Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, December 16, 2021
In This Moment: Dec 17: The Power of Words; Remembering the Homeless
In This Moment
Never to be forgotten: Victims of Sandy Hook
On Tuesday we will be hosting for the first time the community's annual service for National Homeless Person's Memorial Day. A number of clergy (including myself and Cantor Kaplan), public officials and agency heads will participate, as well as clients who will speak of their personal experiences. Mayor Caroline Simmons will deliver the keynote address. Join us, in person or via Livestream at 6 PM. While TBE will still be involved in serving the needs of our homeless on Christmas Eve (and my personal thanks to all who are participating), the situation with Covid as well as the fact that Christmas Eve coincides with Shabbat will make it harder for us to be as "hands on" as usual. All of which makes this memorial an excellent opportunity to raise our consciousness to this ongoing - and increasing - social and moral concern.
Join us for Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday at 7, where we will hear from Abdallah Salha. Abdallah is a Palestinian from the Gaza Strip. He has joined multiple peace building programs including the Jerusalem PeaceBuilders and Creating Friendships for Peace. He's now studying in the US after finishing high school in Norway and spending two gap years first in Senegal and then in Gaza.
He will be appearing in person, and the service will also be available on Livestream. Check our weekly announcements for the link. Given the alarming spike in Covid transmission these past few weeks, my recommendation is to lean to the side of caution if you are wondering whether to attend services (or any large group activity) in person. Services for the following two Friday nights (Dec 24 and 31) will be Zoom-only. Shabbat morning and daily minyans continue to be Zoom only. Let's pray for a quick turnaround to this wave - and let this be another reminder to schedule a booster shot if you haven't gotten one.
The Flying Nones The "nones" are on the rise. The latest Pew Research Center surveyof the U.S. religious composition finds the religiously unaffiliated share of the public is 6 percentage points higher than it was five years ago and 10 points higher than a decade ago. About three-in-ten U.S. adults (29%) now are religious “nones” – people who describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular” when asked about their religious identity. Self-identified Christians of all varieties (including Protestants, Catholics, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Orthodox Christians) make up 63% of the adult population, down from 75% a decade ago. In addition, the share of U.S. adults who say they pray daily has been trending downward, as has the share who say religion is “very important” in their lives.
"The sages made that act of translation another reason for the fast of the Tenth of Tevet. In their eyes, “the day when the Torah was written in Greek was as unfortunate for Israel as the day of the Golden Calf” (Soferim 1:7). Why? According to William Kolbrener, the fast was not because of the translation itself, but rather, because of what Ptolemy did with the translation. He put that translation into the library in Alexandria. To quote Kolbrener:
“Ptolemy gave the Torah the Hellenist version of a Library of Congress call number, and in so doing gave it the same status as other books in the Greek library. ‘Study the Bible in the university library,’ Ptolemy says, ‘but do not learn Torah in the House of Study.”
Two things here. First, Ptolemy basically said that there is nothing terribly special, or sacred, about the biblical text. It goes into the same library as every other book. As such, it is a matter of choice what books you will read as sources of wisdom. Pretty modern of him, come to think of it.
Second, when Ptolemy removed the biblical text from the House of Study, the sacred precincts of Jewish learning, he was basically saying: This is about your head, not your heart; your intellect, not your soul."
At last Friday night's service, Dr. Fran Ginsburg spoke about the importance of the Chevra Kadisha (traditional name of the Jewish community's burial society) and her work for the local Chevra. A focus on that work is especially appropriate for this week's portion of Vayechi, which contrasts Jewish burial practices (for Jacob and Joseph) with Egyptian ones. We had some audio issues with Fran's presentation on our livestream last week, so it is with pleasure that I include the full transcript of Fran's words in this Shabbat-O-Gram:
This week’s Torah portion is Va-Yiggash, full of the usual Genesis drama: betrayal, forgiveness, famine, reunion, the beginning of the Golden Era in Egypt—and none of that is what I am going to talk about today. I am actually skipping to next week’s parsha, Va-Yehi, which deals with the events leading up to Jacobs’s death and his burial. Why, you might ask, am I skipping? Well, Va-Yehi is traditionally when members of the Chevrah Kedisha, or burial society, speak about their customs and mission. As an active Chevrah participant from TBE, I was asked to speak next week, when I will be away. This topic is too important to skip, so here I am—a week early.
If people have any image of the Chevrah, it seems to be that of a secret society whose members scurry around during the night performing mysterious deeds. I am here to clarify who we are and what we do—and hope to interest some of you into considering joining in our mission.
The Chevrah Kadisha, loosely translated as “sacred society”, has the task of preparing bodies of deceased Jews for burial according to Jewish tradition and to protect the bodies from desecration until burial.
To find out more about why we generally talk about the Chevrah on Shabbat Va-Yehi, I went back to the Tanakh to see if I could find inspiration in Jacob’s story. Instead, I found something I had not realized—he was embalmed in the Egyptian way. In general, Jews are not embalmed but are prepared to again become one with the land—dust to dust. The explanation I found is that embalming is very rare but is permissible if the body will have to travel long distances, as was done in the case of Jacob.
While most aspects of the details of how the body is prepared are long-standing traditions, some small modifications may be local customs. In any event, two requirements are never compromised—showing proper respect for the body and the ritual cleansing and subsequent dressing for burial, known as Tahara.
In our community, all the members are volunteers. Women’s bodies are prepared by women and men’s by men. When the point person in our Chevra is informed of the need for a tahara, we are very modern—an email is sent to request three or four volunteers. Since Jewish burial is very soon, it might mean that volunteers are needed for that day—usually in the evening.
In Stamford, both Gallaghers and Sholom Chapel at Cognettas are equipped for Tahara. The Chevrah team will gather, with one taking on the role of lead. All don full PPE. One member recites the appropriate prayers. There is no small talk during the procedure. The body is first thoroughly cleansed and then is ritually purified by immersion in a mikveh, or with a continuous flow of water from the head over the entire body. The body is dressed in tachrichim, or shrouds, of white pure muslin or linen garments made up of ten pieces for a male and twelve for a female, which are identical for each Jew and which symbolically recalls the garments worn by the Kohen Gadol (High Priest). Once the body is shrouded, the casket is closed. The casket, as many of you know, is supposed to be a simple pine box. All Jews, regardless of wealth, are equal at death and are dressed and buried in the same manner. After closure, the Chevra team places their hands on the casket and prays individually that each of us showed the respect that the person deserves as she starts her final journey.
In some areas, the society may also provide shomrim, or watchers, to guard the body and recite psalms until the funeral. In Stamford, most shomrim are paid.
While most of the Chevra volunteers are from the more orthodox parts of our community, all are welcome. The Tahara fell out of favor in the past century as Jews became more modern, but in our area, probably most Conservative and many Reform families are requesting this service. For the last tahara I was involved in, the call was sent out on erev Thanksgiving Sue Plutzer and I went as did one other person—probably the only time the women have been represented by a Conservative majority.
I know that when I was starting medical school, I went into my human anatomy lab with great trepidation, but the professors emphasized the importance of our mission, and my fears—and squeamishness melted away.
The task of the chevra kadisha is considered a laudable one, as tending to the dead is a favor that the recipient cannot return, making it devoid of ulterior motives. Our Chevra always needs new members, and I invite any who are interested to come with me to observe a Tahara.
The Power (and Coarsening) of Words
In this week's portion of Vayechi, Jacob, on his deathbed, curses two of his sons, Shimon and Levi (and is pretty rough with some of the others as well). These curses raise some interesting questions about how we choose our words. See this excerpt from this week's edition of Devash, by Mechon Hadar:
This is terrific material for your Shabbat table - and I'll also bring some of this to our service on Shabbat morning. But the need to choose our words carefully at times of anger has taken on an added significance of late. Our families always depend on it - and now, so does our civilization as a whole.
The last several years have seen an all-out frontal attack on truth. It has been well documented thatover 30,000 falsities were invokedin the prior administration. The attack on truth continues, of course. But there is a related consequence that has been less noticed, but may be of equal importance: the coarsening of language. When lies are weaponized, words become tools of aggression. And linguistic nihilism can take different forms.
Timothy Snyder writes about this in his best selling book, "On Tyranny." A key to reserving democracy is to maintain control of our use of words. One of his chapters has this heading:
Take a look at last week's headline in Israel's leading newspaper, Yediot Achronot:
Israelis woke up to this front page, describing the former US president's disappointment in the former Israeli prime minister because Bibi woke up to the truth, well after most other world leaders, and he congratulated the actual, proven winner of the 2020 US elections. You may have noticed that I blacked out one of the letters from that front page. That "u" was not blacked out on the thousands of papers that hit the streets; but I was trying to preserve a modicum of decency when so few filters seem to shield us and our news media from profanity anymore. The article quoted from journalist Barak Ravid's book (you can read the pertinent quotes in English by clicking here). Even when one takes into account that profanity in a foreign language seems somehow less profane, undoubtedly Israelis were shocked simply to see these supposed BFFs at odds. In fact, it can be argued that this use of profanity is a mortal blow for any Netanyahu hopes of a comeback, but that's another subject.
As amusing as it has been to watch this catfight, profanity has found its way into our own America media with great frequency this week. As the text messages from January 6 were flung across the halls of Congress, one found its way to front page of the NY Daily News.
At least the editors of the Daily News did us the courtesy of not one, but two asterisks.
It used to be that cursing our leaders was reserved for special occasions. Now it's become a game - and a profitable one at that - to use thinly disguised euphemisms like the inane "Let's Go, Brandon" thing that someone evidently thought was funny. But most would rather just go out and hurl F-bombs in a direct frontal attack. Now all the Brandons of our world can take their place alongside all the perfectly innocent Karens as collateral damage in the War on Language. Baby namers will have to lie low on those two names for a while.
So what is "linguistic nihilism"? Nihilism is defined as, "the rejection of all religious and moral principles, in the belief that life is meaningless." The rejection of objective truth, morality, values and meaning is precisely what autocrats seek. Timothy Snyder speaks of how, today, "enemies of liberal democracy tend not to have ideas, visions, or goals. They just want to “burn it down.” They are nihilists and destroyers. Below is a brief excerpt from "On Tyranny" about the dummying down of language:
I know it's profoundly uncool to speak of excrement as "number two," and F-bombs seem to have no problem crossing the aisle - they are used with alacrity by both progressives and conservatives. Heck, even David Ortiz found a great time to unleash the power of his tongue, channeling the emotions of a city after the Boston Marathon bombings. Simon Critchley wrote in the New York Times, "We know swear words are literally meaningless... Yet they carry a force that compels us."
Most of all, they are easy and cheap. You don't need to think up a creative way to express anger when a miraculous bodily function can be cheapened. When your whole philosophy is to minimize thinking and glorify impulse, the power of the curse is irresistible.
Thousands of years ago, the author of Leviticus said essentially the same thing. In chapter 24, two Israelites are having a fight. One had an Egyptian father, which may have been the cause of some resentment or friction between the two. Who knows? But the end result was that one of them blasphemed, and the punishment was determined to be stoning.
On the face of it, the whole thing seems absurd, like the scene right out of Monty Python. Come to think of it, it WAS a scene from a Monty Python film. But the deeper message of this passage, and of the entire book of Leviticus, is that words matter, and angry words matter even more. Jewish tradition compares the one who gossips to a murderer. The very next verse, in fact, deals with the laws of murder, making this comparison most explicit, not just for the idle gossiper, but specifically for the one who curses God.
For what does it mean to curse God's name? If, as we read in Genesis, every human being is created in God's image, that divine part of us that is the essence of our humanity. To insult God is to debase our own innate godliness, our human capacity for goodness and kindness. Everything that we hold sacred came into the world through divine speech. And now we are losing the sanctity of speech.
We should not at all be surprised that Trump threw Bibi some F-bombs, or that Democratic presidents have sworn too. Even our founders were not immune. John Adams once called John Dickinson "a piddling genius" for refusing to go along with the Declaration of Independence, and I hear "piddling" was quite outrageous for its day. But no one would have been able to call Adams an autocratic nihilist for his use of language. It was, in fact, the opposite of a mind-numbing curse. It was more like Jacob's from our portion, in fact. It was a curse designed to teach and prod, not to burn everything down.
The illiberal autocrat wannabees of our day want to burn everything down: our words, our thoughts, our truths, and finally our rights to self expression and the vote. Sometimes it's not just how many lies you utter, but how you say 'em that matters as well. Let's put a filter on the cussing.
Whenever you are tempted to make like the cover of the Daily News with uncontrolled use of language, think of those who will be most thrilled with each piece of s**t hitting the fan.