Sunday, May 31, 2020

TBE Bar/Bat Mitzvah Commentary: Eli Schwartz on Shavuot

Shabbat Shalom and happy Shavuot!

This morning, we are all part of history – the first-ever Zoom Bar Mitzvah at Temple Beth El!   Someday I’ll be able to say that my bar mitzvah was unique, different from most. 

Some of my friends decided to wait until the fall when this all blows over – hopefully…. But I didn’t want to change the date, because you can never tell what the future may bring.  But also because I kind of like trying something new – and today really is special.   And one thing you know, if you know me, is that I’m used to adapting to all different situations.

There are some advantages and disadvantages.  The disadvantage is that most of us aren’t in the same room.  But the advantage is that up to 300 participants were expected to be “be here” in this virtual room, many who might not have been otherwise.  That’s really important to me because all of you have made such a difference in my life and helped me at times when I really needed it.

Which gets us back to the importance of adaptation.  As many of you know, I had a few very rough years when I was younger.  I spent many months in Yale New Haven Hospital but was able to finally beat A.L.L., a form of Leukemia.

For me, a key was to be able to adapt to the big changes in my life, to go with the flow.  Being in the hospital for months, hooked up to medical devices, I had to adapt to not being free to move around.  I had to learn how to be especially careful about everything.  And I was worried.  It was not easy to get through the pain. I can still remember now how it all felt. I couldn’t walk straight at times.  But over time, I was able to adapt and take on that pain.  And eventually I overcame it.

People now have the fear of getting sick.  It’s rough.  The three things that can get you through it would be family, friends and doctors. Even though I was young, my whole class wrote letters for me saying “feel better.” Those people being there make you happy – and happiness gets you through everything.

In a science unit in school, I learned how animals have to adapt. I did the same thing.  Animals adapt to predators and a changing environment, just like dogs have had to adapt to people being home all day!

I’ve been practicing Karate  for years.  Karate has also taught me all about how to adapt.  For instance, when you are in a headlock, there are many ways to get out of it. You’ve got to adjust according to the situation. 

The festival of Shavuot celebrates giving of the Torah.  Before the Torah was given, there were no rules.  So there’s a midrash – a legend - that when the people were camped beneath Mount Sinai, they didn’t know what they could eat.  The Kosher laws hadn’t been given yet.  So they adapted and ate the safest things possible – and that in Jewish tradition means dairy foods, which are a lot less complicated than meat. So that’s why on Shavuot the custom is to eat dairy. 

And that’s why we’re going to have a lot of pizza and ice cream at the big kiddush after services. (Too bad none of you will be there so I’ll have to eat it all)

I was just kidding, we don’t have a kiddush planned.

We adapt for now, but someday soon, we’ll find a way for all of us to get together and celebrate!

For my mitzvah project  – I always liked playing games at the hospital. I found a gaming specialist at Yale New Haven, so I set up a fundraiser to give money to the hospital so they could buy the equipment for the patients to make them happy.

Because as I learned, happiness gets you through everything!

Thursday, May 28, 2020

600,000 and 100,000: From Sinai to Sinai (Times of Israel)


600,000 and 100,000: From Sinai to Sinai

From Sinai to Sinai: At the mountain, thunder, lightning, and a still, small voice; at the hospital, beeps of machines -- and the soft, tearful voices of family by phone
According to tradition, 600,000 Jews were given the Torah at Mount Sinai.  But Jewish belief also has it that many millions more were there in spirit — including all those not yet born — Jews of every background, men, women, young, old, lifers and Jews by Choice, those Jewish, Jew(ish) and Jewish-adjacent.  We are all among the 600,000.
As of today, over 100,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 over the past three months, and 356,000 worldwide.  We suffer with all the suffering and grieve each death. Though many have died alone, part of each of us has died too.
We’ve gone, symbolically, from Sinai, the mountain, to Mount Sinai, the hospital, and still we are counting, bodies and souls.  We are at Sinai, and we are at Mount Sinai; we stand at the foot of the mountain, and we lie prone in the ICU.  This double Sinaitic vision will accompany us, as it will for unborn generations.  Our journey will forever take us from Mount Sinai to Mount Sinai.
At Sinai, the mountain, the Israelites shuddered when they heard the first letter of the first word of revelation, the alef of “anochi” (“I”), the inaudible sound of a single breath.
At Mount Sinai, the hospital, we all shuddered at the whirring sounds of the breath-giving ventilators.
At the mountain, the people were so terrified that they begged Moses for God to stop.  At the hospital, the doctors begged their leaders for more ventilators, which came too late to save so many.
At Sinai the mountain it is said that some Israelites overslept, which is a reason given for the all-night Tikkun study sessions instituted by the Kabbalists.
At Sinai the hospital, only the intubated slept.
At Sinai the mountain, a midrash states that God held the mountain over the heads of the Israelites to pressure them into acceptance of the Covenant, but no one died.
At Sinai the hospital, doctors had to play God and decide who shall receive the scarce life-saving options at their disposal. One doctor in Elmhurst said, “The most anxiety I have is around ventilator allocation. Seeing people die is not the issue. We’re trained to deal with death. Nor is it the volume of people dying. The issue is giving up on people we wouldn’t normally give up on.”
At the mountain there was thunder and lightning, and a still, small voice. At the hospital, there were the beeps and hums of the machines — and the still, soft, tearful voices of family members on the phone.

COVID-19 has now been permanently appended to Exodus 20, conjoined to our amended Covenant, a codicil that links the two Sinais eternally.

At Sinai the mountain, the Israelites raised their voices in unison, declaring, “We will act and we will understand.”  In America, and in other less fortunate countries throughout the world, those struggling to live and to save lives are uttering a different prayer, hoping against hope that our leaders will finally understand – and act.

From the Rabbi's Bunker: May 28: 600,000 and 100,000 - Sinai to Sinai; Letters from Hope; Kabbalah and Corona; Subversive Shavuot

From the Rabbi's Bunker

A photo from the final rehearsal for the first-ever TBE Zoom Bar Mitzvah, this Shabbat morning (Day 2 of Shavuot), for Eli Schwartz, here with his mom, Deborah.  About 300 are expected to tune in. Eli is an amazing young man. If you join us, bring tissues!

7th grade art project - their lovely gift to the synagogue

600,000 and 100,000: Sinai to Sinai

According to tradition, 600,000 Jews were given the Torah at Mount Sinai.  But tradition also has it that many millions more were there in spirit - including all those not yet born - all Jews of every background, men, women, young, old, lifers and Jews by Choice, those Jew(ish) Jew(ish) and Jewish adjacent.  We are all among the 600,000.

As of today, over 100,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 over the past three months (!!!).  We are all among them too - with each death, though many have died alone, a little of us has died too.  The wound does not easily heal, and it will remain, along with their memory, forever. 

We've gone from Sinai, the mountain, to Mount Sinai, the hospital, and still we are counting, bodies and souls - and including ourselves among the witnesses.  We were at Sinai, and we were at Mount Sinai, at the foot of the mountain, and in the ICU.  This Sinaitic vision will accompany us, as it will for unborn generations to come.  Our journey will forever take us from Mount Sinai to Mount Sinai.

"Be ready in the morning, and then come up on Mount Sinai. 
Present yourself to me there on top of the mountain."
- Exodus 34:2

I was at Mount Sinai too - that's the teenage me, in the photo above. There are 750 stone steps to the top. I climbed to the summit of Jebel Musa in the Sinai desert, the traditional spot that many believe to be the place (though more of a Christian tradition than a Jewish one) when on a teen tour with Ramah, just before the Yom Kippur War, at a time when the mountain was in Israeli hands.  The view was spectacular and the prayer (you can see my tefillin straps dangling) inspired.  Imagine, praying at Mount Sinai!  Well that's what we will get to do, virtually, on Friday and Shabbat.  

Shavuot is the quintessentially virtual holiday.  It's always virtual.  We're never "really" at Mount Sinai (except for me in the picture - if that IS Mount Sinai).  But we are always virtually there.  So this year we're taking Shavuot's virtual-ness to the next level, which only enhances the boundryless, dreamlike experience that Shavuot was meant to be.  It is said some Israelites slept through the original experience, which is how the custom arose to stay up all night.  No one is sleeping now.

600,000 at Sinai - 100,000 new martyrs of Covid-19.  

We are them.  They are us.


Mitch Albom has become a prime voice of reflection, one of the premier storytellers of our time.  His essay on today's front page of the Detroit News (also appearing in the USA Today) is one for the books.  You can see the first part of his essay in the photo above.  Here is some of the rest:

"Whoever saves one life, it's as if he has saved the whole world." That's a well-known quote from the Talmud, made famous by the film "Schindler's List." But that same Talmudic text offers an adjunct quote, one you don't hear as much: "Whoever destroys one life, it's as if he destroys the whole world."
There are people today who will confirm this idea. Like parents who have lost an otherwise healthy child to COVID-19, spouses who have lost an otherwise healthy husband or wife, children whose grandparents had survived all manner of things, from cancer to the Holocaust, only to be felled by a virus spreading carelessly through a nursing home.
For them, one life lost feels like a world gone. And yet we are impatient to get back to normal, as fast as possible - as long as it's not someone in our inner circle who pays a deadly price.

...Let's face it. It's easy to whine about not getting your hair cut when you haven't lost a child to coronavirus. It's easy to insist on getting back to your favorite bar when you haven't watched your father die alone in a hospital bed on a cellphone held up by a nurse.
And since 100,000 deaths represents only three ten-thousandths of the country, the odds are overwhelming that most people won't have experienced a COVID-19 loss of their own.

But caring about your fellow citizens means empathizing even when you haven't walked in their shoes. Otherwise, no rich would ever help the poor. No majority would help a minority. No healthy would ever help the sick.
We are heading back into our lives this week. Restaurants and retail outlets and doctors' offices and schools are all, slowly, being reintroduced to our routines.
But the disease is no less dangerous, and the cure is a long way off. Until that time, the only thing that will keep us safe is our own behavior. You can get this disease, not know you have it, act irresponsibly, spread it, and indirectly be responsible for someone's death. If that doesn't bother you, then you are either soulless, or a president who thinks it's cute to not wear a mask in an auto plant where everyone else must.
In either case, heaven help you. "Acceptable loss" is not something man was meant to broker, not when human lives are the currency. On this Memorial Day week, we mourn those we have lost in war, but we should think hard about the war we are waging on ourselves and our most vulnerable. We have seen the enemy. We are carrying it

Happy Shavuot and Shabbat Shalom!

A few quick announcements:  It goes without saying that our offices will be closed on the's closed every day! But TBE is open for business on all fronts, as that meme at the top of this email indicates.  Also, I do not reply to routine emails on the holiday and Shabbat (Thurs. evening through Saturday night).  I appreciate your patience.  But do communicate emergencies via my email address.

Note that Shavuot services will be held on Zoom on Friday and Saturday mornings at 10 AM.  Friday's will include the Book of Ruth and Ten Commandments, and Saturday's will include Yizkor and our first-ever Zoom Bar Mitzvah for Eli Schwartz. Mazal tov to him and his family!  On Friday at 6 PM, Cantor Katie and Koby Hayon will join me for Shavuot - Shabbat evening services.  All the links are found in the temple announcements.

Since a number have asked, my new book is now back in stock on Amazon, and at the original price, which for some reason was temporarily increased last week.  Let me know if you want it autographed and I'll send a signed sticker.

Annual Meeting

Michael Rose accepting one of our two teen awards at last night's meeting (Ethan Moskowitz was the other).  See more screen grabs from last night by clicking here and scrolling down to the bottom of our 2019-2020 photo album.

Last night's Annual Meeting was terrific.  Mazal tov to all the honorees - especially our first responders, teen award winners, new board members and 7th grade graduates.  And a special thank you to Carl Weinberg, wrapping up a fantastic 3-year presidential term. 

Watch the 7th Grade Slide Show!
Letters from Hope: A Tribute to Our Adult B'nai Mitzvah 

I received these moving emails from Hope Stanger of our adult B'nai Mitzvah class, and with her permission, I share them here:

May 13th, 2020

Hi Rabbi Hammerman,                                                                              
I  wanted to reach out and say, Wow, I can't believe that this Shabbat would have been our bnei mitzvah! We've each gone from worrying whether we could pull it off and sing our trop with aplomb, and dealing with the anxiety that comes with being an adult performing, to anxieties and worries we could never in a trillion years have predicted. I guess if you look at history over the past trillion years, perhaps we could well have predicted something occurring at some point, but we live in a wonderful illusion of certainty that keeps us thriving.

Anyway, I will hold a sacred space for our beautiful group this Shabbat: Imagining each of us walking up to read our portions (torah and haftorah); seeing the finished booklets filled with our dvar torahs, personal stories and bios resting by everyone's seats; listening to Cantor Bear lead the service; singing prayers powerfully as a group, having the Sisterhood honor us as bnei mitvah; schmoozing with the congregation, our families and dear friends over the kiddush luncheon and feeling so proud knowing we each did it!! I am holding that intention for next year and honoring this May 16th as equally special and holy in its own rite. We couldn't have a more wonderful group of bnei mitzvah and most especially our amazing rabbi leading and cheering us on.

It is truly an honor for Brian and I to be members of such an extraordinary, loving community. We are grateful every day.

I hope life is filled with good moments for you and Mara during this unusual time.


May 25, 2020

Hi Rabbi Hammerman,                                                                                                  
May 16th Shabbat; what would have been our bnei mitzvah, was so beautiful. Thank you for being there for us - in the chapel and with the torahs - while we zoomed in. Being with you was incredibly moving, sweet and powerful all at the same time. I can't believe I actually had an aliyah, which technically makes me a bat mitzvah! It was beyond special to hear the torah portion B'Har B'Chukotai and haftorah read. I found myself welling up with emotion; for what was supposed to be, but also for the perfection of the present moment. I was in the chat box with a couple of my fellow bnei mitzvah clan acknowledging it. After a life of being a Jew and attending bar and bat mitzvahs, I now understand what it means to belong to a torah portion. Listening to it being read and participating in the aliyahs, I felt the rootedness of my torah portion and the significance of its meaning. Not only that, when I heard the haftorah read, I sang along and realized that I really knew the trop! Something I recently wrote to Carl sticks in my mind: We are Jews, and no matter what, we connect, we pray and we do acts of chesed (kindness). Those things are true wherever we are. We Jews keep keeping on!

Happy Memorial Day Weekend - I hope that you and Mara are enjoying the holiday and that it is filled with freedom and joy!



Kabbalah and Corona: Humanity's Rebirth?

As people plan to reenact the Kabbalistic custom of Tikkun Layl Shavuot today, it is noteworthy that there is a Kabbalistic connection pertinent the Coronavirus-Era.  As described in this essay by Dr. Michael Laitman, in the wisdom of Kabbalah, there is a concept called "the last generation." Basically, it means that when a generation is selfish to the core, a new paradigm will emerge, one of unity and mutual responsibility. According to "The Book of Zohar," the seminal book of Kabbalah, we are now in the beginning of that last generation.

Laitman adds that the Hebrew word for "crisis" is mashber, which is also the word that ancient Hebrew texts used to denote birth. The mashber was the special chair on which the woman in labor sat until she delivered (Talmud, Arachin 1:4). Also, in the Bible (Isaiah 37:3), the word mashber denotes the opening of the birth canal right before the newborn baby emerges to the world. He writes:

In the case of the current crisis, and in fact the current process that we have been undergoing for some decades now, the newborn baby is a new humanity. The difference between now and, say, 10 years ago, is that significant portions of humanity are beginning to acknowledge that mutual responsibility and interdependence are not merely fancy words they can use to decorate their social media posts; they are the painful truth that we must take into account in our daily lives. Previously, it didn't matter to anyone if I wanted to go to a discotheque or to the movies to take my mind off life's burdens. Nowadays, other people's lives could depend on my decision, literally! It doesn't get more mutually responsible than that.

Does this Shavuot mark not only the the giving of the Torah but also the rebirth of humanity - more accurately, the birth of a new humanity?  At least one person feels the signs are pointing that way.

These are the things you think about, cooped up in the Rabbi's Bunker for so long.

The Ten Commandments and Shavuot

No one ever claimed that "our" Ten Commandments are unique, but if you search online you'll find lots of different versions. In the packet, Ten Commandments and World Religions, I compare and contrast the "Big Ten" as they are expressed by major world religions. Did you know, for instance, that for Hindus, the "tenfold law" as they call it, includes self control, forgiveness, wisdom and abstention from anger? Buddhists include not killing, stealing and coveting wives, but also refraining from "divisive, harsh and senseless speech." 

I also explore some of the commandments individually. For the Sikhs it is a sin to argue with your parent. An African proverb states, "If a parent takes care of you up to the time you cut your teeth, you need to take care of them when they lose theirs." You can see how vociferously Islam condemns the murder of innocents and that Confucianism states, "No crime is greater than having too many desires."

Check out our Big Ten against theirs - Ten Commandments and World Religions

Also see: 

Poetry Corner

For those looking for some fascinating poetry to read over the holiday, take a look at this classic poem of Yehuda Amichai's, from his collection, "Open, Closed, Open".  It presents new perspectives on God and Jewish history.  And then there is his classic, so apropos to this week's grim milestone, "The Diameter of the Bomb."

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective
range--about seven meters.
And in it four dead and eleven wounded.
And around them in a greater circle
of pain and time are scattered
two hospitals and one cemetery.
But the young woman who was
buried where she came from
over a hundred kilometers away
enlarges the circle greatly.
And the lone man who weeps over her death
in a far corner of a distant country
includes the whole world in its circle.
And I won't speak at all about the crying of orphans
that reaches to the seat of God
and from there onward, making
the circle without end and without God.

קוטר הפצצה היה שלושים סנטימטרים
וקוטר תחום פגיעתה כשבעה מטרים
ובו ארבעה הרוגים ואחד עשר פצועים.
ומסביב לאלה, במעגל גדול יותר
של כאב וזמן, פזורים שני בתי חולים
ובית קברות אחד. אבל האשה הצעירה,
שנקברה במקום שממנו באה,
במרחק של למעלה ממאה קילומטרים,
מגדילה את המעגל מאוד מאוד,
והאיש הבודד הבוכה על מותה
בירכתי אחת ממדינות הים הרחוקות,
מכליל במעגל את כל העולם.
ולא אדבר כלל על זעקת יתומים
המגיעה עד לכיסא האלוהים
ומשם והלאה ועושה
את המעגל לאין סוף ואין אלוהים 
יהודה עמיחי  

Tikkuns Across America (So many study sessions, so little time!)

What is Shavuot? All About the Jewish Holiday for Torah and Learning
What is Shavuot? All About the Jewish Holiday for Torah and Learning

All About the Prayers for Shavuot 
See this new version of the Big Ten, from JewBelong

Subversive Shavuot: Our Most Radical Holiday
Excerpts from my talk for the community Tikkun yesterday

On Shavuot we receive the Torah, but not that scroll behind curtain number one. What we receive is the freedom to interpret it, to develop its ideas, and the obligation to do so responsively. It is at heart the most subversive and radical of Jewish holidays - as revolutionary as Judaism itself.
Shavuot in Biblical times was exclusively an agricultural holiday.  The Mishna describes first fruits being brought to the Temple.  The inhabitants of the cities of each district  marched to Jerusalem.  An ox, its horns bedecked with gold and its head crowned with an olive wreath, led the way.  A flutist played as they marched and sang pilgrimage psalms.  As the farmers entered Jerusalem, dignitaries greeted them.
The first fruits would be transferred to the priest, who would wave them, and together they would recite the ancient declaration of Jewish origins, "My ancestor was a wandering Aramean."  There was feasting, celebrating, sharing, a good time was had by all.
As the second Temple era ended and rabbinic Judaism developed, the purpose for Shavuot shifted dramatically.  At that time, there were two major political and religious branches of Judaism, the Sadducees and the Pharisees.  The Pharisees were in control of the Temple cult, they were the priests, the aristocracy, the rulers in Jerusalem.  Their interest was in keeping everything to the letter of the law, following the old ways as had been done for hundreds of years.
The Pharisees were the outsiders, the provincial Jews, and they affirmed that side by side with the written Torah from Sinai, there was also a body of Revelation of principles and methods of interpretation, the Oral Law, which they considered equally the will of God.  The Pharisees were very big on learning and the Torah as a way of life for all people, not just priests.
The power struggle between the two sects was long and bitter.  One, the Sadducees, said that the Torah is final and things can never change.  After all, they were in power and didn't want things to change.  The other, the Pharisees, were for change, in fact, revolutionary change.
And Shavuot became the vehicle for expressing the Pharisees new ideology.  How?
Well, they counted the days that the Torah says it took for Israel to cross from the land of Egypt to Mount Sinai and they matched it to the already-existent festival of Shavuot.  It took some creative mathematics and interpretation, but they did it.
Now in the Torah, Shavuot was never connected to the Sinai Revelation, to nothing historical in fact.  So this was a revolutionary change, folks.
How many of us would dare to create a holiday?
And what in fact did they celebrate on Shavuot?  The very thing they were doing, the empowerment of human beings to share with God in a covenant of law and interpretation.  Shavuot doesn't celebrate the giving of the written Torah at Sinai, but our right to interpret it in new ways, to develop it and apply it.  For the Pharisees, the whole world became God's Temple, the Passover sacrifice was moved into each home and called a Seder; the laws of purity moved to each table and called Kashrut, and each of the holidays given new meaning.  But none more than Shavuot.
Thanks to the Pharisees, the historical dimension of Shavuot became apparent, and none too soon, because the Temple was destroyed in the year 70. Once that happened, there were a lot of unemployed priests and unhappy Sadducees.  The festive offering of the first fruits was discontinued, and the Pharisees picked up the ball and became the originators of a vastly new interpretation of Judaism.
And the Pharisaic leaders took on a new title: rabbi.
Now how did they prepare for Shavuot?  Matching the intensity of Israel encamped at Sinai in the book of Exodus, the three days before the festival became "Shloshet Y'mei Hagbala,"  Three days of intense preparation.  Everyone cleaned, bought new clothes, got haircuts, cooked, and most of all, studied.  Study is the only ritual connected with this holiday.  There is no Seder or Sukkah dwelling, no shofar or lulav, nothing physical.  There aren't even many good songs for Shavuot.  There is nothing special to buy, except maybe blintzes.  The study and interpretation of Torah is all that there is.  It is the central focus.  It is the only focus.
Funny thing.   Imagine if a group of Pharisees were to do the same thing today.  Imagine what the reaction would be, if, say, someone were to, say, invent a holiday, and just slap on an old familiar name to make it look like it was there all along. Actually, that has already happened.  On Kibbutzim in Israel, they've reinvented Shavuot again, returning to the Biblical concept of celebrating this as an agricultural celebration.  In the 19th century, the Reform movement added the idea of confirmation to their celebration, and the mystics of Safed added the an all-night study session, or Tikkun Leil Shavuot, 400 years ago.

But no one has been as radical as the Pharisees.
How, then, do we prepare for Shavuot?  I suggest that we prepare by retracing the roots of this holiday, and then by reexamining our ways of looking at Judaism.  Do we see only the old ways as valid, simply because they are traditional?  This, I submit, would be a betrayal of the original rabbinic ideal.  Or, do we see the need to be partners with God in a Covenant, in the act of re-instilling the Torah with new life each generation?
My teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary used to harp on the idea that Conservative Judaism is the true heir to this Pharisaic tradition.  There is much truth to that.  But I would rather not think in terms of labels, labels that might be in fact outmoded.  Because I also think Orthodoxy, Reconstructionist and Reform Judaism are legitimate heirs to the Pharisaic legacy.
The labels don't matter.  What matters is that we understand that, at is very core, the Judaism of the rabbis was creative and dynamic - and remains so to this day.
So I prepare for Shavuot by thanking God for the gift of Torah, a magnificent package that we are forever unwrapping, receiving, and re-imagining, again and again.
I hope all of this reading can provide the spiritual sustenance equal to three cheesecakes, so that you have an enriching Shavuot.

Hag Samyach and Shabbat Shalom from the Bunker.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman