It’s been a year.
In all this year’s gray lumpen shapelessness, some things still do stick out gracelessly, like Disney elephants at a dance, only without their charm.
This will be sort of the second coronavirus Purim. Last year, most of us knew that something was wrong, but we had no idea how very wrong. Many shuls had in-person minyanim and megillah readings, although most carnivals were canceled. (If you crank a grogger alone in the middle of a forest, will anybody hear it?)
This year, we know what’s wrong; we also have the hope that the world is changing again, and that even though the vaccine rollout is slow — there are after all so very many people to vaccinate — in a few months, or many months, but probably less than a year, most of this will be over. Most likely, next Purim will feel more normal.
Masks once again will be optional and more likely to cover the top parts of people’s faces than their mouths and noses.
We’ve been through almost a full cycle of missed Jewish and American holidays and commemorations; not only Pesach and Shavuot and Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah and Sukkot and Tisha b’Av and Chanukah and all the less-noted days in between, but also Memorial Day and the Fourth of July and Labor Day and Thanksgiving . (We have two parts of our identities, which in this case means that we have twice as much to lose.)
We also are just about to miss one of my favorite civil commemorations. Presidents Day.
Until maybe five years ago, I cared about Presidents Day probably just about as much as most other people do. Not at all.
But then I started to go to the minyan at Rabbi Joseph Prouser’s shul, Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, to hear his remarkable annual reading of the Gettysburg Address.
Now I feel bereft. I feel that I will miss my annual jolt of mindful patriotism, of thinking about what true patriotism, courage, integrity, honesty, decency, and brilliance are. Those are characteristics that we should admire and think about all the time, but even more so right now.
On Presidents Day every year for the last maybe six years, Rabbi Prouser has invited local dignitaries to his morning minyan, a service that he leads deliberately, shedding the normal practice of the Conservative movement to which he belongs in favor of reading aloud absolutely everything meant to be read aloud, and allowing a lot of time for the silent bits. It’s a fully traditional egalitarian minyan; it compels us to wonder about what the uncomfortably kippa-ed non-Jewish visitors, local dignitaries, make of it.
Rabbi Prouser always includes readings from American statesmen; they’re well-chosen and showcase both the decency and the literacy of American leaders who lived around the middle of the last century and before.
He scatters the readings throughout the service, offering them to non-Jews guests. The Jewish visitors get aliyot.
The extraordinary part, however, comes right after the conventional weekday Torah service. Rabbi Prouser rolls the scroll up, covers it, and puts it down, as he would have done had this been a Shabbat or holiday, and he’d been ready to have the haftarah read.
And then the magic happens.
Rabbi Prouser starts reading what sounds like a regular haftarah. The trope sounds familiar, even if the words are surprising, new, hard to decipher. What’s it saying? What IS that?
It’s the Gettysburg Address, translated into Hebrew and set to a conventional-sounding progression of haftarah tropes.
The astonishing part of it to me is how rawly emotional this reading is. It doesn’t make sense. The sanctuary is imposing; it was a Dutch Reformed church in its earlier life, and the straight-line ascetic is physically uncomfortable but it feels real and right. The words Rabbi Prouser chants are hard to understand, even when you know them by heart in translation.
But there’s something about the cadence of the trope, the way the words come out with force, the way they move, uncluttered by anything extra, straightforward, resolute, cannoned from Rabbi Prouser’s mouth straight to your heart. Or at any rate to my heart.
I add to it my admiration for the creativity of that yearly ritual, with its acknowledgment of Lincoln’s stature as a prophet. I love the way the ritual joins the two traditions in which we live in a way that honors both of them.
Another thing I miss during the pandemic year is the knowledge that should I want to, I could go to the Lincoln Memorial and stand in the presence of that rightly giant man and read the words of his second inaugural address, chiseled on the wall there:
“With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
And I desperately miss Rabbi Prouser’s chanting his Hebrew translation of the Gettysburg Address.
With malice toward none. With charity for all. Ken yehi ratzon.