Posted tagged ‘Hebrew Scriptures’

Silver Linings and Rays of Hope: A COVID Reflection of Hope

May 23, 2020

This Shabbat, when we read Torah, we began our journey through its fourth book; the Book of NUMBERS.  As you may or may not know, the meaning of the Hebrew names of the books of the Torah do not necessarily match their English names.  The Book of NUMBERS is a perfect example.  In English, it is called “NUMBERS” because in its beginning, it does a deep dive into the taking of a census of the Israelites before they enter the Promised Land.  Its Hebrew name – BEMIDBAR – delivers quite a different message.  BEMIDBAR means “In the Wilderness.”

As I contemplated our entering the text of BEMIDBAR, I could not help but grasp the parallel with our own lives at this juncture of history.  For, like the newly liberated Israelites, we find ourselves wandering in a wilderness.  Just like our ancestors who were faced with the challenges of needing to traverse their wilderness, with all its difficulties and dangers, we, too, find ourselves faced with the challenges of needing to traverse a wilderness all our own.

Our wilderness is not like theirs.  It is not a wilderness which stretches across miles.  Its difficulties are not the burning desert sun, rough roads to travel, thirst and hunger.  Its dangers are not the fear of attacks from wild beasts, snakes, scorpions, and marauding tribes.  The difficulties and dangers of our wilderness come from this highly contagious and lethal disease which afflicts us today.  They are the difficulties embedded in our need to change our lives so dramatically in order to protect our lives; masks, physical distancing, sheltering at home, shortages at the grocery store, massive unemployment and the poverty and deprivations it entails, the upending of our world economy, the severely diminished education of our children, our inability to be in the physical presence of loved ones and friends, and, of course, the uncertainty of what the future holds for us – the new normal – and when that future will arrive.  As for the dangers, they are self-explanatory, or at least they should be, but for some inexplicable reason there are too many in our society who refuse to acknowledge them.  They are the dangers of our enormous vulnerability to a horrible disease which has the power to inflict unbelievable and prolonged suffering, and possible death, not to mention that unless we behave carefully and responsibly, we could bear the guilt of inflicting all of this upon others, including the people we love.  This is our wilderness.

Yes, the wilderness can be dark and dangerous, whether it be the wilderness of our ancestors or our own.  But even in its midst, there are silver linings and rays of hope which can be found.  Next Thursday evening, we as Jews will commence the celebration of one major silver lining, one major ray of hope, which our ancestors encountered in their wilderness. That silver lining, that ray of hope, changed the world and the history of humanity for all time, and changed it for the better.  The celebration I speak of, of course, is Shavuot, the festival of our receiving the Ten Commandments.  It was in the wilderness, with all its hardships, pain, and suffering, that our ancestors found themselves standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, and there, receiving directly from God, the ten most important rules which would, from that time forth, serve as the guiding principles for the advancement of humanity.

Like our ancestors, as we traverse our wilderness of COVID, there are silver linings and rays of hope to be found.  They do not diminish the hardships we must endure, just as the Ten Commandments did not diminish the hardships endured by our ancestors, but they can redeem our wilderness sojourn from being bereft of any meaning whatsoever, just as, in the same way, God’s gift of the Ten Commandments redeemed the wilderness sojourn of our ancestors.

Some may wonder:  What are these silver linings and these rays of hope which manifest themselves now, in our darkest hours?  They are rays of hope which have the potential to light the path to a better future in what eventually will be a post-COVID world.  But what are they?

One of them is that it has been determined that as a result of the pandemic and the restrictive changes in behavior that it has required of us, the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere has been reduced by 17%, dropping to the levels of 2006.  This is but one of several positive impacts our lockdown has had on the environment, as we have been allowing nature to heal itself.  It shows us that if we can choose to change our behaviors, we can begin to ecologically repair our planet.  While it should go without saying that we cannot maintain lockdown protocols forever in order to save our planet, still we can change our attitude of “business as usual” and seriously engage in environmentally responsible behaviors, such as truly committing to the pursuit of alternative clean energy sources.  We have it within our ability to turn back the doomsday clock.

Another ray of hope found in our wilderness is that after 72-years of an ongoing Middle East conflict, it has taken this pandemic, with all its pain and suffering, to start to open a door for, at least a new beginning of Arab-Israeli cooperation.  Three Arab states – states that for all these years have been sworn enemies of Israel – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait – have turned to Israel for assistance in their struggles against the COVID-19 virus.  This is in no way a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, but it is a glimmer of a recognition of how the countries of the Middle East need each other in order to survive and prosper.  It is but one step toward a resolution of this tragic conflict.  As we march into the future, this moment should not be lost or forgotten by its players, Hopefully it will serve as a building block toward a kinder, gentler Middle East.

Still another ray of hope is born out of the very anguish of our wilderness.  This public health crisis has only accentuated some of the social problems that long existed before the world ever heard of the Coronavirus.  Specifically, the fundamental injustices inherent in the vast socio-economic divide which exists in our nation and the dire consequences of our failure to humanely address that divide.  As we watch how this virus has devasted members of our economically disadvantaged community, way out of proportion to their numbers in our society, we can no longer ignore or turn a blind eye to the evils of runaway, abusive capitalism, the maintenance by way of neglect of a permanent underclass, and the innate evil of systemic racism.  These are intolerable conditions in a society which claims to be great, enlightened, and just. – “With Liberty and Justice for ALL.  If, after the nightmare of witnessing what this pandemic has done to the disadvantaged of our society, we do not commit ourselves to closing the socio-economic divide, then the guilt rests on our shoulders.  If nothing else, this crisis has shown us the necessity of our building a more just society, but we need to choose to act on it.

Still another ray of hope coming out of our current dilemma is that we can no longer afford to think in nationalistic terms.  Yes, we can be patriotically proud of our nation, but we cannot continue to view our nation as being superior or separate from the community of nations.  Last week, I watched Rachel Maddow interview Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York.  She asked an interesting and insightful question – “If you could turn back the clock to a time when you could have done something different in your response to the virus, when would that be and what would you have done differently?” His response was even more insightful. He said that while he was tempted to say March or February, actually he would have turned that clock back even earlier, to when we first were hearing about the outbreak in China.  With the wisdom of hindsight, he continued, saying that as soon as he heard of the Corona Virus outbreak in China, he would have started to prepare for its coming to New York. For, as he pointed out, in today’s world, when a virus strikes anywhere in the world, it can strike here tomorrow. All that is necessary is for one infected person to board a plane.  This pandemic should have taught us that we can no longer afford the foolishness of naively ignoring that we live in a global society.  Like it or not, we are intimately and inextricably bound to each other. Indeed, this is not new wisdom. As far back as 1624, the poet John Donne spoke of this reality when he penned his famous poem, “No Man Is an Island.” If, as a result of this pandemic, we can embrace this sense of international interdependence – that as a human race, we are at our best when our nations work together to build a better world – then the future we will build will be brighter and better than we ever dreamt.

Even in these dark hours, let us come to recognize and work to realize the lessons to be found in the silver linings and the rays of hope that, too, are products of this tragedy.  They cannot compensate for the suffering and the loss of life we have and we will endure, but they can show us the way to build a better world for tomorrow.  They redeem these days from the cruel fate of being totally meaningless blips of horror on the timeline of history.

Love: Jewish Style

February 15, 2014

“How lovely are your feet in sandals,

O daughter of nobles!

Your rounded thighs are like jewels,

The work of a master’s hand.

Your navel is like a round goblet –

Let mixed wine not be lacking! –

Your belly like a heap of wheat

Hedged about with lilies.

Your breasts are like two fawns,

Twins of a gazelle.

Your neck is like a tower of ivory,

Your eyes like pools in Heshbon

By the gate of Bath-rabbim,

Your nose like the Lebanon tower

That faces toward Damascus.

The head upon you is like crimson wool,

The locks of your head are like purple –

A king is held captive in the tresses.

How fair you are, how beautiful!

O Love, with all its rapture!

Your stately form is like the palm,

Your breasts are like clusters.

I say: Let me climb the palm,

Let me take hold of its branches;

Let your breasts be like clusters of grapes,

Your breath like the fragrance of apples,

And your mouth like choicest wine.

‘Let it flow to my beloved as new wine

Gliding over the lips of sleepers.’”[1]

Now some of you may be wondering if just because it is Valentine’s Day, does that give the rabbi license to stand on the bimah on Shabbat and recite to the congregation erotic love poetry, with thighs and navels and breasts and lips and rapture?  A valid question, especially considering that not only is Valentine’s Day not a Jewish holiday but in its earlier incarnation it was St. Valentine’s Day; a Roman Catholic Saint’s Day.

Well, if you have not already figured it out, this is not just any erotic poetry.  This text is from SHIR HASHIRIM, the SONG OF SONGS, sometimes called the SONG OF SOLOMON.  This text comes from our own Hebrew Scriptures.  Not only that but SONG OF SONGS is one of the Five Megillot – the Five Scrolls – each of which is assigned by our tradition to be read on a particular holiday.  And not only that!  Of the Five Megillot, there is only one scroll which is assigned to read on two holidays, and guess which scroll it is.  SONG OF SONGS, the scroll which is read on Passover and also on Shabbat, by husbands to their wives.

Now some may ponder how strange it is to find erotica in our Scriptures.  What were the ancient rabbis thinking, back in the 2nd century before the common era, when they decided to include this book, with all its blatant sexual imagery, in the collection of our sacred writings?  Were they just a bunch of dirty old men and this was their version of pornography?

Actually, they weren’t a bunch of dirty old men.  Quite the contrary.  Rather they were profoundly pious, deeply spiritual, remarkably open minded, wonderfully realistic, positive, God loving men of faith.  They did not see this book as “dirty” but rather as inspiring.  That was because they did not look at human love, in any of its manifestations, as being something dirty.  Quite the contrary.  They looked at the pleasure we receive from love, in all of its aspects, including its physical aspect, as being a gift from God, and therefore sacred.  They asked themselves the simple and obvious question: Why would God create us with the capacity to derive so much pleasure if God did not intend for us to enjoy it?  The very fact that God made this so pleasurable clearly indicates that this is something God encourages us to do.

They also recognized that even the best of things in our lives can become the worst of things.  It is all about use and abuse.  When given such gifts, how do we use them properly and employ them for the good, and how do we avoid misusing and abusing them, turning them into something bad?  Of course, when it came to the physical pleasures of love, for the Rabbis, the answer was simple.  Marriage.  Physical love and sexual pleasure was never intended to be an end in and of itself.  That is not the human way.  That is the way it is among the lower species.  For us humans, it was given as way to enhance and intensify the love relationship which exists between two people who are so attracted to each other that they yearn to share the totality of their lives together.

This is a good thing, not a bad thing.  Since God created us with the capacity to love another, it becomes our sacred responsibility to maximize that love in all of its manifestations.  Like any other gift we receive from any other source, one of the truest ways to demonstrate our gratitude for that gift is to make the most of that gift.  If someone were to give you a sweater, and you really liked that sweater, and therefore you wore it often, every time the person who gave you that sweater sees you wearing that sweater, they know how very much you have valued their gift.  It is the same here.  In fact, that is why our tradition teaches us that lovemaking between a husband and wife, on Shabbat, is counted as a double mitzvah.

Why was human love so important to the rabbis – silly question! – and more importantly, why did they feel that it was important to God?  Because the rabbis saw the love between human beings as not something separate from God but rather as the model of human love for God.  Do not get me wrong!  It is not that they ever considered the idea that humans could engage in physical love with God but rather that we should aspire, in our love of God, to reaching the intensity of connectedness between us and God that, in much the same manner, exists in a full and healthy love relationship between husband and wife; a relationship which has the power to take two separate individuals and transform them into one whole and completed being.  How often a husband will say to a wife, or a wife to a husband, “You fulfill me!” and mean it.  That was the rabbi’s ideal, and remains our Jewish ideal, for what should be our relationship with God.  God should fulfill us, and if God fulfills us, believe it or not, we fulfill God.

In a truly intimate human love relationship, each one can often anticipate the other.  We know what they are thinking.  We know what they are feeling without having to ask.  We know because it is important to us; they are important to us, and more often than not, more important to us than ourselves.  Our pleasure is to be found in giving them pleasure.  Their very presence in our lives is our primary source of joy.  This is the type of intimacy to which Judaism encourages us to aspire in our relationship with God.

The Jewish philosopher-theologian Martin Buber understood this very well.  In his famous work, I & THOU, he tells us that in the realm of relationships, there are two major categories – I-It relationships and I-Thou or I-You relationships.

I-It relationships are one directional.  They are all about how the other party can meet our needs.  They have little if anything to do with how we can meet the needs of the other.  Of course we have I-It relationships with objects like chairs.  We are concerned with how the chair meets our needs but we never give a thought to whether or not the chair has needs which we can meet.  But we also can have I-It relationships with people.  Just think about how you often relate to servers in a restaurant or cashiers in a supermarket.

I-Thou relationships are, to one degree or another, two directional.  They are about mutually meeting each other’s needs.  Of course they vary in degree.  An I-Thou relationship with an acquaintance is not nearly as giving as an I-Thou relationship with a friend.  The more intense the relationship, the more connected we feel to the other and the more priority we give to the meeting of their needs.

For Buber, the most intense human experience of an I-Thou relationship is the relationship which exists between loving spouses.  It is this relationship which Buber points to as a model for his third category of relationships – I-Eternal Thou; the desired relationship between the individual and God.  What a statement that makes!  If we could only love God as much as we love each other!  If we could only love God as much as we love the person we love the most!

This all brings us back to SONG OF SONGS.  When the Rabbi’s hotly debated whether or not to include this book in the Hebrew Scriptures, it was no less a personage than Rabbi Akiva who absolutely insisted upon its inclusion.  He was reported as saying, “for all the ages are not worth the day that SONG OF SONGS was given to Israel; for all the Ketuvim (all the Writings) are holy, but the SONG OF SONGS is the Holy of Holies.”[2]  Why did he claim this?  Because Akiva did not just see this book as the description of a deep love between a man and a woman, but more importantly, he saw it as a beautiful testimony to the love which should exist between God and Israel.  That is why we read it on Passover, when God showed us unbounded love through the act of our liberation from Egyptian slavery.  That is why we read it on Shabbat, when we show God our unending love by observing this day as God’s day, week after week after week.

It is Shabbat and it is Valentine’s Day.  As we celebrate the love that we share with each other, let us likewise celebrate the love that we share with God.


[1] SONG OF SONGS 7:2-10.

[2] MISHNAH YADAIM 3.5.