Saturday, March 28, 2020

Liberation and the COVID 19 Virus

This season, from the opening of the month of Nisan through the forthcoming Pesach holiday, is known in our tradition as z’man cheiruteynu—the time of our liberation.  As the natural world blooms with the rebirth of spring, we prepare for the sacred journey out of Egypt toward freedom and the Promised Land.

As many have noted, the Hebrew word for Egypt—Mitzrayim—means “a narrow place.”  In our current strange and challenging circumstances, as we continue our physical distancing due to the COVID 19 virus, many of us feel that sense of confinement viscerally.  We worry for our loved ones, and for ourselves.  We see pain and suffering, and sometimes feel powerless to avert it.

I have no easy answers.  At CABI, we are learning together, as we go.  We are exploring new ways to reach out to one another.  And we are very open to your ideas and suggestions.  Let us know how we can help.  I’m proud of how our community has responded over the last two weeks.  I have seen an outpouring of generosity, a hunger for real connection, and an extraordinary resilience.  I believe that when life eventually returns to whatever the new “normal” will be, our community will be profoundly strengthened by what we learn.  We are growing, together, and will continue to do so in the days and weeks to come.

In the meantime, though, let us recognize that the pain and suffering is not distributed evenly.  Life is, as always, unfair; indeed, the inequity is, if anything, magnified by the crisis.

I am, therefore, reaching out to you with a request relating to the recently-approved federal stimulus package.  Many of us who will receive a significant check from the government—including me and my family—are privileged not to need it.  I am grateful to have enough.  For others, however, that subsidy will be far too little, a pittance for those left without work, struggling to pay for food, rent, and basic services.  And for some, like most of the homeless and those who are not US citizens, there will be no money at all.

I am, therefore, urging our CABI family to work together to create more justice in this crisis.  If you do not need your subsidy money, I am asking you to donate it to support those who need it dearly.  I’d like to suggest four possibilities.
Create Common Good and Life’s Kitchen are working with our own Jodi Peterson-Stigers to provide food for our community’s homeless through Interfaith Sanctuary during this crisis.  You can support them here:

Jesse Tree works in partnership with the City of Boise to prevent our must vulnerable tenants from falling into homelessness. You can support them here:

Last but decidedly not least, the Jewish Assistance Fund of Idaho (JAFI) provides for those in need within our own Jewish community—and in the current circumstances, we expect that need to be considerable.  You can support JAFI here:

I believe with all of my heart and soul that when this crisis has passed, we will be judged by how we treated the most vulnerable among us.  May we rise to the occasion as the Jewish people have, time and again, throughout our long history.

May this week bring strength and healing to us all.


Rabbi Dan

Monday, March 16, 2020

Vayakhel-Pekude: Gather the People

Moses gathered together the entire Israelite community. . .
                                                -Exodus 35:1

This week’s double portion, Vayakhel-Pekude, begins with Moses convoking all of the children of Israel at God’s behest.  The root of the opening word, vayakhel/to gather, is also the source of the word kehillah—Jewish community.  Our Jewish calling is to be a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community.  As Rabbi Ron Wolfson notes in his powerful book, Relational Judaism:

Our obligation to each other is rooted in the biblical notion that every human being is made in the image of God. The image of God is within, but the presence of God is found "in the between," in our relationships. . . . Covenants form the foundation of "community"—a group of people bound together in relationships based on reciprocal responsibilities.

It is rather ironic that we encounter this portion grounded in gathering during a week when, across the globe, we are quarantining ourselves; it’s also timely, because in this season of fear and anxiety our sacred challenge is to find ways to remain in community with one another, in spite of the COVID 19 virus.  Indeed, now, more than ever, we need community.  This is why I reject the phrase “social distancing.”  For the sake of public health, especially for the most vulnerable among us, physical distancing is necessary and entirely in keeping with our core Jewish value of pikuach nefesh—saving life.  But we need social connection.  One cannot live a rich Jewish life without community, even—or especially—in this strange and difficult time. 

In this spirit, we at CABI will be busy working from our homes to find fresh ways to connect with each of you.  As we do, please give us feedback.  We are all learning as we go.  Text or email us.  Call us.  And reach out through some of the new platforms that we will be using.  This past weekend, we livestreamed our Shabbat services for the first time.  We plan to continue that practice, and hope to add opportunities that allow for more dialogue, in real time, between us.

Fittingly, the portion ends with the final chapter of Exodus—and therefore after reading it, we proclaim the words that our tradition prescribes for the conclusion of each book of Torah: Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek—Let us be strong!  Let us be strong!  And let us strengthen and draw strength from one another!


Davar Acher—An Additional Interpretation: COVID19 is a potent reminder of just how globalized our world has become.  The virus testifies to the utter artificiality of national boundaries. 

Facing this reality is, in some ways fearful and painful but it also points the way to a brighter future, for just as borders are inconsequential to a pandemic, so, too, in the matter of climate change.  Long after the coronavirus has come and gone, we will continue to reckon with existential ecological concerns.  Let us hope and pray and labor to bring our fractured world together in responding to COVID 19—and in so doing, generate new paths of hope and cooperation on climate. 

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Ki Tissa: Making a Difference


One of the challenges we face in working on climate change is the trap of hopelessness.  Because the problem is so immense, in both scope and consequences, it is easy to despair of our ability to make a difference—and without faith that our actions matter, we are likely to do nothing. 

Our Torah portion for this week—and some commentary on it, old and new—offers an important insight into this conundrum.

Ki Tisa presents the infamous episode of the Golden Calf.  After forty days atop Mt. Sinai receiving the Torah from God, Moses heads down with great energy and enthusiasm, ready to bring the Word to his beloved Israelite people.  But when he sees what they have done in his absence, constructing and then worshiping an idol of gold, he becomes enraged and despondent: “As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the [people] dancing, he grew furious.  He hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.”

This account in Exodus raises a significant difficulty: Even though he is understandably angry, how can Moses intentionally destroy God’s handiwork, containing the Divine Name?  The midrash Pirkei de Rabbi Eliezer offers an ingenious answer to this problem.  It proposes that in the instant Moses beheld the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, the letters flew off the stones and they became too heavy for him to bear.  In other words, Moses did not throw the tablets—he dropped them out of exhaustion.  This gets him off the hook for demolishing God’s words—for God’s words are no longer on the tablets when they shatter.  It also suggests that Moses was a victim of hopelessness.  As Rabbi Harold Kushner interprets the scene: “When Moses felt he was bringing God’s word to a people eager to receive it, he was capable of doing something difficult and demanding.  When he had reason to suspect that his efforts were in vain, the same task became too hard for him.”

Our efforts to combat catastrophic climate change can feel very much like this.  When we can’t see ourselves making a difference, the task becomes inordinately difficult.  That is why it is important to remind ourselves that what we do really does matter.  The website offers three reassuring truths to keep us going:

1.     The size of an individual’s footprint is mind-boggling. 
Our impact over a lifetime really adds up!

2.     The macro dictates the micro.   
When enough citizens, employees, and consumers start to advocate for climate-friendly policies and products, government officials and companies will step up to supply them.  By using our power, we incentivize better products, services, and innovation.  Each of us plays a role in this.

3.     The ripple effect—we are a highly social species.
Sustainability can and will start to spread rapidly once it gets going. If just one person starts acting sustainably – if you start acting sustainably others are sure to start following suit. You won’t even know all the people you influence. By being the change you wish to see, you will have an outsized impact and help to build momentum in the fight against climate change.

As our Torah portion ends, Moses and God and the people of Israel reconcile.  The sacred labor of building the mishkan, the portable sanctuary, continues and takes up the rest of the book of Exodus.  God and Moses learn that their labors are not in vain—but that progress is incremental, and often filled with setbacks.  The Israelites are given a second chance—and this time, fare better.  Each side learns to see its work as meaningful, and that sense of purpose will sustain them for forty years in the desert. 

So may it be with our sacred labor on behalf of God’s creation.