Divre Harav – January/2022

In a small congregation in a pandemic world, it is not easy to get a minyan. Yet we have done exactly that, nearly every Shabbat and holiday, since October 23, 2020. Thanks to a remarkably dedicated core of Shabbat regulars and to group of people who have answered the minyan call when we were in danger of falling short, we reestablished our Shabbat minyan.

Our minyan regulars who could be counted on weekly, semi-weekly, or monthly, included Rhonda Reider and Mike Halpern, David and Karen Reifler, Stuart Rapaport, Jim and Patti Flood, Harry Krishef, Lennox Forrest, Elisabeth Rosewall, Dovid Ben Avraham, Connor Hess, Robin Turetsky, Sandy Freed, Mark Silverstein, and Marisa Krishef.

Those who responded to the call to make up for a projected shortfall in our minyan or just showed up to surprise us occasionally were Ken Strauss, Jason Cook, Grant and Taylor Winkelman, David Alfonso, Jan and Bill Lewis, Leigh Rapaport, Jim Siegel, Ed Miller, Barb Freed, Diane Rayor, Barb Wepman, Judy Subar, and Toby Dolinka.

Our weekday Zoom minyan remained strong for about 18 months and then began to taper off. But we still have a core group of about nine who continue to participate, even without a minyan. We are grateful for Judy and Buddy (of blessed memory) Joseph, Karen and David Reifler, Cliff and Jean Shekter, Stuart Rapaport, Fred Meyerson, Binyamin Mehler, Sandy Freed, Harry Krishef, Rhonda Reider, Sol Krishef, Marc Silverstein, Esther Bookbinder, Marni Vyn, Cathy Winick, Dale Kramer, Barb Christiaans, and Mike Halprin for being part of the every-day minyan core, for being semi-regular participants, or for pitching in to make a minyan when we fall one or two short.

Our online minyan was an important component in our efforts to maintain a community during the worst of the pandemic. The halakhic basis for a zoom minyan is rooted in the notion that a person leaning into a window can be counted in a minyan taking place inside the room. In other words, they are counted as physically present, even though they are separated by a wall, as long as they can hear and be heard, see and be seen.

Constituting a remote minyan in which the participants are not physically together was a concession to sha’at ha-dhak, exigent circumstances, a crisis situation. Early in the pandemic, when we keenly felt a sense of isolation, the zoom minyan was vitally important to provide connection and spiritual nourishment.

It is clear to me from my work on the Scare Resources Allocation Committee at Spectrum Health, an extension of my work on their ethics committee, that we are still in a serious situation. Hospital have reached crisis levels of demand and are instituting new measures to allocate the scarce resources of beds and staff fairly. Nonetheless, I have been looking to establish an objective criteria for establishing the end of of the sha’at ha-dhak. As the positive test rate for COVID-19 continue to climb to unprecedented levels (the 7-day average at the beginning of December was above 23% in Kent County), we continue to do what we can to slow the spread. Even though we know that vaccinated people who contract COVID are less sick and much less likely to die, we don’t want to become a vector for spread among the unvaccinated.

I am proposing that the next time that the positive test rate in Kent County goes below the level at which the CDC recommends masking at indoor gatherings (currently, 8%) that we end the sha’at ha-dhak. At that point, our online morning service will no longer constitute a minyan, even if we have 10 or more Jewish adults participating. We will try to resume a daily minyan once a week if we can get at least 10 people to commit to regular attendance. However, we will continue to offer zoom services for as long as we have a group of people who wish to participate. Members from Holland, Big Rapids, metro-Detroit, Texas, and Arizona, who are unable to attend an in-person morning minyan, have found value being able to join with other for morning prayers, even when we are unable to say Kaddish.

אבינו מלכנו … כלה דבר וחרב ורעב ושבי ומשחית ועוון ומגיפה ופגע רע, וכל מחלה וכל תקלה וכל קטטה וכל מיני פורעניות וכל גזירה רעה ושנאת חינם, מעלינו ומעל כל בני בריתך

Our Father, our Sovereign … end pestilence and sword and famine and captivity and corruption and iniquity and plague and evil harm, and every disease and every mishap and every quarrel and all kinds of calamity and every evil decree and senseless hatred, from us and from all of your covenanted peoples.

Psalm 150

“Halleluyah, Hallelu.” (150:1)

One year.150 mini-reflections on Psalms. Goal accomplished.

A good goal is one which you need to stretch a bit to achieve, but it has to be within reach. A goal to eat at least one meal a day is not very useful for most people, because typical, healthy, individuals can achieve it without any effort. Setting a goal for my 5’ 6”, over fifty year old body to play in a Super Bowl is not useful, because this goal is simply not achievable.

When you accomplish the task that you’ve set before you and learned something in the process,  you should feel good and celebrate. And so the Psalmist concludes his work with the refrain of Halleluyah, Thank God!

Psalm 139


It was You who created my kidneys/conscience; You fashioned me in my mother’s womb. (139:13)

When your conscience tells you that you have done something wrong, where is the feeling located in your body? For me it is usually deep in my belly, but I can image that it is sometimes deep enough that it could be considered to be within my lower back, approximately around my kidneys where the Biblical writers imagined it to be. The human body is a miraculous organism. We are neither solely body nor solely mind, but a complex interaction of both. While Judaism absorbed the notion of an eternal soul, it never gave up on the sanctify of the embodied human being.

Being both soul and body, resurrection became a central tenet of Jewish thought. A body without a human soul is less than an animal, incapable of communication and emotion and connection to the world around it. A soul without a body could not exist. The Zohar envisions supernal bodiless angels dressing themselves in flesh as they descend into the world because things in this world need flesh to function.

At conception, a midrash teaches, the soul is placed in the fertilized drop. Over the next 40 weeks, the container for that soul is slowly built until it can survive independent of its mother. Over the next 25 years it continues to develop, first body and then finally brain, until it is physically mature. Over the next 60, 80, 100+ years the body slowly ages but the soul continues to grow. Sometimes the progression of death blocks the expression of the soul and sometimes body and soul continue to nurture each other right up until the moment that the heart stops beating, the lungs stops breathing, and the body “gives up the ghost,” to use the King James expression for the soul departing from the body.

Your body may be yours alone, physically disconnected from all others, but your soul is a part of the soul of all humanity. Lead a soulful life and when humanity is in pain, you will be in pain. Nourish your body with good nutrition and nourish your soul with an intellectual and spiritual life. Exercise your body and challenge your soul by struggling to understand something completely new to you. Lead a soulful life and when any portion of creation is shining brightly your being will shine as well.

The Beginning of a Sabbatical

Beginning a Sabbatical is like rebooting a computer and running software to clean out all of the caches and shut down all of the programs that automatically launch and run in the background.

The first weekend and most of the first week is dedicated to paying attention to all of the habitual behaviors I engage in. I like to work. I like to be busy. When I am not working, I like to be thinking of working, planning what I need to do next, sometimes making lists of things to do. I look forward to getting back to the office on Monday morning. Shutting down the mental processes that drive me takes time, but without it, I won’t be able to explore a different set of mental processes.

To some extent, and to no great surprise, the practice of Shabbat prepares one for the larger practice of Sabbatical. On Shabbat, I shut down a portion of my weekday life. Computer, tablet, phone; no internet, no email, no electronic news. Actually, given that there is no newspaper delivery on Saturday, I really disconnect myself from a portion of the world around me. So far, the world has handled itself for better or for worse without my help … and had I been paying more attention, the world would still have handled itself for better or for worse!

Shabbat teaches me that I am not that important in the grand scheme of things; and a Sabbatical teaches me a similar lesson, that my synagogue can get along without me for a few months. Granted, I don’t have to prepare the world for my one-day-a-week absence, but I have spent most of the past two weeks and a significant part of the past month preparing the synagogue for my absence. However, this was my third Sabbatical, and we’ve gotten pretty good at knowing what needs to be done, and who needs to do it.

My job this weekend and this week is not to let myself get caught up in synagogue thoughts. I have to be confident that as problems arise, the president, the cantor, the chair of the ritual committee, along with the wisdom of a cadre of past presidents and board members and committee chairs can handle them.

Psalm 56

You keep count of my wanderings; put my tears into Your flask, into Your record. (56:9)

This verse is reminiscent of the central metaphor of Rosh Hashanah – that God keeps a record of our “wanderings.” The Jewish path of behavior is called halakha. I imagine that wandering might represent our straying off the path of halakha.

The High Holiday amidah, in a section called “unetaneh tokef,” suggests that through teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah – repentance, prayer, and giving, we might lesson the severity of the decree against us. The first two items on the list, repentance and prayer, go hand in hand with tears.

In order to repent properly, one has to virtually break one’s heart. If we have committed some kind of harm against another person, in order to make amends we need to absolutely feel the pain that we caused. An apology should be felt in the kishkas … we have to feel as if we caused a rip in the fabric of another person’s universe, which is precisely what we did when he committed the harm. The tears are the tearing of the fabric of our own universe experiencing the pain of the other.

Prayer is only effective for the purpose of lesson a Divine decree against us when it pours forth from a broken heart. Prayer is meant to be a transformative experience. We ought not to ask for a gift on a silver platter, but rather ask the Divine Blessed One to help us realign ourselves and become the person created in God’s image that we were meant to be. These are the tears that I shed in the process of changing my fate, that I’d like to be entered into the record.