On Halloween Day, 2003, 13-year-old Bethany Hamilton went surfing with her best friend, as well as her best friend’s father and brothers – because that’s what you do when you live in Hawaii. It sure beats a snowstorm on Halloween – as all NJ residents will attest. Unfortunately, her outing did not have a happy ending that day.
A 14-foot tiger shark attacked her and severed her arm just below the shoulder. Thanks to quick action by her best friend’s family and a doctor who happened to be on the beach that day, she was quickly transported to the hospital and rushed into surgery. There was nothing anyone could do about her arm, but quite a few people contributed to saving her life that day.
Bethany took it from there. Within a month, she was back on a surf board. And in January 2004, barely two months after that fateful day she entered a surfing competition in Australia and made it to the finals. She surfed professionally through 2016 before retiring. Today, she is married with two young sons. There are two movies about her life – “Soul Surfer” and “Unstoppable.”
Bethany Hamilton is an amazing example of overcoming personal tragedy. She adapted to her new reality and charted a new course in her life.
Our tradition preserves the story of Rabbi Meir and his wife Beruriah overcoming personal tragedies in their lives in much the same way. By way of background, Beruriah’s father was a teacher in the land of Israel in the 2nd Century CE. Perhaps, that’s why Beruriah was as learned as any of the rabbis in her day and she was one of the few women quoted in the Talmud. As a young woman, Beruriah saw her father painfully executed by the Romans for teaching Torah in defiance of the governor’s edict against such acts. The story of his execution is told as part of the Eileh Ezkerah in the Yom Kippur liturgy. Beruriah persevered and eventually married Rabbi Meir. Together they had two sons.
One Shabbat afternoon, Rabbi Meir was sitting and lecturing in the study hall, when unbeknownst to him, his two sons died. Without notifying Meir, Beruriah laid the two of them on the bed and spread a sheet over them. After the Shabbat was over, Rabbi Meir came home from the study hall and asked, “Where are my two sons?”
She said, “They went to the study hall.” He said, “I was watching over the study hall, and I did not see them.” She gave him a cup of wine to make Havdalah (the ceremony marking the end of Shabbat), and he recited the blessings. He again said, “Where are my two sons?” She said to him, “They went to another place and will soon come.” She put a plate of food in front of him, he ate and said the Grace After Meals.
After all that, Beruriah said, “Rabbi, I have a question to ask you.” He knew something was up when she addressed him that way, and he said to her, “Ask your question.” She said to him, “Rabbi, some time ago a man came and gave me something to keep for him. Now he comes and seeks to take it back. Shall we return it to him or not?” He said to her, “You know the law as well as I do – whoever is entrusted with an object must return it to its owner.” She said to him, “Rabbi, I would not have given it to him without your knowledge.”
She took him by the hand and led him up to the room. She led him to the bed and removed the sheet that was covering their two boys. When he saw the two of them lying dead on the bed, he began to cry and say, “My sons, my sons!” At that moment she said to Rabbi Meir, “Rabbi, did you not say to me that I must return the trust to its owner?” He said, “Adonai gave and Adonai has taken away; May the name of Adonai be blessed (Job 1:21).” We speak those words from the Book of Job at Jewish funerals to this day.
They found a way to adapt to their new reality and charted a new course in their life. This is what Judaism has always done. It has found a way to go on after tragedy. It has completely transformed itself – when necessary – after a major disruptive event
In the year 70 CE, the Second Temple was destroyed. We must keep in mind that after the First Temple was destroyed in 586 BCE, the Jews returned to rebuild it after about 50 years. When that Second Temple was desecrated by the Assyrian Greeks in the 2nd Century BCE, the Maccabees immediately started their rebellion and rededicated it within a few years.
The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE was different though. There was no rebuilding or rededicating on the horizon. So, the rabbis had to find a way to keep the spirit of the Temple alive without the actual physical Temple.
They did so by creating a system based on study, prayer and performance of good deeds and infusing that system with the language of the Temple cult. This brilliant strategy can be seen through the following story about Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai who lived through the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. He snuck out of Jerusalem by faking his death and re-established the Sanhedrin – the High Court – in a town called Yavne after the destruction.
According to one of our ancient texts (Avot d’Rabbi Nathan, ch. 4), “Once, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai was leaving Jerusalem, and Rabbi Yehoshua – his disciple – was following him and saw the ruins of the Temple.Rabbi Yehoshua said: OY! Woe to us that it [the Temple] is destroyed, a place where the Jewish nation’s sins are atoned! [Ben Zakkai] answered: My son, do not feel bad, we have another atonement just like it, and which is that? It is acts of loving-kindness, as the Prophet Hosea says: ‘For I desire loving-kindness and not sacrifices (Hosea 6:6).’”
Following his lead, the rabbis named some of our worship services – such as Mincha and Musaf – after the sacrifices that they replaced. They found a way to give the Priests honors in the new worship services they created – the Kohanim we called up to the Torah for an Aliyah first and they still got to recite the Priestly Benediction publicly. Instead of offering sacrifices, the rabbis required us to read the Biblical passages describing those offerings. In other words, they used all the creativity they could muster to make their new reality feel like their old reality which was never going to return.
Some 1500 years later, on another continent, our people suffered through another major disruptive event. 1648-49 Bohdan Chmelniecki tried to rid Ukraine of its Jews whom he saw as agents of foreign governments usurping the wealth of his country through taxes. Scholars disagree over how many Jews he killed but it was likely over 100,000 – making him the greatest murderer of Jews prior to Hitler. After Chmelniecki, the Poles and Russians murdered many more Jews during the second half of the 17th Century.
One of the results of this half-century of massacres against the Jews was a great decline in the Jewish intellectual life in Eastern Europe. The great scholars of Russia, Ukraine and Poland who managed to survived moved their academies to Lithuania and elsewhere.
In the year 1698, a man named Yisrael ben Eliezer was born in a small Ukrainian village and orphaned as a young child. The community cared for him and until the age of 36, many thought of him as a nebbish, a ne’er-do-well – just another Jewish peasant who could read and write just enough to teach children. But then, after years of study and spiritual discernment, he presented himself as a healer, a story teller, a singer of wordless melodies, and a spiritual guide. He became known as the Ba’al Shem Tov – the master of a good name – and the changes he made to Judaism completely transformed our tradition.
The Ba’al Shem Tov gave every Jew entrée into the spiritual life of Judaism even if they could not afford to spend their days in a Yeshiva poring over sacred texts. This new approach to Jewish life is called Chasidism. While we have never abandoned our sacred texts – and the Ba’al Shem Tov would not want Jews to abandon those texts – virtually every subsequent expression of Judaism has incorporated elements of the Ba’al Shem Tov’s Chasidism into its practice.
Our ancestors adapted to the new reality of Jewish life in Eastern Europe and charted a new course.
Some three centuries later, Europe would once again be the site of a tragic, transformative event in the history of Judaism. More than one-third of the world’s Jewish population – over 60% of Europe’s Jewish population – was killed during the Holocaust. Some 75 years later, it’s still impossible to wrap one’s head around that.
Yet, the Jewish people found a way to go on after the Holocaust. Judaism would change, but it would go on. Prior to the Holocaust, the three major modern expressions of Judaism – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox (Reconstructionism did not really exist yet) – were all based on one’s relationship with God and Torah. The differences among the movements had to do with approaches to Jewish law. We defined each movement by how it applied the Torah to the modern context.
Today, our movements still talk and write about our relationship to the Torah, to the mitzvot and to Jewish law. But in reality, that is no longer how individual Jews think about their Judaism.
In a well-known 2013 Pew Poll entitled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” we Jews were asked: “What does it mean to be Jewish?” The top three answers were: (1) remember the Holocaust; (2) lead an ethical/moral life; and (3) work for justice/equality.”
Nothing about Torah. Nothing about Mitzvot. Nothing about believing in God. Perhaps it was still simply too painful to think about all of the Torah-studying, mitzvah-observing, God-fearing Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.
As a rabbi, I obviously still believe in preserving our customs, I still believe in studying our traditional texts, and I still believe in God. However, 75 years is the blink of an eye in Jewish history. As we continue to adapt to our post-Holocaust reality, I have to recognize that members of my community don’t always want to talk about the Jewish issues that most important to me.
Just as the ancient rabbis created a new path to remain Jewish after the destruction of the temple, just as the Ba’al Shem Tov created a new path to remain Jewish after the decimation of Eastern European Jewry, we too are still in the process of finding our path after the Holocaust. And if we are still finding our way post-Holocaust, then what is going to happen to Judaism following this global pandemic?
Now, first of all, I want to make it clear that I don’t put this pandemic and lockdown in the same category as the Holocaust, the Chmelniecki massacres or the destruction of the Temple. However, it is clearly the most disruptive event in MY lifetime. I could never have imagined our synagogue sitting virtually empty for 6 months. And yet….
This past March 14th was supposed to be Women’s Group Shabbat. On the Thursday before, we started talking about whether or not it was going to happen. We started by cancelling the Kiddush and donating the food. Then we tried to figure out who was willing to attend and who was not willing to attend. And what precautions or protocols we needed to follow in order still have services in our building. By the end of that Thursday – less than 48 hours before some 50 women were set to participate in our Shabbat morning service – we realized that it simply could not happen. We had to cancel.
We would not be having in-person services in the sanctuary that Shabbat. And we have not had in-person services in the Sanctuary since then – as evidenced by the fact that we are worshiping together today via Zoom and Facebook Live.
In the six months since our congregation – and others like ours around the world – had to make a quick decision about what to do for one particular Shabbat, we’ve begun to see how Judaism might change in the coming years. Our synagogue evolved almost instantaneously in order to remain relevant in our members’ lives. We were not tech-savvy enough to pull off a live Zoom service on March 14th. The Cantor and I pre-recorded a service that we posted on-line.
However, we put it all together by March 28th for our first Zoom Bat Mitzvah. And we haven’t looked back.
I suspect that some of the changes we have made on the fly these past six months are going to stay with us far beyond the duration of the lockdown.
1) Livestreaming of services is here to stay. When the lockdown started, we all became homebound. As a result, we all now have some insight into what it’s like to be homebound. We did not want to be denied the opportunity to participate in synagogue life. So, going forward, how can we deny any of our homebound members the opportunity to participate in synagogue life. Virtual services are here to stay.
2) We have witnessed the erosion of geographic boundaries, and the redefinition of what does it mean to be a member. Since the lockdown started, we created a new membership category called “Virtual Membership.” It allows people who live anywhere to enjoy our services and programs. This morning people are worshiping with us from Canada and across the United States. As a result of the lockdown, we no longer have to join the synagogue closest to our home.
3) During these past six months, we have seen further integration of technology into our services. We have created a new electronic Siddur for each Bar or Bat Mitzvah – with the specific Torah reading, Haftarah and prayers for that morning. Could this be the new model for the Siddur? Previously, the Siddur changed with technological advances like the invention of the codex and the printing press. I suspect that we will not turn back.
4) When our office closed and our staff all started working from home, you saw us respond to emails and phone calls at crazy hours because of everything that was going on in our homes. While I don’t think that the synagogue office will ever be 24/7, I think that there will be an expectation that we are open 24/6.
In other words, we’ll adapt to our new reality, and chart a new course toward revival and survival for our community. Because that’s what Judaism does after a major disruptive event. That’s what we’ve always done. I look forward to charting that new course with you in the coming year.
L’Shanah Tovah, RAF.