Ben Herman
Building Community, One Person at a Time

Where Were We and Where Are We Now

Think back to where we were last Erev Rosh Hashanah. I was in an empty Sanctuary with Chelsea Rego in the back and Eddie from Extreme Productions doing video. It was overwhelming-Eddie had 200 videos to put in order. We didn’t have audio for me for half the service. I didn’t have anyone to look to for gauging reactions. After services, I learned that Ruth Bader Ginsburg died. Since I was live as opposed to prerecorded, I was able to address it on Rosh Hashanah Day 1. Little did I know we’d be in a similar situation the following year, with the onset of Delta. I miss seeing each and every one of you in person-your handshakes, embraces and warm smiles.

I was hoping this year would be an emergence from the cave like that of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son.[1] However, that is not a realistic look at where we are now. A few of us are in the Sanctuary, most of us are at home. Each of us has been changed radically by the events of the past year. In any given year, if we are the same people, we were last Rosh Hashanah, it’s a tremendous loss of potential. We see that life is not to be taken for granted: just look at the over 600,000 Americans killed by COVID or the almost 100 killed by the collapse of the Champlain Towers, which I will address more tomorrow, the 2,200 killed in the earthquake in Haiti. We need to recognize that this year is not the same as last year, that some are gone forever, and that what is most important are people, as things can always be replaced.

There’s a great story by Elie Wiesel entitled “The Watch.” After the Holocaust, Elie snuck back into the garden at the home where he used to live to find his most treasured possession: a watch buried in the ground. He departed with the watch but soon after leaving the garden, he paused, returned, and put the watch back. Elie recognized that all he30 wanted was his family back and that this prized possession did not truly matter. Who he was and what he valued had changed dramatically.

Let us examine where we intend to be next year. We always must keep moving forward on this rollercoaster we call life. Many times, I’ve heard the phrase “get back to normal” reminding me of former President Warren Harding’s “Return to Normalcy” at the end of WWI. Every time I hear that, I ask two questions: 1.) What is normal? 2.) Is it really something we want to get back to? We’re in an age when many people feel more alone and isolated than ever before.[2] Community relationships have frayed, there is increased economic injustice, and mental illness is on the rise. I think of how Harding’s “return to normalcy” and the roaring 20’s was quickly followed by the Great Depression.

To move forward, there is a text from our tradition that we might find helpful.[3] Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Akiva were ascending to Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple. When they arrived at Mount Scopus and saw the site of the Temple, they rent their garments in mourning. Upon arrival at the Temple Mount, they saw a fox emerging from the site of the Holy of Holies. They began weeping, yet Rabbi Akiva was laughing. They said to him: For what reason are you laughing? Rabbi Akiva replied: For what reason are you weeping? They answered: This is the place concerning which it is written: “And the non-priest who approaches shall die”[4]; now foxes walk in it; and shall we not weep?

Rabbi Akiva said to them: That is why I am laughing, as it is written: “And I will take to Me faithful witnesses to attest: Uriah the priest, and Zechariah.”[5] Uriah prophesied during the First Temple period, and Zechariah during the Second Temple period. Fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah is dependent on fulfillment of the prophecy of Uriah.

In the prophecy of Uriah, it is written: “Therefore, for your sake Zion shall be plowed as a field, and Jerusalem shall become rubble, and the Temple Mount as the high places of a forest,”[6] where foxes are found. In the prophecy of Zechariah, it is written: “There shall yet be elderly men and elderly women sitting in the streets of Jerusalem.”[7] Until the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, I was afraid that the prophecy of Zechariah would not be fulfilled, as the two prophecies are linked. Now that the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, it is evident that the prophecy of Zechariah remains valid. The Sages said to him: “Akiva, you have comforted us; Akiva, you have comforted us.”

We need to remember that where there’s destruction there’s also a new beginning, or as is often said, “When one door closes, another opens.” The past that we had doesn’t exist anymore. All that exists are new possibilities. We must be resilient like Rabbi Akiva and no matter how bleak things might look at times in our lives, we need to have optimism and hope in the creation of a “new normal.” We need to ask ourselves what society we wish to be creating and what role do we have to play in its formulation? If we are stuck in the past, whether it is mourning for the Temple or pining for the Jewish life of February 2020, we cannot write the next chapter in Jewish history. May God give us the strength and the tools to do our part these High Holy Days to reflect on our past, acknowledge where we are at in the present and determine what we need to do to move forward into a successful future.

[1] Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 33b

[2] See Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone

[3] Babylonian Talmud Makkot 24b

[4] Numbers 1:51

[5] Isaiah 8:2

[6] Micah 3:12

[7] Zechariah 8:4

About the Author
Rabbi Ben Herman is the Senior Rabbi at Mosaic Law Congregation in Sacramento, California. He has previously created initiatives and helped implement programs such as Drive In Shabbat, a Drive Through Sukkah, a student-led musical service called Friday Night Live, Shabbat on the Beach, and the United Synagogue Schechter Award-winning Hiking and Halacha. Rabbi Herman also serves on the Rabbinical Assembly's Conversion Commission as well as its Derech Eretz and Social Action Committees. He is a Mahloket Matters Fellow with PARDES and has previously been part of JOIN for Justice's Community Organizing Fellowship as well as the Institute for Jewish Spirituality's Clergy Leadership Program. Rabbi Herman's focus is growing the membership through outreach and relational Judaism, including creating Havurot, implementing engaging programming and enhancing the Educational and Young Family programs at Mosaic Law. Rabbi Herman earned a Bachelors Degree in History, Hebrew and Jewish Studies with Comprehensive Honors in 2005 and received Rabbinic Ordination with a Masters Degree in Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 2011. Rabbi Herman married Karina in June 2014, and the two of them are very excited to be living in Sacramento and in California, Karina's home state. They welcomed daughters Ariela Shira in February 2016 and Leora Rose in December 2018.
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