Tuesday, April 7, 2020

From the Rabbi's Bunker April 7: Be Kind to Yourself

From the Rabbi's Bunker

I briefly emerged from the bunker to take this springtime photo of TBE's cemetery

A storefront sign in - where else - New Zealand.  
According to the Washington Post, 

Meanwhile, in Israel Ha'aretz reports this news...

And finally, Mindy Rogoff sends this photo with the comment: 
"I don't mind the cooking...BUT! I could do without the cleaning!

To quote Randy Newman's song, "Strange things are happening."

As we prepare to usher in Passover on Wednesday evening, which will be followed by the first two days of the festival and then Shabbat, this is the last dispatch from the rab-bunker that you will be receiving before the weekend.  If you need to reach me, I will be monitoring email as needed, but except in emergencies, please do not expect a response until Sunday at the earliest, once the festival has begun.

So while it is a few days off, a reminder that our upcoming Zoom events will include services on Friday at 6: https://zoom.us/j/775369802
Telephone: (646) 558-8656
Meeting ID: 775 369 802
And Torah Discussion, Shabbat at 11:00am, led by Rabbi Ginsburg: https://zoom.us/j/620787208
Telephone: (646) 558-8656
Meeting ID: 620 787 208

And don't forget today's guaranteed minyan at 1 PM. Click here to connect.  Clickhere to download the mincha (afternoon) service pdf:  
Finally, a request:  As we head into a Passover different from all others, I'm asking you to send me screen shots from your family gatherings and Zoom Seders.  I'd love to see our extended TBE family tree branching out far and wide.
See Yad Vashem's online exhibition on Passover before, during and after the Holocaust.  The photo above is The Passover Haggadah that 17 year old Elimelekh Landau prepared as his father quoted from memory when the family of five were in hiding in Boryslav

Mitzvah Moments...

Here are some opportunities to bring some goodness into our troubled world:

Writing in today's Washington Post on how to find meaning on Passover during a pandemic, Rabbi Elie Kaunfer cites a letter from 9th-century Babylonia: Rabbi Mattityahu Gaon said that it is our responsibility to feed the poor in advance of the Seder, so they wouldn't have to go out and beg on Passover night. "Take care of the hungry days earlier," he said, "and then recite this line ("Let all who are hungry come and eat") knowing that those who are hungry are, indeed, being fed."
In that spirit, on Wed. morning from 8 AM - Noon  you can drop off bags of non-perishable food for our emergency drive for the Food Bank.  
Turn your hametz into a mitzvah!

And here are two other mitzvah options...


Happy Passover to our extended TBE Family

Be Kind to Yourself...

This generation has never known a Passover when we were faced with such uncertainty and sadness.  The fear and grief are palpable as the circle of the afflicted grows ever larger and yet more intimate at the same time.  I share with you this passage, written over the past several days as a complement to the Maror (bitter herbs) section of the Seder.  We'll be utilizing this and other readings from the Rabbinical Assembly 5780 Haggadah Supplement during our Zoom Seder on Wednesday.
It is hard to feel gratitude at a time like this - we had a long discussion about it last Shabbat morning.  But gratitude is what can give us the strength, and maybe a modicum of hope, to surmount the challenges ahead.

This year of all years, there is a natural temptation to want to pass on Passover entirely, or at least to accept your matzah half baked - a sentiment expressed in this tweet: 

Personally, I would rather not combine Passover and Rosh Hashanah, though stale honey cake does seem to find its way into both.  I'm not even thinking of Rosh Hashanah, frankly, except to imagine that it, like everything else this crazy year, will feel very different.

But the "be kind to yourself" part is very important. If that means not going back to the supermarket that one extra time, it's okay.  You can do without that extra bottle of Manischewitz this year, especially when it is demonstrably dangerous for us to go there more than absolutely necessary.  

Be kind to yourself.  That's why we are supposed to eat in a reclining posture, which, according to Maimonides, is how royalty eats.  We should treat ourselves like royalty.  On Passover, as the fourth question reminds us, everyone reclines.

And on this Passover, we should relax as well.  The forecast looks somewhat rainy and cool for the holiday, but today, Tuesday, it's supposed to be lovely - a great day to get those deck chairs in order.  

So it's fine to loosen the reins this Passover, even if it means not being quite so obsessed with the prep, the presentation - and as far as the cleaning goes, we're already in hyperdrive about that.

But there is something about this holiday that can help make the coming weeks much more manageable.  As we sit lonely in our homes, see how Passover helped Natan Sharansky in the Soviet gulag, where he was imprisoned for nine years, half of it in solitary confinement. See this anecdote shared in the Rabbinical Assembly Haggadah Supplement:
Today we are slaves.  Next year we shall be free.

Be kind to yourself...by letting the Haggadah strengthen you; by letting the virtual embrace of family and community strengthen you.  Be kind to yourself; kind enough to capture that glimmer of hope and never let it go,

Hag Kasher V'Samayach - A Sweet Passover to all.

And my final bit of rabbinic advice, by way of Isaiah:

For that, too, shall pass.


Click here to view and download the Rabbinical Assembly Passover guide
Searching for Hametz: Finding Our Priorities by Candlelight (MyJewishLearning) In the age of the coronavirus, the search for leaven by candlelight becomes even more apt
The Last Passover in the Warsaw Ghetto
The Last Passover in the Warsaw Ghetto
For sale of Hametz... Scan and email to me.

Finally, see below Rabbi Michael Strassfeld's meditations for each part of the Seder, geared to our unique situation this year, followed by Rabbi Naomi Levy's 2020 version of "Next Year in Jerusalem."

Journey to Freedom Through the Steps of the Seder
Kadesh-We begin by striving to uncover the sparks of holiness in the world. Too often in life they are obscured by our noisy frenetic pace. Now they are hidden by our fears amidst the quiet of social distance.
Urhatz-We cleanse our hands from the tum'ah, the impurity of the virus and the paralysis of fear.
Karpas-We hold the symbols of spring that remind us that the life of the universe continues its cycle of death and of rebirth. The new green sprouts break through the kittel, the lingering shroud of the snow of winter. Still, we dip the hopes of spring into the salt water of current loss.
Yahatz-we take matzah and break it in half. We start the seder with matzah as the bread of affliction. Even that symbol is broken and incomplete. We hide it away searching for answers during the night.
 Maggid--In a time of isolation, we must remember that humans are defined by our ability to speak. We cry across the electronic void hurling words of connection to those near and far. It is true lo tov heyot adam livado-it is not good for people to be alone.
We speak of the four expressions of redemption:
Freedom from fear
Freedom to hope
Freedom from inequality 
Freedom to care
Rahtzah--We wash again. This second washing is different for we have added a letter "heh" to the end of the word. We feel more connected to the holiness of the universe, to each other and to the Holy One, the "heh." We can now bless our hands by reaching out to help those in need as it says with a strong hand and an outstretched arm you will help lift others out of their Egypt.
Motzi Matzah--We need to find (motzi) the matzah. All the blows of the taskmasters can be seen on its pockmarked surface. Yet it has become the symbol of freedom. It reminds us that once upon a time we left Egypt. The only thing we carried with us into freedom was matzah. It was enough-dayenu.
Maror--We taste the bitterness of this very moment. For the reality is we never completely leave Egypt nor make it to the Promised Land. We are always on the way. It is in the seeking not the finding that life is lived. Yet, tasting matzah, we are better equipped to confront the bitterness that is our lot. Therefore:
Korekh--The deeper truth is that there is no slavery and no freedom distinct from each other. They are not separate realms. Thus, we take matzah and maror and eat them together, no longer imagining that we can separate them. Korekh means to embrace---to embrace all of life.
Shulhan Orekh--The pedagogy of the seder rests on our eating the experience not just talking about it. We ingest the bitterness and the freedom. By the time we get to the meal itself, it is freedom we eat as we remember the key lesson of the story-having once experienced freedom, we know deeply it is possible to be free again.
Tzafun--We began with matzah as the bread of affliction. It then became the symbol of the Exodus and finally it is the afikomen. The hidden is revealed. The afikomen points to the messianic future waiting to be announced by Elijah standing at the door of humanity. If only we would fully realize the potential that is in the world and that lies in our hand, the door to freedom could be thrown wide open and kol ditzrikh yaitei ve-yifsakh-all in need would celebrate the great redemption of Pesah.
Barekh--we are grateful for the blessings of our lives and even more God's promise to Abraham "heyeh berakhah" live your life in such a way as to be a blessing to others.
Hallel-we join with Miriam as we open our hearts and lift our voices in song-it is the only way to cross the sea.
Nirtzah--The Psalmist says: "open your hand and satisfy every living thing be-ratzon with will". It is a mistake to understand that verse as meaning God gives every living being what they desire. That is not our experience. What we are given is ratzon-a will to live, to love, and to give. Now we are ready for the journey to freedom that lies ahead.

May all your loved ones find only peace, sweetness and good health!
Hag Samayach V'Kasher,

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

New York Board of Rabbi's Statement on Funeral Practices During Coronavirus Crisis

Monday, April 6, 2020

Zoom Seder Instructions

TBE Zoom Seder Information II
A Sweet Passover to all who will be joining us at our first-ever TBE Zoom Seder! 
Let me be the first to say that I hope it is the last ever as well, though for our purposes this year, the online format will suit perfectly.
Earlier today you received instructions regarding the link, including where not to share it (on social media) and where you can (with relatives or friends in need of a Seder).  The Zoom format presents us with opportunities to reach lots of people in lots of places, but the possibilities for interaction - especially with regard to singing - are limited in a setting where we are expecting more than 100 participants.
So here's what will be happening:
1)    ARRIVE EARLY: We will start right on time at 6 PM.  Please link up to the Zoom meeting at least 5 minutes beforehand to avoid an electronic bottleneck. 
2)    LENGTH:  My best estimate as to the length is an hour up to 90 minutes, depending on how much people want to participate.
3)    PARTICIPATION: Active participant involvement is a cornerstone of TBE's philosophy, as well as the Seder's.  But with Zoom we have to be creative.  For the most part, participants will be muted while the leader leads.  If you are interested in leading a supplementary English reading, let me know ASAP.  Also, I will throw out questions to the group where you will have the chance to share replies in the "chat" box.  We'll also do some video sharing - so, if you have a favorite Pesach heir loom, like a kiddush cup, Seder plate, plagues toy, pillow - or a special food that you've prepared (say, a unique family recipe for charoset), bring all of it to the table.  With that in mind, it is really important that everyone be all-in for this Seder.  In other words, if your computer has a camera, turn it on so we'll all see one another and share in community as best we can.
4)    WHAT ABOUT THE MEAL? This will not be a "soup to nuts" Seder, where we include every word of every page, the way Zayde used to do it.  The format simply does not lend itself to that. And of course, there will be no soup nor nuts provided.  We will go through the early parts of the Seder but skip past the meal, so that we can cover a few highlights from the latter parts of the Seder before wrapping up.  There is no point in keeping the Zoom meeting open while people are eating.  One reason for the early start time is so that people won't get excessively hungry; however, I encourage you to have snacks available while we go through the first part.  What do you think all that dipping is all about?  Those are appetizers, and last I heard, a potato is a vegetable, so instead of parsley, grab a bowl of chips and you'll be fine. 
5)    WILL THIS BE A CHILD-FRIENDLY SEDER? We try to make everything child-friendly at TBE, but given this format, it will be hard for us to do that.  But I am looking for young volunteers to lead the Four Questions - please let me know ASAP!
6)    WHAT HAGGADAH WILL WE BE USING? - As long as you can follow the basic order of the Seder, you can use whatever you have at home.  But this is the one I'll be citing: http://www.haggadahsrus.com/PDF/ADN%20COMPACT%20lo-res.pdfDownload it and have it on your screen, or you can print it out in advance.  But if you happen to be using one of the 4,000 other versions of the Haggadah that have been published, it's always interesting to hear different perspectives.
7)    Incidentally, I also will be using some or all of the supplementary readings below:
Urechatz - CLICK HERE   
Ha Lachma - CLICK HERE
Four Questions - CLICK HERE
Avadim Hayinu - CLICK HERE
Four Children - CLICK HERE
Plus, a new Rabbinical Assembly Seder Supplement has a number of readings and discussion themes that may be incorporated.
8)    Finally, a request.  I've led large Seders before - plenty of times - but never anything like this.  I'm very appreciative of Stan Friedman, who has been our prime Zoom engineer and will be very helpful on that night.  He will be especially vigilant in light of the growing number of hate crimes being committed by those intruding on Zoom events.  But essentially, I'm leading this Seder on my own - commenting, singing, coordinating - which, without the instant response of a "live" audience is not easy to sustain.  Plus, invariably, there will be a glitch or two.  I don't think the people at Zoom have any idea what they will be in for this Wed. night - their technicians will be busier than Elijah!   So I ask for your patience and cooperation.  And make this Seder your own.  Share observations in the chat box.  Smile and sing along, even if no one can hear you.
This will be truly a night unlike all other nights.  There will be plenty of opportunity to reflect on the uniqueness of this year, but at the same time, we should be careful not to ignore Passover's more enduring messages that have gotten us through times far tougher than this (without minimizing the real suffering people are enduring now).  Still, the hallmark of this holiday has always been in how it constantly reinvents itself, and that will certainly be the case here.
See you at the Seder!
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Sunday, April 5, 2020

From the Rabbi's Bunker April 5: Was the 10th Plague a Coronavirus? What Would Philip Roth Say Now?

From the Rabbi's Bunker

This Israeli child has become a big hit 
as she explains the implications of the lockdown.

Global Gathering for Healing
See the video from today's
Global Gathering for Healing

Click here to view and download the Rabbinical Assembly Passover guide.
- If you need a Sale of Hametz Form, you can find it here. Sign and scan back to me.

- New Passover-related scholarship from theTorah.com.

When you come to the temple parking lot to pick up Passover food on Wed. morning (or even if you have nothing to pick up) drop off bags of non perishable food for our emergency drive for the Food Bank.  Turn your hametz into a mitzvah!

- And yes, kippah masks are now all the rage - seriously.

Homemade Kippah Masks
Homemade Kippah Masks
Happy Birthday, Dan!

Here in the bunker we're preparing to celebrate Dan's 27th birthday on Monday.   I am so proud of all he does, and more, of the kind, giving person that he is.  HAPPY BIRTHDAY, DAN!! 

We had over 75 devices tuned into our Zoom Kabbalat Shabbat on Friday - so at least there is one positive number that keeps going up - we've seen plenty of depressing statistics also on the increase.  We somehow need to find the strength to remain hopeful - and to remain safely indoors.

Thanks to Lisa Gittelman-Udi for this screen shot from today's K-2 model Seder, which was loads of fun.

And to Jami Fener for these screen shots of 15 families attending yesterday's Shababimbam.

And to Kenneth Cohen for these screen shots from Friday evening's service:

As you can detect, I led the service from inside the TBE chapel.  I was the only one in the building, which has been thoroughly cleaned.  I live next door, as most of you know; still, the journey from my house to God's house never seemed so distant and perilous.  I know it is comforting for you to see our building, so I may make the trek to TBE from time to time for a Zoom event - but I do not want to insinuate that anyone else should be leaving home.

Was the tenth plague a coronavirus?

This PSA tells Israelis to stay home on Passover and keep those Seders small.

"We survived Pharaoh." she says, "We'll survive this."  See it here - the Hebrew is pretty simple.

I woke up this morning to the jarring realization that perhaps, just maybe, they survived the same thing that we are trying to survive.

I'm never one to over rationalize miracles.  I don't give much credence to those who suggest that the Red Sea's splitting was due to an unusually low tide during an eclipse, for instance, or that the plagues resulted from volcanic ash stemming from an eruption on the Greek island of Santorini.  

But the way Covid-19 has forced us to take cover in our homes, as the Israelites did in Egypt, has made me wonder whether the Angel of Death may in fact have been a particularly virulent form of a coronavirus.  Check out these parallels:

- The plague attacked the first born; i.e. the oldest among them.
- The principle means of avoiding the plague was to huddle indoors with the immediate family -and to stay there until the danger had "passed over."
- Exodus 12:13 "...and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and there shall no plague be upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt." What blood does the Destroyer avoid? Could this be the blood containing antibodies from those who have had mild forms of the virus?
- The tenth plague and Passover took place on the 14th day of the month, precisely the outer limit for Covid-19's incubation period (2-14 days) following exposure.
- "And it came to pass at midnight, that Adonai smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the first-born of Pharaoh that sat on his throne unto the first-born of the captive that was in the dungeon; and all the first-born of cattle. (Ex.12:29). The coronavirus does not distinguish between rich and poor, urban or rural, blue state or red. 
- "...And there was a great cry in Egypt." (Ex. 12:30).  People living in New York have commented about the eery silence of the streets, punctured only by the piercing cry of emergency sirens.

Empire State Building lights up like a siren to honor emergency workers during coronavirus pandemic
Empire State Building lights up like a siren to honor emergency workers during coronavirus pandemic
- The lambs blood on the door is not something I would recommend in this situation, but if you smear disinfectant instead - on all smooth surfaces - well then we're onto something.  

One question that needs to be addressed: If the tenth plague was a coronavirus, why were the Israelites spared? In an article that appeared in the New York Times during the Ebola crisis a decade ago, Dr. Martin J. Blaser, a historian who is chairman of medicine at New York University's medical school, offered an intriguing hypothesis for why Jews became scapegoats in the medieval Black Death. They were largely spared, in comparison with other groups, "because grain was removed from their houses for Passover, discouraging the rats that spread the disease. That plague peaked in spring, around Passover."

So maybe the tenth plague also coincided with a springtime epidemic that was suppressed by the elimination of fermented grains from the diet. Who knows; we may discover in two weeks that the populations of Monsey and Crown Heights have been mysteriously released from the terrors of Covid-19 because the disease could not penetrate a cascade of matzah crumbs.

Or not. But meanwhile, as we join at our Seders on Wednesday night, Jews everywhere will be able to sense the same existential dread our forbearers felt. Perhaps they too feared awakening with that telltale dry cough, or that feeling of an anvil on their chest, or that spiking fever that brings a terror that not even a Pharaoh could match.

We survived Pharaoh. But will we survive this?

This year we are slaves to the disease. Next year, may we be a free nation - or to be more precise, a vacci-nation.

We Are Whole
Malerie Yolen-Cohen sends along a new poem written by her cousin Heidi (whose mom is the well-known author Jane Yolen). Heidi wrote this for her own daughter, who lives in Atlanta and is organizing an online Seder for the family. And now, we can use it at our Seders too. Thank you so much to Malerie and Heidi!!

We Are Whole
Why is this night different from all other nights?
Our people have been persecuted and prosecuted,
converted and run into hiding,
imprisoned and slaughtered.
Being together-
being one--
has never kept us safe.
But it has kept us whole.
Why is this night different from all other nights?
We are together but not together.
We are apart,
and still we are parts
of our whole.
We cannot hold hands
around a table
signifying our oneness,
our beginnings and endings
being a circle of love,
and faith,
and hope.
How is this night different from all other nights?
The distance between us
is farther
and colder
and yet-
and yet,
this distance is not wider than our hearts.
No space is too far for us to remember where we came from,
how we fought
what we lost--
but, also what we have gained.
I hold your hand,
and yours, and yours, and yours,
in metaphor only,
and our circle grows wider for the space between.
It grows
to include those who came before,
who endured, who persisted, who preserved,
and those who did not.
But, also those who WILL endure, persist, and preserve--
though war, and famine,
through plagues--
and new.
How is this night different from all other nights?
Maybe the answer is that
it is not.
Because, we will join together,
rise up,
meet all challenges at the gate,
standing side-by-side,
in rows of strength,
to turn all tides,
or befriend--
all foes,
armed with love and faith and hope,
and each other.
Because, tonight we ARE
love and faith and hope--
and we are whole.
Poem by Heidi E.Y. Stemple
Passover 2020

Jerusalem 360 - in Virtual Reality:
Toxic fashion in Jerusalem
For thousands of years, Jerusalem has captured our hearts and souls with its indescribable magnetism. For the first time, the holiest sites of Jerusalem have been captured using both volumetric scanning, and Stereo 360 VR filming. In one of the most complex volumetric VR projects produced to date, an inter-faith team of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim innovators has brought their unique perspectives to the magic and wonder of Jerusalem. The innovative documentary experience captures this energy and invites you to immerse yourself in Jerusalemʼs Old City through a transcendent stereoscopic 360 degrees Virtual Reality Documentary. Beyond what a traditional documentary could offer, VR has the power to affect the user in ways that mirror actual experience, making you feel as if you are actually there! Find out more at the Tower of David Museum site and watch the preview video below: 
The Plot Against America

For those who have been watching lots of TV lately, two series of special Jewish interest have been Netflix's "Unorthodox," and HBO's take on the Philip Roth novel, "The Plot Against America." After watching these, we can begin to ask ourselves, as Vanity Fair recently did, when did TV suddenly become so Jewish? (And there's more to come, with a popular Israeli series, "The Baker and the Beauty" soon to come to ABC, though in this case Jews have been replaced by other ethnicities). And these shows are not simply Jewish, but hard core Jewish - "Unorthodox" displays haredi life as never before seen on mainstream television, with exquisite detail of a Satmar wedding and much of the dialogue in Yiddish.

"Plot" also brings us a real slice of Jewish life of its era, though the authenticity slips in a few spots (like anachronistically using a 1970's camp version of the Alenu prayer), but those slips are few and far between.

But what appears most authentic is the premise that xenophobia could lead America in a decidedly undemocratic direction, and that the canary in the coal mine of intolerance and hate in such a country would be, as it always has been, the Jews.

Roth himself was optimistic about the resilience of the American people. Shortly after the publication of "The Plot Against America" in 2004, he wrote an essay about it in the New York Times Book Review.  The essay was later published as part of a collection of his nonfiction writings, in the Library of America collection, "Why Write.'  You can find the full essay here. Here is an excerpt, as he writes about that fateful election of 1940, when the isolationist and anti-Semitic America Firsters, led by Charles Lindbergh, chose not to run for the presidency, despite their immense popularity, leaving a much weaker Wendell Wilkie to lose to FDR, who then, a year later, was able to lead the nation into World War Two.

So let's give Roth his due. In this 2004 essay, he states unambiguously that the America that he lived in, the America of George W Bush, could never tip over into the kind of cauldron of hate that his book imagines. But before his death a couple of years ago, Roth made no such disclaimer regarding the current administration. So, what would Philip Roth be saying now?

From the Bunker, stay well and a zissen Pesach.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman