Friday, April 24, 2020

From the Rabbi's Bunker, April 24: Supporting Respiratory Therapists, The Torah and Disease; Rosh Hodesh, Omer and Spiritual Help is on the Way, Confronting Fear and Putting Our Lives on the Line

From the Rabbi's Bunker


 Responding to our cabin fever, I've been leading virtual services and classes from remote locations, featuring synagogues and holy places from around the world (and beyond - on Earth Day I led services from the moon).  You just never know where I'm going to turn up!

Shabbat Shalom from the Rabbi's Bunker.

Coming up for air between episodes of "Fauda"...

I know things feel bleak in many ways, but spiritually speaking, help is on the way.  For one thing, Shabbat always provides a huge boost, and our attendance at Zoom Kabbalat Shabbat services has demonstrated that.  This evening at 6, Beth Styles and I will be joined by a special guest.  

You see, this was going to be the Bar Mitzvah weekend for Brandon Nadel. In fact, we worked on his d'var Torah way back in the days before we were confined to our homes.  It also happens that this week's double portion is all about disease and is supremely relevant to the moment. So although the bar mitzvah has been put off until the fall, I invited Brandon to deliver his message at this evening's service. 

Zoom access: ID: 775 369 802, Password: 131187

Today and tomorrow are Rosh Hodesh for the new month of Iyar, another sign that good things are on the way.  Some see the month's name as an acronym of the Hebrew phrase "Ani Adonai Rofecha," "I, God, am Your Healer." This is also the beginning of the third week of the Omer counting period, leading from Passover to Shavuot. You can see in the Omer counting notes, that this is the the week of "tiferet," which is associated with harmony and balance.  We are a couple of weeks from the 33rd day of the counting, called Lag B'Omer, which commemorates the end of a plague that afflicted Rabbi Akiva's students in the second century (some believe that plague was called "Rome."). So maybe it portends some great news on the medical front.... Don't know, but of course we should listen to the experts.

For Shabbat morning's Torah discussion at 11 AM, we'll be discussing the Covid-19 crisis in light of the portions of Tazria-Metzorah, which speak of communalresponsibility at a time of an epidemic. 

URL:, Meeting ID: 620 787 208
Password: 113702

Here are materials you can download:

And looking ahead, we have our Healing and Hangout on Sunday at 1 and a very special Yom Ha'atzmaut mini concert with Koby Hayon and Cantor Katie Kaplan on Tuesday evening,

Mitzvah Moments:

This request came in from TBE congregant Allison Ostroff, who has been on the front lines at Stamford Hospital since the beginning of the Covid-13 crisis.

am working in the ICU right now and raising money for the respiratory therapists.  They truly are the unsung heroes in this covid crisis. They are the unknown profession who risks their lives daily.  In two hours we surpassed our fundraising goal!  Perhaps our TBE community can help as well. 

Thanks and stay safe.


Here is the link to donate, and below is Allison's plea - and thank you to Allison and all who are on the front lines!

While working in the ICU this past month I have witnessed first hand the unsung hero’s of this pandemic - the respiratory therapists. Nurses are amazing and we all know it, but most people do not even know what a respiratory therapist does. They endanger themselves  going in and out of COVID patient rooms to adjust their ventilator settings, putting themselves as close to the patients as possible innumerable times a day.

They save lives. They never complain. And they don’t look for recognition.  

As a physician helping on the frontlines, I feel the community should recognize them. Our goal is to raise this money to provide the 30 therapists each a $50 gift card to purchase food through a hospital service enabling them to buy groceries at Stamford Hospital. This is vital as they can’t get out to the market themselves because of their close proximity to infected patients. 

Thank you so much for supporting us in this very worthwhile endeavor!

Allison Ostroff

It's a small thing to say thank you - but it is so important.  This week when I brought out my recycling and trash bins, I wrote a note on top thanking those who are out there every day.  At a time like this, everyone needs a thank you! 


Are First Responders and Medical Workers Obligated to Put Their Lives on the Line?

I wrote about this back in February, at a time when  much of the discussion was still theoretical.  In light of this week's portion and the continued heroic work we are seeing, it is worth revisiting this question here - and please join in the Torah discussion tomorrow at 11.

Back in 2002, when we faced another potential pandemic, a Jewish medical practitioner came to me and asked what our tradition would tell him about a doctor treating a patient with SARS. This virus was truly scary because so much about it was unknown, but what was known is that SARS was deadly and extremely contagious. Unlike AIDS, it could be transmitted without intimate contact; unlike West Nile, it couldn’t be traced to infected parasites, and unlike Ebola, it was not confined to some remote jungle. It was right here, threatening to turn your local mall into that Valley of the Shadow of Death.

That’s how we are thinking of the coronavirus today.

Eventually the panic will subside as the medical community gets a handle on the virus, but that question will remain supremely relevant, especially as doctors in China have died of infection and fatigue while treating patients with the disease.
Maimonides and others long ago codified the obligation of a physician to heal, but when a patient has a contagious disease, the obligation to save one’s own life can take precedence. If the risk is very small (safek sakanah) the doctor is obligated to heal, and if it is great, s/he is not. Interestingly, according to Dr. Fred Rosner, an expert on these matters, when a doctor treats a patient despite high risks, the act is considered a “pious one” (midat hasidut) by some halachic authorities and folly (chasid shoteh) by others. The Babylonian Talmud opines that one is not obligated to endanger one’s life even if the risk is small, in order to save the life of another. In contrast, the Jerusalem Talmud states that one should take that risk. It’s interesting that the Talmud written in the Diaspora conveys the more cautious, Woody Allen-like approach, while the Jerusalem Talmud speaks in the macho tongue of an Israeli cab driver. The dialectic between the two Talmuds reflects a dialogue that has been ongoing in Jewish circles through the centuries.

In “Love and Death,” Allen is challenged to a duel. He replies, “I can’t do anything 'to the death,' doctor’s orders. I have an ulcer and dying is one of the worst things for it.”

It’s OK for Jews to be afraid. It’s OK to place personal safety - and, by extension, obligations to one’s family - above a higher cause, such as a physician’s oath or national objective. In biblical times, an Israelite who was afraid to fight in a (non-obligatory) war was sent home without censure. “Just go,” the officer would say. “Enjoy your new wife, new home or freshly planted vineyard! It’s OK!”

We have nothing to fear of fear itself.

Which is why I am in such awe of those who have placed it all on the line these past few weeks and the many more who will undoubtedly respond to the call in the days to come. A Jew isn’t doing these things out of a religious obligation (though inspired, perhaps, by the selflessness and courage our religion values) but out of pure love of humanity, and the hope of freeing others from the fears that enslave them. Like Nachshon at the Red Sea, they - and all others who are at the forefront of this medical crisis - have taken the plunge for all of us.

Recommended Reading and Viewing

This LA megachurch has served 350,000 free meals during the pandemic (RNS). In case we are tempted to become TOO self-congratulatory about all we've been doing, this is rather humbling...)

Saying Kaddish Without a Minyan? - Kaddish is not a zero-sum game. Honoring the deceased is really about living a certain life infused with Jewish tradition. In the absence of a minyan to say Kaddish there is still something perhaps more important mourners can do - commit to living that life as fully as possible.

Wisdom For Unwelcome Experiences (MyJewishLearning)  The founder of Hasidism sought to help his followers to cope with unwelcome experiences - distracting thoughts during prayer and any encounters with brokenness. He offered a three-pronged approach: hachna’ah (yielding), havdalah (discernment), and 
hamtakah (sweetening).

Israel and Earth Day (WJC)
Israel and Earth Day (WJC)

The Subversive Kaddish ( Perhaps in this season of mourning-for the students of Rabbi Akiva, said to have died during the period of the omer; for the victims of the Shoah; for the fallen soldiers of the State of Israel-the Kaddish Yatom’s spirit of defiant hope in the face of overwhelming opposition might still continue to resonate.

I Know the Rabbi in "The Plot Against America (Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, RNS)
Rabbi Bengelsdorf is a metaphor. His presence in the narrative reminds us of a grim truth.  He writes:
  • There have always been Jews who have been far too open to the seductions of celebrity and imagined power and influence. Sometimes, as with the hofjuden (court Jews), they could be useful in gaining advantages for their people. All too often, however, like in Germany, those pseudo-powerful Jews realized, too late, that they had been dupes.
  • There have always been Jews who are far too willing to cling to a popular ideology, blinding themselves to its implications to their people and to others.
  • There have always been Jews who are far too willing to think that rising tides of hatred will not include them, that they will somehow be the exceptional Jews.
  • They have always been Jews who misjudge and/or minimize and/or pirouette around Jew-hatred and Israel-hatred. They are on the left and the right.
By the end of the series, Bengelsdorf and Evelyn discover themselves to be characters in a Greek tragedy -- their hubris paving the road to ruin. "The Plot Against America" is a warning -- far deeper than even Roth could have imagined

11 fun ways to celebrate Israel Independence Day in lockdown (Israel 21c) 
Bone up on Israel’s history, make yourself a pita with hummus and party like no one’s watching from the comfort of your own home.

To Celebrate Israel's 72nd, you can listen to this playlist of 895 Naomi Shemer songs!
To Celebrate Israel's 72nd, you can listen to this playlist of 895 Naomi Shemer songs!

What is Yom Ha'atzmaut: Israel Independence Day
What is Yom Ha'atzmaut?

And finally, I share some lovely words penned for Easter services by a close friend and colleague, Rev. Frances Sink:

New Beatitudes-For the Essential

Blessed are the doctors, the nurses and orderlies, the EMTs, and chaplains, for they are guarding the kingdom of life even as they must shelter the kingdom of grief.
Blessed are the farmworkers, the truck drivers, the warehouse workers, the checkout clerks, and the gig workers, deliverers and stockers, providers of food pantries and bringers of meals, for they are feeding a nation.
Blessed are the public educators for their dedicated and noble work- may their so generous giving to their students sustain the still growing minds they guide.
Blessed are those whose lives of racial and economic disadvantage, high density living, working, and commuting conditions place them at extreme risk for infection- may the human cost of their servitude shame our hardened society into repair.
Blessed are the out of work and the out of money-
may their tireless phone calls for promised aid be answered.
Blessed are the imprisoned, the congregated, and the closely confined-
may they be released into more protected care.
Blessed are those without shelter and those without healthcare and those without a safety net and no right to benefits- may they too be known as essential to our collective wellbeing.
Blessed are the postal workers, the Zoomers, the multimedia journalists, reporters,
photographers, the poll workers and the census takers for keeping communication open and democracy alive.
Blessed are the builders, the supply chain rerouters, and the retoolers of factories, for their relevant and responsive initiative- may they open new paths out of chaos.
Blessed are the research and clinical scientists whose answers will break this virus' grip- may their efforts bring success and restore us to health and freedom.
Blessed are the volunteers, the donors, the neighbors and the tireless and the relentless caregivers for they sustain our confidence in the human spirit.
Blessed are all who now are named essential to our profoundly interdependent lives, whose necessary contributions and just as necessary needs went unrecognized, the failure of our moral imagination and commitment. May we all now be seen as essential to each other, the wellbeing of each, precious and essential to the life and care of us all.
Rev. Dr. Frances Sink
Easter Sunday, 2020

Shabbat Shalom and stay safe!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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