Kol Nidre, 5781
Here’s to the Essential Ones
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
During this year of the pandemic, despite all the sadness, there have been so many moments that have demonstrated the triumph of the human spirit – many of them involving patients who came through the ordeal and the gratitude shown to the health workers who saved them.
One such patient had spent weeks in the ICU of the Cleveland Clinic, where caregivers frequently communicated with him by writing on the glass door in the isolation room. When he was finally discharged, the patient left a written message on the same window:
“This window has been the most impactful window in my life. On days when I watched you work hard to keep me and others alive, unable to thank you for the time that you poured into me — and although I will probably never get the chance to pour that same love and support into you, I want you to know that I think you all are rock stars.
I watched some of you have good nights and some bad nights but what was consistent every night was that you care for people.
Today I leave this ICU a changed person, hopefully for the better, not only because of your medical healing and God’s direction and guidance, but with the fact of knowing that there are such wonderful people dedicated to the care and concern of others. God bless each of you.”⠀
I want to dedicate this sermon to the Essential Workers. What a strange term that is. Who is an essential worker? And what determines an essential service? This is the perfect time to discuss this – at Kol Nidre – which is, after all, the most “essential service” of the year.
But seriously, in ancient Israel, there was no more essential worker than the High Priest. And on Yom Kippur only he could utter that ineffable divine name and effect the spiritual cleansing of the people. Without him, they could not be absolved of their sins.
So the idea of essential workers and services goes back a long way. More recently, we know that during the Holocaust, Oskar Shindler employed 1,700 workers at his factory in Krakow, and in order to protect the Jewish ones from SS deportation, he added an armaments manufacturing division, so that these workers would be classified as “essential” to the war effort.
This year, on which sectors and industries they consider “essential,” meaning, who could leave their homes despite pandemic-related closures. And they ranged widely, from the obvious – police, firefighters, doctors, teachers; to the, um, less obvious – like, in Florida, professional wrestlers. The Department of Homeland Security issued guidance that indicated that essential status should involve people who work in sectors like energy, agriculture, critical retail, construction and critical trades, transportation and social service organizations – including religious institutions.
In some cases, workers were forced to put themselves at great risk with little protection, and many meat packing factories, for example, became super spreaders for the virus. Next time you eat, it is important to ask whether it was just the chicken who gave her life for your dining pleasure – or maybe also the worker who processed it.
So here’s to the Essential Ones. The courageous ones. The ones we so often overlook and forget to thank. Who literally put their lives on the line so we could put food on our tables, or educate our kids, or fix our downed power lines, or ride our buses, or flush our toilets.
I don’t really know a lot about him and we’ve never personally met. I do know that his name is not really Jester, but he’s just a funny guy who likes to bring smiles into the world. I also know that he tweets at @JustMeTurtle. I know that he has over 23,000 Twitter followers. And I know that he changed my life.
I first discovered Jester on Twitter last March, as we were being pummeled by the first wave of the Coronavirus. Our region was burning up with fever, the hospitals were overflowing. You might recall that at the time I was sending out nearly daily messages from the Rabbi’s bunker, hoping to inspire each of us to stay safe by staying indoors, but at the same time affirming that despite our isolation, we are all connected in deep spiritual ways.
Most of us needed to stay inside. And I explained that the Talmud makes it clear that even God wants us indoors during a pandemic, stating:
If there is plague in the city, gather your feet, i.e., limit the time you spend out of the house, as it is stated in the verse: “And none of you shall go out of the opening of his house until the morning.” (Bava Kamma 60b)
The tractate Avot says we shouldn’t separate from the community, but there are times, such as these, when the act of separation from community is the most community-affirming thing we can do. And we found remarkable ways to create community online, where it was safe, from inside our homes. But like so many of you, I felt isolated and lonely – and afraid.
Going to Stop and Shop was like entering a war zone, with potential land mines on every shelf. And back home, I was afraid even to pick up my newspaper without washing my hands. I sang “HAPPY BIRTHDAY” so often, that at last count, I think I’m about 250 years old.
Then I found Jester:
Jester is a sanitation worker. Sanitation workers really are, in every sense, “essential workers,” holding society together without much recognition. At a time when so many people were home all day, the amount of trash went way up, while at the same time the number of sanitation workers decreased markedly because they were getting sick – and they had to work 17-18 days straight without a day off. All those paper towels used to sanitize our doorknobs. We put them in the trash. Imagine how much Covid there was churning around in those trucks with each day’s pickup!
So their bodies started to break down. Sanitation workers are barely noticed in the best of times, as people tend to avoid them, sadly, well, like the plague.
By the way, it was St. Jerome in the early fourth century who originated that expression “avoid it like the plague,” in an interesting context. He wrote, “Avoid, as you would the plague, a clergyman who is also a man of business.”
Good advice. Which prompts the question: Who is more essential? A hard working sanitation worker or a profit-obsessed pastor? Let’s park that idea for a moment.
Now back to our story.
So this was mid-March and we were all scared to death. And I then I saw this thread by Jester D. Three amazing tweets.
Turns out Jester’s name is really Aaron Meier and he works the streets of San Francisco. I hope his truck’s got good breaks! His tweets gained half a million likes and people couldn’t get enough of his story, which he shared on “Good Morning America.”
At a time when I was reaching the depths of despair, this Twitter thread from Aaron Meier hit me like an answered prayer, and I cried. I cried because he made the most profound statement that could possibly be made about how, even through our separation, we are inexorably linked. Just as my garbage rests in eternal harmony next to yours in some landfill somewhere – just as my toilet paper roll finds peace next to yours – so are we all united, body and spirit. He was literally putting his life on the line for people like me.
And this virus has made it clearer than ever before. You and I share something with the Aaron Meiers of this world, with ALL the Aaron Meiers.
His tweet made me understand that all this distancing ultimately is bringing us closer together. All over the world, we share the same destiny, the same fears, and the same desire to love our neighbor as ourselves.
Why did God want us to separate? Perhaps to help us understand that ultimately, the walls we hide behind, however necessary, are illusory. There is no real place where “I” ends and “you” begin. Our fates are literally in the hands, washed or unwashed, of millions of people whom we will never meet. Our bodies – not just our souls - have become inseparable.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his letter from the Birmingham jail, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
The next week when I took out my trash, I wrote “Thank You” on the lid, to hail an unseen, underappreciated hero here in Stamford.
The Talmud tells a story (Pesachim 50) of Rav Yosef the son of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi who became ill and was on the verge of death. He recovered and his father asked him what he saw as he hovered between life and death. “Olam Hafuch Rai’ti,” he said – “an upside down world.” Those who are important and recognized in this world, were low in that world and those who are unimportant in this world are highly regarded there.
Rabbi Yehoshua then says, “No, Bubela. Not an upside down world at all. ‘Olam Barur Ra’ita.’ ‘A world of clarity you have seen.’”
A world turned upside down turns out to be the world as it SHOULD be.
This is what happens when those so commonly seen as the lowest of the low suddenly change places with the those with greatest status.
The rabbis said of the Torah – Hafoch ba – turn it and turn it – keep looking at it from different angles. Turn it over and over again.
Purim is considered the holiday when the world turns upside down – the servants become rulers and the powerful are brought low, and everyone wears masks to confuse matters. Our tradition says of Purim, “na'hafoch hu.” The last time we all met together in our sanctuary, was Purim. And on Purim, not coincidentally, we wear masks.
The coronavirus turned our world upside down too, into a place where we recognized at long last who is truly essential – and who is not.
For those of us who work in religious institutions – there is no question that we deliver essential services. But our building does not need to be open for that to be the case. We are proving that at this very moment. And those religious institutions with integrity have understood that our most essential purpose in saving and enhancing lives. We were alerted to some unique dangers we confront early on when a church choir rehearsal in Skagit County, WA. led to the infection of 53 members.
There was something about a lot of people praying together that was getting them sick.
But despite this, there are some clergy who have led their congregations astray and into the pit of disease and death, by flaunting protocols and reopening prematurely, sometimes even breaking the law, and encouraging their congregants to shun masks and spacing when it is common knowledge that crowded church services can be super spreading events.
Like that Tampa, Florida pastor who was arrested in April for defying the authorities by holding services for hundreds of parishioners. Or the pastor in San Antonio, who later apologized for encouraging hugging at his church, resulting in at least 50 cases of the coronavirus. Or the Louisiana pastor who was arrested for defying stay at home orders after holding live services for hundreds of people. Or the church in Seoul, South Korea, that flaunted regulations and was later found to be linked to more than 5,200 cases. It’s a Jewish problem too. Like that super spreader hasidic funeral in Brooklyn that drew 2,500 people – and then there was Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky in the Haredi community of Beitar Illit in Israel who said that yeshiva students should stop being screened because “it could lead to a mass loss of Torah study.” Meanwhile, an increase of some 114 percent in Beitar were testing positive.
Or the pastor in Maine who, after officiating at a super spreader wedding, knowingly spread it to his congregation, defiantly mocking state and CDC guidelines, stating that God wants him to expose his people to disease. He said, “I want the people of God to enjoy liberty.”
Give me liberty, or give me breath!
Well, the God I pray to prefers parishioners who aren’t dead.
“We don't orchestrate this, MacArthur said. “This is a church. We don't ask people to make a reservation to come to church,” he said.
Well, maybe they should. We do.
“We opened the doors,” he added, “because that's what we are, we're a church and we’re going to trust those people to make adult decisions about the reality of their physical and spiritual health and how that balance works for each one of them," he said. "Nobody's forcing anything, they're here because they want to be here."
They apparently believes that God wants them to be sneezing all over each other.
They clearly did not read that verse from the Talmud:
If there is plague in the city, gather your feet – and stay home!
The Rev. Charles Pope, pastor of a church on Capitol Hill in Washington, cajoled his congregants not to “cower in fear” in the face of the coronavirus. He was admitted to the hospital on July 27 with a high fever. He tested positive for Covid-19 that afternoon and 250 of his congregants were immediately quarantined. They had attended in-person services and many had taken communion from this priest. One member of a neighboring church – Dawn Goldstein, quoted in the Washington Post, said she felt insulted by the priests imploring people not to be afraid. “He has used his platform to mock and ridicule Catholics who are taking precautions,” she said.
Admittedly, it is very hard to stay apart and it’s excruciating for clergy to have to enforce it. Distancing is a challenge.
It just feels unnatural.
There’s this mohel in St. Louis who, because of the need to distance, played multiple roles at a recent bris. He was both the mohel and the sandek. So he both held the baby on his lap and did the cutting. It’s not easy to do religion during a pandemic.
As for the baby – she’s doing just fine.
So who is an essential worker? Well, even those pastors who are acting irresponsibly are and unfortunately, still essential. It’s just that they are essentially dangerous for us all. But for each of the religious leaders I mentioned, there are hundreds who are acting responsibly, both in working with their lay leaders to determine when to relax distancing restrictions and when to enforce them.
We are all sending messages through our words and deeds, messages that will either sustain life and lift the spirit, or crush it – and kill. Literally kill. If we encourage people to take this thing lightly, we could be literally killing people. The Talmud says, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.” Never before has that been truer, whether we are clergy or sanitation professionals. And I must emphasize that our opening committee has been acting with great care and respect for the science and for the potency of this disease. I have only one qualm – and it’s with the name. Why call it an “opening committee?” We never closed.
Here are some more essential workers:
How about Neel Jain, a high school student in Portland, Oregon, who shops and delivers groceries to immunocompromised senior citizens, so they don’t have to. The service began as mission that started with Jain and his grandmother because she had asthma. His parents have been driving him around, and he set up a website and expanded the effort to other communities.
Talk about essential!
Storyteller Eden Wofsey looked at a grocery store clerk in Chicago, risking life and limb to make sure we all get to have tomatoes and yellow peppers. And she asked her about it:
“I'm not really anybody special,” the woman said. “I'm just doing my job.”
And Wofsey commented, “It has become abundantly clear that those who grow and harvest and pack and ship and stock and deliver and clean and carry and then do it again and again and again are not only important but are the foundation, the scaffolding, the beams, the walls, the warp and woof of our society. There are more famous people, more recognized, and certainly more remunerated people, but without the people who have to leave their houses to go to work none of that would matter.”
(See this classic essay by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner on the importance of all who work in the business of building a sacred community - The Tent Peg Business, Revisited)
“Maybe it will always be thus, that those who serve and care for and clean and deliver will do so with graciousness and a smile, but it does not have to always be, that our society takes so many people for granted whom we so clearly depend on.”
“I’m no one special,” said that woman at the grocery worker. But she’s wrong. And this year we realized that, perhaps for the first time.
Have you thanked your mail carrier lately? I have. Even when he delivers a Newsweek from 1988, you gotta thank him.
Thank your supermarket bagger – like Elaine Roberts, the 35 year old bagger at a Houston supermarket with autism, who got sick and ended up on a ventilator because her governor and store owner refused to mandate masks – she lives with her parents, and they were hospitalized too.
Thank your teachers – or your child’s teachers. Many of them are taking extraordinary risks because they love their students and love what they do.
Thank the traffic cop who waves you through some tree removal work on Westover Road, or, yes, the Eversource worker who is removing the tree to get your power running; or the librarian who helps set you up with Wifi because the power is out at home; or the newspaper deliverer, who is out there every day performing a vital service.
Don’t get mad. Don’t scream at the clerk at Target who asks you to wear a mask. Don’t ask to see the manager. Thank her for reminding you and for caring about your health.
When it comes down to it, the big lesson we’ve learned this year is that EVERYONE is an essential worker, including those currently out of work. We are ALL essential, because your life depends on me and my life depends on you.
About a month ago, I wrote to Aaron Meier, the lighthearted sanitation worker whose lifted me and so many other people last March. I thanked him for changing my life and asked him if he had any wisdom to share with my congregants for Yom Kippur. He replied almost instantly.
Hi Rabbi, I’m glad that my words had the impact they did, I was kinda hoping that we’d be more unified as a country after I wrote that. It’s unfortunate the way we’ve gone but I’m still out here hauling the trash, keep putting one work boot in front of the other. I’m sure many are doing the same. If you do want to share my words that would be great. I don’t really have much to add as far as a personal greeting. I’ve been at a loss for words lately.
I replied to him right away: “Don’t give up! You’ve inspired us. Let others lift you!
And so, follow him on Twitter. Tell him that you heard about him on Yom Kippur and that he inspired you. Tell him he made your rabbi cry.
I dedicate this sermon to Jester and Neel Jain the teenager and all those in the grocery stores, and post offices and police stations, and utility companies - and the gardeners and plumbers and hairdressers and veterinarians and pizza makers. Blessed are the cheesemakers!
…And to our first responders and medical professionals, who watched countless patients hovering between life and death and made sure we knew what was really happening, while the rest of us hid in our bunkers.
Thanks to you all!
And to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who also hovered between life and death, and through that experience, saw the possibility of a world turned upside down.
“Olam Hafuch Rai’ti.” “Olam Barur Rai’ta!”
He saw what is truly essential.
Martin Luther King wrote: “If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. Sweep streets like Beethoven composed music. … Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”
Here's to all the Essential Ones who have touched our lives.
And here’s to the Essential Ones who hold the power of life and death over us all.
And that means all of us.
Yom Kippur Day, 5781
A Better Place
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman
Do you remember what it was like back in March, when our ordeal began? When we suddenly went from a hyper-nation to hibernation? A few days in, I recall looking out at our first snow of the winter...which fell on the fourth day of spring… and this deer was looking back at me, really close to the house, and probably wondering why the woods had become so quiet. It almost seemed to be saying “Goodbye. I’ll see you when it safe for you to come back outside.”
It struck me that when I was so close to this deer, I didn't recoil. Lyme disease seemed almost beside the point – like a quaint relic of the past. I yearned for those nostalgic days of Lyme and West Nile, and that quiet place where the deer, the antelope and infected ticks play. I dreamed of the normal flu, any virus without those scary red prongs.
We quickly realized that we needed to become comfortable within our skin and in our shelters – that we might be in this for the long haul. When all live sports stopped, we spent our days watching Michael Jordan win championships 25 years ago and speculating about whether there would be hockey in August.
Back in March, we decided to run a snap food drive and collected 1,214 pounds of food overnight. “#Lovethyneighbor” trended #3 on Twitter. And kids compared their predicament to Anne Frank – who also suddenly was trending all over social media. Here’s what some young people said about her – and how they related to her during the lockdown.
Back in March, we started weekly healing services and daily afternoon minyans, and we needed them – those little Zoom boxes of smiling faces, “the sweetness and excitement of people catching up,” (as Rabbi Jordan Braunig described it), “feeling seen, having their feelings validated.”
As April and May turned into June, we tried to make our quarantine as Jewish as possible, by coming together on Friday evenings 6, or by binging on “Mrs. Maisel,” “Unorthodox,” “Shtisel,” “Fauda,” and the all-too-prophetic “Plot Against America.”
We prepared for a Passover different from all others; we were slaves in a very different Egypt, dealing with a very different plague.
In New York, they cheered front line workers every night from their windows. In Jerusalem, they counted minyans from balcony to balcony. June turned to July and then August and then September.
And now, we stand between past and future – looking back at Michael Jordan of 1999, the Great Spanish Flu of 1918, the slave ship of 1919, Women’s Suffrage in 1920 and the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. And the Holocaust – always the Holocaust, which ended 75 years ago but never really ends.
And looking ahead, with so much uncertainty and trepidation - and a recognition of the fragility of life, living under this sword of Damocles, to paraphrase John F Kennedy, who was talking about nuclear weapons, “hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness.” That’s how we felt this year. That’s how we feel right now.
In truth, the past six months have been one long Yom Kippur, as we have reflected on our mortality like never before. Each of us was in that ICU at Stamford Hospital or Mount Sinai or Elmhurst in Queens, even if we weren’t really there. We saw those refrigerated trucks. We were at those potter field burials. We saw how utterly overwhelming and hopeless it was – we have literally experienced a hundred 9/11s these past six months - and we don’t want to go back there again.
And now it is the 7th month.
“And in the seventh month you shall afflict your souls,” Leviticus tells us. “Ta’anu et nafshotaychem.” The Hebrew root ayin-nun-heh, means both to afflict and to answer. On Yom Kippur itself, the affliction is the fasting, which helps us come to an answer. For this seven month long Yom Kippur, the affliction has been Covid itself. And now we have reached Yom Kippur, the day of the Great RESET, when everything starts anew. Now we can look back at what we have experienced so that we can begin – just begin – to propel ourselves forward. Yom Kippur is the celebration of RE: Regret, Repent, Reset, Reassess, Resolve. And so we shall afflict ourselves, today through fasting (as long as you are healthy) but at the same time, the biblical command is to seek answers.
Jewish visionary Donniel Hartman said that as we look back at this period, we should consider, “not how has it redefined the meaning of life, but how these past few months can help teach is to live a life of meaning.” How did we, in the midst of our brokenness, recalibrate our thought processes?
So let me share share some of the wisdom that I’ve garnered these past several months, while dwelling in the rabbi’s bunker.
First, this was the year of “The Great Softening.”
A video by Tomas Roberts went viral during the first months of the shutdown called, “The Great Realization.” This inspiring poem, narrated by a parent telling his child about the Covid Era as a bedtime story at some point in the future, has been viewed over 60 million times and translated into over 20 languages. Here’s some of what he said:
The governments reacted and told us all to hide away; but while we all were hidden, amidst the fear and all the while, people dusted off their instincts and they remembered how to smile.
And with the skies less full the voyagers the earth began to breathe, the beaches bore new wildlife that scuttled off into the seas.
Some people started dancing, some were singing some were baking, we’d grown so used to bad news but some good news was in the making.
So when we found the cure and we began to go outside, we all preferred the world we found to the one we left behind.
Old habits became extinct and we made way for the new; and every simple act of kindness was now given its due.
“But” (the child asks) “why did it take a virus to bring the people back together?”
“Sometimes you have to get sick my boy before you can get better.”
I should mention here that Roberts comes from New Zealand, where they crushed the virus, because all segments of society pulled together in common purpose.
We had some examples of it here too. Even corporations got into the spirit of distancing.
I was taken by an essay by the great Israeli novelist David Grossman, who wrote, during the first phase of the crisis:
“…it is possible to hope that perhaps, when the plague ends and the air will be filled with feelings of healing and recuperation and health, a different spirit will pervade humanity; a spirit of easefulness and of a new freshness. Perhaps people will begin to reveal, for example, engaging signs of innocence unspoiled by even an iota of cynicism. Perhaps softness will suddenly become, for a certain time, legal tender. Maybe we will understand that the murderous plague has given us an opportunity to slice from ourselves layers of fat, of swinish greed. Of thick, undiscriminating thought. Of abundance that became excess and has already begun to suffocate us. (And why in the world did we collect so many objects? Why did we heap up our lives until life itself was buried beneath mountains of objects that have no object?)…For surely, we are all one infectious human fabric, as we are now discovering. Surely the good of every person is ultimately the good of us all.”
So, I ask. Has the “Great Realization” led to a Great Softening? In our moments of optimism, we can think that. Even with the highly charged polarization of an election that insanely politicized even lifesaving measures like wearing a mask, it can’t wipe away what we have seen before our eyes. We saw those cheers every evening at 7 and we saw the tears of those in the ERs across America. We saw the softening.
We saw it even during sadness. Hear this passage from Rabbi Karen Kedar:
I wanted to see the sunrise in hope of awakening my spirit. I forced myself out of bed in anticipation of the dawning light, but there was only darkness. Eventually the clouds in the sky took on form; puffs of gray and charcoal and shapes of billow. But they offered me little comfort; I rose to see the sun. I wanted to see the bright colors, reaching, climbing, flying up to the top of the sky. But not this morning. And then it happened. The clouds began to dance across the heavens; subdued colors, nuanced shapes, layers of softness. And too, my heart. And I whispered, there is softness in this sadness. And I blessed the day.And if the Great Realization led to a Great Softening, then the Great Softening led to a Great Stillness: This poem by Kitty O’Meara shows how:
Pico Iyer, author of the “Art of Stillness,” wrote about a trip that he took, that landed him in the airport in Los Angeles, and he was in the United Airlines lounge, when suddenly he saw a quiet room. “It was five feet from where everyone was grabbing pieces of cheese and watching CNN, but I just stepped into that place and it might have been five miles away. It was softly lit, and there were candles, and all I really wanted to do was read or close my eyes but suddenly, quiet was right there. So certainly in that case, the stillness was a kind of active presence. It wasn’t the absence of noise, it was the presence of a kind of quiet that they had laid out.
… Suddenly when you start to watch things and start to listen to things, even if you’re a journalist without religion, the world becomes much richer. Suddenly you’re hearing the birds, you’re seeing, you’re listening to the tolling of bells, you’re seeing detail.
The lockdown forced us to listen to birds. One day, the New York Times even included a guide to bird watching during the pandemic. It was right there, in the New York Times. No Broadway reviews, just reviews of the broad winged hawk. And not just one article, but many.
The lockdown forced stillness upon us – and if that wasn’t enough, then a Hurricane Isaias charged up the coast and literally blew us away. The prophet Isaiah, for whom the hurricane was named, proclaimed: (40:7-8)
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ, כִּי רוּחַ יְהוָה נָשְׁבָה בּוֹ
“The grass withers, the flower fades; but the wind of the LORD blows upon it--surely the people is grass….which withers and the flower fades – but the word of God endures forever.
It’s a passage you might also recognize from the end of the Unetane Tokef prayer.
The storm forced us to come face to face with our powerlessness in the face of nature. As if we weren’t feeling vulnerable already. So I read by candlelight like they did in “Little Women,” though I doubt Jo March would have been reading the book by Mary Trump. And I went to bed early and woke up at the crack of dawn to milk the cows. And when there weren’t any cows, I let out the dog and took a walk around the neighborhood and saw things I hadn’t seen before and hear things that I had never heard. That fawn from last March was still around. And she brought a few of her friends.
A Hebrew expression for mindfulness is “Yeshuv ha’Daat,” which means literally, a “settling” of the mind. A calming. And, it is has the same root as “Teshuvah.” A return to our deepest selves. The Talmud states (Brachot 57a) “There are three things which bring yishuv ha’da’at: Kol, marreh v’reyach [pleasant and enjoyable] sounds, sights and aromas. What we see, what we hear and what we smell.
And while this stillness was happening, our planet jumped at chance to catch its breath.
An essay on 60 Minutes remarked that as we entered 2020, Mother Earth was starting to “clear her throat and make herself heard: Australian bush fires were ravaging the continent. Earth had registered its highest temperatures since records began. Icebergs and glaciers melted, popsicles in the sun; there were floods and droughts; and swarms of locusts descending on Africa.
And then, a worldwide stillness occurred and look what happened. The shutdown to industry offered a glimpse of what collective response to climate change can look like.
India is home to 17 of world's 25 most polluted cities. “Normally Delhi is dystopian” said Arundhati Roy an Indian writer. “Especially in the winter months. Sometimes that smog is not just outside your house, it's inside your house, inside the rooms. So that's how terrible Delhi is. And, suddenly we're just seeing blue skies.”
That’s nothing. One day I drove on the Merritt at 4 PM and there was no traffic!
“From Shanghai to Secaucus, by circumstance and not design, (we got) a glimpse of life with fewer fossil fuels.”
The skies, they were cleaner. The roads less congested. City streets were taken back by the pedestrians. The noise level was reduced dramatically. Wild animals reclaimed places they had long since abandoned.
Wild boars roamed the streets of Haifa, deer in Paris, dolphins in Istanbul, jellyfish in Venice, cougars near the Santa Monica Freeway (that’s the 10), goats in Wales, a kangaroo hopping though Adelaide, a puma on the streets of Santiago, and jackals in Tel Aviv.
Maybe this will mark a turning point, so that, as environmentalist Bill McKibbon put it, future generations will not curse us, they’ll thank us.
It’s what 60 Minutes called “The Reckoning,” saying that “life changed abruptly, profoundly and irretrievably.”
So we had the Great Realization, the Great Softening, the Great Stillness and the Great Reckoning. Not bad for seven months of hell.
Ta’anu Et Nafshotaychem! Our affliction has given way to answers.
But life’s great changes amount to absolutely nothing if we haven’t absorbed the most important lesson of all from the past seven months: the primacy of life itself.
Leviticus 18, which is the Torah portion for Yom Kippur afternoon, teaches:
וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי, אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם: אֲנִי, יְהוָה
Ye shall therefore keep My statutes, and My ordinances, which if a person do, they shall live by them: I am the LORD
We are told, regarding the mitzvot of the Torah, “V’chai bahem,” Life takes precedence over just about everything else in Jewish law, including Shabbat observance.
The Talmud teaches that Shabbat is holy only because we are alive to observe it. It isn’t holy in a vacuum. It needs living people. If a Shabbat falls in a forest and no one is there to observe it, it is irrelevant. If the coronavirus kills all of us, when Friday evening arrives, there will be no Shabbat. We “make Shabbos.”
So life takes precedence even over Shabbat observance. You are required to profane one Shabbat if that will enable you to live for many Shabbats to come.
Donniel Hartman reflected on this lesson and concluded that at this moment – what’s the most important thing we can do? To live. Connecting to that core instinct is not trivial anymore. All the rest doesn’t matter. All the rest is commentary.
“You shall live by them.” “V’chai Bahem” The priority of life is a powerful moral statement.
Hartman is saying that the Torah does not think it’s acceptable for people to take actions that put lives at risk. It is not heroic to go to a bar. It doesn’t make you a warrior to take off your mask and to shrug it off and say, “People are going to die.” That can never be acceptable. Because simply saying “people will die,” even though we know that they will, never makes it acceptable. We should never try to normalize 200,000 deaths. “It is what it is” is never what it should be.
We are all responsible to keep others alive. We are profoundly interconnected. Did you know that 70 percent of the coronavirus that spread in the first wave in Israel came from America? In Israel, they could have called it “the Brooklyn Virus.” I understand more than ever before that I can be a source of harm for people.
I shouldn’t simply wear a mask if I care about you. I should carry an extra one in case the first one tears. I hold the power of life and death over you. I could destroy a universe. As Donniel Hartman states, “The coronavirus pushes us out of a core sense of entitlement to one of responsibility. We are either part of the problem or part of the solution.”
So we’ve gone from the softening and stillness to a recognition of the primacy of life. We’ve afflicted our souls and found some answers. But now, as we stand at this precipice between what was, what is and what will be, we fear for the future. On this Yom Kippur, on the tenth day of the seventh month, are we at the beginning the middle or the end of our ordeal. Do we dare look beyond it?
Hope now seems naïve, and it’s has become too closely associated with the kind of magical thinking that clouds the eyes of those seeking miracle cures just around the corner. Hope seems dangerous. It smacks of the kind of supercharged “Power of Positive Thinking” that, when combined with an inability to acknowledge the possibility of a darker reality, well that’s what got our country into this mess. Hope smells like bleach.
Has the time come for us to give up on hope?
But how can we, the people who invented hope, so wistfully discard it?
We’ve all faced those moments of despair. Most of us can relate to what my friend and colleague, Rabbi Sue Fendrick, expressed in a Facebook post just a month into the ordeal:
“I heard many people independently say–after feeling it myself–that yesterday they just hit a wall, felt the sadness and stress at a new level or for the first time, etc. My mom said that she experienced the same thing among her friends and contacts.
I’m a big “let’s name it” person, so let me just name this: It’s not about weeks anymore. We’re no longer counting in weeks, we have now been doing this for a month.”
She wrote this in April.
To my friend Rabbi Fendrick – Hello from October (almost)!
Here’s a thought experiment: If you had the chance to tell the you who was going through this in March that we would still be communally distanced on the High Holidays, would you? I’m not sure I would give it away. Better not to know. Better to live this thing through, one day at a time, without obsessing too much on the future.
A Kaiser Family Foundation poll in May indicated that nearly half of Americans reported the coronavirus crisis was harming their mental health. And according to a study revealed this month in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Americans are reporting symptoms of depression three times more than they were before the pandemic. It’s undoubtedly gotten worse as more have lost jobs or suffered health setbacks and deaths in the family. So what is to become of hope?
Viktor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and author of the one of the great books of the 20th century, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” had a term for it: Tragic Optimism. When you look up hope in a Jewish dictionary, that’s what you get.
In Frankl’s formulation, tragic optimism 1) turns suffering into achievement, 2) channels guilt feelings into opportunities to change for the better and 3) derives from life’s transitory nature the incentive to take responsible action.
We can keep hope alive – even if tinged by tragedy. That’s in fact what we have been doing for thousands of years. That’s what makes us Jews. And we will get through this.
So to review: What are the lessons I’ve garnered from our ordeal? That there’s been a great softening, a great stillness, a great reckoning and a reaffirmation of the primacy of life. We’ve also learned that hope can sustain us if it is touched by realism and acknowledges tragedy and that what matters most is that we take responsibility.
One of the Netflix series I’ve binged on these past several months is “The Good Place,” which explores deep questions about life, death and the afterlife in a disarmingly delightful way. It’s basically Gilligan’s Island meets the Book of Job, with a nod to Dante’s Inferno and the Bhagavad Gita. Without giving away too many spoilers, let’s just say that a key message of this series is that we never lose the capacity to continue growing - even after we are dead, in fact, and certainly while we are alive. There is always a chance to make up for past errors. Very Jewish. And another key message is a very Jewish one – that in many ways, heaven is right here. We can make this a heaven on earth.
Yes, we can make this planet a Good Place – or at least a more compassionate in-between place – and these days, that just might be good enough.
And perhaps the most important message of that series is that in order to improve our lot, we need other people to help us – and we need to help them. We cannot do it alone. Each of the characters is flawed, both the human and divine ones. And each flawed soul contains the key to helping one or more of the others. Heaven, it turns out, is other people.
Remember how I demonstrated that the expression to afflict ourselves comes from the same Hebrew root as “answer.” Well, there is another, more common word for “answer” in Hebrew, and it’s “Teshuvah” – which is exactly what we’ve been doing these past weeks. We will find our answer, our teshuvah, through repentance and return – teshuvah. The story of “The Good Place,” is all about teshuvah. And that is our path forward from this mess – this pile of Ashpot that we are buried in right now.
In its review of the final episode, aired just a few weeks before the pandemic changed everything, Rolling Stone wrote this:
“What that gorgeous final scene suggests is that the best possible reward would be the ability to continue to touch the lives of those we left behind — for some spark, some memory, some piece of whatever it is we may have inside us beyond biology, to linger and make the world a better place for everyone still lucky enough to be living in it. Maybe, the ending wonders, the last time you were suddenly inspired to call up an old friend, or pick up a piece of litter someone else dropped, or let a driver make a left turn into heavy traffic even though you had the right of way, you were in some way unconsciously inspired by a spark of goodness from someone you lost, or someone who has no one left to pass their goodness onto. Or maybe, if we’re being less literal, there’s a fundamental spark of goodness to humanity, despite abundant recent evidence to the contrary.”
And maybe, I might add, when we conquer our own inner demons, of fear, cynicism, malaise, fatigue, xenophobia and narrow-mindedness, if we think of the impact of our every act, our every breath, on other people, then when the time comes for us at long last to leave our bunkers for good, we’ll emerge into the sunlight of a good place – a very good place – a better place than the one we escaped last March, when the first snow fell on the fourth day of Spring and that deer looked at me, and said goodbye for now.
Next year may we meet again, all of us, right back here. And may it feel as if we never left. And yet may it also feel as if we are gathering together, right here, to afflict ourselves and to seek answers, for the very first time.
And may we all find safety from the storms of 2020, and make of this year of the Dung Heap – a Good Place. A Better Place. A Heaven on Earth.
L’Shanah Haba’ah B’ TBE!