One August morning, anticipating the whirlwind of the high holidays and the return to school in our pandemic-altered world, I walked by myself along a salt marsh. I came across the ruins of an old bridge that had washed away in a storm, and noticed my desire to cross this ghost of a bridge. I could see the marsh on the other side, but I could not get there. Looking at the pylons sunk into the bank of the marsh, I thought about the people who dug into the muck to put them there; the hands and tools that built this bridge. And I thought about how so much of what we loved has been destroyed in these last few months. Some of it, and many of the people we love, will never come back. Our lives are transformed in ways we cannot completely comprehend now.
I noticed, as I moved about through and under the pylons, that the destruction of the bridge offered me ways of seeing it and the life around it as I never could have when the bridge was intact: the life burrowed in the pylons, the grass growing happily the sun, the blue of the sky as I stood underneath the bridge and gazed up. Standing there, I felt immensely connected, even though I was alone – connected to something larger than myself – and grateful. I felt hopeful.
That morning, Rabbi Alan Lew’s words about the Sukkah were knocking about in my head. Rabbi Lew wrote, in his now classic book on the High Holiday cycle: “The sukkah is a ‘house’ that calls attention to the fact that it gives us no shelter. It is not really a house. It is the interrupted idea of a house, a parody of a house.” And so it is that the Sukkah serves to remind us that our ultimate protection comes not from our material possessions, but from God – the Sukkah exposes the futility of our efforts to protect ourselves with our stuff.
In the same way that the Sukkah is the idea of a house, the broken bridge is an idea of a bridge. And just as the Sukkah makes us think about our needs for shelter and protection even more powerfully than an actual house might, the idea of the bridge made me think about connection – made me long for connection – in ways that a real bridge never does. And so it made me think about virtual connection, our mode of relating these days. This word, “virtual,” meaning, of course, “almost, nearly, but not completely,” more than hints at our feelings of deprivation. During the pandemic, the technology that we use to connect, these virtual means, exposed the rifts – the deep divides – in our society – the stark inequalities, the loneliness, the broken or frayed relationships. But is also revealed the truth of our needs, our joys, what is important to us, what makes us happy, and the strong web of connection that binds us to each other.
On one the first Shabbats after the pandemic began, my cantor read us a new poem from the pulpit. It was written by Reverend Dr. Lynn Ungar, a Unitarian Universalist minister. She writes:
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.
One of the great paradoxes of this moment is the feeling of isolation in the midst of an event that reminds us exactly how interconnected we are. Everyone in the world has been touched by the same event, and everyone is aware of her own vulnerability to the virus. We hear this contemporary truth in the words that Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote 57 years ago in his letter from the Birmingham jail: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
Even though we look like distinct beings, as Alan Lew put it, “we all share the same heart.” Yet, we feel isolated, disconnected. Our rituals of gathering, of grieving and celebrating together are upended. And we are anxious about our isolation. Even before covid, social isolation was becoming a health “epidemic” A 2018 American Psychologist article by Dr. Julianne Holt-Lunstad calls “social isolation more harmful to our health than smoking fifteen cigarettes a day or being obese.”
But we have certain mechanisms for connecting to ourselves, our community and the Source of all Life, that, pre-pandemic, were second nature to us, so ingrained in our way of being that we were hardly aware of them as technologies. Rabbi Zalman Shachter Shalomi called these spiritual technologies. Singing together. Eating together. Our ancient Israelite ancestors had a particular technology for connection too, and it looks as strange to us as Zoom technology or – let’s face it – the Torah service – would have looked to them. It was animal sacrifice. The word for the Torah uses for these sacrifices – korban – comes from the root “karav” “to draw near, to get close.” This is the paradox of the book of Leviticus for us contemporaries. This book, which devotes so many verses to detailing the rules for animal sacrifices, is actually about being in relationship. Leviticus represents the answer to the ancient Israelites’ question: “How do we stay connected?”
Korbonot, like our rituals, were also an imperfect means of connection. In the Mishnah, in Pirke Avot, the rabbis, looking back on the time of the Temple, recount “Ten miracles were done for our ancestors in the Holy Temple. No woman miscarried because of the strong smell of the sacrificial meat; the sanctified meat never decayed or stank; no fly was seen in the slaughterhouse…” Is this truly nostalgia for the Temple? In fact, it is a more of a veiled critique of the spiritual technologies of the temple period, as it calls to mind with stark descriptions how imperfect a tool the korbonot were. If a Mishnah were written hundreds of years from now by rabbis looking back on our spiritual technology, our means of connection, they might say, “Ten miracles were done for our ancestors in the time of the great plague: The internet connection held for the entire zoom service, everybody knew exactly when to mute and unmute, nobody’s husband was ever seen walking in the background without a shirt on…” Likely, those Jews who come after us and inherit our rituals will look at them with a mixture of disdain, nostalgia, and longing.
I don’t think we can compare our current situation to the seismic shift that occurred when the ancient Temple was destroyed, but it certainly is a crisis. One moment we needed to physically be in the same room with other people to say Kaddish for a loved one…the next moment we sat before our computer screen, alone in our kitchen, as we saw the faces of our community members appear on the screen. Suddenly, almost overnight, we had to change what it means to gather, to be together. One moment people who are not Jewish, not religious in any particularly were all talking about “tech Shabbat” – taking a break from the devices that were leaving us distant, distracted, and drained. The next minute these devices were the only things that could bring us together.
When Viktor Frankel arrived in Auschwitz, he had hidden the manuscript of his first book in his coat pocket. Frankel describes how he clung to this book, as it and the hope that he could share his ideas with the world gave his life meaning and a reason to keep living. And then, he was stripped naked and forced to relinquish all of his belongings. Losing his book, more than anything else up to that point, created a profound spiritual crisis for Frankel. For Frankel, this book was his bridge, his connection to the life he left behind. Then, effectively, his bridge was destroyed. When he was forced to surrender his clothing and his manuscript, Frankel was given the rags of an inmate who was recently murdered in gas chambers. When he put his hand into the pocket of his hand-me-down coat, he found, not his book manuscript, but a ripped out page from a siddur, a Jewish prayerbook, and on this page the Shema. These ancient words of our central prayer, our declaration wholeness, of oneness, arrived like a love letter from the deceased. Frankel was compelled to innovate, adapt, and find a new means for connection. The Shema in his pocket replaced his manuscript as a vehicle for making meaning and connecting to something larger than himself and his singular life. This torn page, was, I think, for Frankel, perfect in its imperfection, and its message was a message about wholeness. As R. Lew said, “We are all one heart.”
And yet, connection – to the divine, but even to other people, and sometimes to ourselves is by necessarily imperfect, incomplete. The poet David Whyte says that “being close” is what we humans almost always are…close but not quite there. Whyte writes that “Our human essence lies not in arrival, but in being almost there…We are, in effect, always close; always close to the ultimate secret: that we are more real in our simple wish to find a way than any destination we could reach.”
When we enter a Zoom minyan and hearing the cacophony of voices during mourner’s kaddish, it is both old and entirely new. It is a poor substitute being together physically, but I submit that it is not virtual. It is real, and it has its own broken beauty that is almost impossible to describe. The best words I have to describe this particular mourner’s kaddish are Leonard Cohen’s:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
Our offerings, our prayers, are cracked now, and they are filled with light, and with new ways of seeing, like the broken bridge. This brokenness has taught us some truths about ourselves and about the world that we cannot unlearn.