Friday, January 8, 2021

In this Moment: A Capitol Prayer, The Un-comma President; Trump's Elba; Ethics and Vaccines

 In This Moment
Shabbat-O-Gram, January 8, 2021

You never know...
...what will happen at our Shabbat services!  Last week 7th grader Sarah Strom joined our as part of her service attendance commitment (and because she wanted to!), along with parents Eric and Lisa, and she got to practice her Torah blessings for her upcoming Bat Mitzvah - and got this nifty screen grab (extracted from the Zoom recording after Shabbat) to boot.  Well done, Sarah!  

Shabbat Shalom!

This Shabbat morning, join us at 10 on Zoom for Shabbat-in-the Round, our meditative, musical Shabbat experience.  I recommend that you spend some time over Shabbat exploring the text and commentary for this week's Torah portion of Shemot. Given the urgency the Covid-19 crisis, this Shabbat's Torah discussion time will be devoted mostly to Vaccination and Ethical Questions Posed by COVID-19 Vaccines, based on a responsum just issued by the Conservative movement's Law Committee.  We'll focus on the following questions:

1) Is there an obligation to be vaccinated? 
2) Can Jewish institutions require vaccination for employees, students, and congregants? 
3) What should be the guidelines for their distribution?

This week's portion covers the beginning of the Book of Exodus, and it is always read on the heels of Abraham Joshua Heschel's yahrzeit and around the time of MLK Day.  The partnership between the two moral voices has become the stuff of legend, but the overall relationship between Blacks and Jews has waxed and waned over the past several decades.  But it is most definitely on the rise, as we can see by this humorous Tweet that I saw this week:


Food Insecurity During Covid

Our congregation has been doing stellar work assisting in providing food for those in need.  Last weekend several TBE volunteers worked with congregants from Union Baptist Church to distribute 1,000 boxes of food.  Here are some helpful tips from a food bank volunteer on how you can donate food on your own, to places like Person to Person or the Connecticut Food Bank:

An Un-Comma President

Yesterday's Yediot Achronot newspaper in Israel, 
proclaiming in dual headlines that rhyme in Hebrew, 
"Washington Burns, Israel Closes"

It's no secret that I have freely shared my views on political leaders, though I've never endorsed one.  (As an aside, I wondered this week whether Rev. Warnock had to refrain from endorsing himself in order for Ebenezer Baptist to maintain its non-profit status...but I digress).  But while I've freely spoken truth to power where I've deemed it necessary, I've always prayed for the government, no matter which party or person was in charge.

It's a longstanding Jewish custom, dating back to Jeremiah, who said (29:7), "And seek the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you and pray to the Lord in its behalf." And in rabbinic times, (Avot 3:2) Rabbi Chanina said, "Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive." For them to pray for leaders who exiled and tortured Jews - and few were more notorious in that regard than Babylonia and Rome - demonstrates the strategic and even moral significance ascribed to this simple act of praying for the government.

It hasn't been easy for me to pray for Donald Trump.  But on the day after his election in 2016, I wrote to the congregationstating, "At services this evening, we will pray for our country and yes, that means we will pray for our President-elect to succeed in unifying the nation.  Let's hope the period ahead will be one of continued strength, security, inclusiveness, compassion, prosperity and peace for America, for Israel and for the world." 

That letter to the congregation also included a long list of significant concerns and fears that I harbored, and most of my nightmares have come to fruition.  Back then, even though only 24 hours had passed since the election result was finalized, a string of anti-Semitic incidents gave us a small taste of the explosion of anti-Semitism and hate that would be the hallmark of the Trump era - most of it from White Supremacist groups that President Trump never condemned, right up until and including this week.

But still I prayed for the government, as Jews have done for so many centuries.  And this was no fingers-crossed, "May God keep the Czar...far away from us" type of prayer."  

Here it is, as translated in the Conservative prayer book, Lev Shalem:

Our God and God of our ancestors, with mercy accept our prayer on behalf of our country and its government. Pour out your blessings upon this land, upon its inhabitants, upon its leaders, its judges, officers, and officials, who faithfully devote themselves to the needs of the public. Help them understand the rules of justice you have decreed, so that peace and security, happiness and freedom, will never depart from our land.

After Wednesday's putsch and violation of our county's most sacred precinct, for which Trump is 100 percent responsible, I needed to utter that prayer more than ever before.  I added the following passage to update it for that moment:

We pray especially for the safety of those currently facing danger in the Capitol, including our courageous representatives. We pray for the police and other law enforcement forces, that they succeed in bringing this insurrection to an end with minimal violence. We pray for a speedy return to the business of the day - the all important business taking place there - and we pray for a peaceful and timely transition of power, the crown jewel of our democracy.

I felt that my prayer needed to focus on the deep concern I felt for our lawmakers, law enforcers and staff members in the Capitol, along with our democracy itself. For I understood that this was the Reichstag Fire moment that fascists always anticipate in order to consolidate their power, one that is usually followed by 1) the scapegoating of political opponents and 2) the declaration of martial law. The blaming of opponents already was beginning to happen, even though the perpetrators were clearly a right wing mob invading the Capitol in broad daylight (the Reichstag Fire was first reported at 9:00 PM, after dark) . As excruciating hours passed without the appearance of National Guard troops, I fully expected Trump to be waiting for the right moment to bring other, more inappropriate military forces. Perhaps he was waiting for those live pipe bombs to explode in front of Republican and Democratic headquarters.

The last thing I wanted to do was to pray for this despotic president. For the first time, I did not want to include him in that Prayer for the Government, but nothing in the traditional liturgy would allow me to say, "except the president, who is a seditious, lying, narcissistic crazy person bent on destroying our country." Couldn't say that. If my ancestors could pray for Nebuchadnezzar and Hadrian, how could I not include a duly-elected American president in my prayer?

The Talmudic rabbis had reason to say "The law of the land is the law." They understood that the long-term stability usually trumps the vicissitudes of a single leader, however malevolent, and that the Jewish community should never place itself in a position where it could be accused of disloyalty. Some good that posture did for Alfred Dreyfus, and anyone who caught the eye of Joseph McCarthy - oh and there's the Stalinist Soviet Union. And Hungary today and its obsession with George Soros. And yes it's true: Jews even recited this prayer in Nazi Germany. Okay, Okay. Still, rabbis have traditionally claimed that it's better to pray for the government and not make exceptions,

But with regard to Trump, how could I still say this prayer in good conscience? Yet with regard to all those government official forced to cower under desks in the bowels of the Capitol, how could I not?

Then I noticed the comma.

"Pour out your blessings upon this land, upon its inhabitants, upon its leaders, its judges, officers, and officials, who faithfully devote themselves to the needs of the public."

It's the comma right after "officials." 

If I simply take out that comma, it goes like this: "...and officials who faithfully devote themselves to the needs of the public."

When I took out the comma, what had been an entirely separate clause suddenly became a condition.  Without the comma, the prayer is asking God to bless only those officials who devote themselves to the needs of the public.  

While one might argue that Trump does assist some people, mainly those who are rich and loyal to him, he devotes himself only to himself, never to the needs of the public.  Everything he does is transactional.  

The sentence he will best be recalled for is, "I want you to do us a favor, though." "Us" meaning "me." He is incapable of empathy or sacrifice.  He would never recognize altruism - or any other kind of truism.  Therefore, he disqualifies himself from inclusion in the Prayer for our Government.  And I am rescued by the removal of a comma.

Still, I am praying for Trump's welfare right now. I want him to be in good health so that he will be able to spend many healthy years in the orange suit he so richly deserves.


To hear an excellent example of a prayer that unifies while understanding the call of the moment, listen to the chaplain's closing prayer after the Electoral Vote was confirmed early Thursday morning - it begins about 1:30 in.

Congress Affirms Biden As President After Completing Electoral Vote Count | MSNBC
Congress Affirms Biden As President After Completing Electoral Vote Count | MSNBC

Israel's Trumpian Sand Trap

The internet was abuzz this week with the rumor that President Trump is planning to head to one of his golf resorts, in Scotland, on January 19, the day before his term officially ends - if it gets that far.  According to the New York Times, the leader of Scotland said that he would not be welcome.  And that was before Wednesday's shameful putsch that shook our democracy to the core.  My sense is that if Trump is now looking for an offshore haven where he can plant his putter, it won't be easy to find one.  Even some of his best international friends could easily follow in the footsteps of Senators McConnell and Graham and other allies who have belatedly come to understand just how dangerous Trump is.  

Even his autocrat cronies will not want to take in their old buddy and risk antagonizing the new American leadership - so I think that villa on the Black Sea may have just gone off the market, and the plans for Trump Tower P'yŏngyang may have to be shelved until things cool down.  Even Putin has acknowledged Biden's victory and Kim Jong-Un has stopped sending those love letters.
But there is one country that I can see taking Trump in without hesitation, a land that already has a town named in his honor, a state with no electoral votes but where his approval ratings are sky high.  Yes, Trump will never have to pay for a drink in Israel, (partly because he doesn't drink) and every time he stands in line at the falafel place it will feel like a Maga rally.  True, Prime Minister Netanyahu condemned the attack on the Capitol, but Bibi's political fortunes have been tied to Trump for too long for him to fully abandon his old friend.
The divide between Israeli Jews and American Jews has widened over the past four years, and Trump has been both the prime cause and manifestation.  I can see a great healing on the horizon, as the Great Healer, Joe Biden, ascends to power.  But Trump will continue to be a festering sore in that wounded relationship for years to come.
I wonder what Israel would do if Trump were to seek asylum there.  I know the possibility seems far-fetched, especially given Israel's scarcity of golf courses.  But golf courses can be built.  All you need is lots of sand, which Israel has, and a small donation from someone who is CEO of the Sands, Sheldon Adelson.  
There's already a place named in his honor,  Trump Heights in the Golan, but my suspicion is that the sign will soon be whisked away like those signs in the JNF forest dedications in the classic Israeli comedy Sallah.  Trump Heights might already have been renamed Bidenville. 

And then there's the new embassy in Jerusalem, where the Trump name is so ubiquitous you would think it's a casino.  But he can't live there and it remains to be seen whether the new administration will choose to keep the place's original branding.  I expect the current dedication plaque, which is an obsequious paean to Trump, to be quietly removed when things calm down.

Biden will keep the embassy in Jerusalem though, which is a good thing.  There really are a number of reasons for Israelis to feel good about the Trump era, and the embassy is one of them (though the move was timed to excite evangelicals before the special senate election in Alabama, not to placate Jews).  What those 70 percent of Israelis who love Trump never recognized was how weakened Israel would be if America were to become an illiberal democracy, as nearly happened in the Capitol this week.  

So the question remains: Will Israel become Trump's Elba, or other famous islands of exile, where will he try to escape the clutches of Merrick Garland and just about every D.A in New York?

And if he asks for asylum in Israel - perhaps a simple apartment right next door to Jonathan Pollard - what would Israel do?  Would Trump try to gain entry under the Law of Return as the father of a Jew?  Would he actually convert to Judaism (and wouldn't you love to be the mohel for that one) in order to gain instantaneous rights of citizenship? 

And if he actually did move to Israel, what would become of the fragile relationship between American Jews and the Jewish state?

Trump Tower P'yŏngyang is looking better all the time.  

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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