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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  (rabbi@adathisraelsf.org) has been the Rabbi of Adath Israel since May 2013. He was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate in Jerusalem and has served previously as a congregational Rabbi in Charleston, South Carolina and Irvine, California. A full biography of Rabbi Landau is available here.


 

The year 5780 is almost over and out, Rosh Hashana 5781 is about a week or so away. Many people have chosen to simply write off this past year instead of making the effort to look into what we all went through, as individuals and a larger community, and glean some useful lessons to make the New Year better. To help us all in this task, I share with you the following two articles by colleagues of mine. The first is by R. Efrem Goldberg from Boca Raton, which focuses on how to deal with friends and family with different attitudes towards COVID-19. The second article is by R. Shlomo Buxbaum from Washington, D.C. Rabbi Buxbaum very cleverly points out an amazing connection between blowing shofar and COVID-19.

Blog #1

The story is told of a young couple that moved into a new neighborhood. The next morning while they were eating breakfast, the young woman saw her neighbor hanging laundry outside. “That laundry isn't very clean; she doesn’t know how to wash correctly. Perhaps she needs better laundry soap.” Her husband looked on, remaining silent.

Every time her neighbor hung her wash out to dry, the young woman made the same comments. A month later, the woman was surprised to see a nice clean wash on the line and said to her husband, “Look, she’s finally learned how to wash correctly. I wonder who taught her?”

The husband replied, “I got up early this morning and cleaned our windows.”

I've been thinking about this story lately while observing and feeling some of the tensions and judgment the pandemic has created. History will record the data – how many casualties, how many confirmed cases, how many recoveries, how many long-term illnesses, how many positives for anti-bodies. But who will measure how many friendships were strained, how many engagements were broken? What will quantify the sustained anxiety, both from fear of contracting the illness and from watching how others took it either too lightly or too strictly? How can history accurately capture the months-long toll of high emotions and its ultimate impact on our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being?

When Covid first raged and communities shut down, in a sense life was fairly straightforward. Being compliant was responsible and respectful and those who weren’t were risking their lives and the lives of others. But in the months of phased reopening and fluctuating numbers, the reality is profoundly confusing. The pandemic isn't over by any stretch, nor can we let down our guard. Vigilance, caution and compliance remain critical, in many cases to save or preserve lives. Nevertheless, by any measure, while we are far from at the end, we are also not where we were at the beginning.

Certainly there is behavior that, even now, all would agree is irresponsible and dangerous. But where exactly to draw the line between reckless and ruthless is much less clear. Was sending children to camp (and now to school) fair or foolish? Is it time for playdates and Yom Tov meals with distancing and precautions? Should minyanim be held indoors, outdoors, or maybe not at all?

As a result of inherent ambiguity and competing or nonspecific guidance, “corona shaming” abounds. Some are indignant at the carelessness of friends and neighbors, while others are appalled by how extreme the people around them are acting.  

Given the stakes involved with nearly every aspect of this, it's hard not to expect and demand everyone to have the exact same attitude you do to this dreaded virus and the proper behaviors to avoid its spread. It reminds me of a famous comedian’s brilliant observation: “Anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac.”

While we as a community have adopted and continue to encourage safety protocols and policies, ultimately, we would do well to realize that as individuals there is so much we cannot control. Let’s not compound the challenges of this time by forfeiting our serenity over things and people we can’t control. 

Let's focus instead on that which we can. Here are a few suggestions:

Stephen Covey writes in Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, "If I were to summarize in one sentence the single most important principle I have learned in the field of interpersonal relations, it would be this: Seek first to understand, then to be understood." Before criticizing or judging the choices of others or the decisions of your shul or children’s school, first take the time to try to understand where they are coming from, how decisions were arrived at, and what informed them.

The Talmud (Eruvin 13) tells us that we follow the opinion of Beis Hillel over Beis Shammai because Beis Hillel would always listen to what Beis Shammai had to say and entertain their opinion before coming to their own conclusion. You don’t have to agree with everyone or with every institution. Constructive criticism is fair and should be welcomed, but only after first hearing and entertaining the thought process of the other side.

What we see when watching others depends on the cleanliness and clarity of the window through which we look. Before reacting incredulously to the behavior of others, ask yourself, how consistent are you with all your choices and actions? Do you never rationalize your exceptions to your own rules? Be truthful with yourself and only then examine others. It is said that when you point a finger at someone else, three more point back at you.

We may be powerless to control others, but we can control ourselves. We don’t have to feel or react with anger, anxiety, frustration, resentment, helplessness or hopelessness, no matter what is happening or how people are behaving around us. We choose how we spend our time, what attitude and demeanor we have and what we focus on. We control our thoughts and we regulate our emotions. Don’t give the key to your happiness and serenity to others.

With all the uncertainty and powerlessness, we can redouble our focus on prayer. In addition to fundamentally believing that God craves our prayers and responds to them, even if the answer isn’t always yes, there are also measurable health benefits to praying regularly. Prayer can make you less reactive to negative emotions and less angry. Channel the frustration with others and the anxiety over what feels like an endless pandemic into drawing closer to God, talking to Him, leaning on Him and even objecting to Him.

This High Holy Day season our prayers will be more abridged, our singing more muted, and many won’t be able to participate in minyan at all. But no matter where we are, now is not a time to be more casual or cavalier about prayer. It is a time to increase our fervor, intensify our concentration, and to dig deep to compensate for what is missing so that our prayers can pierce the gates of Heaven.

When looking out at the world, make sure to clean your windows first. Do all you can to keep yourself and your family safe. And then, make the decision that instead of perseverating over what you can’t control, you will focus on what you can.

 

Blog #2

Most of us take breathing for granted. It's something that just happens on its own. But as we approach Rosh Hashanah and look back at some of the takeaways from the Jewish year 5780, there has been a focus on breathing.

This year will be remembered as a year of Covid-19 ventilators and masks that inhibit our breathing. This year will be remembered as the year that we were forced to slow down from the rapid pace of our daily lives and just breathe. And with every breath we learned to humble ourselves, to relinquish control, to take each day as it comes, and to live a little more in the present.

For the many who suffered losses, trauma, or disappointments, 5780 will be remembered as a year of challenges and pain. But many will remember this year as one that snapped them out of the trance of daily repetitive living, giving them a chance to learn how to focus on what matters, to get to know their families and themselves a little better, a year that taught them how to truly breathe.

On Rosh Hashanah there is a commandment to blow the shofar, a unique mitzvah in that it is fulfilled by using our breath. The shofar blasts mark the birthday of mankind when God "blew" into man's nostrils his soul, giving him the "breath of life" (Genesis, 2:7). Breath is symbolic for the soul, as the two share a common Hebrew root. The word for soul, "neshama", is almost identical to the Hebrew word “neshima”, breathe. It's no wonder that one can become more aware of the higher levels of their soul by slowing down and focusing on their breathing.

Blowing the shofar teaches us how to discover our soul. The shofar is nothing more than a hollow shell, yet it transforms a fleeting breath into a powerful victory cry. When we make ourselves hollow, letting go of our egos and relinquish the false sense of control, only then can we fully experience the spiritual essence that is inside of us.

Commenting on the verse "Lift up your voice like a shofar" (Isaiah 58:1), one the early Hassidic masters, Rabbi Avraham Chaim of Zlotchov, known as the Orach L’Chaim, writes: When we view ourselves like a shofar that has no voice besides for what is blown into it, in that we have no power outside of what God gives us, we can awaken the Divine love and bring upon ourselves great kindness and compassion.

This past year we learned how to do just that. We saw how quickly our entire life can change, and how the entire world can be thrown into chaos. We saw that most of the external structures that we build are really hollow and powerless, like a shofar. We learned that without breath – without a spiritual connection, without meaningful relationships, without personal growth – our lives can turn very empty very quickly.

As the virus first began to spread, many took note of its name corona, which means crown, pointing out how this virus would wake up the world to realize how dependent we are on the King of Kings to protect us and to keep world order. Jewish tradition teaches us that the shofar is the very instrument that we use to coronate God as King, proclaiming that everything we have is dependent on God Who is constantly breathing life and sustaining us with His Divine energy.

As we look back on a year when we learned how to pay attention to our breath, when we saw the hollowness and fragility of our control, when the word corona became a household word, perhaps we can view the entire year as one great shofar blast, one great reminder of who is really in control.