A sign showing support for residents is displayed on a lawn in New Rochelle, New York, on March 11, 2020. State officials are shuttering several schools and houses of worship for two weeks in the New York City suburb and sending in the National Guard to help with what appears to be the nation's biggest cluster of coronavirus cases, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Tuesday. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

In a New York minute, everything has changed

(RNS) — Remember Don Henley's song, “New York Minute”?

 “In a New York minute, everything can change.”

In a New York minute, everything has changed.

One of modern Judaism's greatest  thinkers was the late Emil Fackenheim.

In 1938, right after Kristallnacht in Germany, the Nazis arrested him, along with a group of other men. At the time, Fackenheim was a rabbinical student at the liberal seminary in Berlin.

There he was, in an overcrowded cell. One of the older men approached him and said to him: “You! Fackenheim! You’re a rabbinical student! You’re a student of Judaism! Tell us – what does Judaism have to say to us – right now?”

What does Judaism have to say to us — right now?

This past week’s Torah portion has a tentative answer.

After the revelation at Mount Sinai, the Israelites waited for Moses to come down from the top of the mountain. Impatient for his return, they turn to Aaron and he makes them a golden calf.

The Israelites brought offerings to the calf and they broke out in spontaneous dance. Moses became angry at their rebellion, and in anger, “he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain.”

Moses must re-negotiate the covenant with God. Moses must cut two new tablets of stone, and God will write the words upon them.

Two sets of tablets. One set, broken, in pieces at the foot of the mountain. A new set, an intact set – which God and Moses have made together.

What do the broken tablets represent?

In one tradition, the broken Tablets represent the frail elderly. “Rabbi Joshua ben Levi said to his children: Take care to respect an old man who through unavoidable circumstances has forgotten what he knew, for both the whole Tablets and the shattered Tablets were placed in the Ark.”

It is one of the most moving images in rabbinic literature: to compare an elderly person, perhaps struggling with dementia or Alzheimers, with the broken tablets.

And, now? In particular, we must take care of our elderly, our frail, our most at risk citizens. The broken tablets – the frail — are as holy as the whole tablets — the healthy.

For me, the shattered tablets symbolize the brokenness that we now deeply feel and most profoundly experience.

But, let us remember: the broken tablets traveled together in the same ark as the whole tablets.

The broken tablets represent the brokenness of this moment, and perhaps even a faith that is in pieces and in tatters and has been and will be sorely tested.

And the intact tablets? They represent our faith — our faith in our tradition, in its teachings, and in each other.

It has occurred to me that all good Jewish words begin with the letters R-E.

As we move forward, let us be: responsive, responsible, and resilient.

First: responsive.

No one could have predicted the morass in which we now find ourselves. There is no useful historical precedent for this.

Our national leaders have not been appropriately responsive. But we, the Jewish community acted without a roadmap, have done all that we can do in remarkably little time.

We have tried to be responsive — to respond well and with clarity. As a Jewish community, we have turned on the proverbial dime.  Because we know what is at stake.

Which leads me to my second R-E word.

Responsible.

If health and life is at stake, a Jew can — no, a Jew must — forgo almost any mitzvah or ritual. V’chai bahem: that you shall live by them. Live – and not die.

In 1848, there was a massive cholera outbreak in Europe. It had particularly devastating effects in Eastern Europe.

On Yom Kippur, 1848, in the midst of the cholera outbreak, the great sage of Vilna, Rabbi Israel Salanter, went to the bima of the synagogue.

This is the account of that moment, as written by David Frischmann in his short story, "Three Who Ate":

It is Atonement Day in the afternoon. The Rabbi stands on the platform in the center of the Synagogue, tall and venerable. The people are waiting to hear what the Rabbi will say, and one is afraid to draw one’s breath. And the Rabbi begins to speak. His weak voice grows stronger and higher every minute, and at last it is quite loud. He speaks of the sanctity of the Day of Atonement and of the holy Torah; of repentance and of prayer, of the living and of the dead, and of the pestilence that has broken out and that destroys without pity, without rest, without a pause — for how long? for how much longer?

I hear him say: “And when trouble comes to a man, he must look to his deeds, and not only to those which concern him and the Almighty, but to those which concern himself, to his body, to his flesh, to his own health . . . There are times when one must turn aside from the Law, if by so doing a whole community may be saved. With the consent of the All-Present and with the consent of this congregation, we give leave to eat and drink on the Day of Atonement.”

What is amazing to me is that Rav Salanter was almost completely alone in making this ruling — the other rabbis of Vilna were too timid to do so. What is amazing to me is that this ruling served as the precedent for all further actions to save life on Yom Kippur.

Resilient.

It now turns out that the past 30 years of online technology was a test — whether we could use these tools to adapt ourselves to a moment of crisis.

It now turns out that online technology was not destroying a sense of community; it was re-defining and re-shaping it. It was making us more resilient.

In this sense, we are no different from our ancestors. Resilience has always been the hallmark of Judaism.

  • When the Babylonians destroyed the first temple, we had the resilience to focus Judaism on the synagogue.
  • When the Romans destroyed the second Temple, we had the resilience to focus Judaism on prayer, study, and mitzvot.
  • When we lived for centuries in exile from the land, we had the resilience to create a Judaism that could flourish in the Diaspora.
  • When Israel came into being, it had the resilience to become an international leader in technology, to become that fabled start up nation.

Now comes the test. Do we have it in us to  get those three RE words into our souls, and into our communities?

I am betting that we do.

Stay healthy. This, too, shall pass.

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