(POST) Shavuot 5780

(Post) Shavuot 5780

From Prologue to Epilogue

The Book of Ruth, read in the synagogue during Shavuot, is at first glance a simple and heartwarming story of two widows, Naomi and her daughter-in-law, Ruth. The opening verse sets it “when the judges judged” (Ruth 1:1). The Book of Judges describes a fractured Israel with each tribe fending for itself, and suffering from inadequate and, often irresponsible, leadership. When Naomi decided to return to Judea, Ruth insisted upon accompanying her. She opted to leave her native land, Moab, to settle in Judea.

Mired in poverty, Ruth set forth to join others in gleaning from crops that were not harvested. She is noticed and befriended by Boaz a kinsman and successful landowner. In short order they decide to marry, but not before he follows the accepted procedure that gave a closer kinsman the responsibility and the right to marry her first. She ultimately conceives and gives birth to a son. The book concludes with the genealogy that her grandson, Yishai (Jesse) begot David (ibid 4:22). This is the David who as king unified the tribes and established its capital in Jerusalem. The book can be viewed as a manual on how to move from the “prologue” of the fractured nation to the “epilogue” of David’s birth foretelling its unification.

While not a complete blueprint it highlights two vital steps. The first is that Ruth a Moabite woman was welcomed into the community, as the Torah commands, “be kind to the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.” It’s a challenge to be empathetic to the newcomer and emphasizes the value of a united community.

Abraham Lincoln in his plea for unity at Gettysburg proclaimed that a nation cannot exist half slave and half free. At this very moment we are reminded that peace eludes us as long as race and skin color divide us. It is a plague with the inevitable potential for violence that our nation experienced all too often in the past and that tragically confronts us at this very moment.

The second value is respect for and acceptance of the law. Before Boaz and Ruth could marry, he had to defer to a kinsman closer to the family. Boaz convenes the required quorum of ten to witness that he had fulfilled all requirements and taken the necessary steps prior to marrying Ruth. The book affirms that Boaz conformed to “such that was the practice in Israel” (ibid 4: 7).

It’s incumbent upon all to comply with the law with no one being above it. Boaz had wealth and status and yet he was prepared to sublimate his personal agenda to the established practices of his time. A basic American value demands accountability not only from citizens who have the right to assemble peacefully, but also from those in power: the police and the political leadership.

Ruth is obviously not a complete treatise of transitioning from “prologue to epilogue.” It clearly affirms, however, the vital challenge to create a social order that embraces respect and the acceptance of the humanity of the “other” with the caveat that without mutual respect for the law, peace will elude us.

May our tragically divided nation succeed in completing the process from “prologue to epilogue” thereby enabling peace and harmony in our midst to become a blessed reality.

From Jerusalem my fervent prayer that we will soon see the dawn of the better tomorrow.

Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman
Senior Rabbinic Scholar

A Message From Rabbi Sandler

A Message From Rabbi Sandler

A rainbow… few natural phenomena are more beautiful than a rainbow. However, for the Torah-attuned among us, rainbows evoke an association to the unparalleled and utterly destructive waters of the Flood in Noah’s time:

“God further said, ‘This is the sign that I set for the covenant between Me and you… I have set My bow in the clouds, and it shall serve as a sign of the covenant… between Me and you… so that the waters shall never again… destroy all flesh'” (Genesis 9).

Last week, in a session with Dr. David Kraemer, Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I learned that the Book of Jubilees, a second century CE text, connects Noah’s Flood with the holiday we will celebrate beginning Thursday evening, Shavuot.

Nowhere does the Torah itself link Shavuot with the event we have come to associate it with…receiving Torah at Sinai. The Book of Jubilees provides that connection. It informs us that on Shavuot (which means “weeks,” but which also can mean “oaths”), the Noah/God covenantal oath in Genesis was to be annually renewed at Mt. Sinai. In other words, the Book of Jubilees created a link between Noah/subsequent Jewish generations/God and reminds us to renew our commitment to each other (taking a “shevuah,” an oath) on Shavuot.

If so, perhaps we can understand rainbows in a larger, symbolic sense than what the Book of Genesis projects. The rainbow is not only a sign of divine devotion; it can also be a sign of OUR commitment to desist from contributing to overwhelming disaster and destruction.

I believe a compelling image for today emerges.

As thinkers reflect on some of the lessons of this Coronavirus pandemic, one strand of thought is to focus on the power of Mother Nature and our relationship with her. For too long, too many of us have competed with Mother Nature and attempted to bend her will to our own. Today, we ought to recognize the folly of our ways. Wishing the Coronavirus away by ignoring the power of Mother Nature has only led to untold deaths. The only reasonable and life-affirming way to move forward is to recognize how the natural world responds not only amidst a pandemic, but at other times when we abuse Mother Nature by seeking to assert our power over her.

As we celebrate Shavuot this year, with the insights of the Book of Jubilees in mind, can we reaffirm our covenant with God and join with the Holy One in metaphorically setting a new, beautiful, and healing rainbow in the heavens?

Join the Atlanta Rabbinical Association Jewish community as we gather for a special Tikkun Leil Shavuot, a virtual night of learning on Thursday, May 28, at 6 pm to recreate receiving Torah at Mt. Sinai in celebration and observance of Shavuot. The program will feature an esteemed slate of presenters and Jewish thought leaders, including: 2018 James Beard Award Winner Michael Twitty, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (American Jewish University)Rabbi Judith Hauptman (Jewish Theological Seminary)Rabbi Josh WarshawskyDr. Paul Root Wolpe (Emory University) and Atlanta’s own religious leaders. To register and learn more, click here.

Bamidbar 5780

Bamidbar 5780

Nothing is Forever

The construction of the Mishkan is the subject of the final chapters of the book of Exodus. The role of the Kohanim (priests) and the descriptions of the sacrifices offered in the desert sanctuary (the Mishkan) occupy the opening chapters of the book of Leviticus. The all opening chapters of Numbers, this week’s Torah reading ,is a manual on how the Mishkan was to be disassembled prior to Israelites breaking camp and moving to another location. There are specific details regarding the role of the Levites and the Kohanim in caring for its sacred objects.

The Mishkan, while portable, served as the central sanctuary not only in the desert, but for many years following settlement of the Israelites in the Promised Land. When David established his kingdom in Jerusalem he turned his attention to building a permanent house to the glory of God.

This dream was undertaken by his son, Solomon, who spared no expense to create this magnificent holy temple that would be the eternal symbol of God’s relationship with his eternal people. In 586 BCE Nebuchadnezzar, the ruler of Babylonia then the world’s most powerful nation put an end to the dream. He conquered Judea and reduced Solomon’s glorious Temple to ashes.

Nebuchadnezzar perceived himself as standing astride of all humanity. He felt chosen by God to rule the world. His chief advisor was Daniel who at a young age was among the captives taken to Babylon following the conquest of Judea and the destruction of the temple. He received special training, was renamed Belteshazzar and ultimately became Nebuchadnezzar’s most trusted counselor. Chapter 4 in the book that bears his name records Nebuchadnezzar’s dream that foretold his loss of the throne

This dire message unsettled the king, but the book continues, “At the end of twelve months he was walking in the palace of the kingdom of Babylon he spoke and said, is not this a great Babylon that I have built is a royal resident’s by the might of my power and the honor of my Majesty?” (Daniel 4: 26, 27)

Despite the dire prediction Nebuchadnezzar held fast to this conviction that what he had built was indestructible and that his rule could not be challenged. He was however quickly disabused of this notion as described in the next verse. “While the word was in the king’s mouth a voice fell from heaven saying o king Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is spoken: the kingdom is departed from you And this did come to pass ” (v.28).

Even the most powerful of all humans in the most glorious and sturdy of their works cannot withstand the passage of time. Yet those who aspire to greatness, achieve great power and create “lasting” monumental attesting to their achievements, cannot and will not withstand the vicissitudes of time.

Nebuchadnezzar was stripped of power by a divine edict. Even those who hold great power believing as did Louis XIV, l’etat ces’t moi – I am the state, are ultimately moved from their high perch. Power is lost or shifts through revolution of the masses, palace intrigue, assassination and democratic elections. This should be a sobering thought to those who are convinced that their power remains unchallenged and unaffected by the passage of time.

For Nebuchadnezzar the messenger of his fallibility was the heavenly voice. In our day might it be the dreaded COVID-19 virus?

From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing.

Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman
Senior Rabbinic Scholar

Navigating the Next Chapter

Navigating the Next Chapter

The dynamism between a spiritual life and sacred scripture involves finding parallel narratives. The stories, concepts, and ideas expressed in scripture are linked by the reader to his or her own life. In this way the text, and by extension, God, is speaking to the reader and relating to his or her personal situation. During this difficult time of COVID-19, it hasn’t been hard to see life through our scriptural reading. In fact, the comparison has sometimes been eerie.

We just finished the book of Leviticus during our weekly Torah reading. This book focused on ritual purity, impurity, diseases, and contamination which require quarantine. Need I say more?! Now we move into our fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar (Numbers) which takes a different look at the spiritual journey of the Jewish people. Unlike our last book which dictated procedures and biblical medicine, this next chapter continues the journey through the desert away from Mt. Sinai and deeper into the wilderness. This book doesn’t discuss procedures but, instead, focuses on dysfunctional relationship dynamics. The challenge for Moses is not in teaching the people this new way of life but in managing the personalities, suppressing rebellions, and moving forward a people who complain all the time. This is also the book in which God has enough of the people’s bickering and complaining, condemning them to wander for 38 more years. This is a different sort of book from the last.

Now that we are starting the book of Numbers, I am worried. For a while, during the early days of this pandemic, we were seeing the best in each other. Random acts of kindness were the headlines as neighbors looked out for each other, strangers showed concerns for one another and we were sharing our best selves with everybody we met. However, with over nine weeks sheltering in place, I am starting to hear a change in tone. Where are we going to find ourselves through these next few Torah readings? Knowing that our scriptural readings focus on betrayal, wicked rebellions, and extended exiles, should we be prepared for some of that in our life? Will we stop looking for ways to support each other and instead begin finding fault, casting blame, and flinging shame? The next few weeks are going to be filled with a lot of angst and consternation. We will probably see our nation take one step forward and two steps back. That will present a challenging reality in and of itself. How we respond to the people around us, how we mobilize to ensure that the most vulnerable find the care and support they need, will ultimately be how we are viewed in the eyes of God. I pray that our journey through this wilderness is shorter for us than it was our ancestors. Be kind. It is our holy option.

Bhar-Bechukotai 5780

Bhar-Bechukotai 5780

Now In Dire Straits

Three times in this week’s Torah portion repeats the a Hebrew phrase is repeated: ki yamuch achicha – when your brother is in dire straits i.e. severe financial reversals is now poverty-stricken, the community is to create a safety net to help him weather this terrible reversal. The Torah teaches us that concern for the poor is a responsibility assumed not only by the community but also by individuals.

Dire straits is an apt description of the current condition of large segments of the workforce and population caused by the pandemic. The trillions of dollars Congress has voted to help ease the pain is consistent with the Torah’s mandate to create social networks to meet the basic needs of those in dire straits. From the vantage point of our tradition this is both a responsibility and a privilege.

Also included in this week’s Torah portion is chapter 26, the tochecha, a frightening forecast of plagues and reversals that would reduce and destroy even the most powerful and successful societies. The cause of these scourges is the failure to embrace and integrate the Torah’s moral imperatives in the society’s moral fabric.

Here too safety nets are essential. Societies that are sensitive to the needs of the common good reflect the presence of Divine Providence. It is also clear during this terrible pandemic that it is essential that safety measures nets be developed to help flatten the curve and create the herd immunity essential to our survival. Hence the prescription of the experts: social distancing, lock-downs, incessant hand washing and yes facial masks. These are the strands in the social network to provide a measure of protection until there is the vaccine that neutralizes this plague.

Inevitably there are push backs against these safety measures. Social distancing requirements separate families and friends from one another; our houses of worship are empty and our sports stadiums are vacant. Fortunately, the availability of Skype and Zoom make possible visual contact with loved ones and virtual participation in a simcha or in a shiva’s zoom room. While these lack the intimacy of the human touch, they are reasonable alternatives under our present circumstances.

Health experts insist that since the virus is airborne, social distancing and facial masks are essential to protect ourselves and others. The distancing is at times very difficult and the masks are uncomfortable and unattractive. While the vast majority accepts its role in embracing these needed networks, the violent protests of the small minority endanger all of us who share the public square. These rips in our safety network by an enraged minority are sadly endorsed and often encouraged by some leaders who are the models for this resistance that endangers us all.

Fortunately the majority has opted, as of this moment, to embrace and live by the demands of the social network that will hopefully help us remain healthy until the blessed day when the vaccine becomes a reality. In this pandemic we are all cast into dire straits, and it is only our willingness and capability to endure the discomfort of social distancing and masks that will enable us to witness the day we no longer will live with the fear of the virus.

From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing, and Chodesh Tov a month blessed with good tidings.

Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman
Senior Rabbinic Scholar

A Message From Rabbi Sandler

A Message From Rabbi Sandler

Just yesterday we commemorated Lag B’omer, the 33rd day of the Omer period that runs from the second day of Passover to the beginning of Shavuot later this month. What happened on Lag B’omer? Was it another one of those, “We fought, we won, let’s eat!” moments? Not exactly…

One explanation for the significance of this day lies in the tradition that a plague leading to the deaths of 24,000 disciples of Rabbi Akiba ceased that day. Though the Talmud informs us the plague resulted from the students’ disrespectful treatment of each other, it tells us nothing about why the devastating plague suddenly came to an end.

Of course, none of what I have written about Rabbi Akiva, his students who died from a plague and the sudden disappearance of that plague is necessarily factually true. We have no sources independent of the Talmud that confirm the details. But I find it particularly telling that in the Talmud, destruction both of spiritual centers, like the Temple in Jerusalem, and of people, from a horrible plague, is laid at the feet of “disrespectful interaction” and worse.

When the Rabbis tied the destruction of the Temple and a devastating plague to the nature of human interaction, I doubt they meant to convey factual truths. But I do think they intended to share life truths and wanted us to glean something important and lasting from such monumentally – challenging moments.

Today’s corona virus “plague” is not caused by people’s disrespectful behavior toward each other. But, as I have suggested in several settings in recent weeks, this pandemic has encouraged all of us to look at our lives and priorities. Are these priorities from the past still “worthy priorities?” I have suggested that my own areas of focus have shifted in a seemingly contradictory manner that doesn’t trouble me. On the one hand, I am focusing on my local community. On the other hand, my perspective has shifted to universal concern because of all that we share with others. And perhaps most obvious, it has thrown into high relief the potentially devastating effects of “disrespectful interaction” which the Talmud identified as the cause of a plague.

Today that disrespectful interaction finds expression in rancor, both inside and outside the political realm, that says, “You and I don’t have an honest, yet respectful, disagreement. You are wrong (and often demeaned as “fake” and worse), and I am right! End of discussion!)

God-willing, with our right actions, widely disseminated by epidemiological experts, and the eventual presence of both medicines and a vaccine, the Coronavirus pandemic will ebb and eventually disappear. But the “plague” will only come to an end when we learn lessons the Rabbis sought to teach us many years ago – to approach people, even those with whom we disagree – in respectful and caring ways.

Calling All Souls! Using This Moment to Approach the Sacred and the Holy

Calling All Souls! Using This Moment to Approach the Sacred and the Holy

What would you like to learn during this time of isolation, quarantine, and social distancing? It might seem like a strange question but it’s an important one. We are all learning things right now. About ourselves, our neighbors, and our community. We are learning things about our personal habits, our attitudes, and our aptitude. We can take a passive posture and let the moment pass over us. We might walk away with a better understanding or a new consciousness. However, in truth, passivity doesn’t often yield that much. By taking a more active approach, there are any number of things that we can learn spiritually that have the power to be transformative.

When I say spiritual learning, it might not be what we normally think when we talk about learning. It is not uncommon to engage in spiritual learning in essentially the same way we approach learning other subjects. We might enroll in a Torah study or join a Talmud class; those are great, but they don’t guarantee spiritual learning. Spiritual learning is the growth and cultivation of the soul. This is a bit more complicated. It is not about obtaining information, although information might be obtained. It is about delving into the sacred and emerging from the experience a bit more complete, a bit more holy.

We find a perfect example of this spiritual practice which broadens the human spirit in our Torah this week. The Torah prescribes, “you shall not slaughter an animal and its young on the same day (Lev 22:28).” Although this law, along with a collection of others throughout the Torah, have encouraged commentators to claim an anti-animal cruelty bend to the God’s word, Nachmanadies, the 13th century Spanish scholar and mystic proposes something a bit more personal. He states, “… [the reason for these sorts of laws] is to eradicate cruelty and pitilessness from a person’s heart… not that God has pity on [these animals]. Were that the case, God would have entirely forbidden animal slaughter. But the real reason is to cultivate in us the quality of mercy… since cruelty is contagious… These precepts regarding birds and beasts are not motivated by pity on them but are decrees of the Almighty to cultivate good moral qualities in human beings.”

As a vegetarian and an animal lover, I think Nachmanadies’s idea is fascinating. My reasons for being a vegetarian are due to the inhumane treatment of animals during the slaughtering process, both kosher and treif. However, my vegetarianism doesn’t make me more compassionate. By taking myself out of the meat-eating game, I have removed, as could be extrapolated by our noted sage, an important tool for cultivating compassion and kindness. In some ways, I risk becoming callous.

Compassion and kindness are muscles that need to be exercised or they atrophy. Before COVID-19, we lived in a world where much of our life was provided on a silver platter. Our food was aligned on shelves, individually wrapped, sterilized, and preserved so we didn’t need to think about it very much. In this moment, we are more attuned to the people who make our life possible, the army of workers who truly get our food from farm to table. I pray that we all have expressed gratitude to cashiers, stock personnel and others who, just a few months ago, were invisible. These are important spiritual practices that deepen the soul and strengthen the spirit. Not just for the people who are thanked but for us as well. However, we need more. For the Torah, this sort of mindfulness is necessary each and every day, at every meal, at countless moments throughout the day if we are going to transform ourselves into caring, compassionate people.

Right now, our congregation is seeking people who would like to exercise their spiritual muscle and deepen their connection to holiness. We have a simple plan: The Ring My Bell Initiative. We are making calls to each other, checking in and ensuring that people are doing okay and finding ways to connect. It might seem simple, maybe even a bit remedial. However, the impact is massive, especially in this time of isolation. For our ancestors, scheduling which day of the week we bring an animal to slaughter might not seem like a big deal. However, as Nachmanadies points out, this mindfulness, even amidst a very primal and brutal act, can have important spiritual impact. So too, in a time like this, when our isolation and the quiet in which so many people find themselves can be deafening, a ring of the telephone can be transformative. If you are able to make a few phone calls, please reach out to Miriam Habif, our Membership and Engagement Director, for a list of names and some helpful calling tips at mhabif@aasynagogue.org.

COVID-19 Update: Building Closure

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Update: Building Closed Through May

Dear Ahavath Achim Family,  

We pray that you are staying well and finding ways to engage, keep busy and stay healthy. Our clergy, staff and leadership have been comforted and energized by your patience, kindness, and outward positivity. 

Ahavath Achim is committed to fulfilling our mission and vision of helping us all connect with something greater than ourselves – Community, Tradition and God. We are grateful to you for being our partners in manifesting and actualizing these spiritual commitments. 

Your health and safety are our paramount concern. After consulting with a small group of highly respected medical and scientific experts, we have concluded that our sanctuary and building will remain closed up through the end of May. 

Even though our Shul doors are closed, our virtual doors remain open. We are offering two daily minyan services, Shabbat services, Torah and Talmud study, Rabbi drop ins, and social activities via Zoom. All of our services and programming can be found on our website: aasynagogue.org.

As our community begins to re socialize, and we have comfort in knowing that we are not jeopardizing the health of our AA family we will begin to make plans to gradually phase back into our shul.

Thank you for your continued patience and kindness as we navigate these difficult choices. Please remember that our clergy and leadership are always available to you for guidance, suggestions or simply to listen. Community is built one connection at a time. May we have the continued strength to reach out to one another and foster purposeful belonging.​

Sending you love and good wishes.

Mark Cohen (President)

Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal

Rabbi Neil Sandler

Barry Herman (Executive director)

A Message From Rabbi Sandler

A Message From Rabbi Sandler

This is the week that states, dealing with the financial ravages caused by the Coronavirus pandemic, are beginning to open their economies. Our own state led the way toward the end of last week. It’s no surprise that voices on both sides – pro and con regarding specific decisions – are being raised, often quite loudly. The back and forth between them is anguishing. We hear recognize the pain and empathize with those whose lives have been turned upside down by loss of employment and income. We also hear the learned voices and concerns of epidemiological experts seeking to pave a safe direction. The two positions are often juxtaposed against each other and therefore at odds.

A rabbi’s role in this moment of significant decision and perhaps angst-inducing action is to bring forth the wisdom of our tradition. In that regard, I share with you (with permission) an edited version of the comments my colleague, Rabbi Eric Cytryn of Beth El Temple in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, shared with his colleagues earlier this week. Rabbi Cytryn’s views reflect my own views. I acknowledge that other rabbinic sources might be used to argue the opposite view. However, at the same time, I confidently assert that the perspective Rabbi Cytryn puts forth in his comments best represents the predominant wisdom of our rabbis throughout the ages.

Rabbi Neil Sandler

(When the Rabbis put forth) the (moral principle) of pikuach nefesh – the infinite value of a single human being and the irreplaceable nature of human life, (they did so in absolute terms). (They did not do so relative to other values best summarized by the current assertion some are now making) “the cure is worse than the disease.”

I think the Rabbis would have told us emphatically that “Pikuach nefesh doche et hakesef” (“Saving a life transcends making money in any fashion.”)

By opening up the economy are we running the risk of endangering (those of us) in our 60’s and older and who have other issues that may exacerbate the dangers of COVID-19? Are we running the risk of endangering people of color of all ages by opening our society, our businesses and purely social opportunities? Are we putting a “stumbling block before the blind” (a classical rabbinic mitzvah prohibition) by opening businesses and asking people to socially distance and wear masks?

These are extraordinary times, unprecedented times when we know much more than the Rabbis knew in terms of science and technology. And we have basic rabbinic teachings that are humanistic, life affirming.

I think an overwhelming majority of the Rabbis would urge us to listen to the doctors, the nurses and scientists and do what we can to witness our faith that the teaching in the Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin) is true, relevant and compelling: a person who is responsible for killing a single life is considered as someone who has killed an entire world. Trust the scientists on this one… to interpret the facts and develop a strategy to live with COVID-19 and return our lives to a new normal.

Who knows what the new normal will look like exactly? But none of the scientists I am listening to – Drs Fauci and Birx nationally… are imagining that the economy will be shut down… beyond the summer.

The economy will recover. Jobs that are lost can be replaced.

No one who dies can be replaced. We need to feed the hungry and minister to the despondent, the depressed, the isolated. We need to reach out to the unemployed and take care of them as best we can. We need to offer truthful, realistic hope that there is light at the end of this tunnel and spell out, as best as we know, what that means. We need to pray together because we are all in this together.

By the way, one of my 89-year olds likes to quote the Yiddish “Mann tracht un Gott lacht” (“Man plans, and God laughs.”) I pointed out to him a year or two ago that for almost every opportunity he took to quote that aphorism you could also say, “Man plans and God weeps.”

That is what is happening now. God is weeping that so many humans created in the Divine have died. God does not want more to die. That is my theology, driving my ethics at this moment.

Tazaria Metzora Shabbat Rosh Chodesh

Tazria Metzora Shabbat Rosh Chodesh 5780

The Enemy Is Us

Israel like many nations is in lock-down. We do venture out of our homes to acquire food, medication or medical attention. After so many weeks we have adapted to these limitations on our movement and quarantine has become somewhat more bearable thanks to Zoom, Skype and other technologies.

The Torah reading for this Shabbat encompasses chapters that focus upon individuals afflicted with tzara’at, commonly translated as leprosy. While the nature of the disease is not certain it was highly feared as infectious, and diagnosed individuals were placed in quarantine. Today we are plagued with COVID-19, the extremely  infectious virus that is hopefully being managed with the fourteen-day isolation of individuals diagnosed with the disease and the social distancing measures imposed by law.

In this context, that this past Tuesday we observed the annual Holocaust Memorial Day. The road to Auschwitz was paved by a social virus: the Nazi fixation on Aryan purity and the irrational conviction that Jewish inferiority was contagious and a threat to society. This virus nourished by Antisemitism led to the Nuremberg laws, the isolation of Jews, and the many restrictions on Jewish movement and normal existence were a prelude to the barbarity and genocide of Auschwitz. The ultimate goal was to create a world order that was Judenrein, cleansed of the virus of the Jew. In reality, however, the virus was the Aryan insistence of its racial superiority and the threat “outsiders” posed to its perfect society.

The current pandemic is a reminder that viruses are communicable, and when not controlled afflict any and all. This is true regarding Antisemitism as well as all populist perceptions of outsiders whether ethnic, racial, religious or foreign-born as being inferior and a threat to creating and preserving the perfect society.

Pogo was a daily comic strip syndicated to American newspapers from 1948 until 1975. Set in the Okefenokee Swamp in the southeastern United States, it chronicled the adventures of Pogo, an opossum, and the many other t denizens of the swamp. The strip satirized the human condition as well as McCarthyism, communism, segregation, and, eventually, the Vietnam War. It’s probably best remembered today for Pogo’s environmentalist lament, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

No society is as healthy as it would wish. The inevitable viruses that threaten our physical health often respond to the vaccines and medications that are created and developed in our ongoing and often very frustrating war with Mother Nature. Vaccines that immunize against the social viruses that demonize and target members of other social, ethnic, racial, religious or political entities sadly continue to elude us. The source of this virus is “us.”

The prime defense against COVID-19 is social distancing. Separating ourselves from others reduces the rate of infection, flattens the curve and hopefully creates relatively safe space as we await the new vaccine. Neutralizing the social virus, however, requires opening ourselves up to the many “others” in our midst. It’s a formidable challenge to overcome the human tendency to erect and maintain walls of separation and segregation that reinforce the demonization, prejudice and discrimination that are the source of much of the violence and instability that threaten our society’s well-being.

Whenever we lapse into perceiving the outsider as a virus threatening the health of our society, it is constructive to recall Pogo’s ever relevant observation, “We have met the enemy and he is us!”

From the holy city of Jerusalem my best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom u’Mevorach, a Shabbat of peace and blessing, and Chodesh Tov, a month blessed with good tidings.

Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman
Senior Rabbinic Scholar