What a week it has been for all of us at JCP, in New York City, and around the world. At a JCP board meeting mid-week, I made the claim of being an optimist, something that is both inherent to who I am but also a well-practiced antidote to the other quality I possess, being a pessimist. I venture to say that many of us hold both views in our hands at any given time and as Moses taught the people on their journey through the wilderness to the land of Israel, “I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction…this day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, that you and your children may live!” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20)
The mandate to “choose life” has always been at the center of Jewish civilization. The will and ability to choose is what animates the human project; and the moral enterprise of our existence as sentient beings, responsible for those around us and the world we live in, makes each of us guardians of the good.
What people do in a time of crisis says so much about the moral backbone of a community. And I dare say that the Jewish people have not only survived but thrived for more than 3000 years because each day, each week, each month and year and in every generation there are always those among us who choose life, who choose to do good, and in so doing, lengthen our days here on earth.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, we encounter a rather shameful moment of the people in crisis. Moses is up on Mount Sinai, talking face to face with God, receiving the wisdom and the teaching of the Torah which he will eventually share with the people down below. But while Moses is away, the people rebel. They question his leadership; behave destructively; they build an Idol Calf of molten gold, crafted from the jewelry of the people in a fit of crazed hysteria. Moses, as we know, comes down the mountain, encounters this scene and in fury, breaks the tablets and rages against his people. A bitter lesson ensues about the danger that can occur when trust breaks down; when communication is bastardized; when destroying takes precedence over building up.
But God was even more angry than Moses and was prepared to destroy the entire people for their faithlessness, for the rabid self-destruction, saying, “And now leave Me be, that My wrath may flare against them, and I will put an end to them, and I will make you a great nation.” Moses was relentless in his sense of duty and compassion, however, and countered God with the words, “Turn back from Your flaring wrath and relent from the evil against Your people.” Moses was such a good Jew. He (like many people you know) loved to argue with God.
After all, if you’re going to choose life, well, then choose life! Like Abraham arguing with God at Sodom and Gomorrah (“Surely the Judge of all the earth must deal justly?”), Moses asserts that it is in fact human agency, the power of hope and action, that ultimately redeems.
So let me say this: As our JCP community, like countless communities around the world, faces the headwinds of a global pandemic, it is worth noting and celebrating the kindness, decency, intelligence, determination, compassion and love of every member of our team. Your staff at JCP across the board has stepped up like a hundred Moses’, working late hours, banging out emails and communication, and setting up Zoom calls with kids; cleaning our spaces over and over and over again; all while keeping their eyes on the ultimate prize, that we are a loving, devoted, enduring Jewish community in Lower Manhattan with a proud responsibility to “choose life,” to take care of others, so that we and our children may live.
Words cannot adequately describe the depth of gratitude I feel to be working with the team of professionals and lay leaders at this moment in time. But with a full heart, I say thank you.