The Strength to Help Each Other Hope: Rosh Hashanah Morning, 5782

 

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(Note: the first part of this sermon is adapted from an article that JTA asked me to write. Then it goes off into new territory -- expanding and completing the ideas I articulated for JTA.)

 

All summer long, I struggled to find the words for this sermon. 

The enormity of what's broken in the world feels paralyzing. Unprecedented heat and wildfires, a flaming oil spill turning the Gulf of Mexico into an inferno, and extreme flooding across Europe and China and Louisiana and New York: "Who by fire, who by water" lands differently this year. Dayenu, that could be enough -- and there's more.

The past eighteen months were hard even for those of us who have it easy (a job, a place to live, no illness). For many the isolation was crushing, or numbing. For many without stable income or a roof overhead, the pandemic has been unimaginably worse. So too for frontline workers and those who jobs are "essential" and often unseen.

When vaccines became available, my heart soared on wings of hope. I felt certain we would be together safely at Rosh Hashanah this year. But I hadn't reckoned with the power of social media influencers lying about the putative risks of the vaccine, or lying about the virus. The New York Times reported recently that disinformation is now a booming business. As a result, countless thousands are now refusing vaccination, claiming "personal freedom" at the expense of the collective good. 

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I keep thinking of the parable of the guy in the boat drilling a hole under his own seat. He doesn't seem to notice that his personal freedom is going to drown everyone else. As a parable, it's tart and a little bit funny. In real life, it's horrifying. Dayenu: that too could be enough to spark despair. And wait, there's more.

Several governors have made it illegal for municipalities to require masks. To many, masks have become a symbol of government control. To me, a mask is literally the least we can do to protect the immunocompromised (and children.) Refusing to wear a mask during this pandemic is like leaving your lights on during the London Blitz.

Between the anti-maskers, and the anti-vaxxers, and the new Delta variant, cases are rising again. We're facing another long winter of mounting death counts -- and it didn't have to be this way.

Between what we're doing to our planet (disproportionately harming those who are most vulnerable), and the impact of anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers on public health (ditto), and the persistence of the Big Lie that the presidential election was "stolen," it's hard not to despair. How could I write sermons from this place? I'm pretty sure no one comes to High Holiday services to hear their rabbi say she's given up.

I poured out my heart about this to my hevruta partner, who reminded me that in Torah even God despaired of humanity sometimes. When God despaired of us, it was our ancestors' job to push back and remind God of reasons to hope for humanity's future. This is part of why we live (and learn!) in community: to help each other find hope when our hearts despair.

Our Torah readings for today and tomorrow cue up that inner journey. We just read about the casting-out of Hagar and Ishmael, a tale of how jealousy almost caused a child's death in the desert. Tomorrow, the stakes may feel even higher with the binding of Isaac. And yet these same Torah stories also remind us of hope in tough times. An angel opens Hagar's eyes to a flowing spring, and she and her son are saved. An angel opens Abraham's eyes to the ram caught in the thicket, and Isaac's life is spared.

The Days of Awe open the door to new beginnings, even when (or especially when) we can't see our own way back to hope for change. Our job is to be be those Biblical angels for each other: helping each other reach the hope a that we can't find alone. 

Our Torah stories for Rosh Hashanah are stories of courage and strength. Hagar needed courage and strength when she set out into the wilderness with her son and a single skin of water on her back. Isaac needed courage and strength when he lay down on his father's altar on the mountaintop. In Hebrew, one word for this kind of courage and strength is gevurah: our theme for this year's Days of Awe.

We've seen a lot of gevurah in this difficult year. In the firefighters battling horrific blazes across the Pacific Northwest and California and Turkey and Greece -- in the doctors and nurses working in every covid ICU -- in the police officers who defended the US Capitol from an angry mob. Those are extraordinary forms of strength and courage. 

I want to name and uplift a different kind of gevurah. I mostly didn't watch the Olympics this year. (That's not the courageous part.) I just couldn't get excited about the pageantry or the competition this time around. But Simone Biles caught my attention even so.

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Everyone seems to agree that she's one of the most extraordinary gymnasts of all time. I can't do a cartwheel to save my life, so I think all gymnasts are pretty amazing, but I can see that she's more amazing even than most of her peers. And right before the individual all-around gymnastics competition, she withdrew from competition in order to focus on her mental health. 

It takes courage to say I'm not okay right now, and I need to do some inner work so I can get where I need to be. A lot of us are not okay right now. Global pandemic, an almost unthinkable amount of death, the climate crisis, the rise in misinformation, the deep divisions in our body politic -- the world is not okay right now.

Simone Biles said she "got the twisties," a condition in which an athlete loses their spatial awareness and can't tell up from down. Given the kind of literal acrobatics involved in Olympic gymnastics routines, losing her spatial awareness could be deadly. But reading about it, I realized it's an apt description of how a lot of us are feeling emotionally and spiritually. We've lost access to some of the certainties that oriented us. It's hard to trust in things that used to seem stable. I think we all "have the twisties" a little bit this year. 

I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate that none of us can do the gymnastics routines that Simone Biles can do. But all of us can follow the courageous example she set. And she didn't make that decision in a vacuum. She said she was inspired by Naomi Osaka, the pro tennis player who withdrew from the French Open in order to tend to her mental health. Using our Torah metaphor, Naomi Osaka was Simone Biles' "angel" -- the messenger whose words and actions helped Simone admit that she wasn't okay and begin to work toward healing. 

Because here's the thing: we're not in this alone. Even if we feel fundamentally alone sometimes, we have each other. This is why we live (and learn) in community: so we can help each other find the flowing spring that will sustain us in the wilderness, or the ram whose presence will save the day, caught in a thicket just beyond where we ourselves can see. We live in community so we can inspire each other to hope and to build. We live in community so we can strengthen each other.

Hope

The activist Mariame Kaba offers some deep wisdom about hope. "Hope doesn't preclude feeling sadness or frustration or anger," she says. "Hope is not optimism. Hope is a discipline." She goes on to say:

Hope is a discipline and... we have to practice it every single day. Because in the world which we live in, it’s easy to feel a sense of hopelessness, that everything is all bad all the time, that there is nothing going to change ever, that people are evil and bad at the bottom. It feels sometimes that it’s being proven in various, different ways, so I get that, so I really get that. I understand why people feel that way. I just choose differently. I choose to think a different way and I choose to act in a different way.

When she says hope is a discipline, what I hear is that it's a practice -- like a yoga practice or a spiritual practice. And the more we practice it, the stronger we become. She names this as a choice: we can choose to let despair overwhelm us, or we can choose to strengthen our hope. This, too, is gevurah. 

5781 was not an easy year. I don't know what 5782 will bring, but I'm pretty sure the challenges of the old year will follow us into the new one. What can we do for each other to give each other courage, to help each other hope? Jewish tradition teaches that even those who receive tzedakah are also obligated to give it. In other words: even if I'm in need of assistance myself, I'm obligated to give what I can to someone else in need. I love this because it breaks down the binary between giver and receiver. And it works as a teaching about intangibles, too. Even if I need emotional support, I can still offer support to others. 

Helping others is part of Jewish spiritual practice. Focusing on "ugh, who's going to help me through this" sometimes is normal, but it's also self-centered, and it can lead to feeling more alone. Focusing instead on "how can I help someone else" lightens our hearts. Helping others is good for the soul.  If you prefer, here's a social science framing: studies show that when we help others, we feel more energetic, stronger, and more hopeful!  And that's true whether we're doing organized volunteer work, or "just" offering a listening ear over the phone or Zoom. 

Helping each other cultivate hope does not change the realities of pandemic or injustice or fires and floods. But it can help us be resilient in the face of those realities. It can help us make meaning in the face of those realities. This is our work: to use our gevurah to support and uplift and strengthen each other, so that together we can resist despair and keep working toward a better world. 

 

This is my sermon from the first 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? 

Unanswered

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I've had this kitchen tool for as long as I've had my own kitchen. I don't remember how it came to be mine. It belonged to my grandparents -- the only set of them that I knew, my mother's parents, who lived in San Antonio throughout my childhood. Eppie was Russian, and Lali was Czech. All through my childhood they lived in a condo not unlike this one.

I know that he loved to cook. He's the one who taught me to make matzah balls. He used to make little knotted rolls, too, and knedliky (Czech bread dumplings, made with stale white bread). When I would spend the night with them, sometimes they would treat me to the sugary cereals my mother didn't allow, and sometimes he would make salami and eggs.

This tool has a smooth handle, satisfying to the hand. There's a burn mark from some long-ago scorching-hot stove. The iron twists and curls. It's beautiful; I think in one of my early apartments I hung it on the kitchen wall as an ornament. Today it was the perfect tool for flipping pumpernickel bagels in their simmering bath before putting them in the oven to bake. 

Learning to make bagels was one of the projects I planned for myself, imagining the long isolated pandemic winter. I baked loaf after loaf of rye bread, and soft golden challah almost every week. I kept putting off the bagel project. Maybe on a subconscious level I wanted to keep a treat for myself, something to look forward to in this year of solitude and grief. 

But the winter is past. The snows are over and gone. Every day more people here become vaccinated. (Though in India, the pandemic is raging worse than ever...) Baking bagels today felt like an act of hope. I don't need to defer the tiny sweetness of trying a new recipe lest I need that sweetness to get me through some other, worse, day than this.

I'm pretty certain my grandparents never made bagels. I grew to love chewy pumpernickel bagels because my parents brought them back from New York City. They used to take an extra duffel bag when they traveled there, and on the day of their departure they'd fill the duffel with paper bags of New York bagels and freeze them as soon as they got back to south Texas.

A cursory internet search suggests that this is a Danish dough whisk. How did my grandparents come to have a Danish baking tool in their kitchen? Did they pick it up as a souvenir on their travels, or from a fancy kitchen store, or someplace secondhand? I wonder whether my mother would've known. There's a quiet melancholy in questions there's no one left to ask.

 


Hidden treasure and what comes next

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Last year at the start of the pandemic, my hevruta partners and I studied a text from the Piaceczyner (the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto) about this week's Torah portion, Tazria-Metzora. His jumping-off point is a verse about houses contracting tzara'at -- some kind of contagion -- and the need to quarantine such a house for a period of time.

The commentator Rashi explains that there's treasure hidden in the walls of the afflicted house, and when we knock down the walls, we'll find the treasure. But the Piaceczyner is puzzled: if there's treasure, then why does Torah tell us to wait for seven days before we can knock down the walls and find the treasures hidden therein?

His first answer makes me laugh: well, we can't exactly know why Torah says what it says!

But then he says, if we look deeply we can recognize that in everything that happens to us, there's a spark of God's intention for goodness. Even if the situation we're in is a difficult one, God intends goodness for us in it somehow.

"There may be times when we can't access schooling for our children, or praying together in community, or going to the mikvah," he writes. A year ago, my first thought was: that's us, right now! Our kids are home from school. The shul building is closed. Everything is closed: to protect us from each other, from the virus we might not know we're carrying.

The Piaceczyner said there would be treasures to be found in quarantine. I couldn't yet imagine what they would be.

This year, these lines land entirely differently with me.

It's still true that we still don't have access to our former infrastructure for Jewish life. Synagogues aren't meeting in person, Hebrew school isn't meeting in person... And yet -- look at everything we've learned over the last year.

Our synagogues are open, even though our buildings are not -- because the synagogue isn't the building, it's the people and the connections among and between us, and our traditions, and our Source. We've learned how to pray together over Zoom, and how to make our home spaces into sacred spaces. We've learned how to build community and connectivity online when we can't safely be in person.

We've learned how to educate our children online. Hebrew school is happening: online. Services are happening: online. We've learned how to share funerals, b-mitzvah celebrations, shiva minyanim, even batei din (conversions) online.

We've learned to find sweetness in glimpsing each others' households -- our dogs and our cats, the children and elders who share our homes -- when we gather for learning or prayer. As a member of our Board said to me after Rosh Hashanah services, "Seeing people at their tables and on their couches and with their coffee cups made it feel like we were all in each others' homes -- I felt like I was getting to know people in a different way because I got to see them where they live." Who could have imagined that, before the pandemic?

We've learned how to embrace video, and how to enliven our davenen with art and images. This doesn't make up for the fact that we can't embrace, and we can't sing together in harmony, but it brings a different kind of hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the mitzvah) to our spiritual lives.

And we've learned how digital offerings can more easily include those who are immunocompromised, or hospitalized, or disabled, or homebound. We've learned how having our digital doors open makes our synagogues more accessible than they ever were before.

The Piaceczyner insists that even when something appears to us to be a plague, God intends goodness in it. We might just need a while to find the hidden treasure in whatever's unfolding. As we prepare, in time, to return to our former Jewish infrastructure, I want to ensure that we do so in a way that doesn't lose the new treasure we've found. Here are some of the big questions my colleagues and I are asking:

  • How can we create hybrid offerings so that as some of us feel safely able to gather in person, others can be full participants digitally?
  • How can we continue to embrace the gifts of multimedia and visual art once we're back in the building again?
  • How can we welcome and include people joining us digitally, without creating a future in which no one bothers to "come to shul" because it's easier to just stay home?
  • How can we use what we've learned this year to help us become more accessible, more equitable, and more inclusive?
  • How can we use what we've learned this year to help us build and sustain community across distance, whether it's the distance between the shul and a hospital bed, or the distance between here and someplace further away?
  • How might our sense of community expand and adapt if people keep participating in services and learning and festival observances online -- if you don't have to be in Northern Berkshire to become a part of CBI?
  • And how can we honor the treasures of this pandemic learning while also honoring the very real losses of this incredibly difficult year?

We don't know the answers yet: we're figuring them out as we go. The crisis of COVID-19 offers us an opportunity to dream big and think creatively about what it means to do Jewish together now.I hope you'll grapple with these questions too, and let me know your answers.

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