The Strength to Go Gentle: Kol Nidre 5782

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Did you know that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantining for possible exposure to the Bubonic plague? Possibly also Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. I assume all of us wrote at least one great masterwork of literature during the last year. No? 

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Surely at least we started baking with sourdough during the pandemic, creating spectacular loaves and sharing them on Instagram. Or maybe we reorganized our entire storage system, or finished all the home improvement projects we hadn't had time to complete before, or learned a new language on Duolingo.

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The idea that we were "supposed" to do something great and meaningful during quarantine has become a meme, a running joke. As though that were the way to "win" at lockdown and isolation amid global pandemic. We laugh, but the laughter is uneasy. On some level, maybe we wonder: if I didn't spend this first 18 months of pandemic doing something I can brag about, am I doing it wrong? 

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Kol nidrei: all the vows and promises and oaths that we fail to live up to...

Maybe we promised ourselves that 5781 would be the year we would finally start working out, or the year we would actually open those cookbooks, or the year we would learn to bake sourdough or write a screenplay... especially since many of us were sheltering-in-place or working from home, so obviously we had all that spare time, right? And instead it turned out that 5781 was a year that we spent trying to keep ourselves and each other afloat. It was a year that we spent watching millions die, and grieving, maybe grappling with survivor's guilt. And it was a year that we spent watching some people politicize mask-wearing and vaccination, even questioning whether or not the virus is real.

In some ways, the jokes about sourdough and King Lear feel like gaslighting. They ask us to pretend away the inconceivable awfulness of what we've witnessed in the last year. ICUs filling with COVID patients again and again. Crematoria in India working overtime. Vaccine shortages in Asia and Africa, paired with vaccine refusers in our own country. And the climate crisis. And the assault on democracy. Our grief and our fear and our compassion have been in overdrive for so long: many are exhausted, or numb, or overwhelmed. And yet somehow we're supposed to imagine that we're supposed to ignore our heartbreak and fear and be productive, and if we failed at that, we've missed the mark? As though we needed another reason to feel lousy about ourselves tonight!

But feeling lousy about ourselves misses the point of today altogether. Yes, the liturgy of Yom Kippur reminds us that we missed the mark. Even if we'd spent every minute of the last year trying to pursue justice and act with compassion, human beings make mistakes. But the point isn't self-flagellation, it's promising in community (and as a community) that we will try to do better. 

My image of God is not the angry teacher who can't wait to give us demerits for all of our flaws. Yes, we'll spend these 25 hours searching our souls to find the inner work we need to do to be better. But that's because our tradition gives us this holy season for introspection, calling us to become -- not because God is poised to whack us with a ruler. On the contrary. As we heard right after Kol Nidre, "vayomer YHVH, salachti kidvarecha!" And God says: I forgive you, as I said I would!  We use the spiritual tools of prayer and contemplation and song to open our hearts so we can feel that forgiveness and be ready to try again. 

This year, I also imagine God saying: hey, be gentle with yourselves. One of my friends said to me, at the start of the long cold pandemic winter, that she was grading herself on a curve this year. Some days she felt able to be productive. Other days, it was all she could do to get through the day. And on those days, she gave herself permission to be as she was. What she called grading on a curve, I think of as being gentle with ourselves.

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In times of intense grief, clergy and therapists both say to lower the pressure we put on ourselves. I learned this anew when my mother died and grief fogged my vision. When we're living with sorrow or uncertainty or trauma (or all of the above), just making it through the day can take all we've got. Over the last 18 months of pandemic, we've all been in that place, sometimes. 

Every year at this season we take a good hard look at our failings, and it's easy to get stuck there -- maybe especially this year. Maybe we didn't take care of ourselves, or we ate and drank too much. Maybe we gave in to despair and doomscrolling, or we turned a blind eye to the world's suffering... 

Jewish tradition calls us to look clearly at where we missed the mark, and it also calls us not to cling to our perceived shortcomings. God is always ready to forgive. That means that God also forgives us for not baking Instagram-worthy sourdough or writing a novel or becoming fluent in Hebrew during this second pandemic year. 

Tonight asks us to hold two competing truths in balance. One: Jewish values demand that we constantly work toward justice and healing for this broken world. And two: when we really make teshuvah (when we turn ourselves around, when we do our inner work), God forgives all of our failings. We need to be able to forgive ourselves.

That doesn't mean there are no standards and anything goes. Gevurah -- our theme for this year -- asks us to maintain accountability for ourselves and for others. There are behaviors that are simply not okay. Torah is clear that lying, or cheating, or turning a blind eye to the suffering of others is flat wrong. Tomorrow afternoon's Torah reading will remind us that God asks us to feed the hungry and care for the powerless, to pursue justice without bias, to love our fellow human beings. That Torah reading also reminds us to offer tochecha, corrective words, if we see our fellow human beings acting unethically -- because if we let unethical behavior stand, we become complicit. 

And it is also a spiritual truth that sometimes it's all we can do to get out of bed in the morning. When we're living with uncertainty or trauma or grief, even the simplest tasks can be monumental. Sometimes we can't offer tochecha or work toward justice because just completing life's requisite tasks takes all we've got. And that's okay.

Gevurah also can mean healthy boundaries. Sometimes the boundary we need to draw is one that says: I'm doing the best I can, and this is all I can do, and for now it's going to have to be enough.

This is part of why we live in community. At any given time, some of us are struggling just to make it through the day. In these times of pandemic and climate crisis, that may be even more true than it used to be. We need to help each other through and remind each other that putting on one's own oxygen mask first is not only okay, it's necessary. And at any given time, some of us are doing well enough to make things better for someone else. That's when it's our job to be angels for each other, as I said on Rosh Hashanah.

So let's go gentle into this Kol Nidre night. Let's promise to help each other through the challenges of 5782. Let's refrain from comparing ourselves to other people, even if their sourdough loaves look magazine-worthy. And let's show up with open hearts and commit ourselves to trying to be better, because that's what we're here for. 

God can forgive us for barely holding it together -- even for not being "productive" during the pandemic. Can we forgive ourselves?

 

This is my sermon for Kol Nidre this year (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


When we see each other - a d'varling for Shabbat Shuvah

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Ordinarily on Shabbat Shuvah I would talk about teshuvah, return -- turning our lives around, returning to our Source and to our highest selves. This is, after all, the work of the season. But I think that in this second pandemic year, there's no shortage of time for introspection -- a lot of us have been too alone, or turning too inward.  So instead I want to talk today about what connects us with each other, and what it might mean to return to each other and to community.

Over the summer I had the opportunity to co-teach a pioneering rabbinic school class on doing Jewish digitally, with my friend and frequent collaborator Rabbi David Markus. We covered a lot of ground, ranging from the nature of prayer and ritual, to wise use of visuality, to creating spiritual and tangible "runways" into the digital ritual experience. And in one of our sessions, we opened with some classical texts about what makes a minyan. 

Rambam wrote in the 1170s that "[c]ommunal prayer always is heard [by God]. … Thus, one must join oneself with the community, and never pray alone whenever one is able to pray with the community." (Mishneh Torah, Prayer 8:1.) This is part of Judaism's fundamental communitarianism. Can one talk to God alone? Of course! But it's not good to separate oneself from community. The community needs us to show up, because in coming together to make a minyan, we also come together to make community. 

Alongside that, we studied a text from the Shulhan Arukh, written in 1563 by Joseph Karo:

All 10 must be in one place, and the prayer-leader with them...One standing behind the synagogue, and in-between them is a window – even if it is several stories high … – and [whose] face is visible to them from there, joins them to make 10.  If a few of them are inside and a few are outside, and the prayer-leader is in the doorway, the prayer-leader connects them [into one minyan]. (O.C. 55:13-15)

The simplest way to make a minyan is ten people in one place, including the prayer-leader. That seems pretty clear. But then he goes on to say: if one person is outside the room, but can be seen from inside, that person can be included. And if some are in one space and some are in another, they can all be included. So long as the prayer leader can see them, that being-seen connects them into one community, even if they can't all see each other. 

As soon as I read that, I thought: welcome to Zoom / hybrid / digital services, y'all. 

Joseph Karo could not have imagined Zoom services or the hybrid services we've been holding all summer, with some participating onsite and others participating online. But he was already wrestling with this question that's live for us now: how do we create sacred community when we're not all in the same physical place? 

For Karo, community arises when we can see each other. If I lead a service and it's broadcast on television, the people watching it might or might not have a meaningful experience -- but they can't be counted in a minyan together, because there's no two-way connectivity. I can't see them, and they can't see each other. I think he's right, which is why I've made a practice of including periodic "face to face" slides where we stop the screenshare and meet each others' eyes.

I think he's on to something in a deeper spiritual sense, too. What makes us a community is not whether or not we can convene to pray in the same room at the same time... because if that were the case, then anyone who doesn't show up to pray ceases to be part of the community! and if that were the case, then our community would have evaporated when the pandemic hit and we, along with so many others, started sheltering in place at home. 

We become community when we see each other. I would go further: we become community not just when we glance at each others' faces, but when we try to see each other fully. When we see what matters to each other. When we see what enlivens each other. When we see not only each others' faces but each others' hearts. 

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It turns out that when we see each other, something in us changes. Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire their electrical pulses both when we do a thing, and when we see someone else do that same thing. This was first observed in monkeys in an Italian lab some thirty years ago: electrodes in their brains showed neurons firing when they handled food, and when they saw someone else handle food -- even when they merely heard the sounds of food being handled outside of their line of sight. Some researchers think that mirror neurons explain why we can have strong emotional reaction to characters on TV or in movies: because when we see them, we feel-with-them.

Being together on Zoom is not the same as being together onsite. We can't sing in harmony on Zoom, or hug each other, or have that feeling of being together in a room. But when we see each other, our mirror neurons still work their magic.

For Joseph Karo, one of the roles of the shaliach tzibbur (the prayer leader) is to see all the souls in the room -- and in seeing them, to constitute them into community. This is not a rabbinic job per se. Any adult Jew who learns the liturgy can lead the community in prayer. And any one of us who makes an effort to really see the other souls in the room can create some of the cohesion that makes us a community. 

As you've heard me say several times this year, our theme for this year's Days of Awe is gevurah, which means strength and power. It means boundaries. It evokes resilience and courage, too. It takes gevurah to really see each other, to be mindful of where I end and where you begin, to honor our differences without diminishing what connects us. It takes gevurah to connect with each other in these pandemic times when we may feel overwhelmed or despairing, or we may find the technologies of Zoom opaque. It takes gevurah to create community. 

An invitation: to see each other deeply.

To awaken our mirror neurons as we see each other.

To create community together by seeing each other where we are, as we are, in all that we are.

 

Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.


The Strength to Discern: Rosh Hashanah morning 2, 5782

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On Sunday evening I offered a tiny pearl of introduction to this year's high holiday theme of gevurah. Yesterday morning we talked about the strength it takes to help each other find hope.

Today our exploration of gevurah comes via the Torah reading for this morning. 

Our mystics taught that God's infinity is revealed in creation through a series of sefirot, divine qualities or emanations. These are the channels through which God's infinite energy flows into the world, and we associate each one with a quality that we and God share. Like chesed, lovingkindness -- last year's high holiday theme. And gevurah, boundaries and strength and power and discernment -- this year's theme.

When our mystics look at the figures in Torah, they associate different characters in Torah with each of the sefirot. Abraham is associated with chesed, lovingkindness. His tent was open on all sides, he rushed to prepare a feast for visitors, he represents flowing love.  And his son Isaac is associated with gevurah.

One of the reasons why Isaac is associated with this spiritual quality is surely the story we just heard, the "binding of Isaac." How do we see Isaac's strength in this story? Arguably, what we see is him holding still and letting himself be bound. Maybe he feels powerless, or overwhelmed, or out of control: we don't know, because Torah doesn't tell us! But to me, his gevurah has a kind of stoic, silent perseverance to it. He holds still and trusts that he will make it through somehow.

Abraham showed tremendous gevurah earlier in Torah. In midrash, we learn that his father was a builder of idols, and young Avram smashed them. It's a great story: Terach comes home, all of the idols in his shop are smashed save one, and the biggest one has a stick in its hand. And he yells, what did you do?! and Avram says, "oh, it wasn't me, dad, the big one did it." And his father says, "You know they're just stone. They can't move!" and Avram retorts, "so why do you worship them, then?" It took gevurah to stand up to his dad.

Or earlier in Genesis, when God disclosed intentions to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Remember, Avraham pushed back: what if there are fifty righteous there, what if there are forty, all the way down to ten. But when it comes to Sarah casting-out Ishmael in yesterday's Torah reading, Avraham doesn't do much. He tells God he doesn't like it, but he doesn't challenge it. And in today's story, God makes an outrageous request and Avraham just... does it. As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg notes, he's a hero when it comes to the outside world, but with his own sons, he falls far short of offering the protection they need.

One of my favorite ways of reading Torah is to place ourselves in the shoes of everyone in the story. Through the lens of Torah we can see ourselves refracted in new ways. And in empathizing with everyone in Torah's story, we strengthen our capacity to stand in the shoes of another. 

How does it feel to empathize with each figure in today's story, to feel-into where they are?

Maybe Isaac's kind of gevurah resonates for us, eighteen months into this pandemic. The pandemic has highlighted so many ways we aren't in control. We don't have the power to make COVID-19 go away, and we don't have the power to require other people to do what's right. But we can use our strength to accept our circumstances and make the best of the hand we're dealt.

Isaac must have also felt fear. His father had the knife raised for the strike before the angel intervened. We too feel fear in these pandemic times. What might it mean to follow in Isaac's footsteps and do what life's situation asks of us, even when we feel afraid?

I don't especially want to empathize with today's portrait of Avraham. But like Avraham who followed instructions in today's story, we too hear voices -- day and night, over the internet and cable news and social media -- telling us what to do and why. We may be more like Avraham than we want to realize. 

Today's Torah reading begins with the words, "After these things, God tested Avraham." in English we call this the "Binding of Isaac," but Torah calls this a test. I've always felt that Avraham failed the test: he should have pushed back. He didn't exercise the discernment to recognize that God's instruction here was wrong. Discernment is part of gevurah, too. 

Gevurah asks us to discern when the voices we're listening to are giving us good advice and when they're not. Sometimes the voices we hear are self-serving or toxic. Some voices today declare that the masks we wear to protect against airborne infection are "muzzles" that take away our freedom. Other voices proclaim that as human beings in a society we have a responsibility to take care of each other. What voices will we heed in 5782? 

Recently, as I was studying this story again, my son asked me what I was learning. His Hebrew name is after my maternal grandfather, Isaac -- in Hebrew, Yitzchak, the name of the son whom Avraham almost sacrificed. I realized he didn't really know this story yet. So I told it to him, in outline, curious to know how it would land with him.

(And yes, he gave me permission to tell this story to you today.)

His first reaction was: God -- He, or She, or They -- probably isn't giving us the full story here. "God is giving us pieces and parts to figure out for ourselves, but God might overestimate or underestimate us." And then he said, "Loyalty to God is a good thing, but Abraham could have found a loophole. We have choices. We need to feel in our jellies when we're treating people wrong or making a wrong choice." 

I said, "You mean, we need to learn to use our discernment?" Yes, he said. That's a good word for it. 

We need to use our discernment to know when the voices we're following are aligned with our highest values -- and when they're not. Discernment is another way of saying, gevurah. 

It's also noteworthy who's not in this story. Sarah appears nowhere in this part of the narrative. The next thing we read, after this story, is that Sarah died at 127. From that juxtaposition  one midrash imagines her hearing the news from afar, perhaps in a garbled form indicating that her husband actually sacrificed their son, and dying on the spot.

After the way we saw Sarah behave yesterday -- banishing Hagar and Ishmael into the desert -- I don't especially want to empathize with Sarah, either! But when I place myself in her shoes, I can feel her grief and horror at the news of her child's death. (Of course, that news turns out to be wrong. Fake news, as it were. But she still grieves -- and dies.)

It takes gevurah to place ourselves in someone else's situation. It takes gevurah to rein in our own reactivity so we can empathize with someone's heartbreak even if their past behaviors made us angry. Empathy might seem like an expression of chesed, lovingkindness -- but I think it requires our gevurah.

Maybe this feels a little bit uncomfortable. Maybe we don't want to empathize with people who we perceive made bad choices. That's a very human response. To our ancestors, it was also an angelic one! 

We see this in a midrash on part of the Exodus story. When we crossed the sea, Talmud says, the angels rejoiced when the waves crashed in and washed away the Egyptians. This is Pharaoh and his army we're talking about. They had caused unimaginable suffering. And God says, "the works of My hands are dying, and you want to sing praises?!" Like -- what's the matter with you; develop some empathy, would you?! For this reason we pour out drops of juice or wine, symbol of joy, from our second cup at seder. We diminish our joy because someone else suffered in our journey to liberation. 

Not wanting to empathize with someone we don't like or don't agree with is a very human reaction... and that midrash comes to teach us that Jewish values ask us to rise above that reaction. 

Gevurah is how we balance between feeling our righteous anger, and reining in our anger so that we don't lose empathy. Gevurah is in how we exercise judgment, especially when it comes to which voices we will heed and amplify. Gevurah is in the strength to be still and trust sometimes, and the strength to take bold action sometimes, and the discernment to know which times are which. 

And gevurah is what allows us to be alert for possibilities of hope that we hadn't previously considered -- like the ram that appears at the last second in today's Torah reading, the source of hope that was waiting just outside our vision's frame.

 

This is my d'varling from the second morning of Rosh Hashanah (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)


A Year of Strength: erev Rosh Hashanah 5782

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Each year I choose a theme for the Days of Awe at CBI. Some months ago I chose the theme of gevurah, which means strength, power, heroism, courage, boundaries, determination. People were getting vaccinated. The weather was warming up and we were about to begin offering safe outdoor / hybrid services at CBI. I could already imagine writing my high holiday sermons this year about the strength it took for us to stay apart last year to keep each other safe, and the heroism of medical professionals in every COVID ICU around the world, and how our determination had brought us safely through this pandemic. 

"Man plans, and God laughs," the saying goes. Though this year it feels more apt to me to say "humanity plans, and God weeps." I imagine God has been weeping a lot over the last fifteen months. Whatever we hoped for a year ago, I think it's safe to say that we haven't made it there yet, and the path from here to there feels fraught and uncertain. 

And our theme for the year couldn't be more apt. Wow do we need gevurah this year. 

We need strength: the strength to keep going when the path ahead feels uncertain, when we don't know the right thing to do, when we don't know how to keep each other safe. We need the strength to help each other find hope, especially when the world feels dark. We need the strength to discern what's right, and which voices we should be heeding. We need the strength to forgive ourselves and each other, especially in these difficult pandemic times -- especially because we've moved from "this difficult pandemic year" to something longer and of more uncertain duration. We need the strength to see the world differently than we have before, so that we can live into that vision, making the world better than it was before. (Stay tuned; that's a sneak preview of sermons to come!)  

Gevurah helps us be courageous: it helps us strengthen our hearts and keep our resolve firm even when we're frustrated that this pandemic is becoming endemic.

Gevurah helps us have good boundaries. Gevurah reminds us that we never know what difficulty another person is facing, so our sacred task is always ladun l'chaf z'chut, to give one another the benefit of the doubt and see one another through generous eyes -- even as we strive to hold ourselves and each other to the highest ethical standards. 

Gevurah gives us strength to speak up for what's ethical and just, and the courage to protect the most vulnerable among us. Gevurah helps us be giborim, heroes, for and with each other as we lift each other up and keep each other safe. 

And gevurah is a necessary part of teshuvah: repentance, return, re-alignment, turning ourselves around to live out our best and highest purpose in the year now beginning. 

May the spiritual journey of this High Holiday season open our hearts, deepen our resolve, and give us the gevurah we need to make 5782 a year of holiness and strength, a year of community and connectedness, a year of justice and joy. 

 

This is the very brief d'varling I offered at our erev Rosh Hashanah Zoom seder. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Stay tuned for actual sermons in days to come.


Heavy

It's funny to feel nostalgic for last year. Last year, when we were all locking down, when the Days of Awe had to be all-Zoom for everyone -- how could I possibly miss that? I think what I miss is the sense of certainty. We knew how to keep each other safe: stay home, stay apart, shelter in place. This year nothing seems so clear.

My community is vaccinated -- though not those under twelve. New England is doing better than other parts of the country when it comes to the Delta variant -- though there's been an uptick lately, and schools are starting. I have vaccinated congregants who got breakthrough infections; one is getting monoclonal antibodies today.

I read about ICUs filling up again, about people dying in terrible ways, about health care workers grieving and stretched beyond the end of their ropes. I read about people trying to treat COVID with horse dewormer, and I surf the waves of my own anger at misinformation. I read about governors forbidding masks in schools, and I go numb.

I think the real reason I feel a yearning for last year is that last year, I didn't yet know how long the pandemic would go on -- nor how persistent anti-mask sentiment, paired with the Delta variant, would spark another wave of hospitalizations and deaths. So much heartbreak. And that's without the wildfires and floods and hurricanes...

In recent weeks my small synagogue has adapted our high holiday plan. We surveyed our community and asked folks to rank the services they want most to attend onsite. Everyone who wanted to be onsite will get to attend at least one of their top choice services that way; they'll join other services online. Many are choosing to be all-online again.

We've set up 45 chairs in a space that usually holds 120, separated into pods spaced six feet apart. Everyone onsite will be masked. Doors and windows will be open for fresh air. And I'll offer as robust and participatory a Zoom option as I can, pausing the screenshare regularly so the people onsite can see the people on Zoom and vice versa.

This is my tenth year in congregational service. I'm used to spending my summers working on the Days of Awe; that's just the rhythm of this work! But the pandemic makes everything harder. We need traditions and community connections more than ever, even as pandemic realities call us to reinvent both our traditions and how our communities connect.

I know that our high holiday plan is thoughtful and considered. And I know that we need to be ready to pivot to all-digital if caseloads worsen. Our tradition teaches that kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh: "all Israel is responsible, one for another." It's a heavy responsibility. This summer, it weighs on every rabbi and synagogue board I know.

 


Anew

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Here’s the thing: the year begins anew
even in the worst of times. The leaves
will turn and fall and then they’ll grow again.
And sometimes we’re afraid, and we can’t know
what choice to make to keep anyone safe.
Uncertainty’s a bear. All we can do
is seek out sweetness everywhere we may
and work to fix what brokenness we find.
The good news is we’re not in this alone.
We’ll help each other hope when light seems dim
and lift the sparks that darker days reveal.
We’ll love each other fiercely: in the end
there is no greater work that we can do.
We who survive will help each other heal.

 

This is the poem I sent to friends and family as an Elul message / new year's card this year. (It's also part of an ad hoc series, along with this sonnet.) You can find all of my new year's poems here.


Sonnet for our second COVID Rosh Hashanah

I don't want to reckon with my choices:
feels like that's all we've done for 18 months
(should I mask, is this safe, what if
we meet outside and never breathe together?)
I don't want to query who will live
and who will die, who by wildfire and who
by flooded subway, who intubated and alone
and who will have enough while others lack.
I just want all of us to thrive: our hearts
at ease, our hopes in reach at last.
Come close to me, God. Comfort me with apples.
Remind me the world is born again each year --
even if I'm not ready, even if this year
I'm not sure I know the words to pray.

 

 

Reckon with my choices. The lunar month of Elul, which begins in a few days, launches the season of teshuvah, repentance and return; the inner work of this time is looking at who we are and who we've been, where we've missed the mark, how we can repair what's broken in our relationships with each other, the world, and our Source. Who will live / and who will die, who by fire and who by water... The Unetaneh Tokef prayer, which we recite on Rosh Hashanah, asks this question. (Here's a post I wrote about it a while back if you want to know more.) Wildfires and flooded subways come from recent news. Come close to me, God. Tradition holds that during the month of Elul, "the King is in the Field" -- the transcendent sovereign aspect of God, usually distant from us, is with us / near us / accessible to us.  Comfort me with apples. From Song of Songs 2:5. Apples dipped in honey are also a traditional food for Rosh Hashanah -- "sweet foods for a sweet year." The world is born again. One of the prayers of Rosh Hashanah reminds us that hayom harat olam, "today the world is born." On Rosh Hashanah, we celebrate the ongoing renewal of creation.


Identifying with Chidi

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Chidi Anagonye teaching about ethics on The Good Place.

 

I was driving to the cemetery for the unveiling and dedication of a headstone when I realized why there was  such a tangled knot in my stomach. It was because of the news articles I'd been reading: about the local COVID outbreak at North Adams Commons, and medical predictions that the summer coronavirus surge will get worse before it gets better, and the news that the delta variant is more contagious than chickenpox, and reports from the COVID outbreak in (95% vaccinated) Provincetown

I want so much to be able to gather for hybrid services for the Days of Awe this year. The small synagogue I serve has developed a plan to limit capacity to 50% (e.g. 60 people) onsite, socially distanced and masked, with doors and windows propped open for airflow. We've invested in a big screen so I can use the slideshare machzor both for those onsite and those participating online. We're working on equitably insuring that each member gets to be onsite for at least one service of their choice. 

Our plan seemed reasonable earlier in the summer. I don't know if it's reasonable now. So many people around the country have refused vaccination. The delta variant is so contagious that even vaccinated adults can spread it. And because so many refuse to vaccinate or even to mask (and some governors have made it illegal for local municipalities to mandate masking to protect the vulnerable!), more variants will evolve, and the "finish line" of reaching safety keeps getting further away. My heart sinks.

And so my stomach ties itself in knots. Driving to the cemetery, I realized that I feel like Chidi Anagonye -- the ethical philosopher in The Good Place who gets anxiety stomach-aches. If unvaccinated people can spread the delta variant, is it ethical for any congregation to seek to gather for the Days of Awe? One could argue that anyone who comes to services onsite is aware of the risks and is taking those risks willingly -- but what about our extended circles, and what about our unvaccinated children? 

How responsible am I for the safety of those whom I serve? I believe we are all fundamentally responsible for and to each other; that's part of what it means to be an ethical human being in community. (Which is part of why I can't understand those who refuse to mask to protect other people.) But do those of us in positions of community leadership have additional responsibility -- to make communal decisions with the needs of the other, especially the needs of those most vulnerable, in mind?

This morning I turned to deep breaths and quietly singing words of prayer in my car, and I managed to untie the inner places that felt knotted up in anxiety. We'll make the best decisions we can. The pandemic is far from over, and I suspect we're facing another long winter. At the end of the unveiling, one of the mourners who was there pointed to a nearby grave with an obviously-new stone: a friend, who had died of COVID. As I drove away, she was placing a memorial pebble on that friend's stone. 


Sustainable

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The first part of the drive was on familiar roads, the same roads I take daily to get my kid to camp over the border in Vermont. What was different was that this time, I kept going. East Mountain Farm is only a few minutes from my house, but it's further down Henderson road than I had driven before. Not surprisingly, it is beautiful: contented brown and white cows resting in the shade, rolling hills and pasture, a series of red barns. I was there to pick up chicken to put in my freezer, and eggs to eat.

Two springs ago, when the pandemic was new and our grocery supply chains got fouled, there were anxious months of going to the grocery store not knowing what I might find on the shelves. I know how lucky I am that I never experienced that until my mid-forties. Even so, the unpredictable absence of staples like flour and dried beans and toilet paper was deeply unsettling. Chicken, too, was hard to find for a while there -- because of COVID outbreaks in the places where poultry is processed. 

I know how lucky I am that I live near farms. I've been a member of Caretaker Farm (the local CSA) for almost thirty years, which means I get an abundance of beautiful local produce. I know how lucky I am to be able to afford that, too -- and now to be able to afford sustainably-farmed meat. I feel good about supporting a local farmer in his desire to honor the land and its animals. I feel good knowing that these chickens lived well. I feel good knowing that I will have plenty to eat next winter.

I know that my support of this local farmer doesn't do a thing to repair the harms caused by big agribusiness. I've read about the harms that factory farms perpetrate on animals and on their ecosystems. Then again, there's something wrong with the whole idea that our individual purchasing choices or habits (to recycle this soda can, or not to recycle; my personal grocery budget) will make or break the planet. We need large-scale change, corporate change, systemic change. And how likely does that seem?

I pull my mind back from that rabbit hole. Thinking too much about agribusiness and corporate greed and political gridlock will lead me to despair, and despair does not help anyone -- not those whom I serve, not me, not the world. I return to a mantra from an old REM song: not everyone can carry the weight of the world. It is not my job to carry the weight of the world. It is my job to do the best I can with what I've got, and right now the best I can do is to support a local farmer and his flock. 

 


How To

How to hold fear for so long
my shoulders learn a new shape.
How to watch numbers climb
higher, and then higher.
How to hold funerals
and kindergarten
over Zoom.

How to read subtle signals
via eyes alone.
How to re-grow scallions in water
because there might not be
more to buy.
How to feel our connections
though we’re apart.

How to sit
with unimaginable losses
even if they aren’t
our own, even if they are.
How to hold each other
when we can’t touch.
How to weep.

How to feel
everything that’s broken
—from mobile morgues
to the lies that fueled
shattered Capitol windows—
then ask the grief and fury
to drain away.

How to nurture
hope’s tiny tendrils
unfurling into flower
with every vaccination.
How to trust each other
take down our veils
and blink in unfamiliar sun.

 


This new poem for Tisha b'Av first appeared in Tisha b'Av 5781: Our Mourning Year, a new collection of poetry, liturgy, and artwork for our communal day of mourning, published by Bayit: Building Jewish. If you click on that link, you'll see excerpts from all of the poems and glimpses of one of the illustrations, and you can access either a PDF of the full collection or a google slide deck suitable for sharing online. I'm grateful to the poets, liturgists, rabbis, and artists who collaborate with me at Bayit and I'm humbled to be part of this offering. 


Look upon it, and be healed: vaccinations, Juneteenth, and the copper snake

Covid-cadeuceusIn this week's Torah portion, Chukat, the children of Israel grouse to Moses, "Why did you take us out of Egypt to die here in the desert?" And God gets angry and sends a plague of snakes, and the snakes bite the people, and people start dying.

The people return to Moses and say, "We sinned by speaking out against God; help!" Moses relays this, and God instructs him to make a copper snake and mount it on a pole. When the people see the copper snake, those who were bitten by the snakes are healed.

Rashi notes that the word snake, nachash, is related to copper, nachoshet. The Hebrew wordplay hints at the miracle here: when someone sees the figure of the snake cast in copper, they are healed from the venom. The reminder of what bit them helps them heal from the bite.

This year, as I read this story, all I can think of is a copper coronavirus. Clearly what we need is a copper sphere covered with a corona of spiky proteins, to hang on a flagpole for the whole nation to see! Okay, gazing at a copper coronavirus wouldn't actually heal anyone.

But that's kind of a metaphor for what vaccination does, isn't it? Our immune systems learn to recognize the shape of the virus. The vaccines teach our bodies to recognize that spiky little mace. And then when they encounter it, they can fight it off. Like our ancient spiritual ancestors looking at those copper snakes.

On my refrigerator, I have the front page from a December 2020 Berkshire Eagle. It shows my kid lighting the North Adams city menorah. And alongside that image, above the next column of print, there's a headline: "Vaccine Endorsed By Panel." Subheader: "Country now one step away from starting immunization."

Six months ago the first vaccine was approved for future use. Remember what a big deal that was? 

This week I read about a fourth vaccine now becoming available. Local numbers are the lowest they've been in a year. In some places, masks are optional for those who are vaccinated. About 44% of the nation is fully vaccinated, as is more than half of MA. And President Biden recently announced plans to give 500 million doses of Pfizer to other nations in need.

The pandemic isn't over. But we've come an incredibly long way since Chanukah. Modern medicine is miraculous. And because of the tireless work of immunologists and virologists and doctors and nurses and so many others, we're starting to be able to gather safely again without risking each other or ourselves.

Because vaccines teach our bodies to recognize and respond to the virus, we're safer than we were. And that too feels to me like a deeper teaching this year. What are the things we need to recognize as a community and as a society, so that together we can respond? What are the injustices and inequities we need to be willing to see, in order to repair them?

Tomorrow is Juneteenth -- the date in 1865 when enslaved African-Americans in Texas learned that the Emancipation Proclamation had freed them two and a half years prior. One step toward healing racial inequity is for those of us who are white to recognize the harms experienced by Black people and people of color, both then and now.

The copper snake in this week's parsha reminds us: we need to see the sickness in order to begin repair. If we don't recognize it, we can't fight off a literal virus. If we don't recognize it, we can't fight off the spiritual sickness of racism and prejudice, either. We have to see the problem in order to begin to build something new.

And COVID-19 has had a deadlier impact on communities of color than on mostly-white communities. Even as we celebrate the high rates of vaccination where we live, there's still work to do before we're all safe. 

So pause with me in this Shabbat moment. Take a deep breath. Recognize how lucky we are to be vaccinated, to be in a place that's getting safer. Join me in trying to open our eyes to everything we need to see within us and around us.  May we be gentle with ourselves and each other as we work toward healing: for ourselves, for our communities, for everyone.

 

This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at my shul tonight (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)

 


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?