“…The thing is, there’s holiness in the not-knowing. There’s holiness in opening ourselves to the uncertainties of wilderness. It’s no coincidence that our ancestors hear God’s voice most clearly in the wilderness. The midbar (wilderness) is where God m’daber (speaks) — or at least, where we hear….”
This week’s Torah portion contains one of my favorite verses: “Let them make Me a sanctuary, that I might dwell among them.” The Hebrew could also mean “within them.” We build God a sanctuary so that God — holiness, love, justice — can dwell within us….
This week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, contains the story from which our people takes its name.
Jacob is on his way to meet up with his brother Esau for the first time in years. He sends his family away: he is alone on the riverbank. There an angel wrestles with him until dawn, and blesses him with a new name, Israel — “Godwrestler.” We are the people Israel, the people who wrestle with God.
Jacob — Israel — walks away from that encounter with a limp. His hip has been wrenched; Rashi says it’s torn from its joint. I imagine he was never quite the same after his night-time wrestle. Maybe he could feel oncoming damp weather in his aching hip, or in the sciatic nerve that Torah instructs us not to eat.
Our struggles change us. They may leave us limping.
I think we all know something about that now. The last eighteen months have been a struggle. We’ve wrestled with fear and anxiety, and with loneliness. We’ve wrestled with disbelief at outright lies about the pandemic being a hoax, or about vaccines being an instrument of government control.
Many of us are grappling with climate grief, the fear that our planet is already irrevocably changed. Or with political anxiety, wondering whether “red America” and “blue America” can really remain one nation. Or with the reality that the pandemic is now endemic and will not go away. That’s a lot.
Jacob wrestled for one night and was changed.
How will we be changed by the wrestling we’re doing during these pandemic years?
Earlier this fall I had a bout of sciatica, and I went to see my neighborhood bodyworker. She reminded me that when one part of the body hurts, most likely a different part of the body needs work. My lower back ached, so she worked on my hip flexors! Pain often calls us to stretch in the opposite direction.
That’s a physical truth, but it landed metaphysically. When despair ties us in knots, we need to stretch into hope. Remember what we learned from Mariame Kaba at Rosh Hashanah: hope is a discipline. We have to practice it, and stretch it, and lean into it exactly when our pain pulls us the other way.
Torah tells us that Jacob’s sciatic nerve was wounded in his wrestling. And Torah also references his heel; Jacob’s name means heel. When I was getting treatment for my sciatica, my bodyworker picked up my heels and leaned back, pulling on them gently. “I feel like you’re making me taller,” I joked.
She said: that’s because I am. Stress and tension and gravity all conspire to tighten our bodies, but we can lengthen. In fact, every night while we sleep we get taller as we unclench. Just as astronauts get taller when they spend time in zero-gee, away from the literal pressure of earth’s gravitational pull.
When she pulled on my heels, I could feel my whole body getting longer: legs telescoping, spine lengthening. We compartmentalize — imagining that this body part is separate from that one, or that body is separate from mind and heart and soul — but we are integrated beings: everything is connected.
That’s another physical teaching that lands metaphysically. When we tighten up spiritually, that manifests in our bodies. Stress and tension and gravity tighten us, but rest can help us loosen. Shabbat can help us loosen. Giving ourselves a break from the relentless press of news can help us loosen.
So can stretching ourselves toward hope. When the wrestle feels most overwhelming, when we feel most ground-down by everything that’s broken, that’s exactly when we need to stretch our capacity to hope. Our spiritual practices can help us shift, as the Psalmist wrote, from constriction to expansiveness.
Jacob named the place of the wrestle P’ni-El, the Face of God. May we too encounter divine presence in our wrestling. May our wrenched and tight places give us greater compassion for each other and for ourselves. And may we learn, in our times of constriction, to open up and stretch toward possibility.
This is the d’varling that Rabbi Rachel offered at CBI on Shabbat (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.) Shared with gratitude to Emily at Embodywork.
Did you know that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantining for possible exposure to the Bubonic plague? Possibly also Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. I assume all of us wrote at least one great masterwork of literature during the last year. No?
Surely at least we started baking with sourdough during the pandemic, creating spectacular loaves and sharing them on Instagram. Or maybe we reorganized our entire storage system, or finished all the home improvement projects we hadn’t had time to complete before, or learned a new language on Duolingo.
The idea that we were “supposed” to do something great and meaningful during quarantine has become a meme, a running joke. As though that were the way to “win” at lockdown and isolation amid global pandemic. We laugh, but the laughter is uneasy. On some level, maybe we wonder: if I didn’t spend this first 18 months of pandemic doing something I can brag about, am I doing it wrong?
Kol nidrei: all the vows and promises and oaths that we fail to live up to…
Maybe we promised ourselves that 5781 would be the year we would finally start working out, or the year we would actually open those cookbooks, or the year we would learn to bake sourdough or write a screenplay… especially since many of us were sheltering-in-place or working from home, so obviously we had all that spare time, right? And instead it turned out that 5781 was a year that we spent trying to keep ourselves and each other afloat. It was a year that we spent watching millions die, and grieving, maybe grappling with survivor’s guilt. And it was a year that we spent watching some people politicize mask-wearing and vaccination, even questioning whether or not the virus is real.
In some ways, the jokes about sourdough and King Lear feel like gaslighting. They ask us to pretend away the inconceivable awfulness of what we’ve witnessed in the last year. ICUs filling with COVID patients again and again. Crematoria in India working overtime. Vaccine shortages in Asia and Africa, paired with vaccine refusers in our own country. And the climate crisis. And the assault on democracy. Our grief and our fear and our compassion have been in overdrive for so long: many are exhausted, or numb, or overwhelmed. And yet somehow we’re supposed to imagine that we’re supposed to ignore our heartbreak and fear and be productive, and if we failed at that, we’ve missed the mark? As though we needed another reason to feel lousy about ourselves tonight!
But feeling lousy about ourselves misses the point of today altogether. Yes, the liturgy of Yom Kippur reminds us that we missed the mark. Even if we’d spent every minute of the last year trying to pursue justice and act with compassion, human beings make mistakes. But the point isn’t self-flagellation, it’s promising in community (and as a community) that we will try to do better.
My image of God is not the angry teacher who can’t wait to give us demerits for all of our flaws. Yes, we’ll spend these 25 hours searching our souls to find the inner work we need to do to be better. But that’s because our tradition gives us this holy season for introspection, calling us to become — not because God is poised to whack us with a ruler. On the contrary. As we heard right after Kol Nidre, “vayomer YHVH, salachti kidvarecha!” And God says: I forgive you, as I said I would! We use the spiritual tools of prayer and contemplation and song to open our hearts so we can feel that forgiveness and be ready to try again.
This year, I also imagine God saying: hey, be gentle with yourselves. One of my friends said to me, at the start of the long cold pandemic winter, that she was grading herself on a curve this year. Some days she felt able to be productive. Other days, it was all she could do to get through the day. And on those days, she gave herself permission to be as she was. What she called grading on a curve, I think of as being gentle with ourselves.
In times of intense grief, clergy and therapists both say to lower the pressure we put on ourselves. I learned this anew when my mother died and grief fogged my vision. When we’re living with sorrow or uncertainty or trauma (or all of the above), just making it through the day can take all we’ve got. Over the last 18 months of pandemic, we’ve all been in that place, sometimes.
Every year at this season we take a good hard look at our failings, and it’s easy to get stuck there — maybe especially this year. Maybe we didn’t take care of ourselves, or we ate and drank too much. Maybe we gave in to despair and doomscrolling, or we turned a blind eye to the world’s suffering…
Jewish tradition calls us to look clearly at where we missed the mark, and it also calls us not to cling to our perceived shortcomings. God is always ready to forgive. That means that God also forgives us for not baking Instagram-worthy sourdough or writing a novel or becoming fluent in Hebrew during this second pandemic year.
Tonight asks us to hold two competing truths in balance. One: Jewish values demand that we constantly work toward justice and healing for this broken world. And two: when we really make teshuvah (when we turn ourselves around, when we do our inner work), God forgives all of our failings. We need to be able to forgive ourselves.
That doesn’t mean there are no standards and anything goes. Gevurah — our theme for this year — asks us to maintain accountability for ourselves and for others. There are behaviors that are simply not okay. Torah is clear that lying, or cheating, or turning a blind eye to the suffering of others is flat wrong. Tomorrow afternoon’s Torah reading will remind us that God asks us to feed the hungry and care for the powerless, to pursue justice without bias, to love our fellow human beings. That Torah reading also reminds us to offer tochecha, corrective words, if we see our fellow human beings acting unethically — because if we let unethical behavior stand, we become complicit.
And it is also a spiritual truth that sometimes it’s all we can do to get out of bed in the morning. When we’re living with uncertainty or trauma or grief, even the simplest tasks can be monumental. Sometimes we can’t offer tochecha or work toward justice because just completing life’s requisite tasks takes all we’ve got. And that’s okay.
Gevurah also can mean healthy boundaries. Sometimes the boundary we need to draw is one that says: I’m doing the best I can, and this is all I can do, and for now it’s going to have to be enough.
This is part of why we live in community. At any given time, some of us are struggling just to make it through the day. In these times of pandemic and climate crisis, that may be even more true than it used to be. We need to help each other through and remind each other that putting on one’s own oxygen mask first is not only okay, it’s necessary. And at any given time, some of us are doing well enough to make things better for someone else. That’s when it’s our job to be angels for each other, as I said on Rosh Hashanah.
So let’s go gentle into this Kol Nidre night. Let’s promise to help each other through the challenges of 5782. Let’s refrain from comparing ourselves to other people, even if their sourdough loaves look magazine-worthy. And let’s show up with open hearts and commit ourselves to trying to be better, because that’s what we’re here for.
God can forgive us for barely holding it together — even for not being “productive” during the pandemic. Can we forgive ourselves?
This is Rabbi Rachel’s sermon for Kol Nidre this year (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.O)
Today our exploration of gevurah comes via the Torah reading for this morning.
Our mystics taught that God’s infinity is revealed in creation through a series of sefirot, divine qualities or emanations. These are the channels through which God’s infinite energy flows into the world, and we associate each one with a quality that we and God share. Like chesed, lovingkindness — last year’s high holiday theme. And gevurah, boundaries and strength and power and discernment — this year’s theme.
When our mystics look at the figures in Torah, they associate different characters in Torah with each of the sefirot. Abraham is associated with chesed, lovingkindness. His tent was open on all sides, he rushed to prepare a feast for visitors, he represents flowing love. And his son Isaac is associated with gevurah.
One of the reasons why Isaac is associated with this spiritual quality is surely the story we just heard, the “binding of Isaac.” How do we see Isaac’s strength in this story? Arguably, what we see is him holding still and letting himself be bound. Maybe he feels powerless, or overwhelmed, or out of control: we don’t know, because Torah doesn’t tell us! But to me, his gevurah has a kind of stoic, silent perseverance to it. He holds still and trusts that he will make it through somehow.
Abraham showed tremendous gevurah earlier in Torah. In midrash, we learn that his father was a builder of idols, and young Avram smashed them. It’s a great story: Terach comes home, all of the idols in his shop are smashed save one, and the biggest one has a stick in its hand. And he yells, what did you do?! and Avram says, “oh, it wasn’t me, dad, the big one did it.” And his father says, “You know they’re just stone. They can’t move!” and Avram retorts, “so why do you worship them, then?” It took gevurah to stand up to his dad.
Or earlier in Genesis, when God disclosed intentions to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Remember, Avraham pushed back: what if there are fifty righteous there, what if there are forty, all the way down to ten. But when it comes to Sarah casting-out Ishmael in yesterday’s Torah reading, Avraham doesn’t do much. He tells God he doesn’t like it, but he doesn’t challenge it. And in today’s story, God makes an outrageous request and Avraham just… does it. As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg notes, he’s a hero when it comes to the outside world, but with his own sons, he falls far short of offering the protection they need.
One of my favorite ways of reading Torah is to place ourselves in the shoes of everyone in the story. Through the lens of Torah we can see ourselves refracted in new ways. And in empathizing with everyone in Torah’s story, we strengthen our capacity to stand in the shoes of another.
How does it feel to empathize with each figure in today’s story, to feel-into where they are?
Maybe Isaac’s kind of gevurah resonates for us, eighteen months into this pandemic. The pandemic has highlighted so many ways we aren’t in control. We don’t have the power to make COVID-19 go away, and we don’t have the power to require other people to do what’s right. But we can use our strength to accept our circumstances and make the best of the hand we’re dealt.
Isaac must have also felt fear. His father had the knife raised for the strike before the angel intervened. We too feel fear in these pandemic times. What might it mean to follow in Isaac’s footsteps and do what life’s situation asks of us, even when we feel afraid?
I don’t especially want to empathize with today’s portrait of Avraham. But like Avraham who followed instructions in today’s story, we too hear voices — day and night, over the internet and cable news and social media — telling us what to do and why. We may be more like Avraham than we want to realize.
Today’s Torah reading begins with the words, “After these things, God tested Avraham.” in English we call this the “Binding of Isaac,” but Torah calls this a test. I’ve always felt that Avraham failed the test: he should have pushed back. He didn’t exercise the discernment to recognize that God’s instruction here was wrong. Discernment is part of gevurah, too.
Gevurah asks us to discern when the voices we’re listening to are giving us good advice and when they’re not. Sometimes the voices we hear are self-serving or toxic. Some voices today declare that the masks we wear to protect against airborne infection are “muzzles” that take away our freedom. Other voices proclaim that as human beings in a society we have a responsibility to take care of each other. What voices will we heed in 5782?
Recently, as I was studying this story again, my son asked me what I was learning. His Hebrew name is after my maternal grandfather, Isaac — in Hebrew, Yitzchak, the name of the son whom Avraham almost sacrificed. I realized he didn’t really know this story yet. So I told it to him, in outline, curious to know how it would land with him.
(And yes, he gave me permission to tell this story to you today.)
His first reaction was: God — He, or She, or They — probably isn’t giving us the full story here. “God is giving us pieces and parts to figure out for ourselves, but God might overestimate or underestimate us.” And then he said, “Loyalty to God is a good thing, but Abraham could have found a loophole. We have choices. We need to feel in our jellies when we’re treating people wrong or making a wrong choice.”
I said, “You mean, we need to learn to use our discernment?” Yes, he said. That’s a good word for it.
We need to use our discernment to know when the voices we’re following are aligned with our highest values — and when they’re not. Discernment is another way of saying, gevurah.
It’s also noteworthy who’s not in this story. Sarah appears nowhere in this part of the narrative. The next thing we read, after this story, is that Sarah died at 127. From that juxtaposition one midrash imagines her hearing the news from afar, perhaps in a garbled form indicating that her husband actually sacrificed their son, and dying on the spot.
After the way we saw Sarah behave yesterday — banishing Hagar and Ishmael into the desert — I don’t especially want to empathize with Sarah, either! But when I place myself in her shoes, I can feel her grief and horror at the news of her child’s death. (Of course, that news turns out to be wrong. Fake news, as it were. But she still grieves — and dies.)
It takes gevurah to place ourselves in someone else’s situation. It takes gevurah to rein in our own reactivity so we can empathize with someone’s heartbreak even if their past behaviors made us angry. Empathy might seem like an expression of chesed, lovingkindness — but I think it requires our gevurah.
Maybe this feels a little bit uncomfortable. Maybe we don’t want to empathize with people who we perceive made bad choices. That’s a very human response. To our ancestors, it was also an angelic one!
We see this in a midrash on part of the Exodus story. When we crossed the sea, Talmud says, the angels rejoiced when the waves crashed in and washed away the Egyptians. This is Pharaoh and his army we’re talking about. They had caused unimaginable suffering. And God says, “the works of My hands are dying, and you want to sing praises?!” Like — what’s the matter with you; develop some empathy, would you?! For this reason we pour out drops of juice or wine, symbol of joy, from our second cup at seder. We diminish our joy because someone else suffered in our journey to liberation.
Not wanting to empathize with someone we don’t like or don’t agree with is a very human reaction… and that midrash comes to teach us that Jewish values ask us to rise above that reaction.
Gevurah is how we balance between feeling our righteous anger, and reining in our anger so that we don’t lose empathy. Gevurah is in how we exercise judgment, especially when it comes to which voices we will heed and amplify. Gevurah is in the strength to be still and trust sometimes, and the strength to take bold action sometimes, and the discernment to know which times are which.
And gevurah is what allows us to be alert for possibilities of hope that we hadn’t previously considered — like the ram that appears at the last second in today’s Torah reading, the source of hope that was waiting just outside our vision’s frame.
This is Rabbi Rachel’s d’varling from the second morning of Rosh Hashanah (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)
Dear Congregation Beth Israel members and friends,
It scarcely seems possible, but the Days of Awe are right around the corner. On August 28 we’ll officially enter into the high holiday season with Selichot, our annual service of forgiveness prayers to stir the soul, high holiday melodies to open the heart, and an opportunity to write down some of the places where we’ve missed the mark in the last year — a first step toward letting them go and committing to change. That service will be offered both onsite and online; if you’re joining us onsite, please wear a mask (we’ll be in the building, socially distanced, with doors and windows open.)
Preparing for this year’s Days of Awe has been unlike any other year — even last year. Last year, it was clear that the correct course of action was to shelter-in-place and make our homes holy. This year has been a rollercoaster of ups and downs, from the cresting of hope when vaccinations became available to the emotional plummet when the Delta variant reached our community. The CBI Board and I spent all summer planning for three possibilities simultaneously; consulting with the URJ and with other congregations both locally and regionally; discussing risks with medical professionals; and always circling back to to our sacred path of mitzvot and to the Jewish values that guide us. I believe that our current plan will allow us both to protect the vulnerable and to give those who wish to be onsite an opportunity to do so… and I’m mindful that if the situation worsens in the coming weeks, we may need to pivot again.
Last year when the Days of Awe were over, you told us that our Zoom services helped you feel connected; that our time together on Zoom felt real; that you appreciated the interweaving of ancient words and modern technology; that you were moved by the opportunity to see each other on Zoom; that you felt like you were part of a community even though we weren’t all in the same room. I hope and pray that this year will be equally uplifting. I’m excited to share some new things with you — including new music to carry us through the season, hopefully some piano accompaniment on Yom Kippur morning thanks to one of our new members, and a brand-new Jonah play for Yom Kippur afternoon. And I’m also looking forward to continuing our longstanding traditions, the words and melodies and modes of prayer that have sustained us for generations.
Hopefully if you wish to attend a service onsite during the holidays, you’ve already filled out our online registration form and indicated which service you would most want to attend onsite. That registration form will close at the end of the day on August 25 so that we can turn to figuring out how to (hopefully) enable each member who wishes to be onsite to attend one of their top-ranked services onsite. Of course, all of our offerings will be open to you online throughout the season.
We’re also preparing now for the coming Hebrew school year, which is slated to be onsite and masked just like local schools. We’re planning a series of monthly Family Programs, from an apple orchard outing in September to midwinter Saturday afternoon pajama parties with storytime and havdalah. If there is interest, we can reconvene our monthly Shabbat Zoom dinners to stay connected over the winter. And of course we will continue to offer Shabbat services and festival observances all year long, as always.
Your donations make all of this possible. We can’t operate on revenue from dues alone; that revenue does not fully support the work of our synagogue. Your contributions make up the difference and allow us to do all of the things we do, including offering memberships to those who cannot afford to pay full dues. In Torah we read that each Israelite gave a half-shekel to support the spiritual life of the community. We also read that many Israelites gave a t’rumah offering, a freewill offering from the heart over and above the half-shekel that everyone was obligated to provide. Regardless of amount, supporting spiritual community is a Jewish obligation. Giving is a religious act, and our sages teach that when we give tzedakah, we prime the pump of blessing to flow into the world.
Thank you for being a part of our synagogue community. Thank you for gathering with us, learning with us, and praying with us. (Please encourage farflung friends and family to join our email list so that they can join us for Zoom Days of Awe!) And thank you for your support of the synagogue of northern Berkshire county. Please give as you are able. We need your support especially in these difficult pandemic times. The only donation that’s too small is none at all.
Looking forward to being with you soon during the Days of Awe. May the rest of this month of Elul open our hearts and souls to transformation, and may the spiritual updraft of the holidays lift us ever higher.
Blessings to all —
Dear Congregation Beth Israel Members and Friends,
The CBI Board and Rabbi just met to discuss current COVID rates in our constituent towns and across the county, and to re-evaluate our high holiday plan in light of current realities. As of now, our plan for the Days of Awe is as follows:
- We will be holding hybrid / multi-access services, limiting capacity to ~45 so that pods can be 6 feet apart. Masks are required, with no exceptions. As a reminder, our erev Rosh Hashanah offering will be a Rosh Hashanah seder, held online only; here’s a list of items to have on hand for that digital community experience.
- All onsite participants over the age of 12 must be vaccinated. Parents who want to bring unvaccinated children (under the age of 12) with them into the service may do so, as long as the children remain masked and socially distanced, and as long as they are pre-registered for a seat or can sit on a parent’s lap. We will not require proof of vaccination; we trust our members to be truthful. We will check people off the registration list at the door so that we can facilitate contract tracing in the event of a COVID diagnosis.
- Childrens’ services will be held outdoors at 10am on Rosh Hashanah morning 1 and on Yom Kippur morning, with masks and social distancing. Please register with the CBI Office if you are bringing child/ren to the childrens’ service so we know how many kids to expect. (If there is mist or light rain, bring an umbrella or rain jacket to childrens’ services! If the weather is truly inclement, we will not be able to hold childrens’ services — in that case we will post on the CBI Facebook that morning to let everyone know.)
- All are welcome to join us online in the synagogue Zoom room. We will offer a robust Zoom option so that those participating online can fully take part in our high holiday experience. This allows us to welcome those who are immunocompromised, those who are at greater medical risk, and those who are homebound to participate in our Days of Awe — as well as those who aren’t on the onsite list for any given service.
Our guiding Jewish values in this decision are pikuach nefesh (saving life) and kol Yisrael arevim zah bazeh (all of us are responsible for each other; we are responsible for our community together.) Our job, as Rabbi and Board, is to serve this community and to keep this community safe. This is our best sense of how to live up to those values.
Now that we have evaluated recent local COVID levels and reached this plan, we will work on figuring out who can come to each service onsite, based on your responses to our registration form (sent in July and in every weekly announcements email since.) If you have not yet responded, please do so by August 25. Registering and ranking your preferred services is the only way to get on the registration list for onsite services. We may not be able to give everyone their first choice. We will do our best. We are compiling registration lists now for each service, and we will be in touch to share those lists so you know which service(s), if any, you will be attending onsite.
Some have asked why we’re not renting a tent. When we explored that option early in the summer, we learned that in order to proceed with a tent, we would need to reserve and pay for one immediately. The expense would be large, and we would still be limited in space / configuration because of the layout of our available land. At that time, the Delta variant had not reached us. Based on these factors, and based on the results from our survey of the membership about what people wanted, we made the decision then to forego the tent.
This is our current plan, crafted with our deepest hopes for a sweet and meaningful holiday season. And, as we’ve learned in the past year, we need to be prepared to pivot if the situation shifts. Please continue to keep an eye out for communications from CBI. If the COVID situation worsens, we will move to offering all-digital services as we did last year.
Wishing you blessings as we approach the Days of Awe,
The CBI Board of Directors
(Chris Kelly, President; Natalie Matus, Vice-President; Michael Smith, Treasurer; Paulette Wein, Clerk; Joe Apkin, David Lane, Darlene Radin, and Ben Rudin)
and Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
In 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 that Rabbi Rachel offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services at CBI (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)
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 that Rabbi Rachel offered at Shabbat morning services this weekend (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)