As we all know, the 9 days are often a time for reflection. And this year, many of us are experiencing even more acutely than ususal.
Depending on how the year was for each of us, reflection can come in many forms. Some faced painful loss. Others found opportunities, such as increased time with family, or for learning. Still others watched too much Netflix and Disney+. (I’m somewhere in the middle. I took on the daf but didn’t make it make it past Shabbas 40. But I did manage to complete every episode of Wandavision.)
The renewal can also be different for each of us as we leave the pandemic planet, and re-enter planet ‘normal’. Some of us are still working from home but are shopping in person. Some families that saw older children unexpectedly return home are now facing a new quiet as those children leave once again. Others are going back to the office for the first time and encountering the surreal sight of their desks, with photos displaying faces that are about a year too young, and paperwork that is beyond obsolete.
As we reenter normal’s atmosphere, many of us are experiencing each ‘new’ thing in profound ways. When the library reopened? I got misty-eyed. Walking into a shul maskless for the first time in a year? Liberating. And watching my daughter give her best friend a deep hug for the first time in a year almost made me cry.
These intense feelings in response to things we used to take for granted is remarkable. One of the biggest challenges over which much ink has been spilled was the automatic quality that many of our practices could foster. The repetitive nature of Shacharit, Mincha, Maariv, Shacharit, Mincha, Maariv- rinse and repeat- often made it a challenge for us to feel spiritual meaning. But right now, for me, almost nothing feels rote! Every little thing feels like a moment for gratitude.
Harvard Hearth Publishing (of the Harvard Medical School, 2011) defines gratitude as “a thankful appreciation for what an individual receives” and that having gratitude “helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships.” In short, gratitude can make you happier. I think for me, gratitude can also help me more deeply connect to Hashem.
But at the same time that I am grateful for the return of so much, I’m also reflecting what I do NOT want to go back to normal.
Because I’ll be honest: While I deeply missed family and friends, I enjoyed not having to do the work that comes with ‘Shabbos company”. The menu planning, cooking and clean up.
(I really want to ban appetizers, forever. Why did I ever have to make a meal to eat BEFORE the meal, anyway?)
But this part is tricky, because—and I know I’m stating the obvious here –everyone is DIFFERENT. Just as everyone had a different covid experience, everyone is thinking differently about what they want to keep or let go of.
For example, I am in the process of planning my son’s wedding. Can I choose to keep it small, and invite just extremely close family and friends, or will that offend?
Can I choose to stay home for the shul dinner and enjoy my charteurrie board, or should I make an appearance, lest I insult the honorees?
I’ve even heard that there are people who really like appetizers! So Is it OK if I skip making them- or not?
The above are lighter examples, but there are deeper ones taking place as well. For example, new communities were formed around zoom shiurim where people attended from across the world. Will those communities stick, or will they dissolve as in-person shiurim reopen? We are in this strange, transitional period where social and communal expectations are up in the air and need to be renegotiated.
We’re going to have to have a lot of conversations. And we might not always agree on the ways forward (in fact I’m pretty sure we won’t!) But that’s OK. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote in The Dignity of Difference
“In a debate one side wins, the other loses, but both are the same as they were before. In a conversation neither side loses and both are changed, because they now know what reality looks like from a different perspective. That is not to say that either gives up its previous convictions. That is not what conversation is about. It does mean, however, that I may now realize that I must make space for another deeply held belief, and if my own case has been compelling, the other side may understand that it too must make space for mine.”
As we reflect on the year that was, as we begin these conversations, let us hope that our coming year will be full of both gratitude and understanding of one another. And when it comes time to reflect next year, may we only see blessings.
(And perhaps…fewer appetizers? Let’s discuss.)