Friday, March 27, 2020

Va-Yikra: Sorry About All This...

It had been my hope and intention to be fully back up and running with my blog posts by now. I mean, I know there's a worldwide pandemic out there, and the eye of this proverbial storm very recently moved across the Atlantic to our shores, but still... I was hoping to my "normal" routines back online, and it's taking me longer to get there. Sorry. I am, however, quite pleased that we've been able to get an active Facebook Community Board up and running, and that we've held a whole host of online prayer services, learning opportunities, sing-along's, and story time for kids! Which, of course, also explains why the blog isn't back to normal speed just yet. Again, sorry.

I offer these apologies, in part for you - my loyal and dedicated readers - but also in part for myself. In this strange, unfamiliar, topsy-turvy world, any opportunities to maintain normal routines is quite welcome. This post isn't going to be up to my usual standards; lacking, among other things, pictures that help tell a story. But nevertheless, I wanted to push myself to write SOMETHING about our parashah, and hopefully I'll be even MORE prepared for next Shabbat! Ok, so here goes:

This week, we launch into the third book of the Torah, Leviticus. And with it come a myriad of laws, rules, strictures, prohibitions, guidelines, blueprints, measurements, design descriptions, and other how-to's to keep the Ancient Temple running smoothly. One thing that jumped out at me from our text this week, reflects one of the main "reasons" for Temple worship. We might ask the question: What did sacrifice DO for our ancient ancestors??? Well, some of the sacrifices were about thanksgiving for good times, hope for uncertain times, and tribute for mandated-celebration-times. But perhaps more than almost all other purposes, sacrifice was established to ask forgiveness. Throughout our Torah portion specifically, the text describes guilt offerings, sin offerings, offerings for unintentional and accidental transgressions, and even differentiates between offerings in response to individual mistakes versus communal ones. Why so sorry all the time???

And this is what jumped out at me for us to think about this week. Do we truly know WHEN to apologize, HOW to apologize, to WHOM we even need to offer our apology, and what it means to be sorry and repentant?? As we all worry about the spread of this horrific pandemic, we often hear people in the media search for "scapegoats": Who is to blame for all of this? But right now, it's honestly not a particularly relevant question. Collectively, we need to acknowledge our failings around caring for the sick, the elderly, and the poor in our country. We need to put aside our bickering, and instead demonstrate humility and concern for one another. And we need to think long and hard about how we've been taking our planet, our environment, and the amenities in our lives for granted, and how ALL THAT has to change. In short, we need a lot less blaming and bluster, and a lot more "sorry." The Torah goes out of its way to even emphasize UNINTENTIONAL transgressions, or ones where leaders need to take responsibility for the wrongdoing of others. The Torah is trying to model behavior for us, which we especially need when it isn't being modeled for us elsewhere.

Sacrifice - whether we want it or not - is once again going to become a word, and a concept we need to grapple with. And if we can also internalize the concept of "sorry," along with humility, contrition, and change, this is all going to become a lot more manageable. Sorry for harping on about this so long...

Monday, March 23, 2020

Coronavirus Check-in - Blog as Community-Engagement Tool

Dear all,
I was not able to manage a blog post last week; I was honestly just feeling too overwhelmed by all the craziness swirling around the coronavirus pandemic outbreak, and all the extreme (and seemingly draconian) measures that we have already had to take to protect ourselves. I am still reeling somewhat - as I'm sure we all are - and I am not sure what this new reality holds for us. What will our day-to-day look like; in a week, a month, a year?? How will this affect our congregation, our country, our environment, our world?? Clearly, there are no immediate answers, and some of us are having a harder time than others acquiescing all forms of control or planning at this time. Sooo, what now?

Well, the first thing I want to say is, our community has moved online. We have no choice, and whether you're a fan of, or expert at, using technology or not, we all have to get used to this... at least for now. We could be here for a while... Here are some Ohev resources that are up already:

- Zoom!! We're holding morning minyan (prayer services) on Zoom, as well as Bible class, Hebrew School, story readings for kids, and adult learning. The main link to our Zoom account is:

  • You can also call from ANY cell phone or even landline to connect; just dial 646-558-8656 and use the Meeting ID: 253-838-2425
- Facebook Community Board and (coming soon) Facebook Live. If you're not already on Facebook, this might be a good time to create a VERY rudimentary account, just so you can stay connected. And if you're not already on our community board and want to be, let me know!

- YouTube Channel - Also coming soon. But we do hope to put up videos from our calls, as well as educational content and funny/silly videos to help us all cope with our current predicament.

And then, there's this blog. I certainly intend to keep using it for weekly Take on Torah messages on the Torah portion. But in addition, I'm wondering if there are other things you'd like to learn about? Can I post (short!) videos with topics of interest? Should I write a little about this moment in time, and lessons from our Tradition, responding to calamity? Let me know what might interest you. That's it for now, but I'm be back on here again VERY soon. In the meantime, stay safe, wash your hands, and please make sure to take care of yourselves and your loved ones. 

Bye for now,

Rabbi Gerber

You can also

Friday, March 13, 2020

Ki Tisa (Shabbat Parah): Self-Quarantine; Not Ostracism

I can't decide if it's a good thing or a bad thing that this Shabbat includes a special reading about ritual purity. Feels a little on-the-nose, to be honest. But at the same 
time, how could I really speak about anything ELSE??? Well, there's at least one comparison between the ritual purification of the Ancient Temple and our current coronavirus-predicament that I DO appreciate; the removal of stigma. Every year, I've felt a need to clarify that the Torah's understanding of purity and impurity is NOT about being "clean" or "dirty." But it's often a losing battle. When you read the text, it FEELS like the Torah is labeling one as "good" and the other as "bad"; one as "free of filth" and thus "free of sin," and the other as "dirt-infested" and thus "sinful," "shameful," and worth of social ostracism. Maybe COVID-19 will finally help us focus on treating the ailment... but NOT stigmatizing and humiliating the ailing.

When Tom Hanks can reveal that he has the coronavirus; when Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, the wife of the Canadian prime-minister, can reveal that she too has tested positive; and when athletes, politicians, cab drivers, and people living in YOUR backyard can all admit that they are testing positive - it truly becomes a level
playing field. Sadly, that does not mean everyone will be impacted equally. School closures and quarantined communities will still disproportionately harm low-income communities, who may rely on school meals, public internet access, and other services that some have the luxury of taking for granted. But again, one thing I DO hope and pray will be true is that we not look for a "scapegoat" and ostracize people from China, or those who practice a certain religion, or who are part of a specific socio-economic group. This thing is hitting everyone and anyone; so perhaps one primary, crucial, essential thing we can do is NOT turn on one another.

This moment calls for vigilance. That is absolutely true. And we should take ALL necessary precautions, and practice social-distancing, even when it feels
antithetical to who we are as individuals, social creatures, community-minded professionals, and as Jews. Yet let us also be VERY mindful of how we talk about the coronavirus, and how we treat those who are infected and affected by this pandemic. The Torah DOES include language about ostracism, in conjunction with our reading about ritual purification... however, it only applies to someone who deliberately transgresses the rules or intentionally refuses to participate. In other words, as long as we are mindful of one another's health, and actively working to be IN community with one another, no one should be ostracized or excommunicated!

The Torah still suggests isolation for a period of time. Ritual impurity does change a person's predicament, and the Torah has rules for how to spend time apart from the
community before rejoining... much like self-isolation and quarantine in our current crisis. But in both the Torah AND in the news, quarantine is NOT a cause for alarm or panic. We need to deal with the situation as it presents itself, be mindful of the consequences for ourselves as individuals and for our greater communities, and then go through the necessary steps to emerge on the other side. Throughout it all, the Torah keeps a level head, even while acknowledging that these issues are serious and important. We should take the same approach; today, for as long as the pandemic persists, and hopefully moving far off into the future as well.

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
1. 59th Medical Wing
2. Walt Disney Television on Flickr
3. Mariano-J on Wikimedia Commons
4. The CDC

L'Chaim (newsletter) article, March 2020: The Good, The Forgotten, and The Ohev-y

  • Did you know that our Ohev Shalom Library, the Ray Doblitz Library, was named after a WOMAN named “Ray”? And for many, many years, just about everyone I asked at Ohev thought it was a man!?
  • Did you know that there’s a crystal dove hanging in a display case in our hallway, donated by local area churches in 1978, to commemorate Kristallnacht? Or that one of the trees on our property is a Cedar of Lebanon, also given decades ago as an interfaith gift to the congregation?
  • Did I ever show you the “Thank You” card I found in my office, addressed to Rabbi Louis Kaplan from the office of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, thanking him for the condolence card??? 
  • Or has anyone shared their recollection of the day Richard Nixon’s motorcade stopped in Chester to pay tribute to a powerful, local politician? And many of that senator’s associates were Ohev members… who also ran some of his “operations” in Chester?

One thing that I think many of you do know, is that I LOVE Ohev history! I love learning stories about Chester – whether about the time it was under consideration to become our nation’s capital, or the underground railroad stops that could be found there, or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s tenure in the city – and about how Ohev Shalom members were intricately bound up with all these incredible tales!

At least one reason why I care so deeply about learning this information, is because I feel it makes our community come alive. Names on memorial plaques, synagogue doors, or cemetery headstones become *real* people; whether as heroes or foes in some pretty incredible moments in American history! I want to know where we’ve come from and who our ancestors truly were… don’t you?

On March 22nd, I’ll be giving a talk as part of our Centennial, on some of my favorite moments in Ohev history. Some are remarkable, others may be notorious, but I think all contribute to the fabric of our congregation, and are vital to understanding who we are and where we’ve been. I’ve been advised not to use a Spaghetti-Western as inspiration for my title, so instead I’m going with “Ohev Shalom Americana: We were there for that!” Maybe it’ll change again, we’ll see…

I hope to follow that up – on April 26th – with a Chester Walking Tour, where we’ll see some of the things we heard about in the Americana-talk. I hope you’ll come for the discussion and/or the walk. Because you know… it’s your history too.


Rabbi Gerber

Maintaining Community in a Time of Crisis

I sent this e-mail to our congregation on Thursday, March 12th:

Chaverim - Dear friends,
I am reaching out to everyone during this very challenging time, as we all try to make sense of, and prepare for, the spread of this unknown coronavirus, COVID-19.

This e-mail is not about disseminating advisories or building information (though more of that will be sent out in the days and weeks ahead). I am including below some brief information about services and gatherings in the building, but please also click on these links for a hand-washing prayer and a prayer of healing at this trying time. In addition, I want to share with you some thoughts about patience, kindness, compassion – and also vigilance – at this unique moment in history.

There is a lot we don’t know. And it will take time to learn more. Let us strive to not act out of fear and frantic irrationality, but also not to dismiss the warnings and concerns. This balance is, and will continue to be, hard. Please make sure to take deep breaths, drink water, and - as much as possible - speak and move slowly enough to be thoughtful, prudent, and wise. Perhaps especially at a time of fear and misinformation, we need to affirm and live our values of love and compassion. This is when it REALLY matters.

Even if we cannot shake hands or embrace, Ohev Shalom is STILL a community! Whether we meet in person or not, or share food or not. We WILL continue to find ways to connect.

I am particularly mindful of those who are more at-risk or immuno-compromised, AND those who are bracing for financial ramifications from closures and quarantines. We are here for you. Ohev is your community; your rabbis and lay leaders are concerned, and none of us are alone in this.

If you want to talk, Rabbi Miller and I are here. If you need anything or have imminent concerns, please contact us, the office, or leadership. We will get through this. It may take time, but we CAN be patient. Let us all focus on being mindful and compassionate - with others AND with ourselves.

Hineini - I am here. Please reach out if you need support, and please take care of yourselves and others in your community. I look forward to speaking to you soon.

Warmest regards,

Rabbi Gerber

Dear Service Attendees,

As of Thursday, March 12th, at 10:00 a.m., Ohev Shalom will NOT be canceling any worship services, weekday or Shabbat. 

However, in an effort to protect all congregants and implement best practices during the concern about the spread of COVID-19, we are following the CDC’s recommendation of social distancing. 

All services will be held in the Main Sanctuary, and we encourage congregants to sit at a prudent distance from one another. We also ask that people not greet one another with handshakes or kisses, and – for now – we ask everyone to refrain from kissing the Torah, any Siddurim, or any Mezuzot. 

We also continue to urge everyone to wash their hands regularly, and/or to apply hand sanitizer.

May the Holy One give us the wisdom and good judgment to respond appropriately to this disease and heal those who have been infected. Thank you for your understanding and patience. 
Rabbi Gerber and Congregation Ohev Shalom

A Jewish prayer for healing in the coronavirus epidemic

A Jewish prayer for healing in the coronavirus epidemic:
By Rabbi Guy Austrian

Harachaman, Compassionate One, You are "rofeh chol basar umafli la’asot," healer of bodies, who does wondrous deeds.

The wondrous bodies that You have made for us now feel more fragile. The openings by which we perceive Your world now feel more vulnerable.

We are anxious and frightened by the uncertainty of what is to come. We love the lives we lead, and we fear what disruption may come. We love our friends, families, and neighbors, our children and our elders, and we fear what illness may come.

We pray for healing, of body and of spirit, speedy and complete, for all those who are ill from the coronavirus, both far from us and close to home.

Strengthen the hands of our caregivers. Give of Your healing powers to our medical personnel and mental health professionals. Give of Your wisdom to our decision makers and public health officials.
Strengthen our hearts to confront this challenge. Give us of Your discipline, that we may not yield to panic and dread, but may protect ourselves with appropriate precaution and calm determination. Give us of Your compassion, that we may not yield to prejudice or bigotry, but may reach out to our neighbors with kindness and solidarity.

We are grateful for our bodies and the life You have given us. We are grateful for our communities and congregations who see us and support us. We are grateful for those who are working to protect us. We are grateful for Your love and Your sheltering presence. We know we are not alone.


Friday, February 28, 2020

Terumah: Adopting an Angelic Posture

I talk to my Wednesday morning Bible class a lot about being "sensitive readers," by which I mean attentive to (seemingly) minor details, nuance, tone, discrepancies, and other subtle techniques employed by the author(s).
In particular, I like to point out instances where the narrative swiftly whisks through information; implying, perhaps, urgency and "impatience" - a desire to get to something ELSE on the other end. And, on the flip side, occasions where the Torah slows down to a snail's pace, or appears to focus on minutia and repetition; which I understand as the text saying: "Look at this!! This is crucial!" This week, as we learn about the construction of a portable sanctuary in the desert - known as the "Mishkan" or "Tabernacle" - I see one of those devices being deployed to emphasize some truly angelic decorations.

Our parashah, Terumah, describes a ton of implements and ritual objects that the Israelites are expected to fashion. Table covers, poles, menorah, altar, jugs, ladles, cloths, and various other items. One particularly mystical and fascinating component is the Ark of the Covenant.
It's already awe-inspiring by virtue of containing the Ten Commandments, but in addition, God instructs Moses and the Israelites to add some impressive flourishes onto the Ark cover. The text informs our DIY ancestors: "Make two cherubim of gold - make them of hammered work - at the two ends of the cover" (Ex. 25:18). A few years ago, I wrote about how odd it is that the Torah casually says "cherubim" (cherubic angels), as if we all *clearly* know what those are, AND what they look like. You can read that blog post here. But I wanted to return to this section, because the Biblical description, offered in surprisingly precise detail, intrigues me for other reasons as well. The Torah goes on to say: "The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover" (v. 20). Perhaps you've seen this image before.

I don't want to get too deep into the angelology of these mythical creatures; envisioned by the Torah as bouncers or security guards, protecting the most precious object in the Mishkan. Instead, what I wanted to focus on briefly is their posture. This is a vital detail, not just as a flourish for the Ark Cover, but as a symbol and metaphor for how we encounter the Divine.
Two verses later, God informs Moses that right there - between the two cherubim - is where God will "meet" with Moses. I think, therefore, that it's fair to say the Torah is painstakingly precise about the stance of these angels, because *we too* are encouraged to engage God in this way. So, let's take a few important pointers from the design of these guardians. The Torah says their faces should be turned "one to the other," meaning that even when we're communing with God, we should also engage with those around us. Our concern for the well-being of other people, animals, and indeed the planet needs to ALSO be part of our relationship with God. Second, their wings are spread out in front of them, exposing their torsos. We need to be vulnerable with each other. Relationship, dialogue, and connection all require openness and accessibility. Don't shut yourself off or block others out. Our vulnerability is paramount.

Most importantly, perhaps, is that when we DO these things - when we can connect with all God's creation AND be open and accessible - then God wants to have a one-on-one relationship with each of us.
We do not need intermediaries, distillers, or cryptologists to help us experience God; each one of us can step up between those cherubim and access the Divine. No red velvet rope, VIP-exclusive situation here! In fact, I have often argued that the main message of the *entire* Torah is God seeking relationship and connection with us humans. Much of it is God's struggle to form and maintain bonds. We just don't see it all the time. Which is where it helps to be a sensitive reader of the text. Not only are there lots of hidden meanings and intriguing details buried within this scroll, but the very Book itself is trying to speak to YOU, and invite you to dialogue and be in fellowship with it. If we can be open to this message, and place ourselves in a posture of receptivity and earnest communication, the conversation can begin. Your move.

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
1. TexasEagle on Flickr
2. anaterate on Pixabay (Almost certainly *not* what our Biblical ancestors imagined cherubim to look like, btw...)
3. Ivan Radic on Flickr
4. Ted McGrath on Flickr

Total Pageviews