I am always struck by how the outside world doesn’t know how besieged we human beings feel.
All of a sudden, it’s fall. The leaves have started to change; the light has gone all golden as it filters though them. There’s more crunch underfoot. The beauty is jaw-dropping.
Doesn’t nature right here know that we are threatened by a microscopic virus, huge out-of-control infernos of fire, and hurricanes that seem to vie with each other to produce more ways to hurt us? (We can be drowned, electrocuted, crushed by falling trees, poisoned by toxic waste … so very many ways.) Doesn’t it realize that our hatred for each other, seemingly a force of nature itself, is on the way to killing us?
Okay. Time to breathe. Maybe time to wander outside and stare at some trees. Because the beauty is real.
This week we start Sukkot, the most nature-oriented of the holidays because it’s the one when we’re commanded to spend time outside. This year it’s probably a bit easier than other years. We’re used to it. It’s not an adventure any more. Many of already have stocked up on the tower heaters that may be odd but also are theatrically strikingly beautiful. (And also they work. A major point in their favor.)
But many of us won’t be able to have guests over, as we usually do. Normally people are crowded together in a sukkah. That’s part of the fun, up to a point at least. But now, for those of us who do not have industrial-sized sukkahs, it’s likely to be just us. Like always.
Yom Kippur was surreal. Those people who were able to go to minyans outside had the joy of being with other people, real people, in a real place, with the ground underneath them for proof, but they also had to deal with the oddness of the distances between them, and the constant reminder of the masks. Those of us who watched prerecorded services were able to see everything from close up, and those vantage points gave us information that we’ve never had before, but there was glass and time between what had been recorded and us.
And those of us like me, who watched services that streamed live from our shuls, the places where we were used to being surrounded by our community but now were watching just a few people in those vast spaces, dealt with the paradox of live but not-live. Now but not-now. Real but somehow unreal.
There is good as well as bad in all of us. My shul, Bnai Jeshurun in Manhattan, is Conservative. There was some halachich ju-jitsu involved in choosing to do the livestream, and certain the rabbis were visibly uncomfortable with it.
On Yom Kippur morning, during Shacharit, messages scrolled up the side of the screen. It was shocking, at least to me, and entirely beyond me that anyone would chose to text a comment to a service. No one I know did make that choice. But then I started reading the messages. They were from all over. (They were moderated, so there was no fear of hate messages, which, sadly, otherwise we would have felt.)
People from across the country — Connecticut, upstate New York, and south Jersey, and also St. Louis and Portland and Los Angeles and San Francisco and somewhere in Nevada — announced themselves. So, my memory tells me, did people in London, Amsterdam, Berlin, Dublin, Sao Paolo, and Peru. Their messages were of community and solidary and joy in the service and its heart-piercing music. It went from seemingly inappropriate to oddly comforting and yes, inherently beautiful.
I would prefer to live in a world where online services are not necessary, and I would prefer not to daven next to a screen. I would prefer to have us all close not only emotionally but physically as well. But right now, that is not the world we live in.
I would have been too rigid to accept this concession in Before Time, but I am not now, and I benefit from that choice.
We each make our own choices, from a range of available ones. I have learned that while only a small section of that range is available to me — and most likely to most of us — we should take hope from it.
E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. We are Jews, and we are Americans. And in so many ways, we all are different but we are one.
We wish all of our readers a chag Sukkot sameach, and we remind you all to please vote.