Rabbi Wirtschafter’s Columns

October 11, 2019

Consecration
   Mazel tov to tonight’s consecrants and your families. A week ago we gathered with those celebrating 50-plus years of marriage; tonight, we are here to celebrate 4-, 5-, and 6-year olds as they begin a lifelong journey of Jewish learning. L’dor v’dor (from generation to generation), these are sacred occasions bound together by the values of commitment, dedication and devotion. 
   Marriage is a form of consecration. The Jewish wedding vow says: “Behold you are consecrated unto me by this ring in keeping with the laws of Moses and Israel.” Like a wedding, consecration take places under a chuppah (canopy) and/or a tallit (prayer shawl). Just as beloveds are entering into a sacred relationship with one another, consecrants are sanctifying the beginning of their relationship with formal religious education. 
   In keeping with the parallels between the two, here are seven blessings for tonight’s consecrants and their families.
   May learning be sweet as honey.
   May Torah always be meaningful even when its lessons are difficult.
   May you build lifelong friendships as you continuously explore your faith.
   May the knowledge of Torah deepen self-knowledge.
   May self-knowledge deepen appreciation of Torah.
   May you take the lessons you learn here into the world around you.
   And may you share the things you love and lessons you learn beyond these walls with the loving people inside them.
   Congratulations to you and your families, and thank you to the teachers who have taken on the sacred task of raising up the next generation of active, engaged and caring Jews.
 
 

October 4, 2019

7 BLESSINGS FOR 50-PLUS YEARS
 
   As of this writing, there are seven couples who plan to participate in tonight’s service honoring those who have been married 50 years or more. Seven is considered an auspicious number in many cultures and religions, including ours. There are seven days in the week with the Day of Rest assigned to the seventh. Torah prescribes seven days of celebration for Sukkot and Passover. The Sabbatical laws include the commandment that every seven years farmers are to let their fields lie fallow. But of greatest relevance for tonight’s celebration is that the second half of the Jewish wedding service contains the unit known as the seven blessings. In fact, some people use the words sheva brachot (seven blessings) as another term for a wedding ceremony. So, in honor of the seven couples gracing us with their presence, here are seven blessings for reaching the 50-plus milestone:
   Just as you have blessed and inspired us with your love
for one another, tonight we share this blessing with you.
May the Source of Love bless you with abounding affection.
   May the Source of Strength bless you with patience,
persistence and perseverance.
   May the Source of Compassion bless you with kindness
and gentleness.
   May the Source of Wisdom bless you with discernment, judgment and insight.
   May the Source of Courage nurture your resolve to face challenges with hope and optimism.
   May the Source of Joy bless you with happiness and
holiness, lots of laughter and long life.
May the Source of Peace bless you, your families, and all who love you with the wholeness and oneness that only peace can provide. And let us say together: Amen.
 

September 27, 2019

AFTERNOON WITH A MASTER ARTIST:
A Pre-High Holiday Update on the Torah Project
 
   Thursday afternoon I had the opportunity to enjoy a few one-on-one “office hours” with our scribe (sofer) Neil Yerman. I worked with Neil once before in my Bay Area days, so it’s all the more meaningful to be partnering again after almost 15 years. Neil’s love of Torah, dedication to his craft and enthusiasm for teaching know no bounds.
   Like any serious endeavor, the restoration efforts on all three of our scrolls have involved changes and challenges. We understood from the beginning that the parchment on the Turnov (Holocaust) scroll was so delicate that it would be unwise to restore some sections. Balaam’s unexpected blessing of the wandering Israelites was among the passages on our wish list, but upon closer examination Thursday, we determined that the risks of restoring these verses were too high to make the attempt. The Priestly Benediction, a blessing we say on Shabbat and festivals, and the story of Moses striking the rock can be restored safely, so the Book of Numbers still will be well represented. Neil felt badly about “the patient (the Balaam story) not being strong enough for the surgery,” so he generously offered to restore a passage of Deuteronomy, Etem Nitzavim, that we read each year on Yom Kippur. This means the Turnov scroll will be viable to read from for all High Holiday passages: The Binding of Isaac (Genesis), Moses’ Charge to the People (Deuteronomy), and the Holiness Code (Leviticus).
   Like most worthwhile “progress reports,” there is a degree of good news and bad. The bad news is that due to the demanding nature of the restoration process, we won’t have the Turnov scroll with us for the High Holy Days this year. The good news is we will have it in time for our celebration on Sunday, Oct. 27, when Sofer Yerman will be spending the weekend with us. Also in the good news column is we can celebrate our restored Turnov scroll at this time next year by using it for all three High Holy Days readings.
   I hope you’ll join me in taking this opportunity to make a donation online or by check to our Torah Project and to thank the co-chairs of this extensive undertaking, Amy Gewirtz and Deborah Flomenhoft, for all their hard work.
   May our final Shabbat of 5779 be peaceful and may 5780 be a good and sweet year.
 
 
 
September 20, 2019
 
Good Things Come in Threes:
This Shabbat’s Scholar-in-Residence
and 2 More Communitywide Opportunities
 
   During the next 24 hours, you have three opportunities to hear a world-class scholar here in Lexington. Tonight at Temple, tomorrow morning at Ohavay Zion Synagogue and tomorrow evening back at our congregation, Professor Louis Newman of Stanford University will be speaking on the timely topic of repentance. In collaboration with OZS, the Jewish Federation of the Bluegrass and The Lexington Havurah, all three of these opportunities are open to anyone who wants to participate. We even have taken the unusual step of cancelling Saturday morning Kollel and Torah study at TAI to encourage our members to attend services, including Professor Newman’s remarks, at OZS.
   During these times of shifting demographics and limited resources, it’s more important than ever that we in the Jewish community strengthen our capacity to coordinate rather than duplicate these kinds of enrichment opportunities. I want to thank our community partners for lending their name and financial support for this undertaking. Securing this many speaking engagements by someone of Professor Newman’s stature would have been far more difficult without their help. We should regard this as a reminder of what we can do when we put our heads and resources together. Services tonight are 7, the regular time. Worship at OZS begins tomorrow at 9:30 a.m. (Professor Newman will speak after the Torah service, so please arrive no later than 10:30 if you can’t be there at the beginning.) Things begin here tomorrow evening with Havdalah at 8, followed by a study program led by our visiting scholar, a brief social period with refreshments, and Selichot services at 9:30.
   This Shabbat represents the first of three fall events we are doing in this collaborative manner. On Sunday, Nov. 3, at 2 p.m., “Top Chef” finalist and Jewish Kentuckian Sara Bradley will be here with her mother for “Top Nosh,” a culinary and cultural event for all of us to share. Later that same week are our annual Moosnick scholar-in-residence offerings with Rabbi Mira Wasserman, Ph.D.; her topic will be #MeToo from a Jewish perspective. At 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6, at Transylvania University, Rabbi Wasserman will be part of a panel, moderated by our own Professor Shana Sippy, with Christian and Muslim leaders and scholars discussing religious responses to sexism and sexual harassment. At 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 7, at TAI, Rabbi Wasserman will focus with greater intensity on what the religious, ethical and social implications of this crisis are for us as modern Jews.
 
 
 
 
 
 

September 13, 2019

The 50+ Service Is for You
 
   Today, Sept. 13, 2019, would have been the 60th anniversary of my parents’ marriage. A black-and-white picture from their wedding day sits in my office.  Standing in front of the red brick house in Petersburg, Va., where my mother was raised, my father’s left hand rests gently on my mother’s right as she cuts the cake. They look so happy, so young, so in love. Some people even say the handsome couple looked like Elliott Gould and Ali MacGraw.
    But life isn’t lived in the realm of “would have beens.” We have what was, what is and what might be. My father died just short of what would have been the happy couple’s 45th anniversary. 
In just a few weeks, on Friday, Oct. 4, we will be celebrating our annual Sabbath honoring couples who have been married 50 years or more. It’s a beautiful service, and I look forward to it every year. A few new couples join the group each year. This leads to a lot of cute teasing, because couples who have been married for 60 and even 70-plus years sometimes look at the newcomers the way college seniors look at incoming freshman.  And, of course, there comes a time when a couple’s names no longer appear on the list. That can feel so unfair, so arbitrary, so unkind. It takes a lot of effort to join this group. You join it as a couple, and then one day one of you departs. You leave the group as a couple, though one of you is still here.
    There’s no way to really mitigate the unfairness of it. We can’t live in the realm of what would have been. But there are some things we can do to make the service more inclusive for those who desperately wish they had made it into “the club” or still were part of it. Anyone who wishes to share the date of their anniversary, whether you “made it” to 50 years or not, or if your spouse’s death took your names off the list, is lovingly invited to do so. No one gets married planning on not reaching this milestone or leaves the group because they want to. Love isn’t the only force that determines the duration of a marriage. Luck plays a part, too. The second thing we can do is have a special memorial ritual akin to a second yahrzeit or Yizkor service. If you wish, we will list the name of your deceased spouse as part of the evening’s commemoration. You also can choose to have your spouse’s name read right before kaddish. Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, we can clarify who this service is for. It celebrates the good luck of “50-plus” couples, but it also celebrates the love of all couples. Widows and widowers are more than welcome to attend. It won’t be easy. Believe me, I understand that. But our sadness over what would have been need not keep us from sharing in the happiness of what is. Everyone is encouraged to attend. Everyone has something to celebrate. 
   One of the many interpretations for breaking a glass at the end of the Jewish wedding ceremony is to remind us that even at the happiest moments we can’t ignore that there is sadness and brokenness in our world. You don’t have to exclude yourself from this service for fear it will make you sad or that your sadness will diminish the joy of others. Weddings and anniversaries are always emotionally inclusive and diverse. There are a lot of different feelings making their presence felt at the same time. Celebrating doesn’t demand that the only thing we’re feeling is happiness. Celebrating means appreciating that life —  unfair, arbitrary and unkind as it can be -also provides us with moments of joy, kindness and love. Please call the office to RSVP for a complimentary dinner that evening, sponsored by a couple from the congregation, then attend the service whether you’ve been married a few months, a few years or a few decades, or never married. It’s a night to celebrate love no matter how long we’re lucky enough for it to last.
 
 
 
 

September 6, 2019

Judges

   This week’s Torah portion, Shoftim, (meaning judges) begins with three interrelated commandments. First the community must appoint judges and magistrates. Second these individuals must be impartial and free from corruption. Thirdly the people must pursue justice if they hope to thrive in the promised land (Deuteronomy 16:18-20). Peace and progress are not unconditional guarantees. They are contingent on a society dedicated to justice. Judges can not maintain justice in a vacuum.   
   Ironically, it was just yesterday that we rabbis who have had the good fortune to travel to Guatemala with American Jewish World Service received word that any number of judges in that nation are now afraid for their lives. Judges who maintained the rule of law, sent corrupt officials and war criminals to jail, and refused to be intimidated by government threats are now terrified about the potential fall out of anti-corruption laws being overturned and those who violated them released. Human rights advocates lauded these judges as Guatemala’s fire wall against things becoming even worse. That fire wall has now become imperiled by approaching flame.      We sometimes forgot how dangerous being a judge can be, especially in dictatorships, failed states and countries coping with extreme poverty and violence.  I can’t hear about foreign journalists being imprisoned, kidnapped or killed without thinking about my brother Jacob. Nor can I learn about judges anywhere being threatened without thinking about my brother Benjamin, a Superior Court Judge in California. No righteous judge anywhere in the world should be faced with threats of retaliation for fulfilling their obligations to justice. There can be no just society when judges are coerced or corrupted by injustice.
   On this Sabbath named for judges may we be mindful of the role they play, grateful for the integrity it requires, and watchful so that no nation can intimidate its judges with impunity.

 

 

August 30, 2019

Timely Words of Torah for This Weekend’s Hurricane Crisis:
A Prayer for the People of Florida
 
“Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against the needy. Rather you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need. (Deuteronomy 15:7-8)”
 
These words from R’eih, this week’s Torah portion, couldn’t be more timely. As Hurricane Dorian bears down on Florida, may we demonstrate the generosity of open hands and the concern of open hearts.
 
God of Caring and Compassion. We pray that the people of Florida, bracing once again for damage and disruption, find the strength and persistence they need to cope for yet another crisis.
 
We pray that lives, and homes and neighborhoods will be spared.
 
We pray the response from state and federal agencies will be swift, generous and comprehensive.
 
We pray that assistance will be offered to everyone who may be impacted by this impending crisis, regardless of race, religion or class.
 
May the faith and fortitude with which Florida has rallied itself so many times before be summoned upon again in this latest hour of need.
 
May the Source of Hope help Floridians to hold on to hope no matter what happens.
 
May the Source of Love inspire us to offer open hands as we pray for those in harm’s way.
 
May this be our promise. And let us say: Amen.
 
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
For ways we can help please see the links to disaster relief agencies below:
 
 
 
 
 

August 23, 2019

KNEAD AND NEED:
Food for Thought on Parshat Ekev
   Every now and then life provides moments when the words and events of Torah and the present come together. This week we study parshat Ekev, wherein we find the famous words, “Man (or human beings) cannot live on bread alone.” The culinary effort of the week here at Temple has been baking challah for our upcoming Jewish Food Festival. I cannot resist the factual pun that the Bakers were among the bakers this week. Nor will I keep from kvelling (Yiddish for beaming or crowing) that my teenage daughter and her friends were also among the busy volunteers kneading and braiding in the kitchen. To watch someone braid the challah and then shape it into the round loaves we enjoy at the High Holy Days is to observe artwork being made. Yet beautiful as it might be, we cannot live by bread alone. Neither could our biblical ancestors on their long wilderness journey. As Deuteronomy, and centuries later Maslow, points out, we have needs that go far beyond those met by kneading.
   Other passages attribute the 40 years of wandering as a punishment for lack of faith and obedience. Ekev conveys that God’s purpose was “to test you by hardships to learn what was in your hearts: whether you would keep the divine commandments or not.” Consequences and character building are two different things, even if they often feel very much the same. God understands that the Israelites need more than manna (food from Heaven), even if they don’t. What the people need is to gain confidence and accountability in God and in one another. Neither of these things mattered as slaves. The only party to whom they were accountable in Egypt were Pharaoh’s taskmasters. The only laws were Pharaoh’s laws, and Pharaoh’s laws kept them enslaved.
    After hundreds of years of slavery, once they no longer were his, Pharoah won’t even allow them a few peaceful minutes for their bread to rise. Their survival had some value when they were his property; it means nothing to him now. He has promised God to free them not feed them. God, by contrast, insists that the one is useless without the other. Freedom without sufficient resources is a brutal farce. One cannot know liberty while starving to death. Nor does the absence of hunger prove the presence of freedom any more than the absence of violence proves the presence of peace. We cannot live by bread or freedom alone. As Pirke Avot “Sayings of Our Ancestors,” teaches: “Without flour there is no Torah and without Torah there is no flour.” May the blessing of sustenance provide food for thought. And may freedom of thought feed our appetite to act.
 
 

August 16, 2019

The following is a modified version of a letter I am sending.
Dear Friends at Hispanic Ministries of Catholic Diocese of Lexington,
   With heavy hearts we write to express sadness and dismay at the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas. As a people with a long history as exiles, deportees, immigrants, refugees and asylees, we know what it is, from Pharaoh to the Third Reich to this very day, to be falsely targeted as strangers with ill intent. The xenophobic rantings that the assailant parroted from mass media bigots is yet another painful reminder of how quickly defamatory words can lead to deadly acts. This week we Jews throughout the world study the portion from Deuteronomy containing the Ten Commandments. Once again, we have seen how the sixth and ninth commandments are inextricably linked. When the flawed sense of entitlement to bear false witness against our neighbors goes unchecked, perpetrators feel encouraged to continue on a path that all too often leads to murder. The rationalization that it is acceptable to do the first enables the ideation to commit the second.
   We weep for those who lost their lives and for the devastated loved ones they left behind. The fear and intimidation that this terrorist has wrought are utterly antithetical to our religious and democratic values. We condemn hate speech and violence as Americans and people of faith no matter who the victims and victimizers might be. We cannot deny that extremists such as the deranged shooter in El Paso exist. Nor, however, should we lose sight of the fact that the vast majority of Americans reject his ideology and maintain the belief that our nation should be a place where everyone is entitled to dignity, freedom and the opportunity to succeed.
   Together with you we will work and pray for the day when the spirit of brotherhood will dispel the virus of bigotry from our land; a day when we will fulfill the sacred commandment that our Creator has charged us to do, that we love and care for one another as fellow human beings bound together in the humanity and holiness we are blessed to share. Together may we realize the words of Scripture: “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.”
   Wishing you strength and comfort in this time of sorrow and pain,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 

July 19, 2019

A Blessing for Bravery Before Bullies:
An Appreciation to Those for Whom “Go Back Where You Came From” Goes Too Far
 
   Let us be grateful for the elected officials and influential leaders in the president’s party for standing up to him by criticizing his latest hateful outbursts. The moral courage required to do so should not go unnoticed or unappreciated. Like any act of courage, it comes with personal, political and professional risks. Just as the prophet Nathan stood up to King David and Solomon, and the prophet Elijah to King Ahab, so, too, these members of the president’s party have shown the integrity, humanity and fortitude to denounce someone with the power to hurt them in any number of ways. We don’t have to agree with them on a single issue to acknowledge the risks they are taking for the sake of the common good.
   Be it bullies on the block or the playground, in the classroom or boardroom or the breakroom, there’s no one who hasn’t felt the bitterness of their barbs or the force of their fists. They prey on those with less power, privilege and prestige. They never pick on someone their own size. It’s crass and dishonest to say that the president’s critics within his own party spoke out because they had nothing to lose. There’s always something to lose when we stand up to bullies. They can and they will make their displeasure felt.
   Whether it’s “you can’t play here, you can’t join here, you can’t work here, you can’t be here”;   whether we’re young or old; gay or straight; black or white; male or female; Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist or atheist; rich or poor, native-born or newcomer, there’s nothing like the meanness conveyed in the message that we don’t belong. That we’re not welcome somewhere. Until and unless someone shows bravery before bullies, we have little or no reason not to believe that everyone, or most everyone, hates us as much as they do. The president’s critics within his own party provided that much-needed confrontation. Far better than a teacher putting a stop to the bullying is when other students do. Constructive peer pressure is a powerful thing. The peer pressure within his own party might not change the president’s ways, but it certainly has gotten his attention. There is a tendency for bullying in all of us. The reality that restrains it is rooted in the fear of losing our friends, not that of offending our opponents. These conscientious men and women within the president’s party definitely have something to lose, but their willingness to stand up to him serves notice that so does he.
   So, to all those in the president’s party who have said to him that these latest attacks go too far, this blessing, adapted from our liturgy, is for you. May the words of your mouths and the mediations of your hearts be commendable in the sight of The Rock and Redeemer of all humanity. May it be that if a president in other parties proves to be as bad or worse a bully than this one, that the leaders of that party show the same courage as you. And may it be that when the history of these horrid statements is studied years from now, you are remembered for goodness, blessing, life and peace.
 
 

July 12, 2019

Shabbat Message I
HOW DO YOU DEFINE LIFE-THREATENING?
 
   Honoring Shabbat and Participating in Protest
  As a rule, neither our congregation nor I officially sponsors or encourages events that conflict with Shabbat services or Saturday morning study sessions. There is a rabbinic principle, however, that under severe circumstances we can compromise a ritual commandment to honor a moral one. Even the strictest Jewish authorities say you can break the laws of Shabbat or festivals to save a life, rush someone to the hospital or call an ambulance.
  Reform Judaism asks us to consider exceptions to religious practice in an informed and sensitive manner. Our movement and its affiliates, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and the Religious Action Center, have made our concerns about the crisis at the southern border and circumstances in detention centers abundantly clear. One could make an argument that protesting the life-threatening situation on our border and the unacceptable conditions in detention facilities meets a definition of pikuach nefesh (saving a life). Under current circumstances, lives are being endangered, compromised and even lost because of the desperate measures people are prepared to take to enter our country and the appalling living conditions in which people are being detained. Attending a protest on this issue is not quite the same as rescuing someone from a burning building, but it is aimed at preserving lives by responding to a life-threatening situation. If we regard pikuach nefesh as being on a continuum, then all forms of intervention have their place.
  Tonight’s “Lights of Liberty” rally at the courthouse at 8 p.m. will protest conditions in the detention centers and call for new approaches to the crisis. Neither TAI nor or I are officially encouraging you to attend, nor are we encouraging you not to. The question isn’t ultimately how your rabbi or congregation or Jewish school of thought defines what constitutes a reasonable standard of sufficiently life-threatening circumstances to compromise observance of the Sabbath. The question is how you determine what meets that definition. I’m going to lead Friday evening services at 7 as I always do. I’ll be leaving the oneg earlier than usual to join the rally in progress and perhaps share a few words if the timing works out. However, the fact that I’m approaching it this way doesn’t necessarily mean you should. I ask you to do nothing more and nothing less than to consult your conscience and arrive at an informed and sensitive conclusion. My way of handling this isn’t an ideal compromise. (There is no such thing as ideal compromise. If you compromise your values to get something you want, then the agreement you reach isn’t ideal.) It’s an acceptable compromise at best. Like all of us, I’m trying to meet conflicting obligations, both of which deserve serious consideration, as well as I can, and I encourage you to do the same.
 
Shabbat Message II
 
MY CONGRESSMAN, MY NEIGHBOR
  By sheer coincidence Monday, during a late evening run through the neighborhood, I spotted Congressman Andy Barr wheeling his bins to the curb. He was generous enough to spend at least 15 minutes talking to this sweaty constituent when he had grilling duties to attend to. We shared our concerns and frustrations about the border crisis, and he graciously offered to come to TAI soon to discuss it with us. Please look for updates about this in upcoming emails and other TAI announcements.
 
 
July 5, 2019
 
Matir Asurim: Liberator of the Captive
 
   Our morning prayer services include the Nisim B’chol Yom (acknowledgements of daily miracles), things we all too often rely on without thinking but should never take for granted. Things like waking up in the morning, the body functioning properly and having clothes to wear. But in addition to these physical needs, this long litany of one-line blessings incorporates essential liberties that not only shouldn’t be taken for granted but might not necessarily be an accurate reflection of reality. The third blessing of the entire grouping says, “Praise to You, Adonai Our God, Sovereign of the universe, who frees the captive (matir asurim).”
   “Captive” is a profound choice by the translator. Asur (singular) or asurim (plural) is legally distinct from prisoner or inmate. “Captive” conveys that a person or persons have been or are being wrongfully held and need to be liberated. With more and more disturbing reports about conditions at children’s detention centers along our southern border, this daily prayer has taken on special significance. These children fled dire poverty and violence in their home countries at the behest of their parents. We can have a debate as to whether their parents had a choice or committed an offense. These children had no choice; they have committed no offense.
We cannot continue to hold them captive, certainly not under the conditions that have been verified by multiple agencies.
   The voice of realism asserts that God has not, does not
and will not free all captives under any and all circumstances. The voice of idealism maintains that if we cannot even wish or pray for the freedom of children in captivity, if we do not acknowledge to God and to one another that the current situation is unacceptable, then how can we even begin the work of demanding their release? On this day after Independence Day, a day celebrating our freedom from being governed in a way our founding fathers deemed unjust, let us demand immediate changes to conditions in detention centers that we know to be unjust. If we cannot safely and speedily set these children free, we must at the very least
implement radical reform of the places in which they are being held captive. Baruch Atah Adonai matir asurim. Blessed are You, O God, who frees the captive. 
 
 

June 28, 2019

An Early Tashlich at The Rivers of Repentance:
Lamenting the Deaths of Oscar and Valeria Ramirez

  Just as the River Jordan parted for Joshua and the people on their way to the Promised Land,* would that the waters of the Rio Grande have parted this week for Oscar Ramirez and his young daughter, Valeria, fleeing poverty in Central America. 

   What song could be sung to honor their lives and protest their deaths? “Down to the River to Pray” might seem like a strange choice for a song of lamentation from a rabbi, even one from Kentucky. Yet the notion of mayim chayim (living waters), representing second chances, fresh starts and rescue from destruction, is something we Jews share with our Christian brothers and sisters. 
   This week the Rio Grande, the waterway between starvation and salvation, became deadly for a dad and his daughter. Wouldn’t we risk rushing water and crossing borders illegally to save our children from starving? No river will ever be the same now. Not the Jordan, the Ohio, the Kentucky, the Mississippi or the Rio Grande.
   May the drowning of Oscar and Valeria Ramirez move us to action as well as tears. May their deaths help us to see that no democracy can continue to drive imperiled people to such desperate acts. Let’s go down to the river to pray and to repent. Because teshuvah (repentance) is called for now. Repentance for enabling circumstances contributing to such fatal outcomes. From now until the crisis stops, let us approach all rivers in the spirit of repentance. 
   On Rosh Hashanah we observe the ritual of tashlich. We go down to the river, the lake, the ocean or the creek to cast bread crumbs representing our sins into the water. We cannot wait until Rosh Hashanah for this year’s tachlich. After tonight’s oneg, around 9 o’clock, let’s go down to Jacobson Park and cast crumbs into the water to convey contrition for the loss of innocent lives and declare our commitment to alleviating the status quo that leads to death. And when the weekend is over, let’s call our elected officials and go down to their offices to tell them that when people drown in an effort to reach our shores, it is a betrayal of conscience that Americans cannot accept. 
   Tonight let us sing Mi Chamocha, the song Israel sang when God rescued us at the Red Sea, to the melody of “We Shall Overcome.” May the memory of Oscar and Valeria Ramirez be a blessing, and may we make the heartbreak of this horror into something holy. 
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
* From the Book of Joshua, the text for this week’s Haftorah portion
 
 

June 21, 2019

For the Sake of Argument
 
   El N’ah Refah Nah Lach. “Dear God, please heal her!” 
   This famous prayer, exclaimed by Moses to argue for mercy on behalf of a sister who has just wounded him deeply, is taken from this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotkha (Numbers 8-12). Moses’ plea is a reminder that argument, at its best, is a sacred act, an act that goes beyond success or failure, winning and losing, acceptance or rejection. To argue someone’s cause is to declare they are deserving of care, consideration and compassion. Inspired by these ancient words, I offer this new prayer that struggles with the intense challenge of arguing for three distinct yet deeply intertwined people: ourselves, our families and all others:
 
 God of decision and deliberation, thought and feeling, word and act,
  Give us, we pray, the compassion to argue for those who disparage us, those who betray us, those who disappoint us and those who hurt us.
   Give us the courage to argue for our families, even if we are called selfish, ungrateful or disloyal for doing so.
   Whether we win or lose, when we fight for our families, we demonstrate to those we love that they are worth fighting for.
   And grant us please, O God, the conviction to argue on behalf of ourselves.
   For if we cannot look upon ourselves as deserving of recognition, respect and regard, then who will?
   For our own sake and that of our families, for the sake of all others and for the sake of argument itself, may this be our blessing and let us say, 
   Amen.
 
 

June 14, 2019

A Blessing for Father’s Day
 
   Father’s Day weekend is here again. This year, on Aug. 9, will be the 15th anniversary of my father’s death. One week from today, I’ll be continuing a tradition established after I came back to Lexington of representing my family and bestowing an award in my father’s name to a University of Kentucky ophthalmology resident recognized by his/her peers as an outstanding teacher. I love seeing my dad’s former colleagues, meeting the residents and trying to read an ophthalmology program without glasses. 
   Father’s Day is particularly special this year because I recently learned that my nephew Leo Golub (my sister’s eldest of three) will be attending Reed College in Portland, Ore., dad’s alma mater. My brother Ben also graduated from Reed, so Leo’s enrollment marks the third generation in our family to attend this remarkable school. I’m a proud alum of Brandeis (named for a Jewish Kentuckian), but there is tremendous joy and comfort in seeing a tradition like this continue. 
   So, while each year brings more reasons for missing those we have lost, each year also brings more opportunities to see people participating in institutions and carrying on the values they cared about. L’dor v’dor, “from generation to generation,” presents itself in countless ways, from the foods we like, talents we have and things we love to do (or don’t love to do) to places we live in, schools we attend, professions we choose and the people we love.
   As this week’s Torah portion, Naso, includes “The Priestly Benediction” parents recite over their children at the beginning of each Sabbath, it seems fitting to end with words of blessing: Blessed are You Adonai Our God, God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God of Adolf, Zoltan and Jonathan: Help us please, O Father of Life, to cherish the good things our fathers teach/taught us and consider how we can share them “from generation to generation, Hallelujah.” 

 

June 7, 2019

Between D-Day and Shavuot: A Prayer for Liberty and Law 
 
God of Our Mothers and Fathers. Soldiers and Civilians. The Living and the Dead.                          
Yesterday, on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, we commemorated the sacrifice of the greatest generation and rededicated ourselves to the pursuit of a more just and peaceful world. 
 
Tomorrow on Shavout we remember the gift of revelation and the responsibilities that come with it.  
 
 
 
Yesterday we reaffirmed the ideals for which far too many people died. 
 
Tomorrow we celebrate the giving of Torah, that teaches us how to live.  
 
Yesterday’s sounds were that of Taps and the singing of anthems.  
 
Tomorrow’s sounds will be that of sacred texts and festive prayers. 
 
Yesterday was one of reflection and sorrow. 
 
Tomorrow will be one of rejoicing and rest. 
 
On this Shabbat between D-Day and Shavuot help us, O God of Peace, to consider the price of war.
Teach us to practice your Torah, to protect it, pursue it, and prize its timeless teachings. Help us to understand that liberation and revelation go hand in hand. That terrorized people have no true law and that no true law can promote terror and evil. May yesterday’s commemoration renew our zeal for tomorrow’s celebration. 
 
And may tomorrow’s celebration deepen our gratitude to those whose lives we commemorate.  
 
May this be our blessing and let us say: 
 
Amen.   
 
 

May 31, 2019

Your Personal Invitation to Tomorrow Morning’s Service
 
You are cordially invited to tomorrow morning’s Confirmation service. Yes, confirmation is a service for you, the congregation. To borrow a line from the old orange juice commercial, confirmation isn’t just for confirmands anymore.  
 
Confirmation, like each and every holiday, and Sabbath is for all of us. And by all I mean “all y’all.” Confirmation doesn’t simply mark a milestone in the life of this year’s students and their families. Each confirmation service is a milestone for our congregational family. Take a walk up and down the Religious School hallway and see for yourself. Confirmation class pictures are part of our on-display Temple Adath Israel photo album. From black and white to color, from 20th to 21st century, rabbi to rabbi, year to year, class to class.
Confirmation is an annual life-cycle event in the life of our temple family. Yes, it is a celebration of what our students have learned but it is also a celebration of us, the congregation in which they have been raised. Albeit to different degrees all of us are invested in them. If you were confirmed here, then our students are joining you as fellow confirmands of our congregation. If your children were confirmed here, then this year’s students are joining them as confirmands. If you teach or taught religious school here, then our students are joining your students as confirmands. If you support our congregation through membership dues and other donations, then think of tomorrow as the beneficiaries of your generosity, the yield of your investment, being confirmed here. You don’t have to be a family member or a family friend of a confirmand to be invited to tomorrow’s service. You’re invited because you’re a member of our Temple family. A family that loves and cares about every confirmation class.
 
It’s true that I’m invested in this year’s class as the spouse of my co-instructor, father to one student, and rabbi to all students and their families. But each of you is invested in them too. And it is because of that investment that you are encouraged, welcomed and warmly invited to attend. Our wonderful students will be reading Torah and Haftorah, sharing their personal reflections on Judaism, and leading us in prayer. The service starts at 10:30 AM. I hope to see you there.
 
Mazal Tov to our confirmands, their families, and the congregational family to which all of us belong.
 
 

May 24, 2019

Our Debt to Our Dead: 
Thoughts for the Shabbat of Memorial Day Weekend 
 
Thanks to the efforts of people like Jerry Cerel and Tim Grossman, our local Jewish veterans officially received confirmation that they now constitute a new chapter of the Jewish Veterans of Foreign Wars. We congratulate them on the acceptance of their application and wish them success in all their endeavors. How fitting it is that this official starting point should occur in the same month in which we observe Memorial Day.  
 
This year’s Memorial Day is one of particularly historic significance. Two weeks from now is the 75th anniversary of D-Day, when allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy. A community wide interfaith service commemorating this essential turning point of World War II, and the sacrifices that came with it, will be held at Central Church of Christ on Thursday, June at 6:00 PM. Please encourage friends and family members to attend.  
 
So too, this coming February of 2020 will be the 75th anniversary of the battle of Iwo Jima. At a service dedicating the cemetery for the American fallen in April of 1945, Rabbi Roland Gittelson, a chaplain in the U.S. Military, offered these words:
 
[These men], “have paid the ghastly price of freedom. If that freedom be once again lost…the unforgivable blame will be ours, not theirs. So it is we, the living, who are here to be dedicated and consecrated.”We dedicate ourselvesto live together in peace the way they fought and are buried in this war. Here lie men who loved America because their ancestors generations ago helped in her founding, and other men who loved her with equal passion because they themselves or their own fathers escaped from oppression to her blessed shores. Here lie officers and men…, rich… and poor-together. Here are Protestants, Catholics and Jews-together. Here no man prefers another because of his faith or despises him because of his color…Among these men there is no discrimination, no prejudice, no hatred. Theirs is the highest and purest democracy.Any man among us, the living, who fails to understand that will thereby betray those who lie here dead. Whoever of us lifts his hand in hate against a brother or thinks himself superior to those who happen to be in the minority, makes of this ceremony and of the bloody sacrifice it commemorates an empty, hollow, mockery…” 
 
It isn’t enough to talk about the risks and the sacrifice of the greatest generation “making the world safe for democracy.” We have to defend the democratic ideals they fought and died for by living up to the legacy they left for us. Rabbi Gittelson’s words are as timely now as they were nearly 75 years ago. We owe a tremendous debt to our dead. A debt to the past that can only be paid by safeguarding the future. May the capacity our veterans displayed during their military service to work together across racial, religious and socio-economic linesserve as a constant reminder of how essential it is that we do the same. If they could practice it under the stresses of military service, surely, we, blessed with the privileges of civilian life, can do no less. The greatest measure of our devotion to them lies not only in the readiness to fight our nation’s enemies, but our willingness to treat our fellow countrymen, and all who dwell among us, with fairness, dignity, and compassion.   
 
Wishing You a Shabbat Shalom and Meaningful Memorial Day Weekend, 
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
Special thanks to Rabbi Laurence Milder PhD for drawing attention to Rabbi Gittleson’s patriotic service and powerful words. Selections from Rabbi Milder’s work can be found at ReformJudaism.org.
 
 

May 17, 2019

Disqualified for Dwarfism:
Reich or Weinstein? Whom to Decline for Priesthood?
 
This week’s Torah portion, Emor, provides a list of things that disqualify a Levite from making the offerings associated with priestly service. Persons failing to meet the requirements
remain Levites, conveying Levite status to their children, but for all intents and purposes they cannot be priests. Among the grounds for disqualification is dwarfism. Consider,
therefore, the following wildly hypothetical scenario. If, for the sake of argument, the Temple were rebuilt and the priesthood restored, and that economist Robert Reich and producer Harvey Weinstein were both Levites, then Reich would be ruled out while Weinstein would be welcome. How is that possible? Because Reich has a form of dwarfism and Weinstein doesn’t. None of the disqualifying criteria are anti-social, boorish or bullying behaviors. All of them are physical
abnormalities (a better word than “deformity” or “imperfection” but still a disturbing term). Reflecting on this troubling text, Professor Shulamit Reinharz offers three profound questions that we will discuss when we study her
commentary at services tonight:
 
1. What should be grounds for disqualification to serve as a religious leader?
2. What constitutes an impairment or threat to holiness?
3. What is the difference between beauty and goodness?1
 
I invite you to ponder these questions on your own and bring your responses with you to services tonight and/or send them to me via email.
 
Before we turn someone away from a job, acceptance to an educational program, membership to an organization or
refuge from dangerous environments, let us be mindful of our reasons for declining their request. Are we saying no because of things for which they are responsible or because of
circumstances beyond their control? Are our criteria logical, ethical and just, or arbitrary, irrational and mean-spirited? May we consider carefully what our standards for acceptance say about our values and how our values can better inform our admissions standards.
 
 
 
1 Please see Reinharz’s “Contemporary Reflection” in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary edited by Rabbis Eshkenazi and Weiss, Ph.D. CCAR Press 2008 pages 743-744.
 
 

May 10, 2019

Timeless Wisdom for Troubling Times:
An Appreciation for Shabbat of Mother’s Day Weekend
 
   It’s wonderfully fitting that the Torah portion we read on the Sabbath of Mother’s Day weekend is Kedoshim, meaning holiness. Holiness can be taught by many people in our lives, but nobody teaches it quite like our moms. “The Holiness Code” of Leviticus 19 touches on just about every aspect of life, but no verse from it is better known than the commandment to “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
   Watching the recent documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” about the life and work of Fred Rogers has moved countless people to tears. What Mr. Rogers modeled on television was what my mom practiced in real life. Concern for the feelings of others, the gift of imagination, genuine curiosity and, above all, kindness. Kindness, for my mom and Mr. Rogers, was something beyond politeness, respect or courtesy. Kindness, they taught, is an attitude, an approach to life and to all those with which we live.
   None of us grows up in a perfect world in which kindness is assumed to be the prevailing way we treat one another. Rogers grew up in Pennsylvania being called “Fat Freddy,” and my mom grew up in Virginia, where the cruelty of segregation was ordained as civic virtue. My mom didn’t really get a chance to play and learn with African-American children as social equals until she went away one summer for Girl Scout camp. It was an experience that changed her life. When she went to college, she joined the diversity committee. As she continued along the journey of adult life, she became a teacher, a camp director, a Holocaust educator, a program director and executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council and Anti-Defamation League. Whether the issue was homelessness, housing, education or harassment of any minority, my siblings and I knew where Mom stood and what she wouldn’t stand for.
   Rabbi Joachim Prinz, who fled Nazi Germany and joined the Civil Rights Movement in America, declared: “Neighbor is not a geographical term. It is a moral concept.” So, too, wise mothers teach us that neighborliness is an ethic to be applied to everyone, not an affect we perform for the select few. At age 82, my mom still is making new friends and remains actively engaged with her neighbors. At a time when people are hurting one another emotionally and physically based on dangerous claims of superiority, it is more important than ever to honor our mothers by living the lessons they taught us. And perhaps none of those lessons is more essential than that of regarding every human being as a neighbor and loving our neighbors as ourselves.
 
 

May 3, 2019

Dear TAI Sisterhood,
 
So sorry I can’t be with you tonight for Sisterhood Shabbat. At least the reason for my absence is a happy one. One of my nieces is getting married in California. I truly look forward to this service every year. While it is disappointing to miss it under any circumstances, it is particularly so given the things Jewish Women both here and in Israel have endured since last we gathered for Sisterhood Shabbat. To expect women to assume the financial obligations, time commitment, and existential risks of Jewish life while affording anything less than full equality in all aspects of participation is unacceptable and unsustainable.
 
*Ashamnu. We might like to think that our congregations and central institutions in the Reform movement are safe havens from the sins of sexual harassment, pay inequity, and unfair hiring/firing practices, but they aren’t. Salary studies, institutional reviews, formal complaints and grievances women are too frightened to take public, paint a troubling portrait of the current landscape. That Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion, our Reform Movement’s Rabbinical, Cantorial, Education, Jewish Studies, Social Work and Non-Profit Management School, could hire as its new president a man with degrees in none of these fields, while passing over several women with at least two of the above credentials and many years of service at the institution, is baffling to say the least. Concerned colleagues bear no resentment with the person who landed the position. The process is not his fault. Everyone wants him to succeed so it behooves everyone to improve the process.
 
So rather than reiterating well deserved expressions of appreciation for all that you do, I’d like to offer something else. Changes in practice and in process. For academic 2019-2020 let’s strive to have women delivering a Torah commentary, sermon or other remarks from the pulpit, on an average of at least one Friday evening per month. (I love the sound of my own voice as much as the next guy but enough is enough.) As of tonight, we will try to transition out of a mindset that assumes that candle lighting is for women and kiddush for men. Please be patient with me on this one. Old habits are hard to break. Additionally, I want to respectfully and lovingly challenge my brothers, fellow Jewish men, to ask yourselves who is doing most of the work to have a Jewish home, raise a Jewish family, and live a Jewish life. If your reflection leads you to conclude that you could be doing more, then please do it. Finally, I want to take this opportunity to provide a “save the date” for next fall’s Moosnick Scholar-in-Residence program with Rabbi Mira Wasserman, PhD, who will be speaking on the evenings of November 6 and 7 about religious and ethical responses to #MeToo.
 
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi David Wirtschafter
 
*Ashamnu is Hebrew for “we have sinned” and is also the name for one of the confessional prayers in our High Holy Day liturgy.
 
 

April 26, 2019

Applied Prophesy
 
  The focus of our fourth-graders leading tonight’s service is on prophets. We will hear from several of them about who their favorite prophet is and why. In his introduction to The Prophets, Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote: “The things that horrified the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world. There is no society in which Amos’ words would not apply.”
    As a rabbinical student many years ago, I complained to my brother Josh about having to write a paper for a prophesy class. He wryly remarked, “How are they going to grade you on that? Hold onto the paper for seven years to measure your accuracy?” Prophets do not predict the future. They promise future calamities as the heavy price for failing to address present failures. Much like fourth-graders, they pounce on any whiff of hypocrisy. They have little tolerance for the gap between what we practice and what we preach. The point of prophesy isn’t to say, “I told you so”; the task of the prophet is to decry abuse of power and societal failure that we might narrow the alarming discrepancy between who we are and who we ought to be.
    Prophesy is neither a lost art of the past nor a personal agenda cloaked in shouting out dire consequences for the future. Prophesy, as Heschel taught, is about now. There has never been a time or place where the message of the prophets does not apply. May we apply the thoughts about prophets our students speak of tonight to a world that urgently needs our care tomorrow. May tonight inspire us to engage in applied prophesy, wherein we go beyond an insightful critique of what’s wrong and take meaningful steps to make things better.
 
 

April 19,2019

On This Night We Dip 20 Times:
A Blessing of Tears on the 20th Anniversary of the Mass Shooting at Columbine High
 
   Tomorrow marks not only the second seder but the 20th anniversary of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. It’s frightening to think about how fast the time has passed. Fifteen students lost their lives that day. Had the tragedy not occurred, they would be in their mid- to late 30s. They would have children, teenagers themselves, perhaps.
   There are so many reasons to mourn what might have been. The graduations, weddings, anniversaries, baby-namings, the personal and professional achievements that ought be part of their stories. We will never know what they would have done with their lives. Yet compounding the pain of what we can never know is the anguish of what we do, the heartbreak of what has and hasn’t happened since.
   The Ten Plagues cast upon Egypt take up about six chapters of Exodus. The death of Egypt’s firstborn transpires over a single night. How long has the plague of gun violence gone on, and when will it end? How many more people have to die before our leaders realize that something has to change? We know what it took for Pharaoh to change his mind. What price will be required for the obdurate leaders of today to change theirs? It isn’t just the names of the killed and the wounded, the towns and the schools; it isn’t just the numbers that keep stacking higher and higher; it isn’t just the things the victims and their families would have done together. It is the unwillingness to change, the hardness of heart, the lack of leadership and the refusal to face facts despite the overwhelming realities of the epidemic that leave us wondering how it is possible that so few lessons have been learned in the past 20 years. The insult of how little progress has been made is added to the injury we feel at every untimely death. This plague will not stop by itself. Like those we study in Exodus, it must be stopped by deliberate and decisive action. The blood of the innocent cries out to us from the ground to urge our legislators to pass comprehensive gun-safety laws. It is political will not moral imperative that is lacking from the status quo.
   Even the tasting of tears requires a blessing. According to the Passover haggadah, we dip our parsley twice into salt water to remind us of slavery, to swallow its tears, to make them our own. But tonight is different from all other nights. This year is different from all other years, albeit nowhere near different enough. The grief of mass shootings is with us every day. Grieving on the 20th anniversary of the Columbine high school massacre happens only once. So tonight, we do not dip karpas, our parsley, twice. Tonight, we dip our parsley in salt water 20 times, once for each year that has passed since the nightmare of two decades ago. We don’t just send thoughts and prayers to the those who survived their wounds, to the families of those who succumbed to them, to all those who were and remain affected. We send you our tears. We weep with you, whoever you are wherever you are, however you’ve been affected and whenever you weep. And when our seder is concluded, we will rise up with you to demand the change we need to live in a nation that doesn’t allow whoever wants one to get their hands on a gun.
 
Baruch Ata Adonai Ha’tov Ve’Hamayteev. Blessed be the Source of Goodness who calls us to do what is good.

April 12, 2019

Congratulations and Concerns

   The day after the Israeli elections, Rabbi Richard Jacobs, president of our Reform movement, released a statement. It’s a letter that did what it had to do. Protocol and civility require Rabbi Jacobs to congratulate Prime Minister Netanyahu. Refusing to do so would be deemed by many as unprofessional and undeserved. Integrity and honesty require Rabbi Jacobs to convey “concern about discrimination against non-Orthodox streams of Judaism,” policies that “discriminate against Arab citizens of Israel,” and the prime minister’s “calling for the annexation of the West Bank Jewish settlements.” Refusing to do so would be deemed by many as a failure to stand up for core values of our movement, including the pursuit of justice and commitment to democracy. 
   It’s telling that the reposting of Rabbi Jacobs’ statement on social media has drawn the ire of people who wanted a stronger refutation of the prime minister’s policies and those who defend them. Some found the word “concern” to be lacking in intensity and urgency. Others denounced the statement as placing disproportionate responsibility on Israel’s government while ignoring that of Palestinian leadership. What does this say about our ability to have a constructive conversation about Israel and the challenges of trying to remain engaged during such discouraging times? Had Rabbi Jacobs said “alarmed,” he would have been accused of being alarmist. Had he failed to point out the lack of progress that has been made in matters of critical importance, he would have been accused of being an apologist.
   Tonight, the Sabbath before Passover is known as Shabbat Ha’Gadol, the Great Sabbath. According to tradition, rabbis are supposed to urge people to rid their home of chametz (leavened products) and devote themselves to strict observance of the Fast of Matzo. I accept the obligation to take Shabbat Ha’Gadol seriously, but my message is not about matzo. Rather, with the coming of Passover and the attendant responsibility to reflect on freedom, I offer you this commitment: For too long I have put off organizing a robust conversation about Israel in the name of not upsetting people. Not upsetting people isn’t the worst mistake rabbis can make, but mastering the art of it isn’t necessarily something to be proud of. As Ron Segal, the newly installed president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, preached this month at our annual conference: “When has avoiding challenges ever availed us?”
   Therefore, over the coming months, in partnership with lay leadership, we will endeavor to create Israel engagement and education opportunities that increase our knowledge and strengthen our capacity to maintain a healthy dialogue on a complex subject.
   In keeping with the complicated nature of his position, the results of this week’s election called upon the president of our movement to both extend congratulations and express concerns. By congratulating a prime minister whose policies he often disapproves of, Rabbi Jacobs is modeling the importance of derech eretz, the common decency needed to move forward after a trying election. By respectfully stating his concerns, he is demonstrating the critical distinction between constructive criticism and reckless attack. The question isn’t whether we’re happy or upset with his statement, the question is whether he is providing leadership consistent with our values and working to achieve a vision that provides a better life for Israel and its neighbors.
   May the arrival of Passover reinvigorate our commitment to reach the day when all of Israel’s inhabitants and all the world can truly be free.
 
 

April 5, 2019

“I Am Not a Leper!”

Rescuing Humanity from Humiliating Afflictions

It is customary in the academic and medical community to organize a festschrift, a collection of articles in a scholar’s field on their seventieth birthday. In my father’s case the date was moved up a bit because he had been diagnosed with ALS, a fatal form of neuropathy that deprives patients of everything we rely on our bodies to do. In his remarks at the dinner honoring him at this bittersweet occasion he noted something unusual about the better-known name of his condition. Most diseases are named for the physicians who discover or find cures for them. Yet amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is known in popular culture as “Lou Gehrig’s disease”. My father the physician fully embraced the poetic irony of having a fatal condition named for its best-known patient.
Unlike the term ALS/Lou Gehrig’s, the nomenclature in this coming week’s Torah portion, Metzora, meaning “leper”, shows little consideration of those who suffer from it. One is hard pressed to come up with another disease that labels the afflicted as harshly as leper does with leprosy. We don’t call someone a “cancerite“, a “fluer,” or a “measlesist.” True we have “arthritic,” “alcoholic,” “diabetic,” and “hypochondriac,” but none of these terms instill fear of contagion nor arouse repulsion on par with leper.
Once labeled, the primary thing one pays attention to about lepers is their leprosy. Those who suffer with other conditions are neither driven from our midst nor regarded with the disdain reserved for lepers. The idiom “treated like a leper” has survived long past leprosy for a reason. Regarding the leper, Leviticus 13:45-46 teaches “his clothes shall be torn, his hair shall be left bare, and he shall cover his upper lip; and he shall call out, ‘Unclean! Unclean!’ He shall be unclean as long as the disease is on him. Being unclean, he shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp.”
Why isn’t there a verse requiring us to “Love those with leprosy as yourself”? Why must those already forced to dwell outside the camp in an area presumably designated for lepers be required to shout out referring to themselves “Unclean! Unclean!”? After hours, days, weeks, months of doing this who wouldn’t want to cry out “I am not a leper! I am a person with leprosy!” No one wants to be thought of primarily by the medical condition from which they suffer. Sometimes, as is the case this week, Torah challenges us to derive priceless lessons from poor examples. Let us therefore avoid making the same mistakes as Levitical priests and the communities they served. Quarantining people is one thing. Shaming them is another. Rather let us remember, as is the case with Lou Gehrig’s disease, that the patient is first and foremost a person. If we cannot see the afflicted as a human being with a medical problem, then we empower the medical problem to compromise their humanity.
May The Source of Vision teach us to look upon others as we would have them look upon us. May The Source of Wisdom inspire us to comport ourselves wisely. And May The Source of Healing help us to alleviate suffering so that those who suffer can know wholeness once again.