I spent most of this past week at home, talking and praying via Zoom; I presume that many of you were also at home. Schools are closed or have moved online. Restaurants are only open for takeout. Non-life-sustaining businesses are closed. (It’s good to know, BTW, that Pennsylvania considers “Religious Organizations” to be life-sustaining!) My sister and her family just arrived here from Hungary, and are in a self-quarantine for two weeks.
This is a reality that we will likely face for at least a few months. I am fortunate to be standing here, with a family today as a young woman was called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, but of course we are about 16 people standing in a room that seats 1600, maintaining at least 6 feet from each other at all times. And all the rest of yinz are watching this online.
Some of you are of course wondering why, suddenly, live-streaming of services on Shabbat is OK. And how we have been holding weekday minyanim online for a week, with no single, physical room in which there are 10 people. It speaks to the resilience of our tradition, that even while we must be physically separated, we acknowledge the value of gathering, even if it is through means by which just a week ago seemed unacceptable according to Jewish law.
And let me tell you why this is going to be extraordinarily important in the coming months.
As religious knowledge and participation in America has declined, most of us do not have a spiritual framework. We value our independence over all else. “It’s a free country,” is the refrain that we hear throughout our lives: free from government control; free from limitations on our behavior or speech; free from religious traditions.
In all that freedom, where are the guidelines that help us make the right choices? How do we improve ourselves and the world? Where are the opportunities for holiness that make our lives meaningful?
Our current situation is exceedingly humbling. We have come to think of ourselves as invincible, as not having to wrestle with many of the real physical threats that our ancestors did. Think of the ability we have to cure many diseases today, thanks to antibiotics. Think of the abilities we have honed to manipulate our world such that we can connect with people in real time all over the world. Think of the many brilliant minds humanity has yielded – the Einsteins and the Mozarts and the Shakespeares and Freuds of our species, the people who have unlocked the secrets of nature and produced such great creativity and innovation and technology and beauty.
We seem to have conquered nature, perhaps after God’s command to the first humans in the first chapter of Bereshit / Genesis (1:28):
פְּר֥וּ וּרְב֛וּ וּמִלְא֥וּ אֶת־הָאָ֖רֶץ וְכִבְשֻׁ֑הָ וּרְד֞וּ בִּדְגַ֤ת הַיָּם֙ וּבְע֣וֹף הַשָּׁמַ֔יִם וּבְכָל־חַיָּ֖ה הָֽרֹמֶ֥שֶׂת עַל־הָאָֽרֶץ׃
“Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.”
Well, ladies and gentlemen, it is so easy for us to feel that we have done that.
And yet, all of that can be so easily undone by a microscopic strand of RNA wrapped up in a protein shell: a virus. Not even quite a living thing, arguably. But a force within nature that fells the mightiest of economies and the most robust societies. We have been brought low by the devastating force unleashed by this tiny invader.
The ancient world was a much more dangerous place. There were so many things that we could not control. And that’s why our ancestors appealed to an unseen God, a God that offered them land and fertility and protection and success and health. That’s why, when enemies destroyed our Beit haMiqdash, our Temple in Jerusalem and exiled us to the four corners of the world, we stubbornly carried our Torah with us, and continued to read it, to live by it, and to reinterpret it in every age. The Torah is the portable, personal manifestation of that protection, of the Shekhinah, God’s presence in our lives.
And that is why we have inherited this ancient framework. That is why we celebrate today a young woman being called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah, as one who has fully inherited those mitzvot, those holy opportunities of Jewish life.
Framework: Jewish tradition. Halakhah / Jewish law. Mitzvot. Customs. Foods. Holidays. Our stories. Our texts, our music. These things have nourished us and kept us whole for thousands of years. They are as integral to our lives as truth and justice. They are the infrastructure of our very existence. They have kept us alive and sustained us and enabled us to reach this moment, as the bat mitzvah’s parents said in gratitude on Shabbat morning.
And that is why we do not merely change everything that we do. That is why the motivating reason for so much in Jewish life is, “Because we’ve always done it this way.”
Our tradition matters so much that it is essential that we grapple with the hard questions, and not merely dismiss them. Sometimes, we cannot do things the way we have always done them. And so too today.
It is that Etz Hayyim, that tree of life about which we sang just a few minutes ago when we returned the Torah to the ark, to which we continue to grasp. That tree is solid, is sturdy, and yet it is a wee bit flexible. And particularly when times change as dramatically as they have right now.
The word halakhah, which we often interpret in shorthand as “Jewish law,” is derived from the Hebrew shoresh (root letters) heh-lamed-kaf, meaning to walk or to go. Halakhah is how we walk through life, acknowledging God’s presence, and, more to the point, the presence of others around us. As we walk, we make course corrections. When there is an obstacle in the way, we find a way around it. And these guiding principles keep us aware of our context, our relationships, our behavior.
And they keep us alive, enabling us to go from celebration to mourning to support for one another in all frames of reference.
Ladies and gentlemen, the next several weeks, and maybe months, may be very boring indeed. Maybe you’ll get tired of streaming movies. Maybe you’ll need a new hobby. I am pretty sure that Pesah will be very strange this year, because you can’t invite all your friends and family. We will definitely still be practicing social distancing. We may all be completely confined to our homes by then. Who knows.
And maybe, just maybe, you’ll have the opportunity to think about all the things that are special in your life, and what really matters most. Not the gadgets, or the high-falutin’ degrees from fancy colleges, or all of the trappings of our society. What ultimately matters is the people you love: your family, your close friends. When we make it to the other side of this, whether it is two months or many more, I hope that we will all see that clearly.
But in the meantime, we will need courage. We will need wisdom. And we will need a framework.
Where will we find those things? In the living words of our tradition. Life will conquer this thing, this destructive, nearly-alive thing. Human spirit, ingenuity, and creativity will get us through. But it will take a long time, and we will re-emerge leaner, less sure of ourselves, and definitely more humble.
I want to urge us all, of course to look out for ourselves and our families, but also to look out especially to those who may be sheltering alone and will feel cut off, and of course those who are ill. We have before us the mitzvah of biqqur holim, visiting the sick, which of course we will not be able to do in person, but a phone call or some other means of contact will be so valuable. Make that mitzvah a part of your daily practice.
And we also have guidance from our parashah today, where we read in Vayaqhel about the generosity of spirit that moved the Israelites in the building of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary that became the home of the Shekhinah, God’s presence among them while wandering in the desert for 40 years. Over and over, the text referenced the materials brought by, “kol nadiv libo,” every person whose heart so moved them to generosity. We are a people who understand the value of the common good, and our obligation to exercise that generosity, to let the good of our hearts motivate us.
Furthermore, let the characters from our tradition inspire us to be resolute in this time. Consider the bravery of Devorah the Judge, the wisdom of King Shelomoh, the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu, and the impressive resilience of Rabbi Shim’on bar Yohai, a student of Rabbi Akiva’s and the purported author of the Zohar, who, the Talmud tells us, hid from the Romans in a cave for 13 years, eating only from the fruit of a carob tree.
Please God, it won’t be 13 years. What really counts now, however, is courage, wisdom, and framework. Our tradition gives us all of those things.
Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 3/21/2020.)