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Rabbi Ilana  - Rosh HaShana

09/13/2021 02:19:08 PM


Rabbi Ilana

Rosh HaShana Day 2 5782

Rabbi Ezray told us yesterday that hope emerges when we allow space for pain.

I’d like to tell you a story about my father.

My father thrives on interesting ideas. He is a physical chemist, and for most of his life, he was obsessed with his scientific research. None of us ever thought he would retire. 

But eventually he was forced to retire, and he surprised us, by embracing retirement with the same exuberance that he used to show for his research. He and my mother now spend 4 months every year in Israel, and they are constantly traveling the rest of the year as well.

Until a year and a half ago, of course, when all the travel came to a grinding halt. But again my father pivoted quickly. He discovered online Torah study, and he and my mother spend hours a week studying. They’ve also become amateur botanists, walking in the nature preserve four miles a day, and my father is writing a textbook on spectroscopy.  Whenever I call, he has some new insight that he is excited to share with me. 

Last year, six months into the shutdown, I was contemplating topics for my Kol Nidre sermon, and I asked my parents, “What do you think people need to hear about right now?”  My father paused for just a moment, and then he said: “Loneliness”.  And for an instant, there was such vulnerability in his voice, I knew I was catching a glimpse of a deeper truth, beneath the truth of his happiness. 

Like so many in our community, my parents are doing fine. More than fine. They have resources, they have each other, they have not lost their joie de vivre. And so it is hard to admit that this past year and a half has been very, very hard.  

They are not alone in feeling that way.

Rabbi Ezray also emphasized for us that hope comes from human connection. I don’t think any of us fully appreciated how deeply interdependent we are, until all at once every single human connection we have was twisted, stretched or compacted. 

We were all coping with both a loss of connection, and with shifting boundaries. Parents were Zooming to work from the bedroom, while kids in the next room Zoomed to school. Jobs disappeared. Other jobs were swamped with too much work. Friends we used to count on, we couldn’t meet with anymore.  When we socialized, we were literally either contained within a bordered box, or a piece of fabric formed a boundary between us.

For my own family, the biggest issue was the loss of our support structure. We were used to relying on babysitters and after school programs and other parents, who in turn relied on us. Suddenly, all that was gone. It was just me and my husband, trying to balance all of the many needs of our children while still doing our professional work. 

Our daily lives became unpredictable. Everything felt unstable.  We never knew from one week to the next - would school be in person, or back to Zoom? Could we count on stores being open? Could we meet friends and colleagues outdoors, or just by video?  

The vaccine brought a gasp of relief. Finally, we were regaining control.  Humanity, working together, reigning in the virus. 

And then Delta appeared. And we are thrown back into uncertainty. 

Before the pandemic, we had enormous power to control our lives. Far beyond anything our ancestors imagined. And, really, compared to generations past we still have tremendous control. But now, every plan feels tenuous. Contingent on a negative Covid test, dependent on things staying open. How do you even make decisions amid such uncertainty?

These three basic human needs - connection, boundaries, and control - are at the heart of Judaism.

The ancient rabbis constructed Judaism not as a religion of personal faith, but as a religion of community. They could not imagine practicing Judaism alone. A minyan - 10 adults - is required to recite kaddish, or to read from the Torah scroll. Nearly all of our liturgy is written in the plural. We pray not for our own fate as individuals, but for the welfare of the whole. 

For the past thirty years, almost every morning my father has walked the block and a half to the shul where I grew up, to daven with a minyan. But Orthodox practice does not recognize a gathering on the screen as a true social gathering. So during the pandemic, my father lost his minyan. He has not yet returned.

CBJ decided differently. We knew we needed to pray together - now, more than ever. If the only way we could do it was through a screen, then our minyan would be on screen. And though it was nowhere near as satisfying as meeting in person, many people have told us that even over Zoom, weekly Shabbat services were an anchor in the chaos.

As for the human need for boundaries, that, too, is foundational to rabbinic Judaism. The Talmud is almost obsessed with defining boundaries. Milk must be separated from meat. Saturday needs to be differentiated from the workdays. Wool must be kept separate from linen. The list of boundaries is enormous. Many you probably haven’t even heard of, and most seem quite arbitrary. But when you drill down, every community has internal boundaries that are arbitrary. We create them because they give us a sense of order. When they are disrupted, we feel unsettled and anxious.

As for the third human need - our need for control and predictability - the rabbis said, don’t count on it. Human control is an illusion. In fact, according to classic rabbinic thought, that’s the purpose of the arbitrary boundaries. In the traditional perspective, the only legitimate reason to keep kosher, or to observe a Saturday Sabbath rather than Sunday, is because God said so. The rabbis wanted us to let go of the deception that we are really in control, by surrendering every day to the will of a God that is beyond comprehension. 

That does not mean stop trying to plan our lives. It does not mean stop asking questions, stop trying to understand, to accomplish, to change the world. The rabbis wanted us to do all of that.  But even as we set out to conquer nature, they warned us to hold on to our humility. To remember that we are always at the mercy of forces that are beyond us. 

We say it in the daily amidah prayers:

נֽוֹדֶה לְּךָ וּנְסַפֵּר תְּהִלָּתֶֽךָ עַל־חַיֵּֽינוּ הַמְּ֒סוּרִים בְּיָדֶֽךָ וְעַל נִשְׁמוֹתֵֽינוּ הַפְּ֒קוּדוֹת לָךְ וְעַל נִסֶּֽיךָ שֶׁבְּכָל יוֹם עִמָּֽנוּ וְעַל נִפְלְ֒אוֹתֶֽיךָ וְטוֹבוֹתֶֽיךָ שֶׁבְּ֒כָל עֵת

We thank You and sing Your praises, for our lives that are in Your hands, and for our souls that are under Your care, for Your miracles that accompany us each day, and for Your wonders and gifts that are with us at each moment.

We say it more starkly during the high holiday prayers:

אָדָם יְסוֹדוֹ מֵעָפָר וְסוֹפוֹ לֶעָפָר. בְּנַפְשׁוֹ יָבִיא לַחְמוֹ. מָשׁוּל כְּחֶרֶס הַנִּשְׁבָּר, כְּחָצִיר יָבֵשׁ, וּכְצִיץ נוֹבֵל, כְּצֵל עוֹבֵר, וּכְעָנָן כָּלָה, וּכְרוּחַ נוֹשָׁבֶת, וּכְאָבָק פּוֹרֵחַ, וְכַחֲלוֹם יָעוּף. וְאַתָּה הוּא מֶלֶךְ אֵל חַי וְקַיָּם.

 We come from dust, and we return to dust...We are like a broken shard, withering grass...a fleeting breeze... a vanishing dream. But You - You are the Sovereign, living God, ever-present.

A person who goes through life with that awareness, is much more accepting when circumstances shift and plans are upended.  That includes the ultimate shift -the end of life that eventually comes to all of us.

I know this attitude is anathema to most folks in Silicon Valley. We are powerful, and we intend to stay that way. God bless us! I believe in human power.

But as we have set our lives on our own reliable creations, our desire for individual control has displaced some of our need for human connection. For many of us - and I include myself - it is easier to pay an invisible person on Instacart to do our grocery shopping, than it would be to invest in developing the kinds of relationships that would allow us to ask friends to shop for us.

My friend Vera began her childhood in the Soviet Union, emigrated to the United States as a girl, and is now a professor at Stanford University. In the Soviet Union, she said, you could not trust in any of society’s structures, so you had to depend on your neighbors. That meant you really invested in those personal relationships. “One of the greatest shocks of moving here”, she said, “is how transactional most relationships are.”  

Vera tries to carry those values from her childhood into her current life of relative power and comfort. She also recognizes that when she and her family were poor, they were much more able to cope with uncertainty. They had no illusion of security, and so when losses and instability happened, they were not surprised. Today, she said, the hardest aspect of the pandemic for her is the degree of uncertainty.

None of this means she would want to go back to the insecurity of life in Russia, or to the poverty of her first years as an immigrant in the US. She knows what real hardship is, and she would not want to return to it.

Throughout the pandemic, when someone asked, “How have you been?” she’d usually to give the same response I do. It’s a response that I’ve heard from many of you, as well. “I’ve been ok. Others have it so much worse than I do.”  

Vera really means it when she says that. I’ve been lying a little bit. Not lying, exactly. I do know how privileged I am. But even with all of our advantages, my husband David and I have been burning near the limits of our energy. But knowing how much others were suffering, how could I complain? 

As part of my preparations for the High Holidays, I began looking more seriously at this little denial that I do. That so many of us do. On deeper reflection, I realized that when I say, “Others have it worse than me,” I am not thinking of any specific person. I am thinking of an abstract, faceless other. Keeping it anonymous that way protects me from really feeling a piece of anyone’s pain. Don’t get me wrong. Recognizing that others are more needy than we are is only a good thing. It leads to generosity - more tzedakah, higher tips. But it’s not true empathy.

So I decided to reach out to another immigrant, one whose story is very different from Vera’s. Vera arrived in this country with both her parents, and though they had no money, they had deep, intangible resources: both formal education and a kind of cultural know-how that comes with being part of the social elite. Gabriella arrived here at age 15 with just her father, who is uneducated. She immediately began cleaning houses. The women she worked with at the time told her that if anyone asked, she should claim to be 18. She has been cleaning ever since. She cleans my house every Wednesday. 

Gabriella is bootstrapping her family out of poverty. Her oldest child recently graduated college, and is training to be a nurse. She is so proud of her.

But this past year has been very hard. The family experienced financial stress, and the kids could not help but be aware of it. Her son got an unskilled job in retail, and he feels good to be making money. The problem is, he just graduated high-school, and he doesn’t want to go to college. He’d rather take on more hours at his job. Poor Gabriella blames herself for his decision.

I probed a little. She told me she ordinarily serves between 15 and 20 clients a week. When everything shut down in spring of 2020, and she could no longer clean - only four of her clients continued to pay her.  When things opened up again, most came back, but sporadically. Several long term clients don’t hesitate to cancel with zero notice, and don’t pay her when they cancel.

But Gabriella did not seem interested in dwelling with me on her financial stress. What was really weighing on her was the personal hurt. The shock of realizing that she is nothing but a transactional relationship. About one of her clients who cancels without paying, she said: “I’ve been cleaning for her for 18 years.” I told her it makes me angry that people treat her that way. She said it makes her feel angry too, but even more it makes her sad. I could feel the deep hurt in her voice. 

Human connection helps. Three times a week Gabriella goes for walks with friends, and those walks make her feel a little better. It was clear that talking to me also helped a little, and she was touched that I wanted to share her story with you. After our conversation, she sent me a text: She wrote: “Thank you for listening to me. I really appreciate it from the bottom of my heart.”  

Later that day, I talked all of this over with Vera. If you are trying to support a family on $20 to $30 an hour in Silicon Valley, you are living hand to mouth. How come so few people saw that? I’m sure some of Gabriella’s clients were under financial stress from the pandemic, and had to cut back. But this is Silicon Valley. There’s no way over 3/4 of her clients were hurting that badly. 

Vera sighed. “Either you see every person as a person, or you don’t,” she said. To Jewify Vera’s comment, I would say either you see each person as created in the image of God, or you don’t.

Being created in the image means that every human being is an entire world. The Talmud teaches:

האדם הוא עולם קטן, העולם הוא אדם גדול

“A person is a small world, and the world is a big person.”

I understand this now in a deeper way. It is true that Gabriella’s hardship over this past year was greater than mine. And many in her community bore it still harder.  Tens of thousands were unable to pay rent, and though evictions were illegal, they kept on happening because people did not have the means to defend themselves. 

All these children now living in cars or, if they are lucky, in homeless shelters- surely their suffering is worse than Gabriella’s. But when she is lying in bed crying at night, their pain does not mitigate hers. And when I am lying awake ticking off my to-do list, when my father is sitting in his home office feeling trapped by the tight walls, knowing that we are better off than Gabriella’s family does not help us. Nor does it help her.  Each person is a world unto themselves.

But the entire world is also a person, and seeing ourselves in that context does help. We may feel alone sometimes, but we are not. We are as interdependent as the heart and the lungs. We can help heal one another’s little worlds, if only we let each other in. Perhaps this is the most important teaching the pandemic offers us. We now know how much we need each other, and we are ready to make the effort to be present for one another.

My parents have been out to visit us twice already since they were vaccinated, and they are set to return to Israel in October. My mother wants to visit each of their three children - in our three different cities - one more time before they fly overseas.  But as my father has been reading about breakthrough cases of Delta, he wants to limit their travel between now and October. He is worried about getting really sick. And he is worried that even a mild case would prevent them from entering Israel. These are clearly problems of the privileged, and they know that. But they are having a hard time with the uncertainty.

Surrender is hard.  

My father says that Amidah every day:

Our lives that are in Your hands, our souls that are under Your care, Your miracles that accompany us each day, Your wonders and gifts that are with us at each moment.

But still, couldn’t some of that miracles and gifts stuff include giving us back all of the control that we used to have? At least let us know what’s going to come next, ok, so we can decide whether to book our tickets?

The answer, unfortunately, is “no.”  We don’t get to control this one. Each person is just a small world. Whatever command we think we have can be taken back in a moment.

When we do surrender, our eyes lift up with a new promise. Suddenly, we can see the image of God in each human face we encounter. And if the entire human world is an enormous person, then when humanity works together we can channel a ton of divine power. And THAT is what gives me hope. Not my illusion of personal control over my tiny world, but my faith in all of humanity, created in the image of God. 

May the year 5782 be a year of coming together. May we be open, and trusting. May we not hide our own pain, and may we not avert our eyes from other’s pain.  May we stop seeing one another as the parts that we use to construct our individual lives. May we instead see each other as partners, in this great endeavor to bring the divine light back into the world.

Shanah tovah.


Mon, August 15 2022 18 Av 5782