There’s an eerie silence shrouding our cold Melbourne nights and early mornings. I never realized just how conscious I am of the constant buzz of traffic on my busy corner. Now I miss the sound of the fretful traffic, voices from the street. This lockdown is different from our first one. It’s more worrying; the number of Covid cases is creeping up in our community, stalking our comfortable Caulfield Shtetl.
People seem more on edge, less giving, more frustrated, less forgiving. “Now”, as Shakespeare put it, “is the winter of our discontent”. And for us there’s the realization that Rosh Hashanah as we’ve always known it, isn’t going to happen. No huge throngs at our shules, no big family gatherings. No Kol Nidrei in the usual way.
That’s a hard one. I’m struggling to get my head around it and how to open the gates of prayer when you can’t open the shule gates.
If the first time round we had to draw on our faith, hope and reason, this time we need to add another ingredient – it’s called perseverance. The recognition that this little virus isn’t going to be beaten easily, the acknowledgement that even when we get that elusive vaccine it’s going to take time to return to a new normal. This isn’t a short sprint but a long-distance race.
This has gotten me thinking about perseverance. The first thing that came to my mind was a little ditty from my childhood: Patience, plodding, perseverance, produces perfection. While I don’t believe in perfection anymore, I do believe in the power of patience and the potency of plodding perseverance.
When I look back at my own life and the stories of so many others, I see that most often it was the small, unremembered acts of persevering that led to positive and successful outcomes. That it’s the step-by-step, slow and painstaking journey, that brings you to a good destination. To adapt the words of Isaiah (28:10), it’s about “mitzvah by mitzvah, line by line, line by line, a little bit here, a little bit there…”. It sounds better in the rhythmic original:
“Ki tzav letzav, tzav letzav, Kav lekav, Kav lekav, Zeir sham, Zeir sham.” Charles Spurgeon expressed the idea humorously when he wrote – “By perseverance the snail reached the ark”.
The second reflection was a serendipitous global event that probably past unnoticed for most: the launching of the space rover named Perseverance from Cape Canaveral on July 30, 2020. Its mission, to land on Mars on February 18, 2021, at the site of an ancient river delta and to spend one Mars year (2 earth years) exploring the landscape for signs of ancient life and habitability. The name of the Craft caught my attention; it was provided by a sensational 13-year-old, Alexander Mather from Virginia who won the “Name the Rover” essay contest. Previous rovers also got their names from USA students.
The precocious teenager’s essay is as remarkable as it is insightful: “Curiosity, Insight, Spirit, Opportunity. If you think about it, all of these names of past Mars rovers are qualities we possess as humans. We’re always curious and seek opportunity. We have the spirit and insight to explore the Moon, Mars and beyond. But if rovers are to be the qualities of us as a race, we missed the most important thing: Perseverance. We as humans evolved as creatures who could learn to adapt to any situation, no matter how harsh. We are a species of explorers, and we will meet many setbacks on the way to Mars. However, we can persevere. We, not as a nation, but as humans will not give up. The human race will always persevere into the future.”
Perseverance, as Alexander notes, is inbuilt in our genes, it’s also intrinsic to our identity as Jews. We, as a nation, never gave up, despite destruction and devastation, disaster and dispersion. The fabled Rabbi Akiva did not weep in the face of the destruction of the Temples; he did not give up even in the face of death.
Rabbi Akiva is a model of perseverance. Until the age of forty he was an ignorant shepherd when one day sitting by a river, he noticed a trickle of water hitting a rock. It was only a slow drip onto the stone but it was constant – drop after drop. Then Akiva noticed that a hole had been carved into the rock by the steady trickle of water. And he mused: “What power there is in a droplet of water – could my stony mind and heart ever be penetrated that way?” This epiphany led him to embark on a course of study that eventuated in him becoming one of the greatest scholars of the Talmud. He would ostensibly tell his twenty-four thousand students that it was a drop of water that changed his life! Interestingly a contemporary of Akiva, the Roman poet Ovid observed: “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence”.
Rabbi Akiva didn’t become an astronaut as young Alex hopes to, but he became an astute explorer of the inner space of Torah and the Jewish intellectual tradition. And just as astronauts and scholars need a combination of attributes, so do we all during this strange journey through Covid land. The Covid landscape is already littered with corpses and failures. It’s a harsh, unrelenting and unforgiving place, but one that we as human beings can surely conquer.
It calls on us all as sojourners to reach deep into ourselves, to cultivate the characteristics of curiosity, insight, spirit and opportunity. These qualities are plentiful within Jewish sources and practices. I find them daily in my study of Torah.,I deepen them daily in my tefillah, I practice them regularly in my outreach to others.
I am, at times, despondent and despairing of all the pain and devastation around me, the woes of our world. And the suffering of Beirut weighs heavily on me today.
At these times I return to the wisdom of perseverance, the calm consistency of endurance and the reminder from my youth that patience, plodding and perseverance produce better human beings. I am consoled by the opening words of this week’s Haftorah: Be comforted, be comforted, my people.