Sheltering in Place: Shabbat Tzav/HaGadol 5780

Confinement is the dominant experience of the Covid-19 crisis, whether one is healthy but avoiding unnecessary outings, or ill and under quarantine. My favorite time of day here in NYC is 7 PM when people lean out their windows and cheer for health care providers and other front line workers. From our apartment we see people across the street hollering appreciation, and it feels good to be part of a public activity, even from a distance. Apparently this Covid custom began in Spain; it is a bright spot of engagement and appreciation in a time of danger and anxiety.

Sheltering in place is a key theme of Pesah—during the plague of hail all those who believed in God’s warning stayed inside, while the brazen remained outdoors and perished. Likewise with the tenth plague—Israelite families sealed their doors with blood and sheltered in place, praying that the destroyer (המשחית) would pass over their homes, not enter and afflict them. This remains the essential emotion of the home based ritual of Pesah—to shelter in place and experience the fear of that moment, so that we may celebrate survival and freedom in the future. However, the tenth plague is not the only association with confinement this Shabbat. Continue reading

Minyan in Cyberspace?

The Coronavirus pandemic has affected our lives in many unfortunate ways, and we worry that much worse is yet to come. Saving lives is our first obligation, and this responsibility led most Jewish communities across the world to cancel public worship as soon as public health officials recommended this measure. As with other aspects of our lives, prayer has migrated online, immediately raising the question of how much of the liturgy can be completed through virtual gatherings.

Certainly the essential prayers may be said alone, and this crisis dramatizes the importance of personal prayer practice. Nevertheless, our ancestors taught us that communal worship has special power (עת רצון) and emphasized the importance of gathering for worship. Our gatherings have legal, spiritual, social and psychological benefits. Our current situation of home quarantine leaves many of us feeling isolated and demoralized.

We seek to balance our need to gather, to praise God, to support each other, and to acknowledge important transitions in our lives. How much of this can be done online? What distinctions should be maintained in order to retain the integrity of Jewish worship and to celebrate once normalcy is restored? Specifically, may a minyan be made online? Please see my analysis of the subject and the primary sources below that. I pray that all who have been sickened by this disease will speedily heal, that the pandemic will speedily resolve, and that we will soon return to our holy communities with a deeper sense of appreciation for their spiritual shelter.

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Temples of the Mind: Terumah 5780

A wood model has been on display in the JTS entrance for the past few years. It depicts the 21st Century campus with all its structures—the atrium, gardens, library, auditorium and residence hall. In its three dimensionality the model is more evocative than the posters fashioned by computer aided design of phantom students occupying imagined space. Still, both model and posters have built general awareness and excitement for the experience of entering and inhabiting the constructed spaces, which has played out in slow motion over the course of this year.

The ability to imagine a reality which does not quite exist is foundational to consciousness, as Michael Graziano teaches with his attention schema theory (see part one and part two of my Sinai and Synapses consciousness blog on this subject, and its implications for Jewish life). We are constantly bombarded by sensory inputs and must construct a simplified image in order to prioritize certain signals, and thus to understand, respond to and shape external reality. This same ability allows us to project what is on the minds of others, and to imagine alternative realities, past, present and future. As we chant this week, וּרְאֵה וַעֲשֵׂה, see and then act. Our brains construct a visual model, or schema, of reality, and this allows us to preview actions such as the movement of our hands to grasp objects before attempting the task.

We have now entered the section of Torah in which a complex physical structure, the tabernacle, is imagined in the portions Terumah and Titzaveh before being built in VaYakhel and Pekudei. Modern readers are challenged to imagine this construction project in precisely the same fashion as ancient Israelites were challenged to imagine it before they began to build. And although their imagination was soon applied to physical labor, our imagination is also constructive. We read these passages and appreciate the blending of physical and spiritual qualities in our lives, and then implement that reality with buildings and rituals of our own. We share the desire and the effort to draw divinity into our living spaces so that the world can shimmer with divine glory. Continue reading

Mountain Man Moses: Mishpatim 5780

Orson Schofield Phelps, AKA “Old Mountain” was a famous guide to the Adirondack mountains in the mid-19th century. Based in Keene Valley, NY, he cut the first trail to the top of Mt Marcy in 1861 and gave many of the high peaks their current names. His face adorned with a bushy beard, his head crowned with an old beaten hat—Old Mountain Phelps enticed city folk to seek out the wild places, to gain altitude and perspective from the vantage of an ancient peak.

The best wilderness guides lead us in more ways than one, sparking curiosity, courage, endurance and strength. Their gaze leads us to notice details in nature and in ourselves. They make us uncomfortable at times—a discomfort required to learn that we are more resilient than we realize, more capable than we dared imagine.

I miss the mountains in the winter, so I dream of summer adventures. And I read about the most famous mountaineer in Jewish history, our teacher Moses. What, you haven’t noticed how many times Moses climbs mountains? He receives his first divine call on the flank of Mt. Horeb in chapter 3 of Exodus; in chapter 17 he climbs a peak to supervise the battle against Amalek; in chapter 19 he climbs Mt Sinai, descends, climbs it again, and descends (though he protests the second descent—at 80 perhaps his knees were a bit creaky). After the golden calf incident he will climb up again, experience God with great intensity, and descend with a heavenly glow, too bright for others to bear. Continue reading

Magic or Medicine? BiShalah 5780

What verse in the Torah can cost you your share in the world to come? It comes in our parashah, and is one of those lines that summarize the Torah’s agenda for Israel: “If you will heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight, giving ear to His commandments and keeping all His laws, then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians, for I the Lord am your healer” (Exod. 15:26, NJPS trans.). The first half of this verse is entirely consonant with Israelite and then Jewish religion, but the second half has proved problematic.

In its biblical context, this verse is sandwiched between complaints by the people of Israel who are thirsty, hungry and nostalgic for Egypt. With his reference to the plagues of Egypt, Moses reminds them of the blessings of their lives but also implies that mortal danger awaits those who rebel. If you do not heed the Lord diligently, then don’t expect to be spared the frightful diseases that you recently witnessed in Egypt. This threat was far from effective to judge by the following episode in the wilderness of Tsin, where the people grumbled and yearned for that very curse—to have been killed by God in Egypt.

However, Moses’s threat is not what proved problematic by the rabbinic period. On the contrary, it was the promise by God to heal Israel of all frightful diseases that caused mischief. It seems likely that Jews began using the second half of the verse as a theurgic incantation. When stricken with a malady, some Jews would apparently utter this line as a spell to heal their wounds. That, at least, is the implication of a Mishnah taught in the name of Rabbi Akiva. Continue reading

Moses meets his match; Va-Era 5780

The book of Exodus continues the stories of Genesis in many ways, but is discontinuous in one major detail. In Genesis brothers despise one another and fight for primacy, sometimes from the womb. In Exodus, the siblings Miriam, Aaron and Moses get along and support one another through difficulties. True, at the golden calf incident Moses will chide his brother, and later in Numbers Miriam and Aaron voice criticism of their dominant brother, but for most of the stressful passage from slavery to revelation, they are a solid team.

Especially as they go to confront Pharaoh, Moses and Aaron present a united front. In Chapter 6, verses 26-28, the Torah uses an unusual expression, literally, “he is Aaron and Moses,” and then, “he is Moses and Aaron.” The singular pronoun הוא emphasizes their solidarity, and the reversal of order implies their equality.

Midrash Mekhilta notes the order reversal and links this to many other situations in which the Torah reverses order. For example, in the Decalogue Israel is commanded to “honor your father and mother” but in Leviticus 19 they are told, “revere your mother and father.” Likewise heaven and earth are also listed as earth and heaven, and the patriarchs are listed in reverse order in Exod. 3. The point is that all of these subjects are considered equal. The listing of Aaron first in this passage is unusual but sufficient to establish that the brothers were equals.

And yet, there are differences between Moses and Aaron. Continue reading

Miriam to the Rescue: Shemot 5780

Although our portion introduces the Torah’s greatest figure, Moses, many of the most decisive characters this week are women. There are the midwives, Shifra and Puah, who defy Pharaoh, and Yocheved, the mother of Moses, who hides her child as long as possible, and later, Tziporah, the wife of Moses, who acts decisively to ward off a mysterious attacker, saving the life or lives of her son(s) and perhaps her husband. But the most impressive woman of them all is Miriam, the older sister of Moses, who is also identified as a prophet.

Early in chapter 2 we read, “His sister stood at a distance to know what would happen to him.” Miriam is not only watchful and passive—three verses later she will make a risky move, approaching Pharaoh’s daughter with an audacious offer. But before she acts she observes, and this quiet moment noticed by the Torah is worth exploring. Continue reading