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Updates from Rabbi Jeff Pivo (updated 5/22/2020 @ 1PM)

To our EBJC members:

We have been suddenly and nearly completely isolated from each other over the past several weeks. During the worldwide health crisis, this page will be where I offer sources for learning and inspiration. See my messages below for thoughts on being a Jew during a crisis.


Thoughts on Parashat Bamidbar 5780


[Posted 5/22/20:] This week we begin reading the fourth book of the Torah, Bemidbar/Numbers. While the book’s Hebrew name encompasses the many events during our ancestors’ years in the wilderness, the meaning of “Bemidbar,” the English name reflects the first event presented in the book, a census. The counting of people was, and remains, an important way of measuring the nation’s capacities. In this case, the purpose of counting was to know how many fighting men could be counted on to defend the Israelites. But counting people is never simply a mechanical process; who is counted, and how, and what we do with that information is tightly connected to the values beneath the count.


In any number of areas, counting people leads to the apportionment of resources. When the government takes the census every ten years, the numbers it yields lead directly to how assistance from the government is distributed. The number of people in each state is used to calculate the number of seats allotted to that state in the House of Representatives. And in the current pandemic, data drawn from various agencies about the number of sick, dead, recovered, tested, and so on, has serious consequences for the entire nation.


In each of these scenarios, there is an underlying set of ethics: fairness, obligation of government to citizens, and of citizens to one another, to name a few. Just as the census of the Israelites was established in order to obligate the people of each family and clan to every other in the larger nation, we too have a responsibility to look beyond our individual circumstances to the nation at large. As Americans, that means feeling, and acting on, our responsibility for every other American, as well as others who live in the country. Most people understand this. Beyond the heroics of health care professionals, who are risking their lives to save others, each of us must take up the call to be counted, and be counted on, and it is incredibly inspiring to see just how many are doing so, from delivering food to checking in on neighbors, to forming local cooperatives to see to the needs of those who are truly in need. Counting ourselves in, we show just how much we count.

Thoughts on Behar-Bechukotai 5780


[Posted 5/14/20:] A few months ago, it would have been hard to imagine how so many areas of life could simultaneously be thrown into chaos. We would have been shocked that human health and economies the world over could so quickly collapse, resulting in so many sick, so many dead, so many jobs and businesses destroyed.


Then again, if we have paid attention to the Torah’s warnings of societal collapse, our current circumstances seem not only unremarkable but perhaps inevitable. In this week’s double Torah reading of Behar/Bechukotai, the most compelling section is certainly the tochechah, the lengthy exhortation by God listing the terrible consequences of ignoring or consciously violating God’s laws. Reading that list is something like reading headlines from today’s media: widespread sickness and death, the destruction of food supplies; a breakdown in civil order; panic and fear replacing comfort and trust. And while the tochechah is framed in the Torah and early rabbinical sources as God’s punishment for failure to obey divine law, in our time those literal understandings no longer hold.


Modern Jews do not, and should not, understand the devastation of a pandemic as God’s punishment. That kind of thinking reverts to the biblical understanding that all actions in the natural world are solely the will of God, in response to human actions. As we have learned through centuries of scientific discovery, the natural world’s laws are not rooted in ethics, and we cannot ascribe God’s intent to either reward or punish us through earthquake, flood, feast, famine, or pandemic.


To be blunt: What we are going through now is not due to divine punishment; those who are suffering from the pandemic are not individually culpable of sins against God. But taken in the aggregate, we can still learn something from the tochechah , which is that humanity will never be safe in the world until humanity begins to truly respect the laws of nature. We cannot continue to ignore the negative effects of our behavior on the planet, and we cannot continue to give short shrift to the science that will help us better understand how God’s world works, and how to live in concert with that world.

Over the centuries, Judaism has become a faith rooted in intelligence. We are the people who see God’s work in human discoveries in every field, and we pride ourselves on getting the facts and acting on them. When newly discovered facts conflict with old ideas, we incorporate those facts into our understanding of God and the world. More than ever, this year the tochechah should remind us of our dependence upon the natural world and our responsibility for it. It is a prod to learn to live with integrity in the world, and with humility.

Thoughts on Remote Services


[Posted 4/17/20:] Our lives have been upended in so many ways since the beginning of March. We will certainly never forget the spring of 2020. Jewish life is no exception. All around the country, and the world, rabbis are trying to balance Jewish tradition with the need of the hour. I want our members to know that the religious services we are currently providing online are the outcome of serious research and discussion by myself and Cantor, drawing on the advice of the Rabbinical Assembly and United Synagogue, as well as our own sense of what Jewish law demands of us, and the best practices for EBJC at this time.


Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that religion is not expediency. What is right is not always what is easy. Our actions should reflect our deepest values as Jews, especially in a time of crises. We have a long history of rabbinic rulings during a sha’ah hadchak, a pressing time, during which leniencies about Jewish law are permitted for the duration of an emergency. On that basis, we have been streaming services both on a weekday basis and on Shabbat and Yom Tov, which we would not typically do, in order to provide a sense of continuity and connection during this difficult time. Should the global shutdown continue for months, I am open to revisiting how to go forward, but for the time being, our services will operate on the following guidelines:

  • Social distancing is a matter of pikuach nefesh, the Jewish value of preserving life. On that basis it is not safe to gather in a single space for minyan. As a result, lacking an in-person minyan, we will continue to pray as individuals, omitting communal prayers that require a minyan, such as any form of kaddish, or a repetition of any Amidah.
  • Mourner’s kaddish: Many of us are obligated, or feel moved, to recite this kaddish. In the absence of a minyan, we are reciting the individual’s kaddish, composed by Rav Amram Gaon in the 9th century, the head of the talmudic academy at Sura. Rav Amram’s prayer responded to the need to fulfill our obligations, even when we are unavoidably prevented from doing so, and we are following his practice.
  • Shabbat and Yom Tov services: Cantor and I have designed morning services which retain as much of the traditional liturgy as possible, keeping in mind the challenge of following a lengthy service remotely. We have shortened pesukei d’zimra to its most important elements, limited Torah readings and read them from a chumash instead of a Torah scroll, and read Torah and haftarah without blessings. Such readings are like study, so both men and women can do them.

Judaism During a Crisis


[Posted 3/20/20:] Instead of my usual Torah Thoughts this week, I want to talk about what’s happening right now. So much has changed over the course of one week, and continues to change nearly hourly. It has been a dizzying time, marked by fear and anxiety.


It is precisely at time of crisis that we must increase our bonds to family and community. The measure of our character is how we respond in difficult circumstances, and as a culture that values life - above communal prayer, above Torah study, above celebrating a wedding, all crucial elements of Jewish identity - we must now live out that value. In the Talmud we learn the principle of pikuach nefesh, that saving life takes precedence over other Jewish obligations. At EBJC we have already shown our commitment to pikuach nefesh by canceling all public events, including on-site services, to slow the spread of sickness. But that must be the beginning, not the end, of our obligations to each other. Whether this crisis lasts weeks, months, or longer, we must use that time to talk, to study, and to pray.


Here are some of the ways you can maintain some sense of normalcy and help others to do the same in a time of crisis:


Talk: Take the time you are at home to have honest conversations with family members about what is most important. Call family and friends to check on them. Even if nothing has changed in a day or two, hearing a loving voice by phone or video can have a powerful effect on our psyches.


Learn: Being shut in can be terribly isolating, not only from other people but also from our regular routine. Just as young people are transitioning to online learning, adults should take the opportunity to learn. Those who were already taking classes in person, should now find ways to learn online. Those who now have time that they would not otherwise have should habituate themselves to grow intellectually and spiritually. We are in the process of setting up live streaming sessions at EBJC, but there is no reason to wait. Find solace in reading great books, watching classic films, and listening to music. Torah study, in particular, can connect us to our history and each other. Read the weekly Torah portion and discuss it with family. Improve your Hebrew reading or speaking. Draw from Judaism’s deep well of wisdom.


Pray: I wouldn’t be doing my job if this wasn’t on the list. Prayer can be fixed, using a siddur at a particular time of day, or more informal, providing us with the chance to think deeply, and to feel deeply. We are live streaming daily services morning and evening, in addition to Friday night and Shabbat morning. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said: Prayer may not save us, but it will make us worthy of being saved.


Act: If you are healthy and willing to deliver food or other supplies to the elderly, contact me and I will get you in touch with our Membership committee. They have taken the lead in contacting and assisting our elderly members. In order to keep yourself physically fit, take a walk outside or work out in the house to music or video instruction. Keeping healthy is a basic Jewish value.


In the coming days our staff and volunteers will be increasing our online presence, enabling us to reestablish something like our regular week of learning. If anyone in our shul needs to talk, they should call my cell phone: 847-777-9682. At a time like no other, we must rise to our tradition’s highest expectations of us.



Havdalah Services


Beginning 4/4, EBJC will come together for Havdalah on Saturday nights.

We are looking for volunteers to lead this service on different Saturdays.

Please speak to Rabbi Pivo or Cantor Larry if you're interested in volunteering.

Logistics for Havdalah this week can be found on the Online Events Page.

Mon, May 25 2020 2 Sivan 5780