Tag Archives: piqquah nefesh

Meeting Virtually and Saving Lives – Vayyiqra 5780

While I am working from home, making Zoom calls or phone calls, I try to sit by a window, so I won’t lose sight of Creation. (You may know that a synagogue must have windows, so that one does not forget the world outside.)

Eldridge Street Synagogue, NYC

I have seen so many people walking and bicycling and running by – couples, families, single people out for a quiet, contemplative stroll. All are keeping their distance from one another. It is definitely far less car traffic than I’ve seen, and far more non-car traffic, and that is somewhat reassuring. We have not receded into our caves. We have not forgotten that life goes on.

I want to take a moment to reflect on where we are right now. We are physically distant from one another, but we remain close spiritually. Some of us are probably starting to feel a bit anxious, wondering:

  • How long will this go on? 
  • How long will we be cooped up like chickens? 
  • How long will it be before we can safely see our friends and relatives again in person? 
  • How long will it take for the wave of infections to crest?

I am beginning to hear the frustration, the anger, the tears of members of this community who feel isolated, who have lost their jobs, who cannot get to the store. I am beginning to hear the sound of loneliness, of depression, of anger at our elected officials, whose job it is to keep us safe and properly informed, to craft a responsible, science-based plan and to make good decisions in the context of international crisis.

And I am beginning to hear those things within myself, as well. And the insistent questions: How do we continue to connect as a community? How do I serve my congregation when I cannot be in the same room with them? How do I continue to teach Judaism, to relay the message that our tradition helps us improve ourselves, our lives, and our world, when I am limited to electronic communications? How do I learn of and bring comfort to congregants in distress?

As is obvious, because I am the only person in this sanctuary right now, I have clearly given a green light to the use of Zoom calls on Shabbat. And I know that this is a halakhic challenge. But let me be clear about this: we are in what the rabbis called, “she’at hadehaq,” the hour of urgency. It is not physically safe for us to gather for minyanim, for services. To do so would violate the principle of piqquah nefesh, the saving of a life. I will come back to that in a moment.

First, two brief thoughts from Parashat Vayyiqra:

1. The first verse of the parashah, which is also the first verse of the book of Vayiqra / Leviticus, is a wee bit curious:

וַיִּקְרָ֖א אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר ה֙’ אֵלָ֔יו מֵאֹ֥הֶל מוֹעֵ֖ד לֵאמֹֽר׃

God called to Moshe and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting [part of the mishkan / sanctuary complex], saying…

God called, and then spoke. The medieval commentators are all over that. Rashi says something simply lovely: that this is leshon hibbah, language of affection. God does not merely instruct Moshe by enumerating laws; God first calls to him in a tender moment, an endearing opening to indicate God’s closeness. And while the rest of the parashah is dedicated to the straightforward and occasionally grisly details of sacrifices in the ancient Temple, this verse reminds us of the imperative to connect, to express our affection to those with whom we are in relationship.

2. In written sifrei Torah, and in some editions of the humash (like Etz Hayyim and the venerable Hertz), the letter alef at the end of the first word, vayyiqra, is small. My favorite explanation for this is as follows: Comparing the small alef with the large bet at the very beginning of the Torah, in the word “bereshit,” (in the beginning), and, knowing that alef has the numerical value of one and bet is two, we learn that Torah must be studied in partnership. When we learn Torah with a partner, we make ourselves greater; when we study alone, we miss something, and we become smaller. Two is always greater than one, not just numerically, but also spiritually.

It is a fundamental statement about the nature of our tradition. The smallest element of doing Jewish, of living Judaism, is two people, learning together, in relationship.

Ladies and gentlemen, we find ourselves in a very real, very dangerous situation, and our primary goal as a society right now is not to overwhelm our healthcare system. About 10-20% of people who are infected with COVID-19 require hospitalization; some of those will require ventilators; and a small number of those will die.  What percentage is still unknown, but it is definitely much higher than the number who succumb to the flu. If the virus continues to spread unchecked, then the need for hospital beds and ventilators will quickly outstrip the availability of those items, and doctors and hospitals will be forced to decide who lives and who dies. 

As you may know, the principle of piqquah nefesh overrides every single mitzvah in our tradition save three prohibitions: worshipping idols, committing murder, or any of the prohibited sexual liaisons. 

Meanwhile, we have the imperative in Pirqei Avot (2:5): Al tifrosh min hatzibbur. Do not separate yourself from your community. We are a communal people, and we are obligated to be together, to be in relationship with one another, to be a qehillah, a congregation. We learn this not only from the first word in Vayyiqra, but throughout our tradition. Relationship is fundamental to Judaism.

The Conservative movement’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, while not expressly permitting it, gave us a basis on which we can rely for counting a minyan virtually. I am reading from their Letter of Rabbinic Guidance on the subject:

The classic sources (Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 55:13, and others cited by Rabbi Reisner) require that a minyan be located in one physical space. However, Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 55:14 does open the possibility that there may be an exception by joining in to constitute a minyan if one can see the faces of the other participants: “One who is standing behind the synagogue, with a window between that person and the congregation, even if it is several stories up and less than four cubits wide, and who shows his face to them, may combine with them to form a minyan of ten.

The possibility of a minyan being constituted by people who are not physically near each other is further expanded by Rabbi Yitzhak Zilberstein in Hashukei Hemed on Berakhot 21b (p. 135), where he permits constituting a minyan for kaddish yatom (Mourner’s Kaddish) where people are scattered in a field but can see each other. Recently Rabbi Haim Ovadia called attention to this source, arguing in favor of constituting a minyan by means of real-time video and audio connection between ten Jews. Therefore, in this crisis situation, a number of us are of the opinion that a ruling relying on these precedents should be issued.

So yes, the CJLS concedes that this is not ideal; the ideal remains to gather as a community in physical proximity. But this is what we have right now. If this is the only space in which we can gather, then we should gather in it.

In this hour of urgency, and coupled with the principle of saving lives, and relying on a lenient reading of ancient texts, we ARE gathering. We are responding to one another; we are still a qehillah, a congregation. And not just for services – also for all types of learning.

So thank God. Because we need this. We need this right now more than ever. I am grateful that our attendance at weekly minyanim has been higher than it has ever been in the nearly five years I have been in Pittsburgh. We are now averaging 30 people in the morning and 40 in the evening. And I cannot see how many people are on this call right now, but I know it’s a bunch. We are gathering. We are not separating ourselves. And we are saving lives.

Once again, thank God. Thank God for the resiliency of our tradition, and thank God that the Conservative movement is willing to engage with our tradition in a living way, in a way that reflects the needs of the moment. 

We need each other right now. We need to call out to each other with affection; we need to learn Torah together; we need to gather on Pesah, even if we have to do it via electronic means, which are clearly not ideal. Welcome to she’at hadehaq, the hour of urgency.

Remember that, as I said last week, our tradition offers us the framework, the guidance, the values that will get us through this. Take advantage of the tools we have; they will help keep us spiritually nourished and strong in order to stay safe and healthy. 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered via livestream from Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 3/28/2020.)

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A Light Unto the Nations, With a Touch of Grey – Shemini 5778

Israel turns 70 years old this week. 70 years of independence. 70 years of “lihyot am hofshi be-artzeinu” – of being a free people in our land. 70 years of inspiration to millions of Jews around the world.

Pirqei Avot 5:21* reports that 70 is the year of “seivah,” grey hair. As nations go, Israel is still fairly young, and for 70 she’s looking pretty good. Nonetheless, there are few 70-year-olds who can look back over their lives and see a perfectly-rosy picture of simplicity and wholeness. Life does not work that way. Democratic nations REALLY do not work that way. As with the grey hair, it’s mixed. But there is certainly much to be proud of, and to celebrate at this time.

A very curious news item crossed my desk this week. It was about the chief Sephardi rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, who released a statement appealing to Jews and leaders of all religions to take a stand to help the Syrian people and prevent, in his words, genocide.

Israeli Chief Rabbi berated for comparing black people to ...

Of note, he referred to the Syrians as enemies, but that we need to help them anyway:

As Jews, we cannot be silent. Let the call come out from here: we cannot move on from genocide, not in Syria nor anywhere or with any people, even if they are not our friends… We are all human beings. I call on you, leaders from all religions—lift up your voices. Let each person use their influence. If this happens, perhaps we will be able to prevent such atrocities.

Now, as is the case with most of the world, Israel is reluctant to be involved in Syria’s civil war, and certainly the stakes are much higher for Israel than, say, France or the US.

But Rabbi Yosef’s point is hanging out there, staring us in the face. I do not have the time to explain the complexity of what is going on in Syria, but the most salient fact is that as many as half a million Syrians have been killed, most by Syrian government forces under the leadership of President Bashar al-Assad, some with the chemical weapons that splattered across our screens this week. More than 5 million have fled what remains of that country and are living in Turkey, Jordan, Europe, the US and elsewhere. More than 7 million have been displaced within Syria.**

With all of that upheaval, with all of that killing and displacement, how can we in the West simply stand by and let it continue? There is a record number of refugees in the world right now, perhaps 60 million people, affecting the social and political landscape across much of the globe. It is not up to us to find a solution, but we are nonetheless obligated to make sure that we urge our leaders to do so. We cannot look the other way.

And, in particular, Israelis cannot look the other way as their neighbors slaughter each other. And they have not: Israeli hospitals have treated over 4,000 wounded and sick Syrian citizens, and supplied food, fuel, construction materials and other items to Syrian areas near the border.

Rabbi Yosef, whose theology and approach to Jewish law is vastly different from my own, used his position to take a moral stand on the value of human life. And all I can say to that is, “Kol hakavod.” (“All the honor to you.”) If rabbis in this world are not going to stand up for saving lives, then who will? (I refer you back to my discussion a few weeks back regarding the easy availability of semi-automatic assault rifles, and our responsibility vis-a-vis the prime directive of Jewish life, that is, the principle of piqquah nefesh, saving lives.)  

What was most surprising to me, however, was Rabbi Yosef’s use of the word, “genocide,” in Hebrew, השמדת עם “hashmadat ‘am.” This is a particularly loaded term in Jewish life, and all the more so in the history of the State of Israel, because we do not take the term “genocide” lightly. Genocide requires an organized approach to killing, a systematic attempt to eradicate a people. The Nazis were guilty of genocide. The Turks attempted to kill all the Armenians in Turkey (and, by the way, the Nazis studied their methods). Tribal killing in Rwanda in the 1990s. The Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. I am not sure that what is happening in Syria is a genocide (there is debate on this), but I am sure that it is not a word that Jews should use capriciously, particularly when critics of Israel egregiously apply that word to Israel’s ongoing struggle against Palestinian terrorism.  

Nonetheless, Rabbi Yosef has a point: the world needs to help Syria find a solution. Now, I have expertise in neither military strategy nor in statecraft, but the great powers of this world have many such experts. And regardless of our religion, regardless of who is at war with whom and for how long and over what piece of land, we need to try to prevent humanitarian catastrophe when we can.

But the even greater point, and the one that goes to the reason that we celebrate 70 years of the State of Israel, is that underneath his message is the essential Jewish imperative to be or lagoyim, a light unto the nations. It is a principle that (roughly) quotes a line from the book of Isaiah (49:6):

וַיֹּ֗אמֶר נָקֵ֨ל מִֽהְיוֹתְךָ֥ לִי֙ עֶ֔בֶד לְהָקִים֙ אֶת־שִׁבְטֵ֣י יַעֲקֹ֔ב וּנְצוּרֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לְהָשִׁ֑יב וּנְתַתִּ֙יךָ֙ לְא֣וֹר גּוֹיִ֔ם לִֽהְי֥וֹת יְשׁוּעָתִ֖י עַד־קְצֵ֥ה הָאָֽרֶץ׃ 

God has said: “It is too little that you should be My servant in that I raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the survivors of Israel: I will also make you a light of nations, That My salvation may reach the ends of the earth.”

As with the principle of piqquah nefesh, the obligation to save a human life, which outweighs just about every other mitzvah, another Jewish value is in play here: the obligation to stand up for what is right. While immigrants and refugees are roiling European governments, while the United States argues with itself about our responsibility to needy neighbors, while Medinat Yisrael / the State of Israel herself struggles with the challenge of illegal immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa, the chief rabbinate of Israel stands up and speaks the truth. We may not be able to resolve Syria’s internal mess, but Israel could save even more lives by setting up dedicated field hospitals at the border, by sending in more aid. Crates of flour and chickpeas and cooking oil with huge Israeli flags proudly displayed on the side.

That is what it means to cast light in this world. That is what it means to be a Jew, to radiate some light in the darkness.

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And yes, like the grey hair of the 70-year-old invoked in Pirkei Avot, reality is complex. Being a sovereign nation is difficult. Sometimes the light we cast is not pure; sometimes it is inflected with a touch of grey.

70 years after David Ben-Gurion declared Israel’s independence, we are still figuring out what it means to have a Jewish state and what that state looks like. But although it’s a work in progress, although we in the Diaspora continue to examine and re-examine our relationship with Israel, the good news is that, 70 years later, Israel is still strong, and her light will shine as a beacon to all the nations of the world.

Let’s continue to work to make the State of Israel better. And there are many ways to do that, but the best way by far is to go there, to learn about Israel and the land and all the people who live there. We are celebrating Israel’s 70th birthday tomorrow evening with a Yom Ha’Atzma’ut program including a dance troupe from Karmiel/Misgav, sponsored by Derekh and the Federation. There will be food; come join us at 5 PM.

But even better than that, and also a Derekh project, in the Israel portal, is an actual trip to Israel for adults. We’ll be going there as a Beth Shalom group from October 28th to Nov. 8, and the goal will be to provide an Israel experience for the whole self, mind and body. It’s not a family trip (we’ll get around to doing one of those eventually), but whether or not you have been before, you should join us on this trip. (Click here to check out the itinerary!Click here to check out the itinerary!)

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 4/14/2018.)

***

 

* Pirqei Avot (literally, “Chapters of the Fathers”) is a book of the Mishnah, the earliest piece of rabbinic literature, dating to roughly the 2nd century CE in Israel. It is a collection of wisdom about how we should conduct ourselves, and emphasizes learning and teaching Torah as an essential imperative in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE and the consequent end of the ancient Israelite sacrificial cult and priesthood.

** Over 3,000 non-Syrian residents have been killed, and the vast majority of those have been Palestinians.

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