Our ancestors have always moved into the unknown. Their strength and stories help us as we move and grow.
Consider a sunny Rosh Hashanah morning, 2500 years ago. Before the ruins of the First Temple, the men and women of Jerusalem gather at the Water Gate. They have come together as a holy community for the first time since returning from exile in Babylon. Ezra the Priest is reading the Torah, cover to cover. The people listen, entranced. And they weep.
I imagine Rivka, who was born in exile. She weeps for her father, who dreamed of returning to his beloved city. His stories of visiting the Holy Temple were the bread and honey of her childhood. He did not live to see this day, but she stands here proudly in his stead.
I imagine Moishe, who grew up here, on the streets of Jerusalem. He remembers being forced to leave with only what he could carry. His parents and sister had been killed in the siege and sacking of the city. He never quite dared to believe that he would return one day, but he never gave up hope. He stands here with his children and his grandchildren. His tears are the tears of a survivor, tears of joy and disbelief, but also tears for all those who were lost in the process.
And I imagine Naftali. His parents refused to return with him. Jerusalem is a dead city, they said. Life there will be hard, harder than in Babylon. Why would you want that? He came because he believes in the Holy Temple and the holy community he now joins, yet he weeps for what he left behind.
The building of a new community always involves both joy and sorrow. Joy for where you have come. Sorrow for what was lost along the way. I imagine the returning exiles wept for both.
In this way, the story of the return from Babylon echoes the story of many other Jews moving into the unknown, whether they were moving by choice or by force.
Do I fit into this story?
These are big stories – stories of heartbreak and hardship, of trauma and transformation. How do we, in our ordinary lives, relate to this? How can I say my experience, which in comparison is full of only joy, somehow mirrors theirs?
Standing before the Torah on Rosh Hashanah, as the Jews of Jerusalem did, I, too, find myself in a new place, a foreign place. I find myself in a place where my native (and only) language, English, is the language of commerce but not the native language of the majority of the population. A place where my customs and ways of doing things are often wrong – all the way down to which side of the street you drive on! I find myself out of place, uncomfortable, and unsure.
Can I say my life in any way mirrors those who left communities behind in Babylon or Europe? As the Rabbi tells us the story of Ezra and the reconvening of the holy community, I find myself weeping, as they did. I, too, left a community behind– a community in which I was deeply involved, which had been a major part of my life for decades. A community where my children grew up and learned to be Jews. A community that had nurtured my growing passion for Holocaust education and enthusiastically piloted all my programs. Like the imaginary Naftali, I left voluntarily and I know I have a new and welcoming community to join here, and yet I miss the one I left behind.
It feels ridiculous to even make such a comparison. But our tradition teaches that we should do just that. We are taught that we must feel as if we were all slaves in Egypt, as if we all stood at the foot of Sinai. In more modern texts, as if we were all the children of Survivors. Nothing in our experience compares to the hardships of slavery or the joy of sudden freedom. Nonetheless, by imagining ourselves on their journey, we can find clarity for our own journeys through life.
Does not my experience reflect the experience of immigrants throughout our history? I wonder if my great-grandparents felt this way when they began life anew, having left the difficulties and dangers of Eastern Europe for the opportunities and unknowns of New York. Did they miss the people they had left behind? Did they struggle to find their footing, to find their place in this new world? Can I learn from their path to smooth my own? I take comfort from their strength and the strength of all our ancestors, weaving this inspiration into a huppah that shelters me as I grow in my new community.
We should all feel as if we stood at the gate of Jerusalem, having just return from exile in Babylon. I imagine the returning exiles beginning to make new connections amidst their tears. I imagine Moishe putting his hand on Naftali’s shoulder. I imagine Rivka hugging Moishe’s granddaughter, who is confused by the intensity of the adults’ emotions, smiling at the child’s mother in knowing communion. Nothing in our experience compares with theirs but imagining ourselves standing in that holy assembly can strengthen our own connections to each other.
In this world of virtual meetings, our connections may seem only as strong as our WiFi signal, but our connections are myriad. Unlike our ancestors, we do not have to wait months for a letter that may not come. Not only can we stay in close contact with those we left behind; we can also connect to new people in places our ancestors never imagined. In this new place, I find myself with a wealth of communities – still connected to those I left behind, involved in new online communities, and building a community little by little in this new place.
So stand with me at the Water Gate, whether we gather in person, masked, standing exactly six feet apart (on little feet stickers marked “stand here”), or in a virtual reality where we are each a little box on a screen. We will create our communities one person, one extended hand, one knowing look at a time. In person or online, G-d is found in the connections between people.
 See Nehemiah 8:1
 I was taught the people were weeping because they hadn’t been following the Torah, and they hadn’t realized it, so they were weeping for the sins they had unintentionally committed. Some were undoubtedly weeping because Ezra was forcing them to dissolve their marriage to a non-Jewish spouse. Thank you to Rabbi Miriam Wajnberg for a different perspective and the inspiration for this blog.
 In Singapore, it would be 1 meter (3 feet).