Fray Luis de León, a prominent 16th century Spanish literary and religious figure of Jewish converso ancestry, had been imprisoned by the Inquisition on suspicion of “Judaizing” (that is, promoting Jewish ideas and practice). Upon being cleared of charges and released years later, he returned to his teaching podium at the University of Salamanca and started his lecture, saying: Dicebamus hesterna die – “As we were saying yesterday….”
This is one such “As we were saying yesterday” moment. Despite all that has transpired, we pick up where we were, and move into the New Year carrying the experiences and lessons of the past, moving on to hopeful and healing tomorrows. “As we were saying yesterday….” But, what can we say today?!
Charles Dickens captured best the essence of our predicament: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness… it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…” All of these emotions wrapped into one, in no particular sequence or balance, we carry into the New Year.
The Covid-19 Pandemic has upended everything we thought we knew, everything we have experienced and seen: Illness, suffering, death, political and social upheaval, floods and fires, personal dislocation and distancing, fear and anger, racial and cultural bigotry, antisemitism, uncertainty….
American life changed decisively on March, 2021. The whole world was taken by surprise. Science sought to give guidance, politics often got in the way of policy. Masks became for some a means of protection, while for others a statement of ideology. Understanding the virus and developing public policy defined the elections and triggered unrest in our streets and insurrection in D.C.
But even as things looked daunting and despair hovered, good things were happening. Science was developing vaccines. Physicians and health care providers were offering care. People were volunteering, being generous with their skills and their resources. In a year that was filled with noise, we also learned to listen to the sounds of silence. Some people became more thoughtful and introspective, as others took to the streets and to social media to proclaim their values and vent frustrations. In the Zoom boxes of virtual communication, we learned to listen, to worship, to study. To be community.
The Pandemic highlighted the historic and long-lasting legacy of racial disparities in our nation; it triggered expression of anti-Black and anti-Asian, anti-Muslim, and antisemitic bigotry that lie sometimes overtly, sometimes camouflaged, in the hearts of others.
The physical virus put many on life support. But an even more frightening virus is putting us on life support, and there is no vaccine to protect. That virus is hate. It feeds on lack of control, uncertainty and ignorance. It erupts on the streets, in all forms of media, and in the very halls of government. To counter it, we must name it. To counter it, we must do more than decry the worst behaviors, we must uplift and celebrate the best. We have been less than our dreams, but we have been more than our nightmares.
We cannot minimize the Pandemic’s devastating consequences. It has not only impacted and killed millions, but has also brought social and emotional damage to individuals and societies in our nation and around the world. Autocratic regimes became entrenched. Terrorism surfaced. The Taliban took over. Democracy was challenged. The pressure cooker of social distancing for some, and unrelenting illness and death for others, exploded with damaging consequences and long-lasting results.
Social scientists estimate that Covid has lowered the life expectancy in the United States by an average of 1½ years, the largest decline since WW II. Increased social inequality has led to what sociologists call “deaths of despair” – addictions to drugs and alcohol, and suicide aggravated by Covid. Covid has both exposed and worsened health inequality.
The Pandemic has also caused us to be afraid. Afraid not only of the physical health threat of the virus, but of increasing polarization, of our inability to communicate with those who have opposing ideas and antagonism to science.
I am fearful of the ways in which we demonize the other and accuse each other. I am mindful of the Genesis narrative we read on the New Year, the Binding of Isaac. This Rosh Hashana, we feel like Isaac, with a knife of impending doom poised above us. Whether it be a resurgence of the Covid 19 virus or of a long festering hate of the other, the threats of war, the ravages of hurricanes and wild fires, we feel bound by realities over which we have little control.
I am afraid, but I also hope. Isaac survived his ordeal, and here we are. An angel called Abraham’s name and Abraham responded, “Here I am.” And the angel said, “Do not raise your hand against the boy…” Today the angel calls again, “Do not raise your hand against one another.” And each of us must respond, “Here I am.”
The mixed legacy of Covid is that it has sharpened the extremes: It has made some people meaner, some people kinder; it has raised our awareness of the importance of science; it has turned others to heightened superstition and conspiracy theories; it has put a light on and deepened poverty; it has made others wealthier; it has mired the world in despair and awakened us to the necessity of world cooperation and individual responsibility in order to achieve healing, renewal, and a future of possibility and hope. Covid has reminded us that none of us is in this alone; that we are all in it together.
A lesson: An anthropologist was teaching a game to the children of an African tribe. He placed a basket of delicious fresh fruit at the base of a tree and told them: “The first to reach the tree will get the basket.” When he gave the start signal, he was surprised to see that the children held hands and walk together towards the basket. When he asked why they did that, when any one of them could have run to get the basket alone, they answered: “Ubuntu!” “How can one of us be happy while the rest are unhappy?!” “UBUNTU” in their native language means: “I am because we are.”
Significantly, our High Holy Day’s prayers are written in the plural. Each one of us has failed, but we confess as part of a community. Failures of one are failures of all. But, the strength of one, can be strength for all. Today we recite the same plural prayers and commitments that we have affirmed for millennia before. The world has changed; we have changed. We have hurt, and we have cried; we have lost and we have stood by; we have experienced; we have witnessed; we have learned that moving forward requires collective effort. Yes, individual initiative and creativity are important, but as part of shared endeavor and a sense of common humanity.
We take with us the lessons of the past years, the memories, the mourning, the moments when we learned to celebrate, cry and laugh in ways we hadn’t imagined possible. We wrap it all together in a bundle of memory and hope, and we say: UBUNTU. I am because we are.
“As we were saying yesterday…:” L’Shanah Tovah Tikatevu.
I wish you a year of hopeful and healing tomorrows.
Rabbi Dennis C. Sasso is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck. Adapted from a Rosh Hashanah address.