He Bent the Arc

He Bent the Arc

Reflections on Representative John Lewis

The Israelite rebellion in response to the Spies’ report regarding the Land of Israel, found in the Book of Numbers, sealed the fate of the generation of the Exodus. Other than Caleb and Joshua, all over twenty years of age would perish during a forty-year trek in the desert; the children and grandchildren would cross the Jordan into Canaan. Forty years later, Moses, prior to his own departure from the scene, recounts, with admiration, Caleb’s bravery in confronting the mob and assuring them that, with God’s help, they would prevail.

For Moses, Caleb was a profile in courage. His faith in God and in the destiny of the people fired his courage.

I first met John Lewis in 1986 when he was the underdog candidate for Congress. We met for a morning cup of coffee, and I was impressed by his candor and humility. His leadership role in the civil rights movement was well-known, and he was widely respected as a champion for human rights issues.

He narrowly won that election and served in Congress for over 30 years until his recent death. He quickly became the conscience of the Congress and was not only a voice for justice for the African-American community. He spoke up on behalf of Soviet jury and for the State of Israel.

Some years ago, the congregation had a one-day mission to visit the National Holocaust Museum in DC. I contacted John Lewis and invited him to meet with us in the Museum’s rotunda. He graciously accepted and spoke with great sensitivity about the Holocaust and the challenge of quashing evil before it takes permanent root. He ended with the affirmation of “Never Again.” We sensed that, had there been individuals with John’s passion for justice and with his courage to speak truth to power, the Third Reich might not have taken root in Germany.

I had the honor of introducing John at a Rabbinical Assembly convention in Atlanta. He was enthusiastically received by my colleagues for his unyielding opposition to prejudice based on religion, color, or ethnicity.

I was present at the Governor’s mansion to celebrate the publication of John’s biography, Walking with The Wind. In his talk, John reflected on the time that he applied for a library card in Alabama and was turned down. When he grew up, the government was all too often an enemy of people of color. His presence at the mansion of the Governor of a historic Southern State was significant, but there was still a long road ahead in the ongoing challenge of bending the arc of history toward justice.

It’s an American story. This son of a sharecropper in rural Alabama rose to be a leader in national and state government. Yet he never backed away from his deep-seated commitment to speak truth to power. He was rightly called the conscience of the Congress; more appropriately, he was the conscience of so many of us. This modern-day Caleb awakened every morning to continue his life work of “bending the arc of history toward justice.”

Completing this task is more than a forty-year trek. It’s an ongoing mission to arrive at the day when justice shall well up as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream (Amos 5:24). May he rest in peace.

Rabbi Arnold M. Goodman
Rabbinic Scholar

Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all the men that were upon the face of the earth (Num. 12:3).

Perhaps the Torah is correct in its description of Moses in the Book of Numbers. From numerous personal experiences, I know those words accurately describe our friend and brother, John Lewis, of blessed memory.

I saw Representative Lewis speak before large audiences. I interacted with him in large groups and in small settings. Always the same John Lewis. Always the same countenance. Humility that, ironically, was overpowering.

In meetings, Representative Lewis gave his full attention. “Perfunctory” and “automatic pilot” were not words or expressions in his lexicon. Mr. Lewis focused on people, especially on young people. I recall a meeting in his office with about twenty people. Representative Lewis invited everyone to introduce herself or himself. When he reached the youngest member of the delegation, a teenager, John stopped the flow of introductions. He asked questions of the young man. He probed. He was interested in him, and he appreciated that this teenager had taken the time to visit him in Washington, DC. And, as always, he encouraged the young man to learn and to “get into good trouble.” A civil rights icon and a man admired by many people treated a young man in his office as if he were the guest of honor in this gathering! What humility!

In May 2013, I was with Representative Lewis in his office on a Tuesday. In a rather offhanded manner, he mentioned he would be at the Seminary two days later. John was excited to go to the institution he associated with a man he greatly admired, Dr. Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory. But Representative Lewis didn’t tell me why he would be going to JTS. Only later that day did I learn he would be receiving an honorary degree and serving as Commencement speaker! He was too modest to tell me exactly why he was going to the Seminary. Two days later, I beamed as I sat in the audience and listened to Representative Lewis. His humility, shaped by the gratitude he felt in being honored by the institution he associated with the man he called “Rabbi Herschel,” was evident to all who were present.

Rabbi Arnold Goodman and I were among the members of the Rabbinical Assembly to have been fortunate to share a personal relationship with Representative John Lewis, of blessed memory. But his humble nature is an example to all of us. May the memory of his many good works be for a blessing and provide us with reassuring direction in these challenging times.

Rabbi Neil Sandler

New Beginnings Begin by Perspective

New Beginnings Begin by Perspective

What are new beginnings, really? Are they events, happenings that we step into, or are they something else entirely? Today marks some profound beginnings. Rabbi Sandler begins a new chapter in his professional career, after 37 years of full time service to the Jewish community, he is beginning a new adventure, stepping into a new role with our congregation and planning his exciting and vibrant future, which will, God-willing, include a grandbaby! (B’Sha’ah Tovah to Neil, Susan, Ariel, and Jamie). If only baseball was happening, Neil would then be able to say he had arrived in Gan Eden (The Garden of Eden). Today is Rabbi Sam’s first day as the Associate Rabbi of our congregation. More than his new beginning, this is a wonderful beginning for us which I pray we will capture by making him feel welcomed and part of the Ahavath Achim family. Many of us are still acclimating to the new, virtual world. Although there is still a sting when we think about our new reality, I am hearing about people leaning in and adapting, embracing, and exploring a world without the restrictions of distance. People taking online classes from major universities they never visited, they are connecting with old friends, far away. Others are learning about different cultures and connecting with people in far off countries. It’s amazing… it’s a new beginning.

The question I want to ask is not about when beginnings happen but what allows them to happen. Beginnings are more than just points in time; when one thing ends, so another thing begins. There are plenty of people who arrive at such moments and nothing changes for them. Our Torah shares with us a subtle truth about beginnings – they are often about perspective.

In Parshat Balak, we learn the story of the sorcerer/prophet Bilam, who was sent to curse the Jewish people only to change his words into a blessing and a statement of admiration. Bilam’s words are found in our prayer book each morning – Mah Tovu O’halecha, Ya’akov – How beautiful are your tents. Jacob; your dwelling places, Israel. We not only say these words each morning to start our morning prayers, it is arguably the most learned piece of liturgy/scripture introduced to our children in song. Although the words are beautiful and the end result of the story is one of blessing, it is a bit strange that we start each morning and we teach our children the words of somebody whose intention originally was one of cursedness.

Our Torah is sharing with us an important truth about beginnings – they are all about perspective. No doubt, life happens: jobs end, opportunities arise and fall, moments come and go. However, our emotional, spiritual, and mental posture will dictate so much about how those moments are perceived, confronted, and experienced. Just as in the case of Bilam, perspective can change in a heartbeat. You could feel one way one minute and another way the next. We recite Mah Tovu each morning because today doesn’t need to be tied to our experience from yesterday. Children learn how to sing these words because each moment must be approached with a freshness and openness turning something ordinary into something extraordinary. A new world is beginning! It begins the minute we decide to seek its blessings rather than its curses.

Always Becoming, Always Evolving, Always Arriving

Always Becoming, Always Evolving, Always Arriving

“Lech Lecha may’artzecha…” These are the first words with which the Holy One turned to our spiritual patriarch, Abraham. God knew exactly what Abraham’s mission would be… to go to the place where the Holy One would lead him, the Land of Israel.

Later in the Torah, Abraham’s personal journey would be mirrored in the lives of our Israelite ancestors in Egypt. Their points of departure were different, but the destination was the same. There was, however, one significant difference between these journeys. Abraham arrived in the destination. However, when the Torah reaches its conclusion the Israelites remain just outside the Land, poised to enter it.

In a recent class, Rabbi Brad Artson, Dean of the Ziegler Rabbinical School of the American Jewish University, remarked on the ironic nature of the Torah in this regard. So much of the Torah is devoted to the journey, but the journey’s end isn’t reached. Similarly, in their own lives, people are never really “there” or fully settled.

Journeys… never quite complete.

Over thirty-eight years ago, I was ordained a “Rabbi, Teacher and Preacher in Israel.” I completed a master’s degree in social work the next year and then set out on a great adventure. Like Abraham, I had no idea where I was heading! I didn’t know, even after ordination, if I wanted to be a pulpit rabbi! My first experience in a congregation convinced me. I gained a sense of calling and mission. I knew this was what I was meant to do. Then, in that proverbial “blink of an eye,” thirty-seven years flew by. While I haven’t reached the end of my pulpit career, I have reached the end of my tenure as a full-time rabbi. For the next year, I will serve our congregation on a part-time basis and support the efforts of our excellent and engaging rabbis, Laurence Rosenthal and Sam Blustin.

Unlike Abraham, as I began my pulpit career, I felt no “guiding hand.” But I did eventually feel God’s presence. That was sufficient and reassuring enough for me. As the years went by, I discerned more about the “destination” and what I sought to accomplish in the rabbinate.

Now it is time for a significant transition in my life…

Back in that recent class, Rabbi Artson drew out the metaphorical significance of the Israelites temporarily ending their journey in the Torah while encamped on the east bank of the Jordan River, just across from their ultimate destination. “Like the Israelites, we are,” Rabbi Artson suggested, “always becoming, always evolving, always arriving.”

That’s an apt metaphor today for my life as a congregational rabbi and spiritual leader. My full-time career is coming to an end. Yet, as a rabbi, a human being, a husband, a father, and a grandfather (God-willing, later this fall!), I am still becoming… and so are you.

What a blessing…

“Baruch Atta Adonai Eloheinu melech haolam shehechianee…” Praised are You, Sovereign of the world, who has kept me in life, sustained me and enabled me to reach this wondrous moment!

Rabbi Neil Sandler

This Is a Big Moment, Don’t Let It Go Unnoticed! Reflections of My 12 Years With Neil and Susan Sandler

This Is a Big Moment, Don't Let It Go Unnoticed!

Reflections of My 12 Years With Neil and Susan Sandler

This Shabbat will mark another important shift in the life of our community but more importantly, in the life of the rabbinate of our beloved Rabbi Neil and Susan Sandler. Next week, Rabbi Sandler transitions from full time to part time membership on our team. This transition has been a long one and, frankly, unlike many that are experienced in congregations. Although Rabbi and Susan will still be around, and you will still have opportunities to learn from, study with, consult with Rabbi Sandler for the coming year, I need to acknowledge this moment because it’s a big one. If left alone, I imagine many of us might not even notice. But it’s big. After 37 years as a full-time rabbi, 16 of those years serving our own community, Rabbi and Susan are taking this major step back. When I reflect on my 12 years at Ahavath Achim Synagogue, I cannot do so without an incredible sense of gratitude for Neil and Susan; for what they have meant to me, for what they have meant to this community, and for what they have meant to Ahavath Achim Synagogue. Of course, I can’t capture everything in this letter. However, I hope that my words here will help each of us conjure our own gratitude for Neil and Susan; gratitude which I pray that you might share with others, especially with them directly.

My first memory of Rabbi Sandler was from interview week at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. All graduating rabbinical students were provided the opportunity to interview with congregations of their choosing, in a round-robin style process (one hour, each interview). After reading a few synagogue profiles, Brooke and I agreed that we couldn’t tell the difference between any of them. They all said they were welcoming, dynamic, engaging, [you fill in the positive attribute]. We finally decided to interview only with congregations that were nestled in areas, according to Google Maps, with a lot of tree coverage. I ended up sitting through 11 interviews in three days. I remember very little about any specific interview. The questions were generic (Good but the same) and after the third interview, the faces all started to blend together. I mainly interviewed with congregations seeking an assistant rabbi so the majority of these one-hour conversations included a senior colleague as part of the search committee. I don’t remember any of them. Except one. Rabbi Neil Sandler. After my interview with Ahavath Achim Synagogue of Atlanta, GA, the senior rabbi walked me out of the room, thanked me for my time, handed me his card and said that if there was anything I needed or wanted to discuss, about the AA Synagogue or the job search in general, that I could call him. What a mensch! No other rabbi did this. No other interview ended in such a way. It was the one interview after which I was able to turn to Brooke and say that I wanted to work with somebody like that. Upon reflecting over the twelve years since, I can say that nothing has changed. Neil’s best trait is that he is a mensch through and through, filled with love, compassion, kindness, and wisdom. Immediately upon arriving in Atlanta to begin our tenure with Ahavath Achim, we met Susan Sandler – she was even better! A dynamic duo if there ever was one.

When I came to Ahavath Achim fresh out of school, I had no idea how to officiate at a funeral, a bris or baby naming, a wedding. I had never led services before. I participated in services but never created and held a sacred space from beginning to end. I had CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) but those hospital visits were with strangers whom I would never see again, never with congregants and their families with whom I would be living together in community. It’s a much different dynamic. Neil taught me how to do all of that. His door was always open when I needed to vent (I had a lot of venting to do), and eventually, my door became a place for him to walk in and vent. The Rabbi I am today is in large part because of the love, patience, and guidance that Rabbi Sandler shared with me. For that I am eternally grateful.

However, my gratitude extends beyond our professional relationship. Susan and Neil have acted as surrogate aunt and uncle for my family. Susan was on call for our kids when we were making midnight runs to the hospital to have more children. Countless Shabbat afternoons bringing over their dog and taking our kids out for a walk around the neighborhood. Shabbat and holiday meals together, baseball & basketball games, birthday parties, the list goes on and on. When we moved to Atlanta, we didn’t think we had family here…we were wrong. We simply needed to learn what family really meant.

About four years ago, Rabbi Sandler returned from a sabbatical with a new clarity of the Jewish world, the trajectory of Jewish life in America and the direction a congregation like Ahavath Achim Synagogue was needing to take to be relevant in the new spiritual landscape. It was at that time that he began talking with me about a new role with the congregation. The role of senior rabbi. Soon, Neil discussed his ideas with leadership and started the ball rolling towards this transition process. Neil and Susan put their own financial, spiritual, emotional, and professional well-being aside for the betterment of the AA community. I don’t know many people who would do such things. Once again – what a mensch!

I am the rabbi I am today because of Rabbi Sandler. I am the father and family man I am today because of the care and love of both Neil and Susan. I am grateful for my 12 years professionally, spiritually and in family with Rabbi and Susan Sandler. This moment is a big one and I am grateful that our moments together aren’t done yet. I pray that we will be able to celebrate the achievements, growth, and life that Susan and Rabbi Sandler had given to our spiritual family.

With gratitude,

Rabbi Laurence Rosenthal

A Message From Rabbi Sandler

I Am Part of the Problem. Are You?

As I have watched reactions and events unfold since the unspeakable killing of George Floyd in my hometown of Minneapolis more than two weeks ago, I have reflected on the causes which have led so many people to respond in largely peaceful protest. It is easy to describe some of the problems that have sparked these protests and attribute them to “inequality.” It is obvious to see the place of “police brutality” in the killing of George Floyd and other African Americans that rightfully deserves our attention.

I have thought about all these things quite a bit in recent days and have decided there is one problem I have not been sufficiently aware until now: me.

I am committed to the equality of people. I have often publicly written and spoken out when I believe our Jewish tradition beckons me to do so when that equality is challenged or denied.

But I have reflected on the subtlety of my thoughts and actions sometimes and what they reveal. I am hardly a racist. But do I harbor some stereotypes about people who look different than me… stereotypes that lead me to act in seemingly benign, yet less than proud, ways. I am part of the problem.

Despite my public statements on the urgency of equality, there have been times when I have, in retrospect, mistakenly remained silent. Yes, I am part of the problem.

In a recent column that appeared on the Times of Israel website, Peter Geffen (my much-admired boss when I taught Hebrew high school while I was in rabbinical school), wrote a challenging piece, “Declare a State of Moral Emergency.” Here is an excerpt from it:

Dr. (Martin Luther) King was once asked about endangering the lives of ‘innocent bystanders’ when he led a march that he knew would encounter violence, as in Selma. His answer was quite simple and direct: ‘the term is an oxymoron, for if you are a bystander, you cannot be innocent.’

Rabbi (Abraham Joshua) Heschel, King’s friend and close associate in the leadership of the movement against the War in Vietnam, understood the insidious nature of evil. ‘There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. Indifference to evil is more insidious than evil itself; it is more universal, more contagious, more dangerous.’”

 I think silence like mine at times is prevalent. I think innocently turning aside and not paying attention to what ought to insert itself into our “oblivious world” is prevalent.

What do you think? Have you reflected on such things in recent days? Are you, too, part of the problem?

Dr. King shared sentiments with us that have been echoed by others more recently – “the fierce urgency of now.” Rabbi Tarfon in the Mishna (Pirkei Avot 2:16) put it in this fashion: “You are not obliged to complete the work, but neither are you free to neglect it.”

I am part of the problem. May I humbly suggest that many of you reading this column are also part of the problem? If so, it is NOW time for us to join with many others, inside our Jewish community and outside it, to start the sacred work of tikkun, mending this brokenness in our world.

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.

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.

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.

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.