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March 30th, 2020

Last Wednesday, the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Israel took the unprecedented step of declaring a fast day as the State of Israel faced the COVID-19 catastrophe. The day before a new Jewish month is known as Yom Kippur Katan, the little Yom Kippur. Penitential prayers are said to implore G-d’s mercy because like all new things, no one knows how it will turn out. Declaring a fast as Rabbi Lau did, not only connects the little Yom Kippur with the required fast on the regular Yom Kippur,  but revived fasting as a traditional response in the face of impending disaster. For example, the Jews of Shushan fasted when they learned of Haman’s destructive decree).

I have certainly never heard anyone at KI say anything good about fasting or its role in enhancing their spirituality, so I didn’t hurry to pass on the news about the fast. But I do want to share a prayer from a scheduled fast day and the insight from Rabbi Elisha Friedman. The prayer Nachem (“Console Us”) is recited during the afternoon service of Tisha B’Av, Jewish Disaster Day.

The prayer reads:

Console, O Lord our God, the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem, and the city that is in sorrow, laid waste, scorned and desolate; that grieves for the loss of its children, that is laid waste of its dwellings, robbed of its glory, desolate without inhabitants. … Therefore Zion weeps bitterly, and Jerusalem raises her voice. My heart, my heart grieves for those they killed; I am in anguish, I am in anguish for those they killed. For You, O Lord, consumed it with fire and with fire You will rebuild it in the future, as is said, ‘And I myself will be a wall of fire around it, says the Lord, and I will be its glory within.’ Blessed are You, Lord, who consoles Zion and rebuilds Jerusalem. (Translation from Koren Siddur)

Rabbi Friedman shares that “Nachem is a prayer that admits defeat. It accepts the reality of failure and loss. The rest of the year, our prayers hold out the promise of God answering our requests. Yet on Tisha B’Av, we confront the stark reality that, at a moment of national catastrophe, our pleas went unheeded. So what do we do? We continue to pray — not in the hope of being answered, but for the promise of comfort and consolation, to draw close to God even in our time of loss.” (MyJewishLearning.com)

May the time come soon when “the sounds of joy and gladness will be heard in the cities of Judah (Jer 7:34), America and the world. May our prayers and our deeds connect us to the promise of that day. Amen

March 24th, 2020

"BC" for parents refers to those (halcyon?) days before children. On the calendar, it refers to the dating system before Christianity. And in March 2020, it refers to the time Before Corona. We are not done by a longshot figuring out how to cope and how to cure, who to quarantine and how to congregate (virtually).

With all the reasons for gloom and doom, a modest antidote. Come back on Thursday night and look up at the sky. The darkness of the night sky will bear the merest hint of moon. Come back on Friday night and Saturday and keep looking up until 8 April when the sky will be alight with a full moon.

The Jewish people noticed the first month of Nisan or Spring in the midst of Egyptian slavery. They had seen nine plagues ravage Egypt and still they were not free. Yet count the dark days they did, look up they did and when the 15th of Nisan (Passover) occurred, they were ready to leave.

Harnessing the heavenly cycles to keep time, recognizing that life like the moon/month waxes and wanes was regarded as the first commandment to the Jewish people.

May this modern reworking by Marcia Falk of the traditional blessing for the new month bring you inspiration and hope and a reminder that we have been in plagueland before. Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel will live and bring blessing to all with whom we share the earth.

May the month of Nisan
be a month of blessings:
blessings of goodness,
blessings of joy,
peace and kindness,
friendship and love,
creativity, strength,
serenity,
fulfilling work
and dignity,
satisfaction, success,
and sustenance,
physical health
and radiance.
May truth and justice
guide our acts
and compassion
temper our lives
that we may blossom
as we age
and become
our sweetest selves.

March 20th, 2020

We’ve Been Here Before: Spiritual Wisdom for Enduring Coronavirus

By Rabbi Paul Kipnes 3/15/2020

I felt a sense of déjà vu as we began to cancel plans and hunker down; the coronavirus-compelled communal self-quarantine felt vaguely familiar.

We’ve gotten through it before, and we will now, too. Here’s how.

We are a community in transition.

Travel plans canceled, classes suspended, in-person gatherings postponed… Our worship have reverted back to klei kodesh (clergy-led version), without communal singing; our Mishkan T’filah (Tent of Worship and Meeting) is shuttered for all but the smallest gatherings.

The understandable fear of infection and the scientifically certified need to “flatten the curve” forces us to quarantine ourselves, hunker down, and wait – though for what benchmarks and for how long, we don’t know.

Still, it feels familiar.

Here we are bamidbar (back in the wilderness), reliving Numbers chapter 12, when Miriam becomes infected with a scaly, white, and highly contagious skin condition.

Miriam the prophet – the soulful singer of new songs to God, whose wisdom discovers the wells of water in the wilderness – must cease her wonder-working to protect herself and her community. She quarantines herself outside the camp.

What did the Israelite community, by then millions strong, do when a plague of unknown proportions entered their midst? They stopped traveling, hunkered down, and observed a period of quarantine.

Then what happened?

The Torah says little about what they did during that painful period, and we hear nothing about Miriam’s suffering, though we can imagine it was significant.

The Torah is also silent about the worry of those who came into contact with Miriam before at the start of her infection. We don’t know how they passed the time, whether they interacted with others or stayed home in their tents. We know only that they made camp, stopped moving, and waited.

We know, too, that Miriam’s brother Moses, a leader of our people, cried out to the Healer of All with a prayer, brief but heartfelt and heart-wrenching:

El na r’fa na la.

Please God please heal her (Numbers 12:13).

Asking for healing, Moses twice beseeches the Holy One, doubling the word na (please) to emphasize the intensity of his desire.

We imagine him falling to his knees, worried and fearful, bent low by the twin burdens of keeping his community safe and seeking healing for his beloved sister, his partner in leadership.

Like him, we pray now:

El na r’fa na lanu.

Please God please heal us.

But our response shouldn’t end there.

From outside our usual communal camps, hidden in our homes, we imagine the actions of our ancestors: how they held strong and courageous amid unimaginable, listening to the voice of Miriam, from outside the camp, singing loudly in the distance. Singing songs of hope and healing.

We imagine that the women, taking up their timbrels again, joined her in song, spreading out like a comforting chorus to create across the camp the world’s first livestreamed liturgy of love.

We image children tossing stones at targets drawn on the ground outside their tents, laughing and playing games together though separated by distance, finding companionship in the ancient virtual reality game they created together.

We imagine that there were latrines to be dug and food to be prepared (but in separate areas and always accompanied by vigorous handwashing), and that the people arranged the sharing of resources and comforted the confused and the anxious.

Life went on, though separated by social distancing – but better yet, life went on as they practiced physical distancing but continued socially connecting.

And they told stories.

In heartwarming kodesh (holy) moments, we might have glimpsed through the tent flaps to see parents and children, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, telling stories to one another and reading into the moment a reimagining of our ancient heroes.

Stories about Noah and Naamah, whose strategic planning (building an ark, gathering the animals, collecting seeds for the future) saved the animals and themselves. They remind us that in working together, in spite of the trauma to come, we can find a way forward and, hopefully, through.

Stories about Isaac, the assaulted, who struggled to find meaning in a life torn apart by the painful experience he endured as a youth, yet who nonetheless opened his heart to the love of Rebekah and thus found a way forward. He reminds us that with love and partnership, we can overcome debilitating anxiety and fear.

And stories about Sarai, the soulful one, who dug deep amidst her despair to find strength to feed the stranger-wanderers and, learning that there would be hope for her future – a child to be born – she laughed. She reminds us that amidst great pain, we can still find great joy.

Let’s laugh, love, and support each other now.

We’ll never know what went on in the Israelite camp when a plague of unknown proportions threatened the very survival of the people.

But imagining, as we Jewish midrashicists are wont to do, we can see it all clearly: People planned and played, shared and showered each other with love. They told stories and sang songs, creating social connection amidst the physical distance.

And healing came to Miriam, finally. Though we never learn whether others were infected or died of the disease, sadly we imagine that too many did – and that when they did, the community buried their dead with honor and love. Then, breathing an exhausted sigh, they packed up and moved on.

And eventually, we will, too.

This piece was first published on Rabbi Paul Kipnes's personal blog. This shortened version is republished with permission; to read the original piece, visit paulkipnes.com.

March 17th, 2020

Prayer

Rabbi Amy Eilberg wrote this lovely prayer:

As we wash our hands

We pray,

Blessed is the Soul of the Universe

Breathing us in and breathing us out.

May our breaths continue

And our health and the health of all

Be preserved

In this time of sickness and fear of sickness,

Holy Wholeness,

We take as much responsibility for this as we can

By observing the obligation to wash our hands

Thoroughly;

For as long as it takes to say this prayer. Amen

Wed, May 27 2020 4 Sivan 5780