Wednesday, May 6, 2020

From the Rabbi's Bunker: May 7-8: What's a Human Life Worth? How Jews Invented Hope; A Paper Clips Project for Covid? Iconic Jewish Mothers


From the Rabbi's Bunker
This moving, lyrical and hopeful video has been sent to me by several people. It is worth listening to not once, not twice, but several times.  
Let's discuss it at our next Healing & Hangout

The Great Realisation : Hindsight 2020
The Great Realisation: Hindsight 2020

Shabbat Shalom from the Bunker, resplendent in the knowledge that just next door, TBE has cornered the local market in toilet paper :)

Join us on Friday evening at 6 for what has become a weekly "can't miss" event, our Zoom Kabbalat Shabbat.  Beth Styles will co-lead with me. Then on Shabbat morning at 11, I'll lead a Torah study of the portion of Emor.  You can see the text and commentary from our humash, Etz Hayyim.  Even if you can't make it to our session, take some time to study it on your own. And you can find lots more material on the portion here.  Also, Lag B'Omer is next Monday night and Tuesday. Read all about it here.

I thought I'd start us off with some hope, with that video showing that there will be light at the end of an increasingly long tunnel. In this dispatch you'll read from Jan Gaines in Israel how they have successfully moved onto the next phase of their controlled, scientifically-guided and phased exodus from their bunkers.  For Israelis, there is truly a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel.  I'm happy for Jan and all Israelis, but slightly jealous too.

But hope is where we need to begin, despite the overwhelming and numbing avalanche of deaths we are facing, with no end in sight - and even the rosiest scenario quite bumpy - though with a welcome and deserved respite in the tristate area.  

Did you know that we invented hope?  Seriously.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains in this essay, how the Jews Invented hope.  He writes:

To be a Jew is to be an agent of hope in a world serially threatened by despair. Every ritual, every mitzvah, every syllable of the Jewish story, every element of Jewish law, is a protest against escapism, resignation or the blind acceptance of fate. Judaism is a sustained struggle, the greatest ever known, against the world that is, in the name of the world that could be, should be, but is not yet. There is no more challenging vocation. Throughout history, when human beings have sought hope they have found it in the Jewish story. Judaism is the religion, and Israel the home, of hope.

Yep, we invented it.

So why do things seem so darned hopeless?...


What's a Human Life Worth?

Recently, at one of his daily news conferences, Gov. Andrew Cuomo addressed the question that has haunted so many of us lately: How much is a human life worth? 

"If it's public health versus the economy," he said, "the only choice is public health. You cannot put a value on human life. You do the right thing."

While he was speaking, the Power Point display behind him flashed the key word like a vintage Mastercard commercial:


Jewish tradition agrees with that wholeheartedly. While at times lives must be sacrificed for higher causes, as in a defensive war for national survival, the Talmudic sages would never have countenanced the reckless disregard for life that we are seeing now from some political leaders.  Yes, we desperately need a functioning economy, but that is precisely why we need to have massive testing, tracing and a 14-day "downward curve" to enable a sensible opening while preventing needless deaths. 

As the world commemorates the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two, let's recall that the Nazis, who loved to put numbers on everything from death camp ledgers to human arms, put an actual value on a person's life - and death.
In stark contrast, the idea that each human life is of infinite value has been at the core of Judaism for many centuries. 

In his classic essay, "Perspectives on the Holocaust," Rabbi Irving (Yitz) Greenberg, one of the leading theologians of the post-Holocaust era, writes:

"If there is one belief that, more than any other, characterizes Jewish life, Jewish religion and Jewish practice, it is in the dignity of man. We speak of the human being in the image of God, of the absolute value of human life. To save one life is like saving the universe. Think of the radical challenge to that statement in the presence of the Holocaust."

In contrast to the ethos that has defined Jewish values for centuries, Greenberg asserts, "...the Nazis' behavior proclaimed the fact that they thought that a Jewish life was not worth one cent."

This is what he means. When the Nazis struggled mightily to finish their genocidal mission in 1944 by wiping out nearly a million Hungarian Jews, they began to run short of Zyklon B, the lethal chemical of choice for their gas chambers. So, to keep up with their diabolical quotas, they cut the gas in half, which in turn tripled the amount of time it took for the victims to die, increasing their suffering exponentially. Even worse, according to testimony of survivors, some children were thrown-while still alive-straight into the furnaces. All to stretch their Deutschmarks and save gas. And the result was a bottom line of less than one cent per Jewish corpse.  The best deal ever!

Because Jews value life infinitely, the greatest mitzvah is to save a single life - so great that it supersedes the observance of Shabbat, the Yom Kippur fast, just about anything.  This understanding led to an extraordinary gesture this week, when 35 rabbis from Missouri put their names to a petition stating that  voting by mail during a pandemic is a religious imperative, after their governor barred the option. When lives are legitimately at risk, they are saying, it is a mitzvah to stay home, and it is a mitzvah to vote absentee.  

We saw the dangers in Wisconsin's recent primary, where more than fifty voters and poll workers were infected with Covid-19.

Incidentally, this should not be a political issue.  Connecticut also needs to shift its policies to provide for easy access to mail-in voting.

See the Missouri petition below.  It was also signed by the region's Jewish Community Relations Council.

Political theorist Judith Butler, whose recent work has focused on philosophies of both vulnerability and mourning, claims  that "learning to mourn mass death means marking the loss of someone whose name you do not know, whose language you may not speak, who lives at an unbridgeable distance from where you live."  
We have to learn how to mourn that person.  We have to think of the soon-to-be-hundred thousand dead Americans as 100,000 individual universes.  


We need to do that too - we need our own Paper Clips Project - like the small rural school in Tennessee that collected 6 million paper clips to demonstrate the magnitude of the tragedy that was the Holocaust.  We could stack our clips next to one of those omnipresent Johns Hopkins Maps. 

These dead, these victims, these helpless and vulnerable, the weakest of our society, whose lives have been cut short so painfully and - in many cases - so needlessly - we must never forget a single soul.

And all the more, we mustn't forget then while they are still among us as well. We must treasure each precious, priceless human life. 

Remembering Faye Becher

Credit...via Ben Becher

An article to appear in the New York Times this weekend -  They Survived the Holocaust. Now They're Confronting the Virus.  Faye Becher, mentioned here, was an extended relative of TBE's Harvey and Phyllis Walzer.  Their niece and nephew, Ronnie and Michael Becker, sent it to them, and Harvey passed it along to me.  Faye, a survivor of Bergen-Belsen, succumbed to the coronavirus at age 95.  From the article:
Michael Becher, whose mother survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, said she talked more about her family than about her time in the camps, but sometimes, after services at the synagogue, she described the horrors before returning to more pleasant memories. "I asked her, 'Bubbe, is there something you want to tell me based on your experiences?'" her grandson Ben Becher said. "She would well up, close her eyes and she'd say, 'Let's focus on the happy things,' or, 'Be a good person.' That's how she lived her life."
Her decline, at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale in the Bronx, was swift. The home called her son on April 8 to say that her kidneys were suddenly failing, after no history of kidney disease. She died a day later, with no family around her. Family was the thing she cared most about, her son and grandson said.
Letter from Israel
Many people here remember Jan Gaines, who made aliyah many years ago but maintains contact with our community.  Every so often, she sends letters catching us up on things as she views them from her seaside apartment in Netanya.  With her permission, I'm pleased to share her latest, written early this week.

Dear Friends, 
Every year at the time of Israel's Independence Day, a new census is published.  I just want to share some numbers in that census, as a marker of who we are, which in the end shows how far we've come.

Population:  9.19 people, of whom 6.8 million or 74% are Jewish,  1.93 million or 21% are Arab, and 454,000 are Christian non Arabs, or other faiths, some of whom are Russian. Birth Rates:  Jewish women, 3.15  births,  Arab women, 3.14 births. (Do you remember the dire warnings of the Arab birth rate overtaking the Jewish rate, resulting in an Arab population outnumbering Jewish population, warning that if we didn't "settle Peace with the Arabs we would lose our state?)  What is interesting is that as Israeli Arab women became highly educated, in many of the medical professions especially, resulting in later marriages and later births, almost the same as Jewish women. Remember, this is only Israeli Arabs, not any residents of the West Bank. Immigration:  Over 3.3 million people, mostly Jews, have immigrated since 1948, 44% of whom came after 1990. This includes the great Russian immigration as well as the smaller Ethiopian immigration. Average Age:  Israel is a young country still. 28% of the population are children under 14 years old;  and the over 65 years old is only 12%. Compared to other OECD countries who have an older population of 17%, this shows the results of the high birth rate compared to Europe., with its aging population.   And at present, 45% of the world's Jewish population now lives in Israel.

And here's some other comparative numbers in the age of Corona. Deaths as of today:235 people ( mostly elderly, many in the Haredi population);  current cases: 5,947.. Recoveries: 10,064.  In serious condition:, 90 with 70 intubated/on ventilators  And only 44 new cases as of today! As a result of the encouraging numbers, schools have started re-opening with grades 1-3 and 11 & 12.  The rest will go back next week.  Businesses have started re-opening, but restaurants still allowed only Take-out.  Beaches and parks will reopen this week but no one is allowed in the sea, and of course, my swimming pool will be the last thing to re-open with no date given.  We still have to wear masks and gloves, social distance at least 600 metres or about 15 feet, which hardly anyone observes.  But the police will break up groups of more than a few people and they are constantly patrolling. Israelis have been good about respecting lockdown, especially we seniors, and I haven't been in the town square in 2 months.   We have never had a shortage of PPE protection although for a short time we needed extra ventilators but that didn't last long.  Because we have a national health care system, plus Magen David Adom, plus volunteer medics like Hatzlaha, the country was able to quickly hospitalize patients, except for hot spots both in the ultra-Orthodox community and in a couple of Arab Israeli towns, but much of that was because the Haredim don't have TV, radio, or main newspapers, by choice, so it took time to alert those communities and they paid a higher price, in addition to their neighborhoods being extremely dense with large families in small quarters.

    So that's a picture in time of May 6, 2020, a lovely, cool May afternoon.

    How am I?  Proud and happy to live here.  Worried about our unemployed population, as you are in the States, but since we are so much smaller in population, we should recover faster.  The govt is not as generous with payments to unemployed as you are, but there are so many non-profits stepping up with food, temporary loans, donations, etc. that most people are covered in one way or another.  I'm quite healthy, and I've never felt "cabin fever," probably because I always have the sea in my front windows, and apartment neighbors to stroll around with on our large front patio.  Everyone has gone to Zoom: synagogues, business, family celebrations, etc. and I'm trying to catch up and stay current, but I don't like it much.

My future plans:  I had organized a reunion with my 3 grandchildren, my niece and her husband, and my nephew. First it was to be over July 4 week on Cape Cod. Now we're trying to move it to the last week in August.  El Al is not flying yet so even if I wanted to come for July 4, it can't happen.  Like everyone else, that reunion is still a question mark, but I have hopes that it will happen.  At age 88, even healthy, I feel time creeping up on me and I don't want to lose any of it.
To all of you I wish good health above all, and given that, a reasonably happy summer.
Love, Jan

Just in time for Mother's Day...

And from the archives, here's something I wrote a couple of years ago, before my mother's passing.  It is worth sharing again here, at a time when so many of our parents live in such fear of the dangers surrounding them.

How to be a Jewish Mother's Child


Back in the 1960's Dan Greenberg's book, "How to be a Jewish Mother" perfectly embodied the spirit of Jewish humor (read: guilt) of the "Portnoy's Complaint" era.  It was the best selling nonfiction book in the U.S. in 1965, capturing the national zeitgeist at a time when "Fiddler" was also taking Broadway by storm.  You can read Greenberg's entire book online, and learn the secrets to a Jewish mother's success, like how to make guilt work:

Underlying all techniques of Jewish Motherhood is the ability to plant, cultivate and harvest guilt. Control guilt and you control the child. An old folk saw says: "Beat a child every day; if you don't know what he's done to deserve the beating, he will."

A slight modification gives us the Jewish Mother's Cardinal Rule:

"Let your child hear you sigh every day; if you don't know what he's done to make you suffer,  he will."

Once you've mastered that, you are ready to move on to the "Technique of Basic Suffering."

To master the Technique of Basic Suffering you should begin with an intensive study of the Dristan commercials on television. Pay particular attention to the face of the actor who has not yet taken Dristan. Note the squint of the eyes, the furrow of the brow, the downward curve of the lips-the pained expression which can only come from eight undrained sinus cavities or severe gastritis. This is the Basic Facial Expression. Learn it well. Practice it before a mirror several times a day. If someone should catch you at it and ask what you are doing, say:

"I'm fine, it's nothing at all, it will go away."

This should be said softly but audibly, should imply suffering without expressing it openly. When properly executed, this is the Basic Tone of Voice.

The book is still very funny, in part because ethnic stereotypes like the Jewish mother are making a comeback, even though Jewish mothers have long since stopped being "Jewish mothers," and all the guilt that came with the rapid assimilation of that post-immigrant generation has long since melted away.  We have plunged fully into the Melting Pot, but nostalgia is a powerful thing.

Mother's Day brings out some far more serious lessons that derive far more deeply from our Jewish cultural heritage. The rabbis spoke of a man named Dama, a serious one-percenter, from the Roman upper class, a jeweler who wore a gold-embroidered cloak and kowtowed with the glitterati.  Despite all this, the rabbis held him up as a paragon of piety in one respect - how he honored his parents.

In one story, a precious stone has disappeared from the High Priest's breastplate in Jerusalem. So a Jew comes to Dama seeking a replacement.  Dama goes in the back room, but his father is sleeping right on top of the key that would open the safe, so he tells the man that he can't sell him any jewelry today.  When his father wakes up and hears what has happened, he gets angry at his son for not making a profit.  His son responds, "I am not prepared to disobey the command to honor one's parents for any money in the world."  A week later, the price of gems rises, and Dama sells the needed jewel at a greater profit than he would have made the week before - a happy ending for everyone.

In another midrash, Dama's mother, evidently peeved that her son didn't go to medical school, rips off his gaudy garment and spits in his face.  Despite this, Dama does not shame her, instead referring back to the Torah's command to honor one's parents.

The word for "honor" "kabed" is nearly identical to the word "kaved," which connotes a heavy burden.  It's not always easy to honor our parents.

As Mother's Day approaches, my mom, 93, is in a nursing home, struggling to live a life of dignity, despite the ravages of Parkinsons and related afflictions that have robbed her of much of her ability to communicate.  Although her memory remains relatively sharp - or maybe because of that fact - there is very little that brings her joy at this stage.  A lifelong pianist, her tremors forced her to give up piano a few years ago.  The burden of filling her days with meaning only increases for both of us, and I now can say that I completely understand what the fourth commandment meant to convey.  To honor a parent really is to bear her, to hold her up, just as she once bore me, smiling despite the piercing pain.  We bear our elders just inches from the earth to which they - and we - will return, and we do it not our of guilt but a profound gratitude.

So kids, I'm not asking you to love your elders. You don't even have to honor us, strictly speaking.  The Torah makes it clear: all you need to do is bear the burden of us.  Hold us up when we stumble, as we invariably do.  Our lectures may be onerous, our use of technology embarrassing and our ideas archaic.  But though we may fumble with Facebook from time to time, we do have some wisdom to share.

There are real dangers out there and enormous challenges that we need to face, and right now the only way to face them is together.

That's why need Mother's Day.

And finally, from Wednesday's Jerusalem Post, some important observations by the AJC's David Harris.

By David Harris

It is a story that dates back centuries. A crisis occurs and conspiracy theories emerge to offer one-size-fits-all explanations. More often than not, Jews are implicated. So, too, has it been during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 14th century Black Death killed tens of millions across Europe. For many, it was more convenient to blame the Jews - and murder thousands, from Barcelona to Frankfurt, in so-called retribution - than to understand science.
The basic antisemitic motif is usually the same. Jews are believed to possess demonic power and evil intent. Small in number, perhaps, but Jews are globally connected and act as one. The goal? To outsmart non-Jews, gain wealth and power, and control the world's destiny.
The inherent absurdity of these beliefs does not matter for the antisemites.
Thus, Jews can be simultaneously accused of promoting capitalism and communism-two polar opposite ideologies.
The infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a 1903 forgery by Czarist Russia's secret police, asserted that Jews seek global domination. In fact, Russian Jews cowered in the restricted Pale of Settlement in fear of the next wave of state-sanctioned pogroms.
Adolf Hitler ascribed demonic powers to the Jews. He blamed them for Germany's defeat in the First World War, for its alleged humiliation under the terms of the Versailles Treaty, and for sabotaging National Socialism. The reality, however, was that Europe's Jews were powerless, targeted for genocide, and ultimately murdered by the millions.
Fast forward to September 11, 2001. No sooner did the four terror attacks occur than conspiracy-mongers were again active. While many Jews were among the victims, the Israeli Mossad was blamed. It purportedly notified 4,000 Jews working in the World Trade Center to stay home that fateful day. Again, the Jews were seen as interconnected, all with one goal of orchestrating monstrous deeds and pinning the blame on others, in this case Arabs.
Now during the COVID-19 crisis, conspiracy theories are again rife. What makes them especially dangerous are two factors.
First, there is the reach of digital platforms. Those on the receiving end include people who are predisposed to conspiracy theories and feel empowered by them, as well as the impressionable who may not have the critical skills to separate fact from fiction.
Second, this global crisis has brought much of the world to its knees in unprecedented fashion, quarantining vast numbers, fueling unemployment and shifting more power to governments.
For the antisemites, all the elements are aligned: Through devious machinations, Jews surely brought this on the world to gain power, wealth and control.
That countless Jews have died of the coronavirus, that Israel was brought to a standstill, or that Jewish-owned businesses face the same uncertainties as all others may be demonstrably correct, but are irrelevant in the netherworld of antisemitic conspiracies.
The language of Hitler is invoked, including against the governor of Illinois, J.B. Pritzker, who is Jewish, accusing him of consolidating power and restricting others' freedom. "Arbeit Macht Frei" (Work will set you free), one protester's sign directed at him said, referring to the notorious three words at the entrance to the Nazi camp at Auschwitz. A quite similar incident occurred in Colorado involving the state's governor, Jared Polis, who is also Jewish.
Meanwhile, the FBI killed a white supremacist in a shootout in Kansas City, on March 24, shortly after he posted that "this whole thing [COVID-19] was engineered by Jews as a power grab."
Not surprisingly, given its hatred of Israel, Iran's Press TV said that "Zionist elements developed a deadlier strain of coronavirus against Iran."
As Israel was offering help to the Palestinian Authority to battle the pandemic, a step applauded by United Nations officials, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, in a press conference on March 29, declared: "We have heard testimony that some [Israeli] soldiers are trying to spread the virus through the door handles of cars." In years past, Jews were accused of poisoning wells. Now it's car door handles.
History has shown that these kinds of allegations, however outlandish, can have real-life consequences.
The trifecta of the search for scapegoats, whether by political leaders, groups or individuals, the unbridled power of technology, and the red-hot anger among some about drastic changes to their lives, is potentially toxic. Its possible consequences should not be underestimated.

But still, be hopeful!

And Shabbat shalom to all!

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