Jews: Ditch “stay safe and healthy”

Dear Fellow Jews:

Please stop telling one another to “stay safe and health,” without acknowledging the immense privilege of a roof, space to physically distance, and access to personal protective equipment, like clean masks; resources and a network able to support you in time of need; historic access to housing, employment, education, and healthcare; and, if you’re so fortunate: an environment where gun violence, domestic violence, and other “epidemics” were not already at work before Covid-19 arrived.

Maybe start saying, instead: “Stay concerned and compassionate.”

Perhaps add:

“We are in a wilderness [bemidbar] — every day of this pandemic and in our Torah reading cycle, and we are out here to learn something new about being in a diverse community thriving in challenging circumstances.”

Start acknowledging every day, in some new way, the deep inequities that accompany us on this journey, the disparities in the prevalence and severity of Covid-19 depending on where we live, the color of our skin, our immigration status, our gender expression, our physical abilities, and many other factors.

“Wherever you are, it’s probably Mitzrayim [“The Narrow Place,” biblical Egypt]” has been a catch-phrase for many of us since Michael Walzer published Exodus and Revolution in 1986. We have found inspiration in the image Walzer presented of a disparate group “joining together and marching” toward something better. But that image has, for far too long, tricked the comfortable among us into thinking we are marching toward equality and justice, when we’re, in reality, dragging the whole of that Narrow Place along with us.

In this pandemic, that fantasy “marching together” obscures deep, dangerous differences in how our various communities are faring. In DC compare, for example, the number of Covid-19 cases per 1000 people, in these locations:

Woodley Park: 3.5
Adas Israel Congregation, National Zoo
Historic Anacostia: 11.3
Big Chair, We Act Radio/Charnice Milton Community Bookstore (my work)

Cathedral Heights: 3.1
near Temple Micah, Washington National Cathedral
Fort Lincoln: 21.0
Prince Georges county line, Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Shepherd Park: 15.8
Ohev Sholom, Tifereth Israel, and Fabrangen
Petworth: 14.8
New Synagogue Project
Brightwood/Brightwood Park: 19.1/22.6
southeast of Shepherd Park, northwest of Petworth

Capitol Hill: 2.6
Hill Havurah
Hill East: 4.5
Mount Moriah Baptist Church (interfaith partner of Hill Havurah), my home
Stadium Armory: 69.0
includes DC Jail, Harriet Tubman women’s shelter

For these and more data, review this interactive map of Washington DC Corona Virus Positives as of 5/15/20.

Screen Shot 2020-05-18 at 8.44.58 AM

If you live elsewhere, to paraphrase Michael Walzer: it’s likely no different in essence.

Stop saying “we’re all in this together”
and start working to create a world
where that might be just a tiny bit more accurate.

 

Let us keep in mind some teachings of the oft-cited Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel; his friend and colleague, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the prophet Amos whom they both studied and often quoted:

God does not reveal [Godself] in an abstract absoluteness, but in a personal and intimate relation to the world.

The characteristic of the prophets is not foreknowledge of the future, but insight into the present pathos of God.

All men care for the world; the prophet cares for God’s care….Sympathy opens man to the living God. Unless we share [God’s] concern, we know nothing about the living God.
The Prophets, vol. II (1962), p.3, 11, 284

We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity.
– “Beyond Vietnam” (1967)

Because you trample on the poor…
I know how manifold are your transgressions
Hate the evil,
and love the good,
and establish justice in the gate;
Let justice well up as waters,
and righteousness as a mighty stream.”
– Amos 5:10, 12, 15, 24



To learn more about what’s going on in the DC area, visit Black Coalition Against Covid and Many Languages One Voice. And here is a brief overview of Jewish congregational offerings to learn more and/or get involved.

See also see related text and podcasts at Rereading Exodus.

And please share this.



The current weekly reading in the annual Torah cycle is “Bedmidbar,” usually translated as “in the wilderness,” or, sometimes: “desert.” The Book of Numbers 1:1-4:20.
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Gathering Sources: Mattot-Masei

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the double Torah portion Matot-Masei. Matot — also spelled Mattot, sometimes Mattoth or Matos — is composed of Numbers 30:2- 32:48 and is usually read along with Masei — also spelled — Numbers 33:1-26:13. In some leap years, but not all, the two portions are read separately.

The double portion is next read in most of the Diaspora and beginning with minchah on July 27 and concluding with on Shabbat morning August 3, 2019. (At Temple Micah in Washington, DC — which follows an idiosyncratic schedule — the two portions are read separately, putting the congregation’s reading schedule back in synch with the rest of the Jewish world with August 10 reading of Devarim.)

Matot A Path to Follow: What’s the Beef with Midian?

Matot Something to Notice: Kashering utensils

Masei Great Source: Ahad Ha-am on the prophet



See also:

Prayer Link: Seeing You in 42 Familiar Places

Dvar Torah: You Didn’t Have to Be There

Dvar Torah in memory of Max Ticktin (z”l): Heavy Tongue, or the House of Cards theory of bible study


This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

Gathering Sources: Bamidbar

Thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion, Bamidbar — sometimes: Bemidbar or B’midbar — Numbers 1:1-4:20. This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2010 series called “Opening the Book”:

A Path to Follow: From One Month

Something to Notice: God Grieves

Great Source: The Biography of Ancient Israel

See also: Bamidbar: Prayer Links

Note to those trying to follow the Gathering Sources series: Postings lagged following Shavuot. Sorry. Catching up.

Bamidbar: Prayer Links

In Numbers/Bamidbar 2:1, Moses and Aaron are addressed equally by God: “va-y’daber HASHEM el-moshe v’el-aharon….” They are so addressed 18 times in the Torah. Israel would not have been redeemed without the prayers of both — according to Numbers Rabbah* — which is why the Amidah [standing prayer] (AKA Shemoneh Esrei [“the Eighteen”]) contains 18 blessings. (It’s actually 19 now, with the 19th added later than this commentary.)

There are other explanations for the Eighteen: 18 times in the Torah something is done “as HASHEM has commanded Moses.” God’s name — YHVH — appears 18 times total in the three paragraphs of the Shema. The Rabbis counted 18 vertebrae (all of which should be bent in bowing in the Amidah, BTW). But I’m partial to the “Moses and Aaron addressed equally” explanation.

I believe both personal prayer/meditation and communal prayer are crucial. The Amidah often includes both a silent/private prayer and some portion repeated aloud as a group. (This is less common in Reform congregations.) Most interesting and ultimately most powerful for me is the “hybrid” experience of the (often mumbled) “silent” prayer…

…each person focused on her/his own individual prayer but surrounded by barely audible snatches of fellow pray-ers’ words, or maybe just by the prayer-vibes of others…

Alone/Together in prayer — not unlike Aaron with Moses, I imagine — equally in God’s presence but individuals nonetheless.
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Bamidbar: Language and Translation

Genealogy/Affiliation/Birth

This portion contains a word unique in the Bible: va-yityaledu. [root letters: yod-lamed-dalet]. Numbers 1:18

Everett Fox’s translation,* which uses inventive compounds to convey Hebrew meanings into English, renders this” declared-their-lineage” (The Five Books of Moses, Schocken).

The Stone (Artscroll) Chumash* says, “established their genealogies.”

Robert Alter* notes: “The unusual Hebrew verb, a reflexive form of the root that means ‘to give birth,’ is interpreted by Rashi, and confirmed by modern scholarship to have the sense of sorting out birth lines or pedigrees.”  (page 685)

The Torah: A Women’s Commentary* says, “The self-reflexive nature of the verb here almost suggests that this army gave birth to itself.” (page 793)

Counting Skulls

When the census is taken, Israelites are told to count “le-gulgelotam” — by their skulls. My concordance* lists 12 citations for “gulgulet” [gimmel-lamed-gimmel-tav], four of which are in the book of Numbers, three in Chronicles I, two in Exodus and one in Kings I. Several of the usages refer to the body part that would ordinarily be rendered “skull” in English; most, however, have this census-related meaning of counting persons.
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