Talmud this Shabbat: Passover in a Pandemic

Why is this Passover different from all other Passovers?

All other Passovers we were free. On this Passover we are largely confined to our home.

All other Passovers we read about the plagues God visited upon the Egyptians. On this Passover we are experiencing our own very serious plague.

All other Passovers our seders were big and bustling, 20 people, 30 people, 40 people. On this Passover we are 10 or fewer.

All other Passovers we welcomed the stranger. On this Passover, welcoming the stranger could be dangerous to the stranger and/or to us.

All other Passovers were a multi-generational lovefest. On this Passover, young grandchildren could endanger their older grandparents, and so the generations are wisely kept apart.

All other Passovers took place in the spring, a season of joy. On this Passover, we are in the midst of a season of worry and fear.

Given all that, how do we our seders this year? And we need to do our seders this year—at their appointed time—Wednesday and Thursday night, April 8 and 9. Doing them later—not an option. Not doing them—not an option.

How can we authentically connect to the serious dangers posed by the Coronavirus to health and life, to our economy and our jobs—and do a seder that is uplifting and inspiring and maybe even fun?

Tomorrow morning, Michelle, Aliza, Elias, Dan and I will explore the texts and talk about the perils and possibilities of our Passover Pandemic coming soon to a home near you.

See you virtually on Shabbat morning at 8:30.

We will get through this together.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: A House of God at a Time of Plague

Live Streamed Only

What should the role of our synagogue be at this time of plague?

Of course we must attend to health and safety first and foremost. Hence the emails yesterday making the hard but necessary decision to go on-line.

But physical health is not our only concern. How do we attend to our spiritual welfare? How do we nurture our heart and soul, and the hearts and souls of others, when we must be physically distant?

Tomorrow morning I will be having a conversation with Michelle, Aliza, Elias and Dan on the spiritual dimension of the Coronavirus. How do we hold onto our optimism, our hope, our faith in the face of this assault which overturns all of our lives as we know it? What works for them?

I will teach the powerful Haftarah (for Parshat B’har) from Jeremiah 32, a copy of which is attached. Jeremiah writes in a season of utter and consuming darkness. He is in jail—incarcerated for speaking truth to power. The Babylonians are coming to destroy the First Temple. Personal darkness. Communal darkness. National darkness. The opposite of hope. The opposite of faith. The opposite of light. What does he do? From his jail cell, he arranges to buy real estate in Jerusalem. “Houses, fields, and vineyards shall again be purchased in this land.” (32:15)

That is the deed he does. But what does he feel? After he arranges to purchase Jerusalem real estate, he prays to God, the second part of the Haftarah. His faith is suffused with doubt. The end of the Haftarah is a question. Is there a God in charge of all this?

How do we act with faith, even when we feel doubt?

Click here to view the attachment.

Please join us only by livestreaming this class HERE.

Together we will get through this.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: Can Feeling Felt Happen in Transactional Contexts?

You are getting a ride in an Uber, Lyft or cab. You are tired, busy, distracted. You’d like to respond to texts and emails; catch up on the news; phone a loved one; chill out and sleep. But the driver is chatty. The driver wants to talk. Do you cue the driver that you are not interested? Do you cue the driver: please just drive? Or do you transcend yourself in an effort to make the driver feel felt?

On Shabbat we are going to read “Heart,” a short story in Elizabeth Strout’s new collection, Olive, Again. What is new and different about “Heart” is that all of the relationships are transactional: a doctor, a nurse, two different home health aides. Olive’s heart attack sets in motion all of these transactional relationships with different health care providers. Previous stories featured long-lasting relationships: spouses, parents and children, siblings, attorney-client, friends. This is a story for a gig economy about temporary relationships that come into being for a specific reason and are then no more.

What would it look like if we were able to suffuse our transactional relationships with holiness? What would it look like if the other person on the other end of a gig moment felt felt? Can you, by how you engage your driver, add to the quantity of healing in our world?

How do we make others feel felt? A helpful answer is in “Heart.”

See you on Shabbat,

Talmud this Shabbat: Feeling Felt

Lori Gottlieb is a therapist in Los Angeles with an active practice. One day, she herself needs a therapist. Her boyfriend, whom she had thought she would marry, breaks up with her, and in a particularly cruel way. She is the mother of a young son. Her boyfriend says to her, out of the blue: I don’t want to spend time watching your son play with Legos.

In her book Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (2019), she tells the story of how she found her own therapist, and worked with that therapist, while also continuing her own work as a therapist to her patients. She talks about the single most important criterion for her in finding the right therapist:

Study after study shows that the most important factor in the success of your treatment is your relationship with the therapist, your experience of “feeling felt.” This matters more than the therapist’s training, the kind of therapy they do, or what type of problem you have. (p. 36)

What goes into “feeling felt”? What are the ingredients for “feeling felt”? Have you ever experienced this? Have you helped others to feel felt?

It is super hard to do well, and easy to mess up altogether. We are going to do a two-part series on feeling felt. Tomorrow we will see one story from the Torah and two from the Talmud where a person in pain does not feel felt. From that we can learn what not to do. Next week we will encounter a beautiful story of people who do feel felt.

Why does this matter, and why does this matter now? In an era of negative energy, a beautiful and helpful antidote to that negative energy is feeling felt, and helping others feel that way as well. If Temple Emanuel could be a place where everybody who walks into 385 Ward Street feels felt, that would make a better world, at least here.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: When Do We Commit the Sin of Patience?

Is patience always a virtue? Our Torah portion and President’s Day invite us to consider when patience is a sin.

The first laws after Sinai permit slavery. Rich Israelites can enslave poor Israelites. Indeed, poor fathers can sell their own daughters into slavery. Horrible, painful texts, what Bible scholar Phyllis Trible calls “texts of terror.”

How to understand our holy Torah, God’s word, permitting atrocity and evil?

No less an authority than Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks says it’s all about patience. God wants to abolish slavery, but slowly. Incrementally. Patience is called for. In an essay entitled “The Slow End of Slavery,” he writes:

So slavery is to be abolished, but it is a fundamental principle of God’s relationship with us that he does not force us to change faster than we are able to do so of our own free will. So Mishpatim does not abolish slavery but it sets in motion a series of fundamental laws that will lead people, albeit at their own pace, to abolish it of their own accord….

If history tells us anything it is that God has patience…

What does patience look like, what is the price to be paid for patience, and who pays that price? As Alexis Coe writes in her new biography entitled You Never Forget Your First: A Biography of George Washington (2020), our first president was a massive slave-owner. He was on record as saying that slavery should be abolished “by slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees.” What that meant in practice was that he never freed a single slave during his life, and he pursued zealously his own slaves that ran away. When he needed money to buy molasses, rum, limes and tamarinds, he sold a slave named Tom to the West Indies knowing that this slave would work hard, eat poorly, receive no medical care, and die young. His own words and letters testify to this. To his credit, at his death, his will did free his 123 slaves upon the death of his wife Martha. (By contrast, Benjamin Franklin freed his slaves while he lived, and he petitioned Congress to abolish slavery.)

Only somebody who is not and has never been a slave can speak of patience here. If you are a slave, patience is no virtue. It is a sin. George Washington’s slaves suffered grievously, and his grounds at Mount Vernon are filled with the unmarked graves of the human beings he enslaved.

But this is not only about Mishpatim and George Washington. This is about us. When do we commit the sin of patience?

When is the better response, the moral response, the response of the Rebbe, the late Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who taught that “Anything worth doing is worth doing now.”

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: From Deuteronomy to Parasite, Poverty and Economic Inequality Are Insoluble

In winning Best Picture at the Academy awards and being the first non-English-speaking film to do so, Parasite made history. When I saw Parasite several months ago, the wisdom of Ernest Hemingway came to mind. You know something is good for you if it feels good not while you are doing it, but if it feels good after you have done it. I found watching Parasite exquisitely uncomfortable. For large stretches of the movie, I was squirming, it was that uncomfortable. And yet, in the months since, more than any film I have seen recently, it has stayed with me.

The film is about economic inequality, the very rich and the very poor, in South Korea, and the simmering resentments that lie just below the surface.

But the film is not only about South Korea. It is about us. Think about the New Hampshire primary this week. So much of the energy is around different responses to economic inequality, to the problem of the persistent and permanent economic underclass–a perennial issue in every election cycle.

About this problem the Torah has something sober to say, something that no politician running in Iowa or New Hampshire would or could ever say: Poverty is insoluble. There will always be a permanent economic underclass. There is no program, no policy, no plan that can change that. There is no sermon, no teaching, no exhortation that can change that. God seems to have a special solicitude for the poor, but that does not stop them from being poor. Economic inequality there always was, economic inequality there always will be.

On Shabbat, we will examine the Torah’s sober wisdom, and then talk about two very different responses: our prophets and our rabbis. Echoes of both voices are heard at every campaign stop in this, and in every, election cycle.

See you tomorrow!

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: Do Not Cast Us Off As We Grow Old

“Do not cast us off as we grow old; When our energy wanes do not desert us.”

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur liturgy

How do we approach the season of our life where there is much more in our past than there will be in our future? When we are in those later chapters, is it possible to live with joy, lightness, happiness, purpose, impact? How do we not get weighed down by the heaviness of mortality?

In this week’s Talmud class, we will read our last Elizabeth Strout story, Friend, in which Olive wrestles with how to wrest joy and meaning out of her last chapter:

But it was almost over, after all, her life. It swelled behind her like a sardine fishing net…the billion streaks of emotion she’d had as she’d looked at sunrises, sunsets, the different hands of waitresses who had placed before her cups of coffee— All of it gone, or about to go.

Olive shifted slightly in her seat…(p. 288)

On Shabbat we will do three things:

We will explore the story Friend for any insights it yields on how to think about and live out our own later chapters.

Because it is also Shabbat Shira—a time to think about how Jewish music and song convey our deepest questions and aspirations—Elias will join us to chant the lines of the High Holiday liturgy in which we confront our own mortality. His father passed. His aging mother lives in Buenos Aires. How does he think about these lines as he utters them in our holiest season?

We will explore a companion text from the prophet Zecharia. Zecharia sees our last chapter very differently from the way many of us, and our parents, live ours.

See you on Shabbat!

Talmud this Shabbat: The End of the Civil War Days–Elizabeth Strout in Dialogue with Tractate Eruvin

Is it possible for us to be one nation?

Please read The End of the Civil War Days by Elizabeth Strout. It is (to me anyway) a hilarious and helpful response to the hard problem of civil war, within families and our nation. Surprisingly, while tackling this serious conundrum, the story is at times laugh out loud funny.

On Shabbat morning, we will consider three questions.

What is the story’s wisdom about how to respond to, and end, civil war?

How does this message compare and contrast to the classic Jewish message in the Talmud? Strout’s posture and the Talmud’s posture are very different from one another.

What does this story say to our divided nation now? Would her wisdom work for you?

See you on Shabbat!

PS If you happen to be easily offended, please do not read this story, which features
a dominatrix. The fact that one of the characters is a dominatrix drives the story. There is discussion at a broad level of what a dominatrix does, and it is not typical shul fare. So be forewarned, please do not read this if you might take offense.

Talmud this Shabbat: Whatever Happened to the God of the Exodus Story? Rabbi Yitz Greenberg in Dialogue with Elizabeth Strout

Whatever happened to the God that we will read about this coming Shabbat? The God that intervenes in history, smites the Egyptians with plagues, defeats the Pharaoh, liberates the slaves, splits the sea? That God is nowhere to be seen and has not been since the Exodus story itself.

If we take the Exodus story seriously, when we read it in the Torah, and when we experience it at our seder tables, one haunting question is hard to avoid: whatever happened to that God and God’s vaunted strong hand and outstretched arm?

One move, certainly understandable after the Shoah, is that of Rabbi Richard Rubinstein: God is dead. Rabbi Rubinstein’s answer that God (certainly the God of the Exodus story) is dead is a bit brusque but hard to deny. It also doesn’t leave us with much to work with. Are there any other moves that could also be honest and leave us with something to work with as we try to figure out how to live our best lives?

On Shabbat we will encounter something of a dialogue, the theology of somebody we have never before studied, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg. His thinking is a helpful contrast to that of Elizabeth Strout’s gorgeous, luminous story “Light” in Olive, Again. Please read the 21-page story before class.

Where is God in a world without God? See you on Shabbat!


Talmud this Shabbat: “Helped” by Elizabeth Strout

Why a Talmud teaser on Tuesday?

Because this Shabbat I am asking the class to do something I have never asked before: a little homework. I am attaching the short story “Helped,” part of Elizabeth Strout’s new collection of stories in Olive, Again.

A few words about this short story. It is dark. Creepy. And at a certain point, yucky, which is the word Shira used when she read it at my request. The moment of disgust will be obvious when you get there.

And, for all that, the story is poignant and beautiful. It features the one and only Jew in Olive, Again, somebody whose family was largely wiped out in the Shoah. This story speaks about faith and God, what God has not done and cannot do, and what a belief in something larger than us can do.

As you read the story, please think about its title. A lot of religious language is more robust than the title. Religious language often uses words like save, redeem, transform. Help is more humble. And the title is in the form of a past participle, helped. Who or what did the helping, and who or what was helped?

This short story is long on meaning—exactly the kind of meaning we try on a good day to make at Temple Emanuel. Thank you for reading it. Look forward to our conversation on Shabbat morning.

Click here to read “Helped.”