Last night, I was playing solitaire on my iPad just before 1 am. A headline came across the top of my screen - "President Trump tweets he has COVID 19." Immediately, I let out a "hah..." and then said, "Oh no..." My initial response was sort of "well, I guess that makes sense." Then I began to think about the United States and what it means when our president is sick. There have been a number of times in US history in which a president was incapable to continue, even if temporarily. We have a system in place that allows for the transfer of power, if necessary.
During my lifetime, there have been 3 times in which Vice Presidents have had to assume the role as acting President for medical procedures: On July 13, 1985 when President Reagan had surgery for colon cancer, On June 29, 2002 and July 21, 2007 when President George W. Bush underwent colonoscopies. Also, in 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Vice President Lyndon Johnson became the President. And when President Richard Nixon resigned in August 1974, Vice President Gerald Ford became President.
So, of course, what was going through my mind right off the bat was the succession line of the presidency. I was worried how President Trump's illness would affect the election. I was concerned about the President's health. I will say I did not sleep as well last night as I would have liked.
I often have Facebook open on one of my computer screens. It is a way for me to connect with colleagues, friends, family, and congregants. When I sat at my desk this morning, what I began to observe right away was a lot of my Facebook feed being filled with jokes and offensive statements regarding the health/life of President Trump. I do not think it is a mystery that I am a liberal...not far-left Liberal, but Democrat, none-the-less. As I have said many times, I consider myself to be a "blue-dog" Democrat. Anyway, I was truly taken aback by so many "karma" based comments and others like it. Is that what we do? Is that we believe? Do we really make fun of someone because they didn't take something seriously?
Ok, I am no angel. I am not perfect. I have, at times in my life, wished someone to be punished or to be given their "just reward." I was wrong. When we wish for bad things to happen to others, we are allowing ourselves to go down a very steep slope. As a people, Jews have been scapegoats for centuries. Have we wished revenge on those who have wronged us? Sure. But I also think of the Rabbi's prayer in "Fiddler on the Roof" when he is asked if there is a blessing for the Czar: "May God bless and keep the Czar far away from us."
President Donald Trump is not just President; he is also a human. And no matter how you feel about him personally, wishing him to be ill or worse is not ok. I will defend anyone's right to disagree politically with the President or anyone for that matter. I will also, just as strongly, denounce those who wish ill will, sickness or death on President Trump, or anyone else. Do I believe President Trump has spoken and acted in despicable ways? Yes, sure. That does not mean I wish him ill will.
A rabbinic story (from the Talmud) that has seemed to pop up quite a bit today is the following from Berachot 10a:
There were these hooligans in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood who caused him a great deal of anguish. Rabbi Meir prayed for God to have mercy on them, that they should die. Rabbi Meir’s wife, Berurya, said to him: What is your thinking? On what basis do you pray for the death of these hooligans? Do you base yourself on the verse, as it is written: “Let sins cease from the land” (Psalms 104:35), which you interpret to mean that the world would be better if the wicked were destroyed? But is it written, let sinners cease?” Let sins cease, is written. One should pray for an end to their transgressions, not for the demise of the transgressors themselves.
Moreover, go to the end of the verse, where it says: “And the wicked will be no more.” If, as you suggest, transgressions shall cease refers to the demise of the evildoers, how is it possible that the wicked will be no more, i.e., that they will no longer be evil? Rather, pray for God to have mercy on them, that they should repent, as if they repent, then the wicked will be no more, as they will have repented.
Rabbi Meir saw that Berurya was correct and he prayed for God to have mercy on them, and they repented. (from https://www.sefaria.org/Berakhot.10a.2-5?lang=en)
What we learn from this story is that when we wish for bad things to happen to those we may consider wicked, we are wrong. What we should do, instead, is wish for those who are wicked to change their ways. Rather pray/wish for bad things to happen to them, wish for them to recognize the wickedness of their ways and to change.
May God send a speedy and full recovery, a Refuah Shleimah to President Trump, First Lady Melania Trump, and all of those in the world who have been or are afflicted with COVID 19 or any other sickness.
The 10 Days of Awe, Yamim Noraim, usually provide some "rest" time or time to finish up my preparations for Yom Kippur. This year, the "outlook is unclear." Yes, my services are already finished - after months and months of creating, editing, re-editing, cutting and pasting, etc. of Powerpoint slides and music/video files. My sermon for Erev YK and story for YK day are complete. However, there is too much going on in the world to rest. Being a rabbi during a pandemic has given me great opportunities to grow as a rabbi. Not surprisingly, it has also provided me with many challenges to overcome.
Thankfully, I belong to the Central Conference of American Rabbis. The CCAR has provided me so many valuable lessons and resources. I have been able to turn to "older" or more experienced colleagues when I have felt overwhelmed. When I speak with God or when I pray, I always thank God for the many wonderful blessings in my life - even when it is hard to fathom these blessings. I work with a great team of lay leaders who provide me with great support in so many ways. I certainly would not be able to be the rabbi I am without them.
Do you know who never gets enough credit? The spouses/partners of rabbis (or any clergy for that matter). One of the first lessons I was taught when I entered seminary was the importance of finding a personal counselor - whether a social worker, psychiatrist or psychologist. With the sheer amount of "stuff" clergy have to process from congregants and others, we need a place to put our own "stuff." For many clergy (myself included), this burden often falls on the spouse or partner. Having a loving partner or spouse is so important. Even when they do not understand, it is vital to be able to lean on them for support. However, having a professional counselor is vital as well. There are things a clergy person cannot share with their spouse/partner. Being able to work through these things with a counselor is extremely helpful.
During our Kabbalat Shabbat/Erev Rosh Hashanah service last Friday, I was handed a note that had the following message written on it, "Ruth Bader Ginsburg died." It just so happened that our pre-recorded Choir version of Mi Shebeirach was being played. So, I had a few minutes to think about what I wanted to say...although I really do not remember what I said as the message was such a shock to my system. And, of course, this brings up another challenge of being a member of clergy - what do we do when we want to scream out, cry or just collapse from exhaustion, especially if we are right in the middle of leading a service or any number of important responsibilities we may have.
Let me digress for a moment - my Nana, my mother's mother, died on Friday, September 11. I was right in the middle of last minute preparations for my Kabbalat Shabbat service in memory/dedicated to that tragic day in American history. I really did not have a chance to really check in with myself about how I was feeling. As the days were flying by getting us ever closer to Rosh Hashanah, I found myself so focused on my rabbinic responsibilities.
A couple of nights after my Nana's death, Batya asked me how I was doing. I am certain she was trying to get me to open up about my Nana. My response was typical, "I have been so busy and I continue to be so busy, I haven't had the chance to mourn or think too much about it." This is a trap many, many clergy fall in. We may dedicate our lives to providing pastoral care to our congregants, friends, etc...but when it comes to our own emotions, we often do not take the time or give the proper energy to how we are doing...how we are mourning.
This is where the personal counselor comes in. That hour or so every 2 weeks is our opportunity to put everything else aside and truly focus on ourselves. This is really hard for me (and I would suggest for many Clergy). After all, I believe I was called to be a rabbi - so who am I to turn away or perhaps shirk these holy responsibilities.
An American Hero Returned Home
I watched as they escorted him into the Capitol Building.
I listened as they carried his body across the “Edmund Pettis Bridge.”
I cried as the Minister prayed for and celebrated his life.
I am hopeful his soul is at peace, while we still have more work to do.
He fought for the rights of all people, not just those “like him.”
He prayed for the peace of all people, those who have died for the same causes.
He strove for so many freedoms, so many justices, so many ideas.
He was to so many a revered hero, one who treated everyone with kindness.
His fight was not violent; rather just like his mentor, it was one of non-violence.
His blood, sweat and tears drenched the holy grounds he stood and sat on.
His courage and love were committed to justice for the future and the present.
His life was an example; He is an American Hero; He has returned home.
Congressman John Lewis never shied away from a challenge.
Congressman John Lewis stood by and supported so many others as well.
Congressman John Lewis lived his life to inspire the next generation.
Congressman John Lewis – May you rest in peace forevermore.
Today I woke up with hope, thinking about the future.
Today I opened my eyes, and the sun was shining bright.
Today I walked outside, listening, smelling, and hearing.
Today I hope for the light; I pray for a better tomorrow.
When I opened my front door,
I was greeted by 2 robin’s nests.
Tiny little heads peeking up above the twigs and brush.
Momma bird is out getting food
while Daddy bird watches closely.
These birds go on, day by day,
as if nothing outside is different.
I prepare my notes for services and study.
I look to my children –
are they even aware of what is going on?
I turn back to my computer to focus on my community.
Have I even taken the time to focus on myself?
Every Day brings about a new tomorrow,
with so much more unfamiliar.
Every day brings about more “news,”
strange, mysterious and foreign.
Every day we learn of more deaths,
more devastation, more fear.
Every day I want to hope for the light,
but I must prepare for the dark.
Where is God?
Where is Shechinah?
Where is El Shaddai?
Where is Adonai Tz’vaot?
Covid19; disease; sickness; death.
Fear; Anxiety; Apathy; Anger.
The children; the birds; the sun; the wind.
Smiles; chirps of joy; warmth; cool.
I do not hope for the light; I dare not prepare for the dark.
I do pray for the light; I do prepare for the unknown.
I close my eyes and try to focus on a thought, any thought.
What swirls around in my head – questions, concerns, stress….
The # of cases, the sick amongst us continues to grow…
What about the healthcare professionals, the EMT’s, the first responders….
My head hurts with the pain of unknowing, more and more every day.
As I open my eyes, I hear the sounds of today: laughter of children, the sounds of Youtube, tick-tock.
Stuck in my home with all of my possessions, my children, my family, and memories….
Did I shower today? Did my children brush their teeth? Is it Tuesday, Wednesday, Sunday….
Pandemic; Coronavirus; Covid19; Flu Symptons…
Breathe; just take a breath and relax – keeping the distance is necessary to survive.
What is present in these questions is hope.
What is present in these worries is optimism.
What is present in these fears are dreams.
What is present in this reality is the future.
Be with us, God, be with us and help us…we will make it through this, together not apart.
I am a husband, father and rabbi - just trying to help to make the world a better place!