Categories
Healing High Holy Days

We Cannot Breathe Until All People Can Breathe

I have lived in Louisville, Kentucky for over ten years, working on countless projects with the mayor’s office, the Louisville Metro Police Department, and even the FBI, to try to bring healing, justice, and peace to this city. It is therefore with profound sadness, horror, rage, and disgust that I watch what is unfolding in this “city of possibility,” that crowned itself as “compassionate.”

My current work in Louisville—as Director for Program Development with Interfaith Paths to Peace—has led me to support the interfaith peace-making and justice-seeking efforts in this city. Clergy of all faiths have been intervening to de-escalate tensions between police and protesters, often inserting themselves between them to protect their right to peacefully demonstrate.

What small shreds of hope we still had were crushed by the announcement of the Attorney General that no charges would be made against the police officers who shot Breonna Taylor. The double standard of the law is glaring, and the city is grieving. Because of the forced curfew, those grieving are being arrested for exercising their right to protest because of a curfew that is imposed to perpetuate the stereotype that people of color are dangerous, when the last several months have demonstrated that they were peaceful and supported by clergy from across the community. 

Squelched grief has become a ticket to a non-socially isolated jail and fines that perpetuate debt and social inequality. It is just too overwhelming to see the glaring contrast between the ease with which a protester, clergy or lay, can be arrested and the inability to indict a police officer that turns off his camera, falsifies documents, and shoots a woman dead in her home for just sleeping.

And so, here we are, approaching Yom Kippur, reflecting upon our sins and the need to atone—our rabbis teach that we should confess our sins in the plural because even if not all committed the crime, all are guilty for not trying to stop it—and so it is. We confess—ashamnu. We have sinned.

We sin as a nation when we call ourselves a democracy but maintain an electoral college that was created to perpetuate slavery and the belief that people of color should not have the same voting power as white people.

We sin as a nation when we continue to enslave people of color… when this nation continues to target them and imprison them so that they can work without pay to fuel the profits of our privatized prison system and the corporations that derive profit thanks to the slavery amendment of our constitution.

We participate in the sin of slavery every time we buy something from any of the countless companies that rely upon unpaid prison labor.

Today, in between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we collectively confess our sins: the sins of this nation, for each of us who vote and pay taxes in this country and in this city, each of us are responsible for what is happening.

And today we affirm that we all share responsibility for our current reality—and as clergy we decry our continued complicity with these sins. And today, we join our brothers and sisters of all faiths, to publicly confess these sins and to reclaim the prophetic voice that calls upon us all to atone, make amends, and work for justice, peace, reconciliation, and a new start where all human beings are recognized as created in the Divine Image.

As we approach Yom Kippur, who amongst us can say that we have not sinned? 

Each of us has contributed in some way to the rapidly growing weight of our nation’s collective sins.

For the sin of children in cages and mothers with forced sterilizations.

For the sin of police officers who murder and are only sometimes held accountable if someone is videotaping.

For the sin of thousands upon thousands of deaths due to a virus that we have collectively refused to manage appropriately.

For the sin of destroying this Earth that was given to us to safeguard.

For all these sins and more, we confess—we are guilty.

Our sins continue to be an alphabet of woe, and this week, we add another shocking sin.

For the sin of failing to indict or charge officers who turned off their cameras, falsified documents, and murdered Breonna Taylor: we confess—ashamnu.

For the sin of remaining silent and failing to use tochecha to rebuke our brothers and sisters who support policies that perpetuate the systemic racism that leaves each of us with blood on our hands.

For all these sins and more, we confess our guilt and ask for Your help in making amends and working to atone and be worthy of forgiveness.

Our hearts break as we watch the consequences of our failure to act and our willingness to accept our divisions…our hearts break as we see what happens when we choose “shalom bayit” (to keep the peace) rather than to speak out against injustice.

We cannot breathe under the growing weight of our collective sins. We cannot breathe alongside our brothers and sisters. We cannot breathe until all people can breathe. Until all people can sleep soundly in their homes without worrying that their tax-funded dollars will pay for police officers to come and kill them in the middle of the night and not get charged.

This Yom Kippur may we confess, atone, and begin the difficult work of making amends, seeking justice, and becoming worthy of forgiveness.

Our rabbis have taught us to kindle light where there is darkness. As we grieve the darkness that continues to thicken and suffocate us all—let us find the strength to kindle light.

Blessed is the Source of Light who made us holy with commandments and ethical principles and who commands us to kindle light in the darkness.

Here in Louisville, we have begun a new interfaith ritual that I pray will radiate out into our country. In the midst of our communal brokenness and with our diverse experiences and perspectives we invite you to hold our city, and indeed our nation, in prayer, presence, and love.

The flame represents our common humanity and the different candles our unique expressions of its light. Since Wednesday, September 23rd and through the election season, we are asking everyone at 8:00 PM to light a candle and stand at a street corner in their neighborhood, or outside their home, or from their window to light a candle of hope and as an expression of love and healing prayer.

May each of us, enveloped in despair and rage, draw strength from these lights, kindled across our nation, and may this Light inspire us to rise up with the righteous and prophetic rage that needs to be expressed and channeled into the work of justice and healing.

May this new year usher forth the healing, peace, and justice for which we all pray, and may our prayers inspire us to act and make amends. 

Rabbi Dr. Nadia Siritsky, MSSW, BCC, is Director of Program Development and Engagement at Interfaith Paths to Peace in Louisville, Kentucky.

Categories
chaplains Healing mental health

Bikur Cholim: Bringing God with You on Your Visit

“One should follow the attributes of the Holy One of Blessing…Just as the Holy One of Blessing visits the sick as it is written with regard to God’s appearing to Abraham following his circumcision: ‘And the Eternal appeared unto him by the terebinths of Mamre’ (Genesis 18:1), so too, should you visit the sick.” (Sotah 14a)

Bikur cholim is, of course, a large part of our job as rabbis, especially these days during the midst of the pandemic.  And the visiting is hard, because it is all virtual. We don’t get to be like God and visit Abraham while he was sunning himself outside his tent as he healed from his formal, ritual entry into the b’rit with God. And yet, we know how important our presence is, even an online one or a phone call. The visit is real, even if the technology is virtual.

As someone with chronic illnesses, both “physical” and mental, I am often on the receiving end of bikur cholim. Whenever I am in the hospital, I always ask for a visit from the chaplain office, Jewish or not; I like a chance to talk theology and theodicy, and I find relief in a visitor that is concerned for me, but not so upset at my illness that I have to comfort them in return. Over the years, I have (as I am sure many of you have), collected favorite “what not to say” sayings. One chaplain (a lay person, not Jewish) came into my room as I was recovering from a medication reaction. With a big smile, she said, “Hi, I’m Marie, from the chaplains office. I understand you are Jewish. I love the Jews!” It’s hard to follow up on that. I mean, I want to be loved, but…

We all know, at least in theory, that bikur cholim is all about the “I-Thou” moment, the being together, person-to-person, recognizing the Divine in the other, and opening ourselves up to the other, to risk showing who we are, the Divine in ourselves. And truly doing that, creating that safe, gentle holding space for the sick person to just be—well, that, after a while may be, not only moving and profound, but also exhausting. Being vulnerable is risky; it may be frightening. And in the midst of all the other things one has to do these days simply to keep one’s congregation, one’s nursing home or other job function, summoning all that energy to be fully present when calling/ Zooming with yet another sick person may simply feel like too much. 

Instead, we text or email: “I’m thinking of you.  R’fuah sh’leimah.” And that is not nothing. Being remembered matters, at least to me, when I am ill. It is not, however, the same as the gift of your presence—even if our time together is only a short phone call. The warmth of your voice on the phone (even just a message on my voicemail) feels healing, and I save it for months to play back in hard moments; if we actually connect, you might make me laugh for a moment or let me cry in your presence. All of this matters more than you can imagine.

And all the more so when my illness is psychological and not just physical.  From the depths of my depression, I do not have the energy to reach out, to figure out what I need and ask for the help I need. When you extend your hand, it can be a lifeline into my abyss. 

In the time that I have been struggling with my depression (over 35 years and counting!), as well as my struggles physically with my stroke and its aftermath, I have been visited by rabbis and friends of all sorts. So many of them, of you, have talked with me, made jokes, sat with me in silence (although most people find that hard to do, it is necessary at times; a good thing to remember!). And many, virtually all of the rabbis, as well as my best friend, who is an Episcopal priest, have offered to pray for me, to put me on their Mi Shebeirach list. I was, and am, always grateful for that; praying for me, for anyone, is, in my belief, is a way of placing me, metaphorically, from one’s heart into God’s hand. But in that time, only one person, a rabbinic friend, has ever offered to pray WITH me at that moment. 

And that is also what I needed. When I am depressed, it is not just that God feels hard to reach. It is that when I reach out to God, I experience a deep, dark, whirling abyss, and I fear that I shall fall into in, falling forever into nothingness. I can’t pray. But if someone were to pray with me (and sometimes I find the strength to ask a clergy friend to pray with me), then I have a hand to hold. My theology, my belief feels tenuous at best, but when you pray with me, I can lean on your faith, as it were, if only for a moment.  And that is a blessing.

I know it might feel awkward to ask each person: would you like me to say a prayer with you? But if you don’t ask, you don’t know. Some people might just like to say the Sh’ma together, or sing whatever Mi Shebeirach your community is using, while others might like a Psalm or a prayer you make up in the moment, just for that person or family. Especially in these days, when we cannot hold the hand of the person we are visiting, offering a prayer as part of our bikur cholim may be yet another way of connecting with those who are hurting. It is bringing the Holy One of Blessing right there, into the FaceTime call.


Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs.  She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado.  She may be reached at ravsjcohen@gmail.com

Categories
Healing inclusivity News Social Justice

B’rit Olam, Racial Justice, and Black Lives Matter

When Donald Trump stood in front of the St. John’s Episcopal Church and declared martial law, we witnessed birkat HaShemBirkat HaShem is cursing the name of God. Birkat HaShem is blasphemy. And the one who commits it is a megadef.

In his sanctioning the use of tear gas, flash-bang shells, and in the firing of rubber bullets on American citizens who were exercising their Constitutional right of peaceful assembly so that he would have a clear path to a church as his stage and a bible as his prop, I condemn as a megadef the President of the United States. With a bible held sanctimoniously in his hand while simultaneously condoning violence and threatening far worse against the very people he is sworn to lead, I accuse him of cursing the name of God. 

God has held my broken heart every day of the eight since Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd, may his memory be for a blessing. The God I trust is the One who spreads sheltering wings over all the people in the night, guarding them, guiding them, and granting them peace. The God I pray to takes note of our afflictions and takes up our struggles, hears our prayers for every illness, wound, and pain. The God I cry out to listens when we call for the voice of liberty to be heard and for the oppressed to be redeemed.

The Eternal of my faith requires me to pursue justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God. As I followed the President’s march from the White House to his staged photo opportunity in front of St. John’s, I witnessed his pursuit of retribution, not justice. I witnessed his love of violence, not mercy. In his faithless taking up of the sacred word of God, I witnessed blasphemy and no humble walk with God. 

As our cities burn, the God I believe in calls us to think deeply about the uprisings. God commands an honest accounting for the real reasons behind them. God demands our dedication to overcome them. We are a nation physically gripped and emotionally exhausted by the COVID-19 pandemic. There is no end in sight. Its economic impact is devastating. Given 400 years of evidence, further proof of racial inequity and injustice was unnecessary, but the pandemic has laid bare the socioeconomic truth that African Americans, Latinx Americans, and Native Americans are being disproportionately infected and dying, and people of color are experiencing even greater unemployment and underemployment than they were before. In communities of color, the suffering is greater. Recovery will take longer, if it comes at all.

Emmanuel Levinas taught us that our responsibility to the other is infinite. Our responsibility is of such a magnitude that it drowns out the noise of anything we’ve accomplished. There is nothing to rest on. Since Ferguson, some of us, the CCAR, and the Movement have made limited progress in understanding our own racism, the racism of our institutions, and the malignant, systemic racism in our country. But let’s not kid ourselves. Nothing is dismantled and infinitely more is demanded. 

So I share the following points:

1. Our covenant is eternal. God commands us to be in the struggle for the rest of our lives. And by our lives, to inspire and guide our children to carry on for the rest of their lives. We can’t ever turn away.

2. Black Lives Matter. To BLM, in our context, I suggest a second BLM: 

B = Believe.
L = Listen.
M = Maintain support from behind Black and Brown leaders.

3. Locate God now. The cries we hear are God’s cries. The tears that fall are God’s tears. God is reaching for help to raise this burden from God’s shoulders.

4. We are commanded to be in the struggle for the rest of our lives. The covenantal relationship is forever. A b’rit olam. Covenant is not convenience. But it is rooted in chesed. Not sappy chesed, not “loving kindness,” but chesed how Rabbi Brad Artson teaches it: Chesed as resilient love. The root of our covenant with God, the basis of our covenant with each other, is a resilient love that invites us surpass ourselves and to risk growth.[i] The resilient love of our covenant means we can be a part of great team, a team where no one plays just for themselves and everyone plays for each other. Keep showing up.

These ideas are based upon the same text: Moses at the burning bush.[ii] Larry Kushner teaches us the burning bush was not a miracle. The bush was a test. God wanted to find out whether or not Moses could pay attention. Only when Moses really paid attention, did God reveal himself to our teacher…There is another world, right here, when we pay attention. [iii]

Here is our test: Pay attention. Believe and listen to the experiences of people of color, especially Jews of Color. Check our motivations and resist that temptation of white privilege, to pretend we have Superman capes. Our test is to maintain support from behind black and brown leaders.

Last point, same text: Moses at the bush. From the depths of hell in the Warsaw Ghetto, Kalonymous Kalman Shapira, the Esh Kodesh, gave his disciples a gift: he taught his Chasidim that the covenant is not only eternal. It is also interdependent. God needs us. When God called, “Moses Moses” from the burning bush, God did so desperately and without pause, like one who struggles beneath an unbearable weight. When God cried out to Moses, God was asking for help. God was asking for relief from the unbearable burden of witnessing the suffering of humanity. [iv]

Rather than teaching a simplistic faith or the belief that suffering is somehow part of some greater, cosmic plan, the rebbe reminded them that we are in an interdependent, covenantal relationship with God. The b’rit binds us together forever. When God called, “Moses Moses” from the burning bush, God did so desperately and without pause, like a person struggling beneath an unbearable weight. When God cried out to Moses, God was asking for help. God was asking for relief from the unbearable burden of witnessing the suffering of humanity.

Our responsibility is infinite. The covenant and chesed’s resilient love demands we stay in this for the rest of our lives. Believe. Listen. Support from behind. God is crying out from the burden of witnessing this suffering.

The God I believe in cries out to us now. The God I place my faith in calls us to pursue racial equity and justice in our country, in our cities, and in our synagogue. The God I turn to and the God I invite you to be in relationship with is the God who commands kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name and the opposite of birkat HaShem. Let us sanctify and make holy the name of God by the ways we live our lives. As it is written, You shall be holy, for I, the Lord, am holy.

Amen.


[i]  Bradley Shavit Artson, The God of Becoming and RelationshipThe Dynamic Nature of Process Theology
[ii]  Exodus 3:1-4:17
[iii]  Lawrence Kushner, God was in This Place, and I, i Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality, & Ultimate Meaning 
[iv]  Esh KodeshVayikra, March 16, 1940


Rabbi David Spinrad serves as the senior rabbi of Beth El Hebrew Congregation in Alexandria, Virginia. He loves to laugh and believes the covenant is rooted in a love that is greater than the sum of our individual parts.

Categories
Conversion General CCAR Healing Rituals spirituality

Handwashing Ceremony for Online/ Virtual Conversion

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and social distancing remains in effect here in New York City, we are still faced with many rituals we cannot complete in person. One of these rituals is the Beit Din/Immersion process for our conversion students, which we usually would convene at the mikvah. Given that our community had a number of students who were ready to complete their conversion studies, but no solid estimate as to when we could safely return to the mikvah, we wanted to give these students an option to ritualize their conversions virtually. (It should be noted that all of our students will have the opportunity to go to mikvah in the future, should they wish.)  

Clearly, we could conduct the Beit Din via Zoom, but what ritual could we employ to mark the moment?  I had two basic criteria: 1.) The ritual must be comfortably completed while in quarantine. 2) It must incorporate water, thereby echoing the mikvah though not necessarily approximating it. As such, I created this handwashing ceremony to accompany the virtual Beit Din. The bonus with this ritual is that the handwashing blessing can be woven quite seamlessly into these students’ lives going forward. Please feel free to use this ritual and/or adapt as you see fit.

Items needed: 
-Ritual Hand Washer or Pitcher or Cup
-Towel

  1. Take a moment to consider this water ritual. Think about the waters that have flowed through the history of Judaism, and continue to flow through us still. God created the earth by separating the waters. God remade the Earth with the flood generations later in the time of Noah. God redeemed the Israelites from slavery and ushered them to freedom, as they moved through the parted waters of the Red Sea. Our Patriarchs and Matriarchs often met at the well.  Relationships were initiated by the water, marriages made in its reflection. Isaac dug wells to connect to the memory of his father.  Jacob discovered his inner strength at the well.  It is said that Miriam was accompanied by a well of water, and it is said that water sustained our people through those long days and nights in the desert.  Water renews. Water revives. Water nourishes the body, mind and soul. Today, this water bridges past to present, as you immerse your hands in its flowing stream.

  2. Take the ritual washer in your hands. Think about its significance for this moment, and then reflect on a time when you might use it again.  How are the two connected? How will this washer tell part of your unique Jewish story? 

  3. Fill up the washer with water. (Ensure you have a clean towel nearby).

  4. Close your eyes. Breathe in this moment. Honor the work, the time, and the energy you have expended to reach this milestone. Honor your agency in this process. Recall your journey. Let the memories flood your mind as you think of those who have joined you on this path, those who have supported you, and those who have served as your guides.  Acknowledge them in your heart.

  5. Now, as you prepare to wash, recite these words from Ruth (Ruth 1:16, 17): “Ruth said: Entreat me not to leave you, or to return from following after you.”

  6. Lift up the washer in your right hand.  As you pour from right to left, recite these words (from Ruth) with each pour:

    -Pour 1: “For wherever you go”
    -Pour 2: “I will go”
    -Pour 3: “Wherever you lodge, I will lodge.”

  7. Now move the washer to your left hand.  As you pour from left to right, recite these words (from Ruth) with each pour:

    -Pour 1: “Your people will be my people”
    -Pour 2: “And your God my God.”
    -Pour 3: “Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.”

  8. With your hands wet, lift them up and allow the water to drip freely from them. (Our prayer is called “n’tilat yadayim” for the lifting of the hands). One way our handwashing prayer has been interpreted over the years is through the lens of action; we wash to remind ourselves that the work of our hands is essential to the work of repairing the world. Our hands have the power to do good. Our hands have the power to build bridges. Our hands have the power to help and heal and comfort.   

    With your hands raised before you:

    -Reflect on the power and capability of your own hands.  
    -Reflect on your evolving identity and how your Jewish identity will impact the work of your hands.  
    -Reflect on the tradition and heritage you now officially carry.  How will your acceptance of Judaism inform your choices, your priorities, and your perspective?


  9. Recite N’tilat Yadayim:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ,
מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם,
אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו
וְצִוָּנוּ עַל נְטִילַת יָדָיִם.

Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav vitzivanu al n’tilat yadayim.

Blessed are Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has sanctified us with Your commandments, and commanded us concerning the washing of the hands.

10.  Dry your hands and rejoice in the moment!

Together we will offer the Shehecheyanu, our prayer of gratitude for having reached this milestone:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה, יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ,
מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם,
שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ
וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה.

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man hazeh.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of all, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and brought us to this season.



Rabbi Sara Y. Sapadin
 is a rabbi and mother of four. Sara currently serves Temple Emanu-El in New York City as an associate rabbi. She is a contributor to
 The Sacred Calling: Four Decades of Women in the Rabbinate (CCAR Press). 

Categories
Healing member support mental health Torah

Confronting Our Fears through Tazria and M’tzora

This week’s Torah portion, Tazria and M’tzora is difficult. It also has a reputation for inspiring fear and dread of any bar or bat mitzvah student who receives it for their Shabbat service. Tazria and M’tzora speak of bodily functions, illness, and quarantine. It talks about:

  • Childbirth
  • Disease
  • Contact with bodily fluids
  • Afflictions of the skin

It also speaks of how, when a person contracts a condition like this, they need to go through a series of ritual cleansings, inspections, and separation before they are allowed back into the community.

The disease, Tzaraat (which I’ll talk more about below) is not only a human disease—it can affect the walls of people’s homes as well—thereby giving it another dimension that expands its reach from that of a human disease to a more global condition.

It’s tempting to try and draw parallels from the fact that these two Torah portions speak of disease and quarantine while our community, state, nation and, indeed, the entire world is coping with the coronavirus—but, rather than succumbing to this temptation, I want to talk instead about why these chapters are included in our sacred text in the first place. What lessons can we learn—not only from the content of our parashah, but the context in which the discussion takes place? You see, I don’t think that all of these laws about tzaraat—which we translate as leprosy, but clearly is something else—are included in the narrative to teach us about cleanliness, diagnosis or medical care. Rather, I think, they are about our fears.

Tzaraat, in our text, is a disease that clearly has a powerful impact on the Ancient Israelite community. It is not only experienced physically, but spiritually. The fact that houses can be infected, as well as humans, should give us a clue that more is going on beneath the surface than is readily apparent.

This time of quarantine, illness, and loss has taken its toll on all of us. The facts that we cannot be physically close to one another; that our economy is suffering; that our national political discourse has become so toxic, are taking a toll on us physically, emotionally and spiritually. We do not know how long this will continue. We worry about our health and those of our loved ones—some of whom are dealing with the virus, others who are vulnerable, and others who are on the front lines providing medical care, research, support, and other crucial services that allow us to function. We worry about how we will emerge from our isolation and what our world will look like once we do.

In Tazaria and M’tzora, our ancestors had to deal with the unknown. They were afraid of something over which they had no control. The rituals of isolation, immersion, and re-entry were designed to provide a safe framework for the people to feel that they were not endangered by this unseen enemy.

I’ve been reading a lot lately about how psychologists and other mental health professionals are keenly aware of the fact that everyone is affected (infected?) by COVID-19, regardless of whether or not they contract the virus. The radical overturning of our daily lives that we are experiencing is enough to shift our emotional equilibrium. This can manifest itself in many different forms—from depression to compulsive behaviors, to denial, revolt, and even other physical ailments.

Perhaps one of our key tasks at this time is to try to understand and anticipate our fear of the unknown and our reactions to it. As such, I want to propose the following seven questions for us to explore as we continue on our journey:

  1. Research has shown that staying physically active during quarantine is an essential part of staying healthy. Am I engaging in enough physical activity?
  2. For those who are in quarantine with others: Am I aware of the needs of others in my home? Am I doing all that I can to understand what they are going through as well me? Am I tolerant of my own missteps as well as those with whom I am living?
  3. Am I doing all that I can to be productive during this time? Are there tasks that need to be completed? Do I have outlets for creativity and meaningful outlets other than television, the internet, and other passive activities?
  4. Am I looking for ways to help others? Are there ways that I can volunteer my time or expertise as well as my financial resources?
  5. Am I willing to receive help from others?
  6. Psychologists teach us that it is important that we not dwell too long on the length of time that we have been—or will be—socially distant. We need to remind ourselves that this is a temporary situation that will be resolved someday. We also need to be “in the moment” as much as we can.
  7. There will be times when our fears will get the best of us. No one can be strong all the time. Have I been able to forgive myself for those moments when I don’t feel productive or give into the despair of the moment?

Again, these are only a few questions designed to help us process our fears of the unknown. Like our ancestors wandering in the wilderness, there is much that we do not know. At the same time, however, we also have the blessing of being part of a sacred community that cares for one another.


Rabbi Joe Black is Senior Rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Denver, Colorado. 


Categories
Healing member support

Know That You Are Loved

I can’t remember the last time I sat in my backyard in mid-April, on a towel on the ground eating lunch in the sunshine. It’s possible that I never have. It would take a pandemic and social distancing to create the opening for lunch al fresco at the Lyon house. The neighborhood around me was oddly quiet, too. As I looked into the sky, I saw a blue jay way up high on a telephone line. It sat there for a long time without any fear of a rumbling truck down below or any disturbance around it. It had a long twig in its beak. I thought it would fly off to finish its nest building, but it didn’t. Silly bird, I thought, there’s so much to do and you’re taking a break on the telephone line. 

Then I felt oddly embarrassed. I began to learn something about myself as I continued to stare at the bird. The quiet of the day, without back-to-back meetings and urgent matters, enabled me to perch on my lawn for an extended time, too. I truly wanted the bird to fly away so I could get back to thoughts about my work, but it didn’t leave. The longer it stayed, the longer I had to think about eating more slowly than before, soaking up more sun than I would have, and digesting more than my lunch, but also some new expectations. 

We’re all creatures in nature, but surely there’s a difference. What is it? In Mishnah Pirkei Avot (3:14) we learn that Rabbi Akiva used to say, “Beloved of God is man (sic) for he was created in the image of God; but greater still was the love [shown him] in that it was made known to him that he was created in the image of God, as it is said, For in the image of God made He man (Genesis 9:6).” Rabbi Samuel Karff taught about this verse, “It is one thing to be loved; it is another thing to know that you are loved.” The difference is our awareness of our Creator, and, in that awareness, our discovery of irrefutable and unconditional love. 

During these days of COVID-19, and all that it has come to mean, we can all find comfort in what God’s love can mean to us, what love between us can help us know, and what self-love can enable us to be. 

Eventually, the bird on the telephone line flew off to build its nest and to be, well, a bird. I picked up my plates and towel from the ground and finished my day with deeper appreciation of my Creator’s love, greater thanks for those who are sharing this pandemic period with me at home, and increasing awareness of self-care as a necessary part of moving on from here, one day. I wish for you the same and much more. 


Rabbi David Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, Texas.

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Healing Holiday Passover Pesach spirituality

When Is Enough, Enough Already?

With Pesach just concluded, I am still contemplating part of the seder. In my family, like many others, we add to the singing of Dayeinu, the wonderful custom of smiting one another with scallion. “Dai, dai yeinu, dai, dai yeinu…,” we sing joyfully. “It would have been enough. Enough, enough, enough. To bring us out of Egypt, to give us Shabbat, to give us Torah—enough, enough.

But when examining the stages of Dayeinu, I wonder, would each of these moments really have been enough? To have been brought out of Egypt, but left at the Red Sea? To have been brought into the desert, but with no manna? To have been brought to Sinai, but with no Torah? Would that really have been enough?

And so, too, now we wonder. In each of our lives, we have moments when it is simply not “enough.” To have been given chemo for our cancer, but given —lo dai.  To have cutting-edge treatment for my depression, without feeling better—lo dai. To work towards a vaccine, without lowering the rate of transmission of COVID-19—lo dai.  

And, when, at the time of Elijah’s cup, we remember and recite the tradition of “pour out Your wrath,” when we note that “in every generation, tyrants have risen up to oppress us,” we might think—yes, God, enough. Perhaps more than enough. In this time of coronavirus, we may think, “Yes, oh God, enough already.” Surely we could learn to feel God’s presence, God’s redemption in our lives without yet another plague or persecution.  

I led two Zoom seders this year. Ordinarily I lead one, and my family is invited out to the other. Not only was I exhausted afterwards, but it was hard to tell how they went. As opposed to “in-person” sedarim, online ones are murky. Were other people singing along? Was there joy in being together? Did we lift up our voices together in Hallel, and were we silly as a group in the songs at the end? Or were people just tired, bored, waiting for the end?

If I felt worn out after two nights of leading family and friends, I can only imagine both the over-functioning of my pulpit and other working colleagues, and their need for positive feedback, to know that their efforts are hitting the mark often enough. That they are dai.  

And so it occurs to me that perhaps this is what Dayeinu means to us this year. Not that we say to God, “What You have done for us is enough,” but rather, “Dayei-nu” “we are dai, we are enough.” If our seder leadership brought our families to Sinai (without a major Torah revelation), well, then, we are dai! We are good enough, and we did enough. If our remote visits to the sick and with mourners comforts them, but not as good as a hug would have, אנחנו די, we are enough! And if we are leading remote services on Shabbat, then, remember—we, too, need a Shabbat, a rest—because we have needs, because we are enough, not God.

In this extraordinary time of uncertainty and fear, of rabbis rising to do remarkable work, let our Pesach hymn carry us forth. God, give us enough to work with, when we affirm that we, ourselves, are enough. And that is the blessing of gratitude and limits, of thanksgiving and self-acceptance, wrapped into a song of joy and scallions.


Rabbi Sandra Cohen teaches rabbinic texts, provides pastoral care, and works in mental health outreach, offering national scholar-in-residence programs. She and her husband live in Denver, Colorado. She may be reached at ravsjcohen@gmail.com.

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Healing Holiday member support mental health News Passover Pesach Prayer Rabbis spirituality

The World as It Is: Passover 5780

The World as It Is: [1]: Coronavirus has forced me, like many people, to change my exercise routines. Instead of a half hour on the elliptical, I’m taking hour-long walks in the neighborhood. Sad as I was to give up the gym, I’m finding great pleasure in the walks. I have always loved springtime, and there’s the most magnificent quartet of large hydrangea trees, all fully in bloom, along my route. Often, I find myself struggling to reconcile the visible natural world, so pointedly alive this time of year, with the invisible natural world, so toxic to our lives now.

The very best moment of any of these daily walks came last week. My walk takes me past several congregants’ homes, but I hadn’t run into any until the day that my path crossed with a congregant, around my age, and his aging father, who has rather advanced dementia. He’s moving slowly, using a walker. Nevertheless, father and son were walking to the end of the street to have a look at the magnificent tulips in bloom at the corner.

In this most difficult moment in America, and in the personal life of their family, father and son together created a beautiful moment. 

Judaism offers blessings for everything. One that may be unfamiliar is the blessing for seeing something particularly stunning in nature, be that a uniquely handsome person or a magnificent landscape. The words of that blessing, though, don’t express that purpose as obviously as they might: Baruch Atah, Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, shekacha lo b’olamo, “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, for this is how it is in the world.”

While the blessing is intended to recognize beauty, its words suggest acceptance. We praise God for making the world as it is—with the bitter and the sweet, the devastating pandemic and the unwelcome opportunity for personal growth, the debilitating illness and the drive to continue appreciating life, the loss of life-sustaining employment and the personal reinvention that may emerge. The horrors of dementia and the beauty of the tulips.

Passover asks us to do exactly that.

Matzah is known to most of us as “the bread of freedom.” Yes, it’s true: Torah tells us that our ancestors had no time to let the bread rise as they were escaping Egyptian bondage [2]. Paradoxically, though, matzah is also “the bread of affliction, the poor bread, which our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt [3]. After all, slaves aren’t given time for the luxury of giving their bread the time to rise.

When I ask people, “What does the matzah represent,” the answer is almost always the same: I hear the story about leaving Egypt in haste. I almost never hear the quotation we read each year at Seder, “the poor bread.” Perhaps that’s because we wish to accentuate the positive. I wonder, though, if it’s a reluctance to accept the world as it is, warts and all.

The Seder ritual is full of such symbols. We eat the bitter herb together with the sweet charoset, reminding us that one must taste the bitterness of bondage before finding sweetness in liberation. We behold a roasted egg, symbol of the Jerusalem Temple, burned to the ground with a fire so hot that even its stones walls exploded. The Temple in ruins is Judaism’s symbol for the reality that we live in an imperfect, unredeemed world. The world as it is, as God created it, is filled with poverty and injustice—even slavery, with human beings trafficked like commodities for free labor or worse, for unwilling prostitution. And God knows, this unredeemed world today includes a devastating pandemic and the hardships of mass unemployment that accompany it.

Our Seder also invites us to open the door to Elijah—that is, to the prospect of redemption, of a better world to come. A custom that many of us have adopted is not to fill Elijah’s cup in advance, but to ask every participant at the Seder to fill that cup, symbolizing our collective responsibility to bring redemption. This year, we’ll have to do that in much smaller groups or even virtually, but the symbolism remains powerful. We can make the world better, even in this difficult time.

We are livestreaming worship services from the homes of clergy and volunteers. Yes, we miss being together—and even the inspiration of bringing our Sanctuary into our homes, which we have enjoyed in the last few weeks. More importantly, though, we will better protect ourselves from the virus and model the most important step that everybody can take to stay well: Stay home.

Some of us can volunteer in ways that lighten the burden for others. I’m grateful to be part of an effort by the congregation I serve, our city, and the Clinton Foundation, to feed families in need during this crisis.

I do not know why this world is as it is, with all its beauty and splendor, with all its cruelty and devastation. I do know that we must all do our part to enhance the service and caring, to soften the meanness and suffering. And even during these most difficult days and weeks that will stretch into months and perhaps even years, let us praise God for creating the world as it is.

Amen.


[1] I am grateful to Alan Goodis, whose song, Shekacha lo ba-olamo, inspired this reflection.
[2] Exodus 12:39
[3] The Passover Haggadah


Rabbi Barry H. Block serves Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas. A member of the CCAR Board, he is the editor of  The Mussar Torah Commentary, CCAR Press, 2020.

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Healing member support mental health Rabbis spirituality

The Good Enough Rabbi (Redux)

Who among us hasn’t seen the so-called chain letter entitled, “The Perfect Rabbi” (modeled on “The Perfect Pastor,” author unknown)? You know, the one that says “the perfect rabbi preaches exactly fifteen minutes. He condemns sins but never upsets anyone. He works from 8:00 AM until midnight and is also a janitor. He makes $50 a week, wears good clothes, buys good books, drives a good car, and gives about $50 weekly to the poor …” etc., and then tells you to bundle up your rabbi and send him (yes, him) to the top synagogue on the list. It’s hard not to wince while smiling at this description of our laypeople’s fantasies about us. We wince a second time when we recognize how we ourselves fall victim to believing this fantasy. 

Some years ago, frustrated by the way both laypeople and rabbi had internalized this image of perfection, I wrote a parody of the parody and called it “The Good Enough Rabbi” (inspired by the British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s concept of the “good enough” mother). A parody, yes, but one with underlying seriousness: What would it mean for us rabbis if we gave up the aspiration to be perfect and instead accepted the good-enough? Would we be less successful or less loved? Would we feel more inadequate, less in control, more disappointing, or more hopeless?

While you might argue that now is not the time to raise this issue once again, I would suggest that the present crisis offers the perfect (okay, good-enough) opportunity for this conversation. The coronavirus crisis highlights the basic conflicts with which we already struggle. If we normally work a little too hard, we are working even harder now. If we usually worry about how long the temple will stay afloat, we are even more concerned now. If we normally have difficulty maintaining self-care practices, whatever little we might have done before falls apart at a time like this. If protecting a day off always requires some effort, that effort feels herculean in this moment. 

It’s true that we live in desperate times. We’ve been called upon to shift our entire rabbinic life onto Zoom. We’ve been challenged to offer pastoral care remotely, a seeming contradiction in terms. We stand alone by the graveside. We scramble to create an appropriate backdrop to our teaching and services, all the while watching the disappearance of our carefully guarded boundaries between home and work. And how again do you enhance your appearance on Zoom when your gray roots are showing and you haven’t been able to get your eyebrows waxed?

The ramping up has taken every bit of our energy and then some. Many of us are exhausted. And yet we also feel strangely gratified. We’ve been surprised at how intimate a remote funeral can feel. We’ve been overwhelmed by the number of people logging on to Shabbat services. We’ve found support from each other on our CCAR and WRN Facebook pages like never before. We’ve been stretched thin, but at the same time, we feel needed and productive. 

“This is a good moment to turn that sense of self-judgment into self-inquiry. What do you yourself need in this moment? Whatever you usually do for self-care, the solution now is to do more of it.”

We rabbis love to fix things, so this productivity can be like a drug for us. The more we experience its rewards, the more we crave it.  So we feel tempted to say yes to everything. We think about what else we can offer, how much more programming we can create, how many more phone calls we can make. At the same time, we bemoan the loss of the usual time off. We complain about how many hours we spend on Zoom. We are either sad to be alone or crazed by having children underfoot. We are in such constant motion that we have lost touch with what we might be feeling and how we are really doing. We need to sit still in order to grieve all that has been lost, both the personal and the communal. And frankly, we need to accept that we just can’t fix this.

It would be lovely to offer the perfect prescription for self-care at this point, but a self-care practice just isn’t a “one size fits all.” You first have to know yourself before you can craft what constitutes self-care for you. We have all been told we should meditate, exercise, do yoga, avoid junk food, and be in therapy (guilty as charged). It’s hard to argue with any of that. But what makes one person feel restored isn’t always the same for another. Prayer might work for you, but it might not for me. Knitting might bring solace to one, while reading does it for another. Cleaning your house and rolling out your refrigerator to vacuum the coils can be surprisingly satisfying (okay, I confess). Breaking up with Facebook is the way for some, while connecting with friends on Facebook comforts others. And what would happen if we gave ourselves permission to do nothing at all. I think of the wise words of that bear-of-very-little-brain: “Sometimes I sits and thinks,” said Winnie the Pooh, “And sometimes I just sits.” What if we, the people who gave the world the Sabbath, actually allowed ourselves a Sabbath rest?

Self-care doesn’t require conformity. If anything, it asks of us greater tolerance of the variety of ways in which we live our rabbinates. We can get a little preachy, those of us who are trained to preach. And we rabbis are a sensitive lot. We bristle at others’ telling us what we should be doing. Most of us don’t need help criticizing ourselves. We already see what someone else is doing and imagine he/she/they is the “Perfect Rabbi” against whom we don’t measure up. How often do we read our own perceived failures in other peoples’ successes? This is a good moment to turn that sense of self-judgment into self-inquiry. What do you yourself need in this moment? Whatever you usually do for self-care, the solution now is to do more of it. Rest more. Clean more. Talk more. Knit more. Binge-watch more. And if what you normally do isn’t working for you, try something else. Take advantage of the CCAR coaches who are offering pro bono sessions. Find a chevruta. Try self-compassion. And most of all, let yourself feel whatever it is that you yourself need to feel. 

We don’t know yet where and when this will end, but it will. And in that future time of recuperation and assessment, our role will be even more important. That is reason enough for us to work at self-preservation in the present so we will have energy left for tomorrow. We need to remind ourselves that working harder isn’t necessarily working better. We need to remember that being resilient may be our greatest talent of all. Our people have survived calamities and disasters by virtue of our adaptability and creativity.  Save your energy. In a time where perfection isn’t the gold standard, give yourself permission to be good enough.

* With gratitude to a wonderful Supervision Group for their suggestions and inspiring support of me and each other.


Rabbi Ellen Lewis is a certified and licensed modern psychoanalyst in private practice in Bernardsville, New Jersey, and in New York City. She was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and received her analytical training in New York at the Center for Modern Psychoanalytic Studies and has served on the faculty of the Academy of Clinical and Applied Psychoanalysis. She is also certified as a Fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors.

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Books CCAR Press Healing Social Justice Torah

Lessons from Jonah in a Time of Pandemic

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the author of  The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary, available for pre-order from the CCAR Press. In this post, he reflects on this enigmatic prophet in light of today’s crisis. 


These are strange times. Certainly, if ever there were a time for a prophetic voice to call out to the heavens for redemption, it seems like the present. And even though pandemic is on everyone’s mind, the world still turns. Every day allows us another opportunity to make the world a better place and a chance to run towards challenge rather than away from it. For the past several years, before “social distancing” became part of the contemporary vernacular, I have been studying a figure who modeled the term millennia ago. That figure was the Prophet Jonah. It seems more appropriate than ever to study his eponymous book and take away essential lessons of how to weather any storm—metaphorical or literal. 

What is the Book of Jonah? And who is Jonah, anyway? Many of us are familiar with the famous story of “Jonah and the Whale” (actually, a fish, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves). Yet there is so much more to Jonah than spending three days and three nights in the belly of a great sea beast. In totality, Jonah is one of the most intriguing, frustrating, and ethically ambiguous of the ancient Hebrew prophets. But he’s also the most empathetic, the most like you and me. He is a coward and a saint, a hypocrite and a hero: a walking conundrum. Still, despite any of his shortcomings as witnessed in the text, Jonah’s legacy is one of hope and forgiveness. 

The Book of Jonah is located within the Twelve Minor Prophets of the Hebrew Bible. Among the shortest books of the Bible, it seems to take place over the course of only several days: three days in the cavernous isolation of the great leviathan, three days on a journey to Nineveh, and not much else. The story takes place in the large Mesopotamian city of Nineveh, roughly in the eighth or seventh century BCE. 

Like the Homeric works of antiquity, the Book of Jonah explores what happens when people fail to live up to their potential. God instructs Jonah to call upon the population of Nineveh to repent. Rather than charge forward, Jonah flees from his mission, escaping on a ship. While Jonah is aboard, God brings on a mighty storm, shaking the ship’s passengers both physically and spiritually. The sailors, fearing that the divine wrath will take them to their deaths, toss Jonah overboard after he admits that he is the impetus of the storm. God performs a miracle, however, saving Jonah inside the belly of a great fish. For three days and three nights, Jonah prays until he is released. After his sojourn in the fish, Jonah reluctantly fulfills his mission, calling upon the citizens of Nineveh to repent. They do. In the end, God spares the city from destruction. 

Seems like a happy ending. But not so. 

Jonah’s story ends with him in isolation, far from Nineveh. He cries out to God, expressing frustration with God for sending him on an unwanted mission. In order to teach Jonah the meaning of loving-kindness, God grows a plant that provides Jonah with shade from the sun, which God then allows to whither. God explains to Jonah that God cares about the people of Nineveh just as Jonah had cared about the plant, confronting him with the fact that the universal nature of divine love and concern for a large city might well exceed Jonah’s depression over the death of a plant. The book concludes there.  

It seems confusing that this book was included in the historical canon of the Jewish holy scriptures. And maybe that is the case on the surface. But Jonah is such a rich character to study, which, indeed, Jews do every Yom Kippur. Every one of us relates to the need for second chances, both in our daily lives and in our moral and spiritual lives. Jonah is the embodiment of this need. 

The Book of Jonah is written for us, regular people, who live each day and wonder if we can make it through unharmed. We battle everyday leviathans simply to make our lives worthwhile and the world safe for our families and friends. Jonah is no perfect angel, but a perfect representation of humanity’s quest for spiritual excellence. While we may not have to emulate Jonah with every action, we should let his book guide us to spiritual vistas of untapped potential. 


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President and Dean of Valley Beit Midrash in Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of the upcoming book, The Book of Jonah: A Social Justice Commentary, and  Pirkei Avot: A Social Justice Commentaryboth published by CCAR Press.