I glance at the headlines. The pandemic is worsening, as everyone said it would do come wintertime, and yet air travel hit a record high for the winter holidays. I can't make sense of that juxtaposition. I mean, I can; I understand that people are traveling to be with each other, even though the pandemic is worsening and Dr. Fauci says the worst is yet to come. I just don't want to believe it. I don't want to think about the suffering that is coming. I close the browser tab, but the imprint of the news lingers.
I don't go into the grocery store anymore. I place orders online, and a friendly masked employee brings paper bags of food to my parked car and places them in the hatchback. Sometimes I don't get exactly what I expected. Once I ordered some white American cheese for my son and then laughed out loud when I saw the size of the box -- 72 slices is a lot, it turns out! (He ate all of it, though. We make a lot of quesadillas, these days.) Ingredient unpredictability is strange, but I'm getting used to it.
I remember shopping at Farm to Market on the Austin Highway with my mother when I was a teenager. How she would ask the man who worked in produce to help her find a really good melon, the sweetest cantaloupe or honeydew. Something about tapping the shell and listening to its sound. Or maybe it was that he knew the subtle scent of a melon that's just right. These days I trust someone else to choose my produce for me. I tell myself that this new trend has created jobs for those who fill our bags.
This week I'm reading recipes for black eyed peas. I grew up in the South; we always ate black-eyed peas on New Year's Day, for good luck. Michael Twitty writes beautifully about that custom. I like the idea that they symbolize the eye of God, always watching over us. Black-eyed peas and greens: I learned them as a kind of kitchen magic, a symbol of prosperity, calling abundance into the coming year. We always ate tamales on New Year's Day, too. I don't have the capacity to make those.
I daydream briefly about making redred (Ghanaian black-eyed pea stew) with kelewele (fried plantains) on New Year's Day, though I'm not sure I trust the produce shopper to choose suitably overripe plantains for frying up gingery and sweet. Evidently that's the place where my mother's produce section pickiness shines through in me. Pick me a head of lettuce, sure. Choose a cucumber or a box of strawberries or a bunch of broccolini, no big deal. But when it comes to plantains, I'm dubious.
I will stay home and fill my kitchen with whatever spices' fragrance I can, this New Year's Day which will darken into the first Shabbat of 2021. It is going to be a long, solitary, quiet winter. Quiet is good: hospitals are not quiet, ventilators are not quiet. Boredom and loneliness are better than the alternative. I will curl up with a bowl of black eyed peas in my little nest on New Year's Day, and dream about how good it will be when, vaccinated, we can embrace in the gentle breeze of longed-for spring.
I curl my fingers into the thatch inside the hollow.
Out come seeds little teardrops slippery and pale.
As they fall the china bowl rings like a bell.
These shortest days of the year are always a struggle for me. Like my mother before me, I count the days until the light will begin to increase. I practice finding sustenance in small things: in zesting an orange for cranberry bread, in cooking a new recipe, in turning squash seeds into a roasted snack instead of throwing them away as I would once have done. This pandemic winter, those coping mechanisms feel even more critical. There's so much I can't repair in this terrible and beautiful world. Sometimes it feels almost inappropriate to seek pleasure when there is so much suffering. In those moments I remind myself that I would honor no one by ignoring the little blessings I can find even in these times. May balm come to all who suffer, and may life's tiny sweetnesses help us through.
When the pandemic started, I stopped getting allergy shots. I didn't want to go into the allergist's office, and besides, back in March I thought (naïvely) that we would defeat the pandemic with a few months of everyone sheltering-in-place and stopping viral spread. By summer it became clear that this was going to last a while, and that my optimism about kicking covid-19 to the curb had been entirely unfounded. By late summer I realized that my worst allergy season was approaching.
Some people are allergic to tree pollens or bee stings. I'm allergic to dust and dust mites, the particulate matter that accrues in home heating systems, and the return to indoor weather is when my sinuses fill up with crud. So I started going to the allergist's again. My allergist's office is 45 minutes away, so every time I go for shots, I get a long stretch of driving time. These days I don't listen to the radio or even, often, to music: I just sit in the quiet, listening to the hum of my wheels on the pavement.
My condo can feel noisy during these pandemic Zoom school days. I overhear my son doing school. I overhear his teacher explaining math facts or asking social studies questions. I hear the other kids on the Zoom call. I hear the television when my son is done with homework and can watch his favorite YouTubers. I hear my son's Discord voice chat as he Minecrafts with friends from our separate houses, the safest form of socializing we know. There's solace in the quiet of my car.
Today I spent the drive down drafting an essay in my head. Several weeks ago an acquaintance on Facebook claimed that the Left hates America, and it's been a thorn in my consciousness ever since. I pondered writing an impassioned essay about my progressive values and how I love the promise of what America could yet become. I spoke out loud in the silence of my car about caring for the vulnerable, about clean air and affordable healthcare, about meaningful education, about hope for better.
And then I stopped myself. What good would that essay do? Most of you who know me already agree with me on all of these things. Anyone who thinks that I "hate America" isn't going to be swayed by anything I would write, no matter how fine my prose. Life is challenging enough: winter is beginning, the pandemic is cresting, against all odds there appears to be a coup attempt underway. Writing that essay would rile me up. Others' misunderstanding it would do so even further. To what end?
I thought of my spiritual director. I thought about quieting the soul, and about letting go of the need to have the last word. I thought about using what limited energy I have to stand up for those in need, rather than to pontificate. I thought about the quiet hills around me, and the sheen of ice on the pond, and the snowflakes drifting aimlessly in every direction. And instead of writing an essay in my head, I spoke to Shechinah in my front seat about my longings and my hopes and my fears.
Nothing in my previous rabbinic life had prepared me for standing at a significant distance from a small number of congregants and family members, wearing three kinds of PPE (an N95, a fabric mask, and a face shield), doors open to the cold air, with my laptop open on the Torah table so the community could join us via Zoom and FB Live, telling those assembled in the room that they were not allowed to sing along with me and would need to pray silently in their souls and in their hearts.
We were there to call a kid to Torah as bar mitzvah. He did beautifully: not only with his Torah reading and his d'var, but also with all of the uncertainties of this surreal year. This post isn't about him. (Though if he's reading this: mazal tov, kid, you rocked it and it was a privilege to teach you.) This post is about what it's like to serve as clergy in this pandemic time, trying to serve in circumstances we aren't -- and couldn't have -- trained for. This post is about navigating pandemic and change.
2. Holy at Home
When my congregation was planning for this year's Days of Awe, someone asked: would I lead prayer from the shul, with a select few people to make a minyan, while everyone else davened at home? I didn't want to do it that way, for a few reasons. One is that if we're in person, no one in the room can sing, and singing is one of the primary ways I know to open the heart and activate the soul. I especially can't imagine the Days of Awe without the heart-lifting melodies and nusach unique to that holy season.
Another is that I lead a different service in person than online. When we're in the room together, we use a bound book. When we're on Zoom, we use a set of screenshare slides that I created explicitly for this purpose, with images and embedded video. Online I want to "lean in" and take advantage of what the technology offers us, rather than doing exactly what I would do in shul (which I think would fall flat, because we're not in shul; simply duplicating what I do there would highlight what we've lost.)
Most of all I wanted to uplift the lived experience of seeking and finding holiness in our homes. That's why I titled the machzor "Holy at Home." Because that's the work of this pandemic moment: making holiness where we are. Making community where we are, despite the physical distance between us. There is holiness in a dining table or a coffee table or a television screen with the Zoom siddur on it. When we open our hearts and souls, we can create holiness, we can create community, wherever we are.
This is the work of our moment: finding holiness and community in this pandemic-sparked diaspora from our synagogues to our homes. And yet, that paradigm doesn't quite work for a celebration of b-mitzvah. At least, not if the kid is reading from a physical Torah scroll, and if we're operating under the classical halakhic paradigm that says we need ten adult Jews in person to open said scroll. If that's our frame, in order to call a kid to Torah as a new Jewish adult we need to bring people together.
3. The room where it happens
The last time I had led davenen in the synagogue was for a bar mitzvah back in March. (Immediately after that Shabbat, we closed our building.) Ten people were in the room, socially distanced. We used our regular siddur, and those who were joining us on Zoom or Facebook Live did their best to follow along with the Kindle version of the book. We didn't yet know then what we know now about aerosols and ventilation, so we didn't know to prop doors open, or that singing posed an unacceptable risk.
Thank God, no one got sick after the March bar mitzvah. And all of our later-spring celebrations of b-mitzvah were postponed. Some for a full year. And one until this fall. Last spring, it seemed so clear that by fall we would have vanquished this virus and would be able to gather safely again. No one imagined seven months ago that we would be watching global cases tick upwards again now, or that anti-mask rhetoric and "plandemic" lies would facilitate the virus' spread in such horrendous ways.
But as autumn approached, it became clear that this celebration of bar mitzvah would need to be mostly Zoom-based, with only a small number of people in the room... and that we would need to take precautions we didn't know to take, last time we celebrated a kid coming-of-age like this. The doors would need to be propped open. We would all need to be masked, me triply so. And I would need to begin the morning by saying something I never imagined needing to say: friends, please don't sing.
4. Keeping us aloft
When I'm leading davenen in a room full of people, I'm always balancing between pouring my heart into the prayers (if I can't really feel what they mean, then I can't lead others to feel it either) and trying to attune myself to who's in the room. Are they with me, are they engaged, are they moved? Do I need to pause for a word of explanation or a moment of humor? What vocal or musical choice will draw them in and lift them up? Are they smiling, are they crying, what can I read in their bodies and faces?
When I'm leading davenen online, my screenshare siddur and screenshare machzor have built-in 'face to face' slides where I pause the screenshare -- we wave to each other, we beam at each other, we connect through our cameras in the placeless place of our hearts' togetherness. (This is a practice that R' David Markus and I developed for the Reb Zalman Legacy Shabbaton in June, a weekend focused on themes of sacred space, digital presence, and what it means to come together in community online.)
Leading "hybrid" prayer -- with most of the people on Zoom, and a few in person -- turns out to be exponentially more difficult than either leading a room full of people, or leading a streaming community in prayer. I was multiply-masked, which created a feeling of distance (and made it hard for some to hear me.) I couldn't rely on in-person cues like smiles, or how enthusiastically people were singing along, because I couldn't see their smiles and I had to instruct them to refrain from singing with me.
At the autumn bar mitzvah, the family wanted me to sing, even if no one else was allowed to. I'm pretty sure I don't have COVID-19, but I wore two masks and a face shield to protect them as best I could, just in case I'm an asymptomatic carrier. But the masks meant that it was hard for people to hear me. I felt a little bit like I was wearing a space suit. And because I had to forbid the room from singing with me at all, it felt a little bit like I was performing for them, rather than praying with them.
In rabbinic school we used to joke about services where the rabbi is the airline pilot responsible for flying the plane, and those in the pews are just passengers -- or theatre-goers, sitting back and watching a show that the rabbi puts on for them. That's not how I aspire to serve. I want everyone in the room to feel empowered to participate. Keeping us all aloft is something we do together. But I don't have the skillset to help that happen in a hybrid space where those in-person can't sing. Does anyone?
And, of course, there's anxiety. Cases of COVID-19 are rising all over the country and around the world. I'm a multiple stroke survivor with asthma and hypertension; of course I'm afraid. But I'm not only afraid for myself. I'm afraid for those whom I serve. Especially for older folks and those who are immunocompromised. And what about unwittingly spreading the virus to others? Even if I'm the only one in the room singing. I want to lift my voice to God; I don't want my voice to be a weapon.
For the bar mitzvah, we made the best choices we could. The doors were propped open and the HVAC system was turned off. The family members who were present were masked and socially distanced, and everyone else participated remotely. We printed the slides for those who were physically present, so they had the same materials in front of them as the Zoom / FB community. I think that what we did was meaningful for the bar mitzvah boy. I suspect he'll remember his pandemic bar mitzvah forever.
And I found it challenging to lead prayer under those circumstances. The emotional and spiritual split-screen experience of trying to lead prayer for a few people in the room and a lot of people remotely, with the in-person folks masked and obligated to stay silent, from behind the space-suit-helmet of a plastic shield and two masks, isn't easy. It's hard to create a meaningful experience for those in the room or at home when no one can read my lips or see my smile. And my voice quavered; I was afraid.
6. Next time
As I think forward to future pandemic b-mitzvah celebrations, I'm pondering bringing the Torah scroll to the b-mitzvah kid's home so they can read from it there while I, and everyone else, connect via Zoom. If I believe that telepresence is real (and I do -- or at least, I believe that it can be, if we bring our hearts and souls to it) then why would I privilege the old paradigm of gathering bodies together in a room during a global pandemic? Better to change our definition of minyan to include telepresence.
Some will say we mustn't set that precedent. Because if telepresence is "good enough" during a pandemic, then as a community we could easily lose the habit of gathering in person at all. What's to say then that someone can't just choose to tele-daven forever, because it's more convenient than going somewhere? What does that do to the fabric of our communities? I hear that anxiety, and I honor it. And... that anxiety for the future doesn't change the steps we need to take to protect each other now.
I know that when we gather a minyan from ten separate homes on Shabbes morning, I feel genuinely connected with my community even though we're not sharing a room or breathing the same air together. And I know that when I balance actual risk to people's lives against putative risk to the continuity of how our communities are accustomed to functioning, lives are more important. I believe Jewish values call us to seek to save lives, even if that means setting a paradigm shift in motion.
7. Building anew
If gathering ten people on Zoom from ten houses is a real minyan, then that's true whether it's "just Shabbes" or a celebration of b-mitzvah. It may not be ideal... but neither is global pandemic. I know that reading Torah from home, with immediate family / quarantine podmates in the room and everyone else on Zoom, may not be what any kid or family wants the celebration of b-mitzvah to be. And yet it may be what the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh, preserving and protecting life, asks of us in this time.
I miss what some now call "the beforetimes," when we could gather together without fear of harming each other. When we could embrace or clasp hands or just be near each other without fear for ourselves, or each other, or the others with whom we are in contact. When we could lift our voices and sing in harmony. (God I miss harmony!) My soul yearns to sing in harmony with beloveds, maybe with a hug or a clasped hand. I yearn for that the way our spiritual forebears in exile yearned for Jerusalem.
And right now we're in exile from our former in-person togetherness, and we don't know how long that will last, or how exile will change the Judaism to which we yearn to return. It may be that this pandemic, or the realities of a century that may contain multiple pandemics, will change Judaism in ways we can't yet know. How do we yearn for what we used to have, and hope with all our hearts for that to be restored, while also building new structures to sustain us in what's unfolding now and new?
It's strange, now, to look back at my journal from last spring. Back when the pandemic was new to this country (or at least, new to my awareness.) Back when I thought my son might be out of school for a few weeks and then we'd get back to normal. (And he thought so too.) Back when I thought that surely my nation, with all its wealth, could vanquish this virus. Back when I thought surely by the Days of Awe we'd be back together again, safely, with the virus contained.
I never imagined how unspeakably badly national leadership would botch this, or that the president would complain about having to help people who didn't vote for him, or that masks would become a symbol of party affiliation rather than a basic safety measure that can slow the virus' spread. I didn't imagine a quarter of a million deaths and then a staggering number of people planning to see each other at Thanksgiving as though nothing were happening.
But here we are. It seems ever more evident that there are two nations in uneasy coexistence. Here where I live, masks are ubiquitous. Everyone I know is staying in a small quarantine-style pod, and while some of us relaxed over the summer enough to be with others outdoors, now that the weather is cold we're hunkering down again. We limit trips to the grocery store. We don't travel. We don't touch each other. We don't see people outside our bubble.
I read in the paper, though, about the "other America." The one where people think the virus is a hoax, sometimes even while they're dying of it. The one where people think their liberties give them the right to infect others. I can't understand it. I want to say it's fundamentally anti-Jewish -- our whole religious tradition is communitarian, we have obligations to each other and to the vulnerable! -- though obviously at the rightmost fringe of Judaism some disagree with me.
It's not lost on me that we also live in two Americas when it comes to how we see our national political life. And I don't know what to do about that. Honestly, I can hardly face it. I read the ridiculous lies about the election being stolen and I just don't understand how so many believe that. Add it to the long list of things I can't wrap my head around, I guess. I'm worried about systemic damage to democracy. But right now the pandemic feels more urgent.
And yet life continues. My child will have a birthday in a few days. The new moon of Kislev rose a few days ago; Chanukah is coming. I'm trying not to write scripts about what this pandemic winter will be. We will stay home and try to stay safe. I always look toward spring with hopes of renewal. This year those hopes are heightened: hope not only for more light and new growth but also for government I can trust and for a vaccine. For now, here we are.
This week's Torah portion, Toldot, is so rich. There's great stuff here. This week we've got Rebecca conceiving twins, feeling them grapple with each other in her womb, asking God why this is her life. We get Jacob, whose name means The Heel because he grabs Esau's heel on the way out of the womb.
There's the whole thing with the birthright -- first Esau bargains away his firstborn birthright for a bowl of lentils, then Rebecca coaxes Jacob to trick Isaac into giving the firstborn blessing to him instead of to his older twin. Or how about Esau begging his father, "Don't you have a blessing for me, too?"
There are a dozen divrei Torah in what I just said! And yet I could not find the oomph to write any of them. Because our nation just hit a quarter of a million deaths from covid-19. And winter is coming, and with it, indoor life. And some people are planning to be indoors with others at Thanksgiving next week.
And some number of Americans still believe the virus is a hoax. I read this week in the Post about a nurse in South Dakota, in full PPE, tending to the dying...and the dying patients raging at her for wearing PPE around them because even as they were dying of covid they didn't believe covid was real.
"These are the generations of Isaac" -- that's how the parsha begins. Isaac is situated in his family line, son of Abraham and Sarah, husband to Rebecca, father of Esau and Jacob. And I can't stop thinking about today's generations, truncated. Parents mourning their children. Children who have lost parents.
And I do not understand the refusal to take responsibility, the refusal to act as though we are all interconnected and what I choose to do can impact others. Because we are all interconnected. And whether or not I wear a mask might be the difference between someone else's life and death.
"Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems — mental and physical — that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations, such as natural disasters. But natural disasters occur over a short period, even if recovery is long. Pandemics are different — the disaster itself stretches out indefinitely."
Haelle's point is that in a short-term crisis, something in us rallies to pull through. Long-term anxiety and uncertainty -- about the pandemic, the future of democracy, who will live and who will die, how much worse things may get before they begin to get better -- that's something else entirely.
We can function in crisis mode for only so long, and then our "surge capacity" gets depleted. Is this sounding familiar? And when our capacity becomes depleted, sometimes we go to the well -- the well of inspiration, the well of hope, the well of faith -- and there's no water to be had. It feels like the well has run dry.
When I read that, I thought: yes. That's what I'm feeling. That's why I can't muster what it takes to write. And that's the image that brought me back to this week's Torah portion.
In this week's portion we read that Isaaac re-plumbed the wells that his father had dug. On the surface, that verse is about literally re-digging wells, which are pretty necessary in a desert climate! But on a metaphorical level, this verse reminds me how sometimes the wells of spirit and hope stop flowing.
When that happens, our job is to forgive ourselves for feeling tapped-out... and then to dig into those wells again, to open those channels so they can receive flow again. Here's what I take from this week's parsha: the spiritual work of opening channels for the flow of hope and faith isn't a one-time thing.
So if you feel lately as though your spiritual well has run dry, you're not alone. Join me in taking inspiration from Isaac, who went back to the old wells and dug away the silt and rocks so they could flow again. The wells of Torah and spiritual practice still flow, but we might need to open them up again.
Because this isn't a short-term crisis. The pandemic isn't going away anytime soon, and neither is the precariousness of our democracy or the poison in our public discourse. We can't rely on surge capacity. We need to build deeper capacity in ourselves and in the systems that support us and our communities.
So here's my prayer. May we find that those old wells of tradition and practice, when we tend them carefully and give them our attention, open up again to nourish and sustain us in every way. Starting right now, with a measure of Shabbat sweetness, Shabbat hope, and Shabbat rest. Shabbat Shalom.
This is the d'varling I offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
It's unseasonably warm for western Massachusetts in November. Day after day the high reaches 75. Given climate change, has unseasonable lost its meaning? Last month when it snowed a little I moved my short-sleeved shirts into winter storage; now I'm taking them back out again. The time has changed, we've "fallen back," night falls early. There's something deeply disconcerting about early nightfall when it's this warm. The world feels out of joint. I think of the jokes we crack: "It's March 282nd," as though time stopped moving forward in its normal patterns when the pandemic began for us. I don't know how many days it's been since March. I don't want to count them: they feel lost. So much feels lost. This week we're all on tenterhooks again. Has democracy lost its meaning? The weather app tells me we'll be back to cold weather in a few days. I resolve to go outdoors today while I still can. My fears tell me they know what's coming.
In this week's Torah portion, Vayera, God decides to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, because "their sin is so great."
Later in the parsha we'll see an example of their sin: an angry mob demanding that Lot release the strangers whom he's protecting, so that the mob can rape them. That's one way to read the sin of Sodom and Gomorrah: their response to strangers is violent domination.
Here's another, from the prophet Ezekiel: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: arrogance! She and her daughters had plenty of bread and untroubled tranquility, yet she did not support the poor and needy.”
But before that happens, Abraham argues with God: what if there are fifty righteous people there? Or forty? And he bargains God down, and God agrees that if a single minyan of tzaddikim can be found, the cities will be spared.
This year we're reading these verses against the backdrop of election aftermath. We've all been on tenterhooks waiting for votes to be counted. Maybe feeling afraid of violence or afraid for our nation.
And here's Abraham saying to God: wait, even if You're despairing, count everybody. Here's what I take from that passage this year: every righteous person counts. Every righteous person makes a difference. Even if we may feel insignificant in the big picture -- every one of us who is trying to do what's right, matters.
Many translations of this dialogue between Abraham and God about Sodom and Gomorrah use the terms "guilty" and "innocent," e.g. "Far be it from You... to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike!" In that translation, Abraham is urging God to remember the people who are innocent of wrongdoing.
But I would argue that the plain meaning of the Hebrew words rasha and tzaddik is stronger than that. A rasha is someone who acts wickedly. Some say: a rasha is concerned only with themself and their own needs, rather than the needs of the community or the needs of the vulnerable. And a tzaddik isn't just "innocent." A tzaddik is someone who acts righteously -- someone who acts with tzedek, justice.
And it's not always easy. Sometimes it feels like an uphill battle. The pastor John Pavlovitz writes,
"There is a cost to compassion, a personal price tag to cultivating empathy in days when cruelty is trending... Friend, I know you’re exhausted. If you’re not exhausted right now your empathy is busted. But I also know that you aren’t alone."
For those of us who trust science, it's exhausting to know that so many of our fellow Americans think masks infringe on their civil liberties -- or think covid is a hoax. Especially in a week with days where the US kept breaking our own records for new covid-19 infections: first 100,000, then 109,000... And that's just one reason to feel exhausted. Election uncertainty is exhausting. Fears of violence are exhausting.
But in this week's parsha what I hear Abraham saying is: don't give up. We need to keep doing the right thing: it matters, it makes a difference, even if we don't know it. We need to be tzaddikim. We need to keep loving the stranger, feeding the hungry, caring for the needy and the vulnerable, pursuing justice. Wearing our masks. Protecting the marginalized. Feeling empathy for others. Counting every vote.
This is our obligation as Jews -- as citizens -- as human beings. This was our work before the election; this is our work after the election. And yeah, this is hard work. Most things worth doing are.
Maybe there weren't ten tzaddikim in Sodom, but I believe there are tzaddikim everywhere. And if we're trying to act justly in the world, our work matters -- our work counts.
May Shabbat bring balm to our bruised and anxious hearts... so that when the new week begins, we can bring renewed energy to the work of doing what's right, the work described in the Langston Hughes poem that was our haftarah reading today, the work of building a better world.
This was my d'varling from my synagogue's Shabbat services this morning (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
Everyone I know is struggling right now. And by and large, the people in my circles have jobs; we have secure housing; we do not have COVID-19. If this year were a video game, we would be sailing through it on "easy" mode. This is still hard.
We're watching the pandemic surge all over the country. Hospitals are filling up. We remember New York last spring, the refrigerated trucks that had to serve as extra morgues, doctors re-using PPE because there isn't enough to go around.
We're watching the anointing of a new Supreme Court justice who may be poised to strike down the Affordable Care Act and undo a generation's progress toward the bodily autonomy of people with uteruses. Many of us feel powerless and afraid.
We're watching the election with a mixture of hope and dread. The president insists he cannot lose unless it's rigged. I've had congregants ask me: do I think voter intimidation will turn into actual civil war? (Probably not, but the fear is exhausting.)
We're trying to help our children navigate remote or hybrid school. My kid is lucky: right now he's at school for about 2.5 hours, four days a week. The rest of the time is asynchronous work that takes him almost no time at all. He's often at loose ends.
We're trying to help our children navigate the emotional and spiritual impacts of seven months of pandemic with no end in sight. Bedtime has become fraught. Tears happen more often and more easily. "This pandemic ruins everything," mine said.
We're grieving everything we've lost. Even those of us who haven't lost friends or family to COVID-19 (yet) have much to grieve. Planned visits to loved ones, or long-awaited vacations, or just... safely sitting at a coffee shop with other human beings.
Many of us struggle to drum up and sustain hope for the future. Many of us have lost our previous sense of safety in the world. And we're the lucky ones: not sick, not unemployed, not homeless, enough food to eat, enough hand sanitizer to get by.
Why am I reciting this terrible litany? In order to say: if you're struggling, you're not alone. In order to say: hey, be gentle with yourself. These are difficult times. It's normal to be overwhelmed, and anxious, and to feel like everything is a slog right now.
I mean, guess what: everything really is a slog right now. Our brains are spinning with anxious worst-case scenarios on every level, from the personal to the communal to the global. Of course we can't focus. Of course we're not working at capacity.
I've said before that this is a great time to strengthen our spiritual practices. (And if we don't have them, this is a great time to start.) And this is a time to be compassionate with ourselves, and to replenish ourselves however we can manage to do so.
Yes, everything is really hard right now. It's not you -- it's the world we're living in. Put on your own oxygen mask: nourish yourself in whatever ways you can. With music, or books, or Netflix, or petting your cat, or cooking, or whatever you can find.
Cultivate hope. Plant its seeds deep within, and water them, and nurture them, and strengthen your ability to feel those seeds growing. It's okay if you can't feel hope all the time. Try just feeling it for a single moment. And then a moment more.
And if you can't feel hope, then hope for the capacity to feel hope again -- that works too. And when you can breathe, see what you can do to help people who have it worse off than you do. And when you can't breathe, return to your oxygen mask again.
This year I take comfort in every tradition I can manage. Anything I've done in years past that I might do in years to come -- those things become a lifeline. A reminder that there was life before this difficult, terrible, anxiety-drenched year of global pandemic and national political uncertainty, and there will be life after this year, too. The holidays come and go every year. The autumn leaves blaze bright every year, and fall, and then grow anew. These rhythms remind me that the world will not end.
One of my annual traditions comes at the end of Sukkot: preserving the etrogim from Sukkot to taste at Tu BiShvat, the new year of the trees which falls here in deep midwinter. The etrog is called pri etz hadar, "the fruit of a splendid tree" (or a goodly tree). And Pri Etz Hadar is the name of an early mystical Tu BiShvat text and seder. Bringing the taste and scent of the etrog to Tu BiShvat is a way to link this fall with the coming winter -- and to evoke the new growth that hasn't yet come, but will.
As always, I've peeled five etrogim and put them under vodka in my tall glass infuser in the back of a cupboard. Within a few days I'll forget that they're there. All year long they will steep, slowly transferring their color, flavor, and fragrance. By this time next year, the vodka will be bright as sunlight and fragrant like an etrog scratched with a thumbnail to release its scent. I'll decant the contents, add simple syrup, and bottle the end result... so I can refill my infuser and begin the whole process again.
I'm not sure how I'll share this fragrant elixir with my community at Tu BiShvat this year. I can't imagine a reality in which we'd feel safe gathering indoors for a Tu BiShvat seder at the end of January. The pandemic won't be over by then. I suspect we'll all be sheltering-in-place at home by deep wintertime. Maybe I'll see if folks want to gather outdoors in the snow, among the dormant trees, and toast to their continued health and longevity (and our own!) at a safe social distance in the brisk fresh air.
The streets of my small New England town are full of lawn signs. Many of them say "Black Lives Matter." Many of them promote candidates for local school committee. (That race has gotten heated, since not everyone is happy with how the school committee managed decisions about pandemic schooling.) And of course there are signs for candidates in less-local races, e.g. the presidential race, though none quite so elaborate as the Biden-Harris sign made out of hay bales on a nearby farm that an arsonist torched. And doesn't that just feel like a metaphor for American civic discourse?
But I've been intrigued by the one that simply says "Enough." It's on a block with a bunch of political signs, so the first several times I saw it, I read it as a commentary on this endless election season. Enough with this administration and its gaslighting. Enough with talking heads and pundits, predictions and and polls. Enough with it already. Let's vote and be done. (Well. This year it may be more like "vote, and then spend a month or more navigating false claims of voter fraud and lawsuits over systemic voter disenfranchisement." But whatever.) Enough! Would that it were over already. We've had enough.
I suspect it's how all of us are feeling about the pandemic, too. Enough of COVID-19, and horrendous newspaper headlines, and refrigerator truck morgues, and bleak statistics, and the politicization of face masks, and lies about it being a "plandemic." Even a single death is too many; over a million is almost unimaginable. And countless more remain alive but sick. We all wish we could be done. (Of course, we're not done. So we're still masking, socially-distancing, washing our hands. But I know it wearies me; surely it wearies all of us.) Enough! Would that it were over already. We've had enough.
But the round of Jewish fall holidays drew toward their close, I realized there's another way to read it. Maybe it means: we are enough. What we have managed to do is enough. Even if we don't feel like we're doing a "good enough" job: if we're making it through this year, that's enough. We need to be gentle with ourselves. Don't fault ourselves for not learning a new language or writing the next great American novel during a massive global health crisis coinciding with enormous anxiety about the future of democracy. Whatever we're managing -- emotionally, spiritually, let it feel like enough.
Updated to add: I've just learned that the "enough" sign is intended to be a message against local police and racial equity work. I don't agree with that stance, and I will continue to creatively mis-interpret the sign when I drive past it.
I think my cat was perplexed. He has grown accustomed to me leading services from the dining room table: the laptop, my microphone, perhaps a pair of Shabbat or festival candles lit on the table beside me, lots of singing.
These days when I daven from the table, he looks up briefly from his favorite perch on the cat tree and then returns to napping. But he has never seen me dance around the room holding a big metal-bound Tanakh encrusted with gems.
I don't have a Torah scroll at home, so I danced with the big metal-bound Tanakh that used to belong to my parents. I waltzed with it; I spun around in circles with it; I danced with it in a circumnambulation of the room; I cradled it like a baby in my arms.
Seven songs, seven poems, seven hakafot. Evoking the seven days of the first week, and the seven "lower sefirot" or qualities that we share with our Creator from lovingkindness to boundaries and strength all the way to presence and Shechinah.
I thrilled to the secret heart revealed when we go from the end of Torah directly to her beginning, from loss to starting over, from lamed to bet. I opened my Tanakh to a random word and from that word I gave myself a blessing.
And then I went to bed, and I slept the sleep of the overtired rabbi and elementary school parent who could finally relax into knowing that the work of this long, challenging (and this year, pandemic-unprecedented) holy season was done.
"Mom, did you know that there are monks who spend months making really intricate sand mandalas and then when they're finished, they blow the sand away, because nothing lasts forever?"
My son says this to me on the first morning of Sukkot. I can't make this up. My d'varling for that morning, which I've just printed out, begins "Sukkot; festival of impermanence..." And here he is, telling me earnestly about sand mandalas.
"I did know that," I say. "Hey, can you think of any spiritual practices we have as Jews that are kind of similar to that?"
His eyes are a study in uncertainty.
"Where we make something beautiful and then let it come apart?"
"Wait a second," he says, and I can see the lightbulb going on. We've just spent four days building our sukkah, procuring fairy lights to illuminate it, and adorning it with all of his favorite sparkly decorations. (He even made a video about it.)
"I'll give you a hint. We build a little house and cover it with decorations. And over the course of the week the cornstalks dry out and the decorations fall down and at the end of the week we take it all down."
"Because nothing lasts forever?"
"I wish our sukkah could last forever," he says, wistfully.
"If it did, we'd probably stop noticing how beautiful it is," I point out.
Two days later, we're in the car on the way to the elementary school for the first time in twenty-seven weeks. He is in an afternoon fifth grade cohort that will go to school four afternoons a week while infection rates remain low.
I drop him off curbside. He is wearing the mask he picked for the first day of hybrid school, carrying his school-issued Chromebook and a water bottle that will stay at school and some extra hand sanitizer for good measure.
As I watch him walk away, my heart seizes. Infection numbers here are low right now. I trust that our local elementary school is taking wise precautions. I know that he is going to be fine. But it still feels wrenching to let him out of my sight.
I return home, open up Zoom, and spend my Monday rabbinic office hour in our sukkah. A few of the decorations have fallen down. The cornstalks on the roof are beginning to dry out. The "it's not easy being green" etrog poster is now on the floor.
I sit inside our little homemade sand mandala of tinsel and schach. I remind myself that this pang isn't new. It just feels sharper right now because the pandemic has so unaccustomed me to letting him go.
Sukkot: festival of impermanence, festival of joy even in vulnerability. We build sukkot to remember our ancestors' harvest traditions; to remember the flimsy sukkot in which we dwelled after leaving Egypt; to remember the cloud of glory that protected us in our wilderness wanderings. Sukkot asks us: can we feel protected by God's presence even now, even in a flimsy little house that lets in the rain and the wind?
That's always the question at Sukkot. What does it mean to feel safe and protected? What does it mean to build structures -- whether physical or spiritual -- knowing that nothing we build lasts forever?
On the physical front, this year there may be a paradoxical sense of safety in the sukkah because a sukkah is as well-ventilated as any space can be. It has to be, in order to be kosher. A sukkah can't be airtight with a solid roof. The roof needs to let moonlight and raindrops through. In these covid-19 times, this flimsy sketch of a room in the fresh air of the great outdoors is the safest place to breathe.
In part through the very fact of what a sukkah is, Sukkot asks us to grapple with impermanence. As soon as we put on the (purposely insufficient) roof, the roof starts to come apart -- the cornstalks dry up, the palm fronds or branches wither. "Emptiness upon emptiness," as we read this morning in Kohelet. Nothing that we can build lasts forever.
And Sukkot asks us to find joy in the midst of impermanence. One of this holiday's names is Zman Simchateinu, the Time of Our Rejoicing. How can we rejoice in a little temporary house where rain gets through the roof? We might as well ask: how can we rejoice in fragile human bodies that we know will someday die? And my answer is: how can we not?
Early in the pandemic, my friend Cate Denial reminded me that life doesn't go on "pause" while we're sheltering-in-place. This is the life we have. Right now it may be more constrained than we want it to be, for pandemic reasons -- but it is still life, and we need to live it, not sleepwalk through our days waiting for the pandemic to be over.
I think of that teaching often, and it feels deeply relevant to Sukkot. This little temporary house is a metaphor for human life. It's fragile. It's vulnerable. It's not forever. But as Cate taught me, this is the life we have -- and the time to cultivate joy is not in some unimaginable future when everything broken is repaired, but here and now.
Sukkot reminds me to grab joy with both hands, wherever I can find it. In my morning cup of coffee; in the scent of the etrog, sharp and stirring; in the light of the full moon. In the voices and faces of friends, even when the only safe way to see them is on Zoom. In the melodies of our prayers. In the rhythm of weekday and Shabbes.
These are quotidian joys, but they are real, and they can be sustaining. To be sure, the existence of these joys doesn't negate the difficult realities of this moment. One million dead to covid-19 around the world so far. Credible threats of election violence and voter intimidation. Fears that our democracy might be as fragile as this flimsy sukkah.
So during chag we cultivate joy, and we let that joy fuel us and strengthen us to do the rebuilding work that our world so desperately needs. Maybe this year that rebuilding work means textbanking or phonebanking to help eligible voters register to vote, or volunteering as a poll worker. Those actions help to build our democracy.
Or maybe you feel called toward something more tangible... like chopping onions for the Berkshire Food Project's grab-and-go meals, because need has tripled since the pandemic began. Helping to cook the meals that feed our hungry neighbors is a mitzvah that comes right out of Torah -- and it's an action that helps to build our community.
Sukkot invites us to cultivate joy that will sustain us in this work and more. Sukkot teaches us to seek joy in the full moon even though we're also vulnerable to the falling rain. Sukkot teaches us to seek joy even as we recognize the world's brokenness and work to fix it. Sukkot invites us to remember that this is the life we have, and our job is to live it.
This is my d'varling for Shabbat Sukkot (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.) Image: the CBI sukkah this year.
I gave my sermon "live" on Zoom in realtime, and also pre-recorded it to go live with this blog post around the time I was offering it. If you prefer to watch the sermon, it's above (and here on YouTube.) If you prefer to read it, the text appears below.
A few weeks ago, a congregant said to me: you know, it's weird. Sometimes, especially reading Facebook, it feels like life is normal. We're seeing everybody's first day of school pictures, even if school is "from home" this fall. There are pictures of new kids or grandkids. Life seems to be continuing. And then other times I wake up and I'm immediately swamped by fear about the future of democracy, despair about the pandemic, and anxiety about totalitarianism, and nothing feels normal anymore at all.
I was really struck by that description of the disjunction between first-day-of-school pictures and creeping anxiety about what our world might be becoming.
I think we've all been living in that disjunction. It's a normal day -- and here are the latest case numbers in the global pandemic. It's a normal day -- and the news headlines are so outrageous that I feel numb. It's a normal day -- and nothing feels normal at all... As Rafia Zakaria wrote recently, "We live constantly with the weight of these juxtapositions between the banal and the utterly devastating."
In pastoral conversations over the last six months, I've heard a lot of anxiety. About illness and covid-19 and our children and everything that's happening in our world. About the coming election, and fears of authoritarianism, and the future of democracy, and a sense that everything could be about to unravel right before our eyes, and about whether this nation is a safe place to be Jewish, and whether anywhere in the world is safe. Colleagues who are therapists tell me they're hearing all of these anxieties, too.
Several of you have asked me: if things really are that bad, then what can we do?
Here's my answer: if things are really that bad, then we take care of each other. We protect the most vulnerable among us. We stand up for those who are more at-risk than we are. And we cultivate hope for a better world, and do what we can to get closer to that ideal in our lifetime.
And what if things aren't that bad? If our democracy is actually pretty robust, and there isn't going to be a civil war, and we're not staring down the barrel of totalitarianism, and modern medicine finds an excellent vaccine for covid-19 and good government policies make it available to everyone, and together we can pursue the dream of a more perfect union with liberty and justice for all?
My answers don't actually change.
We still need to take care of each other. And protect the most vulnerable among us. And stand up for those who are more at-risk than we are. And cultivate hope, and do what we can to build a better world. That's our responsibility as Jews and as human beings, in the worst of times and in the best of times.
Over the last year, several friends and I have been studying the writings of the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, R' Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, sometimes known as the Piazeczyner.
The Piazeczyner was writing under incredibly difficult circumstances. The community he served was confined to the ghetto and their rights were being continually diminished. (Eventually, of course, they would be rounded up and taken to the camps... though he didn't know that when he was writing these weekly commentaries.) Although he wrote these divrei Torah some eighty years ago, I have found his words to be deeply relevant to the spiritual needs of this moment.
The Piazeczyner writes that when times are tough, we feel "exiled" or distant from God, and those times are precisely when we feel the most powerful longing for God. (Aish Kodesh on Shabbat Ha-Gadol, 1941.) I think we can understand this as: when times are tough we despair, and we feel frightened about the world around us, and we yearn for safety and hope.
And, he says, when we "accept the yoke of the mitzvot" -- when we accept our obligations to each other and to God -- we grow in holiness. And when we do, it's as though God's own self becomes greater and more active in the world, because in our spiritual growth we become greater and more active in the world.
He could have said, these are terrible times. The world is broken, and we are not safe, and God has abandoned us. Instead, he said: the world is broken, that very brokenness arouses our yearning for a better world, and our yearning is the first step toward making it real. He said, remember the Exodus from Egypt. Remember the story of walking into the waters of the sea. Only when the waters reached our nostrils did the seas part.
The story of crossing the sea reminds us that we have to keep going "day and night." We have to keep trying, and doing mitzvot, and building a better world. Even in times of pain and fear. Even -- he wrote this in 1940 -- when we're confined to home and "commerce is brought to a standstill and businesses are closed, God forbid." (Aish Kodesh on Beshalach, 1940.)
Torah tells us that when our spiritual ancestors wandered in the wilderness, a pillar of cloud went before us by day and a pillar of fire by night. The Piazeczyner teaches that this isn't just a literal teaching, but also a spiritual one. The fire that we need to light our way forward is here for us, if only we will open our eyes. We need to hold on to our Source of strength and hope, and that will carry us through. In the words of Psalm 27, which we read each year at this season, "Keep hope in the One. Be strong and open your heart wide, and keep hoping in the One!"
I know that for some of us the word "God" is ... complicated. Maybe we don't believe in a God Who will step in and save us. Early in the pandemic, my son overheard me studying the Piazeczyner late one night with some colleagues. We were reading a commentary on how when the Israelites cried out in the hardships of slavery, God heard our cries and saved us. And my kid came into my study and said, "Mom, if we're still the children of Israel, why isn't God saving us from covid-19? Are we just not crying out enough?"
So we talked about whether God reaches into the world and changes things for us, or whether God acts in the world through our actions, or whether we find God -- as Mister Rogers famously taught -- "in the helpers," in the doctors and nurses and scientists working to help people with covid-19. And I remember thinking: this may be the moment when his childhood theology falls away.
Even so, the psalmist's instruction to be strong, open our hearts, and keep hoping is good spiritual medicine. And so is the Piazeczyner's reminder that we have the inner resources to get through even the most difficult of times -- and that the "yoke of the mitzvot" makes us responsible for and to one another. The mitzvot ask us to "be the helpers."
As my friend and study partner Rabbi David Markus teaches, love is an action, not just a feeling. This is why the mitzvot commit us to taking care of each other: because love reaches its fullest potential when we not only feel, but also act.
Memory too is an action. The traditional silent Yizkor memorial prayer includes an explicit invitation to act. It says that we will give tzedakah in the memory of those who have died: tzedakah, not "charity" but a kind of giving that is rooted in tzedek, justice.(The version of the prayer we will say this morning pledges to "live justly and lovingly" in their memory.) That's the Jewish way to remember: giving, and justice, and action.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg z"l died on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah. During these Ten Days of Teshuvah many of you have shared with me your grief at her passing, and your heightened fear of rights being eroded now that she's gone. I feel those things too.
Justice Ginsburg will be remembered for standing up for the rights of women, from the right to have a credit card in my own name to the right to control my own body. She'll be remembered for dissenting against stripping federal protections from voters of color. She'll be remembered for asserting the full humanity of people with disabilities. What kind of giving, justice, and action might we undertake in her memory?
In the days since her death, I keep returning to these words that she offered to law students:
If you are going to be a lawyer and just practice your profession, you have a skill—very much like a plumber. But if you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself, something to repair tears in your community, something that makes life a little better for people less fortunate than you.
That's our Jewish obligation and our human calling: to do something that makes life better for people less fortunate than we. That obligation feels more important than ever before.
So many of the prayers we recite today are written in the plural: not "I," but "we." Torah also frames our obligations to each other in the plural. No matter what comes, we have responsibilities to each other.
Whether or not the world is spiraling out of control, our work of repairing the world, caring for the vulnerable, and pursuing justice doesn't change. And maybe in fulfilling our obligations to each other, we can become for each other the pillar of fire that the Piaceczyner evoked: a beacon shining in the darkness, lighting each others' path.
This is my Yom Kippur morning sermon (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
I mentioned a while back that I wrote an extra high holiday sermon. I wrote this for Kol Nidre, and then I decided I wanted instead to offer gleanings from our trip to Cuba at Kol Nidre -- there's plenty in the service itself on these themes. So I'm sharing this now, before Shabbat Shuvah, instead.
"Oops, we did it again." That's our liturgy. Communal, not individual. At Kol Nidre we'll stand before God far above or God deep within or the God we're not sure we "believe in," and admit that collectively, we have not lived up to who we meant to be.
And right away, with ahavat olam / unending love, God will forgive us. Immediately after Kol Nidre, I will sing: vayomer YHVH, salachti kidvarecha! "And God says, I have forgiven you, as I said I would." What do we do with that?
We can't let ourselves off the hook while we keep doing the harmful things we've been doing, or enabling or ignoring the harmful things taking place around us. Maimonides compares that to taking a dead lizard into a mikvah: it defeats the whole purpose. And if we do that in the name of our religious tradition -- "see, Judaism says everyone's forgiven, it doesn't matter what we do!" -- that's spiritual bypassing: using the veneer of spirituality to cover over actions that are wrong. That's not what we're here for.
But if we hold on to every place where we missed the mark, then we're stuck. And self-flagellation is not the Jewish way. Yeah, I know, in a few days we're going to spend 25 hours in fasting and prayer and contemplation, but the point isn't to beat ourselves up, it's to open ourselves up. Our task on Yom Kippur is to wrestle with the radical idea that God has already forgiven our screw-ups -- and we need to love ourselves enough to forgive our screw-ups, too. Because there is work to do, and we can't do that work if we're still stuck on the old year's failures.
Letting ourselves off the hook doesn't mean forgetting what we did wrong. It means embracing the radical hope that we can choose differently. It means seeing ourselves through God's loving eyes, eyes that see the best in us and know that we can change.
Our behaviors and feelings, and the patterns that we unconsciously live out over and over again, come from somewhere. They're the products of causes: I feel this because I did that. (Or maybe: I feel this because long ago someone else did that.) Our actions and choices and feelings and patterns have momentum. And that momentum plays a large role in shaping our world.
The coronavirus pandemic is happening because of choices and momentum. Some were unwitting choices, the actions of asymptomatic carriers who had no idea they were spreading a virus around the world. Some were conscious choices, the actions of people who thought the virus was hype. Many were systemic choices: hospitals in poor communities and communities of color tend to be under-resourced. Poor people and people of color are likelier to be in service industries, or meatpacking factories, or prisons, where viral spread is worst. The pandemic "is what it is" because of a vast swirl of choices and behaviors and patterns that take on their own momentum.
The climate crisis is happening because of choices and momentum. Some were unwitting choices, like the enormous bright blue gas-guzzling Buick my parents bought in 1975. Some were conscious choices, the actions of people who thought they weren't really impacting the whole. Many were systemic choices: giant corporations acting with impunity, a government uninterested in conservation choosing to gut existing environmental protections. The climate crisis "is what it is" because of a vast swirl of choices and behaviors and patterns that take on their own momentum.
Antisemitism happens because of choices and momentum. Today QAnon peddles the ancient antisemitic hatreds in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fake document purporting to "prove" that Jews intend to take over the world. The first open QAnon supporter will likely be elected to Congress in November. Antisemitism and conspiracy theories flourish in our world because of a vast swirl of choices and behaviors and patterns that take on their own momentum.
But momentum can be changed. Kol Nidre, and Yom Kippur, are fundamentally about the truth that we can change our patterns. The past does not need to be prologue.
Once a large ship is moving through the ocean, its own momentum helps to carry it forward -- and yet with effort even the largest of ships can be turned. The course of a nation can be turned. The course of our world can be turned. The first step is our own turning: in Hebrew, teshuvah. Teshuvah offers us the radical turn of recognizing that we can choose differently.
Maimonides asked, how do we know if someone has truly made teshuvah? His answer is: when the person is faced with the opportunity to sin in the same way as before, and this time they make a different choice. This is evergreen: Maimonides wrote it around 1180! But it has never felt so impactful to me as it does now. The stakes have never been higher.
We are living through the worst global pandemic in living memory. Spread, in part, through a deadly combination of the close quarters of poverty, systemic injustice that keeps people working even when sick, and the interconnectedness of our globe. The climate crisis plays a part too: rising seas and searing droughts drive poverty, which in turn drives migration... and drives the desperation that leads people to work in unsafe conditions.
That same interconnectedness could be our greatest strength, if we could harness it to bring change -- along with clean running water, and soap, and access to health care, and humane labor policies.
So which one is it going to be in 5781?
God forgives us because God's loving eyes see us not only as we are but as we can become. God can see us already living-out our highest selves, our most ethical choices, the actions that will create patterns of goodness and justice, uplift and hope. We need to see ourselves into being better -- and then make that vision real. We need teshuvah: that internal turn that enables us to turn the ship.
This year especially, I think teshuvah calls us to take the risk of cultivating hope. I know that hope can be painful. When we open our hearts to hope, we have to face the brokenness of the world we've got now. As my friend Rabbi Mike Moskowitz often says, "This world is super broken."
This world is super broken. And building a better one is our job, as Jews and as human beings.
Our actions and choices and patterns shape our world. Will we do the work to change our choices, to reverse our momentum, to build a better world in the year to come?
Here's a recording of my sermon if you'd rather watch it than read it. (It's here on YouTube.) Or, read below...
Not quite two thousand years ago, the Roman army sacked the second Temple.
That's a tough place to begin my words to you on erev Rosh Hashanah! But in a way, it's where tonight's story begins.
The Temple was the center of our universe. It was our axis mundi, the holy connection point between this world and God.
And then it was destroyed.
Judaism could have ended when the second Temple fell. The Temple was the site of our daily offerings to God. Our whole religious system was built around it! We could have given up hope. That could have been the end of the Jewish people and the Jewish story.
Thank God, it wasn't. That destruction sparked a paradigm shift in how we "do Jewish." Jewish life become portable, something we could take with us into every corner of the globe. The center of Jewish life became the synagogue, which aspires to be a beit knesset (house of community gathering), beit midrash (house of study), and beit tefilah (house of prayer) all in one.
And, some would say: the center of Jewish life became the Shabbes table. Tradition teaches that the table where we celebrate Shabbat each week is a mikdash me'aht, a tiny sanctuary. The home table replaces the altar of old; the twin loaves of challah replace the doubled Shabbat offerings on that altar; and holy space becomes... wherever we make it.
Never has that seemed so true to me as it does right now... or as necessary.
Six months ago when we began sheltering-in-place to stop the spread of covid-19, we hoped that a few months of disciplined quarantine would quell the pandemic and that we would be back together again in person by Rosh Hashanah. Instead here we still are: making Rosh Hashanah in our homes, keeping each other safe by staying physically apart.
Our synagogue is still a house of gathering, a house of study, and a house of prayer... and right now all three of those houses are our own houses. Our challenge is learning how to create sacred space here at home where we are. Learning how to create community together when we can't embrace or sing in harmony. Learning how to find holiness in our everyday spaces, and how to feel community connections even when we're apart.
It turns out that Judaism has some spiritual technologies designed for exactly these purposes. The Shabbes table is one of them -- a white tablecloth, maybe some flowers, the Shabbes candles burning to remind us of the first light of Creation and the light of revelation at Sinai. These are tools for making sacred space.
Another is tzitzit, wearing fringes on the corner of our garments to remind us of the mitzvot -- that's a tool for mindfulness, and for community connection. Our community's tradition of making bracelets each year serves the same purpose. For several years now we've printed silicone bracelets for the Days of Awe. This year's bracelets read:
Love ♥ Ahavat Olam ♥ Rebirth ♥ Courage ♥ Resilience ♥ Teshuvah ♥
There are two transliterated Hebrew words or phrases. One is teshuvah -- repentance, return, turning ourselves in the right direction again. That's the fundamental move of this season, and that word has been on our bracelets every year we've gotten them printed. The other is ahavat olam, a phrase from daily liturgy. It means unending love, or forever love, or eternal love. Our tradition tells us that God loves us with ahavat olam.
For some of us "the G-word" is a stumbling block. Which God, what God, what do we mean by God -- God far above, God deep within, Parent, Sovereign, Creator, Beloved? And for some of us "the L-word" might be equally challenging. The word love gets so overused it becomes almost meaningless.
"Wait 'til you hear this song, you're going to love it!"
Fiddler on the Roof: "Do you love me?" ("Do I what?!")
My son would tell you that he loves Minecraft and plain vanilla soft-serve. That's not the same thing I mean when I tell him that I love him.
When I say I love my child, I'm talking about something profound and soul-expanding. If "I love ice cream" is a five on the love scale, maybe "I love my child" is 500... and ahavat olam is infinity. And I think in this pandemic year, we need connection with that sense of infinite ahavat olam more than ever before.
That's why love -- ahavat olam -- is our theme for this year's Days of Awe. And our four cups tonight at our Rosh Hashanah seder represent different facets of love.
The first cup was for creative love. One of my favorite teachings holds that God created the universe of love, because God yearned to be in relationship with us.
Our second cup was for courageous love. Love asks us to risk disappointing each other. To risk speaking difficult truths. To act with courage and integrity, even when we feel as though we're in the wilderness.
Our third cup just now was for resilient love. In this season of teshuvah, love asks of us the resilience to honestly turn our lives around.
And before Mourner's Kaddish we'll bless a cup of tears, evoking love that remembers.
Tonight we're celebrating Rosh Hashanah while sheltering-in-place. We're making our home spaces holy, and learning how to feel connected as a community from all the various places where we are. These are actions that we take to protect each other, to prevent viral spread, to care for those who are medically vulnerable and immunocompromised. They're actions we take out of love.
Our bracelets this year also say rebirth: because tradition says that today the world is reborn, because this season is our chance to begin again. They say resilience, because the new year calls us to resilience; because the pandemic calls us to resilience; because authentic spiritual life calls us to resilience. And they say courage, because starting over takes courage. And living during a pandemic takes courage. And as Brene Brown reminds us, "courage" has its roots in the French word coeur: heart. Courage takes heart. Which brings us back once again to love.
May these Days of Awe strengthen our resilience and our courage and our heart. May they help us find holiness at home, here in all the physical places where we are. And may we emerge from this sacred season more able to give and receive love in all the ways that our world most needs.
This was my brief d'varling from tonight's Erev Rosh Hashanah Seder (cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)
Before Tisha b'Av, I gathered a group of liturgists to collaborate on a project that became Megillat Covid, Lamentations for this time of covid-19.
In recent weeks we've gathered again -- in slightly different configuration -- to build something new for this pandemic season: a set of prayer-poems for Sukkot and Simchat Torah, which we've titled Ushpizin. That's the Aramaic word for guests, usually used to refer to the practice of inviting ancestral / supernal guests like Abraham and Sarah into our Sukkah... though this year, what does it mean to invite Biblical guests when many of us don't feel safe inviting in-person guests? That's the question that gave rise to the project.
The prayers / poems that we wrote arose out of that question and more. What does it mean to find safety in a sketch of a dwelling in this pandemic year? With what, or whom, are we "sitting" when we sit in our sukkot this year? What about those of us who can't build this year at all? And what can our Simchat Torah be if we are sheltering-in-place, or if our shul buildings are closed, or if we are not gathering in person with others?
For Megillat Covid, we each wrote a piece and then I collected them. This time our creative process was different. Four of us collectively wrote nine pieces, and then we met to workshop them and revise them together, in hopes of creating not just nine individual prayers but a whole that would be more than the sum of its parts. And then we wrote the tenth prayer-poem together as a collaboration... and Steve Silbert offered a couple of sketchnotes, too.
Every year I write an extra high holiday sermon. Not on purpose! It just happens. Every year, it seems, I write my three sermons... and then realize that one of them is predictable, or trite, or doesn't say anything new, or doesn't speak to the unique needs of this moment. I could publish a book of the sermons I never gave. (I won't. But I'm amused that I could.)
In that sense, preparing for the Days of Awe this year has been just like every other year. I make an outline for every service, trying to balance Hebrew with English, song with spoken-word, familiar with new. I thrill to cherished ancient melodies. I practice singing, and I jot musical motifs on Post-it notes so I don't lose track of which melodic mode we're in. Just like always.
And who am I kidding: preparing for the holidays this year has been unlike any other, ever. I translated my machzor into a slide deck, adding images and artwork and embedded video, adding new readings and prayers for this pandemic moment. I made it much longer! and then I cut, ruthlessly, because services need to be a manageable length for Zoom, and they need to flow.
I'm trying to help my kid get ready for school. He's growing like mint, like a sunflower. There is a stack of new notebooks and pencils on his desk. There's also a school-issued Chromebook. The year will begin with two weeks of remote learning before we enter a "hybrid model" phase. The juxtaposition of normal and unprecedented is itself becoming our new normal.
My kitchen counter is heaped with beautiful lush heirloom tomatoes from the CSA where I've been a member since 1995. I eat them sliced, on toast with cream cheese; cubed, with peaches, topped with burratini and a splash of balsamic vinegar; plain, like impossibly juicy apples. Any minute now their season will end, and I will miss this late-summer abundance fiercely.
There's a gentle melancholy to this season for me, every year. The changing light; the first branches turning red and gold; the knowledge that the season will turn and there's nothing I can do to stop it... I sit on my mirpesset, arms and legs bared to the warm breeze, listening to late-summer cricketsong. I know their song isn't forever. That, at least, really is just like always.