- Did we make it?
- What can I do about India?
- Will it get that bad here again?
- Are we safe?
- Can I trust new CDC guidance?
- If I see someone without a mask, can I assume they're vaccinated?
- (What if they're an anti-vaxxer?)
- And what about kids?
- Did you see the article about the family that got their shots and flew to Hawai'i and then their eleven year old died of COVID?
- Do you know how old my child is?
- How does this new guidance change what we're planning at our synagogue?
- Is it too soon to make decisions about the High Holidays?
- What are the spiritual impacts of spending a year unable to sing with others when singing in harmony is the best way I know to encounter God?
- When we start gathering in person again, will people come?
- Has my kid adjusted to eating lunch on a towel on the floor six feet apart from his schoolmates?
- Will I see my father again?
- Did we make it?
- Are we really on the other side?
- If we're two weeks vaccinated, are we really safe?
- If we're safe, then why do I feel so exhausted?
- After the long, isolated winter why does spring make me want to cry?
- After fourteen months of feeding myself, why am I staring at a pantry full of ingredients unable to muster the creativity to cook tonight?
- What are the spiritual impacts of spending fourteen months guarded against grief, determined to keep going, sacrificing human contact in order to protect each other from an invisible virus we might or might not have been carrying?
- Did we make it?
- When will there be time to grieve?
I've had this kitchen tool for as long as I've had my own kitchen. I don't remember how it came to be mine. It belonged to my grandparents -- the only set of them that I knew, my mother's parents, who lived in San Antonio throughout my childhood. Eppie was Russian, and Lali was Czech. All through my childhood they lived in a condo not unlike this one.
I know that he loved to cook. He's the one who taught me to make matzah balls. He used to make little knotted rolls, too, and knedliky (Czech bread dumplings, made with stale white bread). When I would spend the night with them, sometimes they would treat me to the sugary cereals my mother didn't allow, and sometimes he would make salami and eggs.
This tool has a smooth handle, satisfying to the hand. There's a burn mark from some long-ago scorching-hot stove. The iron twists and curls. It's beautiful; I think in one of my early apartments I hung it on the kitchen wall as an ornament. Today it was the perfect tool for flipping pumpernickel bagels in their simmering bath before putting them in the oven to bake.
Learning to make bagels was one of the projects I planned for myself, imagining the long isolated pandemic winter. I baked loaf after loaf of rye bread, and soft golden challah almost every week. I kept putting off the bagel project. Maybe on a subconscious level I wanted to keep a treat for myself, something to look forward to in this year of solitude and grief.
But the winter is past. The snows are over and gone. Every day more people here become vaccinated. (Though in India, the pandemic is raging worse than ever...) Baking bagels today felt like an act of hope. I don't need to defer the tiny sweetness of trying a new recipe lest I need that sweetness to get me through some other, worse, day than this.
I'm pretty certain my grandparents never made bagels. I grew to love chewy pumpernickel bagels because my parents brought them back from New York City. They used to take an extra duffel bag when they traveled there, and on the day of their departure they'd fill the duffel with paper bags of New York bagels and freeze them as soon as they got back to south Texas.
A cursory internet search suggests that this is a Danish dough whisk. How did my grandparents come to have a Danish baking tool in their kitchen? Did they pick it up as a souvenir on their travels, or from a fancy kitchen store, or someplace secondhand? I wonder whether my mother would've known. There's a quiet melancholy in questions there's no one left to ask.
Last year at the start of the pandemic, my hevruta partners and I studied a text from the Piaceczyner (the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto) about this week's Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora. His jumping-off point is a verse about houses contracting tzara'at -- some kind of contagion -- and the need to quarantine such a house for a period of time.
The commentator Rashi explains that there's treasure hidden in the walls of the afflicted house, and when we knock down the walls, we'll find the treasure. But the Piaceczyner is puzzled: if there's treasure, then why does Torah tell us to wait for seven days before we can knock down the walls and find the treasures hidden therein?
His first answer makes me laugh: well, we can't exactly know why Torah says what it says!
But then he says, if we look deeply we can recognize that in everything that happens to us, there's a spark of God's intention for goodness. Even if the situation we're in is a difficult one, God intends goodness for us in it somehow.
"There may be times when we can't access schooling for our children, or praying together in community, or going to the mikvah," he writes. A year ago, my first thought was: that's us, right now! Our kids are home from school. The shul building is closed. Everything is closed: to protect us from each other, from the virus we might not know we're carrying.
The Piaceczyner said there would be treasures to be found in quarantine. I couldn't yet imagine what they would be.
This year, these lines land entirely differently with me.
It's still true that we still don't have access to our former infrastructure for Jewish life. Synagogues aren't meeting in person, Hebrew school isn't meeting in person... And yet -- look at everything we've learned over the last year.
Our synagogues are open, even though our buildings are not -- because the synagogue isn't the building, it's the people and the connections among and between us, and our traditions, and our Source. We've learned how to pray together over Zoom, and how to make our home spaces into sacred spaces. We've learned how to build community and connectivity online when we can't safely be in person.
We've learned how to educate our children online. Hebrew school is happening: online. Services are happening: online. We've learned how to share funerals, b-mitzvah celebrations, shiva minyanim, even batei din (conversions) online.
We've learned to find sweetness in glimpsing each others' households -- our dogs and our cats, the children and elders who share our homes -- when we gather for learning or prayer. As a member of our Board said to me after Rosh Hashanah services, "Seeing people at their tables and on their couches and with their coffee cups made it feel like we were all in each others' homes -- I felt like I was getting to know people in a different way because I got to see them where they live." Who could have imagined that, before the pandemic?
We've learned how to embrace video, and how to enliven our davenen with art and images. This doesn't make up for the fact that we can't embrace, and we can't sing together in harmony, but it brings a different kind of hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the mitzvah) to our spiritual lives.
And we've learned how digital offerings can more easily include those who are immunocompromised, or hospitalized, or disabled, or homebound. We've learned how having our digital doors open makes our synagogues more accessible than they ever were before.
The Piaceczyner insists that even when something appears to us to be a plague, God intends goodness in it. We might just need a while to find the hidden treasure in whatever's unfolding. As we prepare, in time, to return to our former Jewish infrastructure, I want to ensure that we do so in a way that doesn't lose the new treasure we've found. Here are some of the big questions my colleagues and I are asking:
- How can we create hybrid offerings so that as some of us feel safely able to gather in person, others can be full participants digitally?
- How can we continue to embrace the gifts of multimedia and visual art once we're back in the building again?
- How can we welcome and include people joining us digitally, without creating a future in which no one bothers to "come to shul" because it's easier to just stay home?
- How can we use what we've learned this year to help us become more accessible, more equitable, and more inclusive?
- How can we use what we've learned this year to help us build and sustain community across distance, whether it's the distance between the shul and a hospital bed, or the distance between here and someplace further away?
- How might our sense of community expand and adapt if people keep participating in services and learning and festival observances online -- if you don't have to be in Northern Berkshire to become a part of CBI?
- And how can we honor the treasures of this pandemic learning while also honoring the very real losses of this incredibly difficult year?
We don't know the answers yet: we're figuring them out as we go. The crisis of COVID-19 offers us an opportunity to dream big and think creatively about what it means to do Jewish together now.I hope you'll grapple with these questions too, and let me know your answers.
This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
When twigs swell
and begin to bud
and leaves emerge
chartreuse and tender
what I nurtured
in secret silence
through the long winter
and sleep's cold blur.
I missed you so much
it hurt. I answer
with my own,
My yearning for you
I originally titled this draft "The tree speaks," but that felt pretentious. Who am I to imagine I know what a tree is thinking?
When I sit at my desk in my study, there are several trees in view of my window. One, some kind of maple, has begun to leaf in deep red. Two others have begun to leaf in the implausible chartreuse that I think of as the truest sign of northern spring.
New leaves seem so fragile and tender to me, especially knowing that there's a forecast of snow here tomorrow.
The end of this poem bears the imprint of this week's Baal Shem Tov text study with my Bayit hevre. We studied a beautiful text from the Besht arising out of parashat Tazria, which culminated in the idea that the deepest yearnings of our hearts are themselves prayer.
This morning the alarm went off at seven. I made breakfast for my sleepy kid, finished packing his lunchbox, reminded him to put things in his backpack. A few minutes after eight I drove him to school. All of this used to be our ordinary routine. Today everything about it felt surreal. It's been more than a year since our school mornings followed this pattern.
A few things are different than they were last time he was going to all-day, every-day, in-person school. Masks, of course. The Chromebook and charger that he now carries to and from school, lent to him by the school at the remote start of this school year. Today each kid brought a large towel, because lunch will be picnic-style, seated on their towels six feet apart.
This is the fifth paradigm shift in his fifth grade year so far. (Two weeks of remote school to begin the year; then some weeks of hybrid learning; then all-remote for a while in the winter; then back to hybrid; and now this.) Will this "stick," or will rising cases change things yet again? It's hard to trust that he'll really be in school every day. I don't believe it yet.
It feels strange to be working from home without him in the next room. It feels strange that I can't overhear his schooling anymore. I won't know what book his teacher is using for read-aloud now, or listen to his bass lesson, or hear him grumbling about group projects. Now all I'll know about his days will be whatever little he tells me when I pick him up.
A year ago when school closed for (what we thought would be) two weeks, being with my kid all the time felt overwhelming. Now that he's back in full-time in-person school, being apart is what's overwhelming. It's like when he first went to preschool at not-quite-three and suddenly my days opened up. The condo feels like an empty nest this morning.
A crisp sprig of Italian parsley dipped in salt water. Vibrant and green, salt giving way to savory as the stem crunches. It's the third step of the seder, karpas: greens representing spring and new life, salt water representing the tears of slavery in ancient days and our tears at injustice even now. It's a gustatory hyperlink. The minute that first bite hits my tongue, I feel it in my bones: change is coming. If we wait until we feel fully ready we might never take the leap at all. It's time to go.
Storebought matzah spread with horseradish is another one. Matzah, at once the humble hardtack of our affliction and the hasty waybread of our freedom. Maror, evoking the bitterness of slavery, the sharpness of oppression. The cracker shatters with a crunch, the horseradish stings the nose. This year, its sharp scent is another reason for gratitude: I don't have anosmia, I don't have COVID-19. It's a humble taste, a simple taste, and one that speaks volumes. We're leaving this narrow place.
My spoon carves through a matzah ball: light and fluffy, resting in hot broth. My grandfather taught me to make them years ago: beating the egg whites until fluffy, then folding in the egg yolks and oil, the matzah meal and white pepper. Every year after I've made the batter I panic, fearing that I mixed it too much and it's become dense. I chill it, already planning how I'll make a second batch if I need to. Every year after twenty minutes of simmering, the kneidlach float like soft clouds.
This year I added a new-old flavor to my table. I think my father's mother (peace be upon her) used to make home-made gefilte fish. The stuff in jars is unappealing, but I wanted to try it from scratch, remembering generations who stretched what little they had to make a feast worthy of Shabbat or seder. I didn't bring home a live carp; I used a recipe from the Times. The delicate quenelles of minced tilapia and salmon, simmered in a light broth of fennel and aromatics, are a revelation.
These are some of the most evocative flavors I know. They link me with last year's seder, and the year before, and my childhood seders at my aunt and uncle's house in Dallas, and their childhood seders...all the way back to the sages in the second century who asked why this night is different from all other nights. They too ate unleavened bread, and dipped herbs in salt water tears, and let the maror of their era shock their sinuses and their hearts into readiness to go free.
See also: Parsley dipped in tears, 2017
I was humbled and honored to be invited to contribute an essay on allyship to this new daily Omer series... also soon to be a book, featuring a spectacular range of voices, which will become available on Wednesday / Trans Day of Visibility.
Deep thanks to Congregation Beit Simchat Torah (and their scholar-in-residence R. Mike Moskowitz, my dear friend and Bayit cofounder) for putting this together and for inviting me to take part. Here's how my essay begins:
Allyship means placing myself in the shoes of someone experiencing marginalization or oppression, “taking on their struggle as my own,” recognizing where and how today's structures give me privilege that they don't have, and trying to transfer the benefits of my privilege to them. Allyship asks me to be active in standing up for those who are oppressed or marginalized. And allyship asks me, when I inevitably err, to take responsibility, to apologize, and to learn better and try better next time.
One way to understand allyship is through a Mussar lens. Mussar is a Jewish practice of self-refinement through focusing on and developing our middot or soul-qualities. When I think of allyship, the middah that comes to mind is achrayut, “responsibility.” The term is related to the word achar, “after.” We need to pay attention to what happens after we act (or refrain from action). If I ignore injustice or power disparity because I’m not the person being harmed, what happens after? If I speak or act (or fail to speak or act) in a way that causes harm, what happens after? Achrayut reminds us of our ethical obligation to keep impacts and outcomes in mind.
But put a different vowel in that word, and achar becomes acher, “other.” That suggests another, equally important, implication of achrayut. When we care for each other, we express and strengthen our achrayut. Achrayut means actively taking the responsibility of caring for another, or an “other.” Achrayut means centering the needs of the other. Unlike the term “allyship,” achrayut doesn't presume a power differential between the person with needs and the person with privilege who's centering those needs. Still, the middah of achrayut can fuel our allyship...
You never removed leaven.
(Salt, sugar, and oil: sure,
but that was different.)
This year the work of
finding every last crumb
is daunting. I take respite
in the seder prep I know
you used to do, polishing
the silver until it gleamed.
Okay, let's be real, you
assigned it to the housekeeper,
but your table shone.
Humming seder psalms,
I rub silver polish into
the pitcher we used for
pouring water on our hands
when we returned from
your funeral. I'll fill it
with ice water, and
your small silver creamer
with our salt water tears.
Removed leaven. Many Jews remove all leaven (or leaven-able material) from our homes during the seven days of Pesach.
Pouring water on our hands. There's a tradition of placing a pitcher outside a shiva home so that when mourners return from the burial, so that we can ritually wash our hands before entering.
Salt water tears. One of the ritual items on the seder table is salt water, representing the tears of our ancestors during slavery.
This poem is (yet) another in the vein of Crossing the Sea, the collection of poems I wrote during the first year of mourning my mom. It was published in December by Phoenicia Publishing (thanks Beth!) and is available wherever books are sold.
Mom, I'm using the cocktail napkins
you gave me when I moved out
on my own, simple and grey
with my single name in red, an
echo of the ones you ordered
when I married.
They've been on a shelf
this long pandemic year, but
it's another COVID birthday: time
to celebrate I made it through,
at least so far -- even vaccinated
the virus could strike. This year
I learned the word anosmia.
I breathe deep beside the coffee pot:
I can't take scent for granted.
I still wish I could text you
the seder menu I'm planning,
a photo of the spring flowers
a friend brought me
so my table would shine.
This poem is another in the vein of Crossing the Sea, the collection of poems I wrote during the first year of mourning my mom. It was published in December by Phoenicia Publishing (thanks Beth!) and is available wherever books are sold.
A slide from Bayit's Pesach offerings this year.
Many of you have heard me say that on Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat before Pesach, it's customary for the rabbi to give a sermon about how to prepare for Pesach. Traditionally speaking, I'm supposed to give you instructions on how to prepare yourselves and your homes for Passover. You know -- here are the five "leavenable" grains, here's how to remove them from your homes for a week, here's the halakha on how to properly clean to remove every last scrap of hametz.
As we approach our second pandemic Pesach, the idea of preparing for Pesach feels different than it ever has before. I mean, if you remove hametz, you can do that the same as you always have. And even if you've never followed that tradition, you can mark the week by making a conscious choice not to eat bread. A week of mindful eating is a valuable experience and a deep way to connect with our traditions. But that's not the kind of preparation with which I'm grappling this year.
It's the inner preparation that's challenging me. Because the pandemic continues. Last year who could've imagined that we'd be here now: preparing for another Zoom community second night seder? Still staying apart to protect each other and ourselves. Many of us still in lockdown mode, or sheltering in place, to prevent the spread of a virus that's still killing 1200 people each day in this country -- about three times as many as last July 4; the equivalent of a 9/11 every three days.
There are three excellent vaccines out in the world now. There is reason to hope that once the population reaches a certain vaccination threshold, we will be able to be together safely again. Elementary schools are even about to re-open! But we are not "there yet." What does it mean to prepare ourselves for liberation when many of us may still feel constrained: by pandemic, by economic challenges, by racism and all the harm it creates, by the reality of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers?
The haggadah teaches: in every generation one must see oneself as if one had been liberated from Mitzrayim / the Narrow Place -- from tzuris / suffering, from meitzarim / constrictions. How can we see ourselves as if we were going forth from those tight spaces when we are still manifestly living in them? We aren't liberated from COVID. We aren't liberated from racism and hatred. We will celebrate Pesach as a community again via digital means, not "in person." What kind of liberation can this be?
Earlier this winter I worked with a group of poets, artists, rabbis, and liturgists to co-create new materials for the start of seder, recognizing the meitzarim that still bind us so that we can prepare our spirits for the liberation that is not yet quite here. (We'll use those materials at our community seder on Zoom with Rabbi David and the TBE community -- please sign up now, we need your RSVP by Wednesday!) And, there are things we can do practically to prepare our hearts to go free.
Set your seder table with a white tablecloth, if you have one. If not, use a bedsheet... or whatever festive cloth you can find. Make it feel different than on a regular night. It's too early to have spring flowers where we live, but if you can pick up a bouquet at the grocery store, treat yourself: a symbol of spring, something beautiful and festive. Put candles on your festival table: we'll light them to bring the light of the festival into the room and into our hearts.
Create a second seder plate memorializing this COVID year: hand sanitizer, a face mask, a vaccination card if you're fortunate enough to have had a shot. We'll light a memorial candle for the half a million who have died as we move through the door into this year's community seder. And you'll also want a "regular" seder plate symbolizing our ancestral story of freedom: an egg, a roasted shankbone or beet, a sprig of green, haroset, maror. Maybe an orange and an olive.
We'll harness our sensory experiences to bring us into the festival of freedom. The crunch of matzah, the taste of parsley (or whatever you use for karpas, the green vegetable dipped in salt water tears), the sharpness of horseradish and sweetness of haroset... all of these will spiritually hyperlink us with seders past and seders to come. Our people have celebrated Pesach in narrow straits before. Our rituals give us strength, and they connect us with each other and with our Source.
The journey to Passover begins where we are. Not in some imagined reality where the pandemic never happened, but right here and now. And I know with all my heart that when we gather on Zoom for second night seder, the words and the tastes and the rituals will lift us out of where we are and prepare us for the unfolding of something new. The journey to Sinai. The journey to togetherness. The journey to the better world we'll build together on the far side of the sea.
This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services (cross-posted to the From the Rabbi blog.)
As we approach our second Zoom Pesach, I'm sharing a set of slides that I created out of the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach. The slides were made with google slides, and reflect what I've learned over the last year about creating materials to use via slideshare / on Zoom. They also integrate the pre-seder module that the Liturgical Arts Working Group at Bayit just released.
You can find the slides here on the Velveteen Rabbi's Haggadah for Pesach webpage.
Two things to note:
1) Bayit's pre-seder materials are intended to flow directly into the karpas step of the seder. The slide deck also includes the "old" karpas slides that were already in the haggadah. So you'll likely want to delete a few slides as you figure out which of the karpas slides you want to keep.
2) Please, please, PLEASE, download the google slide deck and then re-upload it to your own google drive under a different name before editing it. This way the source slides will remain there for others to download.
I hope this is helpful -- if you use any part of this slide deck, let me know how it works for you.
The virus was distant, the virus was here.
We learned new language: quarantine, lockdown
bewildered by mourning we didn't see coming.
One hundred thousand deaths: unthinkable.
We learned new language: quarantine, lockdown,
how to be real while together apart.
Two hundred thousand deaths, unthinkable.
Opened our Zoom screens on the Shabbes table.
How to be real while together apart:
singing and grieving in two-by-two boxes,
opening Zoom screens on the seder table.
Touch tzitzit to webcam: is Torah there?
Singing and grieving in two-by-two boxes
and serving with all of our fears and our wailing,
touching tzitzit to webcam, finding Torah there.
What gets in the way of the work is the work
so we serve with all of our fears and our wailing.
with our digital tools and inadequacy.
What gets in the way of the work is the work.
Pandemic feels like a new face of Mitzrayim.
With our digital tools and inadequacy
we sit with the trauma, the sirens, the losses.
Pandemic feels like a new face of Mitzrayim.
We ache to lift from constriction to freedom.
We sit with the trauma, the sirens, the losses --
the journey to Pesach begins where we are.
Feel ourselves lift from constriction to freedom.
Someday we'll dance at the shore of the sea.
The journey from COVID begins where we are.
The vaccines were distant. Soon they'll be here.
Someday we'll touch on the shore of the sea,
ready for morning we can almost see coming.
Written for the Lunchtime Program Acknowledging the Covid-19 Anniversary at the Academy for Jewish Religion (NY), where I am blessed to serve as an adjunct instructor.
"The grim realities of covid19 are settling in, and with them, no shortage of anxiety," I wrote in my journal a year ago. I read those words now, and I wonder: what in particular was happening, just then? I remember some of the anxiety I felt. My son's school had just closed down, and I knew that I didn't / couldn't know what was coming. But of what "grim realities" was I really aware, a year ago? The horror stories from the NYC ICUs hadn't happened yet, then. So much hadn't happened yet, then.
A year ago at this season some people were beginning to predict that 100,000 Americans might die from the virus. I'm pretty sure that prospect seemed horrifying. I don't know how to process the fact that after a year, the reality is half a million souls here so far, and 2.64 million worldwide. I also couldn't have imagined, last spring, that some people would call the virus a hoax, or cry "personal freedom" and refuse masks -- that so many would shrug off our human responsibility to protect others.
I know how fortunate I am: I haven't gotten sick, and neither has anyone in my close sphere. I have a job, and a roof over my head. I'm not food-insecure. For that matter, I like to cook, so the fact that I've made almost all of the meals I've eaten over the last year is not a hardship. My fifth grader has weathered the challenges of Zoom school and hybrid school and being apart from his friends and family as well as any child I can imagine. We're fine...and we're also not fine; no one is really fine.
It's been a year of a lot of pastoral listening: sometimes trying to offer comfort, and sometimes just sitting with people in the low or frightened or anxious or despairing place where we are. It's been a year of learning how to lead services on Zoom, how to facilitate spiritual experience from afar. It's been a year of contactless grocery pickup and staying apart and washing masks. It's been a year of loneliness and solitude and grief and losses -- so many losses, even for those of us who've made it through.
I think it will likely take years for the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic to be known. How will this year have shaped us: the loneliness, the loss, the grief -- the science denialism and politicization of masks -- and also the unexpected moments of connection or kindness against the backdrop of so much trauma? Those of us who have made it through will be changed by what this last year has held. I want to believe that we can harness those changes for the good of each other, but I don't know how.
When we planned our first pandemic Zoom seders a year ago, none of us imagined that we would be preparing now for a second "season of our liberation" locked down at home. There's a sense of emotional and spiritual heaviness. We are all so tired, and so grief-soaked, and so ready to be with each other in person again. We yearn to feel free, but we're not "there yet."
"Whatever gets in the way of the work is the work," as my poetry mentor Jason Shinder z"l used to say.
Before we can experience liberation at Pesach, we need to begin where we are. When the Bayit Liturgical Arts Working Group met to begin planning our offering for this second COVID Pesach, we decided to offer materials that could be a bridge or doorway into seder: starting where we are, and bringing us (we hope) to a place of readiness to approach freedom.
What does it mean to approach the season of our liberation when so many of us feel we are still in Mitzrayim / in the Narrow Place of pandemic, economic uncertainty, and global grieving? What do we carry with us on the journey? How will this seder be different from all other seders, even the first pandemic seder we celebrated a year ago? Here are our collaborative answers.
You can find the whole collection here, in google slides form (beautiful!) and PDF form (somewhat more utilitarian): Approaching our second COVID seder. Please use them, excerpt them, adapt them, share them. We hope that they will reach everyone who would find meaning in them. May they make our second COVID Pesach more meaningful and real.
Two years ago this weekend, I was writing about experiencing shiva from the inside. My mother had just died and the world had turned upside-down. I felt tender, thin-skinned, permeated with grief. How could the world keep turning with her gone?
One year ago this weekend, I took my son to Boston to see his cousin in the national touring production of Fiddler on the Roof. (She played Chava. She was dazzling.) We had Shabbat dinner with family, then all trooped into the Emerson Theater.
I remember consulting with friends beforehand about whether it was safe to go. Surely we were safe from the virus here? I decided to bring Clorox wipes in my purse, to use on the gas pump handle on the Mass Pike on the way home, just in case.
That was the end of the old normal. I look now at the selfie of my kid, my friend, and me in the theater and I shudder: we were surrounded by so many people! And no one was masked, of course. None of us knew anything about masks, then. Not here.
If someone had told me that half a million people would die in the USA alone, I'm not sure I would have believed them. If someone had told me that there would be three working vaccines within a year, I'm not sure I would have believed them.
Sometimes I can't believe Mom's only been gone for two years. It feels longer. I think because this last year has been interminable, and grief-soaked, and horrifying, and it's almost unthinkable that she never knew anything about any of this.
Sometimes I can't believe that Mom's been gone for two whole years already. The first year was a fog of grief. The second year was... well, a fog of grief, again: not intimate and personal, but global. Time takes on a strange quality, when there is grief.
This morning I spotted a first brave spring shoot beginning to push up through the frozen soil in my front yard. It was 22 and windy here today: nothing else is beginning to green yet, but this one hyacinth is eager for the growing light. I am, too.
I'm eager for the day when we can shed our winter garb again. When we can greet one another outdoors -- even if it's still masked and at a safe social distance, again. And oh, to think of the day when we will be able to embrace again...!
Something I used to take so for granted. A simple hug. The clasp of a hand. A tight embrace from a friend. I miss it more than I can say. I miss it the way I miss Mom. I won't see Mom again in this life. But someday, the rest of us will hug again.
A glimpse of the Color The Omer Trello board: the digital "room where it happens."
I can't remember how we initially framed my role. Cat-herder, maybe. I'm the lead architect for Bayit Publishing, so our book projects (and liturgy projects and to some extent blog projects) are in my purview. Last summer, a new idea from Shari Berkowitz reached our doorstep: a contemplative coloring book for the 49 days of the Omer, with illustrations that each user can transform with color, and kavanot / intentions /reflections and questions on each page. The Bayit board approved the Build Plan, and we set the book in motion by creating a Trello board where collaborators could keep track of tasks and chat via digital post-it notes. That was June, and at first, I didn't think I'd be very involved until it was time to bring the book to print.
When Shari brought the concept to Bayit, our #VisualTorah sketchnoter Steve Silbert immediately volunteered to do the illustrations. Right away, they invited me as editor / publisher to partner with them on brainstorming and revising. What an unexpected delight. Over time we refined each page. We brainstormed visual elements and ideas for drawings, far more than the 49 pages that made it into the book. We took turns drafting text for each page, and then editing each others' work (usually a paragraph would get winnowed down to "slim text" which would then get revised a third time once we reached the page layout stage). Steve drew things, and sometimes drew them again and again, revising for visual impact or riffing off of our ideas.
By the end of the process, Trello had become my daily companion. I kept it open in a tab all the time. (We use it for all Bayit builds, but the Color the Omer board became my default, for a while.) Any time a little red dot appeared on the tab, I knew that Shari or Steve had left a comment, and I'd click through to join the conversation and help however I could. Once all the pages were drafted, Shari put them in order. Then we handed the manuscript over to R. David Markus, who combed through it for misplaced nekudot (vowel markings) and Hebrew typos and asked great questions about text and formatting choices. Draft, refine, draft again. At last, after nine months of collaboration -- just in time for Pesach! -- the book was ready to be born.
I love the idea of an Omer coloring book: as an Omer practice, an artistic practice, a mindfulness practice. I love the illustrations that Steve drew, and the ideas that Shari brought to the table, and how R. David helped us see beyond our blind spots. And maybe most of all, I love being part of a thoughtful, creative, collaborative build team. We learned to hold our own ideas loosely, to embrace each others' creativity, and to improvise and riff and revise together. All of us deeply respect each other and each others' work, so all of our comments were offered not in a spirit of tearing-down but in a spirit of building-up. We cheered and supported each other as we worked together to build this tool for spiritual life that we wanted to offer to the world.
As this book enters print, I feel like a proud midwife. I love getting to be a thought partner, a helper in the background: the cat-herder, the holder of the container. This has always been part of our mission at Bayit: we collaborate broadly as we build and test and refine tools for a Jewish future always under construction. And we love lifting up meaningful work so that it can shine.
Order Color The Omer now --
and may it enrich your Omer journey in countless ways!
$13 on Amazon (and Amazon's global affiliates)
The hearse got stuck
in the mud-snow.
I watched from graveside
as they tried reverse
then pushing --
finally backing down
from the other side.
struggled in icy mud.
I thought of Mom --
her yahrzeit this week.
She died before covid
before masks and distancing,
before half a million dead.
Would she understand
how everything feels
uphill, our wheels
spinning in muddy slush?
Like the hearse
all we can do
is retreat, bearing
grief's heavy load.
of this covid year:
in the kitchen window,
of green onions
trying to miracle
fresh green from
tap water and sun.
When it catches
in my throat
I choke, then
if my sense of smell
"I don't know why everything is so hard," you say to me. Everyone's hitting the wall, I point out. We're reaching one year of global pandemic. Even if we're okay, it's okay with an asterisk. Okay within global pandemic parameters. Not the same.
You protest: "but I'm fine. I'm not sick. My family isn't sick. I don't know why I'm struggling so much. I'm healthy, I have a job, I have electricity and internet, I'm as lucky as anyone can be. And yet life still feels like slogging through cold molasses."
I can't tell you how many people have said those things to me. (So if you're reading this and thinking, "Is she blogging about our conversation?" the answer is, I've had this conversation lately more times than I can count.) Almost everyone is struggling.
As longtime readers know, I've lived with grief (the end of my marriage, mourning my mother's death) and I've lived with depression. As we reach the end of the first year of COVID-19, I think a global pandemic is a little bit like both of those.
The pandemic is a fog: we can't see the future clearly, or plan, or dream, or anticipate. The pandemic is a weight pressing us down, always there. It's a program running in the background, draining resources and slowing processor speed.
Half a million people have died in our nation alone. Five hundred thousand human beings. Remember the horror of learning that 100,000 had died? Now it's 5x that. And then there's "long covid" -- people who survive, but don't get well.
New and deadlier variants are sprouting. Asymptomatic spread means we never know whether we are carrying a deadly pathogen that might kill the next person we breathe near. That's background noise in our hearts and minds, now, always.
Last spring most of us believed that if we sheltered in place for a few weeks, we could stop the spread and that would be the end of it. And then two weeks of staying apart turned into two months turned into a year and we're still nowhere near done.
Sure, we've grown accustomed to wearing masks, social distancing, not embracing, not shaking hands, not being indoors with other human beings who aren't in our quarantine pods. But it's still impacting us in countless subconscious ways.
Purim is in a few days. Last year, Purim was the last holiday we celebrated with others before lockdown began. Traumaversaries are real. And it's February, which doesn't help anything, at least here where I am. So if you're not okay? You're not alone.
There is light at the end of the tunnel. We've made it through the darkest part of the winter. Warmth will come. The ability to see each other outdoors will come, and that will relieve some of our isolation, and some of the feelings of being stuck in place.
Vaccines will come. The rollout has been slower than we might have hoped, and we all know people who are trying to get appointments only to learn that supply has run out again. But vaccines exist, and they work, and they will reach everyone.
We will make it to the other side of this sea. For now, what I can offer is this: it's okay to feel the way you feel. (I mean. It's not okay. It's miserable. But it's normal and human and you are truly not alone in it, even if you feel isolated in every way.)
Be gentle with yourself, and with each other. If you can, seek out little ways to be kind to yourself. For me that means hand lotion as a treat for winter-dry skin, coffee, a bouquet of bright flowers, cooking good food. You'll know how best to take care of you.
Be gentle with yourself. If you're finding that it takes longer to get tasks done, or if you can't get them done at all. If you're forgetting things, or struggling. If you feel hopeless or low. Be gentle with yourself. I promise, life will not always be this.
"וְעָ֥שׂוּ לִ֖י מִקְדָּ֑שׁ וְשָׁכַנְתִּ֖י בְּתוֹכָֽם׃ / Let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell within them." (Ex. 25:8 - in this week's Torah portion, T'rumah.)
The word mishkan (the portable dwelling-place for God) shares a root with the word Shechinah, the divine Presence. We build sacred space so God will dwell in us. I talk about this verse every year, because I love it. But this year, what jumps out at me is its juxtaposition with what follows.
Immediately after this verse, Torah tells us to make an ark to hold the tablets of the covenant. Cover it with gold. Put rings on the sides, and poles through the rings. And keep it that way. The ark over which the divine Presence would rest needed to be ready to go at a moment's notice.
Wherever the people go, holy words and presence go with them -- which is to say, with us. As beautiful as the mishkan was (as beautiful as our beloved shul building is) God's presence doesn't live there. God's presence goes with us. Our texts and traditions go with us. Holiness goes with us.
Our ancient ancestors needed perseverance to make their way through the wilderness. I imagine that their perseverance was fueled, in part, by this verse and its assurance that God goes with us wherever we go.
After the Temple fell, our sages called the Shabbat table a mikdash me-at, a small sanctuary. I keep returning to that image during this COVID time. God's presence is with us at our Shabbes tables tonight. God's presence is with us when we bless and light candles together-apart, when we bless and break bread together-apart, when we daven together-apart.
The poles were kept in the rings of the ark to teach us that the life of the spirit goes with us wherever we go. God goes with us wherever we go. Holiness goes with us wherever we go. And like our ancient ancestors, we need perseverance to get us through.
Yesterday NASA landed a new robotic rover on Mars, named -- as you probably know -- Perseverance. Some of you may have watched on the news or online as NASA engineers got word that the rover had safely landed, and celebrated from afar.
I read in the Washington Post earlier this week that "Hitting the 4.8-mile-wide landing site targeted by NASA after a journey of 300 million miles is akin to throwing a dart from the White House and scoring a bull’s eye in Dallas." It's honestly incredible.
As is being able to see images from our neighbor planet in realtime. As is the dream that the science this little robot will do -- sampling regolith and soil, testing for microbes -- will bring us one step closer to someday landing human beings on Mars.
I hope I'm around to celebrate that day -- and to see how Judaism will evolve once it becomes interplanetary! Will Jews on Mars turn toward Earth to pray, the way we now orient toward Jerusalem? How will we navigate the fact that a Martian "day" is different from an earth day in calculating Shabbat?
(Although I haven't researched this, my instinct is to say that Shabbat should be every seventh day, local time, even if that means it's not coterminous with Shabbat on earth. But that's another conversation.)
I'm confident that when there are Jews on Mars, we'll figure out how to build Jewish there.... and that we'll find this week's Torah portion resonant when we do.
Because God's presence is with us when we shelter in place at home now. And God's presence will go with human beings to Mars someday. And the same spirit that enlivens our Shabbes tables here will enliven us there.
Holiness and hope aren't geographically limited. They go where we go. And the perseverance that got us through the wilderness is the same perseverance that will take us to the stars.
The poles stayed in the rings on the handles of the ark because God goes with us wherever we go.
As we approach one year since our awareness of the pandemic began, there's something poignant about the name of this little rover. Perseverance is the quality we need to reach that dream of human beings on Mars.
It's the quality we need to mitigate climate change and ensure safety and care for our fellow human beings -- especially in times of crisis like Texas is experiencing now. And it's the quality we need to make it to the other side of this global pandemic.
The Hebrew word for Perseverance is הַתמָדָה, which contains within it the root t/m/d, always. As in the ner tamid, the eternal light kept burning in the mishkan, the eternal light that burns now in synagogues around the world.
The ner tamid is a perennial reminder of divine Presence, and holiness, and hope burning bright. The ner tamid perseveres, as our hope perseveres, as our life of the spirit perseveres.
May we take hope and strength from the Mars rover Perseverance. May we find our own perseverance strengthened as we approach the second year of this pandemic. And may we feel the flame of hope burning bright within our hearts -- the holy sanctuaries where God's presence dwells.
This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat services this evening (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)