Categories
Daf Yomi

Marking Time With Talmud

The Letter to My Congregation on Jan 3, 2021

Roughly a year ago (January 5, 2020) Eva and I began  a 7.5 year project of reading the entire Talmud. This undertaking is part of a synchronized worldwide study called “Daf Yomi,” in which we read one folio (2 sides of a page) a day.  Now in its 14th cycle, it has become much more widespread due to the Internet as well as increasingly accessible translations. 

When I began this project, I could not have imagined what the first year would bring. Reading the first Tractate, Brachot, I studied it in Hawaii, on airplanes, on a train to NYC, while eating lunch at Titus Mountain and Whiteface. I studied it on the Ferry to Vermont and in my office at the Temple.  Brachot has 64 pages, and given the variety of places and circumstances in which I studied, I could only imagine what the other tractates of the year would bring. 

We began to study the second Tractate, Shabbat, on March 8th. The world changed roughly a week later. Through Shabbat, Eiruvin, and now Pesachim, I have studied all of them while sitting on my couch (with the exception of the week I was on retreat). 

Plans changed. I was preparing to lead a Daf Yomi session on Shabbat 11 (the 10th page of Shabbat–page 1 is the title page in each volume) at my rabbinical convention in Puerto Rico. With less than a week to go, the convention was canceled. Similarly, all travel plans since then have canceled as well, as we try to restrict risk to the truly essential. 

In those first few months of 2020, studying Talmud was showing me how rich, varied and busy my life was as I carved out time each day to study. While life is still busy, and at times rich, it has come to represent a way of marking the sameness of time. We finished Shabbat in August–still at home. We finished Eiruvin in November, still at home. We will finish Pesachim in March, and we will still be at home. Hopefully sometime next fall, maybe when we get to Yoma, things will be back something closer to normal. 

In this first year of reading Talmud day by day, I have not only marked time. I have also learned about how Talmud works at a deeper level than I did in my many Talmud classes in rabbinical school. There is something to be said for quantity of study over quality. I have incorporated stories and teachings into sermons and services. It has become a part of my daily routine. 

And at the same time, I am looking forward to a time when I go back to noting all the interesting places I’m studying Talmud. 

Categories
Pandemic Emails

Returning to Spring

An Email to my congregation on May 10, 2020

Dear Friends, 

After a week away on a retreat, it’s wonderful to be back. The retreat was great and deeply restorative. For me, unplugging from electronics for a week provided some much needed breathing room. Coming back and discovering how little I’d actually missed in a week of news was instructive. 

In thinking about things, I also realized that that I allowed myself to get a little run down by not delineating boundaries between work and time-off. This is something I need to work on–and will be trying to take my days-off a bit more seriously. So if you don’t hear back from me as quickly on a Monday or Wednesday (assuming the matter is non-urgent), please understand why. 

That being said, I very much want to be here for you. If you would like to talk, please don’t hesitate to call me. Let me know if you know of someone I should be checking in with. If you have an idea for a program, I’d love to hear it. 

Another learning from my week away is paying attention to the natural world. For many of us spending more time at home, it may feel like we are seeing less of the natural world. But we also have the ability to pay closer attention, day by day, as spring emerges. See if you can note the changes on a daily basis as a tree leafs out. How quickly does the grass grow?  How does spring emerge, bit by bit?

I hope everyone is safe and healthy. 

All the best, David

Categories
Pandemic Emails

I’m Retreating

An Email to my congregation from April 26, 2020

Dear Friends, 

You may have noted that I’m including two weeks in this email. This is not a permanent change, but is for this week only, as I’ll explain below. 
I’ve written about the ways in which this period of social distancing has played out differently for different members of the community: those who are busier, those who have too much free time, those who are stressed and those who are enjoying a slower pace. I haven’t tended to talk about how I have been responding. This week, I will. 

When we first began this, in the early part of March, I wanted to make sure that people felt I (and the Temple) was at least as present as we had been. So I started posting more to Facebook. I added a weekly Psalms study. I’ve tried to increase the frequency of phone contact with various folks, and to be faster about responding to emails. In between this, I also redesigned our Passover Seder plans, planned a Yom Hashoah service, etc.. We took the Rabin Religious School online, figuring out what each student and family needed and wanted. 

All of this is to say, I’ve been busy, and running harder than is sustainable for me, and I became aware that my creativity and problem solving were/are not at a level I was happy about. I wasn’t doing the job as well as I wanted to. This all came to a head during one of my days off last week when I only worked 4 hours and counted that as a day off, and I couldn’t remember the last time I’d taken a real day off. 

This is not to complain. I love to feel useful, needed, etc. But I also realized that I needed to top off my spiritual batteries. As I looked into the future at the events and conferences that normally restore me, it became obvious that there wouldn’t be any anytime soon. In fact, one of the first things cancelled was my rabbinical convention in mid-March which tends to be restorative for me. 

So with permission from Debra, and a lot of urging from Eva, I am going to take a one week solo silent retreat from this Wednesday until the next. It will be a time of meditation and prayer. A week of being rather than doing (as we speak of Shabbat). I will not be checking email and I hope to not be checking the phone. Eva will be able to reach me in an emergency, as will Debra.

I feel so lucky to be with a congregation and leadership that values my my well-being. I truly appreciate this opportunity to recharge, to once more be able to think strategically rather than reactively. I am deeply grateful and aware of the blessing that I work for you. 

And if this act of self-care on my part inspires some self-care in some of you, so much the better.

B’shalom,
David

Categories
Jewish Spirituality Pandemic Emails spirituality

Into the Omer

My email to my congregation on April 19

Dear Friends, 

Passover is over and we are in the period of the Omer when we count each day between Passover and Shavuot. This is a time of year when I often recommend picking up a new spiritual practice. This year is different. 

This year, I’m suggesting  that you look carefully at what you need for your own well-being. That might involve a new spiritual practice, but it could also be that you need to be placing fewer expectations on yourself. That what you require is not another discipline, but a relaxing of self-discipline. Permission to let things go more than you might normally be comfortable with. 

We are all dealing in our own ways. We each need different things. That’s okay.

For anyone who is interested in a new spiritual practice, there is a relatively new tradition of reading one chapter of the Bible each day. It’s called the 929, for the 929 chapters in the Hebrew Bible. We started the Book of Ezekiel last week and I spend yesterday catching up. While Ezekiel is a bit weird, I’m loving the opportunity to engage with this prophet at a leisurely pace. He is speaks from a time during the Babylonian Exile, speaking to us from a place of radical societal disruption. Somehow, this feels relatively relate-able (even if his mystical visions are the stuff of fever dreams). Here’s the website if you’d like to follow along: https://www.929.org.il/lang/en/today, or you can read it on Sefaria.org). 

As always, I am available for conversations, counseling, etc. Please feel free to be in touch by phone, email or text. 

All the best, David

Categories
Pandemic Emails

Dealing with the Stress

An Email to my congregation from April 12, 2020

Dear Friends, 

We are spending this Passover in what can only be described as “unusual times.” It has been wonderful to see so many of you on Zoom for services, Torah study, Psalms or Seder.  As this period of intense distancing continues on past the one month mark, we are all feeling different things (and many of us find our feelings changing moment to moment). 

There is a sense of settling into a new routine, beginning to feel like we finally have a handle on this new mode of life. For others of us (or at other times for many of us) we are now beginning to wonder “how long will this last and how long is this a sustainable way of life?” For some this has been a time of increased productivity, whether at work or around the home. For others, we are paralyzed by anxiety, unable to start, much less complete, any projects. 

We are each reacting in our own ways. And that’s okay. 
I want to offer a teaching from Rebbe Nachman of Bratzloff, and early Chasidic leader. We often encounter it in the song “Gesher Tzar M’od.” All the world is a very narrow bridge, and the key is not to fear at all.  It turns out, this is a paraphrase of the original teaching, which was: Each person must pass over a very narrow bridge in this world, and the key is not to make oneself afraid. Stressful events happen. Fear is a part of life. The key, however, is not to make ourselves afraid more than we already are. 

Be kind to yourself. Take a step back from the news or Facebook or whatever, if that is stressing you out. If disaster movies on Netflix help you cope, great. If they stress you out, perhaps watch something a bit less stressful (my own viewing habits have shifted towards teen drama and romance, but your mileage may vary). Most of all, accept that however you are feeling, and however you are dealing or not dealing, are not topics for us to be judgmental of ourselves (or others) around. 

We are all passing over a very narrow bridge. Feel your feels, and know that this is how we pass out of Egypt and into freedom.

Wishing everyone a meaningful Passover and health, 

David

Categories
Pandemic Emails

Why Is This Passover Different?

An email to my congregation on April 7, 2020

Dear Friends,
As we get ready for the Passover Seder, I want to acknowledge how strange this year is. Why is this year different from all other years?

On all other years we gather in-person to celebrate the Passover in gatherings large and small. In this year all of our gatherings are small. 
On all other years we (relatively) easily procure the necessary foods for the Passover Seder. In this year some of us will not have the traditional foods. 

On all other years, the Seder is a time when we put away our electronic devices. In this year, the Seder may be on an electronic device. 

On all other years we come and go from our homes with little thought. In this year, we take special care when we leave our homes. 

When I say that this year is strange, and this Passover feels different, I am saying something so obvious it hardly needs saying. Yet by acknowledging this strangeness we incorporate it into the stories of our lives and of our people. The Seders of this year will become part of the history of the Jewish people, just as the Seders celebrated in secret in concentration camps, or in a newly established State of Israel have become a part of who we are. 

In some ways, we will try to make this year just like every other year. But we also know that this year is not like any other year. While we mourn the loss of our “usual” Passover experience, let us also celebrate the uniqueness and specialness of this Passover experience. 

May this be a warm and memorable Passover.
All the best, 
David

Categories
Pandemic Emails

Things are Changing

This is an email I sent to my congregation on March 31, 2020

Dear Friends, 
For those who want to skip to this week’s schedule of activities, you will find that at the bottom of this email. 
Another week has come and gone. Some things are changing, some remaining constant. 
As I write to all of you, I am struck by the ways in which this is both a shared and individual experience. On the one hand, we are all living through this period of heightened anxiety and (I hope) we are all taking increased precautions and curtailing the our elective activities outside our homes. On the other hand, each of us experiences this time in a way unique to ourselves. For those in the medical field, this time may be bringing an increased workload and an added urgency to our worklives. For others of us, teachers, professors and others, it has meant we are continuing to work, but how we do that work has shifted. Jobs we have been doing competently for years, we now need to relearn how to do. “Other tasks as required” has suddenly become the most important part of our job descriptions. 
Some of us have no doubt seen our employment or livelihoods threatened by recent events. There may be additional, unwanted, time on our hands. For others, the additional time may be welcome, a chance to take on new projects. Some of us are trying to figure out how to cope with children who are now around all the time, making decisions about how much structure is useful and necessary, and what things just don’t matter at the moment, or are battles not worth fighting. And many, if not all of us, have cancelled plans, whether trips, celebrations or something else. 
And looming over all of our experiences is the overwhelming uncertainty. How long will this last for? Which plans and contingencies enacted in the first weeks of this situation need to be changed? When can we resume planning for the future?
One of the earliest plans I (and the ritual committee) made was around the Passover Seder. Not holding it in person was the easy choice. Originally, we planned to gather on Zoom as a wider community for candle lighting and the first kiddush. After that, we planned to suggest that everyone continue with the seder at their own tables. That no longer feels like a good fit for everyone. Our current plan is begin as initially intended, with candle lighting an kiddush, but then offer people the option of continuing their own seders offline in their own homes, or to continue on Zoom through the rest of the seder with me. I still don’t know exactly what that will look like, but we wanted to make sure that no one was doing the seder alone. 
As is clear, this is an evolving situation. We are evolving with it. If you have thoughts about how we can better serve you, please feel free to let us know. 
All the best, David

Categories
General resistance

Words Matter: Don’t Let Trump Limit Violent Extremism to Muslims

Words matter. How we refer to laws, government agencies, and people impact how we (and others) think of them. Which is why I’m terrified about reports that Trump is planning to rename a program from “Countering Violent Extremism” to “Countering Radical Islamic Extremism. ”

This change is not only about name. It is also a change of focus, no longer looking at violent acts of white supremacy, for instance. I presume those acts would be left to some other law enforcement agency or program. But it is the change of name, and therefore message, that I find scary.

By explicitly limiting the taskforce to Islamic violence, Trump is implicitly sending the message that violence born of other beliefs is acceptable, or at the very least, not in the same category of “badness” as violence originating from Islamic extremism. I would even argue that he is speaking to a part of his base which holds racist, anti-Islamic or anti-semitic views, and telling them that acting on those views is acceptable, or even laudable.

The Dome of the Rock

I would remind people that Kristalnacht was not an official government action, but was a vigilante action which was tacitly condoned by the Nazi government. Changing the name of this program begins to move us a little closer to government policies that tacitly condone violence–as long as it is not perpetrated by Muslims.

You may think I’m overreacting. After all, it’s just a name, right? But what legitimate purpose is served by changing the name? It doesn’t even pass the test of “it’s a simpler name,” since it’s actually a longer name.

A signal is being sent. I assure you there are those among Trump’s base who are hearing it loud and clear. It may seem like it matters far less than appointments to various offices or executive orders that have immediate impact. But a name change such as this scare me far more than many of the practical decisions being made, because it is an explicit religious test.

I have always been a little wary of hate crime legislation–it relies too heavily on the intent behind an act rather than the act itself. Criminalize the act, not the motivation for it. This is a variant on hate crime legislation: Violent Extremism by Muslims is being given a different status from Violent Extremism by Christians. How long will it be before Trump is not only not condemning, but actually praising those who shoot up mosques?

Categories
General resistance

Resisting Authority: First We Must Resist Ourselves

Many people have been talking and posting about Orwell’s1984. They’ve found in it meaningful parallels to our present political situation. I want to suggest another book: Stanley Milgram’sObedience to Authority.

Milgram’s book describes his classic experiments in which he measured the degree to which normal people would obey instructions simply because they were given by an authority figure (in this case a scientist running an experiment). It may be the single scariest book I’ve ever read. It may be the most important book for us to read and remember in these times.

The concise summary of his research is this: two out of three people will apply what they believe to be a fatal shock to a subject (person) because they are told they must do so. There are ways to increase that percentage–such as by increasing the separation between the person receiving the shock and the one administering it–but in all variations of the experiment, at least two in every three individuals administered what they expected to be a fatal level of electricity.

These experiments were conducted

Cover of Book "Obedience to Authority"
Obedience to Authority

in the early ’60s, a direct reaction to the Holocaust. It was, in part, an attempt to understand how average Germans carried out Hitler’s plans.

These experiments have not been repeated or further explored because they have been seen as damaging to the subjects (the individuals who thought they were applying shocks). In fact, the Milgram experiments resulted in human subject committee approval being required for any studies involving human subjects.

We do not know whether knowing that there is a two in three chance that any of us would kill someone if ordered to do so changes our probability of doing so. It is my hope that it does. And that is why I think it is critical that we pay attention toObedience to Authority now. If we are to resist the encroachment of an authoritarian government, we must first accept that we are inclined to accept and aid that government.

We can resist. We must resist. But to do that, we must first understand ourselves, and be willing to resist our natural inclinations.

Categories
General

Here I Stand

For years, I have been relatively careful about my postings. As both a freelancer and, at times, an applicant for more permanent positions, it has seemed sensible to keep politics (for the most part) out of my blog. I also believe that there are others who can speak more knowledgeably about politics than I, my field being spirituality and the sacred.

Times change, the rules change. I can no longer keep silent for fear of giving offense or limiting professional opportunities. The threat is too great. Too many of those who are more “expert” than I in politics turned out to be no more correct than I, and in many cases, were far less correct about events to come.

We, as Americans, face an existential threat. I put the odds of a “free and fair” election in four years at less than 50% (and by free and fair, I mean with no more interference than the electoral college, gerrymandering and voter ID laws have already imposed). Our current president truly does not understand the Constitution he swore to defend. More to the point, he doesn’t care. He cares about himself. And how he is seen.

Donald Trump has a need for everything to be all about him all of the time. At the moment, it’s pretty easy for him to garner headlines–it’s the first week and anything he does gets headlines. What happens in two weeks when a simple executive order is no longer as shocking to us and the media? What will he do in order to draw our attention back to him? If he needs to launch a nuclear strike in order to get headlines, I suspect he will. Heneeds attention. Not wants it. Not enjoys it. Needs it as an addict needs drugs.

How do we resist? I have no idea. The Republican party has abdicated their responsibility towards America. They have placed winning ahead of achieving their goals. Trump does not represent Republican values–not those of Eisenhower, not those of Reagan or either Bush. Not even those of the Tea Party (which, in truth, weren’t all that Republican so much as socially conservative). Republicans in congress are unwilling to stand up to this president, to protect our democracy. And each day, as he becomes more entrenched, as he demonstrates his willingness to carry out personal vendettas against those who stand against him, fewer will be willing to stand against him.

And that is why I’m writing on politics. If I want federal civil servants to continue to put out truth despite the threat of retaliation, if I demand that Republican congressmen and women vote with their conscience rather than with a megalomaniac who has taken over their party, I must be willing to step forward. To identify this as a moral issue, and one for which I am willing to speak.

We are the resistance. We cannot negotiate. We must not bend. We must be the rocks upon which Trump breaks. Because we must outlast him, and we must be able to take back our Republic when the time comes.