Friday, February 19, 2021

In This Moment Shabbat-O-Gram, February 12, 2021 - Making History During Black History Month; Purim's Coming, Doggone it! Vaccine Blessings; Snow in Jerusalem

In This Moment
Shabbat-O-Gram, February 12, 2021

Israel woke up to it's largest snowstorm in years

"The Joy of Snow" headline in Yediot Ahronot, above, 
with views of Jerusalem below - and click here for more beautiful photos.

This coin below from 2,000 years ago was discovered accidentally by an Israeli soldier.

Shabbat Shalom

There is so much to talk about today.  Let's start with a reminder that this is Shabbat Zachor, which is the Shabbat preceding Purim, when we are reminded of the evil done to our ancestors by Amalek. There is a tradition from the Talmud that Haman, the antagonist of the Purim story, was descended from Amalek. Zachor means "remember."  Read why Jewish memory matters.

And for a sneak preview of my remarks tonight on Jewish memory, read this fascinating article about the "Ant-Nazi Jam" that took Twitter by storm this week.

Speaking of Jewish memory, last night I had the thoroughly enjoyable opportunity to deliver a Zoom talk for a Jewish book group in New Brunswick, N.J. on my book, "Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously."  You can watch it here.

Purim's Coming, Doggone it!

Yes, that's me, hidden behind a virtual poodle mask.  This is the year to bring your Snapchat and Zoom filters to our grand masked spectacular - or just come as you are!  We'll read the Megillah, check out vintage Purim photos, announce the winners of our Purim Scavenger Hunt, sing and parade - all virtually - this Thursday evening.  And when I get tired of all the Haman noisemaking, I'll just mute you! Gotta love a virtual Purim!

BTW, apropos to my poodle mask, dogs are often regarded warily in Jewish sources. Read here why dogs were actually big heroes of the night of the Exodus (for not yapping).  And see Emmanuel Levinas' reflections on a dog who made his home for a short time in the Nazi labor camp where he was imprisoned, and who joyfully greeted the inmates when they returned from forced labor.  It's time to give dogs their due (so to speak)!

News from our TBE Family
This past week, composer Shanan Estreicher premiered a piece called "All You Shining Stars" for improvised trumpet and strings. This work features the Israeli trumpet player Itamar Borochov and members of the Chamber Orchestra of New York. Each of the three movements is a meditation based on Psalms. Shanan's mom, Lori Frank and his brother Adam were inspirational to many of us before they died, and, as you will hear, Shanan has taken the creative torch from them. 

All You Shining Stars
All You Shining Stars

I also want to celebrate the pending publication of Elon Green's highly acclaimed book, "Last Call: A True Story of Love, Lust, and Murder in Queer New York," which has been selected by Goodreads and Literary Hub as one of the Most Anticipated Books of 2021.   It's due out March 9.  Mazal tov also to Elon's parents, Hank and Diane, and sister Rachel (and her extended TBE family too!). See more about the book and Elon at his website.
Elon and Shanan were teens here many years ago.  I had a chance this week to Zoom chat with our current TBE teens just to check in to see how they are doing.  I was reassured by their resilience and their ability to make the most of a horrible year.  When I asked them whether the teen years are the worst time to be dealing with Covid and quarantine, surprisingly, and refreshingly, they said no, understanding that other demographic groups, like young professionals denied a chance to have a normal social life, or their grandparents, fearful for their lives, all have it worse.

Also, keeping it in the family, Wil and Carol Brewer have been telling me about their cousin in Australia, whose life has been disrupted tremendously by Covid. Ryan Abramowitz works on Jewish calligraphy and art, and Ryan's creations are exquisite. Ryan writes:
My Ketubah business is named Today Tomorrow Forever, inspired by a philosophy of creating Ketubot and art for all of life's simchas, which is cherished across time. The website and Ketubah gallery can be previewed at 
Take a look for yourself.  I've featured one of the ketubot below:

Making History during Black History Month
As we commemorate Black History Month with this weekend's showing of "Shared Legacies" and our panel discussion on Sunday (see flyer at the bottom of this email), it's important to understand just how complicated the relationship has been.  As this article indicates, American Jews need to come to grips with the racism in our midst.  We have both been targets of White Supremacy and at times its accomplices.  Similarly, Black Americans have both joined hands with us to combat all forms of hate and have, at times, abetted anti-Semitism.  It's not an easy conversation to have, but we can't avoid it.  At the same time, we need to build up a foundation of trust, and that is what we have been doing this year.  Nurturing and re-establishing those historic ties between the Black and Jewish communities is the most important things we can be doing now, for there is strength in numbers, and that is precisely what is needed now, post January 6, as the task at hand has been so clearly defined.  Racism must be undone, and white supremacism must be ended.
Plan to stream the film this weekend and join us on Sunday.  Register now at this link, as the film stream link is now live and will be sent to you upon registration.  After Sunday, we are planning more opportunities to focus on this topic, including the book discussion on "Caste" this Monday, the Freedom Seder on March 21, and more.  We are making history during Black History Month, and well beyond.

The Season of our Liberation...
But When Will the Miracle Happen?

With Purim taking place this coming week, Passover is just a month behind.  Rarely before in our lives has the festival of Passover been so well-timed.  If all goes well - and that's a big "if - as we mark the liberation of our people from Egyptian slavery, we'll begin to liberate ourselves from the quarantine of Covid, not to mention the wicked winter we've endured.  At long last we will begin to inch toward normalcy, or at least what now passes for it.  Here at TBE, we'll hopefully be able to begin taking baby steps back into our indoor and outdoor prayer venues, while still Zoom-casting most events for those who remain home-bound. 

While the precise timing of this modern-day exodus is far from certain, what is certain is this: None of this would be possible without the vaccines, which are a modern miracle biblical in scope.  The partnership of science, faith and pure doggedness, made possible by the unlikely partnership of national and corporate rivals, enabled this miracle to occur in record time. 

I had my second shot a few weeks ago.  It seemed almost anti-climactic.  That week at services I reflected on what blessing would be most appropriate to say at the big moment, because there is a blessing for everything - if there is a blessing for the Czar than there has to be a blessing for SARS. 

It seemed to me that Shehechianu was the way to go - it reflected the once in a lifetime aspect of this moment, the triumph of life over death and the resuscitation of our entire society. Plus it was short and hey, there people behind me and I could just see them starting to kvetch as I pulled out a page from my pocket and started to recite something longer. 

There are lots of options.  For those who will be taking the vaccine this month, and I assume that will be many of you, here are a number of blessing options that I shared in last week's Shabbat-O-GramHere is a suggested blessingHere is another  and another, and here's a nice selection, and some from the Rabbinical Assembly and here's a full halachic discussion of the matter from Orthodox sources. 

Then, once you've chosen the blessing, there is the question as to when is the right time to recite this blessing.  Here are some options:

(1) When the vaccine begins being distributed in our area (already happened)
(2) When people have been using it for a few months, and its efficacy has been clearly demonstrated
(3) When you, personally, receive it
(4) when you receive the second shot
Or (5) when the scientists say that we have achieved herd immunity.

When does the miracle take place? At the beginning or the end?  Was the miracle of the Exodus the execution of the first plague, the blood in the Nile?  Or was it the crossing of the Red Sea, the final plague?  Was it consummated when each individual Israelite emerged from the Red Sea - for that individual - or was the miracle complete only when the entire nation had emerged from bondage?

When should a blessing be said?

Is a personal healing the same as a national one?  We learn from Exodus 21:19 that we are obligated to heal a person who has been injured due to our negligence.  The Hebrew root word "R-P-H" is repeated, "Rapo - yerapeh," which teaches us two things.  First that the healing is both personal and national.  When we heal a single person in a society, we are also healing that society.  And second, the double injunction here has been taken as emphasizing the Torah's endorsement of the science of medicine

So healing is both personal and collective, and Judaism and science are partners.

This tells us that perhaps we should recite blessings both when we have received the vaccine individually and again when it is declared that we have achieved herd immunity, both here in the US and around the world.

May that happen speedily - or at least by Rosh Hashanah!

An additional question is whether we recite the blessing before or immediately the shot is administered, or perhaps the next day, after side effects have worn off.  Blessings are typically recited before an act takes place (think of ha-motzi or the kiddush).  But in this case, maybe it more proper to wait, so that we might literally soak in the moment, and its impact on our bodies and our world.  I'll leave it up to you to decide when to say a blessing  and what blessing to say.  But at the very least, just utter a "Thank God!" before you get into your car and head home (or for those at drive-through vaccine stations, before you simply drive away, liberated).

As for Passover, let's take those baby steps out the door and back into our sanctuary as soon as it is deemed safe to do so, as we pray that this holiday, which will still be different from all other nights, will also be the Season of our Liberation.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

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