Sheila Nesis
Sheila Nesis
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Who will live and who will buy… a carpet?

One line in the High Holidays liturgy offers a life-affirming release from the ​paralyzing confrontation with the inescapable failures of humanity

Two nights ago, my husband and I were talking about buying a rug. Our home is built on a slab, and winters in Maine are long and cold. We, along with our children ages 5 and 2, walked on these floors last winter. It’s not fun. We need rugs. With that in mind, my husband laid out the following argument:

“If we buy a rug, we need to consider what materials it’s made out of. Wool? Cotton? Organic fibers? And, have they been ethically sourced? Or a composition of wool and some polyester? And, what does that do to our environment? Where was it made and how was it made? What systemic global issues and inequalities are we empowering and enabling by purchasing such rugs? Were fair hourly wages paid in the process of making that rug? Was child labor involved in making that rug? And how do we even know, because what kind of company discloses all of these steps in their production? Only a company that would charge a lot of money for that rug. And now, we can’t afford that rug. You see, we keep telling ourselves that we can make a difference, but we can’t even buy a rug. And we have nobody to blame but ourselves. We did this to ourselves and the planet, and we are slaves of a system we created and perpetuated and we can’t even stop it. This is the sermon I want to hear someone deliver. Why would nobody deliver this sermon? Right, because nobody would want to hear it.”

You’ve got to love this husband of this cantor. You now also know why this isn’t the sermon I will deliver on this High Holidays: because it’s harsh, and pessimistic and doesn’t have a “feel good” quality to it. To be honest, I did not sleep well the night of our rug discussion and woke up angry and sad the following morning.

The “Unetane Tokef” is a poem that we recite on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In it, we read,

“… who shall live and who shall die, who in the fullness of years and who before; who by fire and who by water…”

This is a hard pill to swallow. This is not the God nor the theology many Jews believe, or one they want to pray to. And I get that, I can feel why this could make me angry and sad.

It’s because this prayer is the rug.

The rug confronts me directly with the failures of humanity, of capitalism as a system, of indifference, individualism and all that, like a compass, directs the trajectory of my life in ways that I can’t escape. Like the rug, God, Oneness, The Mystery of the Universe or whatever you believe in has set limits to our existence: the place where we are born, the families and communities we are brought into, and our genes determine (though don’t define) much of who we are. In that sense, we are no different from any or all other aspects of creation: the branch that breaks when hit by a storm, the wind that takes down the tree, the insect that gets trapped in the spider’s web. Like them, life occurs to us and can change in but an instant. Who do I think I am to consider my existence is under my control? But then, the climax of the poem arrives and declares that

“…repentance, prayer and deeds of kindness can remove the severity of the decree.”

When I sing those words, I don’t believe that with those actions I can alter the final decree, what and when will be the end of the road for me. When I sing this, I don’t feel any consolation for those who have left us too early, or under tragic circumstances, and for the pain that their loved ones have had to endure. Pain, sorrow and unfairness are all over, woven intrinsically into our existence, much like the misery of my own existence that the purchase of a rug confronts me with.

But this I do believe: that because I’m here, not by choice and not by merit, I can text or call someone who is ill (in body or spirit), hug my friend who needs consolation, recycle, compost, donate to a cause I believe in, drive an electric car, sing, really listen, teach, complain and feel sorry for myself, and then stop myself from complaining about my white people’s problems.

Do I think that any of those actions will change my personal destiny? To be honest, no. But I do believe they can change a moment in my life, a moment in the life of someone that I love, and even in the life of someone I don’t even know. And for that possibility, for that precious instant in which something that had no reason to occur in fact takes place because I made it happen, I would rush again and again to fit my prayers and my good deeds in, before the Gates of Heaven close.

In the end, we bought a rug. One that is large enough and that we really like; one that has natural fibers, and that fits our price range. One that we are committing to care for to extend its longevity as much as possible. One that will keep our children’s toes warm while we cuddle, play and read books in the winter months to come.

About the Author
Sheila Nesis is a cantor and mother of two. She most recently served as Cantor at Temple Sinai in Denver, CO. Prior to that, she served progressive congregations in Phoenix, Scottsdale and New York City. Her writings appear in various Jewish publications, including Kveller, The Forward and Ritualwell, among others. Originally from Argentina, she currently resides in Portland, Maine.