Dear Westwood Village Synagogue Members and Friends,
As we journey together through these challenging times of what is now known as “social distancing,” it does not mean that we disconnect from one another. We are blessed to live in an age of technology where we are still able to connect and communicate with each other, and while far from resembling the more natural human form of in-person interaction, we nonetheless are able to stay in touch with one another.
In this spirit, I am pleased to invite you to join me in studying Torah online this coming Monday night, March 16 at 7:00 p.m.  Please watch your emails on Sunday, where you will receive specific log-in instructions, the topic of the shiur, as well as the uploaded version of the text that we will study together.
In the meanwhile, I want to take a moment with you to reflect on what we are experiencing together, and to offer some halakhic insights that will hopefully calm the anxiety that many might be feeling about not praying together in a minyan on Shabbat.
The most important thing for all of us to bear in mind this Shabbat, and every Shabbat for that matter, is that keeping safe is the most important Mitzvah we have. Keeping safe is a Torah-based Mitzvah (Mitzvah Mi’deorayta) of the highest proportions, while praying with the congregation and hearing the Torah reading is a Rabbinic-based Mitzvah (Mitzvah Mi’derabanan) and of lesser significance. Our sages say – it is better to minimize one Shabbat in order to have the health to celebrate future Shabbatot, and we must keep this rule about safety in mind this weekend and for the foreseeable future. This consideration applies not just to the direct saving of lives of those at risk, but also to the indirect role we can play in slowing the spread of disease to others.
The concept of “Tefillah Be-Tzibur” (communal prayer) means that our prayers and supplications to God share greater resonance and meaning when offered as a unified group and not as individuals. Though the needs of preserving health means we will not be praying together in the same place this Shabbat, until further notice, I recommend that our entire community pray at the times we traditionally gather (This week: 6:30 p.m. on Friday night – Mincha followed by Kabbalat Shabbat/Maariv, 9:30 a.m. on Shabbat morning, 6:30 p.m. Shabbat Afternoon/Mincha/, 7:42  p.m. Saturday night Maariv/Havdalah, & 7:00 a.m. on weekdays), so we can still pray at the same time, if not the same place.
Communal prayer is not focused on just the halakhic technicalities of answering Amen to Kaddish & Barchu; its focus is a sense of feeling of being part of a greater unit – a Minyan, a subset of Klal Yisrael. We achieve that feeling through deep, thoughtful, and heartfelt communal prayer, and especially this week, as part of an entire Jewish people worldwide, who will be praying at home because of the coronavirus.
To be sure, it is harder to pray without the motivation of being present or counted with others. But in times of danger, prayer is one of the few tools that we have to cry out to God from the depths of our souls, asking God for help and for a better tomorrow.
An important word to those reciting Kaddish: the mourner’s responsibility to say Kaddish means that they recite the Kaddish at every available opportunity – not that there is a Divine punch-card counting each Kaddish. While in the absence of a required Minyan, if you are reciting Kaddish or observing a Yahrzeit, and feel the need to recite the Kaddish, then you should do so. We honor the memory of loved ones through our commitment to saying kaddish whenever possible. God asks of us to do the utmost possible, not what is not possible under extreme circumstances. Please keep that in mind and in your hearts.
Let us continue to remember the importance of community and Chesed at this difficult time. People are suffering and hurting in all sorts of ways – physically, emotionally and spiritually – and now is really not the time for political differences to divide us over the so-called “correct response” to the coronavirus. We are all in this together, no matter what side of the political equation we are on. I encourage you to pick up the phone during the week and call a friend and offer moral support. Though our Shul serves as our central locale for social interaction – especially on Shabbat – we must support all of those in need at all times, even if not in Shul. Again, technology helps us out here – phones, emails, text messages, Whatsapp, Skype, Zoom. But none of those work on autopilot. They still need you to place the call, dial-in or send the text message. If we each do our part in keeping our community connected, it will lessen the depressing reality of “social distancing.”
In reading the various Jewish responses to the coronavirus crisis, two of them struck a chord within me. They come from totally different places in life, one an ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jew, the other a self-described “secular and cultural Jew.”
The ultra-Orthodox Sephardic Jew is Rav Yitzhak Yosef, the Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Israel (and the son of Rav Ovadia Yosef z”l). When asked to offer his halakhic ruling on how to handle religious life (synagogue gatherings, etc.) under these circumstances, here’s what he said:
“No halakhic instruction exists that would overrule the instructions of the Health Ministry. The halakhic instruction I give is to obey absolutely all the instructions of the Health Ministry without exception, and every order produced by them is, for all intents and purposes, a halakhic order.”
The other reaction comes from my dear friend Stephen Sachs, the founder and creative director of the Fountain Theatre in Hollywood (many of you recall our attending a performance of “The Chosen” there, for which I served as rabbinic consultant). Last night I was scheduled to meet with the cast of a new upcoming production at the Fountain, a play about American Jews and Israeli politics titled “If I Forget” (for which I am also the rabbinic consultant). In his email to us cancelling last night’s scheduled meeting and postponing the rehearsals and opening date of the play, Stephen wrote:
“These are unsettling times. We must have courage to live with uncertainty. Jews can handle uncertainty. The Jewish approach is never to hide under the blankets and hope that difficult and uncertain times pass. Jews know that difficult and uncertain times come. Faith is not certainty, but the courage to live with uncertainty.”
Coming from very different “Jewish places in life,” both of these statements represent some of the finest thinking on this that I have read.
As halakhic Jews, we understand that in circumstances of life and death, the value of Pikuach Nefesh – saving lives – comes above all, and the “Halakhic Authorities” in this area are not rabbis, but trusted health care professionals. As a people of faith, we recognize that faith is indeed complex, and especially as Jews, we have persevered and lived through many periods of uncertainty.
Below please find a piece on this week’s Torah Portion, Parashat Ki Tissa. It is the parsha that tells the famous episode of the Golden Calf (which I comment upon in my piece).
It is the parsha that also contains the paragraph we recite every Shabbat when making Kiddush: “V’Shamru Bnai Yisrael et Ha-Shabbat.” One of my favorite moments in our Shul is when we stand together as a community and chant Kiddush together in the beautiful tune we use. It’s a special moment of transition from communal prayer to communal socializing.
Like all of you, I will miss that social interaction tomorrow, so when we chant Kiddush tomorrow, let’s all add a special Tefillah in our hearts that soon, please God, we will be back in our beloved sacred space, chanting Kiddush together, and interacting with one another in person.
[March 13]