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Rabbi's Blog

rabbi 05 smallsf badge lgRabbi Joel Landau  ( 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 countdown to Rosh Hashana 5781 is on. Clearly, this year’s High Holidays will be unlike any before. The services and meals will all be different than what we are used to and we will need to be more self-motivated to make things meaningful. In order to help you get into the holiday spirit, I share with you the following articles.

The first article, “Masks and How We Relate to Others” was written by Sarah Rudolph, a freelance Jewish educator, writer and editor. She has been sharing her passion for Jewish texts of all kinds for over fifteen years, with students of all ages. Sarah’s essays have been published in a variety of internet and print media, including Jewish Action, OU Life, TorahMusings, The Times of Israel and more. Sarah lives in Cleveland with her husband and four children, but is privileged to learn online with students all over the world through and

The second article, “Elul: How to Realistically Change the World” was written by Rabbi Benjamin Blech, a frequent contributor to the News & Shmooze. R. Blech is a Professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University and an internationally recognized educator, religious leader and lecturer. He is the author of nineteen highly acclaimed books. 

Blog #1: Masks and How We Relate to Others 

In the beginning, they said not to wear masks. They said masks wouldn’t protect much against catching the virus, only perhaps from transmitting it; they said masks and other personal protective equipment needed to be conserved for those on the front lines; they said masks could even be dangerous, creating a false sense of security that might lead wearers to be lax about other, more effective measures of protection.

Then, slowly, the recommendations changed: Wear the masks, not for yourself, but to protect others – just in case you have the virus even without knowing it, so you don’t unknowingly pass it on to someone who might be harmed by it. Don’t worry about using up precious equipment: you can make a mask at home, or just tie a bandana around your nose and mouth. Do what you can, even if it’s not perfect, because we’re all in this together.

These shifting perspectives on masks echo broader issues of how we relate to others.

There are other ways one person can affect (or metaphorically infect) another, every time they interact, whether they are physically close or distant from each other. A mouth can open and let loose all sorts of damaging particles that have nothing to do with physical disease.

And the question is, which side of that potential damage concerns us? Are we only worried about protecting ourselves from what others might do to us? Is it only worth putting protection in place if it will save us from what they might do? Or do we think about how we might hurt another, when we open our mouths with an ill-considered sentiment or unkind observation? Are we even aware of our own potential to harm others?

Not long after things shut down in my area, my family went for a walk and passed a neighbor's kids who were in their own yard but quite close to the sidewalk. I tensed at their threatening nearness and considered telling my kids to cross the street, but I couldn’t do it. Crossing the street to avoid someone has always seemed like the height of rudeness. Though I knew my reasons, it felt like such a blatant action would imply that we thought they were dirty, that we were better than they are, that we have to cross the street to avoid getting too near.

Of course, we were kind of afraid they’re – well, not dirty, but germy. And since they were so close to the sidewalk, maybe I really should have crossed the street to protect myself and my children from that potential harm.

On another walk a few days later, we passed another neighbor. This time I was a little better prepared, and as we approached I reminded my kids that we’re supposed to be trying to keep our distance from other people for now, and asked if they could think of ways to avoid the nice lady on the sidewalk without seeming rude. As it turned out, we didn’t have to worry, because she looked up and saw us and promptly walked a few feet onto the grass. Because we weren’t just avoiding her; she was avoiding us.

I’d forgotten. It’s natural to think primarily about protecting ourselves from others, and not so much about protecting them from us. We see ourselves as benign; we mean no harm; we don’t think about the damage we might unknowingly spread, just by opening our mouths.

But over the months of this pandemic, perhaps we’ve become more sensitive to the fact that everyone has the capacity to harm another – with our germs, with our words, with our actions – whether we mean to or not. We might be asymptomatic; we don’t know the damage we can do. But the potential is always there.

One day – and I pray it will be soon – this will all be over. We’ll have to ease back into normal life (I refuse to call the current reality “the new normal” or anything like “normal”) and remember how to interact with others without undue suspicion, without assuming they’re likely to harm us in some way and that we have to keep our distance. At the same time, I hope we’ll retain our newfound sensitivity to our potential to harm others.

With the coming of the month of Elul, looking ahead to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this is a great time to think about those sensitivities in a broader sense, applying lessons of the pandemic to aspects of our relationships that have nothing to do with germs but can be devastating in other ways.

Maybe we’ll learn to give the benefit of the doubt a little more, as we’ve learned that crossing the street to avoid someone can be an act of courtesy and respect rather than the insult that it seems to imply.

Maybe we’ll remember that a friendly smile and a kind word can do wonders to protect another person from our unintended insult, even if we’re openly crossing the street to avoid them.

And maybe we can think more deeply about the ways we might hurt or offend others, knowingly or unknowingly, intentionally or unintentionally.

Let's be mindful of the complex ways we might harm others, and to do as much to protect them as we would to protect ourselves.


Blog #2: How to Realistically Change the World

Feeling down about the state of the world? Hard to read the newspapers with all of the tragedies that have become part and parcel of our daily lives?

Well the month of Elul is here – the month, with its daily blowing of the shofar, meant to remind us that Rosh Hashanah is just a short four weeks away and that we have got to give serious thought to our personal responsibility to do our part to make the coming year a better one.

In light of the immensity of our problems how can we possibly do anything that would make a difference? Can anyone of us imagine that we personally could actually play a role in changing the world?

It is precisely in response to this question that Judaism gave a startling answer. Maimonides expressed it by way of a remarkable illustration. Every one of us, he taught in his Laws of Repentance, needs to think that as God judges the world in His annual review before the High Holy Days, He finds it perfectly balanced between its sins and good deeds. Divine judgment withholds its final decree until you are brought into the equation. And if your deeds also seem to be almost perfectly balanced between the good and the evil, then one, just one additional good deed, no matter how small can be the one to tilt your judgment favorably, which in turn would decide the fate of all of humankind.

It may be far-fetched. Yet the greatest philosopher of the Jewish people did not hesitate to phrase it this way in order to impress upon every one of us the truth that every person makes a difference – and every one of our actions has consequences on the divine scale of judgment.

That’s why I think the most important piece of advice I can give anyone as I think about ways to change the world with the beginning of Elul are two words: think small.

Just a few years ago Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel peace prize for turning the concept of thinking small into a major innovation which has already revolutionized the banking system as well as the lives of millions of people. It was in 1974 that Bangladesh was hit by a devastating flood followed by a severe famine. Yunus decided to lend $27 without any collateral to a group of women of the city of Joba nearby the University where he worked as a teacher. Women there made bamboo baskets but were forced to sell them at such a low price that could barely pay for the raw material. They could never purchase larger amounts for lack of capital. Yunus initiated what is now known as microcredit, allowing poor people anxious to make a go of small businesses to succeed.

With the small sum they received they were able to finance their work and to establish themselves. Micro-finance, or microcredit, was born. Thinking small, something never practiced before, created a new way of life and of opportunity. One small act changed the balance of the scale – and millions today prosper.

And there is yet another way to think small. It is expressed beautifully by way of a story told in the name of the Chofetz Chaim.

At one time, he was asked how he was able to have such a great impact on the Jewish world.  This is how he answered: “Originally, I set out to change the world, but I failed.  So I decided to scale back my efforts and only influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too.  So I targeted the community of my hometown of Radin, but I achieved no greater success.  Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family and I failed at that as well.  Finally, I decided to change myself and that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.”

Leo Tolstoy came to the same conclusion. “Everyone thinks of changing the world,” he wrote, “but no one thinks of changing himself.” And so the world continues with its myriad flaws, everyone complaining about the common sins of others while paying very little attention to themselves.

Most people want to change the world to improve their lives, but the world they need to change first is the one inside themselves.

There is a movement today that has taken the concept a step further into practice. It concerns itself not with the really large issues, issues which realistically most of us will be unable to influence, but with the smaller daily interactions which in fact define everyday life. It’s called “small acts of kindness” and I love it precisely because its demands are so easy and yet, if universally practiced, would really change our lives.

The suggestions are simple. Choose one or a dozen:

  • Give a genuine compliment to somebody at least once a day.
  • Write down what you appreciate about another family member and pass it along.
  • Check in with someone who’s sick.
  • Ask if you can help someone who may be having a difficult time in life right now.
  • Lend your vehicle to take someone without one shopping for their necessities.
  • Hold the door open for the person behind you.
  • Make a card for someone special.
  • Deliver flowers anonymously to a hospital patient.
  • Ask a senior citizen about their life story and truly listen.
  • Give a hug to a loved one or friend.
  • Offer to pay another person’s food bill.
  • Lend a hand to someone doing hard work.
  • Donate to a homeless person, perhaps give them some food.
  • Leave a kind server a generous tip.
  • Let a person out from a side road who’s waiting to get into the main road.
  • Help another parent out with a stroller or carrying things.
  • Give someone a book that you no longer need.
  • Give your parents or grandparents a call just because.
  • Volunteer at a community event.

Grandiose plans are great – but we rarely do them. Impressive ideas for changing the world are, yes, impressive but frequently impractical and unrealizable. So perhaps this year before Rosh Hashanah we could scale down our ambitions and think small – and in that way change ourselves and our own world.