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4/9/21

Droplets in an Ocean

Dear Friends,

Most special days on the Jewish calendar are associated with a particular action. On Pesach, we tell the story of the Exodus; on Sukkot, we take the four species; on Tisha b’Av, we mourn the destruction of the Temple. If Yom Hashoah had a verb of its own, I think it would be to listen. On a day that so overwhelms our senses – on a day when we remember the most heinous atrocities perpetrated in the history of humankind – what more can be done?

So yesterday I listened. I listened to the names of the victims. I listened to the stories of Survivors. I listened to the crimes perpetrated against human beings, against humankind and against humanity. This year, I found the day particularly affecting.

In introducing his riveting tale of survival, Morris Engelson framed his story this way. “The Holocaust is an ocean of bitter taste and death. But there were also a few droplets of sweet water.” Every miraculous story, it seems, is held together by momentary gestures that changed fate: a guard who turned the other way; a peasant farmer who shared a ration; a decent neighbor who hid a Jew; a clerk who doctored the papers of a stateless refugee. We must be careful to remember that these acts of heroism were the exception rather than the rule. Yad Vashem has recognized 27,712 Righteous Among the Nations from 51 countries. Inasmuch as neutrality in the face of genocide constitutes undeniable moral culpability, we might say that there was one hero among every thousand Nazi collaborators. Droplets in an ocean.

And yet somehow it’s the droplets that we take with us. Having heard about one AktiónD after another; having listened to descriptions of unspeakable brutality; it’s the tiniest acts of heroism that plant themselves at the forefront of my consciousness the day after. How does one explain the irrational impulse to privilege the preservation of images that ought to be so overwhelmed by their shadows as to render them de minimis?

Is it because we are descendants of Abraham – the man who fathered faith – that we are preternaturally hopeful? Is it because our history has taught us that hope is felt even when it cannot be seen? Or is it because we consider hope to be not only the opposite of evil, but its antidote?

I could not pretend to know the answer. But I would observe that – at the very least – the phenomenon has a precedent. Our parsha also tells the story of a terrible tragedy; the story of a man who was helpless to save his two eldest sons entrapped in the snare of death. And yet the Torah identifies Aharon’s two youngest sons as the remaining ones (Lev. 10:12). In an alternate reality, Rashi reminds us, all four might have perished. That two remain is itself a miracle. Yes, there is a place for grief. But the emphasis falls not on the lost, but on the living; not on what was, but on what might yet be.  

And so the day after Yom Hashoah can be affecting, too. As long as we keep listening. As long we kep hoping.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

4/7/21

Before the Survivors are Gone

Dear Friends,

I was pained to read recently that there remain in the world only 2,000 Auschwitz Survivors. We live in a world that cringes at the notion of obligation. Ours is a generation that much prefers to conceive of itself in terms like rights and opportunities. But one would be hard-pressed to argue against the case that the chance to hear first-hand testimony from a Survivor on Yom Hashoah is anything other than an obligation. Is there something more important to which we have to attend? Something more urgent? What will we tell our grandchildren when they ask us to share the stories we heard in our lifetimes?

It’s not our sense of guilt that compels to listen; it’s our sense of dignity. Consider the words of Primo Levi upon becoming a slave laborer at Monowitz: “Then for the first time we become aware that our language lacks the words to express this offense, the demolition of man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality has been revealed to us: we have reached the bottom. It’s not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition more wretched exists, nor could it be imagined. Nothing belongs to us anymore; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and even if they listened, they would not understand….

“Imagine now a man who has been deprived of everyone he loves, and at the same time of his house, his habits, his clothes, of literally everything, in short, that he possesses: he will be a hollow man… I have learned that I am a Häftling. My name is 174517.”

By hearing the words of a Survivor, we can perpetuate his stories so that the world does not forget them; so that we do not forge them. Memories cannot be taken for granted. Unshared and unheard, they fade. If we don’t preserve them, who will?

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

4/6/21

Back to Shul

Dear Friends,

A communal conversation has been brewing about the “slow return.” Congregations both within and beyond the Jewish world have seen a predictable decline in attendance since reopening. Fantasies about parishioners racing back were short-lived. The causes are many: Abundant caution among the not-yet-vaccinated; the rise of new routines (backyard and living room prayer spaces among them); Newton’s First Law of Motion (a body at rest will remain at rest); the gradual slackening of communal bonds; and a nagging – if not quite conscious – unwillingness to surrender the kind of autonomy of Shabbat mornings to which people have become accustomed.

To this list must be added a less-than-rational culprit. Many of us are still haunted by those early reports of church choir practices that doubled as covid super-spreaders. If attending a house of worship meant risking lives, the decision not to attend required little deliberation.

But now the time has come to differentiate between two very different phases in this pandemic. In the first, we faced coronavirus with virtually no understanding and no defenses. Any behavior that meant leaving the house was considered a risky one. But that time has passed. In this next phase – armed with more data, masks and vaccines – we’re in a totally different place. When’s the last time we read about vaccinated choir singers in masks spreading the virus?

There are a million reasons to come back to shul. Permit me to share just one. When this pandemic began, we were all struck by the stinging irony foisted upon us by this cruel virus. Just at the moment that we all so desperately needed the warm embrace of our community, covid sent us to suffer silently in isolation.

If today we crave social contact any less than we did a year ago, it’s only because we’ve trained ourselves to suppress our longing. If anything, the cumulative effect of prolonged separation has rendered our need to reconnect ever more urgent. Now that the pandemic is receding – now that it’s safe to enjoy the embrace we’ve missed for so long – we need to remind ourselves that it’s time to come back.

In addition to an 8:15am service on the roof, we’ll meet at 9:15am in the main sanctuary while our Young Leadership will begin at 9:30am. We haven’t quite returned to pre-covid times, but we’re inching closer. While the service is more efficient, it’s no longer abbreviated. We do a little singing. There’s a short sermon. (Last week I even told what may have passed for a joke.) And outdoor youth groups are making a comeback.

The weather is good. Vaccines are working. And there’s so much for which to daven. Why not come back to shul?

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

4/1/21

Pesach at a Pop-Up Vaccination Site

Dear Friends,

In its hundred year history, The Jewish Center has been many things. It’s been a sacred space in which to connect with the Almighty; it’s been a house of study and a wedding hall; it’s played host to scholars and dignitaries the world over. During the Russian Jewry movement, it served as a shelter for refugees. It’s been an incubator for bold ideas and a training ground for our community’s future leaders. This week, it became a pop-up vaccination site where hundreds of New Yorkers received their Covid vaccines.

Thanks to the initiative of Hindy Poupko and our friends at UJA-Federation of New York, The Jewish Center became the first synagogue in our area to make Covid vaccines available to the community on its own premises. Operating at lightning speed, Aaron Strum, Batsheva Leibtag and our professional team swung into action to organize both the back-end registration as well as the front-end logistics to make it all happen. We’re so thankful to our co-sponsors, Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and Lincoln Square Synagogue and to all of our outstanding volunteers who gave unstintingly of their time. As one member quipped, we can now call ourselves, “the Moderna Orthodox Center for Jewish Life and Learning.”

Whatever the circumstances, our commitment to our members and to the broader community remains entirely predictable even if the path to redemption remains entirely unpredictable. Last Pesach, the doors of our Center were locked. This Pesach, they were open to welcome those seeking the most extraordinary medical marvel of our time. Or to paraphrase the Haggadah: Last year we were in captivity; this year we are free. Today we are here; next year… in Jerusalem.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

3/31/21

You're Invited

Dear Friends,

Rachel and I would be delighted if you would join us for a Shabbat afternoon tea on the seventh day of Pesach, April 3rd at 4pm in Central Park’s Arthur Ross Pinetum. Under normal circumstances, we would welcome the opportunity to host you in our home as we have in the past. But considering where we were a year ago, we’re just grateful for the opportunity to see you even if it means doing so at a socially distanced outdoor gathering sans tea.

It’s little wonder that Pesach begins with a gesture that welcomes in all those in need of a place to spend the Seder. Hospitality is always a prelude to redemption. Avraham invited strangers into his tent before he received the promise that would change his life. Lot took visitors into his home before being saved from certain destruction. The Israelites joined one another in the paschal service on the doorstep to freedom. In this season of salvation, maybe the renewal of this ethic will help us find our own deliverance. At the very least, it will help us find an awfully good kosher-for-Pesach cookie.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

3/26/21

Not at The Kotel

Dear Friends,

A few years back, we visited Israel over the summer. Of course one of our first stops was the Kotel. But for all its anticipation, the moment we arrived was entirely anticlimactic. The stroller, the steps, the panhandlers, the security, the scorching sun and four jet-lagged kids didn’t make for a winning formula. Rather than elation or inspiration, it was a sense of feeling winded and bedraggled that defined the moment.

It was this memory that came to mind on another trip to the Kotel during our family’s year in Israel. We were spending Shabbat with cousins in the Old City and walking to the Kotel was just a few-minute stroll. The air was crisp. The hubbub of the narrow streets gave way to an expansive feeling of quiet. And the sheen of the Kotel’s magic and majesty radiated once again. Somehow, arriving empty-handed made it easier to feel full-hearted.

I’m thinking about these two images because – at least in my mind – they serve as an apt metaphor for the difference between the typical Erev Pesach and this year’s Erev Pesach. On a normal calendar, the hours before Pesach are among the busiest and most stressful of the year. The to-do lists are unending and the available caffeine is insufficient. It’s no wonder that halachic guidebooks are filled with contingency seder scenarios: What if a person has no karpas? What if he forgot to make havdalah? What if he neglected to lean or failed to eat the afikomen? Given the lead-up to Pesach and the limitations on our cognitive capacity that necessarily attach to sleep deprivation, any or all of these potentialities are perfectly conceivable.

But this year is different. Erev Pesach is Shabbat. There are no eleventh-hour errands to run; no last-minute phone calls to make. The festival of freedom starts a day early. And so before us is a rare opportunity.

There’s an old minhag to review the Haggadah on the Shabbat immediately before Pesach. What if we returned to the practice of old? What if we spent Shabbat afternoon studying and thinking about the texts we otherwise rush through? What if we collected a few special memories of people not at ou seder this year? What if we took the time to ask one another, “What are your goals for the seder?”

There’s no question that Elijah the Prophet must feel exhausted on seder night. But we don’t have to. Good things come to those who wait. Redemption comes to those who prepare.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

3/2//21

Friends Don’t Let Friends Text on Shabbat

Dear Friends,

It’s hard to keep Shabbat. As Ahad Ha’am once said, “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews.”

Jews in every generation have grappled with the challenge of how we are meant to defend our national treasure against incursions from forces that would threaten to demean or devalue its sanctity. There have been questions about Shabbat’s geographic borders. How far can one travel and what modes of transportation might be permissible? There have been questions about its cultural borders. May a person enter a coffeehouse or museum on Shabbat? And inasmuch as Shabbat exists most especially in the dimension of time, there have been questions about its metaphysical borders. What of clocks and timers and technologies that tie us to the workaday routines we are meant to have left behind the shadow of Friday’s setting sun?

In our generation, there is little question that the greatest threat to Shabbat comes from the devices we carry in our pockets. The more tightly we’re tied to our phones, the harder it is to liberate ourselves from them. To make concessions here is not to tread on a slippery slope; it’s to descend headlong over a precipice.

So I was saddened to read recently in a Jewish newspaper that a prominent Conservative rabbi abrogated his community’s norms by livestreaming Shabbat and holiday services. It was the exigent circumstances of this pandemic that forced his hand, he wrote, but he is comfortable retaining the new arrangement even once the pandemic is past. What’s more, he was “befuddled… by Orthodoxy’s inability to see our unprecedented state of affairs as a justification for halakhic change.”

I see things differently. In virtually every sector, this pandemic forced decision-makers to identify what they considered essential and what they considered discretionary. Public officials made pronouncements about businesses during lockdowns. Most people could manage, they reasoned, without a bowling alley; but not without a pharmacy. Major League Baseball endeavored to keep contests short. The game could live without pitchers batting, but not without three strikes.

Of course in our community there were bound to be questions around the margins. Could we start services a little later? Could we end a little earlier? Judaism would be able to go on without singing Adon Olam or serving kiddush. But Shabbos?

For many of us, this pandemic has been a life-altering event. But Jewish history is a long series of life-altering events. The challenge of remaining true to our core values when they are threatened is as old as Judaism itself. Those who succeeded are the ones with Jewish grandchildren.

I remember someone in college explaining to me that he was not shomer Shabbat; he was zocher Shabbat. He wouldn’t meticulously observe the strictures that endow the day with sanctity, but he would make a gesture to at least remember that Saturday wasn’t the same as the other six days of the week.

And so it will go for those who choose to trade the lived experience of Shabbat for a livestream. Keepers of Shabbat they won’t be. All that will be left are the memories of the Shabbat they once knew.

I hope my friend will reconsider his decision. If the day’s sermon is indispensable, it will be equally so on Sunday. But the day on which our Creator rested cannot be so easily replaced. It’s not the “thoughtful and transparent embrace of the tensions we face” that has “sustained our people for generations.” It’s Shabbat.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

3/19/21

When Shabbat Hagadol fell out on Thursday

Dear Friends,

“I’m sorry I can’t attend your Shabbat Hagadol Drashah on Thursday,” someone said to me recently. “It would feel like eating cholent on Friday night. It’s sacrilegious.”

Leave it to one of our members to make not studying Torah an act of person piety.

While this protestation may have been something of an overdramatization, Shabbat Hagadol will not feel quite as momentous as it normally does. What are we to make of a Great Shabbat on which the greatest number of people are not in shul?

Perhaps there is something to be gleaned from thinking about this special day on the Jewish calendar from the perspective of history. In the year of the Exodus, the 15th of Nissan was a Thursday. In preparation for the Paschal service on Wednesday, the Israelites were commanded to set aside their unsuspecting lambs on the tenth of the month, which fell out on Shabbat.

We often conceive of Rosh Chodesh as the first mitzvah commanded to the Jewish people. But as a matter of practice, that institution served more as a preamble. It set the calendar that enabled the performance of the mitzvot that followed. R. Hezekiah da Silva (1659–1698), the author of the dazzling and ground-breaking Pri Chadash, suggests this is the origin of Shabbat Hagadol. Inasmuch as it was on that day that the Jews first took up the service of Hashem, that Shabbat represented the date on which the Jewish people were initiated into the practice of mitzvot. 

Importantly, that first foray into what would become Jewish life didn’t take place in a public setting, but rather in the private homes that the Jews would soon leave behind. And so I pray that our contemporary moment will share some of the richness of that first Shabbat Hagadol. May we too use this Shabbat as a means by which to ready ourselves spiritually for the holiday to come. Like our ancestors, may we soon find the courage to venture out of our homes into the waiting embrace of our community. And may redemption follow swiftly.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

3/17/21

The Last Shul Committee Meeting?

Dear Friends,

How many volunteers does it take to run a shul?

Here in the United States, the labor force participation rate typically hovers around 63%. That’s the measure of our economy’s active workforce when the sum of all workers who are employed or actively seeking employment is divided by the total (noninstitutionalized) civilian working-age population.

I’ve always dreamed that our community’s volunteer participation rate could approach a number like this. People talk about campaigns that seek 100% participation, but unrealistic ambitions have a habit of being counterproductive. Anyone who’s tried to wrangle their kids on a family outing knows that – even among very small populations – getting everyone on board can be a tall order. Individuals operate on their own time and in their own space. Particularly on the margins, engagement is a constant battle. In shul life, 63% participation would represent a major victory.

I’m thinking about these numbers now because our denominators are declining quickly. We all know individuals and families who have left the city over the past 12 months. Some institutions are feeling the loss more acutely than others. But I don’t know any local institution that’s not hurting: Our schools, our shuls, the mikvah, social service agencies. Because many of our institutions have deep roots – and because the government has pumped so much money into bailing them out – the short-term prognosis is not as bleak as it might have been. But trouble is on the horizon. Lean years are ahead and we have to be ready.

It won’t be surprising if questions pertinent to down-sizing or right-sizing begin to dominate our communal discourse. They should. It’s certainly not too early to be thinking about these questions. But my point in this brief missive is simply to reflect on the reality that – with a pool of fewer volunteers who can run and lead the institutions we cherish – everyone is going to have contribute more.

The Mishnah in Avot (2:5) insists that in the absence of leaders, we have to lead. Except the text doesn’t say leaders, it just says anashim, or people. Sometimes, it’s just the workaday volunteers who are absent. It’s at just such a moment that the participation of a workaday volunteer is most welcome.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

3/16/21

Meghan Markle and Me

 

Dear Friends,

The Duchess of Sussex and I have a great deal in common. She was born in Los Angeles; I was born in Los Angeles. She grew up during the Cold War; I grew up during the Cold War. Her first name is Rachel (did you know her full name is Rachel Meghan Markle?); my wife’s first name is Rachel. Well I suppose there the similarities end. But if commonality breeds compassion, it was worth a try.

It can be difficult for us revolutionary Americans – who consciously and affirmatively broke with all things monarchic – to fully appreciate the complexities and intrigues of the British Royal Family. Who among us hasn’t inadvertently confused Balmoral Castle with Sandringham House?

To keep me on the straight and narrow with respect to matters pertaining to the United Kingdom, I rely on The Economist. With characteristically unsentimental detachment, the magazine summarized Ms. Markle’s dilemma this way: “Being a royal is about serving an institution. It does not work for those who crave individual attention. The job requires self-effacement, at which the queen, who has not said a single interesting thing in public in her 70 years on the throne, has excelled. That’s not because she is a boring person, but because she understands the demands of the job.”

This tension between the individual and the institution makes for an apt Pesach metaphor. However much we may act like royalty at the Seder, the idea isn’t for each participant to sublimate his personality. The script of the Haggadah has been around for a long time. And yet each of us is enjoined to paint ourselves onto the canvas of the story in a personal way. But there are only so many hours that one can devote to maggid. How does one find the right balance?

It’s here that we would do well to remember R. Yosef Karo’s advice in the very first chapter of his Shulhan Aruch: A few supplications with proper mindfulness are more desirable than many supplications recited by rote. R. Yisrael Meir Kagan writes that the same holds true in the realm of Torah study. If the Seder combines the fields of ritual and study, should the same rule not apply?

Of course we have to be true to the text. Nothing good has come from playing fast and loose with our canon. But we also have to prioritize and be judicious with our time. A little attention paid to a child’s thoughtful question; a moving memory earnestly shared; a family tune preserved. Surely the institution of the Seder is capacious enough to allow for the digressions that are in fact not digressions at all. To paraphrase Rabbi Lamm, the goal isn’t for us to go through the Haggadah. The goal is for the Haggadah to go through us.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

3/15/21

What Binge Watching Says About the Seder

Dear Friends,

An academic psychologist called Alan Jern argued recently that binge watching is a bad idea, particularly for viewers who are interested in retaining a meaningful memory of what they’ve watched. This is true for two reasons. First, “discussions, conversations with friends, and idle anticipation and speculation that flourish in the periods between episodes on a weekly release schedule support better memory.” The more connections one makes to the content, the better one will remember it. And second, we tend to retain information relayed over the course of time rather than in one fell swoop. Studying a language for ten minutes a day is generally more effective than studying that same material for an hour once a week.

The explanation behind the pitfalls of binge watching might double as the answer to an unasked question at the seder. After our discussion of the four sons, we wonder aloud whether we might dispose of our obligation to tell the story of the Exodus by recounting it as early as Rosh Chodesh. But just what kind of supposition is this? We would never dream of trying to fulfil the mitzvah of shofar two weeks before Rosh Hashana? What would give anyone the idea that the primary obligation of seder night might be fulfilled early?

If the goal of this mitzvah is to transmit our mesorah in such a manner that it will be remembered by the next generation, then maybe the idea isn’t really as wild as it seems. Rather than cram all of Jewish history into one night, why not create a rigorous curriculum that might begin on Rosh Chodesh and culminate on the night of the seder two weeks hence? As binge watching reveals, memory works better when we’re given a breath to make connections and let ideas sink into our consciousness.

On technical grounds, we reject the idea. The mitzvah of recounting our story is operative only on the anniversary of the Exodus itself. But the supposition is a good one. And in fact, the Talmud insists that we start the intellectual work of preparing for Pesach long before the holiday arrives.

When we observe Rosh Chodesh on Sunday, we would do well to begin articulating our aspirations for the holiday to come. After all, the first of Nissan was the day on which Moshe declared, This month shall be for you... Or to paraphrase R. Ovadiah Seforno, The months ahead now belong to you to use as you see fit. With one epoch at an end and another beginning, now time is yours. It’s on us to make sure that ours is time well-spent. Binge watching might be a boon for procrastinators. But it makes for lousy memories. The good ones come from the seder. And the great ones from the seder for which we’re duly prepared.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

3/9/21

Putting the Band Back Together

Dear Friends,

On the Jewish calendar, it’s not just Pesach that augurs redemption; it’s the Pesach season. It’s not only the ultimate salvation that will come in the springtime. We also subscribe to the prospect of interim redemption. This pandemic isn’t over. But we’re certainly closer to the end than we are to the beginning.

Remarkably, The Jewish Center is now among the safest places one can be. As of this writing, around 20% of adults nationally have received at least one dose of the covid vaccine. In Manhattan, it’s 23%. It seems our zip code is particularly safe. Here in 10024, 34% of adults have been vaccinated. In the main sanctuary of The Jewish Center this past Shabbat, 65% of those in attendance had been vaccinated. With increased vaccine supply and improving distribution channels, these numbers will only continue to rise.

Of course we have to continue to remain vigilant. While not every scientist has entirely ruled out the possibility that vaccinated people can spread the virus, a growing body of evidence suggests as much. And so do the CDC’s new guidelines for vaccinated adults. The numbers are starting to tip in our favor. Being in a room in which the majority of people are vaccinated is exponentially safer than being a room where no one is.

Given this encouraging news, I’m pleased to share that in the coming weeks we are planning – gradually and incrementally – to expand and enhance our Shabbat and weekday services. We’re not quite ready to return to our pre-covid world. And of course we’ll continue to insist on mask-wearing, social distancing and all of the state’s public health protocols. But neither will our davening feel quite so rushed or abbreviated. We’re also excited to announce the return of outdoor Shabbat morning youth groups. What a pleasure it will be to welcome back our children.

We’ve all been waiting for that almost mythic red-letter day when our public health officials sound the proverbial all-clear. But even before then, there will be almost all-clear days, too. And those will make for fine days to be back in shul.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

3/8/21

I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like to be censored, Sam-I-Am

 

Dear Friends,

In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, censorship legislation in Catholic lands proliferated. By 1542, it had become commonplace throughout the Catholic world. In 1553, the Talmud was burned in Rome. It was burned in Cremona six years later. A history of censorship and expurgation followed Jewish texts in Europe for hundreds of years. To this day, not a few of our canonical texts – including the Talmud, the siddur and the works of Maimonides – bear the implicit or explicit marks of those who conspired to censor our religious thought and practice.

It’s these moments in our history that should race to the forefront of our consciousness when we hear about news like the cancellation of Theodor Geisel. Last week, the custodians of his estate, Dr. Seuss Enterprises, announced that they would stop publishing six of his works because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”

We can certainly empathize with the desire to be sensitive to readers. But as Jews, we ought to have a special kind of innate aversion to the censorship of books. As Heinrich Heine wrote prophetically in 1821, “Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.” Roughly translated: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people, too.”

If citing Heine upon the cancellation of Dr. Seuss leaves me open to the accusation that I am an alarmist given to hyperbole, so be it. We may live in a post-outrage culture, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t occasionally be outraged. Monuments are one thing; texts are quite another. Not everyone deserves to be lionized. But a book is a not a statement about the values we endorse. It’s an expression of an author’s voice. The decision that some voices can’t be heard is not only pernicious, it’s antithetical to our most deeply held values. As Ross Douthat put it compellingly if too mildly, the failure of the liberal community to condemn this outrage is equally outrageous.  

“Please,” you will say. “This is not a legal policy to ban books; just a decision on the part of an author’s estate to stop publishing a handful of children’s stories because they contain outmoded and offensive language and imagery. This whole bruhaha is an overreaction.”

Is it? Or have we reached an inflection point? The decision on the part of the publisher to stop printing certain titles triggered a decision on the part of eBay to stop selling used copies of those titles. If the disappearance of a book from the public square isn’t the same thing as a ban, it’s awfully close. The moment we have to think twice before being seen in public with a given book is the moment that cultural censorship can be said to have curtailed our choices of what and how we read. To let such a moment pass without protest is to be complicit in a kind of moderate cultural suppression that never remains moderate for long.

As Dr. Seuss once put it, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” Surely the inverse is equally true. The less that we read, the fewer things we will know. The less that we learn, the fewer places we’ll go. And that would be a pity.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

3/5/21

An Anniversary We Won't Celebrate 

 

Dear Friends,

Now that we are approaching the one-year mark of this pandemic, thinkers and columnists have been offering reflections on the lessons we (ought to) have learned: The world economy doesn’t crash even when we’re in lockdown; human interaction is not overrated; working remotely is (mostly) OK; science can move quickly; epidemiologists make poor prognosticators; people don’t like to be told what to do; teachers unions are the enemy of education; kids are exceptionally resilient; and politicians tend to handle pandemics badly.

To this admittedly uncomprehensive list, I would humbly add three thoughts. First, this pandemic has taught us that in some situations, the challenges are so daunting and the unknowns so numerous, that no one can be expected to succeed. Thinking back to last March, who got it right? The scientists? The public health experts? The politicians? The public? Was there a success story in Asia or Europe? To the extent that there were regions that did better early on, it seems it was only a question of time before the virus caught up with them.

So it was for the Israelites at the foot of Sinai. With Moshe’s fate uncertain, the people made a terrible mistake. Maybe the worst mistake in the Torah. And who stopped them? Aharon’s failure in the text is explicit. But what about everyone else? Were there no other voices of reason? Where were the elders? Where was Miriam? The blame rested squarely on the leaders. And the followers. And everyone in between.

The mistakes of last spring were real. Inasmuch as they cost lives, they were unspeakably tragic. We’re taught from a young age that tests and tribulations are graded on a scale. So we tend assume that most trials are given to passing and failing. As our parsha soberly reminds us: Sometimes everyone fails.

And it’s this first lesson learned that necessitates its corresponding lesson: We can’t function in a world that cancels the prospect of second chances. Some mistakes are criminal and need to be treated as such. We don’t advocate lawlessness. But we also believe that people can make amends and do better. Aharon can rise from the depths of moral failure to become the High Priest. The Jewish people can clean up their act and redirect their energies toward the construction of a tabernacle. It’s possible to crash and burn in one’s first dogfight and then fly like an ace in the second.

If we haven’t moved past these age-old issues, it’s because their endemic to our nature. But if there’s one more lesson to be gleaned from these past months, it’s that even unspeakably daunting challenges can be overcome. If today’s failures are part of the human condition, so is the prospect of tomorrow’s success.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

3/3/21

Humility Makes a Comeback

Dear Friends,

The journalist Melissa Korn wrote recently about a phenomenon that cognitive scientists refer to as the expert blind spot. A teacher who has taught her course dozens of times can fail to appreciate that for a student new to the field, the material may be hard to grasp. To promote more empathy for novices, two universities recently invited a group of their professors to try their hand at cracking a Rubik’s cube. The idea was to remind them about the challenges involved in cultivating a new skill. In other words, the goal was to promote a sense of intellectual humility.

In too many fields, experience begets expertise. Expertise bleeds into self-assuredness. And from there it’s just a hop, skip and a jump to arrogance. If a second innocence isn’t always possible, a second chance to be humble usually is.  

In an alternate universe that privileged moral clarity, this pandemic would have ended hubris once and for all. Coronavirus versus humankind makes David and Goliath look like a fair fight. Shall we say the giant was ten times David’s size? We hardly have a vocabulary to describe the microscopic nature of this virus and yet it’s paralyzed most of our planet for a year. Even as we inch closer to its defeat, our greatest scientists have more questions than answers about its origins, its vectors and its mutations.

If all of this isn’t humbling enough, then we ought to fall back on the teaching of R. Moshe Hayim Luzzato. On his telling of self-development, the path to humility is paved with tripping stones – sober reminders that life can turn in an instant. Gravediggers aren’t cocky. To know that today’s blessings could be gone tomorrow should be enough to keep us humble. But if that’s too heavy for an otherwise sunny Wednesday morning… there’s always the Rubik’s cube.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

 

3/2/21

Patrami as Religion 

Dear Friends,

Sociologists have been tracking decline in religious observance among American Jews for some time. Rachel B. Gross, a professor of American Jewish studies at San Francisco State University, argues that the real problem is the metrics we are using. In place of synagogue affiliation or holiday observance, she proposes moving the goal posts. Our definition of what constitutes a religious practice, she argues is far too narrow. Sure, people may express their Jewish identity by lighting Chanukah candles. But we need a more capacious definition of religion. We need to include practices that one would normally consider cultural.

In Beyond the Synagogue: Jewish Nostalgia as Religious Practice, she offers up activities like genealogy, eating in a deli, taking a tour of a historic synagogue and shopping for Jewish books and toys. To the extent these practices evoke nostalgia, they too should be thought of as religious. It’s what one reviewer aptly described as the “pastrami as religion” approach to Jewish practice.

Were we not in the midst of a pandemic, I would not comment on a work such as this. It’s author and I are operating with wildly divergent first principles. I disagree with her premise, her conclusions and everything in between. But the book highlights what’s at stake in this moment. Yes, on the whole we are a resilient people. There is no question that Jewish life will bounce back from this pandemic. But if we don’t take an active role in reinvigorating our most important communal institutions, they will quickly decline.

Much as I love Jewish history, there’s really nothing sadder to me than a shul that’s been transformed into a museum. I always cringe when I see an old Jewish books or Torah scroll behind plexiglass. These are not artifacts meant to be viewed; they’re living texts meant to be held and studied.  

The sad state of affairs unapologetically portrayed by the author doubles as a sober warning about where we may be headed if we continue to defer the debt we owe our community. If we want to stop our vibrant synagogues from becoming museums – we need to keep them active. Left unused, our Jewish muscles are at risk of atrophying. Our once healthy habits of Jewish practice are in danger of falling into disuse. I’m all for deli sandwiches; just not to the exclusion of Torah and mitzvot.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

2/23/21

Vaccinate the Homebound

Dear Friends,

When it comes to vaccine distribution, older people go to the front of the queue. But right now this policy only serves those who can get to the queue. It’s equally important to look out for older adults who are homebound.

Prioritizing those over a certain age is now axiomatic in states all across our country. But it wasn’t obvious. Ethical decisions around the allocation of scarce resources are among the most fraught for any policy-maker. What if coronavirus didn’t discriminate against older adults? What if mortality rates for young people and old people were the same? To whom would we have given priority?

The idea that we’ve placed older adults at the top of the list has returned us to our roots. The Biblical obligation to honor one’s mother and father isn’t aimed at small children. Contextually, it’s a part of a series of legal obligations directed at adults. It insists that they accord respect to their aging parents. But this ethic extends well beyond familial relations. The Torah tells us, Stand up in the presence of the gray headed; show respect for the aged (Lev. 19:32). In our tradition, the very word for elder in this verse, zaken, is taken to mean one who has become wise with the passage of time. Rather than focusing on biological age, the idea is to see biographical accomplishment – the accumulated wisdom that attaches to life experience.

While legislation on behalf of older Americans began in earnest in the twentieth century, notions of respecting those more advanced in age have been endemic to this nation’s culture for centuries. In Colonial America, Puritans venerated the old. In New England it was common for older women and men to be greeted with special honorifics.

In the nineteenth century, it was religious groups that began to establish special homes for the elderly. Sarah Clarkson Ralston, who in 1817 founded Philadelphia’s Indigent Widows’ and Single Women’s Society, one of the nation’s earliest old age homes, was a deeply religious woman.

Of course we could always do more, but it’s part of our cultural ethos to give up a seat on the bus for the person walking with a cane. It was this ethos that gave birth to the Older Americans Act in 1965. And we’ve been building upon its foundation ever since.

That we’ve done so much of late to prioritize the immunization of older Americans is a great tribute not only to a Jewish value, but to a part of the American value system that predates the founding of our nation. Now we need to finish the work that we’ve begun and make sure that every older American has access to the vaccine.

According to a recent statistic cited in the Journal of the American Medical Association, six percent of older Americans are homebound. That means that there are millions of Americans who can’t get to a vaccination site. While they may not be as likely as others to contract or spread the virus, we most assuredly have an obligation to make the vaccine available to them. Their contact with aides, nurses or family members make them vulnerable and it means that they may be vectors of the virus.

Advocacy for homebound Americans has been slow. Individuals in this population are not in a position to stage a rally. And so they are liable to slip through the cracks of our vaccination bureaucracy. There will be logistical hurdles to overcome, but we can’t allow them to stand in our way.

Many homebound adults are under the care of home health agencies. Those agencies just need to be given license, with proper oversight, to distribute the vaccine. Our politicians have to know that paying lip service to the issue and doing something about it are not the same thing. California and Florida have already launched at-home vaccination initiatives. It’s time for other states to do the same. Let’s bring this issue to light so that our elected officials can authorize licensed care givers to vaccinate homebound seniors post haste.

Looking out for our most vulnerable is an age-old tradition. Don’t we have a duty to our past to preserve it?

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

2/22/21

A Modern Day Hillel

Dear Friends,

Sometimes the Purim story can seem very far away. What are the chances that a couple of underground operatives could bend fate and save an untold number of Jewish lives at a moment when the world would have scarcely noticed their demise? It’s the tale’s implausibility that renders it a miracle and we rational denizens of the twenty first century have a hard time with miracles.

But every once in a while someone comes along who reminds us that we ought not be so skeptical. Shlomo Hillel, who died two weeks ago at the age of 97, was such a person.

If you’ve ever visited the subterranean munitions factory in Rehovot, you know that 45 Haganah operatives risked their lives secretly producing the bullets that would be used in Israel’s War of Independence. Shlomo Hillel was among them.

He was also Israel’s ambassador to a number of African countries. He was a member of Knesset, Minister of Police and later the Speaker of the Knesset. He was the recipient of the Israel Prize, the country’s highest civilian honor.

Any of these contributions to Jewish life would have made his name worth knowing. But it was his involvement in the rescue of Iraqi Jewry – who were suffering oppression, destitution and worse – that earned him a reputation as a hero among the Jewish people.

Working under the aegis of the Haganah in 1947, Hillel found and hired two American pilots with a cargo plane and managed to spirit 50 Iraqi Jews into mandatory Palestine. But this was just the beginning. In June 1948, Hillel traveled to Iran disguised as a Frenchman. When he met a priest named Alexander Glasberg, who had hid some 2,000 Jews during the Holocaust, the two worked to smuggle Jews from Iraq to Iran. From there, Glassman arranged for them to obtain visas to Israel. Together they rescued 12,000 Jews.

When Hillel returned to his native Iraq in 1950, he did so under the guise of a Briton representing an American charter company called Near East Air Transport. It just happened to be funded by the Mossad. By 1952, over 120,000 Jews had migrated to Israel on 950 flights in what eventually became known as Operation Ezra and Nehemiah.

He took little credit for his extraordinary accomplishments. He lived by the maxim of his Mishnaic namesake: In the absence of anyone else to lead, you lead. And so he did.

At a time in the world when stasis has come to rule over dynamism and ambition has given way to deferment, what a source of inspiration it is to know that – with a little courage and couple of good pilots – it’s possible to change the course of Jewish history. As the children who don costumes and adopt superpowers remind us on Purim, it’s good to have heroes. Maybe someone ought to dress up as Shlomo Hillel.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

2/19/21

Why go Back to Shul

Dear Friends,

Please find today’s message on the website of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

2/18/21

The Answer to Mark Twain's Question

Dear Friends,

In 1899, Mark Twain published an article in Harper’s Magazine called, “Concerning the Jews.” He concluded with the following words: “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains. What is the secret of his immortality?”

All these years later, we finally have our answer. New research about spending time outdoors has revealed that regular walks in among the trees are linked to reduced stress, decreased anxiety, lower blood pressure and higher energy levels. If these are the benefits that accrue to people who spend two hours outdoors per week, imagine the benefits of spending the entirety of our first forty years traveling through the wilderness!

Of course I kid. But there is something remarkable about the centrality of nature in the description of the tabernacle and its implements. Beyond aesthetics, the Torah takes us on a tour of timber and textiles; geology and gemstones. In the sheen of its precious metals, the mishkan offered to its comers passing reflections of God’s created world. Its construction put its builders into the kind of deep relationship with nature to which we city-dwellers are seldom privy.  

Rabbi Leo Jung, who served as the rabbi of The Jewish Center from 1922-1987, made a habit of circumambulating the reservoir with members and wrote often about his summers in the Alps. Particularly for us urbanites – and particularly for us urbanites living through a pandemic in a frigid winter – this message feels especially urgent.

A walk in the park among the songbirds doesn’t just deepen our appreciation for those parts of our liturgy that ask us to see the world through the lens of nature. Looking out on the mountains doesn’t just remind us of our smallness in the face of enormity. The great outdoors return us to a state in which order, balance and simplicity rein over their countervailing forces. Who doesn’t long for such a place? Chances are, there’s one close by. Communing with nature may not make us immortal. But if it makes us a little more human, that’s welcome, too.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

2/16/21

The Purim Spirit

Dear Friends,

I often hear from members that Purim sets them on edge. It signals that Pesach is only 30 days away. Particularly for those spending the holiday at home, it means activating a long list of tasks necessary to prepare for the Jewish calendar’s most demanding week.

This year, Purim is setting people on edge for another reason. This pandemic can’t be said to have begun on a given date. But Purim 2020 is the closest thing we have to its onset. For many, it’s triggering all the worry and anxiety they associated with those uncertain and terrifying days last year. So how do we celebrate a day of merriment and merry-making at a time of so much distress?

One of the great themes of the Megillah revolves around the idea that hearts and minds are movable. Esther permits herself to be moved by Mordechai’s case, Achasheverosh permits himself to be moved to by Esther’s, and the Jews of Shushan lived happily ever after. That someone has made up his or her mind says nothing about how capriciously he or she may yet reverse course. When we allow ourselves to be moved by the Megillah, we pay homage to one of its most poignant messages.

The story tries every which way to make us laugh. There’s satire and irony; caricatures and dramatic reversals of fortune; wordplays and puns. As the Talmud tells us, we dispense with Hallel on Purim because the Megillah is a form a Hallel. Like a film score, it’s the theme that’s supposed to set the mood and tone for the holiday. Sometimes we bring joy to the day and sometimes the day brings joy to us. Whatever our mood, if we can just hear the Megillah’s words, we’ll be well on our way to feeling a little of the levity that makes Purim a joy. To smile at the ironic twists and turns of the Megillah is to acknowledge the possibility that our salvation, too, may come when we least expect it.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

2/15/21

Why Presidents' Day Matters 

 

Dear Friends,

I’ve never thought particularly hard about Presidents’ Day. But this year I’m paying closer attention. I’m worried that it may not be around much longer.

Last month, the San Francisco Board of Education passed a resolution to rename 44 schools. George Washington had to go because he was a “slave owner” and “colonizer.” Abraham Lincoln’s treatment of Native Americans rendered him unworthy. Theodore Roosevelt’s name will be removed, too. After all, he opposed “civil rights and suffrage for Black folks.”

One can allow that of course a community is entitled to choose the names of its public institutions. The resolution of the San Francisco School Board is thus utterly unsurprising. But moves like this one aren’t benign. Inasmuch as they threaten to tear apart the fabric of our founding narrative, they must be understood for what they are: an assault on the American story.  

As the world becomes more globalized and more atomized, the bonds required to hold us together need to be stronger than they once were. It wasn’t that long ago that one could reasonably assume that the average person walking down the street had read the same newspaper as you did; watched the same television show; or listened to the same radio program. Because the world was smaller, the number of shared points of contact was greater. Now it’s a good bet that two people riding an elevator in the same apartment building share none of these things. If the present is irretrievably diffuse, we need more reliance on the past to bridge the gaps. The stock of our national canon – the heroes, ideas and narratives that made it possible for us to share this great country – has never been higher. Attacking that canon is as offensive as it is self-defeating.

From the Talmud to the classic medieval commentaries and beyond, Jewish thinkers have grappled with the troubling moments in the lives of our heroes. But they have always been cognizant of Ecclesiastes’ declaration that there is no one on earth who is entirely righteous; no one who does what is right and never sins. And so those heroes – flawed as the may be – continue to form the backbone of the Jewish canon. We might disagree as vociferously as Hillel and Shammai, but at least we can agree on the metaphor that best captures the nature of our disagreement.

It’s been a long time since we’ve seen the likes of a Washington or a Lincoln. If we’re truly “dedicated… to the unfinished work which they so… nobly advanced,” we ought to treasure the legacy they bequeathed to it, not rename it.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

2/12/21

The Book of the Covenant 

Dear Friends,

Adar is supposed to be a happy month, but the question of where to find happiness in a pandemic is one that has been plaguing us since last Adar. One part of the answer might revolve around our capacity to cultivate a sense of belonging. To paraphrase the psalmist, Happy are those that dwell in the house of the Lord. We long to be together with our friends and fellow shul-goers. In the absence of our physical shul community, how do we replicate the feeling that we belong?

The precise chronology of revelation is hard to pin down. But in the course of his days at Sinai, Moshe records in writing the words of Hashem (Ex. 24:4). The Torah then tells us that those words make up something called the Book of the Covenant (Ex. 24:7), the content of which Moshe shares with the Jewish people. Revelation is one of the most important events in human history. Yet we have so few verses that describe the story of what took place. If one of the clues has to do with this book, wouldn’t it be nice to know its message? What was the book about?

To fill in the gap in the narrative, the Midrash offers up three suggestions. R. Yose b. R. Asi says it was a chronicle: the history of the Jewish people from creation to revelation. According to Rebbe, it was a book of commandments – a compilation of all the mitzvot from the beginning of time. R. ishmael proposes that the book contained a series of blessings and curses.

The Book of the Covenant is the book of belonging and the Midrash is telling us that there are ways to conceive of what it means to belong. The first approach is the path of history. To know that we are part of a Jewish story – that we are part of continuing saga that began long ago with the lives of our ancestors – gives us a sense of who we are. Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you (Deut. 32:7). When we heed these words, we know where we fit in to the unfolding narrative of Jewish peoplehood.

The second path is paved with notions of responsibility. It argues for activism. Fulfillment doesn’t come from the ether. It comes from having fulfilled something. Performing good works gives people a sense of identity. Every mitzvah represents an opportunity to belong to a holy people. Covenant is uilt on contribution.

And finally, belonging may derive from one’s sense of purpose. In knowing that something is riding on the decisions we make – in knowing that our actions may trigger blessing and curses that affect others – we see ourselves as part of a larger collective. My individual destiny is bound up in the destiny of our people and theirs in mine.

I’ve been hearing from a lot of people recently that they’ve hit a wall. The pandemic is wearing on them. They’ve found that it’s gotten harder to put on a happy face.

The Book of the Covenant reminds us that there are many pathways before us. In a month dedicated to the proposition that happiness is possible, why not search for one that will help us feel as though we belong.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

2/22/21

Baby Bust

Dear Friends,

Early on in this pandemic, experts were predicting that stay-at-home orders would result in a baby boom. The statistical evidence has been mounting ever since. Just the opposite has happened. We’re in the midst of a baby bust. All the metrics used to predict birthrate statistics are trending downward. It’s expected that hundreds of thousands fewer babies will be born in the US in 2021.

I’m not sure how many Americans organized their family planning decisions around Talmudic pronouncements. But the practice to abstain from sexual contact during a national crisis is explicit in the Talmud. In a time of famine, Reish Lakish cautions against engaging in marital relations (Taanit 11a).

The idea is derived from Yosef. The Torah makes clear that he had two children during the years of plenty and no subsequent children during the lean years. Broadly speaking, at a time of suffering, empathy demands that a person feel the pain of others. But of course there are exceptions. Importantly, those who have not yet fulfilled their mitzvah to be fruitful and multiply are exempted.

At a time such as this, empathy also dictates that we acknowledge the pain of those who have not yet realized their dreams of having a family. Headlines draw our attention to the most obvious sources of suffering like illness, loss and economic hardship. We hear, too, about substance abuse and emotional distress. And of course the toll on our children – caused principally by the selfishness of implacable teachers’ unions – grows each day.

But there are so many other people struggling who don’t make the headlines. What about individuals searching for their life partners? Dating was hard enough in the pre-covid world. It’s infinitely harder now. Or think of couples struggling with infertility. Everyone feels the sense of lost time created by this pandemic. Those racing against a biological clock feel it even more acutely.

Beyond encouraging everyone to get vaccinated, what can be done? For starters, we can always inquire as to whether friends and acquaintances might be open to the idea of being introduced to someone. It’s so much harder to meet new people these days. I would think receptivity to gestures such as these would be sky-high.

We also need to work hard to destigmatize conversations about egg freezing. We’re blessed to live in an age of science in which the technology is available to extend a woman’s fertility window. We should be encouraging people to consult with their doctors about how and when to take advantage of that technology. There’s simply no reason anyone in our community should think it’s taboo.

Finally, we can return to tefillah. We can pray for our own futures and we can pray on behalf of others. Particularly in times of crisis, a little faith can go a long way.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

2/10/21

The Moral Obligation to Get Vaccinated

Dear Friends,

Please find today's message on the website of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

2/9/21

A New Refusenik Movement

Dear Friends,

It’s common knowledge that George Shultz played an important role in bringing about the end of the Cold War during his years as Secretary of State. What wasn’t known to me is the role he played in the Soviet Jewry movement.

In 1987, between round-the-clock arms-control talks, Shultz took a break to attend a seder in Moscow to which 60 refuseniks had been invited. He assured them the US government would continue to work on their behalf. Whatever the planned topic for negotiations with Soviet representatives, he said, “we always bring this subject up.” Later that year, he received a call from one of the women who had been at the seder that night. She said she was calling from Jerusalem. Shultz said it was one of the most moving moments of his career in the state department.

Today’s refuseniks are of a different type. One recent poll I saw said that a quarter of Americans have no intention of being vaccinated. Maybe people are just a little jittery around something so new. But if the data mean that people will continue to refuse the vaccine down the road, we ought to be alarmed.

People, like governments, tend to pay attention to issues that come up at every meeting. If there’s a movement of our moment, it’s to get everyone vaccinated. And I would argue that each of us has a role to play. We have to start beating the drum now so that when supply catches up to demand, we’re not caught unawares.

The Torah tells us that a person who builds a new house is obligated to erect a banister on the roof lest someone fall (Deut. 22:8). From this verse, the Talmud derives that we are responsible not only to help those in distress, but to prevent foreseeable harm. At a moment like this, could there be any more urgent need?

For those who are already eligible, we have to make sure they have access to the vaccine. And to those who are sitting on the fence, we have to call on our powers of persuasion. We have to let them know that tens of millions of people have been vaccinated – our friends and neighbors among them – and they are doing just fine. Skeptics should speak to their doctors and heed the advice of medical experts they trust.

We are not going to wake up one day and find that the country has suddenly been vaccinated. It’s going to take a yeoman’s effort. As George Shultz reminded us, minds and hearts can change. We just have to keep at it.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

2/5/21

Present at Creation

Dear Friends,

Many are the customs that inform a person’s posture as he or she recites kiddush on Friday night. Some stand. Some sit. Some stand and then sit. Rest assured that each has a firm basis in halakhic sources.

One of the more intriguing explanations as to why one would stand – at least for the first paragraph – is cited by R. Yisrael Meir Kagan. The recitation of pesukim describing how God created the universe in six days and rested on the seventh, the argument goes, constitutes a form of testimony. Unlike the practices of the contemporary American court room, in the world of Jewish jurisprudence, testimony is delivered while standing. In effect, the person reciting kiddush is a witness and a witness stands.

On what basis, though, should a fixed formula be considered testimony?

The mystics provide an answer. That the ten commandments were delivered on two tablets is no small matter. On their reading, each of the first five commandments corresponds in some way to its respective counterpart. Take, for instance, the second and seventh. The prohibition against worshipping others gods – as we know from the Prophets – is nothing but a kind of spiritual adultery. The commitment to God demanded by the seventh commandment parallels the faithfulness demanded by husband and wife in the second.

According to this schema, the fourth and ninth commandments form a dyad. To violate Shabbat is to testify falsely. To observe it, is to bear testimony that, in fact, God created the world in six days and rested on the seventh. To sanctify time – to hold up a glass of wine and declare that the day ahead is categorically unlike any other day of the week – is the strongest form of testimony there is. The sanctified use of every hour that follows makes it even stronger. Re-enacting Shabbat is almost as good as having been present at its creation.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 2/4/21

Books by the Foot

Dear Friends,

Ever wonder where movie sets or hotels find books that will line shelves but never get read? Turns out there’s a service called Books by the Foot which specializes in selling books whose covers are more important than their contents. Since the onset of the pandemic, business has been booming. In an effort to make themselves look more sophisticated – or at least more literate – zoom users have been curating their backgrounds with carefully selected works that are meant to serve as façades rather than as sources of literary inspiration.

But these aren’t the only books being sold. Sales of both print and e-books have been on the rise over the past number of months. How great that more indoor time has correlated with more time reading.

This story of the book boon, though, comes with an epilogue. Readers are starting more books and finishing fewer of them. Elizabeth Bernstein recently explained why. “It’s difficult for your brain to focus on a book when it’s constantly scanning for threats so it can keep you alive. That’s exactly what’s been happening to most of us since March.” I was relieved to hear that I’m not the only one who’s been having trouble maintaining focus when I sit down to read these days. As we start to turn the corner and look forward to returning to a safer world, there’s hope for us yet.

At a time when reading deeply has become a challenge, it’s worth remembering that Judaism proposes an alternative. In halakhic parlance, we rarely speak of reading Jewish texts. Instead, we talk about learning them, studying them or reviewing them. Completing one page of Talmud per day is considered an accomplishment. This not to say that studying a Jewish book will require less attention than a book off the shelf; it may well require more. The more important difference has to do with the number of people involved. Reading is a private matter. Study is given to dialogue and discussion. That’s why our tradition has always privileged studying with a hevruta. A partner doesn’t just make us accountable; a partner shares the burden of attention, challenges us when we flag and helps us stay true to the joint mission of the text at hand.

Long before Patrick Henry allegedly said, “Give me liberty or give me death,” the Talmud cited the maxim, “Give me a hevruta or give me death!” (It’s catchier in Aramaic because it rhymes: o hevruta o mituta.) If a study partner is always a good idea, today it’s a great idea. Chances are, the books are already on our shelves. A zoom buddy and a good book sounds like a winning combination.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 2/2/21

Would They Hide Me?

Dear Friends,

Metrics always matter. If our lives are oriented around goals, we need ways to assess whether and to what extent we’re on our way to achieving those goals. Teachers measure academic progress. Those in the finance sector track economic progress. Non-profits keep tabs on how many people they’ve served.

With the advent of this pandemic, our eyes have been trained on different kinds of metrics: Positivity rates, hospitalizations, deaths and now vaccine numbers. How many doses have been distributed? How many have been administered? Based on the percentage of the population that’s been vaccinated, how close are we to herd immunity? We’ve all developed altogether too much familiarity with these numbers. 

It’s against this backdrop that I was reminded recently of something Warren Buffett said a number of years ago when asked how he would measure success. He said he had a friend, a Polish Jew who had survived Auschwitz. “When she looks at people, the question she asks herself is, ‘Would they hide me?’” When a person reaches a certain age and can honestly claim that a lot of people in one’s life would answer the question affirmatively, Buffett said, that’s success. 

We’ve all made adaptations to our lives to stay afloat during this past year. But there’s no question that one of the costs we’ve incurred has to do with the depth of our personal relationships. They’re so much harder to maintain and nurture from a distance. At times like these, they require more effort and more attention. We need to make more phone calls and bake more cookies. We need to carve out extra time to check in. 

This is how Rabbeinu Yonah explains the cryptic language of the Mishnah in Avot: Acquire for yourself a friend. Relationships don’t build themselves. They require an investment of time and money. They’re cultivated through gestures of kindness and words that bespeak concern. They’re held together by patience and gentility. If this is what’s expected of us under normal circumstances, imagine where the bar is today.

Whether or not we only think about the topic when we hear a eulogy, we all know the day will come when we are asked for an accounting. Let’s make sure we’ve tracked the right numbers.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 2/1/21

The Wise Mayor of Chelm

Dear Friends,

Once upon a time, there lived a wise and sagacious mayor. He presided over the wise and sagacious city of Chelm. So wise and sagacious was he that none could surpass his wisdom or sagacity

The wise mayor spent most of his time wandering through city parks in a state of deep contemplation. Yes, there was city business to attend to, but no one dared suggest that the mayor involve himself. So wise a man should not be burdened with trifles like budgets or communal affairs.

One day news arrived in Chelm. The prelate of the province had announced that a treasure would be made available to the good people of the town. Known as vaccinium, the treasure promised to deliver health and happiness to its bearers. All the mayor had to do was see to it that the treasure was distributed fairly and efficiently to the residents of his wise and sagacious city.

Having thoroughly thought through all the contingencies and logistics, the mayor announced a distribution plan post haste. Having earlier decided that true wisdom comes from within, the mayor had shuttered the doors of Chelm’s schools and academies. “The facilities are empty!” the mayor exclaimed. “Let us place all the treasure in the abandoned schoolhouses. The good people of Chelm will help themselves to the treasure. Health and happiness are sure to follow!”

Upon hearing the announcement, the town elders began to murmur. “But are the schools not locked? How could they be reopened? Where would we find the keys?” When word got back to the mayor, he wisely remembered another of his proclamations. Because – he wisely reasoned – man can live on bread alone – he had lately closed the town’s taverns – before opening them and closing them again. The mayor was anxious to utter a new proclamation. “The taverns are closed! Let us place all the treasure in the taverns. The good people of Chelm will help themselves to the treasure. Health and happiness are sure to follow!”

But the town elders began to murmur once again. “But are the taverns not filled with tables and chairs? Would it not be unseemly for a treasure such as this to be housed in such mundane facilities.”

As usual, the wise mayor had an even wiser solution. “Good people of Chelm: The promise of this treasure is health and happiness. But even the mention of it has caused nothing but agitation and consternation. Already my daily walks have been interrupted. It is clearly no treasure at all! I hereby declare that all the vaccinium we have received should be returned to the prelate at once so that we may continue to enjoy our bread and seek wisdom from within.”

Liberated rom the burden of vaccinium’s promise, the good people of Chelm returned to their tranquil lives, comforted by the knowledge that theirs was the wisest mayor in all the land.

Smetimes it may feel as though we are living in Chelm. But this is Gotham. We New Yorkers are gritty and persistent; resourceful and resilient. We see incompetence as a source of humor rather a source of aggravation. And we seize on opportunities such as this one to help our fellow citizens. Our members can take great pride in the work of our JC vaccination task force which as already helped more than 100 people obtain appointments for their vaccines. And rest assured we won’t stop there.

I’ hopeful that our government will soon work out the kinks in the system and the process will improve. But hope needn’t come at the expense of human initiative. In this tale, we can be the co-authors of a storybook ending.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 1/29/21

Why the Bones of Joseph Matter

Dear Friends,

We all know that the Torah interrupts the story of the Exodus to tell us that Moshe took with him the bones of Yosef. It’s a powerful testament to the notion of honoring commitments and a touching portrayal of an angel among men busying himself with the work of mortals. But why? Why had Yosef languished in Egypt for so long? As Rashi suggests, he reasoned that his children might not have enough sway to persuade the powers that be to allow their father to be interred in a foreign land. So Yosef left the task until such time that the Jewish people would leave Egypt for good.0=-o;,.

But to paraphrase one of the commentators, perhaps the Egyptians would have refused the request; or perhaps they would have granted it! And why could Yosef not have made the demand himself during his lifetime? He’d already made a convincing enough case for his father to be buried in Canaan? Why didn’t he simply apply for the same consideration?

Based on a comment of R. Shmuel Bornsztain, the second Sochatchover Rebbe, I would humbly submit the following suggestion. Yosef was the savviest political mind of his generation. Of course he could have conjured up a more immediate way to be buried in Canaan. That he chose to delay his own burial and place it in the hands of unborn descendants was a conscious decision. He made it because he recognized something about the nature of faith and the danger of doubt. 

He anticipated that, after hundreds of years of servitude, the Israelites would have a hard time coming to grips with their destiny. He appreciated that they would offer up more than their fair share of skepticism at the prospect of being transformed instantaneously from a group of slaves to a kingdom of priests. He understood intuitively that they would sorely need a dose of reassurance. And so he offered himself as a ready remedy.

The Jewish story was his story. Condemned to a life of slavery, Yosef lived to see not only his own redemption, but a meteoric rise to greatness on the world stage. At a moment when the Israelites would stand between an impassable sea and a fast-approaching army, a fog of doubt descended upon the people. Salvation seemed so improbable – so impossible – that it strained credulity.

To see the bones of Yosef at such a moment not only energized the Israelites with an ambiguous sense of hope. It gave them comfort. It reminded them that they had read this story before. It was the story of their great grandfather. It was their story. Unlikely as it seemed, redemption was possible.

To read Beshalach during a pandemic in the twenty first century is to know that we’ve been afraid before. We’ve fretted and we’ve doubted before. And then – not only has salvation come – but greatness has followed. Maybe the future won’t look so different from the past.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 1/27/21

Wikipedia at 20

Dear Friends,

Wikipedia just celebrated its 20th birthday. Few would argue with the assertion that it has become one of the most important sites on the internet. So it’s worth taking a breath and wondering aloud whether its popularity is a net positive.

If you google the words, “Can Wikipedia be trusted,” the first entry to appear is… an article on Wikipedia. Irony aside, it’s an important question and the answer is anything but uniform. In academic circles, relying on Wikipedia is verboten. It signals that a scholar hasn’t done her homework. Because Wikipedia is constantly being edited and updated, information is always in flux. Inaccuracies can be added as quickly as they can be erased. And because the website relies almost exclusively on volunteers, there’s very little accountability. Fact checkers at the Atlantic make mistakes from time to time. But knowing one’s job is on the line is a good incentive to get things right.

It seems to me that the most substantive critique of the site has to do with assigning value. In the service of brevity, one has to be particularly sensitive to the challenge of prioritization. And it’s not just about what gets included and what does not. There are always important questions to be asked about what deserves attention and what could be relegated to a literal or figurative footnote. It’s here I think that the absence of specialists is most conspicuous. Experts in their respective fields have the breadth to see the forest from the trees. They know instinctively when a piece of information is indispensable and when we could live without it. 

I offer only one observation as it pertains to Wikipedia’s Jewish content. Sometimes it’s excellent. Sometimes I would rate it PG for pretty good. But I think the best way to conceive of it is as a portal rather than a destination. Good entries provide references and links. They invite the interested reader to explore the topic further. And in the end, that is the Jewish way. We study so that we can know and do. And we study, too, simply to study. Our quest for Jewish knowledge is meant to be never-ending. If Wikipedia can help us on our journey, the more power to it.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 1/25/21

The Secret Tzaddik Society

Dear Friends,

I’m starting a new club. Membership is free and it takes no time to enroll. In fact, all members are required to remain anonymous. No one can know you’ve joined. It’s called the Secret Tzaddik Society. The only requirement is that each member adopt a mitzvah that they do privately on a regular basis. Should anyone discover the mitzvah, the member will have to consider adopting a second one.

Think of one of those stories you’ve heard at a funeral. “No one ever knew that Uncle Nate would stop off at the nursing home on his way home every Friday. There was this Holocaust survivor with no family and he would always bring her a little treat for Shabbos and spend a few minutes talking with her….” Now that Uncle Nate is gone, it won’t hurt anyone to know that he was a member of the Secret Tzaddik Society.

As the infomercials like to say, “There’s never been a better time to join.” Virtually everything we do these days happens out of the public eye. There is no public. There are so many mitzvot we could do right now without anyone ever knowing. I have in mind things like davening minchah behind a closed door at the office; listening to daf yomi on the way to work; volunteering at a shelter; becoming a big brother or sister; or calling a homebound neighbor. Maybe our new slogan will be, “More than 613 ways to matter.”

Ours is a world that’s been overtaken by the cult of public approbation. But much more important than likes and re-tweets are loves and relief – the good we do to support the people we care about and advance the values we cherish.

We all remember that when we first meet Moshe Rabbeinu he’s coming to the aid of an oppressed Israelite. But before he acts, he looks hither and yon; he notices that no one is watching him. In other words, he was a member of the club.

This pandemic will be over before we know it. Now’s the time to join.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 1/22/21

The Roaring Twenties 

Dear Friends,

For those who subscribe to the notion that history is cyclical, the Roaring Twenties offer a message of solace for our times. A century ago, we were still smarting from the death and destruction wrought by World War I and the Spanish flu. But in the aftermath of those calamities came a decade of accelerated innovation, economic prosperity and cultural dynamism. Maybe, the argument goes, our orientation will shift, too. Maybe in the wake of this pandemic we’ll move from a posture that’s turned inward to one that looks out on a world of possibility.

The phenomenon is not without biblical precedent. Freedom from Egyptian bondage was a call for celebration. But the slave was accustomed to a culture of self-centeredness. If he didn’t look out for his own well-being, who would? He led a lonely life of isolation in which self-preservation was the dominant – if not only – ethos of every day. Left to his own devices, he would have viewed his transition from bondsman to freeman through a lens focused singularly on his own salvation.

At just such a moment, the Torah introduced a new ethic, which of course was not new at all. It was the ethic of Father Abraham. The paschal sacrifice insisted that every Israelite knock on the door of his neighbor and offer up an invitation. “Will you join me?” became the tagline of the soon-to-be-freed people. Resurrected from the days of their grandfather, the invitation – the outward-oriented gesture of chesed – became the way of the Jew.

All analogies are perilous. We’ve not been at war. And we’ve not been freed from bondage. But we can certainly relate to the feelings of isolation and inwardness that characterized the inner lives of our ancestors. Our goal, as Rav Soloveitchik so aptly put it, is to create “a nation within which people unite, give things away, care for each other, share what they possess.” It’s a tall order. But we’ve done it before.

The time is coming when we will be tasked with knocking on proverbial doors, emerging from our seclusion and seeking out opportunities to connect with those who have felt alone for too long. Like our forebears, we’ll need to prepare ourselves for that moment so that when it comes, we’ll be ready to roar.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 1/21/21

Three Observations from Inauguration Day 

Dear Friends,

The events of January 20th have given us much to ponder: The peaceful transition of power; a reaffirmation that democracy is alive and well; historic firsts embodied in the person of our new vice president; and all the promise and possibility that attaches to a new administration and a new chapter in the history of our nation. I offer here three brief observations.

First, I was heartened by President Biden’s overtures of faith. We are in the midst not only of a global pandemic, but a national tragedy. Loss requires acknowledgement. Halakhically and emotionally, mourning only begins when one can say that the dead have been buried. Marking our loss was a powerful gesture. And so was the president’s willingness to invoke God. The ethos of religious commitment has been one of the pillars on which this country has stood for more than two centuries. For our founding fathers, the notion of Providence was a given. The Bible is not a prop and its contents are not punchlines. That our new president knows as much should be a source of comfort to all communities of faith.

Second, only the Knower of Secrets can claim to know what stirs the heart of a man who aspires to the presidency. But for what it’s worth, my impression of Mr. Biden is that of a public servant – someone who has dedicated himself to a cause for the sake of the cause rather than for the sake of himself.

Rabban Gamliel once sent for two outstanding students whom he intended to place at the head of the academy. When they declined to appear, Rabban Gamliel asked a rhetorical question that resonates as loudly today as it did all those years ago. “Do you fancy that I am offering you a position of authority? I am offering you a position of servitude” (Horayot 10a). It was this sentiment that George Washington captured in his first inaugural address when he spoke of being summoned by his country and called into service. President Biden sounded these notes yesterday. I hope they will continue to carry the day.

And finally, it was consoling to hear that – as a nation – we have license to give voice to our aspirations. When an infant is in the midst of an irrational tantrum, it’s hard to concentrate on anything else. When a schoolchild who’s not yet learned the difference between truth and falsehood laces every other sentence with fallacies, it’s hard to know when to simply disengage. When a petulant teenager is bombarding you with threats and insults, it’s hard not to be annoyed. When all three are happening at the same time – for years – the noise leaves us feeling paralyzed and even hopeless. Yesterday signaled that it’s possible to move on. Rather than orienting ourselves around all that’s wrong, we can begin to think anew about how we can set things right. We can aspire once again.

This is a time to renew our faith; to recognize that citizenship is a call to service; and to remember that ours is a nation of aspiration. We can bemoan the past. Or we can shape the future. As Amanda Gorman put it so beautifully, “we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.”

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 1/19/21

Complexity and the Dodo Bird

 

Dear Friends,

In 1919, several weeks after his wife contracted the Spanish flu, William Butler Yeats wrote words that seem as resonant now as they were 100 years ago. “The falcon cannot hear the falconer / Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” It was a time of fracture and fragmentation. The center was in danger.

Implicitly or explicitly, our institution – in name, in creed and in deed – has been grappling with centrism since its inception. But now the issue somehow feels more urgent.

To my mind, centrism has always represented the willing embrace of complexity. One needn’t choose between a life behind the wall of a ghetto or a life of wanton acculturation. Integration is possible. There’s a middle ground. The pursuit of an outstanding Jewish education needn’t come at the expense of an outstanding general education. We can imagine excelling at both. We can wed one to the other under a single canopy.  

But I’m afraid that complexity – and centrism along with it – is now under assault from all precincts. Think of politics. Can one profess fiscal conservatism and social liberalism at the same time? How many Americans in 2020 voted for candidates from different parties on the same ballot? Polarization used to be a scientific term. Now it’s a household word.

Or how about cancel culture? Popular as it may be, it is nothing but the wholesale inability to hold multiple truths. We can all think of false heroes whose time is past. But to topple monuments in the name of righteous indignation is to worship at the altar of simplicity. Mortals are no longer called to strive for perfection. We’d better achieve it. Follies and foibles would render us too human; too complicated.

Social media feeds the same intellectual shallowness. Yea or nay. Thumbs or thumbs down. As if life were a series of survey questions to be filled out by contestants on a quiz show. Is that the best we can do? Is that our best attempt to add meaning to the universe? Or have we fallen into another trap that threatens to dull our intellect, enfeeble our spirit and quash our capacity for complexity? 

At every turn, Jewish life impels its adherents to embrace competing strands of thought and grapple with them. Ours is a theology in which God is both just and merciful. There is no Jewish celebration untinged by a faint shadow of mourning and there is no mourning so absolute that it does not include a promise of hope. Our Talmud is built on the foundation of good faith debate. Jewish law is objective and dispassionate… until such time as an exception is warranted and it becomes subjective and compassionate. The answer is a question because we’re congenitally allergic to simplicity. Or at least we ought to be.

The post-covid world will be rife with opportunities. Among them will be the chance to strive for something more. Let’s not miss it. Life is better at the center.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 1/15/2020

Dream Small

Dear Friends,

In one of our parsha’s most stunning revelations, the Torah tells us that the Israelites were categorically unable to absorb Moshe’s message of redemption. They wouldn’t listen to Moshe, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage (Ex. 6:9). Most readers of the text, rabbinic or lay, understand this through the prism of popular psychology. These people were defeated. Having resigned themselves to their fate, they’d renounced the prospect of hope. The promise of redemption was a foreign tongue, a language forgotten as a function of disuse. 

But R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk offers a radical reinterpretation of this episode. Of course, he writes, the Israelites were capable of hearing a message of redemption. They were entirely receptive to the notion that their bondage would end. It was the distant prospect of a mythical Promised Land that they found so implausible. In the midst of their suffering, how could they entertain thoughts of milk and honey?

And this explains the most inexplicable verse in Vaera. Four lines later, Hashem speaks to Moshe and Aharon, commanding them with regard to the children of Israel and Pharaoh to deliver the Israelites from the land of Egypt (Ex. 6:13). Commanding the offending power to release his slaves makes perfect sense. But what’s the command to the Israelites? What are they meant to do?

On this reading, God was instructing His agents to focus on the goal of deliverance to the exclusion of a conversation about the ultimate destination. The Jewish people, we’ve learned, were simply not ready. To paraphrase, Hashem was advising them to dream small. Just imagine what it might be like to be free rather than thinking about the long road that will follow.

If we are to see ourselves, like our ancestors, at the doorstep to redemption, maybe this is an apt message for our time. Maybe this isn’t the moment to envision a return of the pre-covid world; but instead to simply hope for a small dose of vaccine, a few hugs and a little more normalcy. Maybe we shouldn’t wax nostalgic about bygone bipartisanship among our politicians and citizens; but instead aspire to a little more listening and a semblance of civility. Maybe we should stop searching for panaceas to the national problems of injustice and inequity and instead seek to be a more just and more equitable in the course of our local lives.

In the end, it was the capacity of the Israelites to dream small that positioned them to achieve greatness. Let’s first tackle the manageable problems. Then we can march to the Promised Land.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 1/14/2021

Just Another Manic Wednesday

Dear Friends,

Our world has become binary. Right and left. Us and them. Donkeys and elephants.

s we struggle to climb our way out of this hole, any forward progress is valuable. So I wanted to share with you three messages from three different precincts. Each arrived yesterday.

The first was an email. It came from a member waiting in line for her vaccine. “Rabbi – just wanted to share something so nice. Here at the hospital. Little bit chaotic. An older Black woman was standing on her feet looking for someplace to sit. There was no place. Then out of nowhere this NYPD officer appears with a chair for her. She was so happy. She said, ‘Thank you. Good for you. Good for America.’ And then he gave her a high five. Not sure why, but I thought the whole thing was very moving.” Nothing like a little chesed to start the day.

Second, I received a text message from an old friend. “As a tikkun to what is happening in the world, I’ve been listening to podcasts and shiurim that address the questions plaguing our nation. I alternate. One from the left; one from the right. If we don’t start branching out beyond our echo chambers now, when is it going to happen?” We love to point fingers at the media. I do it all the time. But here was a good reminder that we can also be the arbiters of the perspectives and opinions that shape the way we approach the world.

And finally, I got a call from someone who told me that with all that’s going on it the country right now, he wanted to do something constructive. “I’ve made a couple of loans recently. I’m forgiving them. Instead of asking people to repay me, I’m asking them to pay it forward and do something to bring more dignity and civility to America.” Here was a twenty first century application of yovel. But the idea wasn’t just to let it go; the idea was to use the gesture to kickstart a circle of virtuous behavior.

We won’t cure all that ails this nation by the end of the week. But if these three stories inspire three more, we’ll be well on our way.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 1/13/2021

The Candle Problem

Dear Friends,

One of the riddles in the recently released Language Lover’s Puzzle Book is an oldie called the Candle Problem. It was designed by the psychologist Karl Duncker in 1945. It goes like this: Imagine you are in a room with a table pushed up against the wall. On the table you find a candle, a box of tacks and a book of matches. Using only the materials provided, your objective is to affix the lit candle to the wall so that it will not drip wax onto the table below.
Five-year-olds tend to have an easier time finding the solution than older kids, and in many cases, adults. It turns out they are much less likely to suffer from functional fixedness. Whereas most people get stuck on the contents of the box, younger children are able to see that the box is the path to the solution. All one has to do is tack the box to the wall and place the candle in the box. Voila.

Given the vitriol and bile that now dominates the world of social media, I wonder if this might be the time for some out-of-the-box thinking. Maybe it’s time to pin the phone to the wall.

In Biblical Hebrew, there are a handful of words that exist only in the plural. One of them is panim. The Torah doesn’t talk about a person’s face, but rather about his or her faces. As Rilke wrote in the Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, “There are multitudes of people, but there are many more faces, because each person has several of them.” But these days we are seeing fewer and fewer of them. And we are all the poorer for it.

As a politician who recently announced that he was taking a social media sabbatical noted, Facebook and Twitter evoke the language we “wouldn’t use while looking someone in the eye.” These modalities render everyone – including people we ought to respect and care about it – faceless. Covid may have covered up the bottom half of their faces, but let’s not give up on the top half. Why should we engage in dialogue that generates so many more frowns than smiles? Why shouldn’t we pursue avenues that bring out our best selves?

Imagine if we took all the time and energy we spend on social media and devoted them instead to our families or friends. Before we get sucked down the next social media rabbit hole, why not consider the alternative? How about an old-fashioned phone call or Facetime call? In trying times, maybe it’s the best way to save face.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 1/12/2021

Pay Day

Dear Friends,

For many of us, this pandemic has expanded the orbit of our vocational lives. Some of us have become teachers and caterers; others have become barbers and laundry professionals. The pay hasn’t been very good, but we do it because, well… the alternative would look too uncivilized.

My most recent experience has been in a field which may not yet have a proper name. Because it’s so catchy, maybe we’ll call it vaccination assistance facilitation. (OK, maybe it’s not that catchy.) In some parts of New York City, trying to get an appointment for a covid vaccine falls somewhere between trying to get a loaf of bread in Soviet Russia and trying to get a straight answer in a Kafka novel. It can be done, it’s just not a particularly linear or predictable experience. And one probably has to expect the process will take two or three times longer than it should. So we’ve been hard at work recruiting and deploying volunteers to help those eligible to receive the vaccine. And we’ll keep at it until we reach the finish line.

I share here just one observation from my first two days on the job. The coronavirus is a communal problem and it will only be defeated by communally oriented solutions: Pooling resources; sharing information; communicating broadly; exchanging best practices; and providing one another shoulders to lean on when things don’t go as planned.

Distributing vaccines to millions of Americans is hard. For lots of reasons, the project doesn’t play to the strengths of our government. But rather than bemoaning this reality, our job is to mobilize. When we do, there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.

More than half a dozen times, the Torah talks about extirpating evil from our midst. Something or someone is so awful that we don’t just need to call it out; we need to eliminate it. Whenever this happens, there’s always a public spectacle. Think, for instance, of the false prophet. The threat he poses is so damaging that everyone needs to know about it. It requires the presence and participation of the community to overcome the challenge.

This virus isn’t so different. It can’t be beaten in a silo. It’s going to take all of us. The goal isn’t to get ourselves vaccinated. The goal is to get everyone vaccinated. By volunteering on our task force or by helping spread the word, each of us should become an ambassador in what has to be considered the most urgent public project of our time. The pay isn’t very good, but the payoff will be extraordinary.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabb

 

Update: 1/7/2021

The Difference Between Day and Night

Dear Friends,

Yesterday was a sad day for our nation. The idea that citizens of the United States would assault the foundational institutions of our democracy is very painful to me. As Jews, we constantly traffic in the sacred. We sanctify time. We talk about sanctifying God’s name. We aspire to bring holiness into our lives. And so we have a special appreciation for what it means when something that ought to be sacred is desecrated.

The US Capitol isn’t a liquor store. When someone breaks its windows, it’s not just criminal mischief. It’s an assault on democracy and decency; an outrage against civility; and a travesty of historic proportions. We grew up marching for Soviet Jewry or protesting against Iranian dictator’s bent on the destruction of Israel. The pen and the political action committee; the letter campaign and the public rally; they were all mightier than the sword. Who ever dreamed of resorting to violence? How sad that our children are growing up under a shadow cast by fellow citizens whose grim version of the American story countenances no dissent. How sad that we have to point to pictures of protesters in the newspaper and explain, “They can wave all the flags in the world, but that’s not how we Americans act. That’s not who we are.”

There’s more than enough blame to go around. Asking the president to take responsibility for fomenting violence is what we call in halachic parlance a bracha l’vatalah. Our energies will be better spent modelling civil discourse with one another so that our great nation can live up to its promise.

In the first bracha we say in shul every morning, we thank Hashem for giving us the capacity to know the difference between day and night. It’s so basic. It’s so obvious. It shouldn’t require any special know-how. But sometimes people can lose sight of even that which should be self-evident. May God bless all of our citizens with the wisdom to tell the difference between day and night. And may the Hearer of Prayer hear all of ours.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 1/6/2021

And let us say.... amen

Dear Friends,

The 117th session of Congress began inauspiciously on Monday. Invited to deliver the prayer to open the new session, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver concluded his invocation with the words, “Amen and awoman [sic].” Among those familiar with the etymology, meaning or usage of the word amen, the remarks were not well-received.

The representative from Missouri, who is also an ordained United Methodist pastor, said that his remark was intended as “a light-hearted pun” meant to celebrate the record number of women now serving in congress. But this explanation strains credulity. I’m not sure which would be more helpful to the congressman: a lesson about the meaning of the word amen or a lesson about the function of an invocation. I’m not aware of a religious tradition that promotes the conflation of prayer and light-hearted punning.

Truth be told, there is an argument to be made the amen is in fact a gendered word. It’s feminine. We all know that amen and emunah are related. They both to speak to the notion of faith. But my late uncle, Rabbi Levi Meier, once pointed out that amen and emunah are both related to an even more elemental word: omen, the Biblical word for nursemaid or one who nurtures. “When we seek faith,” he wrote “we are actually searching for an inner mother, someone or something to nurture us.”

We’re all searching for a little more faith these days. And we’re all rooting for fairness and equity to triumph in the face of prejudice. But tilting at windmills is good neither for the knight errant nor for the windmill. Let’s not profane Hebrew words in the name of égalité. Let’s expend our energy attacking real problems rather than imagined ones. And let us say, Amen.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 1/5/2021

Immunization Nation

Dear Friends,
 
It has not taken long for Israel to grab headlines in the world-wide competition among nations endeavoring to vaccinate their citizenry. Recent data show that Israel has already immunized more than 12% of its population. No other nation has hit 4%. So what’s the secret sauce? And why can’t other countries simply use Israel as their model and replicate its success?
 
The answer is surely not as simple as socialized medicine. Lots of other countries rely on universal health care systems and none of them has generated these kinds of results. As of December 30th, France had managed to vaccinate a total of 138 people.
 
It is certainly true that Israel is taking advantage of efficiencies in its nationalized health care system. That every citizen is registered with one of the national kupot cholim is undoubtedly a big part of the story. And because vaccination campaigns happen all the time, the infrastructure is in place to get people vaccinated quickly and efficiently.
 
But I think there are at least three other intangibles that are worth noticing. First, as Ran Balicer, chief innovation officer for Clalit Health, recently said, “We have become used to working in a state of emergency.” In the short lifetime of Israel’s statehood, the country has been in a crisis or at the brink of one too many times to count. Its citizens have developed a capacity for adaptation. Emergency preparedness is part of the social fabric. Think of Israel’s response to the tsunami in Indonesia or the earthquake in Haiti. Israelis have a sixth sense for how to mobilize under stress.

Second, because Israelis live in a land with scarce resources, they’ve developed a pervasive ethic of conservation. It’s not an accident that Leket Israel, the country’s national food bank, has tens of thousands of volunteers. Nor is it a coincidence that Israel has become a world leader in modeling water conservation. (See Yossi Siegel’s Let There Be Water.) When dealing with a vaccine whose shelf-life is so short, there is bound to be waste. What happens at the end of the week when a clinic was supposed to administer 1000 shots, but only 800 patients showed up? In Israel, there’s a stand-by list at the ready. God forbid one of these life-saving doses should go unused.

And finally, there’s something not quite fair about comparing Israel to other nations. In so many ways, for better or worse, Israel functions much more like a family than a nation state. How many first-hand stories do we know of Israelis picking up “strangers” for a Shabbat meal, giving a lift to a high school kid trying to get home or borrowing a yarmulke to help make a minyan? For all kinds of reasons, any population is going to have a group of people that – if left to their own devices – wouldn’t get vaccinated. It’s a group that needs persuading. But for so many in Israel, getting a vaccine doesn’t feel like civic duty; it feels like a family obligation. And no one wants to get a tongue-lashing from savta.

There’s a lot the nations of the world can learn from Israel. For their sake, let’s hope they are paying attention.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

 

Update: 1/1/2021

The Magic Words

Dear Friends,

The close of Sefer Bereishit feels particularly timely this year. After the death of Yaakov, not a moment is lost before all the once-latent uncertainty and anxiety rise to the surface. Yosef’s brothers are so nervous about their own future in a Yaakov-less world that they fall back on their own bad habits, scheming to find a way out of dodge. And yet the book ends peacefully and peaceably. It’s Yosef’s magnanimous reaction to their anxiety that puts their minds at ease.

Twice Yosef tells them that they have nothing to fear. He reassures his brothers that he will support them and their families. He comforted them and spoke to their hearts (Gen. 50:21). So just what is it that he said to allay their fears? At a moment when they were experiencing a deep sense of existential angst, how did he give them a sense of equanimity? If only we knew the answer, we might have a model for how to navigate our own sense of collective anxiety as we close the book on 2020 and look out on 2021.

So how did Yosef speak to their hearts? What were his magic words? Where the Torah is silent, we can only speculate. But my favorite speculation comes from an obscure Midrash (M. Kasher, Torah Shlemah 50:74). Yosef told his brothers two things. First, he reminded them that they were each given a bracha by their sainted father. And second, he told them those brachot are contingent on one another. The abrogation of any of them would spell the abrogation of all of them.

To paraphrase Hillel, all the rest is commentary.

We forget so easily. But if we could just always hold these two truths at the forefront of our consciousness, so many of our fears would fade into the background.

Our Father has given each of us a bracha. Our Father has given each of us a mission. But it’s not just about us. We’re part of something greater than ourselves. And the success of the collective is dependent on the success of the individual. The best antidote to a sense of fear is a sense of purpose. The moment we remember our own bracha is the moment 2021 becomes a year of opportunity.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 12/31/2020

Farewell 2020

Dear Friends,

I make a lot of shivah calls. One might say it’s an occupational hazard. A phenomenon I often see is what might be described as the gradually widening aperture of mourning. Particularly in cases where the decedent had battled illness, the bereaved tend to focus on the final weeks and days. They know the picture of a diminished parent or spouse is not the one they want to take with them, but recency is a powerful force. Gradually, the mourner opens up and expands the focus to include better parts of the life they are grieving. And eventually – in the best case scenario – the avel is able to step back, take in the full expanse of the life that’s been lost and shape their lasting memories with the kind of depth perception their loved one so richly deserved.

I’m not suggesting we sit shivah for 2020. But calendar markers are helpful, especially when we deploy them thoughtfully. What I’m suggesting is that year-end is a useful time for stock-taking. But we have to avoid the recency trap and think, too, about what 2020 may have given us. And it wouldn’t hurt if we articulated our answers in audible words.

My survey has not been scientific, but my hope is that hearing how others have responded will trigger our own thoughtful reflections. So allow me to share some of what I’ve learned when I’ve heard people answer the question: What have you gained in 2020?

One of the common refrains has to do with home life. “I’ve never spent so much time with my family,” one man told me. “I thought I would be going out of my mind, but that’s not been the case at all. And who knew that laundry could be so gratifying?” Sometimes we’re blessed to be around people we love; and sometimes we’re blessed to love the people we’re around. 

Another theme has centered on the sense of touch. A person who lives alone related to me that one morning during the pandemic on her way to the bank she slipped. She wasn’t hurt, but she found herself sprawled about on the sidewalk. A passerby bent down and offered her a hand. Instinctively, she took it and he helped her up. “It had been so long since I had touched another person,” she said. “If I had known how much I missed contact with people, I would have fallen months ago!”

And perhaps most poignantly has been the motif of gratitude. “A volunteer from the shul started calling me during the lockdown and she’s been calling every week since. She doesn’t even live in the city anymore. How nice is that?! More than the call, it’s the reminder that there are such kind people in the world.”

Bidding good riddance to 2020 needn’t mean we bid goodbye to everything it’s generated. We just need to spend a moment or two widening the aperture of our life lens. A little depth perception at the end of this old year might just change the way we perceive the new one.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 12/29/2020

My New York Times Subscription

Dear Friends,

Reading the New York Times Review this past Sunday was like entering a poor man’s time machine. Magically, I was transported back to my freshman year at one of the most liberal colleges in America. In the span of just a few minutes, I took in a screed against America’s oppressive settler-colonialism; a paean to victimhood; an article animated by grievance; and a column about the joys of sexual promiscuity. I felt as though I were back in a classroom filled with wide-eyed, do-gooder idealists who thought that the Marx-Engels Reader might be their guide to the good life. Who but a group of 19-year-olds could be so unselfconsciously self-righteous and self-certain?

But if my college education occasionally indulged the sophomoric, it was balanced by great books and great scholars; and a core curriculum rooted in centuries of collected wisdom. It placed a premium on critical thinking and the scholarly temperament – the capacity to hold multiple points of view at once without descending into an intellectual tailspin. The idea of diversity was not a cudgel to beat back opposing viewpoints; it was an ethic that embraced the notion that people from different backgrounds might materially contribute different perspectives to the conversation. The New York Times has managed to capture only the provocative buzzwords of the zeitgeist while jettisoning the intellectual underpinnings of a meaningful liberal philosophy. The result is a surfeit of sanctimony and the utter absence of constructive ideas.

“Rabbi,” you will say, “If you’re so opposed to the values of The New York Times, stop complaining and cancel your subscription.” But doing so would only perpetuate the very cycle I wish we could break. I’m only too happy to read opinions with which I disagree. I only wish we could replace a culture of grievance with one that sought solutions.

Osmosis is a powerful force. Just think of the Talmud’s depiction of Hillel on the roof of the study hall. We can absorb more than words when we expose ourselves to the voices of those down below.

Particularly in this culture at this time, prominent media outlets play an outsize role in shaping our communal agenda and in prioritizing the issues of the day. So we have to pay careful attention. But we also have to stop and notice when the values that begin to dominate the public discourse are so assuredly not our own. It’s not just a question of what we read, but how we read.

In may ways, the proverbial Page Six is less pernicious. We don’t expect to see our values reflected there. But the constant drumbeat of sanctimony on every other page takes its cumulative toll. If we don’t pause every so often to think critically about the news we consume, it will consume us.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

 

Update: 12/28/2020

And the First Doses of Vaccine Goes to...?

 

Dear Friends

Part of an Introduction to Judaism series I once taught for teens was a class called, “Lifeboat Ethics on the Titanic.” The idea of the curriculum, designed by Rabbi Dr. Daniel Reifman, was to acquaint students with some of the sources that animate discussions about Jewish values. Part of the goal was to convey the complexity of issues like the allocation of scarce resources. It wasn’t so much about the content as the process. Judaism, the class argued, has thought long and hard about these weighty issues. Armchair ethicists and arch pragmatists whose soulless decisions are guided solely by algorithms will only get us so far. A tradition rooted in a divine code and developed through centuries of wisdom will get us infinitely further.

Now that we have a vaccine at our disposal, we have to figure out to distribute it. We can all appreciate the layers of complexity that go into these decisions. How do the short-terms goals stack up against the long-term? Who is essential? Should we consider individuals or categories of individuals? At what age is someone considered high-risk? Should those with their own antibodies go to the back of the line? The list goes on.

Our elected officials will do the best they can. On the whole, I would bet we will see something like a bell curve. Most of the decisions will be right where they ought to be; a few will be particularly thoughtful or creative; and a few will be dreadful. We’ve not been asked opine on public policy. And I’m not aware of any states that have consulted halakhic sources to guide their decision-making processes.    

But we as the consumers have a responsibility of our own. Simply put, we are dutybound to be deliberative and to consider the consequences our own decisions. Does our immunization come at the expense of someone else, and if so, who? As much as we have to think about ourselves, we also have to consider how our actions affect the greater good.

Given the unconscionable degree to which members of our community have flouted public health guidelines, I suppose it should come as little surprise that we are now reading reports about people jumping the line to obtain the vaccine. That these stories are unsurprising does not make them any less unforgivable. And once again, the notion of hillul Hashem – devastating as it may be

– pales in comparison to the larger issue: To deprive someone who more urgently needs a vaccine by cutting the line is reprehensible, repugnant and antithetical to Judaism.

Every person should get vaccinated. And with God’s help, it won’t be long before every person has the opportunity to do just that. When our number is called, we should celebrate. Until then, we should wait our turn.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 12/25/2020

The Gift of America's Holiday Season

Dear Friends,

How many American Jews woke up this morning and thought, “Today is Christmas?” How many American Jews woke up this morning and thought, “Today is Asarah be-Tevet?” Of course there is no question that the answer to the first question is a bigger number than the answer to the second. I just wonder whether the ratio is closer to 10:1 or 100:1. Even in a community like ours where we live and breathe Jewish life, there is simply no escaping the pervasive and unending signals from the culture that envelops us.

I’ve always thought that the Christmas season in America is the great reminder that – for all the extraordinary blessings we enjoy in this extraordinary land – it is but a waystation on the path to our final destination. Lest we forget, the rosiness of a given diaspora doesn’t make it any less of a diaspora.

Messages like this one are always a source of dissonance for us. If we’re not going to make aliyah tomorrow and we’re not going to sequester ourselves in a ghetto, what really can we do?

R. Ovadiah Sforno, the great Italian thinker makes a fascinating observation. For all of Yaakov’s fears about leaving Canaan and travelling to Egypt, Sforno suggests that it was, on balance, the safer move. The idea that Yaakov’s family could acculturate and lose themselves among the Canaanites was no imaginary fear. Just think of Dinah and Schem or Yehuda and his Canaanite wife, the daughter of Shua. It was only too easy for the Hebrews to integrate.

But in Egypt, there was a stigma attached to the Ivrim. In the hierarchical society of the Pharaohs, the sons of Yaakov were considered outsiders – or we might even say – untouchables. The Egyptians would not so much as break bread with them. Ironically, it was outside the Promised Land that the Jews stood a better chance of maintaining their identity and warding off the threats of assimilation.

Whether and to what to degree we survive and thrive doesn’t cut simply along the Israel/Diaspora divide. Neither is it a direct function of geography. There’s no secret sauce. But in the Land of the Free, anything is possible. It takes a lot of extra effort to swim against the tide. Which is exactly what it will take to reach our final destination.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 12/24/2020

Bracha Bee

Dear Friends,

There’s been a lot of chatter lately about whether the covid vaccine warrants a bracha. The question is an open one and rabbinic authorities are just starting to opine on the issue. I shared some tentative thoughts on the matter with our friends at the Jewish Telegraph Agency.

Warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 12/23/2020

Lost in Translation

 

Dear Friends,

If the Jewish calendar held a popularity contest, today’s date, the 8th of Tevet, wouldn’t win a lot of points. I suspect among dates this month, it would finish well behind it’s slightly younger colleague, the 10th of Tevet. The latter earned a reputation as a fast day. After all, it commemorates the date on which Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem, an event that ultimately led to the destruction of Solomon's Temple. It also has the distinction of being the only fast day that we observe on a Friday.

But the 8th and 9th of Tevet also commemorate tragedies. What happened on the middle day is something of a mystery. But our tradition is unambiguous about today’s date. It was the day on which Ptolemy organized the translation of the Torah into Greek. He enlisted 72 elders to do the work, but segregated them such that they were unable to collaborate. That the translations were not at odds with one another was considered nothing less than miraculous. The product of this work became known as the Septuagint.

And yet, as much as the outcome of this story must have been a relief to the Jews under Ptolemy’s rule, the idea that the Torah was translated at all is considered tragic. Why?

As the Talmud suggests, any translation must, by definition, be considered deficient. Rashi and many who followed in his footsteps were fond of quoting the Gemara (Sanhedrin 34a): “Behold, My word is like fire, declares the Lord, and like a hammer that shatters rock (Jer. 23:29). Just as this hammer produces several sparks, so one passage of Scripture produces several meanings.” The richness of Torah is unending. Its depth is infinite. Who has not had the experience of rereading a verse for the hundred-and-first time only to discover an entirely new dimension that had gone unnoticed the first hundred times? To translate the Torah is to make a single interpretive choice about the meaning of the text to the exclusion of all others. To translate the Torah is to arrest its multiplicity; to flatten its texture.

Recognizing that a three-day fast would be untenable, the sages folded the events of the 8th, 9th and 10th of Tevet into a single unit. The result is a date on our calendar condemned to live anonymously. But if, in honor of this otherwise anonymous day, we decided to study a pasuk and consider more than one way it might be read, who could fault us? For all the blessings we enjoy in the vernacular, what could compare to the original?

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 12/21/2020

When Jupiter met Saturn

Dear Friends,

Yesterday, on the winter solstice, Jupiter and Saturn came so close to one another than they appeared to be a double planet. The last time they had been this close was 1226. Stargazers had been anticipating the event for months. Astronomers were over the moon. But is there a message coded in this story for the rest of us who traffic in the earthly?

I’m certainly not in a position to comment on the cosmic significance of an event like this. But thish moment is a good one for reflecting on the meaning of all the lights in the nighttime sky. What are we to make of them?

Four thoughts come to mind. First, to see the vastness of the universe is to see the smallness of man. As the Psalmist asks rhetorically, When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, a mortal that you should take note of him? (Psalms 8:4-5) At a time in which man has made himself out to be the center of the world, the sight of other worlds is a welcome call for humility.

Second, studying the sky is an introduction to the theology of the infinite. How can we flesh-and-blood human beings even begin to contemplate – let alone understand – the ideas of omniscience, omnipotence or omnipresence? As God reminded Avraham on a clear night many moons ago, the stars cannot be counted. Above us is a galaxy of teachers who, by their very existence, preach faith.

Third, as the Mishnah in Chagigah reminds us, there are limits attached to the study of God’s creation. We will get as far we will get, but some mysteries of the universe will remain forever mysterious. Stars tell us that there are some things that are both literally and figuratively beyond us.

And finally, as the Torah tells us in its opening chapter, there is a utilitarian function to the moon and stars. God made the two great lights, the greater light to dominate the day and the lesser light to dominate the night, and the stars (Gen. 1:16). Here is the simplest, yet profoundest, message of all. God does not bandon us. If the world turns such that we find ourselves without a sun, that needn’t mean we find ourselves without light. There are other sources of illumination.

When Jupiter meets Saturn every few hundred years, we can’t be sure what they discuss. But it’s a worthy occasion to look out on God’s magnificent world and wonder.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 12/18/2020

Table for One 

Dear Friend,

A number of years ago, a French research team unearthed new evidence to support a theory put forth by a medieval Frenchman named Rabbi David Kimchi. The Torah tells us that the Egyptians would not break bread with the Hebrews, for doing so was detestable to the Egyptians (Gen. 43:32). But why? Just what was it that created a cultural chasm so yawning that it could not be bridged?

R. Kimchi suggested that it was a question of diet. While the shepherd children of Yaakov ate meat, Egyptians did not. According to a report published in Inside Science, scientists studying the hair of mummies concluded that Ancient Egyptians were in fact vegetarians.

Nearing the narrative’s dénouement, Yosef is overcome with emotion on seeing his brother, Binyamin. Once accused of being spies, Yosef’s brothers are treated to a repast. But the scene that ensues is nothing less than bizarre. Unwilling to dine together with their meat-eating visitors, the Egyptians sit separately from the Hebrews. And Yosef joins neither group!

Perhaps our current pandemic has given us a new appreciation for what was happening here. People who should rightfully have been together were separated by an invisible barrier that prevented them from coming too close to one another.

As if this weren’t enough, R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk adds a further detail. On his reading of the text, Yosef’s family was present, too. In all, there were actually four groups: the Egyptian members of Yosef’s staff; Yosef’s brothers; Yosef’s wife and sons; and Yosef himself. With each of the first three groups dining at their respective tables, it would have been all too easy for Yosef to simply join his family. Instead, he chose to sit alone. It was, R. Meir Simcha suggests, a subtle act of empathy. If his siblings were going to suffer the pain of isolation, Yosef would suffer along with them… by himself.

Years later, when Moshe’s outstretched arms grew tired as he did battle against Amalek, his compatriots gave him a rock on which to sit. As the Talmud famously puts it, “Could they not have found him a cushion?” Perhaps they could have. But a Jew does not pamper himself at the moment his brethren are in distress. Sometimes that distress is physical; sometimes it’s emotional. As we think about those who are homebound and those who are isolated at times like these, Yosef and Moshe remind us that we can never allow the comforts we enjoy to make us oblivious to what other are missing.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 12/17/2020

An Apple a Day

Dear Friends,

Last week, a writer called Joseph Epstein published an article in the Wall Street Journal suggesting that Jill Biden rethink the way she refers to herself when she becomes the nation’s First Lady. Having earned a doctorate in education from the University of Delaware, she is often called doctor. But Epstein wrote that “Jill Biden should think about dropping the honorific, which feels fraudulent, even comic.” Epstein claimed that graduate degrees in the humanities aren’t worth much these days. Only someone with a medical degree, the argument went, ought to have the right to call herself a doctor.

Unsurprisingly, the piece caused quite an uproar. And rightfully so. People spend a lot of time and energy in graduate school. If they’ve earned a degree that comes with a title, doesn’t that mean they are entitled to use it? A person can always opt out, but to begrudge such a person his/her title reveals much more about the “begrudger” than the bedgrudged.

The debate itself is a product of crumbling social norms. Was anyone talking about this in 1920s America? In cultures where either everyone or no one is addressed with an honorific, these questions are beside the point.  

As someone who has spent a good deal of time doing graduate work, it seems to me that the decisive issue here is context. I would suggest a simple rule of thumb that recognizes three distinct circumstances. The first is one in which a person is functioning within his/her specialized field. In this case, the use of the honorific helpfully identifies a person as a qualified expert.

The second is the opposite case – a circumstance in which calling oneself doctor is misleading. When a person with a doctorate in modern history opines on medical policy, portraying oneself as a doctor is simply disingenuous. Adherents to our value system are meant not only to tell the truth, but to steer clear of anything that smacks of falsehood.

The third circumstance is the gray area that falls between these two poles – cases in which the honorific is simply not relevant. In these cases, how could the decision fall to anyone but the bearer of the title herself? Students once asked R. Zakkai the secret to his longevity. Among his answers was an important piece of wisdom. “I never referred to a colleague by a name he did not choose.” Whether she’s Dr. Jill Biden or not is for Dr. Jill Biden to decide.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

 

Update: 12/16/2020

Yesterday's Normal; Tomorrow's Miracle

Dear Friends,

Exactly 300 years ago, Elijah Kramer was born in a small town in present-day Belarus. He would grow up to become the man we know as the Vilna Gaon. Renowned for his towering intellect and stunning originality, he became and remains an icon of Jewish learning and piety. He was also a man who cared deeply about origins. By creating pathways for his students and readers to trace Jewish traditions back to their sources, he connected past and present and brought history to life.

In most synagogues, including our own, the gabbai lights Chanukah candles on a daily basis between Mincha and Maariv. The trouble is that the Talmud makes no mention of this practice whatsoever. The mitzvot of Chanukah fall to householders, not communal institutions. Perhaps the practice developed over time to account for people without homes; those who customarily slept in the synagogue. Or maybe it was simply designed to maximize the number of people who would see the candles.

In either case, the Vilna Gaon writes that our minhag is not entirely without precedent. It is analogous to the recitation of Hallel in synagogue on the first night of Pesach. Of course Hallel must be said over a cup of wine at the Seder. But inasmuch as singing Hallel in shul broadcasts the miracle of the day even more publicly, we permit and maybe even endorse the practice. And so it is on Chanukah. To the extent we can widen the audience of those who see the candles, all the better.

At a time like this, the Vilna Gaon reminds us not just about origins and roots, but also about aspirations. As beautiful as it may sound, Hallel sung at home is not the same as the melodies and harmonies produced by a congregation that joins together in song. However much joy we may be able to muster on our family Zoom Chanukah lighting, the feeling of belonging to something larger that attaches to communal celebration simply cannot be replicated at home.

Thinking about Hallel and Chanukah candles in the context of a packed sanctuary, we project the image of the past onto the future. In this season of miracles, we ought to give ourselves license to think about how soon our hopes may come to fruition. Given what we may be celebrating next year at this time, maybe we’ll need a bigger Menorah.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

 

Update: 12/15/2020

Family Values and the Value of Family 

Dear Friends,

The American “holiday season” often exposes contemporary challenges facing our national value system. Think of all the questions that arise around consumerism and the commercialization of religion. Or consider conversations that emerge over the place of religion in the public square. This year, one could say that our covid-19-dominated world has amplified the indispensability of family.

How many people do we know who bemoan family gatherings? How many articles have we read about the stress and anxiety that attach to holiday homecomings? How many times have we borne witness to unhealthy family dynamics exacerbated by the real or imagined expectations of seasonal family get-togethers?

Of all the years, 2020 would have been the perfect one to opt out. Here was the opportunity-of-a-lifetime for the perennial complainers to take a pass. It would have been so easy to say, “I’m sorry I can’t make it home this year. As much as I would love to be there to enjoy the meatloaf with the secret sauce and share the sofa with the ageless cat who never stops shedding and be regaled by stories of how Aunt Millie used to walk in the snow uphill (both ways) to procure fresh milk for Uncle Jake…. In light of the pandemic, I’m afraid I just won’t be able to join you.... But I’d love to see you all on Zoom for 20 minutes during my haircut….”

And yet millions of Americans travelled to see their families for Thanksgiving. And millions more will do the same next week. While concerns for public health and well-being justifiably dominate our discourse, what should not escape our attention is the almost indomitable force that pulls us back to our families. As human beings, we are hard-wired to crave a sense of belonging. We’ve been engineered to thrive and succeed within the context of a healthy family unit. Lo tov heyot ha-adam levado. It’s not just that man is unhappy when he’s alone; tov in Genesis means complete. The loner is not just lonely; he’s lacking.

For all its intuitive indispensability, today the idea of family is under assault. The causes are many and the solutions are few. But the centrality of family has been at the core of the Jewish story from time immemorial. Our Jewish holidays begin and end with family. Among those ordained by the Torah or the rabbis, Pesach is historically the first; Chanukah the last. Rosh Hashana or Sukkot could be observed on a desert island. But not Pesach. Because it is fundamentally about the transmission of the mesorah from one generation to the next, its ambitions cannot be achieved in the absence of family. And Chanukah is no different. The halakha formulates the obligation as ner ish u-beto; the mitzvah falls not to the individual, but to the household. A candle lit but not seen does not serve its function.

As is so often the case, our tradition calls on us Jews to be counter-cultural – to swim against the tide of a secular value system the privileges the individual above all else. If we could give one gift to our fellow Americans this Chanukah, it would be this: the sense that families help us become our best selves and it will take nothing less to restore America to its best self.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 12/11/2020

Out of Sight

Dear Friends,

An entrepreneurial manufacturer in New Jersey who fashions giant Menorahs was in the paper this week. If you see a Menorah that’s 12 feet tall, there’s a good chance he engineered it. But can a Menorah be too tall?

Citing an exposition of R. Natan, the Talmud says absolutely. Chanukah candles placed higher than 20 amot (roughly 30 feet) from the ground are considered disqualified. If the idea is to attract the attention of passersby, these candles fail to do their job. People tend not to notice things beyond their sightlines.

But in the midst of discussing how and when to light Chanukah candles, the Talmud veers off onto a tangent. We learn about something else R. Natan said, a comment Rashi made famous. When the Torah describes the ditch into which Joseph was cast by his brothers, it tells us, the pit was empty; there was no water in it (Gen. 37:24). But why the redundancy?

According to R. Natan’s tradition, the pit may have contained no water, but it did contain snakes and scorpions.

It’s not altogether uncommon for the Talmud to make tangential comments. And it’s in fact quite common to find unrelated statements stacked together when they are attributed to the same teacher. In this case, however, what appears to be a tangent is in fact a simple continuation of one train of thought.

As Baruch ha-Levi Epstein so cogently argues, both statements express precisely the same message. Had Joseph’s brothers known about the dangers lurking at the bottom of the pit, they surely wouldn’t have cast him there. The idea of throwing him into the pit represented their attempt not to kill him. But when something is too high or too deep, it escapes one’s vision. Whether candles atop a tower or serpents below ground, the effect is the same: Out of sight; out of mind. We are simply not in the habit of paying attention to things that are not in our literal or figurative line of vision. By extension, tossing Joseph in the pit wasn’t just a stalling tactic, it was a means by which to turn the dreamer – the seer – into someone unseeable.

Chanukah, then, is as good a time as any to search out the unseen: Both the people we cannot fully appreciate because they are too far away and those we do not fully appreciate people they are too close by. What better Chanukah gift than shining the light of our attention on someone in the darkness?

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 12/10/2020

A Chanukah Metaphor

 

Dear Friends,

When this pandemic is over, I hope we will be able to say that Chanukah was the last holiday we celebrated while “under lockdown.” But a part of me wishes it had been the first. There is perhaps no other celebration on our calendar that so easily accommodates the unexpected.

Looking back on this past year, concerns over how we would manage our holidays either sent us into a tizzy or an all-out tailspin. A seder alone? Unthinkable! Yom Kippur without shul? Unimaginable! Sukkot without a sukkah? Impossible! Invariably, we identified paths forward and found creative solutions. But understandably, those solutions always seemed to leave us feeling a little uneasy or a little unsatisfied. 

But unlike all the other chagim on our calendar, Chanukah contains within it a built-in fallback position. Echoing across our halakhic literature is a refrain. The ideal celebration of the holiday, it predicts, will often – if not usually – prove impossible. To publicize the miracle of the oil, the optimal location in which to light Chanukah candles is at the entrance to or just outside of one’s home such that the candles will be visible to passersby. And yet history has thrown all manner of obstacles in our path. Adherents to an ancient pagan religion celebrated a holiday on which candles could only be burned in their temples; lighting candles outside one’s home was forbidden. At times when anti-Semitism was raging, public displays of Jewish practice ranged from ill-advised to dangerous. Describing the winters they endured, Eastern European rabbis took for granted that the idea of lighting candles outdoors was simply a non-starter.

In any case in which lighting in the usual public manner is not possible, the rabbinic authorities write matter-of-factly that one simply lights his/her Chanukah candles in the privacy of one’s home. As R. Yosef Karo writes so breezily about the Jew observing Chanukah, “Should danger prevent him from fulfilling his mitzvah, he puts the candle on his table and that’s it.” On Chanukah, it’s almost a given that the ideal will surrender to the good-enough and we’ll all be just fine. None of this constitutes a renunciation of our ambition. Even as we capitulate to the limitations governing this particular moment, we retain the hope of returning to the capacious practices of yesteryear.

Chanukah, then, functions as a metaphor for a Jewish response to the pandemic. Adaptation needn’t be cause for agitation; today’s trauma shouldn’t make us any less hopeful about tomorrow’s salvation; and whether we are outside or inside, celebrate we shall.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 12/8/2020

Pace Yourself

Dear Friends,
 
On Sunday afternoon, many of us had the pleasure of hearing from Israel’s marathon champion and Olympic hopeful Beatie Deutsch. She attributes a lot of her success to her faith. She’s also a big believer in pacing. At the beginning of a race, a runner feels fresh and light out of the gate; her adrenaline is pumping; it feels as if she can fly. But it’s a trap. If she runs too fast, she risks depleting the energy reserves she’ll surely need at the end of the race.  
 
It’s a loose analogy, but this was roughly the same advice I received in April from a leading virologist. As someone directly involved in the research and development of rapid covid testing, he assured me that there was no quick fix. “This pandemic is going to take some time,” he said. “But by and large people are not capable of assimilating information that’s going to drastically affect their lives when that information is couched in terms of years. People do better in smaller quantities. The best strategy is to focus on quarters. Three months at a time. That’s manageable.”
 
And now here we are nine months into this pandemic. As fall turns to winter, we can already sense that the rising covid numbers across the country and across the globe mean that we are destined to face a difficult season ahead. And at the same time, we can sense that the spring will be better. I don’t think anyone is saying that three months from now we’ll be out of the woods. But I do think that three months from now, with vaccines being manufactured and distributed, we will be in a very different place.
 
The great 17th century Rabbi Hezekiah da Silvah noted that it was customary in his generation for the sextain to make public announcements about the changing of the season. Specific dates on the calendar dictated practices concerning matters of hygiene and public health. This early modern quarterly report reified the wisdom of conceptualizing time in manageable increments. 
 
As Beatie Deutsch cautioned, a runner who gets ahead of herself can hit a wall well before the finish line. The end is in sight. Let’s pace ourselves accordingly.
 
With warmest regards,
 
Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 12/4/2020

The Wisdom of the Filibuster

Dear Friends,

The rabbis never liked Esav very much. And who could blame them? Inasmuch as he was the progenitor of Rome and Christendom, he was the father of those who burned our Temple to the ground; the patriarch of a church that launched the Crusades, orchestrated the Inquisition and persecuted our people for centuries. The seeds he sowed were responsible for generations of Jewish suffering. 

The biblical character himself – the man known as Esav as distinct from his archetype – is much more complicated and much more sympathetic. Something about him wins him the love and affection of his sainted father. Esav is the victim of Yaakov’s machinations rather than the aggressor. To be sure, he suffers from impulsivity and he marries the wrong women. But if his great offense is the fratricidal rage he harbors against his twin, his menacing threats deserve closer scrutiny. 

Esav’s distress in the face of having learned that he’d been swindled out of his father’s blessing is not only understandable, it’s laudable. His disappointment bespeaks the value he had attached to Yitzchak’s brachah. In his rage, he says, As soon as the mourning period for my father arrives I will kill my brother Jacob (Gen. 27:41). However she learns of it, Rivkah uses the threat as a pretext to dispatch Yaakov to Haran. She knows Yaakov could never marry a Canaanite woman. Here was her opportunity, with Yitzchak’s blessing, to launch Yaakov on his life journey.

Coded in her words is the simplest answer to our parsha’s most perplexing puzzle. On receiving the message that Esav is accompanied by a militia of 400 men, Yaakov is nothing less than terrified. He’s convinced that his brother will make good on his promise. With justifiable motive and ample opportunity, Esav appears ready to wipe out Yaakov and his camp. And yet he foregoes his chance. Rather than execute Yaakov, he embraces him. Why? As the prophet Jeremiah said, a leopard doesn’t change its spots. How has the murderous Esav suddenly become so enamored of the idea of reconciliation?

Simply put, Esav’s bark was always bigger than his bite. And his mother knew it. Remain with Lavan a short while, she told Yaakov, until your brother’s wrath subsides (Gen. 27:44). She knew all about the profile of her impulsive son. She knew full well that with the passage of time tempers would cool and the comity that reigned in her home for 60 years would eventually return.

Elections and electoral rhetoric get people fired up. Crises makes us irritable. Throw in an economic downturn and it’s a recipe for trouble. People say and write things they regret. It’s at moments like these that we need to be most attuned to the fragility of our relationships. Time isn’t a magic elixir, but its passage certainly contains within it the power to heal.

Earlier this week, retiring Senator Lamar Alexander made this very point on the Senate floor. The Upper Chamber of Congress, he said, was conceived as a “cooling saucer” for the nation’s passions. “And the filibuster – the right to talk your head off until you force a broad agreement – is the pre-eminent tool we use to force those passions into a compromise that most of us can vote for and that the country can live with.” Stalling for the sake of stalling may not accomplish much. Stalling in the hopes that biding time will lead to more consensus? That’s biblical wisdom in action.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 12/2/2020

What a Hoot

Dear Friends,

After reading about Barry in the news two weeks ago, Rachel and I decided to venture up to the North Woods in Central Park to see if we could find him. We are not birders, but the barred owl had become such a celebrity, we thought it a welcome opportunity to see the bird for ourselves. Because it was Shabbat, we didn’t have the advantage of the social media sites that had sprung up to track sightings of the owl. Embarrassingly, we weren’t even equipped with binoculars, let alone the super-telephoto prime lenses that are the stock and trade of real birders. We relished the unseasonably warm weather and enjoyed the remnants of the fall foliage, but alas, no Barry. By word of mouth, we learned that he and his companion had been seen heading for parts north.

This past Shabbat Rachel and I were out for another walk. This time we headed south. Lo and behold, atop a pine tree just north of the Swedish Cottage Marionette Theater, we spotted the elusive owl. Truth be told, we spotted two dozen gawking bird watchers looking and pointing. From there it was easy to find him. Imagine our surprise when we spotted his companion in the Ramble.

For the ancient Greeks, owing to their wide eyes, owls were a symbol of wisdom. For Early Modern Jews, owls were a symbol of redemption. As Zvi Orgad wrote recently in the journal Arts, depictions of the owl could be found in synagogues and Haggadot. As Isaiah describes, the enemies of Israel will eventually be destroyed and the ruins of their empire will be inhabited by owls. For Jews living in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the owl was a harbinger of coming salvation.

None of us can say with certainty what might be a herald or an omen. But we can say that searching for signs of hope will keep us hopeful – particularly when those signs emerge from scientists manufacturing a vaccine. And if we gain a little wisdom along the way, all the better.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 12/1/2020

What to do with Relgious Freedom

Dear Friends,

For today’s message, What to do with Religious Freedom, please visit the website of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 11/27/2020

Try This New Phone Setting: Off

Dear Friends,

At Thanksgiving dinner this year, many of us used our phones or other devices to connect with friends or family not sitting at our table. Given the circumstances, it was the best we could do to replicate the experience of a normal Thanksgiving. But bringing our phones to the dinner table – or to any in-person social interaction – should be the exception rather than the rule.

It’s a given nowadays that people will be on their phones during meetings and Zoom calls. Those of us who teach long ago stopped taking it personally when students pulled out their phones in the middle of a talk. But now it’s a matter of course to see people scrolling and texting at times when they ought to be doing something elevated like davening or celebrating at a wedding. The new floor is phone use at graveside funerals. Whenever I see this, I think: Really? There’s something so urgent that it requires you to text during a eulogy? Of course not. This isn’t indicative of a conscious, thoughtful decision to prioritize a response to the question of orange juice with pulp or without over commemorating the life of one’s great uncle. It’s simply indicative of how unconscious and thoughtless our technology decisions have become.

Kate Murphy takes up these issues and many more in her book, You’re Not Listening. In part, she describes our need to constantly check our phones as a symptom of our discomfort with idle or anxious moments. Instead of reaching for a cigarette, people reach for their phones.

As Carl Gustav Jung often pointed out, most people are afraid of silence. “Whenever the everlasting chit-chat at a party suddenly stops, they are impelled to say something, do something, and start fidgeting.” I once had occasion to meet with the president of a prominent psychoanalytic institution. In the course of our meeting there was an awkward pause in the conversation. “Should one of us say something?” I asked. She shrugged. “Or,” she wondered, “would it be so terrible if we sat for a moment in silence?”  

All of this, of course, is a charitable social commentary. We shouldn’t feel disrespected when people take out their phones mid-conversation. Texters aren’t intentionally offending the dead at funerals. No one means to suggest by glancing at their phone that I’m less important than a score alert. (After all, the Jets could still win a game this year!) All of this incessant phone-checking is just symptomatic of a little anxiety and fidgetiness. Like ending a sentence with a preposition, it’s nothing to be trifled by.

But even accepting this analysis, our devolution into phone addiction comes at a price. Every sidelong glance at a screen also represents the division of our attention. When was the last time someone generated empathy while devoting a fraction of themselves to listening? One would have thought our pandemic would have taught us all with luminous clarity just how precious are our human interactions. One would have thought that we would be rushing to repay the blessing of seeing people in person by giving others the gift of our undivided attention. But alas, we human beings are too stubborn to assimilate lessons like these. Rather than engaging in the work of building relationships, we engage in inanity.

If this moment calls for a new tactic, Yaakov offers us one. Upon seeing Rachel approaching, the Torah tells us that he rolls a stone off the mouth of a well. But just how does he do it? Had the locals not just said that the cover could only be moved by the collected strength of the entire group of shepherds? It was Esav who had a reputation as a strongman, not Yaakov. And yet he manages the feat almost effortlessly.  

Maybe the answer is that Yaakov simply refused to accept the word on the street. Yes, everyone had said the stone could not be moved. But common knowledge is not the same thing as truth. In fact, the shepherds were wrong. It just took a little courage to discover as much.

The prevailing norms around the way people allow technology to interfere with the development of healthy human relationships are prevalent for a reason. But our tradition has always prided itself on a degree of counter-culturalism. Sometimes we need to buck the trend. Maybe it doesn’t actually require superhuman resolve to switch off our phones. Maybe it just requires that we try.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 11/25/2020

Jews in the News

Dear Friends,

There’s an old joke about two friends riding a train. As it pulls out of the station, each one takes out something to read. The first opens a Jewish newspaper; the second takes out a publication of the Ku Klux Klan. When the first man notices, he’s horrified. “How can you possibly read that?” he asks. “In your newspaper,” the second man says, “all the news is bad. The economy is a wreck, the country is in crisis and our very way of life is in jeopardy. In my newspaper, it’s just the opposite. We own all the banks; we control the media. It seems there’s nothing that’s beyond us….” 

The Jewish community has been in the press a lot lately. Every once in a while there is a feel good story, but more often than not, the coverage has been of the cringeworthy variety. The stories aren’t good. One can blame the media or our elected officials until their blue in the face, but that won’t change the fact that the stories are real. In our heads, they may be about people who live in different area codes or adhere to a different set of core values. But in the eyes of the average reader, I’m afraid such distinctions are all but immaterial. Right or wrong, the Jewish community is typically judged as a single, uniform entity. 

In Talmudic times, the administrator of the local food bank was called a gabbai. He was responsible for oversight and distribution. Operations might be smooth, but the rabbis wonder what should he do if the quantity of donated food exceeds the present demand? Presuming the food will spoil, of course the responsible thing to do is to sell it and set aside the proceeds for the next time a need arises. If the gabbai himself can use the food, it would seem the simplest remedy would be for him to buy it. The solution saves everyone a hassle and yields the same result. And yet the Talmud insists that this is expressly prohibited (Pesachim 13a). What might people think? The Torah tlls us You shall be clear before God and before Israel (Num. 33:22). It’s not enough to do the right thing. We also need make sure that our actions are beyond reproach such that we avoid even the appearance of impropriety. 

It would be nice if each of us could walk around and make a kiddush Hashemall the time. But at moments like these, we should be thinking about an even more modest and more prosaic goal. Let’s just be consistently good citizens and neighbors. When we play by the rules, we implicitly broadcast the message that we care about the greater good. 

We can’t undo the irreparable damage done by bad actors in our community. But we can create new images and new models for our fellow New Yorkers to see. Those are the kind of images that would be news fit to print. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Update: 11/24/2020

Combat

Dear Friends,

Writing in The National Interest recently, Herb Lin made an apt observation. While admittedly an inexact analogy, he suggested that it might be helpful to conceptualize the anxiety we’ve been feeling as a not-too-distant cousin of the stress experienced by combat soldiers. Inasmuch as any other person may be a transmitter of covid-19, our antennae have to be constantly raised. The risk of any potential person communicating the disease to us may be low, but the cumulative risk means that one can never let down one’s guard.

“One can certainly imagine this phenomenon happening when soldiers on counter-insurgency missions come across a village in which two hundred villagers are probably friendly or neutral (i.e., pose no threat) and one person may be carrying a grenade underneath a shirt. The likelihood that one person in the village would want to do those soldiers bodily harm is low, but it is not zero, and soldiers learn to regard everyone in the village as a potentially lethal threat.”

The effects – or we might even say costs – of perpetual hypervigilance cannot be easily dismissed. Being on high alert all the time is exhausting and emotionally draining. It also means that we’re likely to be less patient and more irritable. None of this helps either our emotional or spiritual health.

Surely one good combat analogy deserves another. If being hyper-aware of life’s fragility is the problem, maybe being hyper-aware of life’s Creator is the solution. King David offers a powerful model. From an early age, he was constantly in harm’s way. He lived in perpetual danger. His approach wasn’t just to summon courage; it was to summon the image of God. “You come against me with the sword and the spear and the javelin,” he told Goliath, “but I come against you in the name of the Lord.” It’s when we think about Hashem that we can see the world through a wider angle lens. It’s when we know our place that we begin to feel more secure.

None of this makes the dangers of our world any less menacing or less anxiety-provoking. But to know that Hashem is with us is to know that we are not alone. Knowing that may be more than half the battle.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 11/23/2020

Rain on My Parade

Dear Friends,

Balloon parties will not be held this year. Marching bands will not congregate on Central Park West. Weather forecasters obsessing about average wind speeds and occasional gusts will have one less thing to worry about on Wednesday night. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – now in its 94th year – will join the ranks of so many other public spectacles that have migrated from a live to virtual format.

But when it comes to Thanksgiving celebrations, 2020 is remarkable for another reason, too. It marks the hundredth anniversary of the Thanksgiving Day Parade. In 1920, Philadelphia’s Gimbels department store staged a Thanksgiving procession featuring some 50 people and 15 cars. The idea was simply to promote more shopping in advance of the holiday season.

Explicitly or otherwise, retailer advertisers exploit the simple rule of recency. We are more likely to call to mind ideas and images planted in our heads today than we are to retrieve information we’ve stored away long ago. At a time when presence bespeaks absence, these larger-than-life advertisements should prompt us to think, too, about all the people who could so desperately use our support. Yes, we should support our local businesses. But we also need to keep at the front of our consciousness those who are out of work.

It’s not an accident that shuls have for generations served as loci for networking. People chat after the daily minyan or on shabbat morning at kiddush. They make connections and they build relationships. Even as many shuls remain tenuously open, those opportunities are few and far between. Just at a time when so many people are looking for a job or need a boost, the buzzing of communal connectivity has come to a standstill.

There are many forms of charity. None, Maimonides writes, is nobler than restoring a person to his or her own self by helping them get back on their own two feet. Whether privately or through the JC Business Networking Committee, each of us has a role to play. Each of has a connection to make. Come Thursday, let’s create more reasons for people to be thankful.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 11/20/2020

Open the Schools; Close the Mayor's Office

Dear Friends,

When a school has to close, it’s tragic. When a city decides to close all its schools, it’s calamitous. Of course we can all imagine circumstances in which such decisions are justified. But when those decisions are unjustified, our response can be nothing less than outrage.

As it happens, many – if not most – of the children in our community have the luxury of attending private schools that remain open. But we cannot be unmoved by the plight of New York City public school children and their families. Were the medical community insistent that school closings were required to preserve public health, that would be understandable. But it is unconscionable to sacrifice the education of our young people simply because an incompetent politician brokered a deal with the devil. How impossibly sad to watch the fecklessness and recklessness of an individual and a union motivated by values that place children dead last on the list of our communal priorities. Dressing criminal negligence in a suit and tie doesn’t change the fact that it’s criminal negligence.

On this score, by most accounts Europe has gotten it right. The idea there has been to close the bars and restaurants as necessary with the ultimate goal of doing everything that can be done to keep schools open. It seems our mayor missed the memo.

Among history’s first Jewish families, we know little about Yitzchak’s education. We know something more about Yaakov’s. He was, the Torah tells us, a yoshev ohalim. But just what does it mean that he dwelt in tents? Our mesorah features two streams of thought. In the first, the text refers to the tents of shepherds. Yaakov was studying the family vocation. In the second, that Yaakov sat in tents means that he was a student in the halls of wisdom – learning from the wisest teachers of the generation. Whether he was a pupil in a trade school or whether he studied the Ancient Near East equivalent of a liberal arts curriculum, Yaakov was the product of a culture that valued and nurtured education. In our tradition, launching young people into the world by educating them is accorded enormous weight. And the theory has been reified by successive generations of parents who have paid their tuition bills with blood, sweat and tears.

The ill-effects of a failure to educate our city’s young people is devastating today and potentially catastrophic tomorrow. Whether or not we have school-age children, we all have a stake in this issue. Maybe the only thing worse than neglecting the future of a child is neglecting the future of children writ large. The thing about kids is that they need responsible adults to look out for their best interests. If we concerned citizens don’t speak out on their behalf, who will? 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 11:19/2020

How to Fill The Void

Dear Friends,

To the question, What have you lost this year? I have heard many answers. Among some of the most thoughtful are words like autonomy, opportunity, community, connections, childhood and curiosity. Sadly, we’ve also lost exceptional Jewish leaders: Moreinu v’Rabbeinu Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm; Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz; Rabbi Dovid Feinstein; and Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. Each made super-human contributions to the Jewish people. To consider the collective loss we’ve suffered is to look out on a gaping void and wonder if and whether it might ever be filled.

Perhaps it is instructive at a moment such as this to take solace from a man who endured the loss of two individuals who were not only his personal role models, but humanity’s greatest moral icons. What did Yitzchak do after the loss of Sarah and Avraham? His goal was not to innovate, but rather to consolidate the legacy he had inherited. As the Midrash is quick to point out, Yitzchak’s commitment to the preservation of the past is nothing less than staggering. Isaac dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham and which the Philistines had stopped up after Abraham’s death; and he gave them the same names that his father had given them (Gen. 26:18). It is in the nature of man to attach his name to that which he creates or adds. But the only thing Yitzchak was interested in creating was the notion of unwavering fealty to one’s tradition.

And so it is for a generation newly bereft of its great Torah giants. Our goal isn’t to replace them; it’s to unstop their wells. They’ve bequeathed to us a treasure trove of books and articles; audio and video recordings; and memories of our lived experiences interacting with them and learning from them. At a time when we are pining for wisdom, their voices are particularly welcome. All we have to do is search them out.

We’ll not soon see their equals. But to the extent we continue the work they began, we’ll soon see solace. And that will be a sight for sore eyes.  

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 11/18/2020

Social Diet

Dear Friends,

What happens to scientists after they return from a Polar expedition? What about astronauts who spend months in space? Or how about soldiers deployed to remote assignments? Unsurprisingly, researchers have discovered that the capacity to navigate social interactions is just like any other life skill or acquired language. Without sufficient usage, it begins to atrophy. If the duration of non-usage is long enough, the effects can be so pronounced that a person may wish to turn around and return to the locus of their more isolated lives.

While hope is on the horizon, it’s not here yet. Even for the most socially gifted among us, this extended period of non-sociability is going to take its toll. As one writer put it, we need to somehow experience the full breadth of human interaction in our lives the same way we need a balanced diet. But now so many of those interactions are stunted or absent altogether. How much small talk have we had lately in the gym? How many in-person weddings or funerals have we attended? When was the last time we met someone new or spent time talking to someone not already known to us before the pandemic?

What is it, then, that we can do now to arrest the process of our own desocialization? Of course we understand intuitively that the answer involves connecting and reconnecting with a broad swath of people. But how do we go about it?

The same Mishnah that insists one make for oneself a teacher and acquire a friend also admonishes us to judge every person favorably. If the first two clauses refer to vertical and horizontal life relationships, what is the connection to the third clause? We can understand the moral obligation to give others the benefit of the doubt, but what has that got to do with teachers and friends? Perhaps the answer is that this third requirement is in fact a prerequisite for the first two. It’s when we cut people a little slack that we open the possibility of their becoming our teachers and friends. Particularly at a time when we all need more human interaction in our lives, a little more generosity of spirit will go an awfully long way.

The good news is that unused muscles and forgotten languages can be strengthened over time. But we can’t wait until a vaccine has people out and about again. We have to start now. If people haven’t called or emailed us recently, let’s make good on the Mishnah’s advice and presume only that our friends’ social skills are in a state of pandemic decline. We may have to overcome a little social awkwardness at first. But if we’re willing to make the opening move, it will almost surely be reciprocated. And we’ll all be a little socially healthier as a result.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 11/17/2020

The Hope Revolution

Dear Friends,

With the recent announcement of two new covid vaccines and their notable efficacy, there is much to celebrate and much about which to be hopeful. With winter on the horizon and the number of cases soaring, a cause for hope is particularly welcome. But there is even more to celebrate.

Pfizer’s new vaccine represents not just a breakthrough in covid research, but really a revolution in how other viruses and diseases might be prevented long after this pandemic is over. Rather than stimulating the body’s immune system by introducing an inert fragment of viral protein, this vaccine – operating at the genetic level – induces the body to produce the viral protein itself. To say this marks an extraordinary moment in the history of science would be to understate the case. One can only marvel at what the human mind can accomplish when it works collaboratively.

This exceptionally good news adds a dimension to Ben Azzai’s observation that mitzvah goreret mitzvah – good acts can never exist in a vacuum; they have a way of inspiring other good acts. We usually interpret this in one of two ways. It might mean that something positive you do inspires me. Or as Rabbeinu Yonah writes, it might be all about the actor. Even a single act has the power to produce the beginnings of a new routine. Performing one mitzvah will start a person down the path of performing more mitzvot. But there is a third possibility, too. The one good act itself may produce unintended consequences that reverberate in unforeseeable ways and generate more good than one could have possibly anticipated.  

If one mitzvah necessarily spawns another, the same can be said of hope. It has the capacity to multiply not just arithmetically, but exponentially. The prospect of seeing these vaccines in action should give us hope not only about the coming end to this pandemic. It should give us hope about our capacity to prevent the spread of all kinds of other diseases in the future. Few of us could have predicted that humankind might emerge from all of this healthier and stronger than when we began. But a little vaccine – and a little hope – can go a long way.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 11/13/20

Eternal Vigilance 

Dear Friends,

The doctor usually referred to as the father of modern medical triage is a man called Dominique Jean Larrey, a French surgeon in Napoleon’s Grande Armée. In treating the wounded, he prioritized patients based on the severity and urgency of their injuries without respect to rank or nationality. While such an approach may seem patently obvious to our modern sensibilities, in the 18th century it represented a medical revolution. But even if today we can agree on the soundness of the principle, its application is much less straightforward.

By nature, we are prone to distraction. Walter Benjamin’s Paris arcades – the quintessential locus of stimuli bombardment – could hardly hold a candle to the demands made on our attention in the Information Age. When everything is urgent, nothing is. Training our focus on the right spot is a constant challenge.

While our attention has been gripped by the election and its aftermath, covid-19 has been surging at heretofore unforeseen rates. Even as exciting news about the efficacy of a vaccine made headlines, record numbers of Americans and New Yorkers were testing positive. In our battle against this virus, we can’t afford to surrender to distraction for even a moment. Complacency will be the end of us.

To be sure, November is not March. Our public health measures are working; vulnerable populations are taking the necessary precautions; and treatments have been improved dramatically. But neither is this July. Members of our community are back in the hospital. Cases are popping up in our schools with regularity. Local zip codes that were virtually covid-free just a month ago can no longer claim as much today. 

Before Avraham dispatches his trusted servant to find a bride for Yitzchak, the Torah tells us that he was very old. Having followed Avraham’s narrative since it began at age 75, shouldn’t we readers know this already? Because Avraham is so active, it’s easy to lose sight of the underlying reality. We need reminding. And so it is with this pandemic. Having returned to school and shul and so many other aspects of our lives, it’s easy to lose sight of just how destructive this plague has been and how much damage it continues to do. We need reminding.

We can remain hopeful about the prospects of this pandemic coming to an end. But that hope should never come at the expense of sound judgment and ongoing vigilance. Keeping our guard up has kept us safe. This is no time for a letdown.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 11/12/20

The Third Party

Dear Friends,

A lot of people are in distress these days. And with good reason. For those who live alone, covid has exacerbated their sense of loneliness. For those with particular vulnerabilities, the pandemic has set them on edge. For those with young children, life has become a perpetual juggling act. For the elderly, there are all kinds of fears and anxieties. And for all of us, the process of adapting to unending uncertainty has called on us to summon emotional energies we may not have even known we had.

Without minimizing any of these challenges, I want to focus for a moment on one particular demographic: people who are alone, but would prefer not to be. One could have imagined an alternate reality in which this pandemic put a halt to engagements and weddings. At such a perilous and uncertain time, who could blame anyone for a decision to delay or a postpone a major life event. And yet it’s been so heartening to see and hear so much good news both within and beyond our community. But for every announcement celebrating a decision of two people to move ahead, how many others are still hoping to find their match?

It is instructive that almost an entire parsha in the Torah is taken up with this theme. Virtually all the characters in Chayei Sarah are involved in matchmaking. Avraham dispatches his trusted servant to identify a bride for Yitzchak. Eliezer, Rashi tells us, was thinking about the prospects of finding a groom for his own daughter. And according to the Midrash, it was Yitzchak who facilitated Avraham’s late-in-life marriage to Keturah. Some ideas in the parsha pan out; some don’t. But the moral of the story is that, more often than not, it takes the involvement of a third party to propel the narrative forward.

If this pandemic has given us more time to read Jane Austen, it’s also given us more time to get involved in the divine work of matchmaking. No one can fault us for trying and not succeeding. But no one can absolve us for not trying.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 11/10/2020

The Big Reveal

Dear Friends,

What is the revelation of 2020? With the votes of the election (mostly) tallied, we now have a trove of data telling us what voters feel about our country. What do the numbers tell us?

Demographers and political scientists will take a closer look, but I would submit that one takeaway is simply the observation that people are not easily moved. Here we are in the midst of a life-altering global pandemic. Our economy is in peril. And presiding over our country is an executive who has been the most divisive public figure in my lifetime. And yet, by and large, people voted the way they always vote. There was no landslide. Margins were razor thin. As of this writing, more than 20 House races are still too close to call.

As David Brooks put it, “The voters reminded us yet again that the other side is not going away. We have to dispense with the fantasy that after the next miracle election our side will suddenly get everything it wants. We have to live with one another.” The question is: How do we do that?

The answer goes back to Avraham Avinu. He won a great many people over to his way of thinking. But there were also many people with whom he quarreled or disagreed. He not only interacted with them. He brokered treaties and forged alliances with them – irrespective of how differently they saw the world. The secret to his success is what the Rambam calls the telltale sign of Jewish genealogy: tzedakah. Whether they deserved it or not, Avraham treated people charitably. He gave them more than their due. That was his life legacy. 

There’s a growing literature on the effects of kindness – both the performers of kindness and the recipients. Unexpected kindness is particularly powerful. Modelling tzedakah for ourselves and others is nothing less than transformative.

Most people in this country aren’t going to change. But there’s something about the discourse that we can change. Without fanfare or great expense, there is surely a gesture of tzedakah that we can add to our lives. Let’s not wait until next Election Day to cast our lot with Avraham.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 11/9/2020

In Memoriam: Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

Dear Friends,

The leadership and membership of The Jewish Center mourn the passing of one of our generation’s great leaders, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Many are the eulogies and deserving tributes that have already been offered. Many more are sure to come. I humbly share but a brief reflection on three lessons I learned from the Chief Rabbi.

The first lesson I learned from Rabbi Sacks is that there is no venue in which one cannot create a kiddush Hashem. Of course he brought dazzling Torah insights to our shuls and yeshivot. Naturally, his texts lined the shelves of Jewish homes and batei midrash. But he also penetrated precincts not typically receptive to calls for sanctity. As a statesman, he brought holiness into the halls of government. As a public intellectual, he elevated the discourse of academics and philosophers. As a best-selling author who had won world-renown, he infused kedushah into the public discourse of the media and the marketplace.

Second, Rabbi Sacks expanded our communal lexicon. By translating biblical and rabbinic wisdom into a language accessible to the common man, Rabbi Sacks created a Jewish vocabulary and grammar that is at once deeply rooted in traditional sources and at the same time contemporary, fresh and sensitive to our moment. His facility with the written word was matched only by the eloquence of his spoken word. Those words were not only ambitious; they aspired to a higher purpose.

Finally, Rabbi Sacks preached a lifelong, if implicit, message that virtually any discipline may be studied and channeled into the service of Hashem. Theology, literature, philosophy, science, economics, history, psychology and music all played vital roles in the formation and articulation of the poetics Rabbi Sacks brought to light. Like a master craftsman, he transformed each field into an instrument ready to be deployed in the service of a divine choreography.

At a time when the world was contracting, Rabbi Sacks reminded us just how expansive it could be. He reminded us mortals here on earth that we too could reach for the heavens.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 11/6/2020

Self Doubt 

Dear Friends,

When R. Yochanan ben Zakai lay on his deathbed, his disciples paid their teacher a visit. Upon seeing them, he began to cry. “Why do you weep?” they asked. This was his reply: “If they brought me before a king of flesh and blood to be judged – before a mere mortal who might be swayed by argument or enticement – would I not weep? Now that they are bringing me before the King of kings – before the Eternal One who cannot be propitiated – when there are two paths before me, one leading to paradise and one to hell – should I not weep?”

But why was R. Yochanan focused on two paths? Did the towering leader of his generation not know that he was destined to walk the path of the righteous?

In fact, R. Yochanan, was beset by a sense of self-doubt, the seeds of which had been sown many years before. Vespasian, the Roman emperor who had captured Jerusalem, had placed R. Yochanan in a difficult, if not impossible, position. “Ask something of me,” he said, “and I will grant your wish.” R. Yochanan could have asked for the moon. Instead, he said, “Give me Yavneh and its sages.” Over-asking, he reasoned, might backfire. Better to beg for a small concession that would be honored rather than a grand concession that might be denied.

Until his dying day, R. Yochanan could not know whether or not he made the right decision. It was an expression of deep humility that he continued to question whether and to what degree he had made the best choice.

One of the striking features of our zeitgeist – especially in the aftermath of this election – is the cult of certitude. Its adherents include both liberals and conservatives who pay homage with pronouncements that contain not an iota of self-doubt. Everyone is so sure they know what’s best for our nation.

Many are the designs in man’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails (Proverbs 19:21). We’re so clever and so sophisticated and so well-versed in the issues of the day. We think we know. We’re sure of it! But all we can know for sure is that all we know is surely not very much. Maybe we’ve gotten it right and maybe we’ve gotten it wrong. Either way, wondering what we might learn from the other side won’t just be a worthy exercise in humility; it will be a worthy exercise in the preservation of democracy.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 11/5/2020

The Day After the Day After

Dear Friends,

Everything, it seems, takes longer during a pandemic. And everything is less certain. Why would election results deviate from these trends? I surely expected something to be known 24 hours after the nation’s polls had closed. But as of this writing, neither the presidency nor the makeup of the senate had been definitively decided.

But if we cannot yet comment on the outcome, we can nonetheless say something about the process. It should not be lost on us that our ability as a nation to hold free and fair elections during a pandemic itself constitutes an impressive feat. There may have been a few hiccups along the way, but by and large the process was successful.

We should also take some measure of collective pride in our nation’s record turnout. That 140,000,000 Americans actively participated in our democracy is an important indication of the degree to which our citizenry is invested in the future of this country. And that so many people lined up early or cast absentee ballots is yet another heartening sign. Alacrity bespeaks investment.

There is much to recommend representative democracy. But attendant to it is also a kind of a trap. Rather than wrestling directly with our political opponents, we outsource the responsibility to third parties. And in so doing we surrender a part of our own agency.

When Avraham is commanded to take Yitzchak on a journey, he saddles his own donkey. He could have tasked one of his deputies with the responsibility. But as the Talmud teaches, (Kiddushin 41a) discharging an obligation oneself is preferable to delegating it to an agent. Would we ever dream of dispatching an assistant to watch our kid’s little league game? For issues that really matter, there is no substitute for personal involvement.

Elections are great at stirring up passions. They have a knack for reminding us how much we really care about the issues at stake. Voting is the floor, not the ceiling. If there’s a cause that moves us, why not play a role beyond armchair pundit? We don’t need to run for elected office to make a difference. We just need put our convictions to work.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 11/4/2020

A New America?

Dear Friends,

Toward the beginning of the Princess Bride, Westley and Inigo are engaged in an epic duel. Appropriately for these times, Westley is wearing a mask, obscuring his identity. So impressed by his opponent’s prowess at swordplay, Inigo asks in bewilderment, “Who are you?”

“No one of consequence,” Westley replies.

“Please, I must know,” says Inigo.

“Get used to disappointment,” says Westley.

And indeed, the scene ends with Inigo never having learned that he had stood face to face with the Dread Pirate Roberts.

In a film so replete with timeless wisdom, this particular scene may not get its due. I write this message while the polls are still open and the outcome of the election is very much uncertain. But whoever the winners are, so many of us will be feeling a lingering sense of disappointment. Why couldn’t our party generate a stronger candidate? Why couldn’t more Americans see things the way we do? Why have we permitted the degradation and debasement of such hallowed institutions? Why have we gotten so used to disappointment?

Avraham’s life is filled with great accomplishments. But there are also failures. The better part of a biblical chapter is taken up with Avraham’s campaign to save the people of Sodom from certain destruction. He puts forward his best arguments, but in the end, his efforts are in vain. Given the time and energy he devoted to saving the Sodomites, how could he be anything but disappointed with the outcome?

And yet, at the conclusion of the story, the Torah tells us very simply, Avraham returned to his place. R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin suggests that the Torah furnishes us with this coda quite intentionally. Having directed his attention away from his people to engage directly with God on behalf of Sodom, what the Torah means is that now Avraham returned to the people he temporarily abandoned. It would have been perfectly understandable for him to retreat beneath a blanket of self-pity. In the face of defeat, who could have blamed him had he chosen to withdraw for a while. Instead, Avraham reverted immediately to his old ambitious self – ready at the drop of a hat to turn to the next challenge at hand. 

To the extent we’ve been caught up in the drama surrounding the election – whether our candidates have won or lost – now we must return to our people: our families, our friends, and our communities. Life will go on. America will go on. And we’ll find a way to manage.

If this election has taught us one thing, it’s that our citizenry is filled with great conviction. Within and beyond politics, let’s find ways to channel it constructively. To let this moment pass without doing something to better the lives of the people around us would be… inconceivable.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 11/3/2020

Not Your Grandmother's Election

Dear Friends,

Before a big Election Day, I usually pull from my bookshelf The Portable Abraham Lincoln and think back to the time I studied this text with Andrew Delbanco, who edited the book. A collection of Lincoln’s speeches and letters, the volume is constituted of equal parts wisdom, faith, humanity and humility. In these fraught times, reading it cover to cover would be time well spent. 

Political scientists have gone to great lengths to demonstrate empirically the correlation between the partisan behavior of parents and their children. When mom and dad are always talking at the dinner table about how much they like or dislike the mayor, those conversations seep into the impressionable minds of the children who are listening. The overwhelming majority of Americans, it turns out, vote for the party of mom and dad. While I haven’t seen the research with respect to Orthodox Jews, I would suspect that in a community in which mesorah is accorded so much weight, the correlation may be even higher. We’re taught from a young age that the way our families have done things matters a great deal. We’re not meant to deviate from the inherited wisdom of our forebears. 

It’s here that we must acknowledge an important distinction between principles and politics. The former category is timeless. The latter not so much. Partisan ideologies evolve. And so do circumstances. Here’s where Lincoln comes in. In his 1862 letter to congress, he concluded with the following words: “The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise – with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

We don’t have to be as fickle as the people for whom we are voting. But it’s worth considering the degree to which we ought to be constantly reevaluating our political allegiances. Can it rightly be said that we are now thinking anew? This is not our grandmother’s election because this is not our grandmother’s America. Decisions that made good political sense a generation or two ago may continue to make good sense today. Or they may not. Inertia works wonders in physics. In politics, we ought to aspire to something more ambitious. Here’s to hoping we choose wisely. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 10/30/2020

When the Straw Man ate the Red Herring

Dear Friends,

“Making an argument is hard. It’s much easier when you start with someone else’s and explain how wrong they are.” So said my professor of college rhetoric. Or at least that’s how I remember it. When trying to make a case, one searches not for the path of least resistance, but the path on which the resistance can most easily be overcome.

Politicians and public speakers love straw men. All they have to do is knock down their opponents’ weakest arguments and they’ve won points with their listeners whether or not they’ve articulated anything more compelling. And the higher the stakes, the more points they score. Just think of the last time we heard a political candidate speak about any controversial issue. Was the idea to strike a tone of conciliation and compromise or was it to paint a picture of the issues that demonstrated the starkest possible contrast between the two sides?

None of this is to say that the issues of our moment are not important; they’re very important. Some of them touch on matters of life and death; others on the character of the American soul. But the discourse around an election has a way of both magnifying our divisions and minimizing the prospects for cooperation or compromise.

To the problem of political discord, Avraham offered a most elegant solution. His shepherds and those of his nephews were engaged in an ongoing feud. Rather than resolve the dispute, Avraham suggested simply that the parties separate. At the same time, Avraham remained within earshot of his nephew and stood at the ready to help if ever the need arose. This is one of the most sensible responses to disagreement in the book of Genesis. But even more striking than the solution are the words Avraham uses to frame it. “Please, let there be no strife between you and me, between my herdsmen and yours, for we are brothers.”

Avraham was a revolutionary. He spent a lifetime teaching the world about monotheism. So where is his diatribe against paganism? Where does he speak out to publicly denounce those who don’t see the world from his vantage point? There is no such moment in the text of the Torah. Instead, we find Avraham joining coalitions and forging alliances with his contemporaries, irrespective of their ideologies. It’s easy to imagine him saying to any of them, “Please, let there be no strife between you and me… for we are brothers.”

It’s this simple prologue that is so conspicuously absent in our public discourse. It’s not in the nature of politicians to speak this way. But it should be in ours. Such sentiments cannot be taken for granted and they are seldom implied. As much as we may disagree with those on the other side, let’s begin our conversations as explicitly as Avraham did. Disagreement is not the goal; fraternity is.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 10/29/20

Dodger Blue

Dear Friends,

I’ve been a Los Angeles Dodgers fan all my life. When I was a kid, it was not uncommon for Tommy Lasorda to visit my school. Kirk Gibson was a household name. Game 1 of the 1988 World Series was on a Saturday and started well before Havdalah, so we could not attend. For Game 2, we had seats on the first base side. How sweet it is to initiate a new generation into Dodger fandom on the heels of a World Series victory. Among friends, I hope it will not be considered too much of an indulgence if today’s message is devoted to three timely lessons that emerged from the Dodgers’ recent championship run.

The first is a lesson in patience. On a macro level, we waited 32 years for this moment. But more pointedly, it was persistent patience at the plate that ultimately led these Dodgers to victory. Every hitter wants to crank a home run on the first pitch. And it’s true that the Dodgers hit an extraordinary number of homers both during the regular season and in the playoffs. But most often, the Dodgers exercised restraint. Rather than swinging away, they worked the count and drew walks. They waited for their moments, and when those moments came, the Dodgers took full advantage. At a time when our patience may be growing thin, this championship is a testament to the enduring value of forbearance.

The second lesson comes from something that was entirely unexpected. In the eighth inning of the final game of the World Series, third baseman Justin Turner mysteriously disappeared. After the game, we learned that he had been moved into isolation (where he should have stayed!) when a lab result indicated that he had tested positive for covid. It was as if the groom’s foot had just come crashing down on the glass under the chuppah. At a moment of sheer jubilation, here was a reminder that our joy ought to be thought of within the broader context of a fractured world. Celebrating is fine as long as we remember all those who cannot celebrate with us.

And finally, the 2020 Dodgers have reified the simplest baseball truism: There’s always room to hope. Down three games to one to a surging Braves team in the National League Championship Series, the odds-makers had all but consigned the Dodgers to their annual status of also-rans. When the bullpen and defense melted down at the end of game 4, it seemed as though all the momentum had swung to the Rays. Even in the final game of the World Series, against Blake Snell the Dodgers looked as though they might crash and burn once again. And yet, as Vin Scully said in another context, “In a year that has been so improbable, the impossible has happened.” If the Dodgers can win the World Series, who knows which of our dreams may yet come true.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 10/28/2020

Questions

Dear Friends,

We’ve all been lamenting for some time now the polarization of our electorate and our nation. Moderates, independents and swing voters belong increasingly to a bygone era. Bipartisanship has been replaced by brinkmanship. The prospect of cooperation has given way to threats of reprisal. Other than bemoaning this sorry state of affairs, what we can do about it?

It takes a long time to change a culture. There’s no silver bullet. But in the orbit of our relationships, there is something we can do to lift ourselves above the petulance that has come to characterize this epoch. We can relearn the lost art of asking questions.

From the opening chapters of the Torah, God questions man. In fact, as Rashi points out, God quite intentionally begins His conversations with Adam and Kayin by asking questions. “Where are you?” “Where is Hevel, your brother?” That God knows the answers is immaterial. The idea is that queries promote conversation. Avraham and Moshe have no qualms about turning the tables and questioning God. “Shall the Judge of all the earth not ask justly?” “Why, God, have you brought trouble upon this people?” But it’s not only questions by and of God that animate Jewish tradition. Questions asked by inquisitive minds of any kind are always considered welcome. Just think of the Pesach seder.

But the Information Age has rendered real-life-question-asking all but moot. Who needs to engage in conversation when we can find the answers we’re looking for without the hassle of human interaction? We used to call friends for advice. Now we just click. Dale Carnegie was not wrong when he wrote, “Ask questions the other person will enjoy answering.” 

Human relationships aren’t built on declarative statements. They’re built on questions: How do you do? What’s your name? Can I buy you a cup of coffee? Do you forgive me? Will you marry me?

This failure to ask questions has not only created echo chambers; it’s left us less capable of developing our capacity to hold multiple truths. And now that we’re cooped up, opportunities to ask questions of those on the other side are even more limited. But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. The next time we feel like saying something, let’s ask something instead. 

We can’t change the state of the world before Election Day. But maybe we can start to change the tenor of our communal discourse… one question at a time.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi 

Update: 10/27/2020

Ask Not

Dear Friends,

On Election Day, I usually take one or more of our kids with me to the polling place. This year, having requested an absentee ballot, I held our family civics lesson at the dining room table. In thinking about this moment in the context of 21st century America, it struck me that in my lifetime this country has demanded of us almost nothing out of the ordinary. We’ve simply been asked to abide by its laws. I’ve not been drafted or called to national service. My movement has never been restricted. My religious liberties have never been curtailed. Beyond voting and paying taxes, what have I been asked to contribute as recompense for the great blessing of American citizenship?

This pandemic has reminded us of something that we’ve not been forced to think about for a long time, if ever: The freedoms we enjoy are relative rather than absolute. Of course individual libeties represent the bedrock of our republic. But now phrases like public health and public good have become part of our discourse, too. There’s no escaping the reality that personal autonomy must always be weighed against larger considerations.

The halakhic system – like any legal system – grapples with competing values all the time. The code of conduct that shapes our observance of Shabbat is inviolable – until it brushes up against matters of life and death, in which case it not only can be violated; it must be violated. Because the human body is sacrosanct, autopsies are prohibited. But when determining a cause of death might prove life-saving, the prohibition is set aside. Truth is a preeminent value in the corpus of Jewish law. And yet when pitted against the value of shalom, truth must defer.

The idea that a government may restrict certain rights because of the exigencies of a given moment need not by definition constitute an assault on our freedoms. Jewish history has taught us the value of eternal vigilance. But a momentary concession for the sake of a greater good ought not be construed as the beginning of the end. Reasonable people will disagree about where to draw these lines. But it’s worth noticing the degree to which our resistance to concession-making is merely a function of having so rarely exercised our civic muscles. It’s not enough to wave a flag. Patriotism without sacrifice is just a kind of national narcissism.

It’s no small thing that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are so ordered. The second without the first makes achieving the third highly unlikely.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 10/23/2020

From Babel to Corona

Dear Friends,

The Tower of Babel has, for thousands of years, captured the imagination of theologians and linguists, artists and architects. The text is so sparse. The Torah gives us enough information to piece together a bare outline of the narrative, but so much of the story remains within in the province of conjecture. Who were these builders and what was their great ambition? What was God’s objection and what is the meaning of a punishment that permits wrongdoers to flourish?

To revisit these questions each year is to engage in a conversation about some of the Torah’s most enduring mysteries. Whether we solve them is almost beside the point. But reading this story in the midst of this pandemic, two aspects of Babel have become intensely resonant.

First, everyone on earth had the same language and the same words. Perhaps not since Babel has the entirety of humankind spoken one language. We might refer to something as a “World War,” but the conflict surely did not involve the entire world. There is something arresting – and perhaps cognitively overwhelming – about the notion that everyone on our planet today faces the same enemy. Perhaps it is too much to say that those who pray for salvation are now all praying for the same thing. But who can remember a time when the world was so united by common purpose?

And there is something more. In the Midrashic literature, there is a prominent school of thought that argues that Babel was a response to the flood. Cataclysm was such a recent memory, here was humankind’s best attempt to stave off future calamity. If being scattered made each individual susceptible to natural disaster, they would coalesce. If living in the country was dangerous, they would build a city. If the storm came from the water, they would find a home in the sky. Their responses may have been misguided, but they were motivated by a desire to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Particularly around the upcoming election, finger-pointing has become a national pastime. There’s plenty of blame to go around and there is no denying that our leaders are guilty of terrible mistakes. But few and far between are pandemic success stories on a national scale. Perhaps the error of the Babel builders was in their timing. Rather than waiting generations after the flood to look back and ask what had gone so badly, humankind should have asked that question forthwith. We don’t have to wait until this pandemic is past to wonder aloud what we’ve done wrong and what we might yet get right. The idea is not to play a game of “Gotcha!” The idea is to see mistakes for what they are: the lived experiences that allow us to live better.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 10/21/2020

Bored?

Dear Friends,

Until this year, I always associated the word bored with children. Waiting in line or sitting someplace without enough stimulating prompts, a child might complain that she is bored. But not adults. Sure, we might find something or someone boring, but we would not describe ourselves as bored. If there was a problem, it wasn’t about us; it was about them. As soon as the boring lecture was over, we certainly wouldn’t be bored. We’d have lots to do.

Over the past few months, particularly among those spending lots of time at home, I’ve begun to hear people describe themselves as bored. As it turns out, my anecdotal experience is in fact a widespread pandemic phenomenon. Online, tips abound for how people can combat their boredom. Generally, these tend to range from superficial to useless. I like the formulation I stumbled across in Psychology Today. “Telling a bored person to take up a hobby is like telling a drowning person to swim to shore. If they could, they would. Boredom signals a deeper problem and requires a more thoughtful response.”

Veritable tomes have been written on this topic. (I, for one, would find it rather risky to write to book on boredom. Wouldn’t tackling this topic create an unmeetable expectation that the book would not be boring?) The length and breadth of its contours cannot be reduced to a morning message. But I would venture a simple observation.

“Suppose then,” Saul Bellow once wrote, “that you began with the proposition that boredom was a kind of pain caused by unused powers, the pain of wasted possibilities or talents, and was accompanied by expectations of the optimum utilization of capacities.” On this definition, boredom is a function of our disappointment in not being able to make the most of our abilities. We may not be able travel to Machu Picchu. Maybe we can’t even try that new restaurant in Brooklyn. But novelty is not the only remedy for boredom.

The answer to boredom needn’t come from activities we’ve not done before. The answer can come from contributions that affirm our utility and agency. The decades-long work of building a tevah in anticipation of impending doom must have been an exercise in prolonged tedium. It was a sense of purpose that allowed Noach to succeed. No one’s asked us to build an ark. But we can help save humanity just by doing all the things people count on us to do. By being good friends and neighbors and by looking after one another, we’ll find the cure for boredom yet.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 10/20/2020

My Word

Dear Friends,

Do people honor their commitments? And might the answer to this question be different during a pandemic? These questions have been on my mind recently as we take stock of the recent chagim and the months leading to them. We are not in a position to perform a rigorous statistical study, but even a cursory look at the data is revealing. If ten to twenty percent of people who register for a given program fail to attend in non-covid times, that number has surely doubled during the pandemic. The gap between expectation and reality is now a yawning one.

Some of the fall-off is easily explained. To their credit, members of our community are being hyper-vigilant. If they wake up with a runny nose, they stay home. But this only accounts for a small percentage of the population and it only accounts for in-person events such as minyan. Where is everyone else?

If readers have theories that explain this phenomenon, I’d be curious to hear them. But to the extent these data reveal something about the lack of gravity with which we treat our commitments, we ought to address the issue forthwith rather than allow the problem to worsen.  

Jewish tradition has little patience for those who fail to keep their word. The Torah could not be more explicit: What emerges from your lips you must observe and do (Deut. 23:24). Oaths are an especially serious business. But failure to uphold commitments of any kind run afoul of the laws that govern truth-telling. As the Talmud puts it, “Your ‘yes’ must be righteous and your ‘no’ must be righteous” (Bava Metzia 49a).  

The virtue of integrity is timeless. These days, though, we are duty-bound to guard it even more jealously. It’s not just because in one camp the notion of truth is under assault or because in another even binaries have been relativized. It’s because those who keep their word also keep society healthy. Truth is a kind of binder. It ties people together.  

For all kinds of reasons, social bonds are fraying. Despite our best intentions, when we don’t see people for longs periods of time, we lose touch. Our communal and civic institutions can’t organize us into groups in the ways they once could. Even our chit chat in the elevator has waned. The micro-interactions that aggregate over time into neighborly relationships are dissipating or evaporating altogether. Honoring the commitments we make is the least we can do to demonstrate our feelings of attachment and investment. If words matter, keeping our word matters even more.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

10/16/2020

Trending Positive

Dear Friends,

In the story of the garden, there is no shortage of blame to go around. And we are not lacking for suggestions or theories about where Adam and Eve went wrong. But there’s one reading that I find particularly resonant at this moment. It’s based on a comment of R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk.

Read as a cautionary tale, what happens in Eden is a commentary on the consequences of failed communication. As God relayed them to Adam, two laws governed life in the garden. The first was affirmative. Of every tree of the garden you shall surely eat. The second was restrictive. From the tree of knowledge of good and evil you may not eat. And yet – as evidenced by Eve’s words to the serpent – what Adam communicated to her was something less than the full force of these directives.

In fact, Adam never mentioned to Eve that there was a command to eat from the other trees in the garden. Had he done so, R. Meir Simcha speculates, the narrative would never have gone off the rails. Positive directives have a way of inoculating us from falling into traps. To tell someone only what they cannot do is not only infantilizing; it’s a surefire formula for failure. Yes, the second of the two tablets on Sinai would be constituted exclusively of prohibitions. But it came on the heels of the first which contained mitzvot that are affirmative and aspirational.

Among many, I think one of the reasons this pandemic is so trying is this very phenomenon. We are constantly being told what we cannot do. And then we see in real time the consequences of what happens to those who fail to heed the warnings. There’s no quick fix for this problem. We need these warnings to keep people out of harm’s way. But to the extent we’re mindful of this issue, we can also remind ourselves of what’s on the other side of the ledger: Hopes, aspirations, ambitions and life-affirming actions that we can make part of our routines and our vocabulary. Perhaps we will succeed where Eve failed. Even if in the coming months we can’t be footloose and fancy-free, there’s nothing to stop us from using our time fruitfully.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

 

Update: 10/15/2020

The Health Age

Dear Friends,

Regina E. Dugan wrote recently about her hopes that this pandemic might usher in a new epoch in human history. “Just as Sputnik ignited the Space Age, so, too, could the coronavirus inspire a Health Age.” While she has in mind noble goals that pertain to global politics and physical health, I think there is much to suggest that something transformative could occur on a local level with respect to our spiritual health.

Even just a few months ago, who could have imagined that we would be taking our temperatures every time we set foot in an office or walk into shul. And yet taking a moment to evaluate our health has become routine. What if we transposed that same ethic onto our Jewish lives?

To my knowledge, there is no device that can measure spiritual well-being. But the absence of such an implement should not discourage us. All that’s required is the willingness to ask ourselves a few basic questions. They might include queries like these: Have you had contact with a serious Jewish text in the past 14 days? Are you experiencing any symptoms that might indicate that you are too distant from your Jewish community? When was the last time you experienced a sense of deep satisfaction from having performed a chesed? And how recently have you been to shul?

We don’t need a perfect score on the first go-round. But we do need to be on a trajectory that moves us in the right direction. Unlike our covid tests, we need to stay positive.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 10/14/2020

The Great Divide

Dear Friends,

Dr. Robert Redfield, Director of the Centers for Disease Control, has gone on record saying that if every American would simply wear a mask for four weeks, “we could drive this epidemic to the ground.” It’s startling to think how close we are to a solution. And yet without a magic button that compels universal compliance, the finish line seems as distant as ever.

So why are some people so resistant? Why are so many upstanding citizens unwilling to trade a small dose of short-term sacrifice in exchange for the end to this pandemic? Many people smarter than I have been grappling with this question and there are surely many answers. But one of them is hiding in plain sight in the fourth chapter of Genesis.

Both Kayin and Hevel offer tributes to God. As careful readers of the text are quick to point out, Kayin’s offering was not special; Hevel’s was. Whereas the older brother simply brought “fruit of the ground,” his younger sibling offered up his finest livestock. Is this just a case of stinginess versus magnanimity or is there something more?

Arguably the most salient data point in the narrative is the description of the brothers’ respective vocations. As a farmer living on his own land, Kayin led a private life. Plying a solitary trade, he was not in the habit of making concessions. His shepherd brother was. As a nomad searching for pasture lands among strangers and neighbors, Hevel had no choice but to wrangle and compromise. When moved by an otherwise worthy impulse to give, the farmer made a little concession; the shepherd made a big one.

Giving up a little freedom or taking one for the proverbial team comes naturally to those who are in the habit of making sacrifices. For those who are not, the idea may seem not just unwarranted, but unwise and even dangerous.

The epilogue to the Kayin and Hevel story is instructive. Kayin is condemned to a life of wandering. In other words, he is condemned to live the life of his murdered brother. Tragedy gives birth to education. Let us continue to hope and pray that it will not take the loss of more life to educate our nation. Sometimes a little sacrifice can go a long way.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 10/13/2020

Anchors Aweigh

Dear Friends,

In a recent talk on current issues pertaining to hillul Hashem, Rabbi Mayer Twersky began with a characteristically self-effacing introduction. The substance of his talk should be required listening for anyone interested in engaging seriously in conversation about our responsibility as citizens and Jews during the pandemic. But it was something in his opening remarks that caught my attention. In this time, he said, yishuv ha-dat is elusive. Our ability to concentrate and focus is diminished. We can debate the causes, but the affects seem undeniable.

R. Bachya ibn Pakuda, the great Spanish sage of the eleventh century, once cited a pious man who used to say, “May the Almighty protect me against becoming a scattered soul.” In context, the author refers to one who wishes he could avoid having to conduct business in so many locations so as to feel less torn and more settled. But it’s this sense of feeling scattered that’s surely a consequence of pandemic-living. Ironically, even as our circles have contracted and we travel less, our capacity for focus continues to elude us. By trying to be both here and there, we often end up nowhere.

Surely there are many antidotes. But perhaps there is none as sure as prayer. It’s when we turn inward that we have a chance to recapture our focus. To daven is not only to be in conversation with our Maker; it’s to be in conversation with ourselves. We often think of tefillah in terms of articulating hopes and aspirations. The language is lofty and directed toward the heavens. But prayer is just as much about dropping anchors. When we’ve come unmoored, it’s the ancient words of the siddur that can always leave us feeling tethered and connected to something both grander and more real.

As Rabbi Lamm used to say: Tefillah isn’t about going through the siddur. It’s about the siddur going through us. Particularly in these days when we’re in shul less, we need to be davening more. It’s clear that the world needs our prayers. We need them, too.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 10/9/2020

Give Me a Break

Dear Friends,

As denizens of a society so dominated by consumerism, it should come as little surprise that we consume altogether too much news. Collectively, the number of hours we spend watching or reading print and digital media is staggering. And the statistics don’t even account for the additional time we spend discussing and debating what we’ve consumed.

The question is: To what end? Yes, we want to keep abreast of events or trends that could affect our lives. But surely that goal can be accomplished in more moderate doses. A little curiosity is harmless if not healthy. But what happens when the news is constantly responsible for souring our moods? At what point are we compelled to admit that some self-imposed limits are in order?

Shmini Atzeret may contain a kernel of the answer. By all accounts, it is difficult to explain. The superimposition of Simchat Torah has given it more of an identity. But how odd that the holiday has no mitzvah of its own. Just what is its character and purpose?

Atzeret is a break or cessation. We stop not only our life routines, but even our religious routines. We put down the lulav and bid farewell to the Sukkah. It’s a day of pause. As Rashi famously writes, it’s the day on which God invites his treasured people to enjoy a private audience after all the other guests have left.

Perhaps in this spirit, we can use this time to take a pause of our own. As Kohelet reminds us, everything has its proper time. At a moment when so much of the world is busy using its energies to tear down, let’s use ours to build up. As much as Shmini Atzeret is an independent holiday, it is no less a continuation of zman simchateinu. This is no time to let the pandemic and politics get us down. Let’s give them a break.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 10/8/2020

Dance Partners

Dear Friends,

What is a Torah holder? Depending on the type of shul one attends, the term might refer either to a person or a thing. There is inevitably a gap between the completion of the Torah reading and the return of the Torah to the ark. What happens in the interim? In some communities, a volunteer is assigned the task of holding the Torah; in others, the job falls to a specially-designed implement in which the Torah can sit comfortably until the congregation is prepared to bid it a temporary adieu.

In today’s world, where social distancing is the new norm, we do all we can to minimize potential contact. Rather than hand off the Torah from one person to another, we’ve consolidated our roster of volunteers. The baal koreh is not only the Torah reader, but the Torah holder as well.

So what are we to do on Simchat Torah? Not only have singing and dancing been stricken from our sacred choreography, gone too is the opportunity to connect in a tactile way with the text that animates our Jewish lives. It seems we will not even have the simple pleasure of holding the sefer Torah for a few minutes on what is meant to be among the most joyous holidays.

In a year in which necessity has generated so much ingenuity, perhaps there is an alternative. The very last mitzvah in the Torah is the command to write the Torah itself. But Rabbeinu Asher suggests that this obligation can be fulfilled by the production of Jewish books more broadly. Inasmuch as writing or buying a sefer propagates Torah study, the Jewish book is itself a kind of stand-in for the Torah. If we cannot hold a sefer Torah on Simchat Torah, at least we can hold a Jewish book. Whatever sefer  moves us, we should seize upon the opportunity to celebrate with it. If turning a book into a dance partner for the day is too much, we can at least turn it into a study partner. Whether or not we are in shul, holding a Jewish book attaches us to our mesorah all the same.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update 10/6/2020

If I am Not Compliant, Who Will Be? If I am the Only Compliant One, What am I?

Dear Friends,

Throughout the medieval and early modern periods, three great canards plagued European Jewish communities: The blood libel; the accusation of host desecration; and the allegation of well poisoning. In the middle of the fourteenth century, for instance, it was said that Jews were responsible for intentionally spreading the bubonic plague. Massacres followed closely on the heels of the rumors. That historians have not found any evidence to substantiate the claim that Jews were supporting the spread of plague was little comfort to those who suffered.

Who could have predicted that in the twenty first century, accusations such as these would return? But where antisemitic scapegoating was once the basis of the narrative, now the blame can be placed squarely on the shoulders of those who proudly and openly flout the life-saving public health guidelines of our government. 

With equal parts disbelief and sadness, we have borne witness to the flagrant disregard for mask-wearing and social distancing within certain segments of the community. And now the data have confirmed an alarming if unsurprising uptick of Covid-19 cases in neighborhoods that are home to significant haredi populations. I struggle to understand how a community that experienced so much suffering at the hands of this pandemic could be so oblivious to the causal relationship between the failure to adhere to public health guidelines on the one hand and sickness and death on the other. But this is to understate the case. I find the whole phenomenon utterly incomprehensible. It flies in the face of reason and strains the bounds of credulity.

In deference to the Mishna in Avot, I wish I could give these communities the benefit of the doubt and see them in a charitable light. At a time of so much divisiveness, I would prefer to be writing about something else. Perhaps on some level I hoped it was a misunderstanding that would somehow self-correct. But now I believe the bonds of our mutual responsibility compel us to respond.

It goes without saying that these bad acts create a hillul Hashem of cosmic proportions the extent of which may not even be appreciable in our lifetime. History is neither as objective nor as linear as we might imagine. I fear the day will come when enemies of our people will triumphantly seize on this moment and use it to support the old typology. “You see,” they will say, “this was always the modus operandi of the Jew.” While our good acts today will not necessarily create goodwill that transcends time, today’s bad acts will certainly redound long after the last vaccine is administered.

But there is another matter that is infinitely more urgent and more tragic and that is the loss of life that inevitably follows in the wake of this plague’s footprints. We all have friends and relatives who live in the zip codes that the mayor has recently identified as problematic. We need to call them. We need to do everything in our power to encourage them to act more responsibly.

We are so fond of quoting the Mishna’s axiom that saving one life is tantamount to saving an entire world. But in an age of coronavirus, it’s not a metaphor anymore. The nature of an exponential curve is such that saving one person means that we’ve actually saved countless people. If we can persuade one person to change, the good we’ll have done will be immeasurable. To paraphrase a great cultural icon, we’ve got a lot of persuading to do.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 10/2/2020

When Sukkah Met Corona 

Dear Friends,

In the biblical calendar, the new year begins in the month of Nissan. Pesach is the first in the series of annual holidays. Shmini Atzeret is the last. By next weekend, this pandemic will have spanned the entirety of the Torah’s holiday cycle. 

Every holiday, the Tur writes, has a Biblical patron. Sukkot is the holiday of Jacob. Literarily, he was the patriarch who built sukkot (Genesis 33:17) after his fateful meeting with Esav. But conceptually, Jacob was preternaturally disposed to the kind of wandering we are meant to commemorate by living in makeshift homes. He dwelled, the Torah tells us, in many tents. The narrative arc of his life was no arc at all; it was a zigzag in which transience was a permanent state. 

I don’t think every holiday needs to correspond to a global event or phenomenon. But if there were one that shared a theme with this pandemic, it would surely be Sukkot. Three of the holiday’s most prominent motifs are particularly salient in this moment.

First, this pandemic has insisted over and again that we adapt. It’s the people who are most attached to their routines who are having the hardest time these days because certainty is the rug that has been pulled from under our feet. The sukkah is the very quintessence of this message. It can be built in virtually any location; its walls can be made of any material; and the number of designs or shapes it might take are limitless. How much variability do we find in a matzah or a shofar or a mezuzah? My sukkah might look absolutely nothing like yours and yet both could be perfectly beautiful and perfectly kosher. It’s an eminently adaptable mitzvah.

Second, this pandemic has asked us to examine our faith. Do we see the virus as happenstance or are we reminded that the fate of humankind rests in the hands of God? The shade of the sukkah, the kabbalists write, is the shade of faith. By leaving the man-made comforts of our homes and casting our lot with the forces of nature, Sukkot places us directly under the heavens. We have no choice but to contemplate human finitude against the backdrop of a night sky characteristic of divine infinitude.

And finally, Sukkot is an elegy to transience. By definition, a sukkah is only a sukkah if its roof is impermanent. Notwithstanding our attempts to recycle last year’s decorations, durability is at odds with this holiday. And so it is with this pandemic. No plague lasts forever. Sukkot will come and go and so will coronavirus. We can be assured that Sukkot will return next year. Let’s hope the virus will not.

With warmest wishes for a chag sameach,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 9/25/2020

It's Not Me; It's You

Dear Friends,

There’s an old joke about God calling for complainants to voice their grievances after creation. There are lots of versions. Aleinu features prominently, maintaining that no one really pays attention to him because he’s always at the end of the service and people are rushing out. Asher yatzarclaims that, having been relegated to the post-restroom position, he’s become the laughingstock of the bracha community. The list goes on.

If there were a parshah that warranted inclusion, it would surely be Haazinu. The lyricism of its song renders its deeper meaning accessible only to those inclined toward the literary or mystical. It invariably falls out at a time when people are scrambling to prepare for Yom Kippur and Sukkot. And because it coincides with Shabbat Shuvah, it’s universally neglected by rabbis who might otherwise at least preach for a few moments about one of its messages. 

So with my Shabbat Shuvah drashah somehow already behind me, I turn to this special, if underappreciated parshah. In Moshe’s ongoing exhortation, he tells the Jewish people, כי לא דבר רק הוא מכם. The Torah is not a trifling thing for you. While the force of the verse is straightforward enough, the Talmud notices that the final word is entirely extraneous. And so it offers up a beautiful rereading: Should you find the Torah trifling – what you find lacking – is lacking from you. When our capacity for comprehension comes up short, the failing is not in the law; it’s in us. 

The notion of turning the spotlight on ourselves first is particularly relevant in the days before Yom Kippur. And it’s particularly relevant at this this hyper-partisan time in our nation’s history. Faultfinding and finger-pointing have become pillars of our discourse. It’s somehow become acceptable to ground conversations on notions of blame and blameworthiness. We’re not facing a shortage of challenges. But we are facing a shortage of personal responsibility. Imagine if instead of expending our energies identifying the failings of everyone else, we began by identifying our own failings. If we’re to prolong our days, we’d best preserve our humility. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 9/24/2020

Wait a Minute

Dear Friends,

Among the many themes my colleagues addressed on Rosh Hashana, the notion of waiting was a prominent one. So many people are in a holding pattern: Waiting for schools or businesses to reopen; waiting for more information about what is safe and what is risky; waiting for a vaccine; and waiting for life to return to normal. But waiting needn’t come at the expense of productivity, they preached. Even as we wait, we can still accomplish a great deal.

During this period of the year – between the days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur – the shoe is on the other foot. To paraphrase Rashi, God is waiting for us. Opportunities for teshuvah abound. God is waiting for us to seize them. So how do we do it? 

David Schizer, Dean Emeritus of Columbia Law School, served as a clerk for Ruth Bader Gisburg during her second year on the Supreme Court. She understood, he wrote, “the importance of proceeding incrementally.” Change is gradual. Advancement isn’t a function of grand pronouncements; it’s a function of modest steps forward.

As the Talmud teaches, tafasta meruba lo tafasta. We have to beware of overreach. It’s when we set achievable goals that we are most likely to reach them. We’re not going to solve the problem of loneliness that plagues our community overnight. But with one phone call, we could solve it for one person for a little while. 

If we wait until Yom Kippur to do teshuvah, we’ll have to extend our penitential pleas and ask Hashem to forgive us for the sin of waiting so long to repent. Better to start today and not keep the Almighty waiting

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 9/23/2020

Hide and Seek

Dear Friends,

People hide. Sometimes we’re shy; sometimes we’re avoidant; sometimes we just prefer to be alone. Sometimes we hide because, deep down, we want someone to find us. In principle, there’s no value judgment that attaches to hiding. 

It’s when we hide from opportunities and responsibilities that we get ourselves into trouble. There are certain moments, the Talmud writes, that are predisposed to self-deception. In such moments, the Torah tells us to fear Hashem. Others may not notice that we’re hiding, but the Almighty notices. Imagine a packed subway car in pre-covid times. I’m lucky enough to have a seat. I know that if I look around I will surely spot someone who could use it more than I, precipitating my obligation to offer it to them. So rather than scan the train, I bury my head in a book and avert my gaze. Yes, I’m liable to go unnoticed. But I’ve ducked my responsibility. 

Sometimes, these days, the hiding is literal. How easy is it to hide behind one’s mask so as to avoid seeing people or being social? Where casual smiles or small-talk once prevailed and produced feelings of neighborliness, now it’s easy to forego sociability in favor of not-so-awkward silence.

Sometimes it’s figurative. We’re blessed to have our jobs and our portfolios haven’t been adversely affected. But unemployment is up and the economy is down. People and institutions are hurting. They could use our help. But we can get away with giving a little less tzedakah this year and no one will be the wiser. 

The data has been favorable in our area and we’re feeling OK about venturing out. We’re comfortable going to the gym; we see friends for coffee; we’ve even visited a couple museums. Shul is open, too, but who will miss us? After all, we’re in a pandemic. 

If Yonah gives us one message to think about as we approach Yom Kippur it’s that we can run, but we can only hide for so long. Eventually, we have to face our life mission. In a world so ripe with opportunity, ought we not do more seeking than hiding? 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 9/21/2020

The Great Outdoors

Dear Friends,

This pandemic has called on us to be many things. It’s asked us to be patient, vigilant, compliant and adaptive. It’s also compelled us to be outdoors. To the extent we want to be together with other people, seeing them outside is orders of magnitude safer than seeing them inside. Our parks have never felt so crowded. In this centrifugal force that conspires to pull us outdoors, is there also a moral message for our times?

If there is such a message, I surely don’t purport to know what it is. But I think the question is provocative enough to venture an observation.

The Mussar movement identified arrogance as one of modern man’s great vices. The manager who believes he has all the answers is much more likely to act badly toward his colleagues or co-workers. The parent who thinks himself infallible will have a miserable time raising emotionally healthy children.

As an antidote, the Novardok Yeshiva, prioritized the cultivation of humility. Whether or not they could afford decent clothing, students would dress in tatters. They would walk into a store and request an item not sold there. They would keep logs of their missteps and misdeeds. The idea was to hammer home the notion that, for all we have accomplished, we are in fact very small.

Spending time in God’s natural world can produce the same effect. Among rivers or rocks that have been around for thousands if not millions of years, what is the significance of one human lifetime? In the infinite complexity of a vast ecosystem, how finite are the human lives we build? When a rainstorm ruins our picnic, is there any better reminder that the universe does not revolve around us?

I’m not saying we will plan to daven outdoors next Rosh Hashanah. But maybe there’s something to blowing shofar in the park every so often. When reaching for the heavens, it’s worth remembering our earthly roots.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 9/18/2020

A Blast from the Past

Dear Friends,

We’ve all been bombarded of late by texts and emails, chats and messages. One recent exchange caught my attention. “I’m going to be blowing shofar for the first time this year. What should I have in mind?” Responses came flooding in. Some were halakhic; some were existential. But I was most taken by the innocence of the question. We’ve all been so busy trying to figure out how we can daven and blow shofar this Rosh Hashanah. When’s the last time we stopped to ask what we should be davening for?

Like the original back-and-forth, I think the question is more important than the reply. Each of us will have our own answer. But I’d like to offer up a potential suggestion.

The sound of the shofar evokes a raft of images. We think of revelation and akeidat Yitzchak; we think of great battles cries and wailing; we think of the ingathering of exiles and messianic redemption. But the shofar has another capacity, too. When Joshua conquers Jericho, it’s the sound of the shofar that brings the walls of the city crashing down. Impervious to physical obstacles, the call of the shofar can eliminate the barriers that keep us apart.

If ever there were a Rosh Hashanah on which think about this special power of the shofar, this is the year. What a blessing it would be if we could find our way back to a time when being together didn’t require a professional choreographer, two logisticians and three kinds of checklists. With God’s help, we’ll get there soon enough. Maybe when we do, we’ll sound the shofar to celebrate.

With best wishes for a shana tova,

Yosie Levine 

Rabbi

Update: 9/17/2020

Dear Friends,

Please find today’s message at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 9/16/2020

Anticipatory Forgiveness

Dear Friends,

During the teshuvah season, we make many confessions and ask forgiveness for myriad sins. But I’m not aware of a formulation in which we ask forgiveness for a sin that has not yet happened. So I want to take this opportunity to expand the orbit of our penance-seeking and ask for anticipatory forgiveness.

For months, we have been formulating plans and contingency plans for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Neither our building nor our sanctuary were designed with pandemics in mind. Like the rest of the world, we have been adapting. We’ve lost countless nights of sleep trying to account for all the logistical details that attach to shul life during a pandemic. Notwithstanding our best intentions, I fear there may be a glitch or two along the way.  

One of our minyanim will inevitably start late. Someone will be too cold; someone else will be too hot. A panel from one of our makeshift mechitzahs will fall down and make a loud crashing noise. A firetruck, sirens blaring, will drive past 87th St. just as our outdoor minyan is listening to the shofar. Lost in thought, one of our members will remove his mask in the middle of services. And a mis-calibrated thermometer will erroneously accuse a board member of having a temperature of 108 degrees.

For all of these sins, I ask for your forgiveness in advance.

To paraphrase Maimonides, the Jewish heart is one filled with compassion. I hope you will appreciate that our mistakes and missteps say nothing about how deeply invested we are in every one of our members and our guests. I hope you can look past anything we have overlooked.

In the merit of our best efforts, may Hashem hear all of our tefillot and grant us a year of good tidings and good health.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Reminders

Preparing for Rosh Hashanah

For your convenience, we have prepared a comprehensive guide to Rosh Hashanah with lots of handy information and resources. Included is a shofar map which can be shared with anyone who won’t be in shul on Rosh Hashana. 

Yom Kippur Appeal

Thank you to everyone who has already participated in our Yom Kippur Appeal. And thank you to everyone who increased their gift! If you have not done so already, we encourage you to support The Jewish Center through these difficult times.

Five Minutes of Teshuvah

Please join me daily at 8:30am for five minutes of learning followed by Shofar. Please note than on Sunday we will meet at 8:20am.

Daily Selichot/Shacharit at The JC and Zoom Link

Please join us for Shacharit at The JC. Sunday 830am; Monday-Thursday Selichot 7:20am followed by Shacharit; Friday Selichot 7:00am followed by Shacharit and hatarat nedarim. Please register in advance. For those davening at home, feel free to join us on Zoom.

Rosh Hashana Reflections

Please join me on Thursday, Sep 17th at 8:00pm. In lieu of a formal sermon on Rosh Hashanah, I will deliver a talk on Zoom called Forget About It? How We Can Move Past a Year Gone Wrong.

Minchah/Maariv at The JC

Beginning this Friday night, we will resume Mincha/Maariv at the Jewish Center on Shabbat and Yom Tov. Please register in advance.

Meet-up in the Park

Rachel and I would love to see you in the park on Rosh Hashanah. Please join us for individually prepared grab-n-go home-baked treats on Shabbat afternoon, September 19th. You will find us from 5-6pm in the Arthur Ross Pinetum just north of the swings. Enter the park on 85th St. and head toward the Great Lawn. We will be on your left as you head east. Even from a little distance, it will be great to see you! 

Shabbat Shuvah Drasha

Please join me in advance of a Shabbat Shuvah like no other, Thursday, September 24th at 8pm. My topic this year is Out of Control? What’s in Our Wheelhouse and What is Not.

Update: 9/14/2020

The Activists

Dear Friends,

In this age when we’ve returned to old books and old movies, my kids recently returned to a 2008 film called WALL-E. A megacorporation has taken over the planet and induced mass consumption. With earth virtually uninhabitable, human beings have no choice but to escape on an enormous, spaceship. Once aboard, their behavior doesn’t improve much. After 700 years arift, their stagnation and sloth have left them so corpulent, that they have surrendered their ability to move or think freely. 

I don’t think our pandemic has reached quite these proportions, but we are certainly suffering from a glut of passivity. The good news is that we can reverse the trend long before we degenerate into the fictional characters of an animated dystopia. 

In rabbinic parlance, the obligation of Torah study is not couched in the form of study at all. Translated properly, the term talmud Torah refers to the teaching of Torah. Technically, teaching oneself amounts to study, but why is the term limmud Torah so conspicuously absent from the Talmud?

The answer goes back to the Torah itself: The very basis for the mitzvah is found in the verse we recite in the Shema every day: You shall teach [the words of Torah] to your children. The mitzvah to study derives from the obligation to teach. 

This formulation contains within it a message that has only just begun to be appreciated by scholars of education. In contemporary terms, those scholars have made a great deal of the distinction between passive learning and active learning. In the former mode, the student plays little or no role in the educational process. She listens or reads; but nothing is demanded of her. In the latter, she is an active participant. She writes or speaks or reads aloud. It’s not enough that she has received the information; something is asked of her. 

Limmud Torah is beautiful, but it is insufficient. It’s when we’re asked not just to be students of Torah, but teachers of Torah that we begin to take ownership over the material. It’s the difference between simply listening to a podcast on the one hand and summarizing it to a friend on the other. (Forwarding an email and liking a Facebook post don’t count!)

We’ve all been learning more this pandemic. In this new year, let’s resolve, too, to learn more actively. When we get to the other side, we won’t just be better students; we’ll be better teachers.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 9/10/2020


Virtual Reality Isn't Real

Dear Friends,

Ruchir Sharma took to the New York Times recently to the extoll the virtues of online gaming. He wasn’t referring to kids or teenagers. He had in mind perfectly literate and otherwise social adults. Since April, gaming revenue is up 50 percent. With so many other sectors of the entertainment industry diminished or suspended, this increased interest in online games should come as little surprise. What is surprising is the degree to which these online realities are bleeding over into other realms.

Sharma flatly dismisses critics of these virtual worlds. He claims the notion that all this time building relationships online promotes anti-social behavior – or worse – is “outdated.” The study he cites to support his argument is from 2014, the rough equivalent of the Mesozoic era is digital time. Perhaps he has missed the reams of data since then suggesting direct correlations between investment in online realities and divestment from a healthy and engaged presence in real life.

Perhaps I will be accused of being a killjoy. Or maybe it’s generational and I’m merely expressing the unconscious recalcitrance of a generation whose norms risk being overthrown by new technologies. Reasonable people may disagree about the value of new forms of interaction or communication. And some of these modalities may in fact represent important contributions. But they surely come at a price.

On Rosh Hashana, we come face to face with the words of the Mishnah. We have no choice but to confront the reality that we must deliver din ve-cheshbon in front of the heavenly court. Judgment and accounting. What is the difference? According to the Vilna Gaon, the former refers to things we’ve done wrong. The latter refers to what we could have been doing instead. It’s what economists refer to as opportunity cost.

Surely there are positive elements to this twenty first century version of video games. But at what cost? Particularly at this time of the year as we prepare to coronate our Creator on Rosh Hashanah, we’re asked to consider our larger mission in this world. So the simple question is: Can this noble calling really be achieved online? It’s one thing to claim from time to time that we could use a break from reality. It’s quite another to claim that the break is reality. Human interaction is at a premium these days. If we have an opportunity to see someone – even behind a mask from a social distance – let’s not pass it up.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine
Rabbi

Update: 9/8/2020

Between Unreal and Surreal

Dear Friends,

What does it mean when a friend talks about our pandemic in the past tense? What does it mean when hundreds of people gather for a wedding to sing, dance and make merry? What does it mean when someone invites you to a mask-less, socially proximate Shabbat meal? 

Fanatical adherents to R. Yehoshua ben Perachya’s maxim about judging everyone favorably might suggest that all of these people have been living under a rock and simply missed the news about the dangers of Covid-19. A less charitable yet more plausible explanation is that consciously or otherwise these people have slipped into a state of denial. To assimilate the reality of our current world is too painful. Instead, they prefer to occupy an alternate reality – one in which coronavirus does not exist – or never did. C.S. Lewis didn’t write that denial “wards off the blows of life until we can gather our other coping resources.” But whoever did write those words was surely on to something. 

As a defense mechanism in an acute moment of distress, denial works marvelously. As a mode of functioning during a months-long pandemic, it’s ill-advised at best and hazardous at worst. The extremes are always the easiest to understand; and always the easiest to discount. But I suspect that most of us suffer from milder cases of the same sense of denialism. Some part of us is just not willing to admit that we’ve gone from Pesach to Rosh Hashana and this is still the state of our lives.

So the teshuvah season has arrived not a moment too soon. We could quibble over the various ingredients that constitute repentance, but any recipe most assuredly includes confession. Vidui is the sine qua non of the teshuvahprocess. According to many, it’s the one aspect that is specifically commanded by the Torah. But confession is much more than a single, solitary act. It’s a mindset. Which is part of the reason why we confess over and over again on Yom Kippur. We’re conditioning ourselves. Our goal is not only to be truthful about the mistakes we’ve made; it’s to become more truthful people. 

We can be both realistic and hopeful. But we also need to confront the sober challenges of our moment. In our minds’ eye, we can picture a shul packed with friends and families singing together and joining one another for Yom Tov meals. We can envision little children racing to the front of the sanctuary to sing Adon Olam on the bimah. But we would do well not to confuse the images of next year’s Rosh Hashana’s with this year’s. There’s no denying that this year will be different. But if our tefillot our successful, there will be no denying that next year will be better. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 9/4/2020

Joy in Mudville

Dear Friends, 

In July, three churches in Northern California filed a federal lawsuit against Governor Gavin Newsom. They claimed that the state’s ban on singing in houses of worship violated their First Amendment rights. Given the extent to which we saw coronavirus spread among church choirs, the ban continues to seem eminently reasonable. But even given this, we can of course empathize with practitioners of religion who feel stifled by their inability to sing. 

Song – and even instrumental accompaniment – were normative aspects of the Temple experience. In fact, in the Midrash in our parshah suggests a radical reinterpretation of a word we usually take for granted. The Torah tells us ושמחת בכל הטוב. We would typically take this to mean that the farmer would rejoice in his bounty in the course of delivering his first fruits to the Beit ha-Mikdash. But the Midrash suggests that word tov actually means song. To properly express his sense of joy, the farmer was dutybound to sing!

Communal singing has always been a hallmark of our tefillah at The Jewish Center. Abiding by guidelines that justifiably discourage singing on Shabbat morning is one thing. But how will we manage Rosh Hashana? Despite the sobriety of the day, we consider it a Yom Tov. Confident in God’s compassion, we’re meant to rejoice. How will we bear a tuneless tefillah at just the moment we are pining for inspiration?  

There’s no getting around how difficult it will be to see and say the words we normally sing. But if the “good” of singing is unavailable to us, perhaps we need to find an alternative. Perhaps the answer is to see tov in a different light. When God saw that it was not good for man to be alone, He created a partner for him. If there was no tov in loneliness, then there was certainly tov in togetherness. We, too, can be creators of good. Before this Rosh Hashanah, let’s make sure those who are at risk of feeling alone get a call from us. Particularly when it comes to those who will not be in shul, let’s make sure they hear our voice. It will be music to their ears. And it will help us usher in a shanah tovah.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 9/3/2020

Regretfully Yours

Dear Friends,

The summer has come and gone and I have not learned Italian. As the seasons change and a new Jewish year beckons, each of us surely has pandemic regrets. The silver lining enthusiasts counseled us early on that a lockdown would be a splendid opportunity to do something really meaningful with our time in isolation. But, alas, how many of us did?

If we’re brutally honest with ourselves, who among us could really stake a claim to a season free of regrets? The problem is that the feelings generated by regret are uncomfortable. So we tend to banish them. We tell ourselves that no one is to blame. We have compelling explanations. Who’s had the mental energy or bandwidth to take up grand projects? Who could have envisioned the stresses of the anxiety we’ve been enduring these past months? Surely we are entitled to cut ourselves a little slack. After all, it’s a pandemic!

But especially during this teshuvah season, burying regrets rather than facing up to them is to miss an opportunity. As the Rambam writes, regret constitutes an essential ingredient in any recipe for repentance.

In an alternate reality, we would have watched the 2020 Olympics this summer. Social psychologists have been fascinated by the phenomenon of bronze medal winners. Counterintuitively, they are generally happier than silver medalists, despite the obvious fact that silver medalists performed better. Why? The explanation goes like this: Each group of athletes considers in his or her own mind the alternative. Silver medalists tend to ruminate on what could have been; they fixate on the proverbial millisecond separating them from gold. For the bronze medalist, in contrast, the most compelling alternative is often finishing in fourth place and being awarded nothing.

Regret is simply the all-too-healthy exercise of asking ourselves to entertain an alternate reality; to thoughtfully consider what might have been. Sometimes the exercise will create sadness, longing or even guilt. Sometimes it will produce relief or lead us to confirm difficult decisions we’ve made. Either way, it will be constructive. But perhaps most importantly, examining our unlived lives expands our capacity to wonder. And if regrets inspire us to aim a little higher next time around, then they’ll really have accomplished something. That would be bellissimo.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi 

Update: 9/2/2020

Home for the Holidays

Dear Friends,

There is a problem with Psalm 27. Beginning on Rosh Chodesh Elul, we recite the psalm twice daily at the end of the services. But one of its most well-known lines is self-contradictory. One thing I ask of God, only that do I seek: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to visit His temple. In his first breath, the penitent introduces his supplication with the promise that he will make but one request. And yet he seems to violate that promise in the next.

The Midrash amplifies the problem by pitting God against King David. In the midrashic imagination, God responds to the psalmist. You started by saying that you would ask for one thing. In fact, you’ve asked for two! Just what is it that David is after? And just what is it that we’re after?

On a homiletic level, this verse speaks directly to our moment. First and foremost, we wish we could be back in the house of the Lord – back in shul – everyday. In and of itself, it would be a boon for us to be able to return to our spiritual home. Even more, were all of us able to be back in shul, our return would constitute the resumption of normalcy and the end of the fears and anxieties that attach to what otherwise feels like an endless pandemic. That is our singular aspiration. 

What then is the meaning of the second half of the verse? I would propose that the two halves of the pasuk are joined by an ellipses. Imagine a pause that communicates an unspoken sentiment: But if that’s not possible…. [All I ask is the chance] to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, to visit His temple. If we can’t be back in shul all the time, can we at least come back some of the time? Can we gaze from some distance? Can we visit every once in a while? 

We pray daily for an end to this pandemic. We pray daily for the chance to come home. But if that’s too much to ask for, we simply pray that we’ll be able to visit our shul, as often as possible. 

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Update: 9/1/2020

We Need the Eggs

Jewish communities around the country have been busy weighing the pandemic’s impact on our communal institutions. Naturally, schools and shuls have received the lion’s share of our attention. They form the backbone of any community. The consequences of their being closed are sweeping. But what about the Beit Midrash? What of the study hall? What happens when the locus of our Torah study is closed? 

The Torah tells us that the poles carrying the holy ark may never be removed. R. Samson Raphael Hirsch famously writes this is because its contents are inherently mobile. We stand ready at any moment to transport the Torah to any location in which we find ourselves. Torah is always ortable. So perhaps it’s no surprise that of all the transitions and adaptations with which we’ve had to contend, the migration from in-person Torah study to on-line Torah study was among the most seamless. Access, though, is only half the equation. We also have to act. 

After leaving this world, among the questions we will be asked by the heavenly tribunal is whether we fixed times for Torah study. There’s something about the routinization of Torah that transcends the simple question of how many hours we devoted to decoding it. Particularly in these weeks leading to the Day of Judgment, we could all stand to benefit not only from more Torah in our lives, but more regular Torah in our lives.

In the 19th century yeshiva of Kelm, one period of the weekly curriculum was five minutes long. The idea was to highlight the value of even a few minutes of Torah study. Particularly now, as we are distant from our houses of study, fixing time for daily learning feels particularly urgent. 

Beginning this morning at 830am, I invite you to join me for five minutes. We’ll study a brief excerpt from the Rambam’s work on Repentance and then we’ll listen to the sound of the Shofar. The Talmud tells us that some people can acquire a share in the world to come in a minute. Imagine what we can accomplish in five.

With warmest regards,

Yosie Levine

Rabbi

Daily Messages from June-August - 2020

Daily Messages from May - 2020

Daily Messages from April - 2020

Daily Messages from March - 2020

Fri, November 26 2021 22 Kislev 5782