D’var Torah Parashat Behar-Bechukotai, 22 Iyyar 5780


Shalom Chevrei:

If you didn’t have a chance to hear my d’var Torah Friday night, I thought I’d include it here. Besides the shmitah, or sabbatical year, it’s about preparing for Shavuot and the power of adaptive leadership in these COVID-laden times. I have taken the liberty to improve the drash since Shabbat.

D’var Torah Parashat Behar-Bechukotai, 22 Iyyar 5780:

Shabbat shalom!

Behar-Bechukotai is just such a fitting double portion, especially as we prepare for our Sinai moment come Shavuot. Here, just a couple of weeks away from the summer harvest festival, Torah reminds us what it’s like to stand at the mountain, considering what will make us most virtuous and ready to receive Torah and live its wisdom.

We encounter such wise virtue in a key Jewish value: the shmitah, the Sabbatical Year.

"(3) Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. (4) But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the ETERNAL: you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard."

The practice of shmitah calls on us to release arable land for one year of planting so it may lie fallow for the sake of replenishment and renewal.

On one level, Torah wants us to anticipate and to plan for a life of virtue - in this case, making sure that we engage in practices that sustain the land, enhance the capacity of the land to feed the hungry, and to recognize the land ultimately belongs to God. And what’s very clear here is we have ample time to prepare for the shmitah - six years we can work the land, but in the seventh we must let it rest. Six years is a lot of runway to prepare for shmitah. Six years is a lot of time to shape virtue.

From a different perspective, though, the question is can we always be so prepared for life’s exigencies - like life amidst a pandemic, like months of quarantine and the CoronaChaos that comes with it. The answer is complex. Surely, we would expect our health care professionals and first responders to be ready at a moment’s notice. We would expect our politicians to take such threats seriously and respond effectively. And we would be wise to take precautions for our own well-being and others, doing whatever we can for the greater good.

And, amidst COVID-19, we must still remain planful about sustaining our health, about enhancing the quality of our lives made vulnerable economically and otherwise, and about recognizing and navigating major shifts - like how we celebrate Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, how we graduate high school, what we do now that summer camp and other activities are canceled, how we plan for the High Holidays

But it would seem that the CoronaChaos has shortened so much of our runway; it seems more now like we need a helipad. A horizontal takeoff toward our aspirations with a gradual ascent seems a luxury in this fast-moving moment. We still need to take off toward our dreams, but now we seem to require more of a helicopter that can zoom up into the sky vertically, quickly, and at any odd moment - so much seems to be happening right before our eyes - requiring much more rapid response and adaptation.

Perhaps that’s why we find the oddly-placed wisdom of Menachem Mendl Ussishkin commentary amidst Torah’s patient and gradual approach to shmitah. The early zionist leader said: “Do not say, ‘Tomorrow we will be redeemed.’ We may miss the moment now.”

The moment IS now. The moment is ripe for the plucking as they say. Carpe diem. The moment NOW calls us to, as Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the URJ urges us, to build back better. We cannot miss this blessed and golden opportunity now summoned in this COVID-Age.

And to build back better requires us to dig into our leaders’ toolbox and pull out instruments of adaptive leadership - and to do so today, not tomorrow: not in a week; not in a month; not in a year - NOW!

In the words of the Rabbi Sid Schwarz, a visionary for Jewish innovation:

When situations are complex and desired outcomes are not always clear, leaders need to be nimble, bold and strategic (and, I would add, timely). It would be hard to think of another moment when adaptive leadership skills are more necessary than this Age of Corona.

Practically speaking, what then does this COVID moment summon today? For what, shall we use our adaptive leadership now?

Rabbi Shwarz gives us three important and immediate tasks to activate:

1. Take advantage of content created by others and look for opportunities to collaborate.

2. Time for Serious Inreach.

3. Slay sacred cows and innovate.

So let’s look at each of these urgent actions.

First, we must take advantage of content created by others and look for opportunities to collaborate:

While Cantor Friedman and I, among others, keep busy filling our Emanuel YouTube page, our virtual village at 5959Online with meaningful Jewish content- and while our president Leah Jones thoughtfully organizes it all, our creative productivity still requires the addition of rich materials from other communities. Moreover, we can join compatible thought partners in creating shared activities that support not only ourselves but each other.

To these ends, we look to create a digest of outstanding and inspiring videos to complement our own. And we’ll begin teaming up with other congregations and organizations near and far, Reform and otherwise and moving nimbly toward inspiring collaboration.

Second, this time calls for serious inreach.

Thanks to our CHESED Team we are seriously reaching in and making connections with our community- stepping into uncertainty, isolation and loneliness; building bridges; creating connections; and raising spirits. My heartfelt thanks to CHESED captain Joy Getzenburg and our leadership team and numerous and kind volunteers and our newest force for good, Margo Strifert who has joined our staff to support our caring activities. I am proud of your effort to adapt to this moment and make a noticeable difference.

And finally, we must slay sacred cows and innovate.

Wow! Sounds a bit dangerous - especially so in our legacy institution, one that values its traditions as a way of creating strong identification with our community, not just now but over 140 years of glorious existence.

But this COVID Moment has called into question everything: How we pray; how we educate; how we build community; how we lead inside and outside our community. How we do things around here? HERE looks very different now and will for the foreseeable future.

This COVID moment calls us to shared vision and innovation around our religious school and adult education and how to galvanize our neighborhood around faith, justice and the arts. Any innovations we create now will give us new life and help us do the work of building back better, like Rabbi Jacobs counsels; and creating an even more compelling spiritual community, like Rabbi Schwarz advises.

As we stand at the mountain of Torah tonight, let us open our hearts to its wisdom. In one respect, let us be patient and prepared to take care of the world around us and let it rest. Let us plan ahead and be thoughtful. But, while we also stand restlessly amidst this novel CoronaVirus, which summons rapid change, let us not be afraid to be novel ourselves. Let us be nimble and quick. Let us rise to our dreams vertically and perhaps less gradually by innovating and adapting and making this moment matter by making our community even better - not tomorrow but today. We don’t want to miss the moment. Shabbat shalom!

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Emanuel Congregation  5959 N. Sheridan Road Chicago, IL 60660

(T) 773.561.5173 (F) 773.561.5420  info@emanuelcong.org

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