Now

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In my son's final days of fifth grade, his class has been doing an ELA (English Language Arts) project writing "The Covid Chronicles." I don't know what anyone else's chronicle looks like, but my kid wrote some 5000 words in five chapters about what the last year has been for him, starting with the very first time he ever heard the word "coronavirus." 

The first thing I noticed is what isn't in his chronicle. No one in his recounting gets sick or dies. I know how lucky that makes him (and me.) His experience of the pandemic hasn't been one of illness or death. No ventilators. No hospitals. He doesn't know about the refrigerator trucks that had to serve as mobile morgues in so many places.

He wrote instead about model rockets with his dad, and glow in the dark science projects with me. About the routines of Zoom school and Chromebook lag, and the excitement of shifting to hybrid and getting to be in the school building with friends again. About computer gaming camps, some of which weren't as fun as we had hoped they would be. 

He didn't write about the books we read together, or the anime we watched, or what it was like for him last summer when we started allowing outdoor playdates (mostly in lakes and rivers!) with two friends again. I suspect all of those have receded into memory as simply normal life -- he's forgotten that those choices were pandemic-driven too.

I remember when we first got a couple of fabric masks last spring, thinking we might need to wear them for a week or two. Now dozens of them hang on the coat hooks in our hallway. My son is partial to the dark blue and teal ones made by a swimsuit company, and to an adjustable one adorned with colorful doughnuts with sprinkles on top.

I'm still getting accustomed to being able to go into some places without a mask, now that I'm vaccinated and not everyone requires them anymore. But I still tend to carry one in my purse, in case someone asks me to put it on. Every interaction now involves some negotiation: are we vaccinated? Are we comfortable taking masks off? 

This feels like a liminal time. Things are shifting, but I don't feel like I know exactly what they're shifting to. I wonder how my kid and I will remember this transition. What will this summer's new normal be? 


Three

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Chodesh tov: happy new month!

One of my friends said that to me last night, and I groaned. "Wait, what? It's Tamuz already?!"

I've had a few things on my mind. Preparing my shul community to shift from all-digital to hybrid / multi-access. Supporting my kid through the final days of his fifth grade year, a school year unlike any other. It makes sense that I lost track of time.

But it's a new lunar month. Once again, I bump into the disjunction between the secular calendar and our sacred one. On the secular calendar, summer is just beginning: jump in the pool! fire up the grill! Jewishly, later this month we'll be mourning.

And once again I grapple with the tension between now and coming. I struggle every year with winter's cold and darkness. I count the days until they start lengthening again. I crave summer's greenery, the profusion of produce, the long golden light.

That season is finally beginning... and my professional life calls me to think about three months from now, when summer will be waning, when we'll gather (onsite? online? hybrid? plan for all three and see what happens?) for the Jewish New Year again. 

It's new moon. It's the start of Tamuz. Four weeks until Av. Then four weeks until Elul. Then four weeks until Rosh Hashanah. It's twelve weeks until the Jewish new year, friends. I don't want to think about it either! I want to revel in the nowat last.

Our sacred calendar is always tugging us forward. In deepest midwinter we celebrate Tu BiShvat and yearn toward the Purim and Pesach that will be our stepping-stones into spring. And now it's barely summer, and our calendar points toward fall.

In my line of work, that means thinking about services and sermons -- and, this year, questions of masks and pandemic and building capacity and airflow. But for all of us, clergy and laypeople alike, this moment points our hearts toward the horizon.

It's not time for the Elul work, the teshuvah work, the facing-our-missteps work, quite yet -- but we can see it from here. What do you need the next few months to hold so you can feel ready to do the work of returning again and beginning anew?


Embracing the giant grapes

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In this week's parsha, Shlach, the scouts go to peek at the Land of Promise. They return with a giant bunch of grapes, so big it needs to be carried by two men on a carrying frame. And most of them say: nah, there's no way we can conquer that land. The people who live there are giants. We felt like grasshoppers next to them, and we must have looked like grasshoppers in their eyes. We can't do this.

And God gets angry, and says: because y'all don't trust in Me, or maybe because y'all don't trust in yourselves, fine, let's make it a self-fulfilling prophecy: you can't do this. This whole generation is going to die here in the wilderness, except for the two people who believed in this enterprise. They'll lead the next generation into the land of promise. You don't feel up to it? Now you can't even try.

If all goes according to plan, I'm sharing these words with you from our first multi-access (a.k.a. hybrid) Shabbat service since the pandemic began some fifteen months ago. When the pandemic started, we went digital, like everyone else. It took us a while to find our feet, but we figured out how to pray together, how to celebrate and mourn together, how to learn together, how to be a community together over Zoom.

Now we're standing at the edge of another paradigm shift. Many of you have told me how much it meant to you to be able to participate in the spiritual life of our community from home -- even from afar. Congregants who long ago moved away joined us for shiva minyanim or Shabbat services. Family members in other states, even in other countries on the far side of the world, joined us for the Days of Awe and Pesach.

As we return to offering some onsite programming, like this morning's Shabbat services, we're met with a choice. We could go back to the way things were before, and stop offering an option for digital participation. Or, we can try to figure out how to chart a new path so that both the "roomies" and the "zoomies" are full participants in our community. So that those who are homebound don't lose access to what we do.

But it's not just about ensuring that if one of us is homebound or doing a stint in a rehab facility we can still watch CBI's services as though they were on tv. The real challenge is figuring out how "zoomies" can be full participants. How we can all see each other, whether onsite or online. How all of our voices can be heard, whether onsite or online. How we can all count in the minyan, whether onsite or online.

This is a tall order. It's going to require some technological infrastructure, which costs money. And it may lead to a fundamental redefining of what it means to be "in community," what it means to be "together." That's not just us, by the way: that's the whole Jewish world. None of the classes I took in rabbinical school exactly prepared me for this... except inasmuch as they taught me that Judaism has weathered changes before. 

It is tempting to be like the scouts: to say, nope, this is too hard, there's no way we can do this. One bunch of grapes is as big as a black bear, we are not up to this, we feel like grasshoppers. The fact that our forebears in Torah said exactly that tells me that it's a natural human impulse. It's normal to feel afraid, faced with an enormous new challenge we've never before imagined being able to try to face.

And -- as I was discussing with our b-mitzvah students a few days ago -- because those scouts didn't use their ometz lev, their strength of heart, the whole k'hillah suffered. Courage and community are two of the Jewish values we've been studying during this pandemic year. These values are part of their Jewish toolbox -- and ours. If we want our k'hillah to flourish, we need to cultivate our ometz lev.

It will take a while for us to find our feet in this new chapter. I imagine we'll have new and different technological challenges, and some personal and spiritual ones, too. If the tenth member of the minyan is on Zoom, will we all feel comfortable counting that person for kaddish? If someone's joining us from another time zone, will they feel weird joining our evening prayers while the sun is rising where they are?

But if we bring hope and courage to bear, I'm confident that we can navigate a path through. This may not be exactly the Land of Promise we expected, but I believe it has gifts for us. And who knows: maybe when humanity has spread to the stars, Jewish space explorers will look back on the pandemic of 2020 as the moment when our sense of sacred place and time began to evolve into what it needed to become.

This is the d'varling I offered at Shabbat morning services this weekend (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


Toward re-entry

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This morning I moved the box of graggers back to the storage room. They've been out of place since Purim of 2020, the last in-person program we held at my synagogue before the pandemic began. I remember our Board chair wearing blue food prep gloves behind the dessert table. I remember bottles of hand sanitizer, not yet in short supply. I remember chatting with one of my Board members whose family lives in Hong Kong. I couldn't imagine sheltering-in-place like that. I didn't think it would happen here. Within a week, the pandemic was happening here. (In truth, it already was, at Purim -- I just didn't know.)

That was fifteen months ago. Tomorrow we'll hold our first hybrid (a.k.a. "multi-access") Shabbat service. We'll be outdoors, because everyone agrees that being outdoors is safer than being indoors. (Also, we are in a spectacularly beautiful place; we should take advantage of that.) We'll meet under the great spreading willow tree beside our patio, overlooking the meditation labyrinth and our beautiful new pollinator garden in three wooden beds shaped like cells in a honeycomb. I'll have my laptop, and I'll begin a new learning curve: how to fully integrate "zoomies" as well as "roomies," participants both onsite and online. 

My office at the shul looks and feels like a room that hasn't been used in a while. Books have piled up on the available surfaces: I need to put them where they belong. The dried fronds of last year's myrtle branches have dropped their tear-shaped leaves on my desk, no longer fragrant. And there was this box of graggers, left over from two Purims ago, that nobody ever bothered to put away. I put them away. I'm filing papers, shelving books. Also reminding myself of the flow of services when we're using our books instead of the editable and visually-oriented slide deck I've grown accustomed to using since the pandemic began. 

None of us know exactly how the "new normal" is going to look and feel. I know that transitions are often emotionally charged in ways we might not expect. When we gather on Saturday morning, will it feel like the last fifteen months never happened? I don't think so -- our practices and processes have been changed; we ourselves have been changed -- but reality might surprise me. I know that I will take comfort from our vast spreading willow tree, its deep roots and broad branches. Maybe the cardinals and phoebes and red-winged blackbirds will sing with us, when we join our voices together again for the first time in so very long.


Garnet

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"Which arm do you prefer, hon?"

"You're the phlebotomist; I'm just... the arm," I say, shrugging. I unfold both arms on the padded arm-rests and wait for her to choose. She fastens the tourniquet around my right bicep and palpates the crook of my elbow. I look the other way.

"At least you're not as nervous as the last person I had in here," she says, kindly.

"It's nobody's favorite thing, but here we are," I agree. There's a pause while she considers the vein. 

"A little pinprick," she warns me, and I try not to flinch. 

I'm still thinking about how needles are no one's favorite thing. "I was talking with my eleven year old in the car this morning on the way to school about getting his COVID shot as soon as he turns twelve. He's not excited about it, but..."

"But it's better than getting sick," she says, her voice cheerful. "My seventeen year old just got the shot!"

"That's great. New England's doing well, I saw in the paper," I offer. Our vaccination rates are the highest in the country. 

"We've been lucky. There was the nursing home outbreak," she says, her voice lowering. The nursing home in town is a scant quarter-mile from the office where I'm getting my blood drawn. "And the soldiers' home in Holyoke. But other than that, it's been pretty good here."

"May it stay that way," I agree. 

"All done!" She smiles, pressing a wad of gauze where the needle was just withdrawn. Now I look over, and I see the test-tubes full of dark red blood. The color always surprises me. It's so vivid, so deep. 

I'm not sure what they're looking for this time, but we can't schedule the next procedure until they run whatever tests they need to run on these gleaming garnet vials.

I wonder how many mini-conversations like this she has over the course of a day. How many lives she briefly touches with her blue-gloved hands. 

When I exit the building, I inhale lilacs under the clouded sky. 


Strange

Only a fragment of the dream remains: a stranger yelling at me repeatedly, "But the science!" He meant, the pandemic is over, why aren't you over it. I don't think I was able to find the right words to respond. 

The memory resurfaces midway through my morning cup of coffee. And then it occurs to me: maybe that's why the poems aren't flowing right now: my mind is tangled in knots. Even in my sleep I'm defending my choices.

And who is "over it"? The pandemic's mental wounds are wide open, as Ed Yong wrote in The Atlantic. "If you’ve been swimming furiously for a year, you don’t expect to finally reach dry land and feel like you’re drowning."

Social interactions require constant renegotiation: are you comfortable unmasked outdoors? May I give you a hug? Am I allowed inside your home again? My son isn't old enough to vaccinate: does that change your answers? 

How was school, I asked my son yesterday. "We didn't have to wear masks at recess," he said. That must have been awesome, I offered. He scrunched up his face. "It was weird," he said. "Seeing everybody's whole faces was weird."

I know it will feel normal to him within a few days, but that doesn't change the reality that it feels weird to him now. Aren't we all in that place? The changes we've longed for might be upon us, and everything feels strange.


Hefker / ownerless

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This gorgeous illumination is by Joanne Fink; the poem is mine. 

As always, I'm humbled and honored to have midwifed this collection of new poetry, liturgy, and visual art into being -- and I know that my own poem is stronger for the collaborative workshopping, so I'm grateful for that too. 

You can read excerpts from everyone's beautiful work and download the collection here: Together, Becoming - Shavuot 2021 from Bayit.


Refill

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Herbs in the rain.

 

What replenishes you? 

The term "self-care" has come to feel almost meaningless: it's so ubiquitous, and so often misused. (A quick google search for the term yields returns like "How To Make Shopping A Healthy Self-Care Practice." Hello, capitalism.) But we all need to replenish our inner reserves. That's true even when there isn't a global pandemic. 

Taking Shabbat off from working -- and from the to-do lists, the news headlines, workday consciousness -- replenishes me. My son and I were watching Adam Ruins Everything recently, and in the episode about work, Adam proposes that we have "labor unions and the Jewish people" to thank for the fact of Saturdays off. Indeed we do.

As the weather warms, signs of spring replenish me. The chives in the window-box on my mirpesset winter over each year, and they are one of the first things to green up when spring arrives. I just added a little sage plant and a little rosemary plant to that box. Their scent grounds and delights me, and they're delicious, too.

On a good day, turning ingredients into food replenishes me. (And on days when that doesn't sound appealing, that's a sign to me that I really need to refill my well.) This weekend that meant turning a handful of aging clementines into a gluten-free and dairy-free citrus and almond cake, and turning a lamb shoulder into shawarma. 

Getting a mani-pedi was one of my mom's favorite forms of -- I'm not sure she would have called it self-care, but it was a way of treating herself to something special. I remember doing that together with her throughout my childhood and adolescence, and on trips home, until she was too sick to go to the beauty shop anymore.

Some of my deepest forms of replenishment have been in scarce supply over the last long while. Hugging people I love. Singing in harmony with someone else who's right there in the room, the way our voices become more than the sum of their parts. Losing myself in live music performed in the moment. Traveling to visit an ocean.

I wonder how long it will be before live music and hugs and pedicures and harmony become part of our regular lives again.

 


Questions

  1. Did we make it?
  2. What can I do about India?
  3. Will it get that bad here again?
  4. Are we safe?
  5. Can I trust new CDC guidance?
  6. If I see someone without a mask, can I assume they're vaccinated?
  7. (What if they're an anti-vaxxer?)
  8. And what about kids?
  9. 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?
  10. Do you know how old my child is?
  11. How does this new guidance change what we're planning at our synagogue?
  12. Is it too soon to make decisions about the High Holidays?
  13. 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?
  14. When we start gathering in person again, will people come? 
  15. Has my kid adjusted to eating lunch on a towel on the floor six feet apart from his schoolmates?
  16. Will I see my father again?
  17. Did we make it?
  18. Are we really on the other side?
  19. If we're two weeks vaccinated, are we really safe?
  20. If we're safe, then why do I feel so exhausted?
  21. After the long, isolated winter why does spring make me want to cry?
  22. After fourteen months of feeding myself, why am I staring at a pantry full of ingredients unable to muster the creativity to cook tonight?
  23. 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?
  24. Did we make it?
  25. When will there be time to grieve? 

Unanswered

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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.

 


Hidden treasure and what comes next

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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.)


Back to school

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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.  


Napkins

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. 


Shabbat HaGadol: From Where We Are

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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.)

 


The virus was distant, the virus was here

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.


One year

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"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.


As Pesach approaches again

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."

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"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.

 

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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.


Anniversaries

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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.


March funeral

The hearse got stuck
in the mud-snow.

I watched from graveside
as they tried reverse

then pushing --
finally backing down

to approach
from the other side.

Mourners in
inappropriate footwear

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.

 


Scallions

The scent
of this covid year:
sour scallion-water
in the kitchen window,

the tail-ends
of green onions
trying to miracle
fresh green from

tap water and sun.
When it catches
in my throat
I choke, then

remember
if my sense of smell
still works,
how lucky

I am.