It’s got to be the strangest Rosh Hashana you will ever experience – locked out of shule, locked-down at home. No shofar to blast you out of your sleep, no chazan and choir to get you out of your seat, no rabbi to get you onto your feet and no crowds of family and friends to greet and meet…
Just how will we manage? How are we going to get through these weeks? Not even the comfort and consolation of large and sumptuous family dinners.
I’ve been struggling to get my head around being a shule-less rabbi, a shepherd without his flock, a desperate drasha looking for an audience… It’s the stuff of despair.
As I’ve recited the twice daily psalm of this Elul season, Psalm 27, one evocative verse has, however, just kept on leaping out at me:
“One thing I ask of the Lord
One thing I desire
That I may sit in the house of God
All the days of my life
To see the pleasantness of the Lord
And to visit His sanctuary…”
It’s one wish that’s not going to be granted this year, one hope not realised. But the psalmist; King David, neither started with this wish, nor did he end his magnificent psalm with this. David knew he wouldn’t get to build the Temple, nor even to visit it, but he wasn’t defeated. He knew that as much as he wanted it, the failure to get it wouldn’t define him. He was a King with a royal reach precisely because he could see beyond the moment, he had a bold heart and a broad vision.
“The Lord is my light and salvation
When shall I fear?
The Lord is the refuge of my life.
Whom shall I dread?
When the evil ones come to eat my flesh…
if an army would surround me, my heart will not be afraid”
David knew in his bones that adversity doesn’t mean defeat, challenge doesn’t spell devastation, failure doesn’t create doom. He knew deep in his heart that God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.
And if God has put us in this place at this time, it’s with the knowledge that we can learn, grow and become better people because of it.
This may be one of the most challenging of times, but it’s not the worst of times. We, as a people, have experienced far worse. Those who came before us, the generations who preceded us, had an unshakeable determination; they came through, their experience has been imprinted on our DNA, stamped into our souls, giving us the courage to face Corona, to tame it, to learn how to live better with and because of it.
They taught us how to find the light of the Lord in the darkness. More than that they gave us the capacity to apprehend “all the light we cannot see”. I don’t know why God chose us to be the children of Covid, but I do know that he has given us a unique opportunity-to be locked up, but not imprisoned, to be isolated, but not disconnected, to be at home, but not homeless. A chance to seize the moment, to discover a different kind of connectedness, a deeper type of spirituality, a more discerning kind of meaning, a more discriminating way of treating each other and our planet.
We may be locked into our arks while the storm rages outside, but in our arks, like Noah’s let’s uncover the “Tzohar”, the source of light and hope. Let’s ride the wilful waves and not be beaten, upset, angry, despairing or disillusioned. Let’s find the light that’s always around us, hidden within us.
The Baal Shem Tov would counsel that when faced with adversity we should take three steps. Firstly, ha chna’ah, (yielding), then havdalah (discernment) and finally hamtakah (sweetening). Yielding is about submitting, letting go of hopes, expectations and dreams. All those plans we had made, those journeys and events we had expected in 2020/5780. Once we yield to that realisation, we can progress to the second step: havdalah, distinguishing the facts from fantasy. Rabbi Friedman suggests this is a bit like walking into a dark room. Initially we see only undifferentiated darkness. But once our eyes get used to the dark, we begin to discern different contours, shadows and shades and perhaps even a bit of light coming in under the door…We see things differently.
The third step is hamtakah, the surprising recognition that in the bitter winter of Covid we have discovered a sweetness; the small acts of caring of others; the kindness of strangers; perhaps a gentleness within or just the sweet scent of the spring and the joy of a sunny day on your 1- or 2-hour liberation walk… Or it could be the wonder of Zoom and how our community have come together. The unity of our shules and rabbis and the magnificent Project High Holydays;500 shofar blowers across our community.
So, let’s see this Rosh Hashana, not as a punishment but a gift, not as a retribution but re-vision, not as a depressing confinement but a sweet liberation.
To adapt the words of the poet, Andrew Marvell:
“Let us roll all of our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball
And tear our [way]
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run”
Wishing you and your families a Shana Tova, a sweet, healthy and happy year. A year in which we move from fear to freedom, from distance to dancing, hopelessness to hopefulness, healing and the joy of shevet achim gam yachad, the closeness of brothers and sisters in togetherness.
Rabbi Ralph & Caron Genende and our family