On Rosh Hashanah, Jewish tradition comes to tell us every new year that everything we’ve ever known is on the line. The zodiac sign for Tishrei, the first Jewish month of the year, is the scale, and for good reason. Over and over again our liturgy tells us that the world is hanging in the balance. The Books of Life and Death have yet to be sealed and we pray the rawest of prayers, literally pleading for another year of life. In ancient times, so we’re told, the Jewish people would gather outside the Temple in Jerusalem, hoping against hope that the High Priest would emerge from the Holy of Holies to let them know the world would indeed be sustained for one more year.
I don’t think we’ve ever experienced a Rosh Hashanah in which it felt more viscerally that the world was indeed actually hanging in the balance. In our communities, throughout our country, around the world, the new year is arriving in time that feels completely and utterly uncertain. For me – and I suspect for you as well – our Rosh Hashanah prayers this year have a powerful, even unnerving resonance.
It’s difficult to know where to even start, and it’s almost unbearable to contemplate all at once: a global pandemic has taken over 200,000 lives in the US and almost one million worldwide. It has permanently changed our world in ways we’ve barely begun to understand. Our health system is overwhelmed and overtaxed. The leaders of our country have been criminally negligent in their response to the pandemic. As a result, in a moment when we desperately need to come together, they are politicizing community health measures like mask-wearing and social distancing, further tearing our national community apart.
And of course, none of this is occurring in a vacuum. It’s astonishing to witness how quickly COVID has unleashed this terrifying domino effect of economic chaos in our country and around the world, leaving increasing numbers of people unemployed, homeless and uninsured. And contrary to the cliche, the pandemic is not a great equalizer: its impact has been particularly devastating for communities of color, the poor and too many other disenfranchised communities in our midst.
There is no getting around it: this Rosh Hashanah, we’re greeting this new year in a state of genuine grief over the sheer enormity over what we have already lost and fear over what is yet to come. That’s why, I believe, the first order of business this new year is to give ourselves the space and permission to grieve our collective loss and name these fears out loud. To acknowledge what is no more and affirm openly and honestly that the world has been forever changed in ways we cannot yet fully grasp. Frankly, I don’t know how we can pray these prayers unless we find a way to acknowledge this together.
I think grief is an apt metaphor for this moment. As anyone who has experienced grief knows all too well, there is a period of deep shock and disbelief that occurs immediately after the loss of someone we love. In many ways, this feels like what we’re going through now: the disbelief, the magical thinking, the inability to fully grasp our new reality, the uncertainty of everything except the hard truth that nothing in our lives will ever be the same.
When we grieve, however, we do know some things for sure. We know that isolation is our enemy. We know that we have to depend upon each other to move forward. We know that we need community more than ever before. Though this new world is a painful and uncertain place, we must resist the temptation to withdraw from it. This will be a particular challenge in this new age of social distancing: when our survival literally depends upon our being physically apart, we know instinctively that we must find new ways to connect with one another if we are to survive.
Over the last few months, people have found ways to connect with each other with resilient creativity. Yes, life in the COVID era is surreal, frustrating, and often downright bizarre. Yes, I never, ever dreamed I would one day find myself leading a High Holiday Zoom service, and yes, I’m very sure you never expected you would ever attend one. But over the last few months, as we’ve negotiated this brave new world in our congregation, we’ve discovered that these challenges have come hand in hand with new opportunities we never could have anticipated.
Here at Tzedek Chicago, since the pandemic began, we’re busier than ever before. We now have four weekly programs and our attendance has grown exponentially. We’ve inaugurated a communal care Hesed Committee to check in on the immediate needs of our members. We now have new members participating regularly in our services and programs from across the country and around the world, from as far away as New Zealand and the UK. In the end, however, this isn’t just a matter of greater access. On a deeper level, I think, this new growth is a testament to the deep desire folks have to connect with others, to overcome their isolation, to find new ways to create community in this moment of profound loss.
At the same time, amidst all of this massive change, even as we adjust to this new world, there’s that nagging question lurking in the background: how long will we actually have to do this? When will we get our lives and our world back? When will things get back to “normal?” Again, as with the experience of grief, I personally think it’s important to challenge this kind of magical thinking; to resist the temptation to assume that this is only a temporary moment; a period we just have to muscle through before things get back to the way they were. As with the experience of grief, I think it’s important for us to accept that the world we once knew is gone. Something will indeed come in its place, but whatever it is, we need to accept that things will never be the same.
It occurs to me that Rosh Hashanah might actually be coming at just the right time to help us with this acceptance. After all, when we pray the words “t’chadeish aleynu shanah tovah u’metukah” – “renew us for a good and sweet new year” – we’re not asking for the world the way it used to be. On Rosh Hashanah, we center renewal. Over and over again we proclaim throughout our liturgy that every new year, the world can be recreated and reborn.
This idea is actually the exact opposite of that famous line from the book of Lamentations,“chadeish yameninu ke’kedem;– “renew our days as days of old.” Whatever else it may be, Rosh Hashanah was never meant to be an exercise in nostalgia, a yearning for an idealized, mythic time that never really was. On the contrary, it is an occasion for dreaming of the world that might yet be.
No, we will not go back to “normal.” But amidst the grief, it’s worth asking, do we really want to? Should we want to? The great activist poet Sonya Renee Taylor has written powerfully to this point:
We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.
That’s right. For far too long, too many in this country have assumed it’s somehow normal to live in a world with a deep and deepening economic divide separating rich from poor, to tolerate a toxic environmental crisis, to treat endemic state violence and systemic racism as just a given. But none of this has been in any way “normal.”
In truth, we’ve been living unsustainably for far too long. Deep down, we must have known that one day this bubble would burst. And now it has. The world as we knew it has broken wide open. So yes, if there is a spiritual imperative to this particular moment, it’s not “renew our days as in days of old” – it must be “recreate this word anew.”
Judaism actually gives us a powerful paradigm for this – a framework for living when the only world we’ve ever known has fallen away from beneath us. It is, in fact, one of the central mythic moments at the heart of Jewish tradition itself: namely the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70 ACE. Jewish spiritual memory views this as the formative moment in our history: the cataclysmic moment when Jewish life was cracked wide open. As we have come to understand it, this was the moment when everything in our world changed forever.
Yes, the destruction of the Temple constituted a massive collective crisis for the Jewish people – but it’s also important to note that it represented an opportunity to stitch a new garment as well. After all, this was the moment that Judaism as we know it came into being. The diaspora might have been a place of exile, but it was also the fertile ground upon which the Jewish people staged their spiritual rebirth. In short, when the only world we ever knew was shattered, we responded in the spirit of hope, resilience and creativity.
A line from a famous midrash teaches, “when the people of Israel were exiled, God went into exile with them.” Among other things, this means that God wasn’t destroyed along with the Temple. God accompanied us into this new and unknown world. And while this spiritual truth may speak directly to the Jewish experience, it’s certainly not unique to it. It’s a universal truth: at the moments of our deepest loss, we become more spiritually attuned. We can see God more clearly: in the hearts that have been broken and in the wells of strength we never knew we had. In the memory of those we’ve lost, the faces of those we love and who have suffered loss as well. And I would suggest it is this very Presence that is accompanying us right now as we face this uncertain new world.
So, if we are ready to fully enter this changed and changing new kingdom, what do we do now? I think it goes without saying that the order of the moment is care for each other. Too many lives have been devastated already and we know that this devastation will continue in the coming year. For now – and forever more – we must view mutual aid as a mitzvah – a sacred imperative. I know many of you are involved in these kinds of projects, which are founded on the ethics of solidarity and not mere charity. At Tzedek Chicago, we’ve been compiling an ongoing list of efforts in which we can participate locally – mutual aid that supports those who were already economically vulnerable before the onset of the pandemic, in particular low-income workers, day laborers, domestic workers, those who work in the gig economy. If you know of initiatives that are not on our list, please let us know about them so we can make them available to our membership.
It’s also important for us to bear in mind that radical empathy is not only a means to an end. Yes, we empathize with each other because we are social animals that depend on each other for our survival – and this must certainly never be underestimated. But at the same time, it’s worth considering that our empathic support for another actually creates the world we want to see in real time. When we support and find comfort in one another, we need not yearn for the world to come because in a sense, it’s here right now. Beyond the pain, beyond the loss, we would do well to realize that the world we’ve been struggling for all along is being built by our love and support for one another.
And how do we find hope when that pain and loss feels like it is too much to bear? For me, I’ve always been taken with the definition of hope offered by folks like Vaclav Havel and Cornell West. Optimism, they say, is the shallow expectation that things will naturally get better. Hope, however, is the conviction that some things are worth fighting for no matter what may happen. Hope is the courage to act, even in – especially in – those times when doubt might be warranted.
So let this be my blessing for us all this Rosh Hashanah-like-no other, when so much in our world is hanging in the balance as never before: let us grieve for the world that we’ve lost, show up for those who need it most, and fight like hell for the world we know is possible.
Shanah Tovah to you all.