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, March 3, 2022
In This Moment: March 4, 2022: Our Brother Calls; So what can we do? Judaism's Groundhog Month
In This Moment
Click above to hear her plea.
In the midst of the global crisis unfolding in Ukraine, this Shabbat presents us with a moment of calm, a true oasis in time, where this week, we'll replenish our spirit to the soothing sounds of Lisa Tannenbaum's harp, in person or online. But this Shabbat is also a call to action. This the first day of Adar 2, our leap month. Purim, which occurs in two weeks, is a holiday of joy, but joy that results from dramatic courageous action. Mordechai says to Esther in chapter 4: 13-14, the key lines of the entire book, that this is the time to, as they say, spring forward. See those verses below, as we leap into action on this first of Adar 2
Our Brother Calls Us
We are our brother's keeper and right now, he is calling out to us from a bunker in Kyiv. For Jews to come to the aid of all Ukrainians right now is a matter of universal principle as well as family responsibility. The two have become inseparable. It's a twist that is nearly unprecedented: a purely Jewish story, with its particularistic focus, completely intertwined with an expanded universal story, with its global implications. The two have merged. We need to save all Ukrainians and we need to save Jews - and we need to save the world from Putin-driven fascism and autocracy, once and for all. "Nazism is borne in silence," Volodymyr Zelensky cried out to Jews this week. It is a lesson we know all too well.
There is a strong universal message here, but at the core of everything for us is the cry of our own brother's blood. And it was driven home with the attack on Babi Yar. And there is no doubt that the Russians knew what they were hitting. The TV tower they ostensibly aimed for isn't just nearby - it's right there. (Why it's in the same place is an interesting question, possibly going back to the days of Soviet Holocaust denial.)
President Zelensky wrote a personal plea to the Jewish people yesterday, and he published it on his Facebook page...in Hebrew. On Tuesday, an aide was interviewed on Israeli television from the bunker. In Hebrew. Not since the biblical Joseph has an international leader appealed to his brothers and sisters, the people of Israel, in their own language. Joseph's goal was to save his family and the world. While amassing nearly unmatched power and inordinate respect, he never forgot where he came from.
...This undermines the moral foundation of Israel’s endless claims regarding the world’s inaction during the Holocaust: why the world remained silent, why Auschwitz wasn’t bombed, why the gates were closed to Jewish refugees. And to add ironic insult to injury, on the day Western countries imposed stiff economic sanctions on Russia and its oligarchs, in Israel they were rushing to spare (Russian oligarch) Roman Abramovich because he’s giving tens of millions to Yad Vashem.
As you read Zelensky's FB posting below, ask yourself one question:
Our brother is calling to us.... What are we going to do about it?
But that isn't enough. Ukraine and the civilized world cannot afford to lose this war. There is precious little wiggle room here, even for Putin to save face. His defeat must be conclusive.
So what can be done? Here are some suggestions...
President Zelensky must be protected, even as he stays in Kyiv. He's become a symbol of the resistance. Putin must understand that turning his foe into a martyr would be a grave mistake, but since when has anyone accused Putin of being rational? Zelensky can be protected with more weapons, to be sure, and we should get him more. But he can be insulated in other ways too.
He should be elevated with honor. Heap awards on him, he deserves them. Presidential Medal of Freedom? President Biden, give it to him today. Nobel Peace Prize? He's going to win it anyway. Why not now - while he's alive to enjoy it? The Genesis Prize, given by Israel to a Jew who has made a deep contribution to the world and the Jewish people? Yeah. He should get that too.
What Israel needs to do: Zelensky should have gotten the Genesis Prize already, though I suspect he'd prefer that Israel had sent him some Iron Dome batteries instead - and other weapons too, which Israel, to its shame, refused to sell to Ukraine a few weeks ago. If Ukraine loses this war, heaven forbid, Israel's reluctance to go all-in for freedom and saving lives, when it had the chance, will forever be a stain on all Jews. We'll forever have to answer why so little was done when Babi Yar was bombed. I understand why Israel didn't want to poke the bear a few weeks ago, given it's need to keep Syrian airspace open. but by now, with even Switzerland hopping off the fence, Israel should be in there with more than medics. Who knows...maybe they are in there and we just don't know it.
Follow on from its UN vote condemning Russia’s invasion, Israel’s leaders must publicly condemn Putin’s war
Join the West’s sanctions against Russian oligarchs close to Putin who have economic interests and representatives in Israel
Cancel all military contracts with Russian subcontractors
Ban Israeli military and IT companies from aiding the Russian war machine, including a ban on cooperating with any Russian business in the sphere of cyber security, software development and military technology.
Clear out the IDF’s warehouses of equipment that is no longer is current use and transfer it to Ukraine: Helmets, vests, uniforms, military radios, particularly for the use of home front civil defenders, who are in desperate need
Israeli anti-rocket radar: Identifies Russian rockets trajectories and which could save lives
Lethal weapons: Galil rifles, operational but no longer IDF current issue; AR15 rifles, Spike – an Israeli fire-and-forget anti-tank guided missile; MATADOR – a portable, disposable anti-armor weapon system, as well as medical kits for soldiers
Organize a group of Shaldag special unit commandos to evacuate Jewish refugees from the most dangerous areas of Ukraine.
Israeli and American illiberals have to get over their infatuation with Putin. The election poster you see to the left dominated the Tel Aviv skyline just last year. And prominent Americans were calling Putin a genius just last week. The heads of state who promoted the Cult of Putinesca in Israel and America are no longer leading their countries (and both are facing rather stiff legal challenges I hear), and former Putin wannabees in Turkey,Poland and Hungary are belatedly getting the message. We can all give our Putin-phile friends plenty of runway for a soft landing. Lindsay Graham now says it was "a mistake" to call Putin a genius. All is forgiven - well, almost all - but now is the time for everyone to get off the Putin Plane, because it is veering toward a calamitous crash. Now is the time to hug your favorite oligarchs, and get them to publicly disavow the hand that has fed them. That hand is murdering children.
We should actively boycott all things Russian. Long ago, I resolved never to visit Russia as long as Putin was in power. But now it has become everyone's patriotic duty to make Putin pay and to encourage the Russian people to rise up. Time to dump that Russian vodka and feed that caviar to the cat. Here's a list of boycotts currently underway. Alexei Navalny has called out from his prison cell (where he had the courage to call Putin "obviously insane"), imploring Russians all over the world to take to the streets in protest every day. We need to encourage that, and heap praise on those who show such courage. it's never been easy to be Russian and no anger should be directed against ordinary folks - but they have a responsibility to the world to do what only they can do: force a change from within.
We should pressure our lawmakers to do more. There is always more that can be done. I understand why NATO con't impose a no fly zone, but look at how Turkey has closed off the Dardanelles to Russian ships - and other ships too, but it's the Russian ones that matter. They're in NATO, but that provocation is somehow not starting World War Three. And I hear that our CIA is pretty good at secret ops. Time to get creative. Someone's got to be able to blow up those forty mile long sitting duck convoys. Geez, do we have to send Parnas and Fruman back?
We've got to hit the Russian energy sector harder. Saving democracy is worth a few more pennies at the pump, but Americans need to be prepared for that sacrifice. That advertising campaign should already have begun. Let's take the current spirit of bipartisanship as far as it can go, to give everyone political cover. Helping Ukraine now is both a moral must and an existential imperative.
Hug a Russian soldier. EU officials are considering offering asylum and refugee status for soldiers who want to desert the Russian army, as long as they have not committed war crimes.
How often have we heard that familiar refrain this past year: "My, the holidays are early." Ever since Passover snuck in like a lamb last March, the crescendo has been building. With Rosh Hashanah linked to Labor Day and Chanukah to Thanksgiving the cry continued for months on end. But now, it’s about to change. The month of Adar, which began on the first of February, is replicating itself today, which will return our calendars to "normal." Except then, everything in this new normal will be deemed "late."
During Jewish leap years, Adar is our Mulligan Month, an entire month that we get to do over. It's as if Adar came out of the ground and saw its shadow.
In a leap year, Yahrzeits can get confusing. (Generally, it depends whether your loved one died in a leap year, and if not, we observe the date in Adar 1. But if you have a question, ask. I'll get back to you in a month). Purim is always in Adar 2, but otherwise, we’ll have two of all things Adar. Since Adar is our most joyous month, we get a double dose of happiness, just what the doctor ordered in the midst of a brutal winter, complete with pandemic and the current clash of civilizations taking place in Europe.
With our brains and bodies stuck on the monotonous, relentless tick of secular time, it's natural to wonder if the Jewish holidays ever fall on schedule. But when life sways to the rhythms of the Jewish calendar, the question never arises. For most, the idea of Jewish time has more to do with tardy board meetings than an intricate system of ritual, emotion and instruction affixed to the cycles of nature. The hour has come for Jews to begin living on Jewish time. Until we begin thinking of Rosh Hashanah as neither early or late, but right on target -- two months after Tisha b'Av and half a year from Passover -- we're grafting Judaism artificially into a corner of our beings. For Judaism to breathe, it must be lived on its own terms, on its own schedule.
Want to understand the Jewish calendar? Here goes:
The ancient rabbis calculated the lunar month to be 29 days, 12 hours, 44 minutes and 3.33 seconds (and they were less than a half a second off). The year consists of 12 of those months, or approximately 354 days. With the secular, solar calendar lasting 365 days, the lunar calendar falls 11 days behind the solar -- one each year. The rabbis figured that an additional month should be added seven times in each 19-year cycle in order to keep agricultural festivals in their seasons. Passover must come in the spring and Sukkot in the fall (unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere, but let's not complicate things). The sages actually were a little off in these calculations, or Passover would be celebrated in June. Fortunately, that's one of those problems we can afford to leave to subsequent generations, like the national debt and the location of Jimmy Hoffa.
The extra month is added during the winter of the third, sixth, eighth, 11th, 14th, 17th and 19th years of the cycle. Notice that leap years are usually three years apart, but occasionally two. Since we're now in the 6th year of the cycle, we've gone six years since the last two-year interval (years 17 and 19). That means we've had fewer leap years recently, therefore we've been losing more days to the secular calendar. The 17th year always has the earliest Rosh Hashanah, and the 9th year (because it's preceded by the greatest frequency of leap years) the latest. Get it? Sorry you asked?
Now isn't it so much easier just to live on Jewish time rather than trying to understand it? How often do we ask ourselves about the logic of the secular calendar, which has a new year that occurs when nothing at all is changing and new days begin at an arbitrary hour, midnight, when few are awake to appreciate it? Give me a calendar that asks us to turn inward in the fall, just as the weather outside is nudging us precisely in that direction, and one that expels us from winter's hibernation in the spring, to the pulsating poetry of "Song of Songs" and the drama of national release, and one that always promises the moon's return to ripeness, no matter how dark things seem.
For inhabitants of secular time, the only dilemmas occur when July 4 doesn't create a three-day weekend or when New Years Day falls on a Sunday. When do they collect garbage? When can they play football?
Speaking of football, the only thing that compares to the rhythm of the Jewish year, with all its rituals and pageantry, is the American sports calendar. As a young boy growing up in the Boston area, fall meant three things: playing football, stuffing those delicious marble cake slices from the synagogue sukkah into my jacket pocket and watching someone other than the Red Sox win the World Series (things have changed!). Spring meant sneaking out of school to attend opening day at Fenway, usually with a matzah sandwich crumbling in my book bag.
Now this year, we might miss the baseball season entirely, which will throw off our internal clocks completely.
Seasonal rituals don't normally die easily, because we need them as a constant by which to measure our years. We need the Seder table as a gauge of how the family has evolved, to see who is sitting where this year. Our lives spin around these sacred moments.
It's really not so difficult to convert over to Jewish time. It's not like Celsius or kilometers or changing dollars to shekels. There's a very easy way to integrate the Jewish calendar into the rhythm of your life: Go out and buy one. Or go to Hebcal.com and download it.
When you do, something remarkable will begin to happen. Your moods will shift and undulate, responding to events that occurred centuries ago. Holidays will arrive neither early nor late, and each week will flow into Shabbat none too soon.
And what is Jewish continuity but the transmission of the cadences of Jewish life from one generation to the next? I am often asked, will the American Jewish community be around in the next century? To which I respond: Sure. The next century is only 18 years away - 5800. And there is one other thing that is certain. As long as there are any Jews left on this planet, meetings will still begin 15 minutes late.
Or will they? Ever since our meetings migrated to Zoom, Jews have become amazingly punctual. Who knew we would become the Punctual People!
That is, until we move the clocks forward in two weeks.
The Many Meanings of Shalom.Shalom is often translated as "peace" and can also be used to say hello or goodbye in Hebrew, but the word carries even deeper connotations.
Adar's is no ordinary joy.More than the joy derived from a fortunate event, more than the delight in a pleasing break in the monotonous ordinary, it is the joy of transformation. It is the joy of the bitter turned sweet, of the adverse converted into a positive force.
Guest speaker Roberta Kwall will discuss her book "Remix Judaism" on Tuesday at 7. You can read her essay, A Remixed Yahrzeit.
Some praise for her book: . . .
"a helpful and innovative framework for those thinking about how American Judaism can survive and flourish. [Kwall] succeeds from the off at achieving her stated goal of introducing the "teachings and practices of the Jewish tradition in a way that comports with the sensibilities of Jews who are not, and likely never will be, observant by conventional measures." — Publishers Weekly
In our polarized world ... Roberta Kwall has found a way ...to reach a hand out to liberal and secular Jews, talking in a respectful way about how anybody can integrate Jewish practices into the well-lived life. Kwall is a pal, a teacher, and the ultimate Jewish life coach.— Mark Oppenheimer, host, Tablet Magazine's Unorthodox podcast; author of "Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood"
Remix Judaism might as well be called "Recharge Judaism," because Kwall wakes us up, reminds us why Judaism powerfully endures ... and connects us to a powerful inheritance that's worth prioritizing. This accessible, wise, important book should be on every shelf. — Abigail Pogrebin, author of "My Jewish Year: 18 Holidays, One Wondering Jew" and "Stars of David: Prominent Jews Talk About Being Jewish"
Remix Judaism speaks to a moment of sharp Jewish polarity, when a vast majority of Jews tell pollsters that being Jewish is more important than doing Jewish.
— Andrew Silow-Carroll, Editor of The New York Jewish Week