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Update: 8/13/2020

The Abdicators' Club

Dear Friends,

Edward VIII was the last King of England to abdicate his thrown. He gave up the crown in 1936, the same year he had become king. In the past few months, our own monarch-less republic has become something of a haven for abdicators.

At a time of crisis, the executive branch of our government should rightfully be leading and modeling. Of course some strategies will succeed and some will fail. Mistakes are all but inevitable. But any administration facing a national emergency should feel compelled to develop a strategy, a plan or at least a discernible approach to managing that emergency. In the face of this pandemic, ours has simply abdicated its responsibility.

At the same time, our media has squandered a rare opportunity to take a leadership role. On May 18, 1864, the New York World and the New York Journal of Commerce published a fabricated story about President Lincoln conscripting hundreds of thousands more men into the Union army. Three days later, The New York Times took them to task. “Everywhere responsibility is commensurate with power. The greater the means, the broader the obligation. It is safe to say that apart from the Government itself, there is no agency in this land that has such concentrated power for public benefit and public injury as the press of this City.” In this country, the press is a sacred institution of which we have justifiably high expectations. So at a time of national crisis, one would have hoped that this sacred institution might have transcended petty politics and partisanship in favor of advancing an agenda of health and healing. But instead of inspiring greater confidence in science among populations that are skeptical, it has abdicated its responsibility to further the public good. The dreariness of the daily storyline is a matched only by its predictability. There are only so many ways to pin blame on one man. 

Most worrisome, though, it the prospect of our citizenry joining the abdicators’ club. As R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk often notes, leaders are simply reflections of the people they lead. In a democracy, to point the finger at our elected officials is simply to put the finger at ourselves. Any condemnation of the elected is equally a condemnation of the electorate. If we want to produce more responsible leaders, we have to be more responsible citizens. Now is the time for each of us to step up and accept responsibility for those around us. As Avraham’s heirs – as Jews – that’s what we do. 

There are plenty of clubs that would welcome our membership. Instead of joining the abdicators, let’s join the activists. I can assure you that their future is much brighter.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Reminders

Shabbat at The JC

Please join us on Shabbat morning, August 15th at 9:00am for Tefillah at The Jewish Center. Please be sure to register in advance.

Rosh Chodesh Elul

Join us for musical Hallel on Thursday and Friday, August 20 and 21 at 8am on Zoom.

High Holidays at The Jewish Center

Please reserve your seats for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur before August 21 by visiting our online reservation form.

Support Our Local Businesses

Many local establishments are struggling and can use our support. Download this handy app to find a kosher restaurant that is open and will happily deliver: https://openduringcovid19.app/

Due to the outbreak of COVID19, West Side Judaica will remain open and in business exclusively for phone orders, storefront pickups and nationwide shipping. They will also be offering free, door to door delivery in Manhattan. All of their sefarim, books and other Judaica items are in stock and they will be making deliveries 6 days a week. To place an order or ask for more information, please email sales@westsidejudaica.com or call (212) 362-7846. The store is open Sunday through Thursday from 11:00am-5:00pm.

Update: 8/12/2020

To Infinity and Beyond

Dear Friends,

We are on our way to Mars. With any luck, NASA’s Perseverance will land on the red planet in February, 2021. The rover is headed to a crater called Jezero. Once a lake in the northern hemisphere, it makes for a promising location, scientists said, in which to search for past signs of ancient Martian life. 

On one level, the mission is an ambitious one. It bespeaks a kind of fundamental human curiosity; an insatiable quest for knowledge that is not bound by earth’s gravitational pull; and a deep longing to settle the question of whether we are alone in the universe. But on another level, it represents a kind of abdication. I’m all for space exploration and the ingenuity it spawns. But to pour so much energy into the investigation of Martian history is also to evade the duty of investigating human history. 

As we’ll read soon, the Torah tells us, Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. It’s our sacred duty to know our history and to know our story. The Torah constantly reminds us to remember because we ignore the complexities of our past at our own peril. 

As Americans and as Jews, we have a moral obligation to study the lives of our forebears; to understand the challenges they confronted; to assess the solutions they devised; to appreciate the sacrifices they made; to build upon the work they began; and to wonder how we might live their unlived dreams. Historic crimes, “original sins,” and old grievances have become tropes in our public discourse. Whitewashing them is anathema to the project of historical inquiry. But so is training our focus exclusively on the wrongs of past generations. The annals of history contain sources of wisdom, solace and inspiration; guidebooks and diaries; cautionary tales; and elegies to the heroic and the triumphant. Searching the darkness is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s the choreography of right and wrong dancing on the same stage that illuminates both past and present. 

I hope Perseverance discovers that Martian history is filled with more rights than wrongs. Perhaps it will remind us earthlings that history needn’t be reduced to a series of grievances. Knowing a thing or two about our origins might just remind us of everything we’re capable of becoming. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

 

Update: 8/11/2020

Black and White and Gray All Over

Dear Friends

If Modern Orthodoxy had to choose a color it would almost certainly be gray. To maintain the center is a blessing and a curse. We don’t just make summary pronouncements about given issues; we grapple with them. We embrace complexity, maximizing our opportunities to contribute to the wider world even as we cautiously navigate the tripwires that inevitably pop up.

So perhaps it’s particularly difficult for us to watch so much of our world paint itself onto a canvass using only black and white brushstrokes. We’ve come to expect it, perhaps, in the world of politics. Such is the cost of a two-party democracy. But now it seems the us-vs.-them mentality is the rule rather than the exception. 

This point was brought home for me during a recent Zoom call on the issue of homelessness in our neighborhood. Almost before anyone could take a breath, the principals drew lines between those who support helping the vulnerable on the one hand and those who care only about local security on the other. But why are the two add odds? Why wouldn’t those invested in helping the homeless also care about the neighborhood in which the homeless are housed? And why wouldn’t those with an eye trained on issues of safety care about the homeless? 

In western thought, justice and compassion stand opposite one another. When we speak of “strict justice” we mean a kind of adjudication that is decidedly dispassionate. But in in Jewish thought, justice and compassion are inextricably bound up in the same word: tzedek or tzedakah. There may be times when we pursue one to the exclusion of the other, but more often than not we are after both. In the pursuit of justice, compassion can never be far behind. No descendant of Abraham, Maimonides writes, could be anything but compassionate. The moment we lose our ability to hold both values at once is the moment we risk losing our identity. 

The specific issues surrounding the decisions to relocate homeless individuals and place them in local hotels may be complicated. But the values that are in jeopardy are particularly uncomplicated. We are grieved by the objectification of the vulnerable for the sake of political exigency. And we are fearful that lawlessness will tip the scales of Lady Justice. Sometimes the failure to achieve either tzedek or tzedakah is black and white.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 8/10/2020

Won't you Be My Neighbor

Dear Friends,

In the aftermath of last week’s explosion in Beirut that left hundreds dead or missing and hundreds of thousands homeless, Israel responded with gestures of kindness. The Prime Minister announced that Israel was ready to provide medical and humanitarian aid. “We have no fight with the Lebanese people,” Netanyahu said. “This is the time to transcend conflict,” a spokesperson for the Israeli military tweeted. In Tel Aviv, the city’s municipal building was illuminated with an image of the Lebanese flag. “Humanity takes precedence over every conflict, and our heart is with the Lebanese people in the aftermath of the terrible disaster that they’ve suffered,” Mayor Ron Huldai said.

In a region filled with conflict and hostility, here was a beautiful show of solidarity and shared humanity. At a time when Israel is struggling with catastrophic economic and health crises of its own, it would have been easy to turn a cold shoulder to a country with which it has been at war for decades. Instead, it took the high road. On a national level, it breathed new life into the ancient words of R. Yossi who taught that the ethical path in life is paved with acts of neighborliness. 

What Israel has modelled on the international stage, we have to model on a personal basis. The charge is deceptively simple. We’re called on in the Mishnah to be a “good neighbors.” It is in the nature of neighbors, R. Yisrael Lifschitz writes, to make small sacrifices and concessions for one another. There’s an unwritten code that says simply by virtue of our proximity we will see each other as allies and stand at the ready to extend a hand. 

Inasmuch as we are all up against a common foe, this pandemic has highlighted the degree to which we need to see our fellow New Yorkers and our fellow Americans as our neighbors. By heeding the advice of our best scientists, we protect the well-being of everyone around us. By being mindful of our shared goals, we lift the whole lot of us. Virtue can’t flourish in isolation. Neither can public health. 

With warmest regards,Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 8/7/2020

With Complements

Dear Friends,

Hajj concluded earlier this week. The name comes from the same Hebrew root as chag, which means to make a circle. The chagim that we learn about in our parsha are also called regalim, because we use our feet to observe them. Pilgrimage festivals entail a journey to the Temple in Jerusalem. Travelers would ascend from all over the land for these special celebrations. Even in contemporary times, anyone who has spent a Yom Tov in Israel’s capital has surely felt the energy that courses through the city and enlivens residents and visitors alike.

In explaining the rationale behind the institution of these pilgrimage festivals, Abarbanel makes a beautiful observation. In pre-modern times, the world was more siloed. Residents of a particular region might not have access to goods or ideas generated outside their region. Much more than the an economic exchange of goods, convening regularly in a central location gave rise to what Abarbanel calls complementarity. What I lack in my life – socially, religiously, intellectually or emotionally – you may be able to provide. And vice versa. Coming together creates bonds of “affection and recognition... that generate harmony.” It’s the kind of communal or national spirit that would simply be unthinkable were people to remain within their silos.   

When we build shuls and communal organizations, we do so with this notion of complementarity in mind. These days, we associate the absence of shul with the absence of communal prayer or the inability to attend live classes. We think of the friends we don’t get to see and the chesed we can’t perform. But we’re also missing so many other dimensions that broaden us and make us more whole. We’re missing images of children interacting with the elderly; turns of phrase; subtle gestures; recipes; questions; greetings; advice; reflections; even kvetching. Consciously or otherwise, all of them are edifying. 

And so we need to work even harder. If we can’t be with other people in shul, we have to be with other people outside of shul. We’re blessed with the technology to reach across geographic boundaries that were once considered impenetrable. We have to put it to its best use. Every person in our lives is a gift and we need to connect to them – even if we can’t see them in person. To paraphrase Rav Kook, they are possessed of a portion of the truth to which we otherwise have no access. When we open ourselves to one another, each of us becomes a little more whole. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi  

Update: 8/6/2020

Dear Mayor

Dear Friends,

Last week, it came to our attention that the city had relocated hundreds of homeless men from existing shelters to hotels on the Upper West Side. The decision raised all kinds of thorny questions including who made these decisions and whose interests they serve. We can all agree that we want what’s best for the most vulnerable members of our society. And we can all agree that safety and security are important priorities. How do we balance those values? 

I drafted a letter to our mayor which was co-signed by almost a dozen rabbinic colleagues here on the Upper West Side. Copies were sent to all our local elected officials. The text of the letter appears below. One of the issues we highlighted was the complete lack of transparency on the part of the city. On matters that affect the very character of a neighborhood, its residents must be given a hearing. For this failing, the city and its mayor are surely responsible. But part of the responsibility falls to us, too. 

One of the recurring themes of Tisha B’Av – a theme that returns on Yom Tov – is the notion that, as much as our enemies caused the exile of the Jewish people, we caused our exile. Our tradition isn’t concerned about the sins of people who are animated by their own values and interests. It’s concerned about our sins. When something goes badly, the question isn’t what did they do wrong; it’s what did we do wrong? At a moment like this, it’s a question worth thinking about.

In my experience, when issues come up that require help or intervention by the government, our minds always jump to the two or three people we know who are politically active. And even then, those connections tend to be at the national level. The question is: Why isn’t each of us involved in local politics? 

We all have answers to this question and those answers are real: Our Jewish communal involvements are many and we’re already spread thin; bureaucracies are generally unpleasant and we don’t need more unpleasantness in our lives; and there’s a sense that there are lots of other qualified people so our voices aren’t needed. But the recent decisions by our local government lay bare the flimsiness of these arguments. We need to find the time to be civically engaged; we need to endure the challenges of politicking; and we need to make our voices heard. Our failure to do so comes at the peril of our community and our own.

As we head toward Elul, we head, too, toward a season of wake-up calls. A lot can change when we’re caught dozing off. When politics replace principles as a city’s driving force, we can’t afford to be asleep at the wheel. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Letter to Mayor de Blasio

Mayor Bill de Blasio

City Hall

New York, NY 10007

July 28, 2020

Dear Mayor de Blasio:

We are writing to you on behalf of thousands of concerned individuals and families who reside on the Upper West Side. It has come to our attention that hundreds of homeless men, many who are reported to be recovering drug addicts, have been relocated from other city shelters (where some were in conflict with their local neighbors) and are now residing in the Lucerne hotel in our neighborhood. This is now in addition to the relocation of close to 150 homeless men at the Belnord hotel, only 7 blocks north, less than two months ago. Reports about the Belleclaire hotel are equally troubling. 

We care deeply about the most vulnerable members of our society. These moves place hundreds of homeless individuals in an unfamiliar community which cannot provide them with the services they need. The scourge of deserted businesses, homelessness on the streets and empty storefronts posed a threat to the well-being of our neighborhood even before the outbreak of this pandemic. The current crisis has only exacerbated these issues. Where will these new residents find the necessary support? How can we be assured that these men won’t return to living on the streets?

Moreover, we are deeply concerned about the safety and security of our neighborhood. Particularly as we prepare for the start of the coming school year, we are thinking about the health and safety of our children, many of whom attend schools in the immediate vicinity of these hotels. Our buses and subways were already overcrowded. The introduction of these individuals into our neighborhood will strain resources that are already spread thin and pose public health risks in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. Community members have been telling us about how, in just a few short months, a diverse neighborhood that has historically felt safe and open day and night has suddenly lost that sense of security. 

Preserving the health and safety of its citizens is the sacred duty of our local government. The decision to relocate hundreds of homeless people is a weighty one and carries the risk of changing the very character of a neighborhood. While we strongly support providing a full array of assistance and services to this very vulnerable population, including livable shelter, the process by which this decision was reached lacked any transparency. Where were the announcements and town hall meetings (electronic or otherwise)? Where was the public conversation? Where was the community engagement that forms the backbone of a functioning local government? Where was the dialogue about how the city plans to properly help these individuals without putting members of the surrounding community at health and safety risk, particularly when that community is already suffering from the pandemic and its economic impact? 

This is not the time for autocratic decision-making. The voices of local residents need to be heard. With so much riding on these decisions, we hereby request that the community be given a full and open chance to learn about, and properly react to, the city’s plan to manage this.

Thank you for your prompt attention to this matter.

Update: 8/5/2020

Planning for the High Holidays 

Dear Friends,

As the High Holidays are approaching, I would like to share with you an update on our plans. Our first priority has been and remains keeping everyone safe and healthy. In formulating our plans, we have utilized the most up-to-date guidance provided by the CDC and the New York State Department of Health and have consulted extensively with our reopening committee. It goes without saying that our plans should be considered contingent upon favorable public health indicators. Should the situation in New York change, we will have to be nimble enough to adapt to different circumstances in September. 

Encouraged by the success of shuls around our region who have effectively resumed services while maintaining public health and safety, we have been hard at work implementing best practices for cleaning and sanitizing our building. We have improved our ventilation system and members have been compliant when it comes to our rigorous pre-screening protocols and insistence on mask-wearing. 

Members who are older or who suffer from underlying conditions are strongly advised to consult with their doctors before making a decision to come to shul. For those who are comfortable attending services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have arranged for minyanim in multiple locations. In addition to our services in the main sanctuary and auditorium, we will add services in the gym and, if we are able to secure approval from the city, an outdoor space near the shul. We anticipate holding two successive services in each location. We will of course insist on social distancing, mask-wearing and the balance of protocols that have been implemented for anyone attending a Jewish Center minyan. Registrants will be asked to fill out a questionnaire prior to each Yom Tov.

While our services will be abbreviated and we will not be able to do much singing, we still intend to be faithful to our nusach, and are pleased to have with us familiar and beloved baalei tefillah and baalei tokeah including Jonathan Rimberg, Amiel Rimberg, Jonathan Green and Akiva Novetsky. 

On the reservation form, you will see that we have asked for your preferences. Please let us know your preferred location and time in ranked order. Start times for each minyan have not yet been finalized and will be staggered to avoid a crush of people entering or exiting the building at the same time and allowing for proper sanitization in between minyanim. By way of illustration, start times on Rosh Hashana might be 8:00, 8:15 and 8:30am with late start times at 10:30, 10:45 and 11:00am. Yom Kippur times would follow a similar model. We will do our best to accommodate your preferences.

If you will not be attending services but would like to attend an outdoor shofar blowing at various times and locations that we are exploring with our sister synagogues, please indicate as much on the form. We will follow up with times and locations. 

We of course recognize that many of our members will not feel comfortable attending services. Rest assured, we will do everything we can to help make Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur feel as much like the Yamim Noraim as we can. 

Among the ideas we are working on are:

  • Shabbat Shuvah Drashah on Zoom on Thursday evening, September 24th;
  • Daily shofar blowing on Zoom throughout Elul;
  • A robust Tochnit Elul on Zoom dedicated to Torah, Tefillah and Chesed;
  • Programming for our youth;
  • Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur Readers;
  • An option to participate in Yizkor services on Zoom prior to Yom Kippur; and
  • Yom Tov in a Box options.

If you have other thoughts or suggestions, we would love to hear them. Space has been left on the seating form for this purpose. 

Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are gifts. Not being able to enjoy them as we normally would is a bitter pill to swallow. But the need for our Tefillot – wherever we may be when we articulate them – is as urgent as ever. We daven for a year of blessing and good health; a year of sustenance and an end to uncertainty; a year of scientific breakthrough and an end to this plague. 

With best wishes for a ketiva v’chatima tova,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 8/4/2020

40 Year Itch

Dear Friends,

Tomorrow is the 15th of Av. In recent times, Tu B’Av has been adopted in some circles as a Jewish Sadie Hawkins Day. According to the Talmud, it was not only a festive day; it was one of two days on the calendar when young women would search for their mates in the vineyards. Notwithstanding the Talmud’s catalogue of reasons to celebrate, the origins of the holiday remain something of a mystery.

The oldest origin story goes all the way back to the wilderness. According the Midrash, a portion of the generation made to suffer the punishment of 40 years of wandering would perish every year on Tisha B’Av. The date was fitting inasmuch as it was the anniversary of the sin that precipitated the fate of those destined to die in the wilderness. At the end of those four long decades, when it was clear that the decree of death had run its course, a day of celebration was declared. Hashem had ceased communicating with Moshe during these intervening years as the divine presence dwells not in the midst of sadness. The return of God’s presence was a day of great rejoicing.

If the deaths ceased on Tisha B’Av, though, what accounts for the gap between the 9th of Av and the 15th? According to the Midrash, those destined to die would go to sleep on Tisha B’Av fully expecting never to wake up again. In the final year of wandering, to their great surprise, those expecting to meet their end awoke the next morning. Thinking they had miscalculated, they repeated their goodbyes the next night and went to bed. But again they awoke alive and well in the morning. The scene repeated until the 15th of the month when the full moon demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that the term of the punishment had in fact ended and there would be no more deaths. 

What emerges is a portrait of Tu B’Av as a day of almost indescribable relief. It represented the end of a seemingly interminable plague. Little wonder that it took on not only a festive character, but a social one. 

These days, there is something eerily familiar about the idea of waking up each day wondering if the world we find is in fact our own. Tu B’Av reminds us that even predictable plagues can come to an end at the moment we least expect it. When this one does, we’ll be able to declare a new day of celebration. Perhaps we’ll dance in the vineyards. Or maybe we’ll just exchange a few hugs.  

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 8/3/2020

Is the World Shrinking?

Dear Friends,

One of the dominant themes of our moment is the notion of contraction. But it’s not just the economy that’s contracted. The geographic space of our lives is smaller. We used to commute and travel and see new places. Now we tend to tread paths that are known and familiar. Our social lives have narrowed. We interact with the same people. Few and far between are the opportunities to meet someone new. And our religious lives have been reduced to distance davening, virtual chesed and remote learning. 

Particularly for us denizens of the 21st century, such an orientation is unfamiliar. We are accustomed to the breakneck pace of expansionism. We are used to being able to search every corner of the galaxy and gobble up data from myriad sources. Our natural inclination is to explore and build; to seek out new frontiers and cross them. How do we deal with a world that so drastically limits our impulse to push outward? How do we manage this time of constraint?

There is one character from our national history who can offer guidance for such a time. There is one man who survived a life-altering trauma and understood his life mission as one of consolidation rather than revolution. I have in mind the personage of Yitzchak. He was not a revolutionary like his father. Nor did he build a great clan like his son. He didn’t forge new alliances like Avraham and he didn’t dwell in many tents like Yaakov. A man of the field, he retread the steps of his father and insured the preservation of the mesorah he had received. His goal was not to innovate, but to renovate. 

When we find him in the text three years after the akeidah, the Torah tells us that he gone out la-suach ba-sadeh. Our sages interpret his meditation as a form of tefillah. But writing a generation before Freud, R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg went even further. Yitzchak wasn’t just davening. “By giving external expression to his thoughts, he was lightening the burden of his inner conscience.” To hold and preserve something doesn’t require less mental energy than the task of acquiring it or expanding it; it requires more. 

These times require more davening and more meditation; more introspection and more retrospection. We need to give a voice to our fears and our anxieties; our hopes and our expectations. Now is not the time for stoicism. Now is a time for openness and communication. It’s true. As a rabbi married to a psychologist, I freely confess my bias. But to paraphrase a great thinker: Just because I’m biased doesn’t mean I’m wrong. 

Periods of great contraction are always followed by periods of great expansion. Our post-pandemic future will be bright and vast. Talking today about where we’ve been and where we’re headed may just help get us there a little sooner.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

 

Update: 7/31/2020

Change is in the Air

Dear Friends,

As a general matter, Shabbat Nachamu is something of an enigma. Yesterday was Tisha B’Av. We condensed thousands of years of Jewish tragedy into a single day. We mourned the destruction of two Temples, the Crusades, pogroms, persecutions, expulsions, book burnings and the horrors of the Holocaust. How can we possibly transition tomorrow to a Shabbat of comfort and consolation? 

The problem of Shabbat Nachamu is amplified this year. We are in the throes of a global pandemic. There may be some cause for optimism, but how can we entertain the notion of consolation when death tolls are continuing to rise? 

Rashi provides the answer. Consolation is an imprecise translation of nechama. The word le-nachem really means to change. The first appearance of the root appears in the Torah at the end of Parshat Noach. וינחם ה' כי עשה את האדם בארץ. Clearly, the word in this context is not about comfort; it is about remorse. Perhaps in colloquial terms we would say, God had a change of heart. The idea of nechama is the idea that one’s state is not in fact static, but is given to change. It’s this realization, of course, that is ultimately the source of the greatest comfort. While I may feel devastated or defeated today, I must also remember that such a feeling is not a life sentence. With the passage of time, I will feel differently. 

Shabbat Nachamu is not a cure for the gloom we feel, but it is a respite. In the wake of every tragedy in our past came a nechama. The losses were very real and very painful – just as they are today. There’s no magic formula to lessen the sting. The magic is in the way we’re constructed. Each of us has been endowed by our Creator with the divine capacity to undergo a change of heart. When we remember that the challenges we face today will one day be a distance memory, tomorrow can seem a little brighter. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Update: 7/29/2020

The Menu is the Message

Dear Friends,

In Jewish tradition, food is full of symbolism. We are always capturing a sentiment or memory with our gastronomic choices. Think of apples with honey or maror or even challah. To the initiated, they all convey layers of meaning.

On Erev Tisha B’Av, our fare is sparse. Before the fast, most of us make do with a bagel and a hard-boiled egg. Round foods are said to evoke the cycle of life. Befitting the moment, they are the foods typically reserved for the mourner. 

But as important as what’s on the menu may be what’s not on the menu. Though we are in the habit of abstaining from meat and wine beginning on Rosh Chodesh Av, these proscriptions apply most seriously on Erev Tisha B’Av. Meat and wine are strictly prohibited. And yet, for all the practices borrowed from the realm of mourning, these defy the pattern. An avel is free to eat meat and drink wine to his heart’s content. In fact, the Talmud records that imbibing wine was considered part and parcel of the grieving process. What, then, is the meaning of the halacha that insists on a meatless, wineless pre-fast repast? 

There is one person who is also enjoined against eating meat and drinking wine. The onen. The pre-mourner. Before the bereaved has buried his/her relative, he/she occupies a special halachic category. The onen does not perform positive mitzvot. And the onen refrains from meat and wine. 

Rav Soloveitchik used to teach that we reserve the special tefillah known as nachem for Tisha B’Av afternoon because until that time, the wound is too raw to think about consolation. Each of us in some way is an onen for whom thoughts of solace are premature. We are un-comfort-able.

Perhaps this quality of aninut rightfully begins on Erev Tisha B’Av. We signal our aninut by refraining from meat and wine and by eating alone. As Rabbi Daniel Fridman recently mentioned, according to many poskim, forming a zimun is not even possible because our alone-ness prevents us from being able to join together with others. Like Zion in the book of Lamentations, we dwell alone with no one to comfort us. 

This year, perhaps more than any year in lived memory, this feeling of aloneness needs no artificial inducement. We feel it intuitively. But the message of aninut should not be lost on us. To offer solace to the onen would be taunt him. To borrow a lurid Talmudic metaphor, he’s still standing over the corpse. It’s when grieving begins that comfort can follow. This is a description of our current moment. Because we’re still staring down into the valley of death, the prospect of consolation is ill-fitting to the occasion. 

But we must remember that no one is an onen forever. Because we prioritize speedy burial, the status is inherently short-lived. Like aninut, this time will pass. The day we’ll come when we’ll be able to grieve because the worst will be behind us. Comfort will be possible; the cycle of life will continue; and with hope on the horizon, we will sit together once again. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 7/28/2020

Oh, the Places You Won't Go

Dear Friends,

As a general rule, the laws of the mourner apply to every person on Tisha B’Av. On the ninth of Av, we don’t launder our clothing; we don’t study Torah; we don’t greet one another; and so on. Though largely academic, the Tur notes that there is a subtle distinction. The Jew observing Tisha B’Av is bound only by the prohibitions that circumscribe the mourner. To the extent the mourner is obligated in any proactive practices, those do not obtain on Tisha B’Av. In Talmudic times, for instance, the mourner would “overturn the beds in his home.” But this was never done on Tisha B’Av.

There may be, however, one exception to this rule. When the mourner returns to the synagogue, he is obliged to change his place. And the Tur sites just such a practice on Tisha B’Av. Those observing this minhag would not only sit lower to the ground; they would sit in another seat entirely. This year, then, it can be said that we are fulfilling this ancient custom in its most pristine form. By not going to shul on Tisha B’Av, we will be as far away from our seats as possible. 

Changing one’s place, in all seriousness, is a form of a self-imposed exile. In our tradition, galut is always reserved for one who is partially guilty. The nature of the given crime doesn’t rise to the level of meting out the prescribed penalty; but neither is the perpetrator fully innocent. Think of Adam. Or Cain. Or the man guilty of manslaughter who flees to the city of refuge. Exile creates the opportunity to reflect on all that one is missing when one is not home.

If ever there were a Tisha B’Av on which we felt like exiles, it would be Tisha B’Av 2020. How distant we are from that time and place we now refer to as pre-covid. We have become alienated from our very own lives. We are not in a position to say whether – on some cosmic level – we bear guilt. But we are able to say that we are now resident-aliens possessed of the rare opportunity to look in on our world as outsiders. It’s a view typically reserved for anyone other than us. But because exile is almost never a life sentence, we would do well to glean what we can while the view is clear. We may be home before we know it.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 7/27/2020

The Joy of Shul

Dear Friends,

This year, in thinking about how much we miss the Temple in the days leading to Tisha B’Av, we cannot help but think about how much we miss shul. Even as The Jewish Center has begun to slowly reopen, I have found the return unsatisfying. With ample justification, we’ve created a long list of protocols to keep everyone as safe as possible. But enforcing them and abiding by them inevitably diminishes the experience of davening. 

People davening together form a tzibbur. It’s the power of the collective that transforms personal prayer into communal prayer. And when one has the luxury of davening in one’s makom kavua, it’s the familiar faces of one’s friends and neighbors that foster that sense of community. It’s the human contact that helps one feel as though one belongs. But what happens when those faces are obscured and physical contact is proscribed? Yes, halakhically the people standing together form a community. But at least in my experience, the feeling of it is not the same. 

Among the many halachot governing the sanctity of a shul is a ban on performing calculations in the synagogue. With the exception of something like counting tzedakah, the mundane nature of doing math is considered to be at odds with the sanctity due the sanctuary. So goes the prevailing wisdom. But there may be another dimension to this halacha.

The Midrash tells us that in Temple times, there was a special dome outside of Jerusalem known as the kippah shel cheshbonot, the Dome of Calculations. Anyone working on a balance sheet was obliged to leave the city and do their work under the dome. Finances have a way of getting people down and the City of Gold could countenance no unhappiness. 

Like the Temple and city of Jerusalem itself, shul is meant to be a place of joy. In these dark times, its absence is particularly pronounced. We long for the day when the faces of friends will be seen; smiles will be exchanged; and handshakes and embraces will be dispensed freely. Until then, as we pray for the return of the Temple, we would do well to pray, too, for the return of shul. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 7/24/2020

Yankel the Prince

Dear Friends,

It’s hard to remember the last time I was in a room in which there was more than one person wearing a tie. Formalwear and even business attire have gone the way of the handshake. The line between pandemic-casual and pandemic-chic appears to be growing thinner.

Where does all of this leave Shabbat? The Talmud teaches that – as a general rule – we honor the holiest day of the week not just by slowing our gait and changing our menu; what we wear matters, too. But there’s one exception to the rule. On Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat that precedes Tisha B’Av, R. Moshe Isserles rules that one is not permitted to wear festive clothes. In keeping with the subdued cadences of mourning, the prevalent practice among sixteenth-century Ashkenazic Jews was to wear weekday garb on this special Shabbat. Subsequent authorities rejected this notion. Outward displays of grief, they argued, are always eschewed on Shabbat. Dressing as one would on any other day would constitute a form of dishonor. 

In the twenty-first century, the notion of dressing down one Shabbat a year has been all but forgotten. But its message mustn’t be. Just as clipping the eruv every so often would remind us that there is a prohibition against carrying on Shabbat, wearing weekday clothes on Shabbat Chazon would help us remember the high expectations we ought to have the rest of the year. 

Rav Soloveitchik once described a scene from his childhood. “Not far from where our family lived in Warsaw there was a Modzitzer shtiebel where I would go occasionally for shalosh seudos.… One of the men who had been singing most enthusiastically, wearing a kapota… approached me and asked if I recognized him. I told him that I did not and he introduced himself as Yankel the Porter. Now, during the week I knew Yankel the Porter as someone very ordinary, wearing shabby clothing, walking around with a rope. Yet on Shabbos, he wore a kapota and shtreimel. That is because his soul wasn’t Yankel the Porter, but Yankel the Prince.”

Even during a pandemic – and maybe especially during a pandemic – what we wear on Shabbat can transform us. In today’s sea of sartorial indifference, let’s make Shabbat an oasis of elegance. A queen deserves no less. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

 

Update: 7/23/2020

Jewish History Today: Venetian Kindness

Dear Friends,

In 1630, the Jewish community of Venice could not help but notice the plague ravaging its surrounding regions. One of its members composed a special liturgy to keep the plague at bay. It was to be recited after the reading of the Torah. It featured excerpts from Psalms and passages from the Torah treating of healing and divine protection. Like many other prayers scripted to combat epidemics, it placed a special emphasis on the pitom ha-ketoret. It was the incense, the Torah tells us, that Aharon used to stop the plague we read about just a short time ago in parshat Korach. 

As a preface to the ketoret passage, the liturgy cited a verse that seems out of place. So Avraham hurried into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quickly: prepare three seah of the finest flour and knead it and bake some bread.”What is the connection?

On a kabbalistic level, Avraham’s actions in the scene with his three visitors prefigure Temple offerings. And the haste described here corresponds to the haste of Aharon’s actions. “Go quickly,” Moshe said, “and provide atonement for the people.” The Jews of Venice were asking the Almighty to respond to their tefillot the way He would respond were they offering korbanot in the Temple. With the same urgency they asked that He put an end to the plague. 

But perhaps there is another reason that the Jews of Venice called up this verse from Genesis. It is, after all, the paradigm for chesed in the life of Avraham and in the value system of his descendants. If they were going to ask Hashem to deal compassionately with them, they had to demonstrate the capacity to deal compassionately with one another. 

The world is in need of more prayer. But it’s also in need of more kindness. We need to redouble our efforts to offer companionship to those who are alone. And we need to offer solace and strength to those who are struggling during these times. Like the Jews of seventeenth-century Venice, let’s put chesed at the forefront of our consciousness. And like Avraham and Sarah, let’s act quickly. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 7/22/2020

Why The New York Times Should Study Talmud

Dear Friends,

In her recent resignation letter, Bari Weiss pulled back the veil on one of the worst-kept secrets in the media industry: playing to its left-leaning readership, the New York Times is not only guilty of hyper-partisanship; it prefers to squelch debate rather than promote it. “Truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.” And what’s true of the goose is true of the gander. Right-leaning media outlets are guilty of the same sins. Reporting has been replaced by preaching; the difference between the front page and the editorial page is not readily discernable. With each passing day, the writers and their readers become shallower and less informed and grow more distant from a healthy and moderate center. 

The solution I propose is Talmudic training. It goes without saying that Talmud study sharpens a student’s capacity for deep and critical thinking. It trains its readers how to build an argument and to how identify and anticipate its weaknesses. It provides entrée into a world of dazzling creativity and stunning intellectual virtuosity. And by developing fluency in its cadences and its idioms, one can actually revivify millennia-old voices and bring Abaye and Rava directly into the contemporary discourse. 

But I have much more prosaic goals in mind. For one, journalists and editors would stand to gain from an introduction to the concept of machloket. Perhaps they could come to learn that rigorous debate leads to better outcomes. In the Talmud, outlandish ideas are subjected to scrutiny by other equally invested parties. Proposals are met by counterproposals. Ideas are tested and weighed against if and whether they might be accepted by the general populace. Imagine a journalistic world governed by the ethic of Beit Hillel in which the words of one’s opponents were taught first. To paraphrase R. Yochanan: One doesn’t need to be told why he’s right; one needs to be told why he’s wrong. What emerges from the Talmudic crucible is far more likely to be measured and thought-through and advance the public good. 

Perhaps even more important that better outcomes, the Talmudic process has a habit of producing better participants. Active listening and the prospect of admitting scholarly defeat are prerequisites for participation. Engaging in the process with the expectation that one may well be wrong accustoms one to humility and healthy self-doubt. Journalists are supposed to be animated by insatiable inquisitiveness. But the news today has cancelled curiosity. How sad it would be to raise a generation of writers and readers uninterested in contrary points of view. In the Talmud, the losing argument isn’t discarded; it’s given pride of place and its always a source of interest. 

I’m not sure how many subscribers this new proposal will attract. But as long as we keep studying the Talmud, we can shine its light on the dark dross that passes for journalism today. For a timeless text, the Talmud is as timely as ever.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

 

Update: 7/21/2020

The Road from Padawan to Jedi

Dear Friends,

One of the great moral messages of Star Wars is the notion that, given time and training, students can become principals. Sometimes they can even succeed where their teachers had failed. In the early films, borrowing from the Bildungsroman genre of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the journey from protégé to master was lengthy and tortuous. There were obstacles to overcome and ghosts to vanquish. In the more recent films, mirroring the attention deficit of our own times, the process is so accelerated that one is left wondering whether the notion of character development itself is now considered a relic of a bygone era. 

It’s this notion that one can be transformed almost instantaneously from a student to a teacher that speaks directly to this moment. When we first began confronting the perils of this pandemic in March, we watched in horror as the virus ravaged the northern provinces of Italy. To avoid suffering the same fate, we asked our Italian friends to share with us the lessons they learned. From their experience, they offered advice and comfort as we waited for the impeding storm. 

Four months hence, we have undergone a transformation. Ever-cognizant that the virus could resurge in our city at any moment, we have walked through the valley of the shadow of death. With the echoes of blaring sirens still ringing in the back of our heads, we know first-hand about the terror that covid-19 can wreak and the suffering it can cause. But our experience doesn’t just leave us wiser; it compels us to act. 

The vast majority of our fellow Americans are now facing the very challenges that were once consigned to New York and New Jersey. It’s heartbreaking to read about inundated ICUs and impending shortages of tests and PPE. To anyone who will listen, we can offer empathy and sound advice. 

When we speak of Torah study, we use the term talmud Torah – which refers more specifically to the teaching of Torah. It’s the transmission of knowledge that constitutes the higher ethic. And there is no wisdom, the Talmud tells us, like lived experience. Whatever we’ve gained, now is the time to pass it on. We will all be students of this pandemic for a long time. But that shouldn’t stand in the way of our teaching all that we’ve learned.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 7/20/2020

Zoom Cheaters

Dear Friends,

In card games, a tell is a change in a player's behavior that betrays something about his or her hand. With experience, a keen observer can correlate these subtleties to patterns and use them to one’s advantage. These days, we’re seeing another kind of tell. It’s usually a glance or slight turn of the head during a Zoom call. More often than not, it reveals that someone is multi-tasking. They’re present, but not entirely. While they’re participating in the conversation or meeting, they’re also texting or tweeting or checking their email. 

It’s hard to get too exercised over this scourge. Everyone is stretched thin. We’re inundated with messages and notices and there are never enough hours in the day to give them all their due. We don’t need another research study on the perils of multi-tasking, but it’s worth remembering that it always involves a cost. Putting aside the most extreme cases that actually cause malice such as texting while driving, where do we draw the line? When should we allow ourselves to indulge and when should we resist the temptation? 

The halakhic system takes very seriously the notion of fixed attention. In common practice, the most well-known example is our insistence on silence between netilat yadayim and the brachah of ha-motzi. But there are dozens of examples in which falling prey to distraction is not just objectionable; it’s disqualifying. In the service of the divine, anything less than our full attention is an affront to the mitzvah we’re supposed to be performing. And understandably so. To offer up a piece of ourselves when our whole selves are demanded is to short-change everyone involved. 

When it comes to human relationships, the people with whom we interact deserve no less. Perhaps the best rule of thumb is to put the brakes on multi-tasking whenever another party is involved. Victimless multi-tasking may be additive. One can wash the dishes or one can wash the dishes while listening to a podcast. The addition of the task doesn’t come at the expense of another human being. But people deserve our undivided attention. Especially these days. Human contact – even when it occurs from a distance – is precious. There’s very little in life that can’t wait 20 minutes. Let’s give someone the gift of our full selves. The moment we do, they’ll be able to tell. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi 

Update: 7/17/2020

The Promise of a Vaccine

Dear Friends,

When will we have a vaccine? The most important question of our moment has become almost too trite to speak about. Skeptics and cynics have hijacked the discourse. They thrive on producing reasons to  despair and sowing seeds of doubt in our consciousness. Vaccines, they say, often take 10-15 years. Sometimes there is no vaccine. Even if scientists find one, who is to say they will be able to produce sufficient quantities to immunize our planet?

But for every argument in favor of despair, there is an equally if not more compelling argument in favor of hope. The orientation we choose is up to us. If only to promote better mental health, we would do well to choose the latter. 

According to a recent report in The Economist, 180 vaccines are now in development. Some have already entered clinical trials. And once a vaccine is ready, one manufacturer says it will be prepared to produce a billion doses in two months. Has the world ever seen a project to which so many financial and intellectual resources have been devoted? To the skeptics who say the vaccine is a long way off, I say I’m skeptical.    

When the tribes of Gad and Reuven approached Moshe and petitioned for the right to settle in Transjordan, Moshe pointed up the inequity of their request. To permit two tribes to sit idle while ten engaged in battle would be wholly unfair. But Moshe went further. Why do you discourage the Israelites from crossing over to the Land? A decision on the part of a minority to remain behind, Moshe argued, would be a blow to the psyche of the nation. The general populace won’t be sensitive to the economic preferences of these two tribes. They’ll interpret reluctance as faithlessness and despair will become the moment’s most dangerous contagion. To deprive others of their faith in the future constitutes a terrible crime. 

No one wants to be guilty of providing false hope. And no one can stake a claim to certainty in such uncertain times. But hopefulness is not born of naïveté. It’s rooted in a national history that time and again has vindicated hope in the face of its greatest detractors. We’re not immune to despair. Hope is the best vaccine. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 7/16/2020

High Scoring Words

I guess it should not come as a surprise that this age of masks has blossomed into an age of hypocrisy. The word itself derives from the Greek, hypokrisis. Because the Greek stage actor wore a mask, his voice did not match his appearance. Now it seems there is a widening gap between the value Judaism attaches to consistency on the one hand, and the degree to which consistency is flouted in the current zeitgeist on the other.

When the Torah insists that we be tamim im Hashem Elokecha, consistency is precisely what is demanded. Rabbeinu Bachya writes that this is the source for the notion that there can be no daylight between one’s feelings and one’s actions. To believe one thing and say another is to play fast and loose with one of our most deeply held values. A student whose exterior does not match his interior, the Talmud tells us, is precluded from entry into the study hall.

In contrast, consider three recent examples from the public sphere. “While there is no intention to imply a moral equivalency among the following examples, each one on its own is instructive. The first comes from our federal government. Even as our top national health officials insist that mask-wearing is among our foremost defenses against this pandemic, for months the nation’s chief executive refused to wear a mask. Were the president a hermit, perhaps it would not much matter. But in the case of celebrity personalities, virtue signaling matters a great deal. For millions of Americans who pay attention to the president, a small gesture of consistency could yield huge returns.

Second, there is the inconsistency of our mayor. One can well understand a policy banning large public gatherings. What public health expert would argue against the kinds of events that carry the highest risk to the highest number of people? And yet the mayor has gone out of his way to permit protests of one particular nature. Public gatherings are not just unsafe for the participants, they are ultimately harmful to all New Yorkers. To create a carve-out for a specific group is the height of hypocrisy.

And finally we have the recent outbreak of anti-Semitism. A prominent football player explicitly referenced Hitler in the course of an indefensible screed against Jews. Then other prominent athletes rushed to his defense. The same media outlets and national organizations that have been beating the drum of sanctimony over bigotry were suddenly silent. Why does anti-Semitism not warrant the same moral outrage as other forms of prejudice? We need a zero-tolerance policy against discrimination; not one that capriciously dispenses free passes.

The adherence to a moral code deployed on a consistent basis is called principle. Righteous indignation applied selectively is called politics. The moment we confuse the two is the moment we need to be reminded that life is a not a Greek tragedy.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 7/15/2020

Can’t Sleep? Try the Midnight Remedy

Dear Friends,

Sleeplessness is on the rise. The pandemic has brought with it accounts of insomnia, lurid dreams and a general sense of restlessness. If you’ve found yourself in a dazed state of late, you are not alone. Stress, anxiety and more time indoors have all contributed to the advent of coronasomnia. (A few members have told me that their inability to hear my sermon has further diminished the quantity of sleep they are getting.)

I don’t purport to have a solution. But I thought this would be an appropriate moment to bring up a practice seldom addressed in our community.

Based on a teaching in the Zohar, sixteenth-century mystics popularized a practice known as tikkun chatzot. They would wake up at midnight or thereabouts and recite a short liturgical unit to mourn the destruction of the Temple. Either because the practice was reserved for the pious or because it was only intended to be recited in the Land of Israel, it is virtually unknown in our community.

But if ever there were days on which its message is particularly apropos, it is these – the days leading to Tisha B’Av. The prophet Jeremiah lamented that, in her state of destitution, Zion has no one who inquires after her. The Talmud infers from this verse that Zion demands as much from us. We have to lose to sleep over the fate of Israel and her people. Israel’s future has to keep us up at night.

Understandably, our attention of late has been trained on local matters. We’ve been pouring our energies into keeping ourselves, our families and our communities safe. But mourning the Temple reminds us, too, that we have a national identity and that we have national aspirations. I’m not saying that the recitation of tikkun chatzot will help us return to our normal sleep patterns. But it may help us return to a rebuilt Jerusalem. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 7/14/2020

The Age of Hypocrisy

Dear Friends,

I guess it should not come as a surprise that this age of masks has blossomed into an age of hypocrisy. The word itself derives from the Greek, hypokrisis. Because the Greek stage actor wore a mask, his voice did not match his appearance. Now it seems there is a widening gap between the value Judaism attaches to consistency on the one hand, and the degree to which consistency is flouted in the current zeitgeist on the other.

When the Torah insists that we be tamim im Hashem Elokecha, consistency is precisely what is demanded. Rabbeinu Bachya writes that this is the source for the notion that there can be no daylight between one’s feelings and one’s actions. To believe one thing and say another is to play fast and loose with one of our most deeply held values. A student whose exterior does not match his interior, the Talmud tells us, is precluded from entry into the study hall.

In contrast, consider three recent examples from the public sphere. The first comes from our federal government. Even as our top national health officials insist that mask-wearing is among our foremost defenses against this pandemic, for months the nation’s chief executive refused to wear a mask. Were the president a hermit, perhaps it would not much matter. But in the case of celebrity personalities, virtue signaling matters a great deal. For millions of Americans who pay attention to the president, a small gesture of consistency could yield huge returns.

Second, there is the inconsistency of our mayor. One can well understand a policy banning large public gatherings. What public health expert would argue against the kinds of events that carry the highest risk to the highest number of people? And yet the mayor has gone out of his way to permit protests of one particular nature. Public gatherings are not just unsafe for the participants, they are ultimately harmful to all New Yorkers. To create a carve-out for a specific group is the height of hypocrisy.

And finally we have the recent outbreak of anti-Semitism. A prominent football player explicitly referenced Hitler in the course of an indefensible screed against Jews. Then other prominent athletes rushed to his defense. The same media outlets and national organizations that have been beating the drum of sanctimony over bigotry were suddenly silent. Why does anti-Semitism not warrant the same moral outrage as other forms of prejudice? We need a zero-tolerance policy against discrimination; not one that capriciously dispenses free passes.

The adherence to a moral code deployed on a consistent basis is called principle. Righteous indignation applied selectively is called politics. The moment we confuse the two is the moment we need to be reminded that life is a not a Greek tragedy.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 7/13/2020

The Duty to Wear a Mask

Dear Friends,

We Americans take liberty very seriously. It represents the backbone of our national identity. So it should not surprise us that some Americans are constitutionally allergic to laws that they perceive as a threat to their liberty. Rules that curtail our freedoms, the argument goes, are objectionable ab initio. The government can make all the recommendations it likes; but the moment it mandates something that restricts a given freedom is the moment it has gone too far.

Such is the argument – implicitly or explicitly – of the anti-maskers. How can the government legislate the way I walk around?

While the analogy is imperfect, the history of seatbelts is instructive. For decades, automobiles were designed without them. When New York became the first state to make safety belts mandatory in 1984, fully 65% Americans opposed mandatory seat belt laws. Wearing them was considered an imposition.

With time, the evidence became overwhelming. The universal acceptance of a small inconvenience meant that thousands of lives could be saved. It didn’t happen overnight, but eventually people came around.

In our own tradition, we have a long history of embracing the notion of obligation. R. Chanina teaches that the performance of a commandment by one who is obligated is considered greater than that the equivalent voluntary performance of the same act by one who is not obligated. Whatever the rationale for this axiom, it highlights the degree to which we are meant to embrace the idea of commandedness. Rather than see mitzvot as obligations, we’re meant to think of them as opportunities. To paraphrase the Talmud, commandments don’t restrict us; they set us free.

R. Chananyah ben Akashyah made the same argument when he taught that that God piled mitzvot upon us for our own benefit. They don’t limit us; they give us entrée into the world of the unlimited.

It’s all a question of attitude. No one wants to live in a nanny state. But everyone wants to live. To argue against the wisdom of laws requiring masks during a pandemic is to be penny wise and pound foolish. Conceding a small freedom doesn’t make us smaller; it makes us freer.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 7/10/2020

Two Hand Touch 

Dear Friends,

Very little these days seems carefree. Even minor decisions are piled high with layers of risk calculations and cost-benefit analyses. Crowds provoke anxiety. Errands create unease. Visitors make us nervous.

But the issue I’ve been thinking recently carries with it stakes that are considerably lower. There is an old debate about how best to bless our children on Friday nights. When dispensing the bracha, is it preferable to use one hand or two? Either practice is fine and well-attested in our sources. When Yaakov blessed his grandchildren, whom we reference, he placed one hand on each of their heads. When the kohanim dispensed the blessing we cite, they used both hands. 

One of the best arguments in favor of the two-handed approach comes from our parshah. Though Hashem instructed Moshe to transfer his authority to Yehoshua with one hand, he performed the act of semicha with both hands. As Rav Soloveitchik puts it so beautifully, Moshe was not just demonstrating a generosity of spirit. He was communicating to his disciple the primacy of two traditions: one intellectual and one experiential. It’s not sufficient to teach Jewish learning in a classroom. One must also model the mimetic tradition at home. We translate chinuch as education. But it more properly means initiation. We raise up Jewish children not only with books; but with a gentle hand that guides and prods them into the posture of a Torah life. 

Doctoral students and researchers will spend years studying the effects of distance learning on children. They’ll write treatises on what happens when boys and girls go months without seeing teachers or peers. But we don’t need to wait for the conclusion of those studies to know that the responsibility of parents grows in proportion to the length of this pandemic. For so many children nowadays, moms and dads aren’t just role models; they are sole models – parents, teachers, friends and camp counselors all rolled into one. 

When we place our hands on the head of a child, we place upon him or her all kinds of hopes and expectations. Whether we bless them with one hand or two might seem like a light decision. But the weight of the Jewish future rests on these children. Knowing they will remember these days forever, let’s model for them the grandest vision of what that future might look like.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 7/9/2020

Day After the Plague

Dear Friends,

Just why is it that we fast on the 17th of Tammuz? The Mishnah furnishes us with no fewer than five answers. It was on that day that Moshe broke the luchot; the tamid offering was suspended; Jerusalem’s city walls were breached during the Roman siege; a man called Apostumos burned a Torah scroll; and an idol was erected in the Temple.

Surely, this has to strike us as bizarre. Are we to understand that a single event would not have warranted a fast day? Is it only the cumulative value of these tragedies in their aggregate that call on us to mourn? Jewish holidays celebrate singular events. If something momentous occurred on the 15th of Nissan, would we tack it on to the holiday of Pesach? The purists would insist that more is less; adding to the Seder would diminish its exceptional quality. Why do we need five reasons to commemorate the 17th of Tammuz?

The answer comes from the continuation of the Mishnah. There is one other moed on our calendar that is characterized by the multiple events it is intended to commemorate: Tisha B’Av. And once again, the Mishnah tells us that this date on the Jewish calendar has been blackened on five separate occasions.

Tragedy has a tendency to overwhelm us. A traumatic grip can feel so tight that one may be convinced that one will never be released. By collecting tragedies and stacking them neatly upon one another – by aggregating past events – the rabbis insist that we see those tragedies within a given context. Yes, a particular date on the calendar may be marked for sadness. But we’re reminded in the same breath of history’s cyclical nature. Traumas don’t last forever. They come and they go. For every sad day on our calendar, there is the day after.

Historians that I’ve read and heard over the course of this pandemic have freely confessed their renewed interest in tracing the stories of plagues and pandemics of the past. It’s not just that ghosts make good company. Somehow, the details of those old narratives are a source of solace. Like the collected tragedies we commemorate today, they testify to a simple truth. While the human spirit may be indomitable, plagues are not.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 7/8/2020

Kaddish for Herzl

Dear Friends,

What will our Jewish lives look like in the fall? What will our shuls look like? Our schools? Our Shabbat meals? Our chagim? As covid-19 has proven time and again, trying to predict its path is an exercise in futility. 

And so this pandemic has called on us to live with uncertainty. It’s demanded that we make decisions with dreadfully imperfect information. But even more than this, it’s insisted that we live lives predicated on contingency. Of course on occasion we all have to reconcile ourselves to second-best outcomes. Being ready with alternatives is part of responsible planning. But other than spies or secret agents, who lives their life this way all the time?  

Reading Derek Penslar’s new book, it struck me that we do in fact have a model for someone who lived this way: Theodor Herzl. His was a life of contingency. If he could not secure a meeting with a head of state, he would try his luck with a lieutenant. If the British could not be helpful, maybe the Ottomans. Or the Egyptians. Or the Germans. Or the Russians. There were no failures in the life of Theodor Herzl; only temporary setbacks. 

He dreamed of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. But if that wasn’t possible, perhaps there could be an ersatz refuge for Jews in the Sinai Peninsula. Or in British East Africa. Progress was progress wherever it could be made. Herzl cut a complex figure. But one of the things he proved is that while the contingent life may be uncomfortable, it need not be without reward. 

No direct descendant of Herzl lived to see the modern State of Israel with their own eyes. No direct descendant of his lives today. I don’t know who recites Kaddish in his memory. But when his yahrzeit is observed on Sunday, we would do well to remember his message for our times: the contingent life needn’t come at the expense of the optimistic life. Sometimes life’s greatest gifts are unexpected. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 7/7/2020

To Be a Jew or to Act as a Jew

Dear Friends,

In a landmark decision last week, the Supreme Court ruled against a constitutional provision in the state of Montana that barred taxpayer funds from supporting parochial schools. While proponents of school choice cheered, those who have made the separation of church and state into a religion of its own reacted to the decision with a chorus of opprobrium.

As members of a religious minority, we can certainly appreciate a pronouncement that strikes out against discrimination. As Justice Alito wrote at length, the basis for Blaine Amendments like the one in Montana were rooted in historic anti-Catholic sentiment. According to Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, “A State need not subsidize private education. But once a State decides to do so, it cannot disqualify some private schools solely because they are religious.” The Constitution “condemns discrimination against religious schools and the families whose children attend them.”

But beyond the case’s political implications, I was struck by something Justice Gorsuch wrote. The Free Exercise Clause “protects not just the right to be a religious person, holding beliefs inwardly and secretly; it also protects the right to act on those beliefs outwardly and publicly… Our cases have long recognized the importance of protecting religious actions, not just religious status.”

If he were standing at a pulpit, Justice Gorsuch’s words would constitute a sermon – and a poignant and timely one at that. Being Jewish is not sufficient. The Torah demands that we act in a way that makes holiness and Godliness more manifest in the world. Particularly now, as so many of our most cherished institutions are hamstrung, it falls to individuals to be the activists. In our private conversations and simple interactions, it’s our job to elevate the language and substance of our discourse. And both in and outside our homes, it’s our responsibility to bring the values of Torah to life. Our forebears dreamed of a land in which they could not only be Jews, but practice their Judaism. It would be a pity if we squandered the opportunity.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 7/6/2020

No One Writes to the Colonial 

Dear Friends,

Summer camps are very different this summer. But one aspect has remain unchanged. Overnight camps are among the last places on earth where the phenomenon of letter-writing persists. But this year, campers and their parents are not the only ones busy revisiting media of the past.

As this pandemic lingers, the present has been rendered uncomfortable and the future unknowable. The only sure bet is the past. So it’s little wonder that old books are back in vogue. So are reruns of old shows. Classic sports moments play in place of live ones. And vintage movies are all the rage. I’ve even noticed new reviews of films that premiered 40 years ago. (Film critics really have nothing better to do?)

We could all benefit from a little more letter writing these days. Of course letter-writing is good for the writer. Writing forces us to unplug and to singly commit our attention to the task at hand. And with the signing of our signature comes a feeling not just that we’ve done something, but that we’ve created something. But even more than this, a letter is a gift. And like any gift, it works its magic on both the giver and the recipient.

Gabriel Garcia Márquez once said that he wrote One Hundred Years of Solitude just so that people would read No One Writes to the Colonel. In the lesser known novella, a retired military man, facing penury, has been waiting 15 years for the pension owed to him. The postman delivers the same news every week. The pension has not arrived. “No one writes to the colonel.”

To receive a letter is to be in conversation. To receive a letter is to be remembered. As we prepare to remember the Temple and its destruction during the period of the Three Weeks, are memory antennae are up. There’s a special joy a child feels when he or she receives a letter from home. But campers aren’t the only ones who stand to gain from holding something tangible in their little hands and reading words written by someone who cares about them. So many people in our lives would share a similar feeling of joy if only they received a letter – if only we remembered to write to them.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 7/3/2020

Will We Lose our Best and Brightest?

Dear Friends,

When I was a kid, sometimes I thought my grandmother was being overprotective. I would say something like, “Bubby – don’t worry so much.” And she would say, “Worrying is what I do for a living.”

Even in the best of times, we all worry about the Jewish future. It’s what we do. But given the economic tailspin this pandemic has created, now we have more to worry about. In particular, I’ve been thinking about the kinds of consolidation we’re sure to see in the Jewish communal world. On a macro level, a correction like this may be overdue. If multiple organizations are performing the same function, would we not all be better off if they found ways to merge or join forces? Eliminating duplication saves time, energy and money that could be diverted to other priorities.

But on the micro level, this kind of consolidation means that hard-working Jewish communal professionals will be out of jobs. And in a contracting economy, odds are that many will seek and find employment outside the Jewish world. These are individuals committed to working on behalf of our community. But now we may lose them.

Chukat is a sad parsha. We read about the loss of both Miriam and Aharon. On the surface, the stories that follow their respective passings appear quite different. In the aftermath of Miriam’s departure, the people lack for water. In the aftermath of Aharon’s death, an enemy attacks the Jewish people and takes a captive. But the episodes are linked by a common thread. When a Jewish leader is gone, the community suddenly becomes vulnerable.

So it behooves us to notice just how vulnerable we may be if we stand on the sidelines while talented men and women opt out of careers in Jewish communal service. To the extent we know of people teetering on the fence, we need to encourage them and help them in any way we can. And we need to fund and support our local Jewish institutions so that they can weather this storm. Our community will be able to survive with fewer acronyms. Whether we can survive the loss of talented Jewish leaders is another question.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 7/2/2020

Independence Day Depends on Us 

Dear Friends,

When Europeans visited the United States in the 19th century, they were struck by the degree to which Americans were obsessed with associations. As Alexis de Tocqueville put it, “Americans of all ages, all conditions, all minds constantly unite. Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small.” For men to “remain civilized or become so,” he concluded, “the art of associating must be developed and perfected among them.” When Henry Robert published his Pocket Manual of Rules of Order for Deliberative Assemblies in 1876, it sold hundreds of thousands of copies. But as Robert Putnam has famously brought to light, participation in civic groups has been declining precipitously in the US for decades.

In our tradition, confraternities have long been a staple of Jewish communal life. In Rome’s ghetto during the early modern period, more than 25 chevrot were established. There were societies set up to dower brides, redeem captives, educate children, visit the sick, bury the dead and on and on. Today, the lone surviving chevra tends to be the chevra kaddisha. We don’t call them chevrot anymore, but we take it for granted that a synagogue community will form groups or committees to organize these very activities. (Thankfully, it seems the need to ransom captives is now largely outmoded.)

We many not articulate it as civic duty, but every time we participate in communal life, we strengthen our commitment to be not only responsible community members, but responsible citizens. Particularly as the bonds of our nation continue to fray, we all need to redouble our efforts to strengthen the ties that bind us together.

National emergencies have a habit of bridging gaps, pushing differences to the periphery or uniting competing factions. So it’s particularly lamentable that this pandemic has not only failed to create more national solidarity; it has highlighted and exacerbated our divisions.

In the face of all of this, we must not lose sight of one of the pandemic’s most powerful teachings: There are no silos. Our compliance with public health guidelines has an effect on countless other people; and their compliance has a direct effect on us. In other words, we have no choice but to remain conscious of our responsibilities toward our community and toward our nation.

As we prepare to celebrate Independence Day, we have a great deal for which to be thankful. The liberties we enjoy in this great country can never be taken for granted. But rights come with responsibilities. To the extent we uphold our end of the bargain, our nation will be much healthier. And so will we.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Update: 7/1/2020

The Monuments Men, Part II

Dear Friends,

The president of Princeton University, Christopher Eisgruber, announced earlier this week that Woodrow Wilson’s name would be removed from its School of Public and International Affairs. The university, he wrote, had promoted the former president as a role model to its students. But “however grand some of Wilson’s achievements may have been, his racism disqualifies him from that role.”

I certainly don’t envy those involved in making decisions such as these. Perhaps at the margins the questions are uncomplicated. What really is the justification for the preservation of a monument to someone who devoted himself to a cause that is anathema to us? But in the main, these issues are as complex as they are fraught. Princeton’s decision puts front and center a question that we should consider often: Just who is worthy of being considered a role model and what disqualifies one from bearing such a title?

As King Solomon wrote long ago, there is no righteous person on earth who does good and sins not (Ecc. 7:20). We do not subscribe to the notion of infallibility. The great heroes of the Jewish people were all-too human men and women; not demigods. They made mistakes. And we should fully expect that men and women of great achievement will surely be imperfect.

This is not to say we should be blind to the offenses someone has committed. The nature, kind and degree of an offense must be measured and considered within its context. Not every soldier with a rank deserves to be put on a pedestal.

But to argue that a given flaw categorically disqualifies one from serving as a role model is to argue against seeing the world with even a modicum of nuance. To build a moral structure within which to operate, children need stark categories of right and wrong. But adults are capable of appreciating complexity. We can recite the holy words of King David in our daily tefillot even as we recognize that he was not a perfect person. We can speak of Avraham Avinu as a paragon of faith even if there were moments in which he was taken to task for his missteps. After all, do we not subscribe to the notion of teshuvah? Do we not believe in forgiveness?

Rendering sound judgment in the present is hard enough. Doing so retrospectively is especially challenging. But the moment we lose our capacity to behold human complexity is the moment we risk losing our humanity.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

RabbiUpdate: 6/30/2020

The Monuments Men , Part I 

Dear Friends,

What to do with Mary. That was the question our family bumped into a while back when the vacation home we had rented came complete with a two-foot alabaster Madonna on the back porch. 

What to do with monuments more generally is surely one of the most fraught issues of the moment. Because monuments are works of art, how they are interpreted is subjective. Are they to be judged in their historical moment or in the present? Are monuments in parks different from those that belong to museums? And who is the arbiter of these decisions? We can all conjure up in our minds an image of a statue we would find offensive. Where to draw the line and who gets to draw it are open questions. Reasonable people will disagree. I wish to offer only one observation.

It should be remembered that arguably the most important icon in the history of the Jewish people was irreparably shattered by our greatest prophet. And the Talmud writes that God reacted to Moshe’s decision to smash the tablets by congratulating him.

R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk argues that, indignation aside, Moshe was teaching the Jewish people an indispensable lesson. Recognizing that they had made the mistake of ascribing significance to a molten image, Moshe demonstrated in no uncertain terms that holiness cannot inhere in mere objects. An icon is but an icon. Sanctity is not achieved by things; it’s achieved by people. It comes from the Almighty and attaches to those who perform his mitzvot.

Inherent in the creation of a symbol is the risk that its beholder will assign it too much significance. But significance in this world is not achieved by the making or unmaking of an image. It is achieved by individuals who enlist in the causes that symbols are meant to advance.

We thought it best to give Mary more privacy. Statues tend to get more attention than they deserve.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 6/29/2020

Jewish Center Reopening 

Dear Friends,

I am writing to share with you an update on our plans to reopen The Jewish Center. Our Advisory Committee has been hard at work formulating a plan and I am deeply appreciative of the many hours of thoughtful deliberation that our members have devoted to this project. Foremost in our minds has been and continues to be the health and safety of our community. 

We have broken down our guidelines into three groups: tenants and their constituents; Jewish Center staff and personnel; and Jewish Center members and guests. Tenant and minyan guidelines are available by clicking here. We want to keep you apprised of what is happening in the building as well as our current thinking about the resumption of services. 

To the extent that there is a halachic directive to daven with a minyan, that directive continues to be suspended at this time of a pandemic. This is why we suspended services on March 12. Even as gatherings are now permitted by governmental authorities in New York City, communal prayer s certainly not mandated. Prayer is mandated; but davening in a minyan falls into the halakhic category of reshut, that which should be considered optional or discretionary. 

We take sakanah – risk to human life – very seriously. It is difficult to quantify, but our goal is to minimize risk to whatever extent possible. As such, where there are differing opinions, my inclination is to adopt the more conservative approach. 

The declining number of cases in our area - together with New York City entering Phase 3 of re-opening - gives us encouragement and the prevailing wisdom suggests that gathering for a short period of time entails a tolerable level of risk. Provided the numbers remain favorable, we will hold a minyan for Mincha/Maariv on Monday evening July 6th at 8:15pm.  This first minyan will be limited to a total of twenty participants and will be open to men and women. Further details, including exact location of the minyan, will be provided to approved minyan registrants. To register or this minyan all participants must complete the screening questionaire ensuring that they are symptom free and have not been recently exposed to COVID-19. It will detail necessary precautions that you will be required to take in order to participate in the minyan, some of which are set forth below. Please let us know if you would like to join by clicking here.

Staging a minyan at this time is an experiment. Following the July 6 minyan, we will reassess all the relevant factors. Should it go smoothly and should the COVID-19 data continue to be encouraging, the experiment will continue, initially with Mincha/Maariv on a more regular basis. We will continue to share updates on a regular basis. 

 

We must also be sober about the possibility that we will have to end the experiment and return to the practice of davening at home. Potential factors that might contribute to such a decision include an uptick in the number of COVID-19 cases locally; a report that a minyan-goer has tested positive for the virus; or non-compliance by a participant. We are all thinking of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Rest assured, we will have a plan in place that will allow our community to participate in the shul life of Yamim Noraim as fully as possible given the constraints of halakhic and public health considerations. We are working now on contingencies that include both indoor and outdoor spaces. I think we can all appreciate that much will inevitably change between now and September. We will have to steel ourselves with patience for a while longer. We must also remember that there is still a great deal about this virus that is unknown. As we are now seeing in other parts of the country, the virus can resurge at any moment. We cannot let down our guard. Compliance and vigilance will form the backbone of our ongoing effort to beat this pandemic. 

I’ve missed davening with you these past months and look forward to the day when we will all be able to daven together as a community in the fullest sense of the term. Until that time, please stay safe and please stay in touch. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 6/26/2020

Transitions to Remember 

Dear Friends,

Transitions are hard. And we’ve had to weather a lot of them lately. From out-and-about to ; from spring to summer; from commuting to sheltering-in-place; from social calls to phone calls; and from locking down to reopening. Particularly when they catch us unawares, transition moments can throw us into a tailspin.

The challenge of transitioning forms the backbone of a compelling theory behind the Korach rebellion. All the parties involved were beset by longstanding grievances. That Aharon had been appointed high priest was old news. That the first-born had been replaced by the Leviim was a months-old story. And the animus Datan and Aviram harbored toward Moshe went back years. If these forces coalesced now, it’s because they were unable to come to grips with the new reality foisted upon them by the failure of the spies’ mission and the subsequent pronouncement of a forty-year sojourn in the wilderness. Datan and Aviram frame their remarks with the words, lo naaleh. “If we’re not going into the land of Israel,” they say, “what point is there to our mission?” The transition from the triumphant march to the Promised Land to a sentence of wandering was simply too much to bear. Suffering under the weight of a difficult transition, the characters in our parsha acted out.

More than any other, physical relocation is the transition that stays with us the longest. People not only remember when they move to a new locale; they attach outsize significance to it. Scientists call it the relocation bump. And it’s perfectly understandable. Moving one’s residence requires a person to reorient themselves entirely.

For some, this pandemic has generated precisely this effect. They’ve picked up and moved to greener pastures. But even for those who haven’t moved, the transition moments have come so quickly and in such high doses, that the cumulative effect might well be the same: a system-wide reorientation. 

Imagine if we knew that a given day would be etched in our memories forever. Would we not rush to fill our time with acts of meaning? Would we not conjure up ways to be joyful and hopeful? Would we not banish pettiness from our interactions with family and friends? 

For better or for worse, our recollections of this pandemic are bound to stay with us for a long time. Maybe for all time. Let’s be sure to leave ourselves memories of which we can be proud.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi
Reminders

 

Update: 6/25/2020

The Word Doctor 

Dear Friends,

One of the images I know I will take with me from this pandemic comes from a video that circulated in the early days of the outbreak. In the clip, a little boy races to hug his father, who is dressed in medical gear from head to toe. Perhaps a doctor or nurse, the man has just returned from the hospital. But as the boy approaches, expecting to be met by the outstretched arms of a waiting embrace, his father waves him off. A simple hug has given way to a complex risk assessment. Recognizing that the fear for his son’s safety has prevented him from reciprocating a gesture of healthy affection and has disappointed his little boy, the man breaks down in tears.

If empathy is in short supply, gestures of empathy are in even shorter supply. What does it mean to live in a world in which hugs are not permitted? What does it mean that human touch is proscribed? What does it mean that even sitting in silence next to a lonely friend might be dangerous?

Rabbi Akiva used to say that a human being is considered beloved because he or she is created in the image of the divine. But he or she is considered even more beloved inasmuch as God communicated this sentiment to his creations. All of R. Akiva’s successive statements follow the same pattern. It’s one thing to be loved or cared for; it’s quite another to be told as much.

The same is true of empathy. It’s not enough to feel empathetic toward others. We need to communicate those feelings openly and regularly. In a world without gestures, the value of words has never been greater. In the absence of human contact, they are the glue holding us together.

Julia DiGangi, who specializes in anxiety, put this well in a recent piece she wrote for Harvard Business Review. She suggested that managers and leaders need to help those around them by modelling emotional openness and by sharing parts of themselves and their vulnerabilities “Whether we return to our offices with trepidation or remain marooned in our lonely homes, the creation of deep emotional connections with our teams is essential.” It’s not the location that matters, but the locution.

It will take a lot of words to write the text that heals our fractured world. The ones we utter next might just be the first line.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi
Reminders

The Jewish Center Dinner
Please join us for our virtual dinner on July 1st as we honor Ted Comet and Rabbi Noach and Alexis Goldstein. Make your reservations today!

A Time For Faith
Join us on Sunday, June 28th at 2pm (please note the new time) for a conversation with NYC Public Advocate, Jumaane Williams. He and I will talk about the ways in which religion can sustain us through difficult times on his weekly show, A Time for Faith. Please note the new date. Stay tuned for a Zoom link.

Kabbalat Shabbat
Please join us Friday at 6:50pm for pre-Shabbat ruach followed by Kabbalat Shabbat at 7pm.

Support Our Local Businesses
Many local establishments are struggling and can use our support. Download this handy app to find a kosher restaurant that is open and will happily deliver: https://openduringcovid19.app/
Due to the outbreak of COVID19, West Side Judaica will remain open and in business exclusively for phone orders, storefront pickups and nationwide shipping. They will also be offering free, door to door delivery in Manhattan. All of their sefarim, books and other Judaica items are in stock and they will be making deliveries 6 days a week. To place an order or ask for more information, please email sales@westsidejudaica.com or call (212) 362-7846. The store is open Sunday through Thursday from 11:00am-5:00pm.

Update: 6/24/2020

Without Antecedent

Dear Friends,

Every epoch has a word or two that are overused to such an extent, that they should rightfully be retired. The word of our moment is “unprecedented.” Of course everything about this pandemic is unprecedented. We’ve never done this before. We get it. We got it. It’s time to move on.

So it was helpful to read a more nuanced description of the day’s challenge. As a senior clinician recently put it, a pandemic such as ours is a “a crisis unlike anything which one has ever experienced, which one has no referent for in their own personal life history.” What we’re missing are the kinds of lived moments that might guide us through all this newness.

In the absence of individual experience, we turn instead to collective wisdom. When personal autonomy is compromised, we lean on the collective. For a community like ours, The Jewish Center represents the embodiment of this virtue.

When our daily routines were thrown into chaos, our Center gave structure to our week. When our vulnerable members were trapped at home, our younger members looked out for them. When individuals lost their jobs, our seasoned members helped them network. When our congregants were bereaved, our shul brought them comfort. And when they celebrated a simcha alone, our community thronged to join them virtually and in every way they could imagine. In shul life, what might seem impossible for the individual, suddenly becomes the province of the possible.

But all of this is only happens thanks to the generosity of our supporters. Twice a year we ask for your participation. Our annual dinner is one of those times. Of course it’s an opportunity to celebrate our shul and pay tribute to deserving honorees. It’s also an opportunity to support an institution that changes lives on a daily basis. Please join us on July 1st and please give generously. And let’s hope our virtual dinner is without antecedent.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 6:/23/2020

Not in Poland

Dear Friends,

In an alternate reality, today I am in Lublin. I am on a Jewish heritage tour along with dozens of Jewish Center members. In commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps, we were slated to spend this week exploring the contours of Jewish history in Poland. Alas, our trip was not to be. But the Holocaust has been on my mind of late nonetheless.

To maintain my sanity, I try to limit my intake of what is widely thought of as “news,” but is in fact thinly veiled partisan politics. But lest we become inured to untruth or public sentiment that is unmoored from reality, we do have to react – at the very least – to egregious offenses. Two have recently come to light.

The first was a presidential ad campaign that appropriated a symbol used by the Nazis. Ignorance or thoughtlessness serve as no justification for such an offense. As R. Moshe Chaim Luzzatto put it long ago, willful blindness is tantamount to negligence. The failure to know history is as odious as the sin of ignoring it. The ongoing barrage of outrageous statements to which we have now become accustomed must not diminish our own capacity to be outraged.

Second, the use of the word genocide has re-entered the public discourse in connection to race relations in America. The idea is not new. In 1951, a group called the Civil Rights Congress engaged in a campaign to hold the United States accountable for genocide against African Americans. Racism is categorically wrong. And violence perpetrated in the name of racism constitutes a crime that is particularly abhorrent. But racism is not the same thing as genocide. Conflating the two not only dishonors the memory of those who were the victims of attempted genocide, it weakens the argument of those fighting for a noble cause. Such is always the effect of hyperbole. It alienates the would-be listener. Yes, we must condemn racism in the strongest possible terms. But those terms cannot include a word reserved for the single most horrific crime in the history of humanity.   

The righteous gentiles we would have learned about in the Polish countryside would have reminded us that a voice of moral clarity can change history. It is axiomatic that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Particularly at a time such as this, apathy is not an option.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi
Reminders

Update: 6/22/2020

But Why Would We Go Back 

Dear Friends,
 
During our sabbatical in Israel, I made a number of trips back to New York. On my first, I titled my Shabbat morning talk, “But Why Would We Go Back, Abba?” It was, of course, a quote from one of our kids. Having eased so effortlessly into their new lives in Israel, they wondered why we would return to the diaspora.
 
I’ve been hearing a slightly different version of the question these days – not from our kids – but from regular people who have quickly adapted to these irregular circumstances. Putting aside the challenging aspects of this pandemic, some have taken to the idea of the shul-less life. They can daven at their own pace on their own schedule. They quite enjoy the limitless opportunities to learn on Zoom. They’ve found extra hours in the week that used to get gobbled up hustling to and from minyan. And particularly for those who lean toward introversion, they quite prefer the quiet of Shabbat at home to the buzz of a crowded sanctuary.
 
So how do we answer their implicit question: When it’s safe to return, why would we go back? The answers, to be sure, are many. Maybe we can manage the odd Mincha on our own; but try Neilah. Done right, communal prayer is transformative. Zoom is perfectly adequate for sharing information; but how many times have we laughed and cried? How many handshakes or hugs have we gotten? How many new friends have we made online? It’s hard to make emotional connections remotely. And what about the kids? How do we model rich Jewish living when the only Jewish life they see is in the home? The list goes on and on, but I want to highlight one under-appreciated aspect of shul life.
 
As Yuval Levin argues in his book, A Time to Build, institutions have the capacity to shape our lives. A shul – and particularly a Center like ours – gives each of its members an indispensable role to play; it creates aspirations that are larger than any one person; it helps us channel our ambitions; it gives us structure and belonging; it comforts us when we feel alone; it make demands of us; it creates expectations; it gives a voice to the unheard; and it casts nets to include those who might otherwise be excluded. And in a shul like ours, the people who walk through the door are blessed with the opportunity to meet and build relationships with members who are nothing less than extraordinary.
 
In the course of Jewish history, there may have been individuals who survived in isolation. But those who thrived, did so under the shelter of Jewish communities and within the embrace of Jewish institutions. Now is an important time to support ours. Please join us at our Virtual Dinner on July 1st  and please give generously. In this age of uncertainty, The Jewish Center is a sure bet.
 
With warmest regards,
 
Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 6/19/2020

 Thinker, Tailor, Camper, Spy

Dear Friends,

This is the season of camps: Summer camps for children; philosophical camps for adults. At a moment when our country has turned its attention to the egalitarian treatment of all people, we are remarkably segregated. Politics aside, our community has splintered. Some occupy a conservative position and are not yet ready to venture out into a world filled with risk. Others are less apprehensive and believe the time has come to return to normal. And a third group, filled with ambivalence, is unwilling to take sides.

The facts and statistics are the same. But because of our unique perspectives, we see the world differently. As one writer put it recently, “We are all in the same storm; but we’re not all in the same boat.”

These differences were already discernable weeks ago. But with each passing day, we’re going to feel them more acutely. As the world begins to reopen, the philosophical divide between the two camps will become ever more tangible. Something as innocent as an invitation to lunch might pull the veil off differing worldviews. What seems harmless to one person might provoke deep-seated anxiety for another. Without an appreciation for the views that are not our own, who know how many feathers we’ll ruffle.

While they weren’t up against a pandemic, this was the story of the spies. Twelve reasonable people investigated a given territory. They met the same locals and breathed the same air. Where ten saw morbidity; two saw futurity. One man’s peril was another man’s promised land.

In the case of the spies, the Torah makes clear who was in the right and who was in the wrong. Because we’re not endowed with clairvoyance, we can’t know which of today’s camps is “right.” I raise the parallel only to point out that we’ve been here before. We don’t need to convince anyone else about the rectitude of our position. But we do need to remember that different people process the same experience in very different ways. Wherever we stand, we have to know that someone is standing in another camp. If we recognize the many ways people see this pandemic, then Kalev’s words will ring as true today as they did all those years ago: “We shall surely conquer it.”

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

 

Update: 6/18/2020

Dear Friends,

Every year around the start of the summer, I have the pleasure of making distributions to our local day schools. Thanks to our day school fund, we’ve made Jewish education a mainstay of our communal agenda. We’ve all come to appreciate that day schools constitute a public good and every member of our community is a beneficiary of their success. 

So it’s important that not only our parents appreciate the precarious position of Jewish day schools in New York City at this time. Needless to say, all of our communal institutions need our support. The mikvah and the eruv are suffering, too. But Manhattan schools face at least two special challenges.

First, unlike suburban campuses that may have ample room to fan out their classes, Manhattan schools operate under tight conditions. The strain of social distancing and smaller class sizes will leave them searching for additional space, creating new financial burdens.

And second, New York City has witnessed a family exodus. Faced with the prospect of quarantining in Manhattan apartments for months on end, parents of young children have headed for the suburbs. Many will delay their return until conditions normalize; and some will not return at all. All of this means that our local schools can expect lower enrollment in the fall. While fewer students will make classrooms less crowded, it will also mean less revenue for the schools.

Rabbi Yose ben Kisma was once approached by someone who was impressed by his scholarship. The stranger asked if he could prevail upon the rabbi to relocate. The move, the man promised, would be a lucrative one. But R. Yose declined. “I hail from a city filled with sages and scribes,” he said. “Even for all the money in the world, I would never live anywhere other than a makom Torah.”

Our schools radiate Torah. They amplify the voices of Jewish children singing and davening and learning. They reify the values of our mesorah. And they produce the leaders of our Jewish future. A threat to the integrity of vibrant Jewish day school education is a threat to a community’s capacity to identify itself as a makom Torah.  

Under impossibly stressful conditions, our educators, administrators and schools stepped up for the children of our community. Now our community needs to step up for them.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 6/17/2020

Cheer

Dear Friends

Among mental health experts, it’s become almost clichéd to analogize our pandemic to a marathon. Everyone recognizes that the finish line is a long way off and we’re going to have to pace ourselves. Trying to absorb too much dreary information, psychologists warn, can work against us. We need to develop longer-term strategies.

While the larger metaphor may be hackneyed, one of its component parts is very instructive. Long distance runners know that they will encounter lulls. Their energy will flag or they’ll get tired. It’s for this reason that many marathoners write their names on their clothing. Science and experience have demonstrated that when people hear their name being called – when people hear words of encouragement being directed at them – they get a boost. Something as fleeting as a cheer from a stranger on the sidelines can energize a depleted runner and lift him up.

To extend the analogy to our present circumstance, a lot of people are feeling awfully depleted at the moment, but the bleachers are empty. We’re not getting the snippets of support we normally would from colleagues in the workplace or friends in social gatherings. We’re all wearing lots of hats these days. Whatever else we’re doing, we also need to be cheerleaders.

Three times in the Torah someone’s names is repeated in successive words. The angel calls out at the binding of Isaac, “Avraham, Avraham.” God appears to Jacob on his path toward Egypt with the words, “Yaakov, Yaakov.” And Hashem reveals Himself at the burning bush with the words, “Moshe, Moshe.” In each instance, the Midrash comments that the doubled call is a term of endearment. To say someone’s name is to be in conversation – to say you are standing before them. To say it twice is to say you’re behind them.

These difficult days call for more cheer and more cheering. When it comes to our friends and neighbors, no one will accuse us of calling too often. Let them hear their names. Let them know someone is rooting for them. It could well be the boost they need to make it to the end of the race.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 6/16/2020

Dear Friends,

A lot of people have been wondering whether and to what degree New York City will recover from the cataclysm of 2020. What will become of the bustling streets when bustling is proscribed? What does the future hold for crowded subway cars when crowding is banned? Who will populate and patronize the establishments that constitute the very essence of Gotham? With Manhattanites fleeing for the hills, will the city one day renew its claim to being the capital of the 21st century? 

History is surely on our side. Fires and wars have ravaged the world’s greatest cities in the past. With a little time, they have always managed to bounce back. It stands to reason that New York will, too.

But as this pandemic has transformed the commodities of vertical living into liabilities, it has also shown a spotlight on an important question: In the absence of city life, what is the great advantage of life in the city? Should one privilege the pulse of urban living or the peacefulness of the provinces?

If our tradition has a specific preference, I’ve not been able to discern it. The patriarchs and Moshe Rabbeinu were nomads. King Solomon was a city dweller. The Jews of medieval and early modern Europe lived both in great metropolises and in far-flung backwaters. Herzl came of age in the storied city of Budapest. David Ben Gurion grew up in Płońsk.

But there is, I believe, one unquestionably Jewish value fostered by city life: The breadth and depth of human contact. It’s not enough to know that different kinds of people exist. One has to meet them and interact with them.

Some of the world’s most successful companies – Apple, Google and Pixar come to mind – have designed their headquarters to replicate the benefits of city life: they nudge their employees out of their offices and into common areas where chance encounters can occur. Promoting creativity and expanding our horizons, it’s the phenomenon we witness when cooped up city dwellers take to parks and public spaces.

I say this is a Jewish value because so many of the Torah’s mitzvot require multiple participants or even entire communities. There’s a constant pull toward human interaction. At the national level, there are events like hakhel or the pilgrimage festivals. At the communal level there is everything that attaches to congregational life. And on the most granular level, there are mitzvot like bikkur cholim or hachnasat orchim that simply cannot be performed alone.

Judaism could never be lived in the cellar of a monastery. It’s designed to create connections and spur interactions between and among different people. One can’t love the stranger or embrace the outsider if everyone is already on the inside. There are plenty of good reasons to be in the suburbs these days. But the city will always be home to multiplicity. And where there are many kinds of people, there are many ways to serve their creator.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi 

Update: 6/15/2020

Dear Friends,

In our tradition, we have a blessing to accommodate just about any occasion: Birth, death and everything in between. There’s a bracha on seeing a king and a bracha on seeing a synagogue restored to its former glory. We have one for a rainbow and one for fruit trees in bloom. What, then, is the bracha on a pandemic?

A candidate from the seventeenth century crossed my mind. The chronicler Nathan Hanover recorded an account of an incident that occurred during the Khmelnystky Massacres. In the summer of 1649, the Jews in a Ukrainian village called Iziaslav got word that marauders were nearby and that their lives were in imminent danger. Fleeing en masse, they managed to escape. In their flight, however, they found little relief. They were threatened and robbed, molested and mistreated. As one survivor put it, “Every night that we spent in a Ukrainian inn, we were afraid the innkeeper would kill us in the night…. When we woke up alive in the morning, we would recite the blessing, ‘Blessed are You, Hashem, who brings the dead back to life.’”

This pandemic is not over. But recognizing how much worse things could have been, maybe this moment calls for the blessing of mechaye ha-metim.

But perhaps there’s another text which is even more appropriate. The Talmud recounts a story in which Reish Lakish paid a shivah call to a colleague. He asked his translator to share a series of blessings. One was for the bereaved; another for the comforters; and one was for all is Israel. “Master of the worlds,” he began, “Redeem and save, rescue and deliver Your people, Israel, from pestilence and from the sword; from spoil and from the blight; from disease and all types of afflictions that come suddenly upon the world. Even before we call out, You shall respond. Blessed are You, who puts an end to the plague.”

When can we get back to shul? is the query that has dominated our recent discourse. But it’s the wrong question. Instead, we should be asking, When can we get back to davening? When will we be able to extricate ourselves from everything that creates distance between ourselves and the Almighty? Brachot place God on our lips so that we can place God on our hearts. They remind us that there are loftier ideals to which we can aspire. They remind us that even in a pandemic, God is not far away.

We spend a lot of time looking to the media and looking to science. Maybe we should be spending more time looking to the heavens.

May the Healer of all Israel hear our prayers. Blessed is Hashem, who puts an end to the plague.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 6/12/2020

Dear Friends,

A prominent rabbi in Los Angeles recently analogized our posture in quarantine to the position of the mourner. Inasmuch as the avel is enjoined against leaving his home, “the whole world is sitting shivah.” A number of colleagues, in fact, have employed this metaphor of late. We are grieving, they say, over our loss of community and our loss of normalcy.

This is just the way many of our sages interpreted the pivotal episode in our parsha. When the Torah tells us that the Jews had become like mitonenim, they saw the word onen. Not unlike one who has just suffered the loss of a relative, the Israelites were grieving over the loss of Mt. Sinai. Encamped there for a year, they had established a routine and had begun to feel at home. Venturing off toward Canaan, they were pained by the growing distance between their tents and the site of revelation.

I don’t think the analogy is all wrong. There is plenty of loss to go around. But it fails because it robs us of our agency. Victimized by circumstance, the mourner is left to grieve over a past that he cannot control. In this pandemic of ours, we may be sad, but powerless we are not.

I prefer a different metaphor. Rabbi Yaakov Zvi Mecklenberg sees in the word mitonenim another concept entirely. The idea here is one of directionlessness. It derives from the word anah as in the expression anah ve-anah, like a ship tossed hin und her. The Israelites weren’t just grieving over the past, they were anxiety-ridden about the future. They were headed into a forbidding wilderness destined to arrive in a land unknown. It was the uncertainty that did them in.

And so in the midst of this pandemic, we are not unlike mitonenim. As we sputter through uncharted waters toward an unknown destination, how do we avoid falling into the trap of our biblical forebears?

The answer, I believe, is to create destinations that are known. To not know what the world, or even our city, will look like in the coming months and years is unsettling. But we can know something about what our own lives will look this week or this month. Because even a world governed by restrictions, our capacity for good is unrestricted. If the goal is to call two people feeling lonely or help one girl with her homework, is that destination so unreachable? After all, horizons are all a matter of perspective.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 6/10/2020

Dear Friends,

Predicting the future is an old pastime. The Greeks believed in oracles and fate. Ancient Egyptians practiced divination. The Babylonians developed astrology. And fortune telling has been part of Romani culture for centuries.

In our day, the medium has changed, but not the inherent desire to know what the future holds. This pandemic has brought with it its own forecasters. Early on, predictions swirled about how this virus would behave and when it would end. Scientists predicted how many people would be infected by covid-19 and how many would succumb. Now researchers are mining health data to foresee who is mostly likely to be affected and when.

Inevitably, some forecasters turn out to be right. A theory put forth some thirty years ago by William Strauss and Neil Howe holds that crises occur in American history every 80 or 90 years. Having predicted a cataclysm in 2020, they now look like prophets.

But in Judaism, the words proffered by prophets do not constitute a fait accompli; they constitute a warning. Because human beings are possessed of agency, the future cannot be known. The narratives of our lives have not yet been written. People are not predictable. The Talmud holds out Hezekiah as the paradigmatic case. When Isaiah told him that he would die, Hezekiah called out to Hashem. His prayer was answered and he went on to live another 15 years. The words of the prophet didn’t foreclose paths not taken; they inspired action.

In its utter defiance of predictability, covid-19 has reminded us of a fundamental tenet of Jewish belief. Our lives are animated by faith, not governed by fate. Prognostications notwithstanding, its we who will decide what happens next. Our choices and decisions will shape the course of this epoch. Let’s make good ones.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 6/9/2020

 

Dear Friends,

As New York City enters the embryonic stages of its plan to reopen, I would like to provide an update on where The Jewish Center stands. While we are all dreaming of the day that we are able to return, it has been so heartening to see the extent to which we have come together as a community even as we remain physically distant from our Center and from one another.

As a starting point, New York State will allow houses of worship to reopen when New York City enters phase 2 of the New York Forward Plan. To think about the implications of what reopening may look like, we have formed a task force which will make recommendations to our leadership about these issues. The committee consists of Andrew Borodach, Steve Graber, Aliza Herzberg, Barbara Paris, David Reves, Mark Segall, Zev Williams and Lori Zeltser. In addition to their input, we are guided by public health and governmental authorities, the Orthodox Union, RCA and leading poskim. And, of course, I am in touch regularly with the rabbis of our sister synagogues.

What follows should be understood as the guidance for our community. Other shuls may be animated by other considerations.

Our Calculus

It should go without saying that minyan is an important priority for our community. I confess my fear that we risk devaluing the centrality of minyan every day we remain closed. And it pains me that mourners or those observing yahrzeit will not be able to recite Kaddish. But the halakhic system to which we subscribe does not assign equal value to every observance. Every moment we stay home during a pandemic, we are fulfilling at least two mitzvot aseh d’oraita.[1] Davening with a minyan fulfils no mitzvot aseh d’oraita. 

To the extent that there is a halachic directive to daven with a minyan, that directive is unquestionably suspended at a time of a pandemic. This is why we suspended services on March 12. Even as gatherings of ten are now permitted by governmental authorities in New York City, communal prayer is certainly not mandated. And in my view, it is certainly not advisable.

Allow me to propose that the decision as to when and whether to reopen ought to be informed by considering the attendant benefits and costs. Simply put, what do we gain and what do we lose?

First, it is important to point out that the overwhelming majority of positives we think about when we imagine a return to shul would not be relevant were we to consider reopening. There would be no singing and no sermon; no youth groups and no kiddush; no chesed events and no socializing. The upside would be reduced to a bare bones minyan that could be attended only by a limited number of members.

Risk of exposure to covid-19 increases exponentially when groups gather. And the risk increases exponentially when groups gather for extended periods of time. Passing someone momentarily on the street is not the same as sitting among a group of people for 30 or 60 minutes. California’s Department of Health put it best: “In particular, activities such as singing and group recitation negate the risk-reduction achieved through six feet of physical distancing.” Sitting six feet apart from one’s neighbor in shul is simply not sufficient.

While gathering outdoors is better than davening indoors, this is a non-starter for a shul like ours. And even an outdoor minyan is fraught with risk. Most obviously, there is the problem of compliance. As one prominent virologist put it to me, “there is simply no guarantee against unguarded moments.” People make mistakes. They forget their masks; they stand too close together; or they don’t wash their hands. We can’t eliminate risk altogether. And our community knows first-hand how dangerous this disease can be. Why would we create more opportunities for it to spread?

What is more, even if one could “guarantee” one’s own safety, there is a collective matter to consider. There is no doubt that covid cases will emerge among these well-intentioned minyan-goers. Considering the safety of our own members is only one part of the equation. We must consider, too, the collective safety of the broader community.  

Predictably, stories have already started to emerge wherein the experiment has failed. Guidelines for minyanim have been disregarded; individuals have lingered and shared food after services; and people have ended up in the hospital with covid-19. Reading about “super-spreader events” in houses of worship and news from other locales where reopening has triggered spikes in new cases should also give us pause.

Further, I worry about those sitting on the fence. We talk in broad generalities of healthy and vulnerable populations. But the world is not organized so neatly, nor does susceptibility to covid-19 fall cleanly along such lines. Plenty of people suffer from mild ailments or think of themselves as healthier than they are. Others with no comorbidities have fallen prey to the virus. 
When shuls begin to open, fence-sitters begin to entertain the possibility of attending.

Finally, I worry that a piecemeal opening will indeed create insiders and outsiders; those “qualified” to participate in communal life and those “disqualified” from participation. So many of our members are enduring this pandemic alone. But at least they haven’t been made to feel as though they have been excluded from their shul. What is the cost of adding insult to injury by announcing, “Shul is open… but not for you?”  

At the present time, the upside of reopening is outweighed by a downside that could be catastrophic. We deem the risks unjustified. We would love nothing more than to be able to gather in some form or fashion for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. I’m afraid it is too soon to say with any certainty what that might look like.

Advance Planning and Continued Assessment

In good time, we will get back to shul. It is important to note that New York City just entered phase 1 on June 8. Once New York City has entered phase 2 and some time has passed, we will assess our position. Our newly formed task force has begun to plan the logistics of a return. Given all of the above concerns and our unique facility, we cannot commit to a particular reopening date. But we can commit to frequent and transparent communication regarding our plans as we proceed through this process.

Two further points must be made to answer two important questions. First, if the government permits reopening, why is that not sufficient? We must be conscious of the difference between our objectives, and those of the state government. The state’s plan for reopening assumes coexistence with the virus and recognizes that reopening will result in spikes of new infections and additional deaths. While adherence to the dictates of the government is required by halakha, those dictates represent a floor rather than a ceiling. Our goal in reopening will be to keep all of our members and guests out of harm’s way. Sakanah – risk to human life – alters the very trajectory of halakhic thought. We take risk very seriously. We closed our shul well before we were mandated to do so by the government. And we will certainly not reopen it until we are confident that doing so will not put our members at risk.

Second, as businesses begin to reopen and restrictions begin to soften, why can’t the shul be open? The answer is twofold. Businesses are reopening with their own plans. They are balancing risks and rewards that differ from those associated with a shul. Houses of worship are considered especially risky environments. The combination of being indoors, singing or speaking loudly, concentrating on prayer rather than social distance and the duration of exposure make for a dangerous recipe. Additionally, while each of us may choose our level of risk tolerance, as a religious community comprised of congregants with various vulnerabilities, our calculus differs. We cannot place others in danger, and we must consider the physical and emotional wellbeing of each and every member.

Next Steps

On a personal level, I will share with you that my mother’s yahrzeit is on Sunday. It’s difficult for me to think that I won’t be in shul. But staying home is undoubtedly the better decision. I keep thinking about the quote from David Weiss Halivni that I shared before the first Shabbat we closed. He said he could live without talking but he could not live without prayer. The same is true is for all of us. We can’t live without davening, but we can live without shul.
 
We will continue to reevaluate all the relevant issues on a regular basis and we will continue to dispatch regular updates. In the meantime, our chesed will continue. Our Torah learning will continue. And our Tefillah will continue.

The Talmud teaches that one who is blessed to live in a city with a shul but fails to attend that shul is considered a bad neighbor. Rather than help facilitate the best environment for prayer for the members of his community, he is derelict. In a time of pandemic, the best neighbors are the ones who daven at home. By helping maintain public health, each of us is performing an enormous communal service, while keeping ourselves safe at the same time.

May Hashem answer all of our Tefillot. And may we soon be blessed with the opportunity to return to our hallowed sanctuary, along with all of our good neighbors.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 6/5/2020

Another Virus

Dear Friends,

In a time of pandemic, provincial problems can seem very small. The global issue relativizes the local one. Through the wide-angle lens we use to see the proverbial bigger picture, smaller issues are obscured or disappear completely. But sometimes, something else happens: The global informs the local.

When this pandemic broke, how many people were thinking about racism or prejudice? But now that these scourges have risen to the fore once again, it cannot escape our attention that racism is best conceptualized as a virus. It spreads from person to person and cluster to cluster. Prolonged exposure makes the symptoms worse and there is no known vaccine. But unlike covid-19, there is a cure.

Racism is infectious. But so is civility. In ways that cannot be perceived by the naked eye, gestures of kindness can be transformative. And in their aggregate, they can tip the scale.

In 1966, an 11 year old African American boy moved with his family to a white neighborhood in Washington, DC. Sitting with his brothers and sisters on the stoop in front of their new house, he waitedto see how they would be greeted, but no one gave them so much as a passing smile. “I knew we were not welcome here,” he later wrote. “I knew we would not be liked here. I knew we would have no friends here. I know we should not have moved here.”
 
Just then, a white woman coming home from work passed by on the other side of the street. She turned to the children and with a big smile, said, “Welcome!” She went into her home and returned a moment later with a tray full of drinks and cream cheese and jelly sandwiches for the children. That moment, the young man later wrote, changed his life. 
 
Stephen Carter went on to become a professor at Yale Law School and he wrote a book called, Civility. The name of the woman was Sara Kestenbaum, an observant Jew. 
 
“To this day, I can close my eyes and feel on my tongue the smooth, slick sweetness of the cream cheese and jelly sandwiches that I gobbled on that summer afternoon when I discovered how a single act of genuine and unassuming civility can change a life forever.”
 
It’s not just racism that is contagious; so is apathy. As Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, indifference is more insidious than evil itself. And more contagious.

We’ve all been losing sleep over these issues, particularly because the problem can seem so intractable. We all want to contribute to the solution, but this may not be a prudent time to take to the streets. During a pandemic, protests of any kind – peaceable or otherwise – are inherently dangerous. But remaining indoors needn’t be synonymous with remaining indifferent. There are letters to write, organizations to support and conversations to be had about how we can change the status quo. Attitudes can shift; people can evolve. One person at a time, we can be the cure.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 6/5/2020

Shaken, Not Stirred

Dear Friends,

I wonder if the world will have more tolerance for alarmism in the aftermath of this pandemic. After all, hindsight suggests that we would have benefited from a few more early alarmists. So perhaps I will be forgiven for raising the taboo topic of alcoholism and its attendant complications.  

Not a few quarantini recipes have been exchanged over the past several weeks. And no one will be surprised to learn that alcohol sales are up. The notion of escaping reality by retreating to the bottle is as old as Noach. And the outcomes are little improved with the passage of time. The Nazir, whom we read about in parshah this week, reminds us that leading a wineless life – even if only for short stints – creates so much sanctity that one’s status is akin to that of the high priest.

But if the Torah looks askance on drinking, why didn’t it outlaw the practice altogether? Long before the failure of prohibition in this country, R. Avraham ben HaRambam wrote presciently that a blanket ban would be impractical. Certain social behaviors aren’t given to strict legislation. Rather than demanding abstinence, the Torah demands that we identify a sober balance between temperance and intoxication.

No one wants to be a killjoy. And everyone wants to trust the judgment of the person holding the drink. But therein lies the rub. It’s what happens on a chemical level that impairs our capacity for sound decision-making.

Fifteen million Americans suffer from what researchers call Alcohol Use Disorder. That’s five percent of our population. I’ve never seen any data indicating that the statistics are discernably different in the Jewish community. Every one of us knows someone who has a problem with alcohol. The challenge today is that we’re not with them. As if we don’t have enough on our plates already, we all need to be extra mindful and extra vigilant. There’s usually no quick fix; but a supportive friend can go a very long way. Educating ourselves on the issue is a good place to start. Following up with our at-risk friends and relatives is even better.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 6/4/2020

Remembering Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm

Dear Friends,

Earlier this week, the Jewish people lost a legendary leader. Below, I share with you the words I’ve written to honor the memory of Moreinu v’Rabbeinu Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm. I’m afraid they are woefully inadequate. It would take a lifetime to fully appreciate the complexity of his thought and the depth of his character. In the coming weeks and months, a tapestry will gradually come together that captures all thepects of his extraordinary life. Perhaps what follows will constitute a stitch.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

What is the measure of a man? If, as I heard Mindy say on more than one occasion, life is a journey, how does one know whether and to what extent the traveler has reached his destination?

The Tefillat Ha-Derekh, the traveler’s prayer, may provide a clue. When he sets off on a trek fraught with peril, the traveler davens to Hashem and he says:
וְתַגִּיעֵנוּ לִמְחוֹז חֶפְצֵנוּ לְחַיִּים וּלְשִׂמְחָה וּלְשָׁלוֹם.
Let us arrive at our destination in life, in happiness and in peace.

In thinking about Moreinu v’Rabbeinu Rabbi Lamm – and particularly in thinking about the 18 years he served as the Rabbi of The Jewish Center – it’s the three qualities captured here that come to the fore.

Allow me to start at the end, with the notion of Shalom, the notion of harmony. Rabbi Lamm was possessed of an extraordinary gift for synthesis. He was a scientist and a poet; a rationalist who read and wrote deeply about Hassidic thought; a scholar and a gentleman, an artist and an architect.  

By the time one was done listening to his words, the synthesis was obvious. It all fit together so seamlessly. The question wasn’t: How did Rabbi Lamm generate this dazzling insight, but rather: why hadn’t anyone else noticed this before?

It’s every shul’s dream to find a rabbi who excels both as a scholar and a pastor. “You don’t have to like every one of your members,” Rabbi Lamm once told me. “But you do have to love every one of your members.”

To the cadences of The Jewish Center, he brought Shalom, he brought harmony. He synthesized the two great roles of the rabbi such that he became the preeminent scholar of our era at the same time he was dispensing compassion to his beloved flock.

The second aspect of the bracha is simcha.It wasn’t just that Rabbi Lamm was warm and filled with joy. His capacity for wit was limitless.

When our eldest son, Akiva, was about two, he was very comfortable in Hebrew thanks to an Israeli nanny. I was once waiting with him for an elevator. When the doors opened, out walked Rabbi Lamm. Akiva looked up and said, “Ish Tzaddik.” Without missing a beat, Rabbi Lamm looked down at him and said, “Tell my wife!”

He added so much joy to the lives of his congregants and his students. From the moment I came to The Jewish Center as the rabbinic intern, Rabbi Lamm took a keen interest in my personal growth and development. When I would see him over the years at a simcha or a dinner, he would introduce me to people and say to them, “I want you to meet my rabbi.”

He was so generous with his time and his wisdom. Whenever I met with him – whether in his office or his home – I always emerged feeling elevated and inspired, renewed in my conviction that it was indeed possible to contribute meaningfully to the Jewish people. So much of my rabbinate has been shaped by the lessons he taught me.

And finally there is the notion of Chayim. In this case, I would translate the word not as life, but lifetime. Perhaps the real test of a rabbi is what happens to the relationships he has with his members when he’s no longer the rabbi and they are no longer his members. Rabbi Lamm saw his rabbinate as a lifetime vocation. So while the presidency of Yeshiva University took Rabbi Lamm out of The Jewish Center, it could never take The Jewish Center out of Rabbi Lamm.

Sitting in the pews, he davened regularly with us on Shabbat. When the walk became too far, he and Mindy would stay across the street to be with us for special occasions or chagim. And in recent years, after the Lamms moved to 88th St., they were a regular presence once again, all the while remaining deeply connected and involved in the life of our shul.

Some years after he became president of YU, a young woman from The Jewish Center became engaged. She called to ask Rabbi Lamm if he would officiate at her wedding. He would love to, he said, but the date presented a conflict. He had already made a commitment to appear at conference at the White House. The bride began to make other arrangements. Rabbi Lamm called back a short time later to say that he had moved the date of the conference and would happily officiate.

I remember visiting an older couple at the shul on a Friday afternoon when I was the assistant rabbi. The phone rang. It was Rabbi Lamm calling to wish them a good Shabbos. And I remember thinking to myself: 1976! It’s been 30 years since he’s been the rabbi. He’s still calling to wish them a good Shabbos!

Rabbi Lamm once said of Rabbi Belkin something that applies now. “He was blessed with great gifts, both intellectual and personal, and few of us indeed can aspire to equal his achievements. But we can learn from him.”

Klal Yisrael thought of Rabbi Lamm as a leader of the Jewish people; we at The Jewish Center thought of him as our rabbi.

By translating the vocabulary and values of our Mesorah into a poetic code of sanctified Jewish living, he blazed an intellectual trail for thousands. He was and remains not just a role model for rabbis the world over, but an icon.

At moment when all was almost lost, Yosef saw the image of his father and it save him. In the same vein, when we face our most pressing challenges – when the endpoint seems unreachable – we’ll conjure up a visage of Rabbi Lamm. In knowing what he would have done, the path before us will be obvious and our destination won’t seem so distant after all.

All of us who were his students, are eternally in his debt: For his warmth and his wisdom, his faith and his friendship, his courage and his charisma; his vision and his vitality, his leadership and his love. 

תהא נשמת מורינו ורבינו הרב נחום בן ר' מאיר שמואל  צרורה בצרור החיים

May the soul of Rabbi Lamm be bound in the bonds of eternal life; and may his soul reach its ultimate destination לחיים ולשמחה ולשלום.

Update: 6/3/2020

Heros

Dear Friends,

This summer, we will celebrate the hundredth anniversary of women’s suffrage. What seems obvious today was anything but obvious not so long ago. It is heartening to know that after war and pandemic came progress. We are not prophets. But with cycles of history wont to repeat, none of us should be surprised if our post-covid lives are somehow enriched by phenomena that emerge from this crisis. But neither do we need to wait until the storm clouds have parted to appreciate the rays of light that shine now.

It is a source of great pride, particularly in the areas of leadership and scholarship, that women play such indispensable roles in our community. We take it as axiomatic that women and men are equally created in the image of God, each endowed with the same spark of divinity. Our sages were quick to notice, not only that so many decisive moments in Jewish history were guided by heroic women; but that so many mundane ones were as well. I suspect it was both the epiphanic and the quotidian that King Solomon had in mind when he enjoined us not to forsake to the Torah of our mothers.

Every year, in the days before or after Shavuot, we celebrate the accomplishments of two women in our community. The Book of Ruth is about two Jewish heroines and so are the Keter Torah awards. This year, we honor two women who have made outstanding contributions to our ongoing battle against the coronavirus and its victims. Animated by our cherished values, they have deployed their expertise in the service of our most pressing and timely needs.

As we have come to learn, that we cannot gather as we normally would is no reason not to gather in other ways. On the contrary, Zoom has allowed to us include people who might otherwise be unable to join. Particularly during this time when we are all in need of uplift, we cannot afford to pass up opportunities to celebrate. I invite you to join us this evening at 8pm as we recognize the accomplishments of Adira Hulkower and Barbara Paris.

A century from now, a new generation will be curious to learn how we responded in a moment of crisis. Little children will clamber to hear the stories of how ordinary people accomplished extraordinary things. To the extent we absorb those stories now, we’ll be able to preserve them for the future. A hundred years hence, who knows what they’ll inspire.

With warm regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 6/2/2020

The Forgotten Danger of Reopening 

Dear Friends,

Over the past twenty years, safety and security have risen to the fore of our communal agenda. And with good reason. In the face of violence and terrorism in general and anti-Semitism in particular, we’ve come to recognize that a reactive approach to these matters is inadequate. So our community has invested millions of dollars and thousands of hours to protect every person who walks through the doors of every shul in the United States. From professional and volunteer security personnel to strategizing for emergencies, we’ve been cautious and we’ve been vigilant.

In their haste to reopen, however, synagogues across America are sacrificing one danger for another. The risk of spreading covd-19 is exponentially higher when people gather indoors. So shuls are rushing to identify makeshift outdoor spaces in which to hold their minyanim. With respect to protecting parishioners from the virus, the logic is sound. With respect to protecting them from any other kind of risk, the logic is anything but.

Retailers have already reported a sharp spike in the sale of guns and ammunition. And the events of recent days have reminded us that calm can turn to mayhem in a heartbeat. I read about a shul whose façade was vandalized by angry protesters. I shudder to think what might have happened if, instead of chancing upon a locked building, they had chanced upon a group of people davening in the shul parking lot.

We don’t need to be alarmist about these issues. But we do need to be pragmatic. Every shul must take the necessary steps to keep everyone safe. And if a community cannot reasonably assure the safety of those who gather, perhaps it should consider not gathering at all. The push to reopen is understandably powerful. But we cannot allow it to blind us to other basic considerations of safety.

In locations where covid-19 is still infecting thousands of people every week, don’t we already have enough risk to worry about? Why run from Scylla to Charybdis? In good time, shuls will find ways to reopen safely and we’ll beat a path to their front doors. Let’s make sure that path is a safe one.

With warm regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi  

Update: 6/1/2020

The Better Part of Valor 

Dear Friends,

When Denis Papin invented the forerunner of the pressure cooker at the end of the seventeenth century, I’m not sure he knew the extent to which pressure and its release would become household metaphors. Those metaphors seem particularly pertinent today – to both those clambering to reopen and to those aggrieved by an act that was senseless at best and monstrous at worst.

Over Memorial Day weekend, we saw photos of mask-less men and women in crowded public spaces in the midst of a pandemic. The images may have been upsetting, but they were  unsurprising. Having been confined and constrained for months on end, is it any wonder that so many people would emerge from their quarantine with too much gusto to preserve the public health recommendations that have been keeping us safe?

Over this past weekend, the images were even more dramatic. Protesters took to the streets and it wasn’t long before death and destruction followed. The causes that the agitators were championing were sensible enough. But it should go without saying that violence and criminal activity make for feckless remedies to entrenched problems.

The recklessness of the first group and the agitation of the second are not the same. I’m thinking of them together only because they are linked by a common force that surely exacerbated how each group responded. Without a safety valve, pressure can build in dangerous ways. That we understand these respective responses does not mean they are justified, just explicable.

The Megillah we read just two days ago offers an important Jewish perspective on this issue. Boaz is described as an ish gibor chayil. The expression conjures up images of military might or valor. But there are no military campaigns in the Megillah. Whatever battles were raging at the time, the text is silent about them. Not only is the book of Ruth not about war, its quietude is one of its defining qualities. So why portray Boaz as a gibor?

Gevurah in the Megillah is, in fact, not about physical might at all. It conveys an entirely different kind of strength. It refers to a kind of inner fortitude that should rightly be translated as resolve or restraint. The act that Boaz does not perform when Ruth appears at his feet on the threshing floor is the defining moment of the narrative. His restraint preserves the legal and cultural norms governing remarriage. Before he could marry Ruth, Boaz had to be sure that Naomi’s closer relative was willing to forgo his obligation to do so.

This pandemic has called on all of us to be many things. In this moment, it calls on all of us to be restrained: Both those rushing to embrace freedoms denied them by our public health experts; and those rushing to champion the causes of justice and equality. When caution fails to prevail in its enduring battle against haste, we all suffer. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn once told Shimon Peres, “Only self-restraint can pave the way for saving the world from sure destruction.” Maybe he had in mind a moment like this one.

With warm regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 5/28/2020

Crowded 

Dear Friends,

On January 1st, I stood together with close to 100,000 people at MetLife Stadium to celebrate the Siyum HaShas. Looking back, it seems like a lifetime ago. It felt special at the time, but not categorically special. For us denizens of a bustling metropolis, crowds are a commonplace; they form part of the fabric of our city. This particular crowd was just larger than usual. 

But in Talmudic thought, the idea of the crowd was considered a novelty. The sight of 600,000 Jews in one location, the Gemara teaches, calls for the recitation of a bracha. These days, when virtually any crowd is verboten, the idea that seeing people together warrants a blessing is particularly resonant. 

The text of the bracha is revealing. We refer to Hashem as the “Knower of secrets.” While it is so easy to lose sight of individual faces among a crush of people, the bracha reminds us that within a crowd are unique individuals possessed of thoughts and feelings very different from one another.On the surface, they may stand shoulder to shoulder; but this says nothing about their inner lives. 

As we commemorate revelation on Shavuot, we think back to a moment when 600,000 souls stood at Sinai “with one heart.” It is axiomatic that we were awash in feelings of national unity. But to take the metaphor to its logical conclusion, even one heart contains within it an infinite number of feelings.  

Someone asked me recently, “What’s the dominant sentiment in your community that’s been generated by this pandemic?” The question is unanswerable, of course, because it is predicated on a series of false assumptions. The feelings are as variegated as our members; those feelings are rarely static; and they cannot be reduced to single words. 

The media has a habit of articulating its conception of the world in binary terms: doves and hawks; liberals and conservatives; those in favor of reopening and those opposed. But people are much more complicated than that. As centrifugal forces pull us toward one pole or another, it’s worth remembering that the overwhelming majority of the issues we now face cannot be placed neatly into a box and labeled. They are complex and multifaceted. Even calling covid-19 a global pandemic is misleading. Yes, the virus has spread to regions all over the globe, but not in the same way. To many, the outbreak in New York City felt apocalyptic. But what about the person living in a suburb of Boise who didn’t know anyone who’s even been exposed to the virus? It’s the same pandemic; but not the same experience. To forestall the predictable fractiousness among those who will reach different conclusions about how to steer their respective lives, calling to mind the crowd bracha will be beneficial. God knows the inner thoughts of all people. We mortals are lucky if we can say that we know our own. 

With warmest regards and best wishes for a chag sameach,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 5/27/2020

The Tradegy of a Mask

Dear Friends,

Once the province of villains and reluctant superheroes, masks are now as ubiquitous as socks. Suspending judgment, we put them on because they keep us safe. Or at least safer. I don’t in any way intend to challenge this wisdom. I wear a mask whenever I venture out into public.

But I do want to note that the creation of a mask-wearing society comes at a cost. I find the inability to see another person’s face disconcerting. Smiles are hidden; frowns are concealed. Words represent only a small portion of human communication.

Maybe we will adjust over time. The stage actor, for instance, cannot whisper. So if the scene calls for him to communicate something in secret, he raises his hand to his mouth to convey that his words are not meant for all to hear. Gradually, perhaps, we’ll learn to nod more emphatically or say more with our eyes. But such adaptations take time and practice. They certainly don’t come naturally to most of us. The art of reading people is the art of identifying clues, so many of which are subtly conveyed by the expressions we wear on our faces. In an age of masks, it’s as if we’ve been asked to read in the dark. Yes, it can be done. But only with great difficulty.

The Megillah we’ll read on Shavuot makes an important contribution to this discussion. Why does Ruth follow Naomi? Her sister-in-law, Orpah – who doubles as a narrative foil – hears Naomi insist that to accompany her to Bethlehem would be an exercise in futility. And so she turns back to Moab. What makes Ruth so persistent?

The Midrash suggests that Ruth’s name contains within it the solution to the riddle. Why was she called רות? Because, the Midrash answers, she saw (ראתה) the words of her mother-in-law. Which is to say, she saw beneath the surface meaning of Naomi’s words. When Naomi said, “Return to your homes,” Ruth interpreted the sentiment behind that statement. She understood just how much her mother-in-law would benefit from companionship at a moment of such utter loneliness. Behind the mask of Naomi’s self-assurance, Ruth saw the vulnerable face of a woman bereft.

That we’ll have to work harder to see beneath the surface does not absolve us of our responsibility to do so in this masked world of ours. The spread of coronavirus has brought along with it the spread of anxiety and loneliness. We need to listen closely to the words we hear – and even more closely to the sentiments that attach to those words. Particularly in this fraught moment, empathy is in high demand. Let’s rise to meet it.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

.Update: 5/26/2020

A Time to Mourn

Dear Friends,

This pandemic is trying our patience. Being cooped up tests our resolve. We’ve flattened the curve and we’ve learned how to mitigate the risk of exposure to this virus. Add to the mix the allure of sunshine and better weather and it’s little wonder that so many people are clamoring for a return to normal.

To be sure, there is a debate to be had about how best to balance the preservation of public health on the one hand and the preservation of our financial well-being on the other. But there’s also something that needs to happen before we go back. Covid-19 has caused the loss of more American lives than the Vietnam and Korean Wars combined. We need to mourn our dead.

The institution of met mitzvah is instructive. Should a person chance upon a corpse, the halacha demands that he stops what he’s doing and devote his attention to the burial of the deceased. The loss of a human being created in the image of the divine requires not only that we acknowledge the loss, but that we accord it every measure of dignity. What’s required is nothing less than urgent attention at the expense of virtually any other halachic priority.

I am certain that we’ve all attended more than our share of Zoom shivas. But personal grief is not the same as national grief. National tragedy requires national mourning. The notion of met mitzvah says that if no else is attending to the dead, it’s the responsibility of any decent citizen to do so. If our federal government can’t muster the requisite empathy, then the obligation falls to us.

I was heartened when a reporter from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency called to learn about the members we have lost in support of a project called Bonds of Life. The idea is to memorialize those who have perished during this pandemic. It’s not the entirety of the answer, but it’s the beginning.

Without proposing a solution, allow me to at least propose that this should be a topic for discussion. Before we can move forward, we need first to take stock. There is a reason we assign times to remember the fallen; there’s a purpose to grieving as a community. To rush to return to normal as if nothing has changed is to risk unwittingly trampling upon the memory of the those who deserve much more. The victims of this pandemic mattered a great deal. Let’s make sure we honor their memory – and in the process – our own values.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 5/22/2020

 A Personal Message 

Dear Friends,

This week we celebrate the bar mitzvah of our eldest son, Akiva. Needless to say, it will not look like the celebration we had envisioned. But whether the young man is ready for the world or the world is ready for the young man, a bar mitzvah is a bar mitzvah. A moment in time comes; ready or not. Rachel and I are overjoyed. Before us is our opportunity to take stock of how far Akiva has come and to dream, with God’s help, about how far he will go. It’s also a chance for us to say thank you. 

 why the Torah writes, These are the progeny of Aharon and Mosheand then proceeds to list only the children of Aharon, Rashi cites the Talmud (Sanhedrin 19a). One who teaches Torah to the children of someone else is also considered to be their parent. While not their biological father, Moshe was no less a father figure to the sons of Aharon. 

In fact, this comment is part of a larger Talmudic discourse. A teacher may be considered a surrogate parent. And so may those who help raise or support the process of child-rearing. Naomi, the Gemara notes, surely did not give birth to Oved. Ruth did. But the townspeople could say in good faith, A son is born to Naomi because she helped to rear him. 

With heartfelt appreciation, Rachel and I wish to thank not only Akiva’s teachers, but all of his surrogate parents among our beloved Jewish Center family. For 13 years – on all 11 floors – in a million ways – you have nurtured and encouraged him. You have taught him how to daven and modelled for him the value of chesed. You’ve shown him the richness of Talmud Torah and the power of community. 

In a word, you have helped create for him a virtual home. So we hope you will join us in our virtual celebration. That we will be together over some distance will not make our celebration any less real. The sentiments are real. And that’s really all that matters. 

With appreciation and love,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 5/21/2020

A Time to Laugh

Dear Friends,

I have always found the study of humor to be humorless. If one has to think too hard about what makes something funny, it probably isn’t funny anymore – to the extent it was ever to begin with. Jokes should be told; not analyzed. At the risk of violating my own rule, I’ve been thinking about the role of humor during a pandemic.

Surely, there is a case to be made that amidst so much suffering, it would be unseemly to indulge in laughter. Times like these, the argument goes, call for sobriety and empathy, not levity and amusement. At the same time, however, we must appreciate that there is something healthy about injecting a dose of humor into an otherwise dreary forecast. Trafficking only in the news of the moment can leave us feeling depleted, if not defeated. I even read about a prominent cardiologist who recommended laughing at least 15 minutes a day. 

The value of humor was not lost on the Talmud. Rabbi Beroka frequented the marketplace where Elijah the Prophet would often appear to him. Once Rabbi Beroka asked him, “Is there anyone in this market worthy of the World-to-Come?” Elijah could scarcely identify anyone up to snuff until two brothers arrived. “These two have a have a share in the World-to-Come,” said Elijah. R. Beroka approached the men. “Tell me,” he said. “What is your occupation?” They said to him, “We are jesters; we bring cheer to those who are dejected.” 

It’s no secret that some of the darkest moments in history have produced some of our funniest jokes. Humor doesn’t just help us laugh. It helps remind us that we are not alone. Someone else has shared our fear or our anxiety; someone else has endured what we have. They’ve lived to tell about it; and so will we. So the next time you hear a funny joke, make sure to laugh. And then retell it. Until there’s a vaccine, it may be the best medicine we have. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

 

Update: 5/20/2020

To Weariness Give No Sanction

Dear Friends,

I learned a new Yiddish word recently: Oysgezoomt. It means something like utterly fatigued by the overuse of Zoom. Exasperated at the end of a day full of online meetings, one might say, “Ich bin azoy oysgezoomt!” (I’ve had it with Zoom!)

It’s a kind of metaphor for what many people are feeling these days; it’s just that – as if often the case – Yiddish captures the feeling so much better than does our native tongue. This pandemic is draining. And it’s not just that everything takes longer. Every adjustment to “life-as-normal” reqauires mental energy. Nothing can be taken for granted, not to mention the attention necessary just to maintain social distance any place we go. We’re exhausted. 

In the normal course of things, some of this exhaustion might be tempered by social contact with friends or family. We might be energized by chatting or sitting together over a cup of coffee. But now even small pleasures such as these – or their virtual equivalents – require special effort. Recognizing that all of this will not be over tomorrow, how do we manage? 

Rabbi Pereidah is often held out in Talmudic tradition as the paragon of patience. If a student proved incapable of absorbing a given lesson until it was reviewed 400 times, R. Pereidah would review it 400 times. But perhaps even more fundamentally, R. Pereidah was a paragon of perspective. With one eye trained perpetually on the goal, he appreciated that each review brought him that much closer to it. 

ome 40 years ago, Prof. David Weiss Halivni said in an interview, “I look at a line – sometimes 400 times…. I can sit here six hours at a stretch going over the same few lines. If they yield their meaning, the whole thing is worthwhile.” In other words, the downward pull of fatigue can be overcome by the ascendant pull of aspiration – the recognition that accumulated effort can translate into having accomplished something over time. 

Hard as it may be to imagine, each passing day brings us one step closer to the end. As Ruth Messinger once said, “We cannot retreat to the convenience of being overwhelmed.” We won’t beat this pandemic by claiming to be oysgezoomt. We’ll beat it by being persistent. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Update: 5/19/2020

Greener Pastures 

Dear Friends,

Among the consequences of spending extended periods of time in a given state is the tendency to fantasize about living in an alternate state. Among those to whom I’ve spoken, there is evidence of this phenomenon across virtually all demographics. Those living alone long for company or family. Those living with family, long for a moment alone. Older people long to turn back the clock so as not to feel so confined and so dependent on the young. Younger people long to be older so as not to feel so dependent on those older than they.

In times such as these, Ben Zoma’s simple maxim is often the first to come to mind. Who is rich? The one who is happy with his lot. Of course this saying contains within it intrinsic wisdom. But this adage is but one of four that the Mishnah records in Ben Zoma’s name. Only within their broader context are they properly understood. 

Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from every man…. Who is mighty? He who subdues his [evil] inclination…. Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot…. Who is honored? He who honors God’s creations…. 

Ben Zoma deals here with four qualities that are often thought of as hereditary – blessings of birth beyond one’s control: Intellect, strength, wealth and honor. Particularly in a pre-modern world, one could easily convince oneself that the very notions of mobility or progress in these realms were impossible. To such a notion Ben Zoma says, think again. One needn’t consign oneself to passive acceptance of one’s lot. Endowed with human agency, each of us can be the arbiter of our own destiny. It’s all a matter of perspective. Wisdom is not inherited; it’s acquired. Strength is not genetic; it’s cultivated. Wealth is not objective; it’s subjective. Honor is not accumulated; it’s conferred on others. 

It’s precisely this outlook that we need in these time. We may be limited, but we are not helpless. Just because our fantasies can’t be achieved in this moment doesn’t mean that nothing can be achieved. We may not have woken up feeling wise, mighty, wealthy and honored. But if we’re willing to give Ben Zoma’s tactics a try, by the end of the day, we may feel differently. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 5/18/2020

Out with the Old

Dear Friends,

Older adults are under assault. And not just because the mortality rates of covid-19 are higher for them than they are for younger people. But because consciously or otherwise, we’ve started to think differently about a certain segment of our population. The unstated argument goes something like this: At some point life will have to continue and some folks will just have to stay home.In one of the most grotesque offenses, a protester outside Tennessee’s state capitol on April 20 held a sign that read, “Sacrifice the weak; reopen Tennessee.”  

It should go without saying that such an argument is anathema to our tradition. But left unchecked, it seems this sentiment could become increasingly prevalent. What happens when public life becomes the exclusive province of those who are deemed “young and healthy?” 

Our sages were keenly aware of how easily people can fall into the trap of disregarding those who are older than they. The very word zaken, they wrote, is nothing other than a kind of acronym for ze she-kanah chochmah. In place of biological age, they insisted we see biographical accomplishment – the accumulated wisdom that attaches to life experience. 

The Talmud wonders what images were minted on the coin of Avraham Avinu. It suggests that on one side was the image of an older couple; on the opposite side was the image of a young man and a young woman. It was, perhaps, testament to the fact that Avraham and Sarah could be faithfully depicted in two ways. Their Jewish lives began when they were “older.” When we’re introduced to them, Avraham was 75; Sarah was 65. But to judge by what they achieved, they were vigorous, spry and youthful. 

One virus has given us quite enough to manage. Let’s not allow another kind of virulence to dominate our discourse. For those of us that become a little older every day, to do so would be unbecoming. 

Wth warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 5/15/2020

Proclaim Liberty

Dear Friends,

To paraphrase the first Rashi of our Parsha, what has Yovel got to do with a global pandemic? Three answers come to mind. 

The first has to do with time. On one level, this entire experience is unprecedented. We look back only to discover that we have no memories from the past that can inform our present. But the institution of the jubilee year reminds us, too, that time isn’t always linear. Sometimes its cyclical. Life chugs along; a trauma interrupts it; and then we move on. While it’s true that we’ve not experienced an interruption quite like this one, it’s equally true that we always find ways to resume. And more often than not, we emerge better or stronger for having undergone the trauma. 

Which brings us to the second point. Difficult as it may be to imagine, Yovel insists that things really do return. Eventually, everyone gets to go back. Strikingly, the Torah tells us Each person shall return to his/her family. At a time when a virus has kept parents from their children and grandparents from their grandchildren, we can take comfort from these immortal words. A time will come when we can yet again embrace the people from whom we’ve been separated.

And finally, there’s a metaphoric answer to the question. The Rambam writes that the Yovel may only be observed when all 12 tribes occupy their respective places in the Land of Israel. The system only works when there’s a sense of solidarity among the citizenry. To be sure, there will always be violators at the margins, born of varying degrees of malice and ignorance. But by and large, what we’ve seen over these past two months is a sense of shared empathy for those we’ve lost; a sense of national pride in the heroism of our frontline workers; and a sense of collective responsibility for the social and economic well-being of our country. 

Let us pray that the day soon arrives on which we can proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof. For that will be the day on which we’ll be able to declare that this pandemic is behind us and a new cycle in our lives has begun. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 5/14/2020

The Minyan Wedding 

In the nineteenth century, plagues in Europe gave rise to a phenomenon known as the black wedding, or the plague wedding. Orphans or those lacking means were married in weddings arranged by the local Jewish community. The ceremony itself often took place in the cemetery.

Our current pandemic has created its own cultural phenomenon: the minyan wedding. So far, the sample size is too small to know if this is the name that will stick. But the moniker is self-explanatory. In locales where small groups are permitted to congregate, a wedding takes place with a minimal number of guests – just a minyan, or maybe a few more than a minyan. The elaborate banquet with all its attendant accoutrements that we’ve come to associate with the modern wedding has suddenly given way to the simplicity and modesty of the wedding that characterized an earlier time. When Boaz and Ruth married, the Megillah tells us, they did so in front of an audience of ten.

Attached to the minyan wedding are undoubtedly a sense of loss; dashed expectations; and grief over the wedding that might have been had the cruelty of covid-19 not reared its ugly head. But I wonder if the minyan wedding might also give us a chance to rethink, if not reset, communal norms. Six months hence, will the newlyweds feel less marital bliss because there were fewer friends at their wedding? Will their lives be less joyous because they were married in 2020 rather 2019? I am not suggesting that in the post-covid world guest lists ought to be limited to 12 people. But maybe they don’t need to be unlimited either.

In pre-modern Europe, sumptuary laws were a common means by which to defend against conspicuous consumption and protect members of the community who could not afford to keep pace with extravagant norms. A typical provision might put a cap on attendees or insist that one indigent member of the community be invited to the celebration for every so many guests. Our modern communal landscape has rendered such an idea all but unthinkable and entirely unenforceable. But the sentiment at stake is as relevant as ever.

Particularly as we brace for the economic impact of this pandemic, now is the time to bring these issues to the fore. If we dial back communal expectations around the way we celebrate simchas, we’ll not only be giving a gift to the growing number of those who would otherwise struggle to keep up; we’ll also begin to create a conversation around values-driven economic priorities. Davening with a minyan carries with it a great reward. Marrying with a minyan does, too. But where do we draw the upper limits? And when do we invoke the Talmudic truism: sometimes to add is to detract?

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Sefirat ha-Omer.

Update: 5/13/2020

Preserve Your Memories 

Dear Friends,

What are the effects of a pandemic on memory? Anecdotal evidence is not encouraging. It’s hard to remember what day of the week it is; eyeglasses are perpetually lost; and resetting our forgotten passwords seems to be an almost daily ritual. Experts say that none of this is surprising. Stress and memory are inversely proportional. Moments of heightened anxiety tend to diminish our capacity to remember.   

But I’m thinking about another type of memory loss – the loss that attaches to absence. The Talmud tells the story of R. Elazar ben Arach, one of the great disciples of R. Yochanan ben Zakai. Following the death of his teacher, R. Elazar moved away and left organized religion. When he returned, he tried to read the simple words of the verse, ha-chodesh ha-zeh la-chem. But he had forgotten how to read them. Instead, he said ha-cheresh hayah libam. Over the course of his time away, that which had been transparent suddenly turned opaque.

I’m confident that the words of our liturgy are safe. Physically distant from shul, we continue to daven in our homes. But what of the unwritten words of shul life? Having adapted to a shul-less existence, I’m worried about what we’ve forgotten: The warm greetings and the songs of celebration; the mental notes we make when we notice someone’s absence; the excitement of the small children as they line up for Kiddush on Friday night; the glow of the yahrzeit lights; the enthusiasm of the volunteer who collects the chumashim after laining; the broad smile of a friend who hasn’t seen you in a long time; and a hundred other intangible facets that we’ve been living without.

Yes, we can survive without shul. But going without comes at a cost. I fear that even after our community returns to our Center, our sense of community will lag behind. What’s the value of a smile when it’s hidden behind a mask? How much comfort can we offer without the warmth of an embrace?

We’ll continue to adapt and find new solutions. But memories have their own value. Even if only in our minds’ eye, we can preserve them. With God’s help, we’ll be able to reactivate them soon enough. Until then, let’s be sure to keep them close by. Who knows what they’ll inspire.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 5/12/2020

What Counts

Dear Friends,

The world is taken up right now with counting: hospitalizations, casualties, covid tests, weeks of quarantine and days of lockdown. And it’s during these days between Pesach and Shavuot that the Jewish people is absorbed in its own count as we number the days of sefirat ha-omer.

One of the oddities of our system is our practice of counting in ascending order rather than descending. We begin with one and work our way to 49 rather than the other way around. The question is why.

Among the most compelling answers that I’ve seen has to do with history. We mimic the counting of the Israelites in the wilderness as they made their way from Pitom and Ramses to the foot of Har Sinai. When they left Egypt, they were constrained by their lack of data. They knew the date on which they had left, but not the day on which they would arrive at their destination. By counting up, we preserve an element of the original narrative: those doing the counting were privy to only one end of the timeline.

The application of the analogy to our present moment requires little explication. We know well the dates of our lockdown. But the day on the calendar on which we will return to our past lives remains a mystery.

As our sages remind us, the reward for a mitzvah is having done the mitzvah. Counting the omer is an end unto itself. But this year, perhaps it carries with it an added significance. The Talmud teaches (Makkot 23b) that refraining from wrongdoing is tantamount to the active performance of a mitzvah. Each day that we decide to protect ourselves and those around us by staying at home rather than venturing out constitutes an accomplishment in its own right. So the passing of each day represents justifiable cause for acknowledgment.

We surely could have taken a more direct route to Sinai. The journey took seven weeks because that was the length of time we needed before we were ready for Revelation. In a matter of weeks or months, we’ll be ready, too, for what awaits us on the other side. Until then, we’ll keep counting.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 5/11/2020

Imagine

Dear Friends,

Around 500 years ago, the Chief Rabbi of Egypt, David ibn Zimra (1479-1573), received an unusual query. A Jewish prison inmate had may a plea for clemency of his local governor and was granted a one-day furlough. The date of the furlough was left to the discretion of the prisoner. What day, the querist wondered, should he choose?

I’m thinking of this responsum because tonight is Lag Ba-Omer. An enigmatic holiday, it’s said according to at least one tradition, to mark a break in the weeks-long plague that devastated the students of Rabbi Akiva. As we’ve come to appreciate, any amount of good news during an epidemic is noteworthy. But to the extent that the plague continued after Lag Ba-Omer, why celebrate a day that decidedly failed to mark its end?

Perhaps our question from the sixteenth century is our answer. Amidst a sea of darkness, even a solitary day of light is cause for celebration. Because it reminds us that there is light; that hope is possible; that the status quo is not a lifetime sentence.

The Chief Rabbi’s advice was not to wait until Purim or Yom Kippur, days on which there were special mitzvot. Instead, he suggested that the inmate use his furlough at the first possible opportunity and seize the moment to accomplish everything he could.

In the midst of this pandemic, Lag Ba-Omer invites us to imagine: What would we do if this plague stopped for the next 24 hours? What if all these restrictions were temporarily lifted and we could go about our lives as normal? Where would we go? Who are the people we would embrace? What are the mitzvot we would race to perform? Today’s fantasy could soon become tomorrow’s reality. Let’s not be caught unawares.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 5/8/2020

Homeward Bound

Dear Friends,

Long before coronavirus, Rabbi Daniel Fridman delivered a brilliant talk on the erosion of the boundary between the public and private sphere in the 21st century. There was a time when the walls of one’s house could insulate a person from the world outside. It was possible to shut the door and in one fell swoop put an end to the bombardment of stimuli and distractions that characterize the public domain. The home was the province of focused conversation, quiet contemplation and deep reading. In the age of the smartphone, the threshold marking the boundary between these two worlds has all but disappeared.

Now that we are confined to our homes, the challenge has been exacerbated by orders of magnitude. Our homes have taken on more functions than at any time in living memory. They have become schools, shuls, offices, restaurants, bakeries, gyms, libraries, coffee houses and barber shops. Just trying to make lunch last week I ended up walking right into the middle of a virtual pre-school classroom. (Luckily, sandwich starts with the letter s so I was able to integrate smoothly.)

Halakha has always recognized the distinction between public and private domains, particularly with respect to Shabbat. Surely there is something lamentable about the loss of this timeless boundary.

But there is a model in the Torah for the situation in which we surrender the autonomy typically provided by our domiciles. And we read about it in our parshah this week. It’s the holiday of Sukkot. Our actual homes are transformed into pass-throughs and our sukkot become our homes. Provided it conforms to the rules, a sukkah can be built virtually anywhere. It can go on a roof or on a boat; atop a camel or in the back of a truck. One can build a sukkah at the intersection of the city’s two busiest streets. The demarcations between public and private descend quickly into a tangled mess.

If this moment of blurred boundaries reminds us of Sukkot, then it should remind us, too, of that holiday’s most trenchant message. The sukkah screams out to us to see our lives through the lens of transience. How attached can we become to something short-lived and withering? The sukkah pleads with us to acknowledge that whatever situation in which we find ourselves in this moment is but a phase. Because every moment in life is but a phase. No pandemic goes on forever. Neither will this one.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 5/7/2020

Jews on the Move

Dear Friends,

The New York Times announced recently that it would be suspending its Travel section in the Sunday paper. Its new section is aptly called At Home. I suppose in the midst of a global pandemic, not many people are planning vacations. It’s a pity. Because many people I know could use a vacation right about now.

The vast majority of Jewish history, it seems, is characterized much more by movement than by stasis. The biblical precedents are almost without exception. Literally from the word go, our patriarchs, who were peripatetic shepherds, were constantly on the move. The balance of the Torah is taken up with the journey from slavery to the Promised Land. And the exilic Jew was cast about so many times that the notion of the wandering Jew became the stuff of legend.

So what happens when forces beyond our control conspire to keep us in place?

It’s instructive to notice that whenever one stops moving in the Torah, we almost always find that the narrative turns to building. When the patriarchs pitch their proverbial tents, they build altars or monuments to Hashem. When the Israelites stop their journey through the wilderness, they erect the mishkan. When we arrived in the Promised Land, it was with the vision of building the Temple. And when we came home to the land of our fathers after two thousand years of exile, we built the modern state of Israel.

To put it differently, when we stop moving horizontally, we focus our attention on building vertically. When the roads here on earth are closed, we look toward the heavens, which are eternally open.

I suppose it would be ironic if Jews became more godly at just the moment when all our shuls were shuttered. But before us is a unique opportunity. The pace at which we daven, the types of Torah we learn and the ways in which we relate to Hashem aren’t governed in this moment by institutional inertia or communal norms. As we look out on God’s created world; as we reflect on the fragility of life; as we deepen our capacity for gratitude; and as we cling to our ancient tradition of hopefulness, now is our chance to create a different kind of movement: a movement that brings us closer to the Almighty. Let’s not miss the boat.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 5/6/2020

If Not Now, When?

Dear Friends,

For his book The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Building on the work of Otto Rank and Martin Heidegger, Becker argued that denying one’s own mortality was a kind of defense mechanism necessary to function in the world. But of course that denial comes at a cost. One of those costs is the propensity to procrastinate when it comes to our responsibility to plan for the day we leave this world.

In Judaism, it seems we’ve always tried to develop a healthy balance. We don’t obsess over the topic of mortality. But neither do we flee from it. The liturgy of the Yamim Nora’im forces us to confront the question of “who will live and who will die.” We don’t hold viewings or wakes where death is hidden under clothes and cosmetics. We don’t immunize mourners from the harshness of seeing a casket lowered into the ground or hearing clods of dirt fall into the grave.

Denying death in the age of covid-19 is simply not possible. The numbers are staggering. Who doesn’t know someone who’s been lost? And perhaps even more poignant – if less quantifiable – are the fear and anxiety in the air that we live and breathe on a daily basis. It seems every trip to the supermarket raises legitimate feelings of apprehension. What will happen if I catch the virus?

To be sure, confronting one’s own demise can create a sense of urgency and appreciation for life’s fragility. But I would also like to propose that we have before us an opportunity to make the kinds of decisions and arrangements for which there is no good time. I have in mind issues like wills and life insurance policies; ethical wills and health care proxies; and funeral and burial arrangements. I think of all the conflicts and heartache that I’ve seen in my rabbinate – so much of which was eminently avoidable. I think, Would their mother have simply left instructions, those siblings wouldn’t have had to agonize over those end-of-life decisions. Perhaps the solution is to think of the plans we make now as a gift. After 120 years, someone we care about will have more clarity, less to worry about or fewer decisions to make.

I have always been moved by Rashi’s incisive comment about the timing of Yitzchak’s decision to bless his eldest son when he did. At the time, he was 123 years old. In retrospect, Yitzchak would go on to live for another 57 years. What compelled him to bestow upon his son the blessing usually reserved for the end? It was, Rashi writes, the thought of his mother. Sarah died at 127. As he began to approach that age, Yitzchak could not help but think of his own demise. And so he acted. At a time when we’ve been forced to consider the fragility of our own lives, we would do well to act, too. We won’t be here to see it, but someone will thank us that we did.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 5/5/2020

Longing for Lincoln 

Dear Friends,

These past several weeks have offered contrasting lessons in leadership. As elected officials and health experts have stood on the public stage, they have succeeded and failed in ways too numerous to count. Absence creates longing. So we yearn for those leaders or statesmen who earned reputations for radiating confidence, competence, compassion and integrity.

I have been thinking about a letter Abraham Lincoln wrote to Ulysses Grant after the Battle of Vicksburg on July 13, 1863:

My Dear General

I do not remember that you and I ever met personally. I write this now as a grateful acknowledgement for the almost inestimable service you have done the country. I wish to say a word further. When you first reached the vicinity of Vicksburg, I thought you should do what you finally did — march the troops across the neck, run the batteries with the transports and thus go below; and I never had any faith, except a general hope that you knew better than I, that the Yazoo-Pass expedition, and the like could succeed. When you got below, and took Port Gibson, Grand Gulf and vicinity, I thought you should go down the river and join Gen. Banks; and when you turned Northward, East of the Big Black, I feared it was a mistake. I now wish to make the personal acknowledgement that you were right and I was wrong.

Yours very truly

A. Lincoln

In times such as these, when we face an enemy that is so utterly confounding and challenges that are so utterly unprecedented, it is axiomatic that our leaders will make mistakes. We all will. The question is what we do in the moments following our mistakes. Can we own them and own up to them or do we shift the blame and duck responsibility?

Since this pandemic began, we’ve been including Avinu Malkeinu in our daily tefillot. And we begin with a very simple declaration: Our Father, our King, we have transgressed before You. We confess that we were wrong; that we made mistakes. It’s when we’re in the habit of saying these words to Hashem that we can say them to other people. Admitting we were wrong is a great sign of strength. It signals not only humility, but a desire to do better next time around.

If our national leaders today don’t model such behavior, we’ll have to remember that there was a time in which they did. To long for Lincoln is to remember that politics and principles needn’t always be at odds. Who knows? Maybe this pandemic will inspire the nation’s next great leader – the leader who can admit to having been wrong.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 5/4/2020

Goldilocks and the Three Cures

Dear Friends,

As we mark the midway point of sefirat ha-omer, we have before us an opportunity to think about what it means to be in the middle. The columnist Molly Roberts recently made an insightful observation. She wrote that the “coronavirus is the Goldilocks amount of deadly: not too lethal (then the virus would kill people too fast and too furiously for the virus to replicate), not too mild (then we could simply get ill, build herd immunity, and bid the menace goodbye), but just right for a pandemic.” And it seems to me that our elected officials are now searching for the Goldilocks amount of antidote. Open the economy too quickly and we risk unleashing a second wave of the virus; open too slowly and we risk crushing people under the weight of financial hardship.

The Rambam long ago popularized the notion of a golden mean wherein the goal is to achieve balance between two extremes. And this is often a governing principle in Jewish tradition. But not always.

I’m reminded of a conversation I once heard at the home of the late Rabbi Yehudah Cooperman, of blessed memory. One of his guests mentioned off-handedly that he could never be accused of extremism; his approach was always to stay in the middle of the road. Citing the Kotzker Rebbe, Rav Cooperman quipped, “Have you ever looked in the middle of the road? The horses walk in the middle of the road. The people walk on the sides.” Not every consideration is co-equal.

I don’t envy today’s decision-makers. They’re working under great stress with woefully imperfect information. But it’s important to note that the halakha imagines very few values that supersede the ethic of preserving life. And issues that pose a danger to human health are accorded a category all their own. The Taz writes, for instance, that the normal laws of bittul (the notion that small quantities of a problematic substance can be overwhelmed by larger quantities) are entirely suspended when there is a risk to one’s health.

So perhaps it’s worth remembering that the story of Goldilocks ends badly. Chairs are damaged, porridge is pilfered and a little girl is so startled that she jumps out of a window. We’ll need to balance lots of competing values before this pandemic has passed. But we’ll have our thumb on the scale when we do. It will mean that we have to accept the responsibility of alleviating the financial stress of more Americans than we can count. But if proceeding with caution means that we will have saved more lives, that will ultimately spell a happier ending to this tale.    

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 5/1/2020

The Ties that Blind 

Dear Friends,

One of Israel’s great treasures is its Blind Museum in Holon. Pitched into utter darkness, visitors get a sense – even if only in a small way – for what daily activities are like for those who cannot see. Lately I’ve been wondering about all the things we cannot see during these days of seclusion.

For starters, our visions of the future have become cloudy if not altogether opaque. Who can see clearly past the uncertainty of this moment? And what about those who ae vulnerable? We talk regularly about the invisible people in our lives: Low wage workers or people in the service industry to whom we should pay more attention. But at least under normal circumstances, we can see those people. Now they are totally out of sight.

I’m thinking, too, of the many issues in our lives for which sight is a group activity. We rely on others to help us see what we cannot. Someone else has surely figured out how to apply for government aid or buy flour or personalize their Zoom settings. And if we had the luxury of seeing people, we could benefit from their knowledge. Or maybe we could share something salutary with them. But alas, we’ve been confined to an existence wherein human contact is simply too dangerous. And so our vision is impaired.

One of the paths to holiness, the Torah tells us, is the path tread by the blind. Should we block that path, we block, too, our own road to the achievement of sanctity. The Torah’s prohibition against placing a stumbling block before the man who cannot see may have literal application, but as Rashi reminds us, it’s first and foremost to be understood metaphorically. Recognizing that everyone has blind spots, we need to treat them accordingly and steer them in the right direction.

So it behooves us to recognize that everyone living through a pandemic suffers in some way from visual impairment. We need to actively search out those who are unseen and offer succor and support to those who cannot see. Every morning we thank Hashem for opening our eyes. When we do, we refer to ourselves as ivrim – those who are blind. To the extent we are blessed with the capacity to see, we would do well to share that blessing with others. And may Hashem grant us the clarity to see our way past this pandemic to better times ahead.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Daily Messages from April

Daily Messages from March

Sat, August 15 2020 25 Av 5780