We have just concluded the reading of the Book of Exodus and are about to start the Book of Leviticus. The themes of the Book of Exodus are: 1) Liberation (the core story of Passover, which we celebrate this coming week), 2) Revelation, the proclamation of Torah at Sinai, and 3) the details regarding the portable Tabernacle or sanctuary.
The Tabernacle is not the “vessel”, but the “symbol” of the Divine Presence among the sacred community. The instruction was: “Build me a sanctuary” that I may dwell “among you” — b’tocham (Ex. 25:8), not b’tocho — “in it.” God’s presence dwells among the people, not in a specific place. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that Judaism is a religion concerned more with “sacredness in time”, than with “sacredness of space.” Significantly, the instruction about the building of the Tabernacle is prefaced by a reference to Shabbat. The sacredness of the physical space “where” people gather, is dependent on the sacredness of the sanctuary of time, “when” people gather in holiness.
A year of quarantine has passed. Since March, 2020, we have been experiencing services and programs virtually. The Jewish home has served as a Mikdash Me’at, a “small sanctuary” wherein we have marked “sacred times”, socially distanced, but not spiritually isolated.
Our sacred times have been accompanied by difficult moments. Most painful have been the illnesses and losses, the anxiety and the anguish of these unsettling months. Social distancing, personal stresses, and political upheaval have made this an unprecedented year, beyond the health crisis.
Despite challenges and turmoil, with the support and partnership of colleagues, of dedicated lay leaders, devoted members, family and friends, we have been able, as congregations and communities, not merely to survive, but to retool, thrive, and transform ourselves to meet adversity and to keep the promise.
We now begin to contemplate the months ahead. We are all eager to return to normal, but should not push it. We have been patient thus far, and should maintain standards. The pandemic is not over. Let us not be lured to rush our return.
Zoom, Livestream and other virtual means have kept us connected and engaged as a community. An intimate circle of immediate family has allowed us to honor our B’nai and B’not Mitzvah. Sadly, even funerals have had to abide by limitations.
90% of the population is still unvaccinated. New strains of the virus are developing. We can wait a couple of months or we can rush and risk thousands of additional deaths. Not much has really changed from the last time the country tried to open and we experienced a surge. Only 40% of health care workers have been vaccinated in the United States. Spring vacation travel and the NCAA tournament in our city (Indianapolis), will undoubtedly have an aftermath.
The CDC vaccination directives represent first steps and are meant for private gatherings. They are not a carte blanche for return to normal interaction. Precautions still apply: hygiene, masks, distancing, size of crowds. What has changed is that there is the permissibility, mostly for vaccinated individuals and families to come together in small circles. Hopefully, this year, we will be able to celebrate together in small circles around the Seder table.
More important than praying together or being together, Jewish ethics would teach us, is looking after one another’s health and welfare, nurturing and protecting the sacred community. So, let us keep our hands out of the cookie jar just a little bit longer, and then we can hopefully enjoy the desserts and afikoman. Let us proceed cautiously, prudently and progressively to make sure that we will have nothing to regret as we move into new possibilities.
Last year, as the pandemic became entrenched, I referenced a passage from Anne Lamont about the art of quilt making. Admittedly, not a quilter myself, I proposed that we were living through “quilt-like times”, getting through each day “stitch by stitch, patch by patch.” A year has passed, and spring is almost upon us again. It is time to look at what we have created, the pieces we managed to salvage and the threads we used to sew the fragments together.
Our quilt, a patchwork of sorrow and loss, hope and faith, has been stitched together with heroism, altruism, and simple perseverance. May the blanket of beauty and warmth we have created embrace and enfold us as we move towards blessings of renewal, healing, and joy. Hag Sameach!