The Holy Chutzpah of Saving Lives: My Recommendations to the Community

By keeping restriction on meetings we are fulfilling the mitzvah of saving a life, Hatzalah Nefeshos. When we follow health regulations we are doing a mitzvah.

By Rabbi Yonah Bookstein

Along with many of other rabbis in Los Angeles, I have signed a second rabbinic letter asking our communities to adhere to county public health regulations and the advice of experts in infectious diseases.

Our previous recommendations haven’t entirely worked. Most people are following the recommendations, both from communal leaders and medical experts, with vigilant social distancing and other measures. However, in addition to “backyard Shabbos minyanim” and casual social gatherings, we know of several orthodox synagogues with minyanim on Shabbos in violation of county and city ordinances.

People across the community are justly feeling the pull towards gathering together socially and in prayer. We are all looking forward to going back to shuls and we could never have imagined they would be closed for so long. We are all eager to sing, dance and celebrate, or to mourn our losses together. So as the weeks turn to months, people we know and love, are gathering in ad-hoc groups to daven together for loved ones in dire need of healing, and others for Shabbos prayers or celebrations. These gatherings may be one-off or regular, but currently all are breaking the law, the advice of all public health experts, and the consensus of the worlds leading rabbis and rabbinical organizations.

What’s the best way to show leadership on an individual level or on a communal level when members of our community go against the recommendations of the rabbis and local public health authorities? Is it harsh rebuke and punitive measures or are there other paths we can walk? 

Everybody knows that rebuke and punishment often backfire, have negative repercussions, and ultimately may not work. As we learn from King Solomon, “do not reprove the scoffer lest he hate you.” (Mishlei 9:8) We also learn from Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon who said no one can give proper reproof. “Rabbi Akiva said: I swear that there is no one in this generation that knows how to give reproof.” (Sifre Kodoshim) 

Therefore, if we want to encourage communal adherence to public health guidelines and end backyard minyanim and social gatherings until they are permitted by law and Halacha, we have to 1) better educate the community on why we reached our conclusions 2) show our love, understanding and compassion for all those struggling with the shut down of communal life 3) demonstrate personally ways we can thrive in our connection with Hashem and Torah, without putting any life at risk.

Judaism Values Life About All Else

Judaism values protection of life above all else. Governmental actions in the coming weeks and months on decisions to reopen commerce and education, must balance relaxing health quarantines with political and economic considerations. Halacha, which places guarding one’s life and health above such considerations, may thus arrive at different recommendations. 

Please know, as rabbis we take no pleasure in shutting down our shuls. We have no benefit from cancelling kiddush. We take no joy in halting communal in-person activities. But we are facing a mighty foe, a deadly virus which has killed almost 90,000 Americans in a matter of months — Jews dying at a higher rate because or our extremely active social communities — and is killing fifty people a day in Los Angeles County.

If there were a mass murderer loose on the streets of Los Angeles who was killing 50 people a day, would we feel comfortable walking around like “business as usual” or letting our children play unguarded in the front lawn? Not likely, We would be taking insane precautions. We would be doing whatever was possible to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Remember the precautions that we took when we lost a dozen lives in tragic synagogue shootings in other cities? We totally upended how we operate our synagogues to save lives across the world. That is how much the we as Jews care about protecting life. We wouldn’t gamble with our children’s and loved one’s lives if there were a mass murderer on the loose who kills people randomly. We also cannot gamble with the lives of our elders, our parents and grandparents and the immunocompromised who make up a huge percentage of our community by ignoring lifesaving advice.

We are Not Facing an Enemy That Wants to Destroy Jews Alone

One of the defining features of Jewish history, from Moses until today, is chutzpah, and specifically a resistance to authority. The stiff-necked Children of Israel who traveled the Sinai desert are not so different from the people of any particular contemporary synagogue or shul. 

Chutzpah, one of the most formidable Jewish powers we have after prayer, can be very Holy. If it were not for Holy Chutzpah there would be no Judaism, no Torah, no Israel – we would have long ago faded into the annals of history. We would play a minor supporting role in the history books. 

Holy Chutzpah is critical and necessary for Jewish survival. Performing circumcisions in secret under Soviet rule was chutzpah. Smuggling a shofar into Auschwitz in a pot of soup was chutzpah. And the greatest miracle of the modern era, the creation and continual survival of Israel, would not be possible without sustained chutzpah.

We know this in our hearts. We know deep down that the same chutzpah that leads people to run “banned” ad-hoc prayers groups is ironically connected to chutzpah that has kept the Jewish people going for all these years in exile. 

Today, thank God, the reality that we face is not cruel Soviet or Nazi oppression. We are not facing down an enemy that is organizing to deprive Jews of our rights or religious freedoms. The battle against coronavirus is not a battle for the soul and future of the Jewish people. We are fighting a plague that doesn’t discriminate based on class, race, or religion. We are fighting to save lives. 

Therefore, if we want to persuade our people to do the right thing we have to inspire one another to do the right thing. 

We have to become full of the chutzpah to save lives and loving and supporting one another safely. We have to activate our chutzpah of adaptation and innovation. At the core of this all, we have to strengthen our chutzpah of acceptance — this is God’s will.  

God Wants us to Strengthen Other Mitzvoth

While the gates of communal prayer, schools, simcha, and group learning are closed, the gates of chesed, lovingkindness, compassion, teshuva, character development, honoring our elders and our children, are wide open. We have to work on strengthening ways of reaching God and holiness outside the walls of the shul.

We have to show only LOVE AND COMPASSION to those who want to pray together. It’s not easy for those of us who love our synagogues and prayer groups to pray alone. All communities, across the spectrum of dynamism and solemnity, miss our friends and our communal prayer so much, may God restore it quickly. 

But praying in a minyan is not what God wants of us right now. 

God wants us to be practice hatzalah nefashos, being life-savers.

God wants us to strengthen the mitzvah of v’nishmartem l’nafshoseichem,

living lives that are more conscientious and protective of our physical health.

God wants us to work on our emunah, our faith.

God wants us to stren

gthen Kibud Zakeinim, honoring and respecting our elders.

God wants us doing chesed, acts of lovingkindness, and helping those impacted by the pandemic and economic crisis. 

God wants us to invest personal time in chinchuch banim, taking a more active role in educating our children.

God wants us to work on shalom bayis, strengthening our relationships and families.

By keeping these restrictions, the Holy Chutzpah of Protecting Lives, and working on strengthening the mitzvot that we can perform, we are saving lives, and we are hastening the arrival of the Messianic Era. 

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Back on The Air

It’s fun to be back on the air.

It’s been a long time since my radio show at Cranbrook high school. I have amazing memories of bringing my records every other week to play during the radio show. We transmitted about one mile from the basement of the dorms.

Later at Long Beach Hillel with a bunch of students we started KJEW Radio. Boaz put together some computers, programs and equipment and we were broadcasting online. A bunch of students had short lived shows, including one on Jews and sports, and a Love Problem call in show. We were just way ahead of the curve. It was 2005.

I also played around with Podcasting in those days, but my podcasts were just classes that I was teaching on campus. There were no interviews, or production for that matter.

With the pandemic in full swing, I’m starting a new project called Together With Rabbi Yonah. Every week you can join me for inspiring conversations with fascinating people. The new series is being carried by The Jewish Journal.

As you know, people of all backgrounds have been devastated by the pandemic and Together is dedicated to bringing light and healing to our world.

Together on this program we will meet some amazing people, and share advice and insights to help us live better, love better, and save lives.

In addition to our incredible guests, In addition to our incredible guests, I’ll answer your questions, highlight organizations that are making a difference, and I’ll share a short story to open our hearts. Please send me your comments or questions to rabbi @ pico

Please watch us on Facebookor on YouTube.

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Together with Rabbi Yonah Series Premier — Surviving COVID-19, Special Interview with Eli Beer

In the first episode of Together with Rabbi Yonah we speak with the incredible and inspiring Eli Beer about his experience surviving COVID19. Eli is the President of United Hatzalah in Israel, the volunteer paramedic organization.

My Yom Haatzmaut Prayer for 5780

Thank you God for Israel. Thank you God everyday for the miracle of Israel that my ancestors longed and prayed for. Thank you for the miraculous salvation and the start of the Great redemption of Israel and the world.

God, protect the defenders of our Sacred land armed with rifles and prayer books. Protect Israel from baseless hatred from our enemies and ourselves.

God, Raise up Israel as a light unto the nations bringing peace and salvation to the world.

God, although we are not deserving, we are impatient. The birth pangs of Redemption are painful and we pray for an end of these 2,000 years of waiting.

Lift up our weary spirits. Fulfill your promise today. Gather the rest of your dispersed children of Israel who are spread to four corners of the Earth. Gather those who are spiritually distant. Gather those who have forgotten You. Gather those who don’t know who they really are. Gather those who love You and those who don’t recognize You. 

God, You show us the signs of this impending redemption with Israel’s flowering, miraculous technology, and the bountiful harvest. Look God and see what I see — the hills and valleys, study halls and houses of prayer, rising buildings and tech start-ups — Israel is blooming. The barren sand is turning to soil. The fertile land overflowing with ripe fruit and fragrant honey. Your precious and Holy Torah once again emanates from Zion to the rest of the world.

God, make this the appointed time. Sound the great shofar for the redemption. Raise the banner of freedom; raise the banner of liberation; raise the banner of justice; gather us today from the ends of the Earth. Please God, resist being dissuaded by our narrow vision because deep down we know Israel is our spiritual home. You know because You engraved it on our hearts. Our souls yearn for home. Our souls year for redemption. Our souls yearn for peace and unity, for harmony and salvation. Redeem Your people. Why make us wait any longer? 

Blessed are You, who gathers together the dispersed People of Israel. Amen, selah.