suffering and chooses who will live and who will die.
There is a part of the Passover Seder which I think is particularly relevant in this regard. Yachatz (which means “divide”) is the section of the Seder when we break the middle of three Matzas in half. One half is referred to as the “bread of affliction,” representing the poor bread our ancestors ate in slavery. This half symbolizes the ills in society now and throughout the ages. The single act of breaking the matza testifies to the “brokenness” in our world with all the divisions between nations and classes and racial and religious groups. It keeps our eye on the past and on the rending of the social fabric in our own day.
But the other half of that single broken matza is wrapped in a napkin and hidden for children to find and hide from their parents. It is necessary to eat of that half called the afikomen (the Greek word for “dessert”). No seder can end without eating the afikomen so children can hold out until they get what they want for its return. It’s a joyful and often rambunctious negotiation. But all attention is focused on the children. After all, they our future. Just as the other half of that same matza, the “bread of affliction” drew our attention to the past, the afikomen focuses us completely on the future.
And on Seder night, that’s where we stand … between past and future.
Passover is a celebration of remembrance and rebirth, of recollection and renewal. During Passover we are cognizant of being the bridge between past and future. It mandates us to fully dedicate ourselves to making a difference in this world.
Sun, Apr 5
This is a season of rebirth and messianic longing both for Christians and Jews.
We human beings sometimes yearn for unreasonable responses to our prayers. We ask for quick cures, a miraculous turn of improbable events, even world peace. In Judaism’s traditional framework that is what the “anointed one,” the Mashiach, the Messiah, is supposed to bring. Our tradition affirms that the Mashiah will be a descendant of King David and will be preceded by the prophet Elijah whom we will metaphorically (and virtually) welcome into our homes this coming Wednesday evening during the Passover Seder.
This is also the season of Holy Week and Easter, an occasion for Christians to reaffirm their own messianic longings for a better world.
I can’t imagine a more poignant time for us to rally our faith that things will get better.
In our own time the newest iteration of a messianic objective in Judaism is conceptualized as Tikkun Olam (Repairing the World). But none of us can repair this world by ourselves.
So, I suggest a more attainable personal objective. Rather than Tikkun Olam, let us each pursue Tikkun Ha-Nefesh, the healing of an individual soul in their time of need. With kindness and compassion we can make a difference in another person’s life with our words and actions. It may be a phone call to a friend with whom we have had no contact in years. It could be a word of gratitude to the mailman or sanitation worker or food deliverer for the efforts they are making on our behalf. It could be a meal for a first responder.
And when the time comes, some money for the beggar on the street, or clothes for the homeless in a shelter, or even a smile can make a difference for the person who is alone.
We have the power to better the lives of others through acts of intentional kindness. It is a chance for us to redeem that moment for them.
Hopefully we may heal many souls during this difficult time as we approach Passover and Easter. These celebrations are about rebirth and redemption. Let us celebrate them with our good works.
I wish you all much meaning, joy and good health in the week and celebrations ahead.
Thu, April 2
Note: Today’s Thought for the Day comes to us from Bronfman Center Director of Jewish Education Rabbi Samantha Frank.
Why Psalms? Why Now? Why Robert Alter’s translation?
Over the past few weeks, New Yorkers and people all over the world have made drastic lifestyle changes in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and help save lives. We’re staying home, working from home, figuring out care for our children and our parents, supporting local businesses, and generally trying to rise to the challenges at hand. We have been forced to adapt, and have reckoned with headlines about a disease that grow scarier by the day. How does Jewish wisdom help us understand this difficult moment?
The book of Pslams, or T’hilim (praises, in Hebrew) is part of the Hebrew Bible, and has been used by Jews individually and by the Jewish community in moments of crisis. Most psalms are written in the first person, making them the perfect thing to read when we have a direct address to God or would like to personally process an emotion or experience. The psalms also cover a wide range of emotions, from gratitude and joy to fear, frustration, anger, and hope. Robert Alter’s translation makes this Hebrew wisdom accessible to English speakers—allowing us to experience the comfort that the Psalms provide at a time when we badly need it.
In Psalm 147:3-4, the psalmist (author) writes: “Healer of the broken hearted, he binds their painful wounds. He counts the number of the stars, to all of them gives names.” What more fitting balm could we read in these trying times? Even as we are physically distanced from one another, we are never truly alone. God takes account of each of us, and knows us all by name.
Each day, we do our best to follow the rules to keep ourselves and others safe. We worry about those who cannot safely distance, and those working in health centers and hospitals. We physically distance ourselves, but we don’t know when this period of isolation will end. It’s impossible to avoid moments of anger and frustration. For moments of anger and frustration heightened by our inability to hold close those whom we love, Psalm 88 reflects these feelings of fear and frustration: “You distanced my friends from me…Why, Lord, do you abandon my life, do you hide your face from me?” (V. 9, 15).
And while all of the moments of sadness and anger are real, they are not the entirety of our experience. We are still able to enjoy sun streaming through our windows, and our gratitude for our health makes us want to jump and dance for joy. For the moments of gratitude for all that we do have and are able to do, Psalm 150: “Praise Him with timbrel and dance, praise Him with strings and flute. Praise Him with sounding cymbals, praise Him with crashing cymbals. Let all that has breath praise Yah. Hallelujah!” (Vv. 4-6).
In particular, Alter’s translation of the Psalms from Biblical Hebrew to English enables us to experience the rhythm and sound as closely as we can to the way that the Psalmist imagined it. Psalms, after all, are not meant for personal and communal use alone, they are meant to be read and even sung aloud: reading the psalms ought to be a full aural experience. In this moment of communal trauma and challenge, reading psalms can ground us in the physicality of music, which reminds us that while we may be stuck inside, the world is not stagnant. Our lives are filled with harmony and dissonance, crescendoes of exuberant joy and moments of slowing down. Whenever possible, Alter’s translation captures the rhythm, rhyme, meter, and structure—the musical dimension—of the original Hebrew.
We are blessed to have the book of Psalms, and Alter’s translation, right now. Within them is the entirety of human emotion. Like all great literature, though they were written long before our time, they can help us experience and process this moment. Reading psalms reminds us that though we may be socially distanced and living through a unique moment in human history, our ancestors experienced many of the same challenges and joys. For thousands of years, the human spirit has endured through isolation and challenge. Let us allow the wisdom of our tradition to guide us and act as connective tissue in the days ahead. Continue in good health, continue to be strong and courageous.
Sun, Mar 29
I was recently reminded of the lesson a beloved and gentle professor of mine taught about the Biblical prophets. He said their message was “Despair is a sin and hope is a duty.” Now, millennia later, this prophetic teaching emerges as an extraordinary lesson for us all. Among COVID-19’s collateral damage, hope should not be a victim.
Leo Baeck, a 20th century German theologian and scholar, called Judaism a religion of “ethical optimism.” What an amazing affirmation for a German Jew who had been deported to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Despite attempts to attain Baeck’s freedom he chose to stay with his community in that concentration camp. He would not leave them in the time of their greatest despair. He knew he had to hear their stories, hold their hands and listen to their prayers. And he knew that his presence gave them hope.
I am not parochial regarding “eternal optimism.” I choose to believe “ethical optimism” is at the root of most of our religions and faiths. Optimism and its consequences bind us to each other. Though we can’t help but be realistic about the health challenges we presently face, let us hope and, perhaps, even pray for our own well-being, that of our family and friends and all humanity.
This is a time in which it would be best to be both realistic and hopeful and, as well, to envision better days ahead. This is also a time that demands the best of each of us as individuals. Decency, kindness and generosity of the spirit are defining elements of our character when we’re pressured or annoyed, preoccupied or angry. It defines how we behave in adversity.
Hope is our duty, a gift we can offer to each other and the human community in which we live. Above all, hope along with optimism is a gift we can give ourselves.
Sun, Mar 22
This is an unsettling time. Often, we’re exhausted by the end of the day, worn out by anxiety, hypersensitive to every cough we hear, and aware of every person on the street.
We know that we cannot be carelessly foolish or paralyzed by fear. We need to find calm for ourselves.
After the obliteration of his personal savings and his foundation’s endowment as a result of the Madoff scandal, Elie Wiesel was asked how he would respond to the spread of disease and poverty and government malfeasance worldwide. With his signature smile, Elie Wiesel answered, “With my two favorite words… ‘and yet.’”
“And yet” is the birth of comfort and optimism. There is war—and yet we envision peace. There is hurting—and yet we can heal. There is uncertainty—and yet we hold strong to our anchors. There is illness—and yet we believe there will be a cure. There is sadness and anxiety and worry—and yet we’re ready to be comforted and supported.
At the end of the prologue to his book Always Looking Up, Michael J. Fox concludes, “Sure it may be one step forward and two steps back, but after a time with Parkinson’s, I’ve learned that what is important is making that one step count, always looking up.”
If you’re willing to hear from those who have lived longer and have been through past tribulation, we can promise the truth of the Hebrew Gam zeh ya’avor. “This too will pass.” We don’t know how long it will take, but it will pass—and hopefully, on the other side, we’ll be sitting together again and then we will be able to give each other hugs, as I do you from my heart to yours.
“Adonoi oz l’amo yiteyn, adonoi y’vracheych et amo v’shalom.”
God gives strength to people and bless people with peace.
I hope we find and feel both.