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From the Rabbi's Study

 

Passover 2020: Waiting for Elijah

 

Throughout history, our people have confronted monumental challenges, attacks, and periods of persecution.  It is hard to compare what we are going through now to the worst times in our history, but there is something unique to the current crisis.  In other times, we would seek refuge and support from family and community.  Even in the dark times during the Spanish Inquisition, Jews would gather in small family groups to celebrate Passover.  This year, we are being asked to separate, to stay apart, in order to "flatten the curve" and allow our resources to save as many lives as possible.   

The ironies abound this Passover. During other Passover seders, we are asked to recall the ten plagues in Egypt.  This year we are experiencing our own plague. While we conclude the seder each year with the hope of next year in Jerusalem, this year our hope is just to be together next year, anywhere.  As we gather in small groups this Passover, we recall that in ancient Egypt on the eve of redemption, families gathered together to celebrate their imminent freedom.  As they gathered, they marked the doorpost of their homes, so that God would pass over them and spare them from the tenth plague, the death of the firstborn.  Gathering in our homes, we too pray that this epidemic spares us and our loved ones.  

We share with our ancestors an eternal hope and belief that has sustained our people throughout the ages. As we recite in the Haggadah, we believe that God will redeem us, just as God redeemed our ancestors in Egypt. It is that hope that we must once again summon and we are reminded of it near the end of the seder.

After the meal, when the hour is late, we pause to open the door for Elijah.  It is at once a mystical and playful moment.  The cup of Elijah is poured, the door is opened. There is a mix of anticipation and playfulness.  What we are doing each year is a creating a moment of hope.  Opening the door for Elijah is the ultimate symbol of our people's faith and hope.  Elijah is the herald of the Messiah, and opening the door is a symbolic gesture that we believe the future will be better.  In other years this may not have resonated as much for us, but this year it has a new, special meaning.

Ultimately, Passover is a holiday of hope.  We remember our redemption from Egypt as a source of hope for whatever difficulties we face.  This year, we face a unique situation, and though we will be without many who normally celebrate with us, as we open the door for Elijah we are opening the door for hope of a brighter future together again. 

As in the past, we will end the seder looking forward to next year.  It may be in Jerusalem, but our hope is that wherever we are, we are able to celebrate together, to be together in health and happiness.

With wishes for Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Joshua S. Finkelstein

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Praying Alone...Together

 

Robert Putnam, in 1995, wrote a groundbreaking article called, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital." In his article, and subsequent book, published in 2000,  Putnam wrote of the decline of social capital and the American community since the 1950's. He explained how communal organizations and activities were in decline in America. Fewer people were joining clubs and civic organizations. He pointed out that while membership in bowling leagues was in decline, more people were bowling, hence the title, Bowling Alone.

In the twenty years since the book was published, America has gone through several crises that have tested our communal resolve. We have experienced the attacks of 9/11, the war on terror, and the economic meltdown of 2008. With all that we have gone through, it is not clear if the trends noticed by Putnam twenty years ago are accelerating or reversing.  As a society, we have exhibited a resilience and an ability to be there for each other at times of national crisis and need. Still, while we need each other, as a society we are being simultaneously driven apart and drawn together by the technology that is a daily part of our lives.   

We have weathered the attacks of 9/11 and the recession of 2008, but neither of those, as horrible as they were, has challenged us in the way the current pandemic is.  The world is literally closing down in an attack-this to halt the spread of the virus and "flatten the curve," as we try to not overwhelm our medical resources.  

The Coronavirus pandemic poses not only a physical danger to our bodies, but a threat to our communal, societal, and spiritual needs.  We are told to physically distance ourselves from each other, even as we especially need to draw strength from each other at times such as these.

All of this had been running through my mind as the world, and we as a Jewish  community, are rewriting everything we have learned and traditions we hold, while we try to adapt to a new and unprecedented reality. While we used to go out to live and to learn, now we are forced to live and learn inside.  Many have shared with me that they are going on the internet to learn and to laugh, and in the safety of our homes, we can visit museums around the world. We can even hear concerts from performers' living rooms straight to to ours.  

This phenomena has enabled our community to "meet," connect, and pray together. Over the past week, we have been "meeting" and praying online with a virtual minyan.  It is not truly a minyan, but technology has helped us bridge the separation that we are experiencing. While we are all learning the technology (its opportunities and its limits), hearing other voices in prayer and conversation, while seeing familiar faces, has been a wonderful respite from the distancing, and isolation.

Experiencing our "Zoom" minyan did not prepare me for last Friday night.  For Kabbalat Shabbat, because it was Shabbat, I decided to daven, to pray, from the Bimah of our Sanctuary. I thought it meaningful for our community to see our shul, even if we could not be there. We sincerely appreciate Ross Plumer's wonderful efforts in setting up MJC's streaming capabilities.  Since we had the technology in place, the service was streamed. It was an odd feeling leading services in an empty room, knowing that nobody was entering. I was alone in the building, aside from Juan, who was helping me by starting the livestream. 

As I began, a calmness and growing spiritually overcame me.  Though I was alone in the room, I knew that many of you were with me.  Some remarked how they sang along; others just listened. While I was alone in the room, I didn't feel lonely because I was part of a special community.  That is what we are, a community that is there for each other, even when we are alone.

It is a lesson I realized and one that I share with you in this, our time physically apart. If you have a need, reach out to us. Below, I have provided some useful information forwarded from the JCC, including instructions for how to be part of our "Zoom" shul, and other resources for help during this current crisis.  

Please know, you can call me, or email me anytime, especially in this period of physical distancing.  Throughout the past week, I have been writing, "Even though we are physically distancing, we do not have to be socially or spiritually apart."  I realized this more than ever when I was praying alone, together with so many of you.  Together, we should be thankful for the blessings we share and the support we get from each other.

Stay safe, stay healthy, and when you can, stay home, until all this is over.

With wishes for Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Joshua S. Finkelstein

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Connecting to Community during Coronavirus

 

This week's Torah portion Vayahel-Pekudei, which unfortunately none of us will be able to hear read in shul, begins, "Moses then assembled the entire Israelite community and said to them: These are the things that the Lord commanded you to do." 

It seems ironic that in a week when we are instructed, if not commanded, by our government to physically distance and not assemble, we read that Moses assembled all of Israel, together. In many ways it is a fitting conclusion for the Book of Exodus, which began with Pharaoh fracturing and enslaving our people in order to destroy us. At end of Book of Exodus, after leaving Egypt and the revelation at Mount Sinai, we assembled and became a community. That act of assembly is symbolic of the nature of how we define ourselves as a People. We are not a nation of rugged individualists, who define themselves through individual liberties. We are not solitary seekers, who seek to find God and meaning monastically alone. We are a community, a People, who each find our own identity and meaning within family and community. It is for that reason that the Torah was given to our entire People only when the entire People stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. It is for that reason, that Moses brings the entire People together to instruct them about what God wants from them. 

So, what is it that Moses tells the People once they are assembled? What is the final message of the Book of Exodus? 

Moses tells them two things: To observe Shabbat and to build a Tabernacle. While they may seem disparate, our tradition has long linked these two activities in a variety of ways. The theologian, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote that the Tabernacle was a sanctuary of place, and Shabbat was a sanctuary of time. The community of Israel is assembled and told that both time and place can be made sacred and God calls on us to create sacred space and time. 

For millennia, our People have done just that. Even in the worst of conditions, when persecution threatened to destroy us, Jews huddled together in communities and families, often putting lives at risk to assemble and sanctify time and place, by praying together, celebrating with community, and drawing support one from another. 

We are living through a different threat. Now the threat is assembling together. The disease we are fighting can only be slowed and stopped by us separating. How can we separate without unraveling as a community? How can we connect with each other when we are commanded to be apart?

If there was ever a generation that that was equipped to handle this adversity it is ours. Scientists and doctors are on the cutting edge of research and are making great strides to combat this virus. It will take time, but it is happening. With the advent of e-commerce, we are able to shop for food and supplies from our home, and the internet has allowed us to get information out as soon as possible. As for community, while a virtual community is not the same as a physical community, it allows us to connect with each other and overcome the feeling of isolation that this distancing brings.

On Wednesday night, we held our first communal online "Minyan". At 7:30 PM, we "gathered" via the internet to pray, but a few minutes before and after, people chatted with each other online. Both the prayers and the conversation were wonderful. While I cannot wait until we are physically together again, at this time of physical distancing, such communal time is more necessary than ever. Though we cannot be physically together for a minyan, we can come together online to pray and to talk and to learn.

Even though we are physically distancing, we do not have to be socially apart.

Each night, Sunday-Thursday, at 7:30 PM, we will "assemble" online. On Friday night, I will be livestreaming Kabbalat Shabbat from the sanctuary of MJC at 6:00 PM. On Saturday night, I invite you to join me online for Havdalah, the time will change as the days grows longer, but for this week it will be at 8:00 PM.   An email with the links to connect via Zoom and our livestreaming service will go out weekly.

Thousands of years ago, Moses assembled our People together and formed the Jewish community. Ever since we have assembled to sanctify time, place, and life. Our current situation presents us with a unique challenge, but the modern world provides us with an equally unique opportunity. We will continue to assemble, sanctifying our world, our time, God, and life, but for the time being, we will do it online. Join us for our different, but essential, community gatherings. Our MJC community is strong. We will get through this together.

Stay safe, stay healthy and, if you can, stay home.

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Joshua S. Finkelstein

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