Weekly Sermon

Weekly Sermon


We live in crazy times. The Covid-19 coronavirus has turned our world upside down. We no longer shake hands or hug. The shelves of the supermarkets are bare. The stock market has dropped from almost 30,000 to just over 20,000 overnight?! Weddings and large lifecycle events have been cancelled—events that have been prepared for years. And most unbelievable of all, all professional and college sports have been postponed until further notice. What’s going on? Talk about March Madness, this is beyond comprehension.

Let me tell you something else that’s beyond comprehension —this special Shabbat. Today is Shabbat Para, the 3rd of 4 special Sabbaths before Passover. The purpose this special Shabbat was to remind the Jews in ancient times of the need to purify themselves in order to be able to participate in the Passover sacrifice. The means of this purification, especially for one who had come in contact with the dead, is specified in today’s special 2nd Torah reading about the incomprehensible Para Aduma—the Red Heifer.

What’s a Para Aduma? An unblemished red cow—possibly the rarest of all animals—was sacrificed and burnt to ashes. A priest would place these ashes in water and sprinkle them upon one who became impure through contact with the dead. The strangest part was the priest—who was pure before this ceremony—now became impure!

Does this make sense to you? If it doesn’t, don’t worry! You’re in good company! Even King Solomon—the wisest human that ever lived—was unable to make sense of it. But perhaps that, in and of itself, is its purpose—to teach us the crucial lesson that not everything in life makes sense. Logic would dictate that righteous parents would have righteous children, and that good people would never get cancer. But unfortunately, “it ain’t necessarily so!”

Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Sometimes good people get sick with the coronavirus. In fact, even rabbis get the coronavirus—like Rabbi Reuven Fink of the Young Israel of New Rochelle, NY. He and his community are now under quarantine!

What are we to do and how do we balance living a Jewish life and keeping safe? How do we keep pure from the scourge of Covid-19? It’s interesting that the purification rite of the ashes of the Red Heifer—which purified one after contact with the dead—used water. How do we purify ourselves today after contact with the dead, after leaving the cemetery? We wash our hands with water.

Today hand washing has become a life-saving imperative. What was 2 weeks ago a matter of good manners and personal hygiene has now become a matter of urgent concern. And it’s become ritualized by the medical authorities who mandate we wash our hands for 20 seconds several times throughout the day. Some have gotten cute about it suggesting we sing “Happy Birthday” twice. For us, why not sing Oseh Shalom?

Today’s Torah reading commands the making of a kiyor, a laver or washing stand for the priests to wash their hands when they come into the Mishkan or Temple and again before performing any service there. The Torah (Ex. 30:20-21) then cautions us, not once, but twice: V’rachatzu y’deyhem…v’lo yamutu (They shall wash their hands…and not die)! Although commanded in a different context, it’s good advice for us today: “wash your hands and not die,” and wash them as you sing with Oseh Shalom or for 20 seconds.   

That’s how we take care of our bodies. But what about our souls? How do we nurture our souls through this crisis? Let me tell you Rabbi Kunis’ prescription for getting through this crisis with our souls intact. There’s no doubt that we’ll be spending more and more time at home. My prescription is to use that time well. Find quality activities to do—especially with your loved ones:

  • Do that project you’ve been meaning to get to.
  • Read that book you’ve been meaning to read.
  • Take long walks—with or without family—to help keep fit.
  • But most of all, let me suggest that you view all of this as a Sabbatical. Some of the most difficult things to face are those challenges that are out of your control. But you can control how you face them. You can sulk and be miserable because your business or the stock market is suffering or because now, you’ll have to figure out what to do with the kids home from school all day. Or you can look upon this as a Sabbatical—a special opportunity to learn Torah. Our tradition maintains that in the merit of your Torah studies, Gd may keep you safe. If you don’t know where to begin, call me and I’ll suggest a book or website. And during the course of your studying, call or email me with a question or comment and we’ll keep in touch.

What you do not need to be doing is to hoard 2 months’ supply of toilet paper, or paper towels or soap—not leaving enough for others. This only creates more fear.

Rabbi Avi Weiss notes that the blessing for washing the hands—Al n’tilat yadayim—is commonly translated: “Blessed are You Hashem our Gd, King of the universe Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us regarding washing the hands.” But the word n’tilat literally means, not “washing the hands,” but “taking one’s hands” or “to assume responsibility” by lifting our hands in dedication to Gd—i.e. to live a life of goodness, kindness, giving to others, especially those in need. As we wash our hands again and again, let’s focus on how we can be more kind and giving.

Let me conclude with the suggestion of Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky for this Shabbos:

  • Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place.
  • Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern.
  • Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise.

My friends, let us be safe, not sulk and enjoy our Sabbaticals. And let us end by singing together Oseh Shalom, the song with its hope for peace and well-being…the song we’ll later sing as we wash our hands. Amen!


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