When the internet began to blossom in the early '00s, there was a lot of talk about the fundamental life changes it would bring. Some of the early internet businesses that thought they would revolutionize their industries included pets.com, grocerycart.com, Napster, and Friendster. Through missteps and hubris, but mostly by being ahead of their time, these businesses all failed. People weren't ready to shop for groceries online. People weren't ready to do all of their socializing on the computer. The innovations they presented were ahead of their time by just a few years. Other businesses, like taxicabs, had no idea that their traditional model would be upended by Uber and Lyft - they failed to innovate fast enough.
Twenty years later, we see that our relationship to the internet has been profoundly changed by both advances in technology and the ongoing quarantine. Suddenly, food and grocery delivery is a billion-dollar business. So are businesses that enable face to face video community meetings like Zoom, Facebook Live, and Skype. We now rely on Zoom and Instacart and Uber Eats. We shop with Amazon and reimburse friends with Zelle and Venmo. We email and share documents online without printing or mailing anything. Our regular lives are profoundly different than they used to be.
For those two decades, one of the only places that hadn't changed was the synagogue - it was an oasis of tradition and spirituality in a world of noisy change. You could count on the fact that a synagogue was a real place to meet people in person, and to pray and study without the aid of a digital device.
That is clearly changing.
During the ongoing quarantine, the Jewish community has been forced online. For the past four months, some of us have been learning the ups and downs of Zoom minyans and digital classes. Some of these changes might be temporary during the pandemic, but others might persist long after. Crisis leads to change and innovation, and sometimes we learn that there are benefits to doing things differently.
As of this writing and based on the guidelines currently issued by the governor of Pennsylvania, Brith Sholom Jewish Center will be offering hybrid services in August and September - with some folks attending in person and others invited to stream online. In this way, we can accommodate those folks that are comfortable praying in person and also serve those that prefer to stay home and participating virtually. All precautions will be taken in the sanctuary to keep socially distant and to minimize any exposure to illness, of course.
We're going to lose something by going online, but we also might gain something, too. The Jewish community nationwide will explore this new dimension of community, and hopefully provide sacred community and spiritual uplift, but with a different delivery system.
By comparison to the other businesses of the dot.com boom, we're a little late to the game. But for a religion that is over 3,000 years old, it seems more than fine that we decided to wait a little before jumping in on the latest fad. We hope you'll join us online for this brave new frontier for Brith Sholom.
We are all slowly adjusting to the isolation of quarantine and the realities that it brings. There are mundane questions: what will I do with my time if I can't work? How will I get groceries? Can I survive if my kids or my spouse is driving me nuts and I can't get away? Is Passover going to be a train wreck this year?
And then there are weightier questions: will I get sick, and if I do, what will I do? Will the economy crash, and if it does, will it recover? How will my finances be affected? How many people are going to lose their lives in this epidemic?
As we are thrown forward into this awkward and scary time, a familiar ritual looms ahead of us: the seder. The seder is usually a touchstone of comfort and ritual; a gathering of family and friends to retell an ancient story of slavery and freedom.
This year, however, the seder will be read with totally different emphasis and understanding - parts that were routine or theatrical will suddenly become more intense. Everything will feel different.
Consider, for example, כל דכפין יתב ויאכל - 'Let all who are hungry come and eat'. This line teaches that we are to throw open our doors and invite anyone to join us. This year, however, we are acutely aware that it is not ok to do that - we must not invite anyone into our homes, for fear of giving or receiving a dangerous illness.
Or consider the portion of the Maggid - retelling - in which we highlight the spreading of lambs blood on the lintels and doorposts in order to ward off the angel of death. The Israelites sealed themselves indoors for one night in order to protect themselves, while we ourselves are sealed inside for weeks or even months on end. Or consider the accompanying plague from which the Israelites were protecting themselves - the death of the firstborn. This year, the idea of a story about a mysterious illness that killed many innocent people is going to feel more intense, more visceral, and more emotional. We are rereading the same old story as last year, but it will not feel like the same old story.
Finally, Passover this year will be different because it will be more lonely. Families that once gathered with 20 or 30 will have just a few folks around the table. Some seders will have just two people; some will be conducted alone. Your cousin won't be bringing the brisket like she does every year; and she won't be able to brag for the tenth time about how the secret ingredient in the marinade is Coca Cola. Your grandchildren won't be running around trying to find the afikoman. All the houses will feel emptier. The strangeness of the holiday will remind us on an emotional level of how different everything is this year.
And yet, it is not. The Haggadah is the same as it ever was. We will eat the same matzah and sing the same songs and connect with our friends and family at their seders over telephone and Skype and Facetime and Zoom. Passover will add a dose of normalcy to an experience that feels so very abnormal.
And this year, when we get to 'Why is this night different from all other nights?', we can know that the answer will be more different than at any other Passover night we have ever experienced before. Yes, Passover will be strange, but it will also be the constant in this turbulent time that we all really need. Pesach will bring surprises, but its regular appearance in our lives at the same point as last year will also bring immense comfort.
There are so many commandments; so many intricacies to Judaism. From all the holidays to the dietary laws to the ritual commandments and the tiniest details of the many prayers we say and how we say them. So it is interesting that, the week after we conclude all the many holidays of the month of Tishrei, we get Bereshit - 'in the beginning' - which one could argue is the simplest parsha in all of the Torah.
Our of chaos came order. God creates for six days, and rests. The first two human beings discover shame, and mortality. Pretty simple stuff: there's a reason Bereshit is such a popular story to teach in Jewish pre-schools.
And one of the core moral truths to all of Torah is there, too. And it's pretty simple. Be positive, not negative. Uplift your fellow man, as God as uplifted you. Because we were created in the image of God, we have an obligation - not as Jews, but as humans, to elevate, not denigrate our fellow human. To glorify and not belittle. And we desire at our very foundations to spread that love, trust, and positive energy to everyone while simultaneously counteracting all forces of negativity - because that's what God would do.
In this week’s parsha, we read from the beginning of the Torah. There, in Genesis 1:27, we are told ‘And God created human in the Divine image, in the image of God was human created’. On this verse, the Hassidic master known as The Alter of Slobodka said:
“According to this Torah, humankind was designed to be a witness that testifies to the manifest reality of the Divine in the Universe. The creation must give testimony to its Creator, not in speech and in action, but rather to the very fiber of its existence.
It is the testimony of humankind to elevate and to reach to the realm of the spiritual and the moral - that they must recognize and comprehend the image between themselves and their Master.”
We were put on this earth to elevate and to glorify our fellow humans with the very fiber of our essence. To prove that every person is created in the image of God.
That's the core of all of Torah. Sometimes, Judaism really is that simple.
- Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman
Rabbi Mark Asher Goodman is the spiritual leader of Brith Sholom Jewish Center in Erie, PA. These are a collection of thoughts and writings since he joined the community in Erie. For more of his past writings, click here.