FaceBikkur Holim

As our lives become more and more dominated by social media–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.–much is being discussed about the role of these media vis-à-vis human relationships. Are we becoming more distant from each other? Do we take more liberties and neglect social mores when we are sitting behind a keyboard or the touch screen of a smartphone? Do we find it more difficult to relate face-to-face when we are used to status updates and 140-character messages?

Social media is here, there is no denying it, so we are wise to embrace it. Indeed, one of the thrusts of my Rabbis Without Borders fellowship is the use of new technologies to spread ancient wisdom, using social media to build community. These are new tools for communication, and if our goal is to teach Judaism in a meaningful way and build dynamic community, then it is important to use social media and the tools they offer.

And that is the key–they are tools. They can be used for the purposes we design. There is great potential, and I do believe that social media has the opportunity to bring us closer in new ways that then enhance-not replace or water down-real, deep, meaningful human relationships. My recent experience with hospitalization, illness and recovery opened my eyes to these new possibilities.

Gmilut Hasadim, acts of lovingkindness, is a category of actions our tradition teaches are incumbent upon us as human beings. Beyond acts of justice and righteousness (tzedakah), which dictate our requirement to care for those in need and look out for those less fortunate, gmilut hasadim are basic acts of kindness and care that can and should be shown to all people, irrespective of social status or financial need. (This is why the Talmud teaches that they can be considered even more important that tzedakah) These include celebrating with a married couple, burying the dead, comforting the mourner, welcoming guests and visiting the sick.

It is this last one that concerns me at the moment–visiting the sick or, in Hebrew, bikkur holim. The mitzvah of bikkur holimrecognizes that caring for those who are ailing, offering comfort to those who are ill, are important acts we can do for one another, and that spiritual healing is important for physical healing. Tradition teaches that bikkur holim was carried out by God in the Torah, so for us to do it in our own lives is to embody the divine spirit.

Over time, rules and guidelines have been developed over how one should perform bikkur holim: we are not to endanger ourselves by visiting someone who is contagious; we should not visit in early morning or late at night; we should be mindful of one’s position in the room and not sit on the bed; we should keep our visits brief, and return when we can; we should be visiting a patient throughout the entire course of an illness; we should offer a calming tough, words of support and prayer; and we should take the patient’s needs into account at all times, listen to what he or she says and we are not to visit someone if it would cause him or her distress.

While I have studied, taught and performed bikkur holim as a rabbi, I had the opportunity to think about bikkur holim as a patient. This past January when I was ill from meningitis I was able to experience what I as a patient found healing and supportive. I did have some visitors, and Yohanna was of course a constant presence, but ultimately I didn’t want too many people coming by. Sometimes having visitors as a patient is a burden, for there is the need to engage in conversation and share details of what happened again and again. I did have some visitors come by and I appreciated each and every one, but when I was asked whether or not I wanted visitors, I felt OK saying no.

Which is where social media and technology come in. I received many email messages of care and support and these boosted my spirits tremendously, especially since, unlike a phone call or visit, I could read them over and over again. And Facebook proved to be a tremendous tool for bikkur holim. Through the interactive nature of Facebook I was able to broadcast to a large number of people how I was doing, the details of what happened, and the arc of my recovery. And I was able to post pictures of when I got up to walk around the hospital for the first time, and sitting in the car on my way home. Each comment, response or “like” to these updates was an act of bikkur holim, each one an important part of my spiritual, and physical, healing. Even now, as I continue to run into people who also are part of my Facebook network, they ask how I am doing and check in on my health.

As I’ve shared with people how important a role I felt Facebook played in hearing from so many people, they have shared with me how important it was for them to see my updates and hear how I was doing, without having to seek out the information. And to them seeing pictures was particularly meaningful. To know this exchange took place was tremendously powerful for me–it reminded me how much people cared for me, and how much I care for them. Moving past this experience, I feel that these acts of gmilut hasadim, carried out over social media worked to strengthen the bonds I feel with my family, friends and community. These tools facilitated communication during a difficult time, and added new depth to these relationships.

Social media are tools, it’s all about how we use them. Yes there is the possibility to grow more distant and lose the power of direct relationship. But there is also the possibility to build a richer, more tightly knit community. Ancient Jewish wisdom teaches that bikkur holim and other acts of gmilut hasadim are some of those deeds which bring us closer together as humans. And now we have contemporary means of fulfill them.

So, how else can we use these tools to build a richer Jewish community?

Idle, not Idol

Recently I was asked by a member of the congregation about how we understand Exodus 31. She was asked by a neighbor about the Jewish understanding of this text and wanted to check about what she understood it to mean. The relevant text (v. 14-15) reads, “You shall keep the sabbath, for it is holy for you. One who profanes it shall be put to death: whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his kin. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to God, whoever does work on the sabbath day shall be put to death”

My read of this text is that while perhaps at one time, in another historical-sociological setting, it may have meant actual death or actual expulsion, the way we understand it today is as metaphor. Shabbat–a sacred day set aside for rest, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday–is so integral to Jewish practice and a Jewish spiritual identity that to turn away from Shabbat is to turn away from tradition, from one’s community, from God. Ignoring Shabbat cuts oneself off from among one’s kin; ignoring Shabbat is a type of spiritual death.

And this week this passage comes up in our weekly reading. This week’s portion, Ki Tisa, spans Exodus 30:11-34:34. The narrative arc of the parasha spans the last of Moses’s time on the mountain to when he descends to find the Israelites, left alone for 40 days, worshiping and holding a festival to a Golden Calf which they had built.

The details of the beginning part of the parasha, the time when Moses on the mountain, are concerned with the last of the laws God reveals to Moses: the Israelites are to take a census, the specs for the last of the tools of the Tabernacle (the portable sanctuary the Israelites are to build and use), the recipe for the incense and Shabbat.

This is not the only mention of Shabbat in the Torah. It is found in the 10 Commandments (both tellings) and in other places as well. And the mention of Shabbat in our parasha is not exclusively in the verses above. In fact, the next two verses are probably two of the most well-known verses relating to Shabbat since it is a part of our liturgy–the “veshamru,” which we sing on Friday night and as part of Saturday morning Kiddush.

The veshamru, verses 16-17, reads:

“The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all times; it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day God ceased from work and was refreshed.”

I love this version of the Shabbat commandment because of the verbs found in these verses and what it means for our relationship to this sacred practice. First, in the end of the text is a wonderful verb, “and was refreshed” (vayinafash), derived from the noun nefesh. As quoted in the JPS Commentary on Exodus, nefesh is “a multi-valent term that can refer to a person’s life essence, vitality, psychic energy, or essential character. The verbal form used here conveys the notion of a fresh infusion of spiritual and physical vigor, the reinvigoration of the totality of one’s being.” (p. 202) Wow. This provides, too, a nice counterbalance to the talk of death above. Not observing Shabbat is like death because the point of Shabbat is to be life-giving.

But the verbs in the first part of the selection are just as powerful. First we are to “keep” (veshamru) Shabbat, and observe (la’asot) Shabbat. Both active verbs. And the translation of “observe” for la’asot makes sense in context, but loses another valence of the verb: to make, or to do. So the irony is that to observe the day of rest we must be active. In other words, Shabbat will come no matter what. Time passes, six days pass and the seventh day will come. But to mark the seventh day as Shabbat takes affirmative steps on our part.

There is a traditional means of Shabbat observance. But there is also different ways to have a Shabbat consciousness, to “make” Shabbat in a way that is meaningful to us. Each week as part of a short meditation during Friday night services, I invite those assembled to ask themselves, “How am I going to rest this Shabbat? How am I going to renew myself this Shabbat?” So, how do you observe Shabbat in a way that is life-giving? [Check this out if you are looking for a way, the Sabbath Manifesto. The folks here are declaring this weekend the “National Day of Unplugging”]

Recently I was having a conversation with my new colleague the Rev. Elsa Peters, who recently came to town to assume the pulpit of The United Churches. We were talking about the role of “Sabbath” in Christian and Jewish practice. When I was talking about this week’s Torah portion, about the move from Tabernacle to Shabbat to Golden Calf, she asked, “what does Shabbat have to do with the Golden Calf?” It was a wonderful and intriguing question; it was something I hadn’t thought of before. Jewish commentary usually relates this mention of Shabbat to what comes before, to the Tabernacle. It serves as a reminder that even for sacred work, one needs to take a break for Shabbat. And, that in a Jewish theological framework, time trumps space. And, the description of the building of the Tabernacle is also the source of the traditionally prohibited types of work. Connecting Shabbat to the Golden Calf provided some new fodder for thought. (Pun intended)

So what might Shabbat have to do with the Golden Calf? The Golden Calf is the paradigmatic story of idolatry, one of the worst sins according to the Torah. It represents in the ancient framework a turning away from God to worship other gods. That is what happens in the story of Exodus, the Israelites, worried that their leader Moses has disappeared and God is seemingly absent, construct an idol that they can then worship.

But understood outside this ancient framework, idolatry is something which we see operating today. In our contemporary framework, we often speak of “idolatry” not so much in making and worshiping images of false deities, but in the things, the objects, the material goods which we elevate to an exalted status in our lives. We become obsessed with what we have that we lose sight of relationships or human connection. Idolatry represents the substitution of the tangible for something that is ultimately intangible.

But perhaps we can think of idolatry in relation to time as well. Another characteristic of idolatry is control. Our ancients made the Golden Calf because the absence of Moses reminded them of the lack of control over their lives. They needed something they could manipulate, something they can control. They wanted certainty in the face of uncertainty, without realizing that certainty is an illusion. In our contemporary lives we make idols of time. In order to feel that we are in control, we try to conquer time, we multitask, we overschedule. We use it up and try to create more. We use our mastery of time as a barometer of success, as a source of pride. Those who fill up their time are seen as important, worthy of admiration and accomplished.

But this may not be really the case. A recent study shows that slowing down may lead to a better life. But the Torah has already told us this.

So what does Shabbat have to do with the Golden Calf? The proximity of the stories tells us that we have a choice: we make Shabbat, or we make an idol of time. We focus on ways to rejuvenate our nefesh, or wear ourselves out worshiping the clock.

The Torah’s message is clear: we need to turn away from the idol, and turn towards the idle.

Lincoln, Spielberg, Kushner and Strouse

While much of the post-Oscars buzz is about host Seth MacFarlane and charges of racism, sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism in his shtick—about what is subverting stereotypes and what is upholding them—there was another moment during the awards show that also got me thinking.

When Daniel Day-Lewis won Best Actor for his monumental portrayal of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln, he noted three great men who were instrumental in the creation of the film: director Steven Spielberg, screenwriter Tony Kushner and Lincoln himself. I was struck that aside from Lincoln, the two people instrumental in the artistic vision and narrative of the film are Jews.

And they are Jews moreso than in the strict halakhic sense, or in the heritage-only sense. (Day-Lewis apparently was born of a Jewish mother, but it doesn’t seem that this fact impacts his identity). Spielberg and Kushner are both artists whose Jewish identity impacts their lives and is reflected in their respective bodies of work.

So, then how does this fact impact their work on Lincoln? Or does it? I wasn’t surprised to see that I’m not the only one to think about this question since when I Googled “Lincoln movie Jewish” I found several articles approaching the movie from a Jewish angle.

This one from Haaretz raises some interesting points. Spielberg makes numerous films of “outsiders and rescue.” Kushner and a Lincoln scholar discussed Lincoln as a Moses figure. The story of struggle for emancipation from slavery and civil rights in the movie (focusing as it does on the passage of the 13th Amendment) reflects the Jewish concern for civil rights in modern American history. [This other in Tablet speaks of Lincoln as a “Judaic” figure, also with a tie in to Moses.]

I would add too that as we move now from Purim to Passover, we are reminded that Jewish tradition is enamored of narrative. The heart of both of these holidays are stories, tellings of history that are not meant to recap facts and figures but rather to tell us, the current retellers of the stories, the values which are meant to be important to us, to guide us in our own day and age. Lincoln serves a similar function: it is a retelling of a particular moment in American history which is meant to underscore the values which should be guiding us today: debate and compromise, fairness and equality, decency and humanity, and the ability of the human heart and mind to change, and thus change society. The fact of Lincoln is in and of itself Jewish.

Which touches on another aspect of the movie—the intersection of fact and fiction. Articles have been written about the license taken by the filmmakers in telling this story, what is “true” and what is “invented.” But perhaps the historicity is not what is important, but the telling itself. The actual historicity of the book of Esther and the Exodus are beside the point, and so too with Lincoln. It isn’t a documentary, it is a work of fiction based on fact. Did my knowledge of history increase by seeing Lincoln? Maybe. Was I inspired? Most definitely.

Some ado about the film was made regarding the climactic roll call vote in the House of Representatives on the Amendment. (Spoiler alert: it passes). Having come so far from those days of slavery, it would be shameful to a contemporary audience to be associated with voting “no.” Some contemporary state leaders–in Connecticut, for example–have raised issues with the fact that their state representatives are portrayed as voting “no” when they voted “yes.” This was done for dramatic effect, say the filmmakers, and the actual names have been changed.

But there is one name that wasn’t changed. Another article about Jews and Lincoln complains that Jewish characters weren’t portrayed in the film, even though some had prominent roles to play in the time period. But there was one Jewish character. During the roll call vote, Representative Myer Strouse, a German Jew from Pennsylvania, was heard voting “no.” In this instance, neither the name nor the vote were changed from the historical record.

I’m curious, then, what this means. How does this impact the Jewish sensibility of the movie? And what challenge are these Jewish artists raising for us from our own history in this country?

Steven, Tony—please leave a comment below.

Myer Strouse
Myer Strouse

Banana Joe, why were you not Banana Joe?

Any doggie (as in “foodie”) would know that last week was the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, the premier dog show in the country. Hundreds of purebred dogs compete to be named Best in Show, the highest honor for a show dog.

This year’s winner was an Affenpinscher named Banana Joe. I hadn’t heard of the breed before, but it is a small dog, part of what is called the “Toy Group” (along with pugs, papillons, chihuahuas–the small breeds.) Descriptions of the dog having a monkey-like face was met with objection in our household until we read that the name of the breed is from the German Affe, meaning “ape” or “monkey.”

But the reason I like dog shows, aside from my fondness for dogs, is how the competition is organized. Dogs are first judged as Best in Breed. The winners of the breed categories go into the group category, in which they are grouped with similar breed types. The Best in Group then goes on to compete with the winners of the other groups to hopefully be named Best in Show.

The question must arise, with so many dog breeds, how to choose a winner? For you have to admit, sometimes it is hard to see how a Shih Tzu and a Boxer, for example, are even the same species. Dog breeds very widely.

But that is the thing…in a dog show, a Shih Tzu and a Boxer are not competing against each other per se. Rather, how a winner is determined is if that breed of dog represents the best of its breed as opposed to another dog in its breed. In other words, a Shih Tzu who represents the best Shih Tzu will beat out a Boxer who may not be as good a Boxer as the Shih Tzu is a Shih Tzu. Follow?

Each breed has standards, and dogs are judged as to how well they meet that standard. A dog that better represents the standards of its breed will beat out a dog that doesn’t represent its breed as well. So at Westminster last week, Banana Joe was determined to embody his Affenpinscherness more than the other finalists. Banana Joe was a better Affenpinscher than Oakley was a German wirehaired pointer, etc.

And this aspect of dog shows always reminds me of one of my favorite Hasidic teachings:

Rebbe Zusya was on his deathbed when his disciples drew close. His students sought out any last bits of wisdom their master could divulge. He told them, “when I die, and I go to meet God, God will not ask me ‘Zusya, why were you not Moses?’ Rather, the Holy Blessed One will ask me, ‘Zusya, why were you not Zusya?'”

We can only embody the best us we can be. While we are all human, we are our own unique selves, just as each breed of dog is unique in and of itself. While we see the greats around us, and also those we envy in our own small circles, we ultimately can not model our lives on theirs. We will not succeed in trying to be like others, we must only try to be ourselves. And we do have the ability to try to become the best selves we can be.

And to attain our best selves, we are judged in the same way dogs are judged, by meeting the standards of our breed, of embodying what the standards what it means to be fully human: to love and be loved, to show compassion and mercy, to help those in need, to live a life of righteousness and love, committed to tradition, to community and to one another.

If we do that, then we can all be named Best in Show.

Banana Joe

Shifts in Meaning

One of our quests as individuals is to make meaning within our lives. That is one of the purposes of religion, to frame moments of time and infuse them with the understanding that we are part of something greater than ourselves, that what happens to us is a part of who we are as individuals, that we have the ability to grow and change. 

Making meaning is not rationalizing, about saying “everything happens for a reason.” It doesn’t. It is about fully integrating the event into our life’s narrative and perhaps emerging from the challenging episode with some new insight or learning so that when we enter the next stage of our journey we are better prepared, or more aware, or have a different outlook. 

Easier said than done. It is mightily hard to do, especially when it comes to the stumbling blocks we face. 

Having recently come out of a serious illness, I have struggling with this. The events and circumstances of my recent illness were a whirlwind as they were going on. Now, as people approach and say how scary it was, and as I read about the rarity of meningitis and its not insignificant mortality rate (plus the rate of impairments for those who do survive), I reflect on the seriousness which was my situation. And while I have come out of the other end of it and escaped danger, I still worry about my condition (am I more forgetful since the illness or am I imagining that?) and I still struggled spiritually with what it all means. 

On the spiritual side, when someone is stricken with a serious illness, and then recovers, there are two poles one can lean towards: the illness or the recovery. Focusing on this illness-asking why did I get sick in the first place-leaves one in a place of vulnerability, of the fleeting nature of the world, of the complete lack of control we have when one day we are healthy and the next day we are not. Focusing on the recovery-on I was very ill but I recovered-brings one to a place of gratitude, of appreciating the preciousness of life and all it contains. And I admit, for the past few weeks I was stuck in the former, and was focused on how vulnerable and weak I felt, and was depressed about the turn of events. 

Until last week. I was attending a conference back east, the alumni retreat of the Rabbis Without Borders fellowship in which I participated last year. I had planned to go for a while, long before I got sick, and was able to make it to the conference. It was a tremendous experience of learning from great teachers and colleagues on a wide range of topics. 

I found myself in a workshop lead by a wonderful colleague, Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan, who is a neighbor to the north in that she serves a congregation in Vancouver, BC. In the workshop she pushed us on the idea of meaning making through our ability to examine events, particularly a chain of events, and discern any links or connections, a concept called synchronicity. 

We were introduced to this text by the Jungian psychologist Janet Dallett: 

Discontinuous events are usually though of as chance occurrences. In many instances this is sufficient explanation. Sometimes, however, we come up against happenings whose coincidence in time does not appear to be random, even though there is no causal relationship between them…In synchronistic occurrences the connecting factor is meaning rather than causality.

In the workshop we had the opportunity to discuss in hevruta(study pairs) experiences where we might have seen synchronicity operating in our lives.

At first this was hard. I couldn’t see beyond the past four weeks of hospital, medicine, bed rest, headaches, etc. But then I realized where I was, sitting in a retreat center thousands of miles from home. I had made the plans to go east months ago, but just a week and a half before the trip I didn’t think I would make it. While I did not have any medical restrictions on flying, I was still quite low energy, and I thought the trip may be too depleting. I had even contacted the organizer and told her I may not make it.

But in the days leading up to when I would fly I was feeling stronger and stronger, and while I was still a bit nervous, I felt much better than I did even that week and a half ago, and so I boarded the plane. The trip was fine, the conference was restorative, and I was glad I went.

Each morning we gathered for minyan, for a shacharit(morning) service. The first morning was Monday, a traditional day for reading of Torah, and I thought that I was ready tobentch gomelGomel is a blessing recited, usually in the context of a Torah service, by one who has escaped danger, recovered from an illness, returned from a long trip, given birth or some other experience which in some way carries risk. I had an aliyah to the Torah and then said the words: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who bestows good things on those in debt to You, and Who has granted me all good.” And the community responded, “Amen. And may the One Who has bestowed upon you good, continue to bestow upon you good.” Reciting this beracha, in a room filled with friends and colleagues, people who share my rabbinic path, in a room which radiated compassion and care and connection, was truly powerful.

So then later in the conference, sitting in the classroom with my hevruta, I drew together these two experiences into a whole. The timing of my illness allowed me to still come to the conference. If I had gotten sick a week later, perhaps, I would not have made it to the retreat. But the arc of the illness allowed me to make the trip, and be in that room, and offer that blessing, and transition from one who is ailing to one who is fully in recovery.

And here is where I shifted from one pole to the other. Rather than focus on my vulnerability and weakness, my recitation ofgomel at that time brought me to that place of gratitude. And I realize this is a better place to be.

Perhaps I was weakened physically by the meningitis. Indeed, the working theory by my doctor in the hospital is that my neurosurgery from a few years back may have made me more susceptible to contract meningitis, and thus he suggests I be more vigilant in keeping my sinuses and nasal passages clear. Plus that and general wellness is again a concern. But I hope to emerge from it stronger spiritually.

Not everyone makes meaning the same way. And again, it is not easy. But the ability to reflect and self-reflect with the goal of emerging from our life’s events with some new insight, with some shift in how we see ourselves and the world around us, is important and a blessing. It is another good thing that is bestowed upon us.

Suffering is Precious

When I was preparing for a text study on the closing chapters of 2 Kings, I came across the following midrash (found in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 101a-b):

Our masters taught: When R. Eliezer fell sick, four elders–R. Tarfon, R. Joshua, R. Eleazar ben Azariah, and R. Akiva–came to visit him.

R. Akiva spoke up and said, “Suffering is precious.”

At that, R. Eliezer said to his disciples, “Prop me up, that I may hear [better] the words of Akiva, my disciple, who has said, ‘Suffering is precious.’ What proof have you, Akiva, my son, for saying it?” R. Akiva replied, “Master, I draw such inference from the verse ‘Manasseh was twelve years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty and five years in Jerusalem . . . and he did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord’ [2 Kings 21:1-2]. I consider this verse in the light of another: ‘These are also the proverbs of Solomon, which the men of Hezekiah king of Judah copied out [for widespread instruction]’ [Prov. 25:1]. Now, is it conceivable that Hezekiah king of Judah taught Torah to the whole world, to all of it, but not to Manasseh, his own son? Of course not! Yet all the pains that Hezekiah took with him and all the labor that he lavished upon him did not bring him onto the right path. Only Manasseh’s suffering did so, as is written, ‘And the Lord spoke to Manasseh, and to his people; but they gave no heed. Wherefore the Lord brought upon them the captains and the host of the king of Assyria, who took Manasseh captive in manacles. . . . And when [Manasseh] was in distress, he besought the Lord his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and He answered his entreaty’ [2 Chron. 33:10-13)]. You may thus infer how precious is suffering.”

Rabbi Akiva explains that King Manasseh of Judah did not follow the correct path, not even when his father Hezekiah taught him Torah. The only thing that brought Manasseh close to God is when he was captured by the Assyrians and held captive. In his suffering, he called out to God. Thus, Akiva says, suffering is precious because it brings a person closer to God.

Sometimes we look for texts, and sometimes texts find us. This jumped out at me because not long ago like Rabbi Eliezer I was suffering on my sickbed, struck down with meningitis. I am doing well now, but I still have the mindset of recovering.

I was struck by Rabbi Akiva’s comment. At first glance I am repulsed by his suggestion. He suggests that there is value in suffering, that suffering elevates one, that suffering brings one closer to God. For those who have suffered, in whatever form, there appears to be no redeeming value to it.

Yet when I read this over again, I had a different reaction. Suffering is “precious,” perhaps, because it gives one the opportunity to have a new spiritual perspective one didn’t have before. This doesn’t mean that we should wish suffering for ourselves or another. This doesn’t mean we can grow spiritually in other ways, in the absence of suffering. But when it does happen, if it does happen, it gives us an opportunity.

I don’t wish meningitis on anyone. But I will take the fact that it happened to ask myself, is there any lesson here? Is there anything I can take away from this experience that will then make my post-meningitis life different, or better? To have the opportunity to think deeply about that question is in and of itself precious.

Awake, Calm and Stable

I’m back. Or, at least, getting there.

I thank you for your patience, readers of this column, as I took the past month off from writing as part of my unexpected medical leave. As you may have heard, in the beginning of January I came down with bacterial meningitis.

So what happened? After a difficult evening of the 30th with a bad headache and nausea, it became clear in the morning something was more seriously wrong when I became incoherent. After calling my primary care doctor who advised a trip to the ER, my wife Yohanna called the paramedics. Soon my bedroom was filled with firefighters and EMTs assessing my condition, asking me questions (testing my incoherence) and finally strapping me to a gurney to take me to the hospital.

This is where I experienced one way our bodies have a built-in coping mechanism…I don’t remember anything for the next 24 hours. I remember being strapped to the gurney and the cold air as I was carried out my front door. The next think I know it was the next day, and I was at Overlake Hospital in Bellevue in the ICU. (As it turns out there were no ICU beds in Olympia or Tacoma.)

The details were filled in by Yohanna: The initial trip to Providence St. Peter’s Hospital. CT scan and spinal tap to diagnose the meningitis. Being restrained since I kept trying to get up. My kids being brought into the ER for preventative injections. Transfer to Overlake via ambulance and being watched the entire night to make sure nothing else happened. Quite nerve-wracking, and I’m glad I don’t remember.

In total I spent about two and half days in the ICU, and two and a half days in a regular hospital room. After admission on Monday I was discharged on Friday, and was able to continue to recoup at home. Hospitals are hard places to get well-you are constantly being poked and prodded, checked and rechecked, and the number of tubes and wires can impede your rest. It was good to come home, but my treatment continued–I had a midline put in at the hospital and I had to infuse myself with antibiotics twice a day for a week and a half more (two weeks total, including the time in the hospital). And now, a month since I entered the hospital, I’m feeling better, though admittedly, not 100%.

Over the past month, mindful of my energy level, I started to come back to work and resume some of my duties. This is where I needed to learn patience. Recovery can be a long process, even when the initial illness has passed. For something that is such a shock to the system, it may take a while for the body to bounce back. I was taking some heavy duty antibiotics, and even the hospital stay can do a number on you. (My doctor at the hospital said that his rule of thumb is for each day a person spends in the hospital–for any reason–it is a week to recover.) My sister had a friend who had meningitis, and she said that it took her several weeks to get back to normal. And this is where I am now–my energy still wanes some, and I’ll still get the occasional headache, but every day I feel a bit stronger. (I feel strong enough to attend a conference back east next week which I have been looking forward to for some time.)

Events like these–illnesses that without warning suddenly appear–are causes for reflection, for opportunities to cultivate gratitude and a renewed sense of life. Yet like recovery from illness, this reflective part is also sometimes long and difficult. But I do recall one snapshot from my time in the ICU.


In each hospital room there is a board on which the nurse for that shift will write his or her name, along with the name of the patient, doctor and any other notes.  I was struck by these short notes about my condition:

  • Awake and calm
  • Vitals stable

These were the “goals,” these were the good signs. What made the sign so interesting to me is that these words describe what it is we perhaps all aspire to. Whatever we attempt, whatever course we chart in life, whatever undertaking we commit to, we ultimately want to get to a place where we are awake, calm and stable. We hope to get to a place where we are grounded, rooted and able to take in all that surrounds us.

The mussar tradition, the school of Jewish thought which stresses character traits and their development, speaks of the trait of equanimity, or in Hebrew, menuhat ha-nefesh, or “calmness of the soul.” We are taught that in developing this trait we must “rise above events that are inconsequential” (Heshbon Ha’nefesh, Rabbi Mendel of Satanov) and develop an inner resolve to face that which life presents to us. We can not always control what life throws at us, but we can control how we react to it. We must cultivate within ourselves the ability to be awake, calm and stable.

I met those goals in the hospital, and I hope to continue to meet them in life. I continue my recovery, and while I am anxious to get back, I need to be mindful of my energy level and abilities. I look forward to fully reintegrating into my rabbinic work and congregational life. Thank you again for your support, and I look forward to seeing you soon.

Be a Mentsch

There is a nice confluence this year with the end of the Gregorian calendar coinciding with parashat Vayehi, the last Torah portion of the Book of Genesis.

As we say goodbye to 2013, we are also turning the page on our weekly Torah reading cycle. The Jewish liturgical cycle has us read the entire Torah in its entirety from beginning to end in order. At the end of each of the five books it is an opportunity to take a breath and note where we are in this spiritual textual journey. The nice confluence is that we are doing this at the same time in our (secular) lives as we note the passage of time and make a resolution or two.

The end of Genesis marks the end of the saga of our spiritual ancestors. The familiar story of Joseph, who, despised by his brothers and sold into slavery, rises to the top of Egyptian society and is then able to save his family, comes to an end. Joseph’s father Jacob and the rest of the clan are reunited with Joseph as the family settles in Egypt, setting the stage for the next part of the Torah narrative: slavery and exodus. Our story will shift from a familial narrative to a national narrative. The clans of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (who is renamed Israel after wresting with an angel) give way to am Yisrael, the People of Israel.

The content of this parasha is the death of Jacob. However, before he dies, he blesses the sons of Joseph, and gives a charge to each of his sons. He is giving his last words of counsel, relaying his ethical will and providing closure to his life and setting the course for his descendants, the next generation. It is something that we should all be blessed to have the ability to do, to provide a summary of our thoughts and values at the end of life so that those who come after us will not only receive a bequest of items, but thoughts and values.

The haftarah–the reading from the prophetic books of the Bible which accompanies each week’s Torah reading–echoes this theme. The short passage is drawn from the First Book of Kings and describes King David’s charge to his son Solomon. David is about to die, and so calls in Solomon to both share with him a set of values and also some specific tasks he is to accomplish on David’s behalf.

[If you have spent time in Torah study with me you will know that The Godfather is one of my favorite movies. I like it because it is an epic film that echoes many biblical themes, and is therefore a contemporary reference point for the biblical narrative. If you haven’t seen it, you can skip the next paragraph. Or better yet, skip the next paragraph to go watch it, then come back!

This week’s reading from First Kings reminds me of the scene in which Vito Corleone is talking to his son Michael in the garden. Vito is about to die, though he doesn’t know it (he will die suddenly of a heart attack) but he is stepping away from his leadership of the Mafia organization he developed. This evocative scene is a charge from one generation to the next. Accepting with reluctance Michael’s succession as the head of the crime family, Vito charges Michael with what he is to do next and who he is to take care of. It is, like many scenes from the film, beautiful and poignant.]

David’s charge to Solomon is also beautiful and poignant, and while David also gives a Solomon a list of political enemies who need to be dealt with, what he has to say can be summed in the first three words he shares with Solomon-v‘chazakta v’hayita l’ish-be strong and be a man. But rather than an allusion to some sort of stereotypical masculine norm, David means for Solomon to be a full human being. And how does one do this? Solomon must, David continues, “walk in God’s ways.” A full human being is one who follows the path of the divine, who walks a path of righteousness, of justice, of love and of the good. To do so takes much inner strength.

As we turn the page in the book, as we turn the leaves of the calendar, we too can heed this charge of David. We too are called upon to be strong and to fully realize our human potential. We too are called upon to walk the path of righteousness and the good. Let’s commit ourselves once again to taking the necessary steps to walk this path as we continue our lives’ journey.

This becomes all that more important when we think of our place in our community. The ancient rabbinic commentators reframed this passage from First Kings when they wrote: “in the place where there are no human beings, try to be one.” (Pirke Avot 2:6) We have faced some difficult times in this past month with the tragedy of Newtown, and other times when it was seeming that humanity was lacking. We have the opportunity to address with renewed vigor some of these issues plaguing our society. To do so we must all heed this call from David, from the rabbis:

Be strong and walk with God, especially when the road is empty. This is what it means to become fully human. And if you start walking, others will follow.

Newtown and Our Town

We are all still reeling from the events last week in Newtown, Connecticut. The brutal killing of 27 people, including 20 young children, is heart breaking. That day I had spent the morning in my son’s kindergarten classroom as he was honored as the week’s VIP. We shared pictures, I made latkes and his teacher read a wonderful book the other kids made for him. I didn’t have time to take in the news that morning before arriving at the school other than knowing there was a shooting somewhere, and I’m glad I didn’t. I don’t know if I could have made it through that hour knowing all those details.

Returning to the Temple office afterwards I turned to the news. Every hour following the episode, as new details emerged, was gut wrenching. For days afterwards we all have walked around in a haze of disbelief, of anger, of sadness, of despair. And now we watch the first of the funerals for the adults and children the same age as my youngest son (He turns six on Sunday). Brutal.

More details will continue to emerge over time about what happened, and a more complete picture of what occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary will be made. Already we have begun to engage in a collective soul searching as to what led to this tragedy. Already people are offering up and debating many different and seemingly contradictory issues that lie at the heart of this massacre: access to weaponry, mental illness, security, the place of violence in media, and on and on.

Hanukkah, which we concluded last week, has many different and seemingly contradictory interpretations and understandings about what the holiday is all about: It is about the miracle of the oil and miracles in general. It is about religious liberty. It is about overcoming oppression. It is about the victory of Torah and tradition over secularism. It is about anti-assimilation. It is about spiritual light in a time of darkness. And yet, it is not any one of those things–it is every one of those things.

The same is true with Newtown–it is not any one of those factors mentioned, it is all of those factors.

I have no doubt that gun control must be a legislative priority moving forward. Yes, a gun is a tool and it requires someone to operate it; guns themselves don’t kill people. But I also know that I would not have eaten so much chocolate gelt last week if I didn’t have a bowl of it sitting on my dining room table. There is something to be said about access and opportunity. If we limit access, then the opportunity will be that much more difficult to take up. There is simply no reason that semiautomatic assault weapons and large magazines of ammunition need to be accessible to the general public. The President’s words yesterday are encouraging, and I hope synagogues and other faith communities join together to address this issue of pikuach nefesh, saving a life.

I do worry, too, that we are being desensitized to violence. Our country has carried out two wars in the last decade without any significant impact to our daily lives and routine. The increasing sophistication in video game technology makes realistic looking violence into a game to be turned on and off, in which one has unlimited “lives” and one progresses by acquiring bigger and more powerful weapons. Many television shows feature murders and killers, and movies as well have become increasingly graphic and violent. Violence is a part of human history and human society, true, but the means to overcome it is not to sanitize it, but to confront its realities.

And, I am concerned that as we enter into a new era of health care in this country, that we make concerted efforts to address how mental health services are distributed. How mental illness played a role in this incident we don’t know for sure, and may never know. But the fact that the shooter may have struggled with some issues (though there are efforts to completely blame or absolve the role of mental illness in this shooting), does raise the issue of mental illness in our society generally. This is an issue which touches us all, either on the personal or societal level.

These are all policy discussions which I hope we have and continue to have as we move forward. Yet underlying all of these issues, the debate over gun ownership, access and rights, the debate over mental health services and health care in general, is something more systemic and difficult to overcome–the ethic of individualism which defines our American culture.

We live in a culture where issues of public concern are trumped by individual rights. Where communal structures and governments are seen as impositions not benefits. Where we do not take responsibility for one another, we only look out for ourselves. Where we take and take, but hesitate to give. Where we are concerned so long as it affects us, and when it doesn’t, it is not our problem.

One article I read in the aftermath was about many of the shooters in these mass shootings recently are young men. What is it about our society that leads these people to do horrendous acts? To devalue another human life so much so as to end it? To become disaffected? Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously said, in light of human crimes, “few are guilty, but all are responsible.” To close the book on Newtown with a few policy changes and tagging Adam Lanza as an isolated case would mean we truly have not grown beyond this incident. We must ask ourselves some hard questions. Newtown deserves a spiritual response as much as a policy response.

We have basic physical needs as people: food, shelter, medicine. But also we have spiritual needs: the need to love and be loved, to feel one’s life has purpose, meaning, value. To be supported by a caring community. To have a sense of a past and a future. This is where we start. By making sure these needs are met, and by overcoming this ethic of individualism. By making sure that we are responsible for one another.

Newtown is thousands of miles away, but we start, as we always must start, with our town. There are means to meet these spiritual needs. Connection to sacred community and sacred tradition is one way.

In lighting the last of the Hanukkah lights this past Friday and Saturday, the gloom of Newtown was palpable. And yet when we lit the lights, and especially at our Temple Beth Hatfiloh Hanukkah party, when all those in attendance were illuminated by the candles on the menorah, when especially the faces of our children were aglow in sacred light, there was a flicker of hope. Hope that we can light up the darkness, that the realities of violence and fear do not have to be our future.

So what do we do in response to the shooting at Newtown? We mourn and grieve. We enact some legislation which addresses the tangible concerns. But on a much deeper level we must reinforce our responsibility for one another’s welfare and well-being. We must talk and share and be with one another. We must see every child as our child. We must construct networks of connection so no one lives in isolation. We must have an attitude of hope and not despair. We must give and receive love, and hugs, and shoulders, and an outstretched arm.

If we are all holding another’s hand, no one will be able to pull the trigger.