These were my words at services on Shabbat morning.
I may have been the last adult in New York City to be aware that the attack on the World Trade Center towers had occurred. Laurie went to work in midtown, and I was home with two-and-a-half-year-old Alex getting ready for an upcoming trip to my parents, both to celebrate my father’s 65th birthday and to lead Rosh Hashanah services at our family’s small congregation. Alex and I were sitting in his room going through his long sleeve shirts from the previous winter to find something warm enough to take. At some point we were going to go out to Forest Hills High School and vote in the primary for Mayor Giuliani’s successor. The phone rang a few times in the other room, more than usual for a morning, but we were busy and I ignored it.
Around 11 the phone rang again and so I picked it up. It was Laurie, calling from her office in Midtown, and she said something like, “Did you hear what happened? It’s the biggest terrorist attack ever.” I assumed she meant some horrible thing happened in Israel; that’s what terrorism meant to me. But she told me the World Trade Center towers were gone.
With the two-year-old I didn’t want to be watching this on TV, so I waited for a minute when Alex was out of the den so I could turn it on. There was a view from a camera on top of the one of the TV stations, showing the smoke. Alex came into the room and said, “Helicopter” – and immediately I turned it off. My sister Ellen was also working in Manhattan, and after another call or two I knew they’d just have to walk home to Queens, for Laurie an eight-mile walk. I reached as much of our family as I could to tell them we were safe, and at some point it was hard to get a cell signal; the frequencies were taken over for security needs. Alex and I walked through the neighborhood to pass the time. It was a beautiful day, with F-16s flying across the sky.
A few days later we decided to fly to Minnesota – making the decision it was safe, very aware we were making a life-and-death decision for our toddler. At La Guardia, one of the military people at the security scanners confiscated the tiny nail clipper from our carry-on. We all knew the hijackers had gotten unlikely sharp weapons onto the plane and I felt a bit embarrassed for bringing one and tying up the soldier. Leaving New York seemed so strange – going away from what seemed like the only place anything was happening in the world, where God’s eyes even seemed to be riveted. It felt too like breaking faith. It was so quiet in St. Paul on a weekday afternoon. One of the first things I did when I got settled at my parents was to call the local mosque even though I didn’t know anyone there, to leave them a message of friendship on behalf of the Jewish community.
There are so many spiritual imperatives every 9/11 and especially on an anniversary of significance like this one twenty years later. First and foremost is to remember and honor those who were murdered.
The second to last name alphabetically on the 9/11 memorial is Andrew Steven Zucker. I didn’t realize I knew anyone in the towers until at some point the New York Times published their exhaustive list with photos. I saw his name and a familiar face. For one year Andrew was “Coach Zuck” at the Solomon Schechter school where I worked. He was in his late 20s, and he was the first young, big coach-y looking coach we had. Other than passing hellos, I think I only really talked to him when I had to tell him that one of my Jewish programs would be interfering with one of his practices. I learned since that he was a law associate at Harris Beach, on the 85th floor of the South Tower, and that seven people said he helped them escape down the stairs and saved their lives. He davened every morning before work there. A Torah scroll was written in his memory at the Riverdale Jewish Center, and it was read for the first time on the fifth anniversary of 9/11 at Monday morning minyan. May Andrew’s memory, and the memory of all who were murdered that day or who died as a result of the day be a blessing.
The second spiritual imperative is to call this what it was: a mass murder and an act of pure evil. Evilhas to be part of our vocabulary. Enemies has to be part of our vocabulary. We have prayed this morning already that we overcome evil -- our own for sure, and that evil in the world be destroyed beyond even our own ability to destroy it. We pray for safety from our enemies. We don’t like to apply words like evil and enemy too specifically; we distance ourselves from these words even as we say them in Hebrew. Yet the terrorists who destroyed the Twin Towers and crashed into the Pentagon and who tried to fly Flight 93 into Washington were enemies of America, enemies of Jews, enemies of freedom and universal human dignity. Enemies of equality for women. They attacked and murdered innocent people, deliberately and with forethought and with satisfaction.
We should not be distracted from this by any reflection or regret we properly have over what followed, the wrongs of our own decisions and our own wars that went wrong and took many innocent lives.
The attackers chose deliberately not only to kill indiscriminately, but to attack centers of government, military, and finance. They attacked the things many Americans had come to lack confidence in, to make it harder for us to stand up for ourselves and see ourselves clearly. They dared us to look in the mirror. But our freedom, our strength, and our prosperity are so much more than any flaws in them. They are worth defending and strengthening and perfecting. They are a tremendous gift in the history of the world.
We have to look straight into the reality that small, disciplined groups can magnify evil and harm and death. There are parts of the human world beyond bargaining and incentives and change. We cannot strengthen what is good without acknowledging this.
The third spiritual imperative is awe at the goodness that sprang into action immediately. The Andrew Zuckers. The first responders who went back into buildings to look for more people to save, knowing very well they might not survive, as many did not. The people who retook Flight 93 and saved so many lives at the cost of their own. I remember the evening of 9/11 how the site of the Twin Towers had become a well-organized place for rescue and cleanup. In the face of the unthinkable, people did not miss a beat around their responsibilities, even as they improvised. There could have been chaos and pandemonium, or at the very least paralysis. Instead there was determined work to seek anyone who might still be alive.
We came to know stories like Gander, Newfoundland, where international flights back to the U.S. were diverted and a small town took care of strangers even in their homes – it’s the subject of the amazing musical “Come From Away.” President Bush came to the side of Muslims in our country to warn us against blaming the wrong people.
I had always been a reluctant New Yorker, living there because of rabbinical school and staying because of Laurie’s work and my own opportunities. The last five years we lived there, the rough city seemed transformed, toward a graciousness and helpfulness that hadn’t been there in the same measure. At least that was my experience.
We have to view this part of the story and the evil together, and think very hard about what it means. Margaret Mead said famously, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.” Nineteen hijackers committed mass murder. Twice a minyan, not even, that’s all. It is easier to destroy than to build. How many multiples of nineteen are there committed to good on an equal scale, on a lifesaving scale, a Gander, Newfoundland scale?
So the fourth spiritual imperative is to take responsibility for how we have responded as a nation and as Jews over the twenty years since. The instincts to bring democracy and freedom to the Middle East were good, even though motives are always mixed. We shouldn’t be hard on ourselves for not looking down on people in a part of the world so unfamiliar to most of us, to the vast majority of Americans and Jews. We believed and still should believe that people in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East deserve democracy and are capable of freedom and prosperity. I supported both wars when they started, in Afghanistan and even Iraq. Yet it was clear even to me from very early on that we were not willing to be accountable. For caring about the people in those countries, for bothering to learn about them or build connections with them commensurate with our interference in their world. Some people have done incredible work – some of our military, some of our NGOs -- and they have brought education and health and fierce friendship. As we go forward, leaving behind what we have left behind, we need to consider who is left whom we still owe.
And we still have an obligation to learn more about the Muslim world and about Islam itself. I said this ten years ago on this anniversary, and while I have learned more, it’s certainly not ten years worth of more. We all, myself surely included, let our leaders and elected representatives let themselves off the hook in terms of oversight and engagement. But at least we can learn and connect here in our local community. In fits and starts, some of us have tried to connect to the local mosque from the shul and through the Interfaith Council. Yesterday, Jeff (our Board president) and I sent a message of friendship to the Islamic Society of Greater Nashua, for day when surely it is more difficult than usual to be a Muslim in America.
We have drawn some wrong lessons from the aftermath of the two wars, and the collateral effects in Syria and other places. It’s becoming easier in the past twenty years to give up on the societies of the Middle East and to see the Palestinians in particular as fundamentally interwoven with terror. Yes, American power cannot do everything, and the destiny of faraway lands is not up to us primarily. But we have many powers and things to offer. And again our conviction that all people deserve freedom, that women’s rights and girls’ education are not only for some in this world -- those convictions are still right and we cannot run away from them.
There are people standing up to the Taliban, and people still learning how to do good work in Afghanistan. We owe them. I think the people who were architects of our bad decisions and those who supported them like me have a special obligation. I read the reflections of nearly twenty key American government and military leaders from the post-9/11 period in Politico the other day on what we did wrong, and truthfully what sickened me more than the mistakes they acknowledged was how many of them are now making their living as lobbyists and in the 1% sector, and how few are in public service and academia. They have run away from debts they still owe.
And my fifth spiritual imperative is for any of us who identify as religious people of any faith, to be a Kiddush Hashem, to do honor publicly to the Divine Name in what we do and what we say. Rabbi Aryeh Klapper wrote about this in the days following 9/11. The hijackers are in a long line of mass murderers claiming divine sanction. They weaken the ability of any faith to be seen as a positive force and not a divisive one. To be religious and to identify publicly as religious after 9/11, we have to be far from even the first cousins, even the second cousins of the attackers and their ideology, in our own faiths. We need to publicly repudiate our own Kahanists – our Muslim-haters, our Arab-haters, our Ben Gvirs and Smotrichs.
So a lot of spiritual imperatives, not just one or two, on this anniversary. I remember that first Rosh Hashanah trying to find words in my small pulpit, thinking what a burden President Bush had taken on by declaring war on evil itself. How fortunate we were to have a place and a haven of time a week after the attacks -- to gather together, to take time out to think about good and evil, to humble ourselves about what we can do and briefly trust the work of fighting all evil back to God. Just for a couple days. So it’s fitting that we are remembering and reflecting now during the ten days of teshuvah. What will we learn, how will we change, how will we honor those who died on 9/11 and in everything that flowed from that day? The answers are not easy, but they will flow as everything does from love. Love of those whose memory is precious; love of the American ideals that made the attacks hurt even more; love of each other in this gathering today and in this country; love of those who responses over the past twenty years have uplifted and inspired us. May we find our way in teshuvah, through all of that love.
Leslie and I experimented with the readings for a short opening unit on how to study America. I advocated the first year for excerpts from the political philosopher Michael Walzer's Interpretation and Social Criticism. Walzer articulated the idea of the "connected critic", someone who was inside a society enough to be committed to its people and its narrative and its articulated values, and able to criticize in the name of those values and out of shared commitment. It's when Rev. King said that his dream was "deeply rooted in the American dream", even as he called out America. For Walzer, the alternative is the disconnected critic who might not care enough about fellow citizens and/or who speaks a language entirely foreign to the society the critic hopes to change or improve. Another alternative of course is someone so identified with things as is that they cannot criticize at all.
I wanted our students to see themselves as connected critics of America. It was a bit easier to articulate for American Jewish students, for whom inside-outside is already set up.
"Connected critic" is always a position of built-in tension. It's a challenge to nurture your own connection and your critical outlook. Particularly when you are just learning about your own history, and the history of your own society.
In the past few years, the "connected critic" view of founding American ideals has been called into question, and I am hoping for a way to vindicate it nonetheless. Does Thomas Jefferson's slaveholding mean that "created equal.... life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are bankrupt? I accept the challenge of those who answer yes. I have to consider the alternative, and/or come up with an account of the citizen as connected critic that does not whitewash anything.
Assignment: Choose an artifact that to you represents America, American society, or American culture. Feel free to share an image and/or explanation in the comments here or in your own post.
When I began co-teaching the course, the artifact I chose was the book and album “Free to Be You and Me.” It’s a 1972 project created by Marlo Thomas. For the younger people here, that’s Rachel’s mother from “Friends”, and this project is one reason why that casting is so amazing in a counter-to-type way (read on).
“Free to Be You and Me” was a series of songs and stories for kids aimed at breaking down gender stereotypes. What a boy and a girl has to be like, want to be when they grow up, etc.
I chose this as my artifact for three reasons.
This last point in particular is what I want to interrogate through the course of this year. That assumption, and whatever knowledge I need to gain and reflect on in order to assess how far it is.
That's me right after a conversation of about half an hour last night with a few members of the Proud Boys, who have become an unfortunate fixture around meetings of Nashua's Board of Education. Knowing they would be there I could not stay home. This is my family's school, and my community, and people I know who are being harassed by them.
A few thoughts:
I was prepared, if the controversy about "critical race theory" was brought up in the Board of Ed meeting, to make a speech based on what I think democratic education is about. I have a pretty good speech, if I say so myself -- it's not the usual stuff, I think it's original, and I'll publish that at some point or maybe use it at the next Board of Ed meeting. I left the meeting inside pretty quickly because I'm not ready to be inside with a group that way. So I don't know what happened after I left, and I have to catch up.
Why did I bother with this? I wasn't going to change anyone's mind. But more and more, I think that when a group like the Proud Boys projects themselves, the important thing is to meet them not just as protestors, but as "I am the reality here." I can feel a change here in town; I could feel it in my body. My heart was not in any way pounding, as it usually is in these situations. That's because of this coalition that is coming together here in Nashua with confidence and dare I say love. It's the early days and it's not a uniform coalition who agree on everything when it comes to justice. Usually, the handful of times I've talked to activists like the Proud Boys I leave feeling frustrated and like I didn't come close to doing my part well. This time I knew I had the better of the argument, and they were far more tired of talking to me than vice versa.
Why did I bother? This makes me stronger and sharper. It tells me that the time I have spent slowly getting to know more people from religious and cultural groups outside my own is in fact making a difference. There are answers to some of the divisive questions today that are not just compromises or safety valves. I am proud to be in the mix, which is all that I am, and I would be proud to bring any of you who are local along with me.
This was my Dvar Torah on Parashat Pinchas from July 3, 2021.
ותקרבנה בנות צלפחד -- Vatikravna Bnot Tzelophechad, they came up close, the daughters of Tzelophechad son of Chefer son of Gilad son of Machir son of Menashe of the families of Menashe son of Yaakov, and these are the names of his daughters: Machlah, Noah, Choglah and Milkah and Tirtzah. Va’ta’amodna, and they stood in front of Moshe and in front of Elazar and in front of the tribal leaders and in front of the community at the entrace of the tent of meeting, and said...
ותקרבנה, ותעמדנה Vatikravna va’ta’amodna -- it’s important that they came up close and that they stood together, and it’s important to know their names and their back story even though the Torah is leave them and focus on a specific issue. I want to explore ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna v’ta’amodna, they came up close and they stood.
A few weeks ago, Marsha Feder and I spent an hour at the Bronstein Apartments, which is public housing a few blocks west of Main Street in Nashua. This is in the middle of my city and I drive there all the time now that there’s the Broad Street Parkway. I should say, I drive past there; I can’t really say I drive through there. Bronstein is on my way to my daughter’s middle school and it’s along my shortcut to the Court Street Theater or anywhere downtown south of the Riverwalk Cafe. But in thirteen years I don’t think I had ever walked the neighborhood there until now.
ותקרבנה vatikravna-- they came up close. The reason we were there, with Aron DiBacco of the Granite State Organizing Project, is because the Bronstein Apartments are going to be replaced with even more affordable apartments on the same site. About 50 are there now and about 200 will be there. 200 is more than 50, so that part is great.
If you work a few blocks away from Bronstein at City Hall, 200 affordable apartments is more than 50, and that’s great. I imagine that’s how it looks at the Department of Housing and Urban Development in DC, and it’s easy to see it that way if you are informed enough to read the local newspaper, or even attend a meeting of the Board of Aldermen or the Nashua Housing Authority.
But for the 48 families living there now, the project with the good numbers also means uprooting and dispersing a community. Disrupting patterns of getting kids to school, and relationships of helping each other out. Separating people from others you’ve gotten to know in a city or a country that for some is still new to you, who you can communicate with maybe if you don’t speak English well yet. It means finding a place to live, yes with assistance from the authorities which is being provided -- but it’s not easy to find a place in Nashua that’s right for a large multigenerational family, for instance.
So we went to talk to people up close, ותקרבנה vatikravna, to find out if people are getting what they need from the government. You can’t do this just by letter, or e-mail; it really requires one-to-one contact, up close, and even why would would I assume that someone would see me, a stranger, and open if I knock on the door? But going there and knocking is better than not doing that at all.
I won’t speak for Marsha, but in addition to talking to people, and for the most part being reassured by what I heard, I also saw a lot more by being up close. I met a mother of young kids, who said sure the city has helped them find a new place, but the prospect of packing and relocating the kids is daunting, and she was grateful someone heard that, even though none of us can do anything about it. Or perhaps we can; maybe the Interfaith Council should be there to help pack or schlep of keep the kids entertained on moving days. I don’t know.
I saw what the green area between buildings looks like, how bare it seems. It’s hard to put my finger on the difference between a nice patch of grass and one that’s not so inviting, but it’s there. There’s little flavor to Bronstein as it exists now; it doesn’t look like a place that’s home-y but I didn’t ask so who am I to say. One hour doesn’t really make for getting up close. You think of downtown Nashua as a place people walk around and walk through, but there are little physical suggestions like the black fence along Central Street that don’t exactly say walk through here if you don’t live here, on your way to the Allegro Dance Studio or the Crossway Church. Bronstein is just a few blocks from the river, but you really don’t feel like that walking through there on their way to the riverfront paths.
Somebody has to get up close and stand there, ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna, for a lot more time. You can’t make good policy if no one does that; you miss a lot of the picture that makes not just affordable housing but an affordable community. You end up saying 200 units is more than 50 full stop, and you don’t take account of the fact that living is neighborhood and relationships and culture, and those things have value. They have concrete civic value, public health value, economic value. You can’t just count on those values being maintained when the community is scattered for a time, and bouncing back when they return. Those values have to be integrated into the numeric equation of 50 becoming 200. To improve that policy, to make an increase on more than a numeric dimension at the same time, requires getting up close.
I have to find a way to get up close more, because for almost three years I’ve been working with other local clergy on affordable housing and even we have been largely about numbers -- adding 2,000 more units over a decade that a typical working person could live in without paying more than 30% of their income, and developing a city capital fund to spark more building on the order of five million dollars. I’ve been at a lot of meetings, some of them a few blocks from Bronstein, but none of them right there.
The part of our parasha with the five daughters of Tzelophechad is about an economic problem, related to land ownership and inheritance, a structural problem of discrimination against women. So Machlah, Tirtzah, Milkah, Choglah, and Noah come close and stand in front, ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna, and they present their story. Moshe had just right then learned about the distribution of property among families in the new land and the laws of inheritance. As a result of this up-close advocacy at that moment, Moshe went to God and God told Moshe to adjust the law because the five daughters had spoken honesty and correctly -- כֵּ֗ן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלׇפְחָד֮ דֹּבְרֹת֒ נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֤ן לָהֶם֙ -- give them what they are asking. The midrash imagines that God says to Moshe: the law was not ready to be completed until they came up close to you and you saw up close what was missing.
The work of ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna, of seeing up close, and advocating face to face with authorities, and standing, confidently and respectfully and together -- it’s hard work. Hard for those who have to ask for things they shouldn’t have to ask for, and hard for allies who want to stand by them. But without doing as the Bnot Tzelophechad did you can’t have good policy and good law. You can do the numbers but you can’t do community and you can’t do covenant that way, and then even the numbers will end up not working out right.
And I think our parasha heightens this insight by contrast with the opening story of Pinchas. Pinchas sees a problem, a crisis of idolatry and sexual immorality, and he jumps up, ויקם vayakom, and he takes matters into his own hands and he kills the people at the center of the injustice. He seems to be rewarded from God -- with a ברית שלום brit shalom, a covenant of peace, and a ברית כהונת עולם brit k’hunat olam, a covenant that his descendents will always be priests.
The midrash says two kinds of things about him. One is that the rabbis envy Pinchas, for being able to turn his outrage into effective activism that works in an instant. It actually seems to work. Pinchas is their secret fantasy. Especially as they were under the thumb of the Romans and other empires.
The other thing is that the rabbis are terrified of Pinchas. He needs a covenant of peace because he’s not any good at covenant. He needs to be forced to be a priest because otherwise he’ll be a dangerous, violent loose cannon and think every problem in society or Torah can be solved with force based on his own read of the situation in the moment. So the rabbis look at Pinchas and say: individual action, or violent action out of outrage, is a card you can play at most once in your lifetime. Then you require a covenantal approach even to what’s difficult and unjust in the here and now.
The rest of the time it’s the daughters of Tzelophechad, ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna. That’s not about settling for gradualism vs complete solutions, but about hanging together, working together, exploring up close and telling stories and histories. It’s about trusting what happens when you come up close to people who disagree or to people haven’t seen it right yet, who have power. It’s about timing; the five women had a sense of when Moshe was ripe for their pressure, when he was starting to think about what they needed him to do more on.
And the impact of their work was broader than one law of inheritance. They weren’t actually just gradualists -- it is right after this passage that God tells Moshe his tenure as leader is up, and it’s time to find someone else. Moshe gets it, and he pleads with God to find the people a shepherd who cares for every sheep, who can account for every person. A leader who would know what the laws of property should have been even before the five daughters came to tell him.
So many of the hero stories we tell about change and activism are more Pinchas than Bnot Tzelophechad. But when we really look into those stories -- whether it’s the American Revolution, the Zionist movement, the civil rights movement -- it’s the daughters of Tzelophechad pattern we see everywhere. Let’s see and lift up those kinds of leaders. Let’s be leaders like that, on whatever plane we operate in. Let’s do that so we make better public choices together, and grow close and stand with each other as citizens in that process of ותקרבנה ותעמדנה vatikravna vata’amodna.
I'm going to dip my toes into Clubhouse this week, and talk with anyone who shows up about the D'var Torah I promised to complete when I spoke last week. If you're on Clubhouse find my room "Help Me Write My Shabbat Sermon!" Friday at 1pm eastern time. Or feel free to read this and add your comments here.
I want to continue to delve into this passage from the Haggadah:
אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן־עֲזַרְיָה הֲרֵי אֲנִי כְּבֶן שִׁבְעִים שָׁנָה וְלֹא זָכִיתִי שֶׁתֵּאָמֵר יְצִיאַת מִצְרַיִם בַּלֵּילוֹת עַד שֶׁדְּרָשָׁהּ בֶּן זוֹמָא, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, לְמַעַן תִּזְכֹּר אֶת יוֹם צֵאתְךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ. יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הַיָּמִים. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הַלֵּילוֹת. וַחֲכָמִים אוֹמְרִים יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ הָעוֹלָם הַזֶּה. כֹּל יְמֵי חַיֶּיךָ לְהָבִיא לִימוֹת הַמָּשִׁיחַ:
Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said:
Look, I am something like 70 years old -- or, I am as though 70 years old
And I didn't merit to understand -- or, I didn't merit to persuade others that the law should be
That the Exodus from Egypt should be said at night, until Ben Zoma derived it from this verse:
"In order that you shall remember the day of your leaving the land of Egypt all the days of your life"
"The days of your life" means the days; "All the days of your life" adds the nights.
And the Sages [as a group] say:
"The days of your life" means this world; "All the days of your life" means to bring/to include the days of the Messiah.
So, who was Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah in his time, and how old was he really, and what is the difference between seeing the Exodus as a daytime or a nighttime story or memory.... These are literary and philosophical but also very political questions too. Thoughts?
This was my D'var Torah on Saturday, March 13, 2021. Shabbat Ha-Chodesh is the name for the Shabbat that precedes the start of the month when Pesach occurs. These are some of my reflections on the past year of the Covid-19 pandemic; one piece can hardly say it all.
Shabbat Ha-Chodesh, this day in the Jewish calendar, is a set of bookends for both a year in the Torah narrative, and a year in our lives. The parasha (Torah reading) concludes with the final touches on the setup of the temporary, portable Sanctuary -- exactly one year to the day from when Moshe and Aharon were given the instructions for the night they would all leave Egypt. And it was this same Shabbat Hachodesh one year ago that was our first Zoom Shabbat service, with almost all the congregation at home and a minyan of us here celebrating Madeline Lee’s Bat Mitzvah. We have been once through the Torah since our last regular Shabbat service.
What a year was that first year in the Torah – begun in slavery; between the plagues, of darkness and death; then the hurried preparations for the first days of a new life; crossing that Sea; a whole lot of new teachings to take in. Failing at first, badly, with the Golden Calf. Then building the mishkan, the spiritual center, out of everything valuable the people had -- everything valuable they might not even have realized they had -- putting something holy in the center of their camp amidst all the fear and emptiness of the midbar, the desert.
What a year has been this past year of Covid-19.
This morning I want to look back a bit, and next Shabbat to look ahead a bit. I’ll talk from the point of view of us as a whole, but this year hasn’t been the same for each of us and one person can’t presume to tell the story of everyone. People in our community have died of Covid-19, have been sick, have lost family members – at least a tenth of the households in our membership have had someone in their family who has died or been sick, and many more of us have lost friends to the disease. I haven’t asked everyone if they want their loved ones’ names said out loud, but I can say that the first person in our congregation who died from Covid-19 was Joshua Stern, Diana and David’s son, Jessica’s brother, who died during Pesach last year. For many months, the only times that members of the shul would actually see each other officially was at funerals.
Another tenth at least of our congregation has at one point of another lost jobs or hours or income this year because of the pandemic, or had retirement or transition plans disrupted. And I don’t know how to describe the strain and pain this year has contained for so many people who live on their own, as one or two people; who have been confined in elder living communities or long-term care; who are children, and parents of children at home, and parents and grandparents and others separated from their families; who had already been dealing with other physical and emotional challenges and illnesses and family challenges, that are difficult in regular times and even more disrupted this past year.
We have built this past year a mishkan, many mishkenot, a set of holy places and practices, out of our own materials. We have discovered together what it is that we had on hand to build with, what we brought with us hastily into this year.
Most of all we have had mitzvahs. I make a point of noting, most Shabbatot at the start of services, the line we sing as we start, v’ahavta l’rayacha kamocha – all the ways we have adapted to gathering and staying apart in repeated fulfillment of the mitzvah of “loving our neighbor as ourselves”. I say it out loud to remind us that in these hours on Saturday morning we are holding each other’s lives in our hands; we are holding the lives of the people who live around us, who we don’t know, as our own responsibility. And not just in services but throughout the days of our weeks.
Time has been so amorphous, and a lot of us have been trying recall exactly what the first days of these twelve months were like. For me, it revolved around Purim. On Monday morning, March 9 of last year, I went to Shirley’s apartment at Langdon Place and we recorded our second annual Esther rap. That night we gathered here, in smaller numbers than usual for the Megillah reading. I think we had food even -- we were trying at that time to have one person serve so we wouldn’t all be handling the same serving utensils -- and I remember wondering even then if the Megillah gathering was the right thing to do.
For most of the next few days, our team recreated the upcoming Purim carnival at least once a day. Let’s cancel the Kitah Zayin (7th Grade) pie- throwing booth, and let's also wipe down each ball and fishing stick between participants. No let’s use only disposable balls and sticks, and we’ll just hand out prizes for tickets and not let kids rummage through them. No, let’s not have any of the booths but we’ll just gather in a circle for some songs and have a costume parade.
No, we can’t do it at all. Probably fifteen hours of work just to decide to do nothing.
Let’s bring everyone mishloach manot (Purim baskets), very carefully -- and here, driver, are plastic gloves for you to wear and please put each box in a bag, contact-free, and say hello in person to everyone who answers their door and make sure to stand far enough away, and promise that we’ll see each other soon.
Everything was like that at the start – every decision not to do something took hours, before we even got to figuring out how to do the all-new things or the necessary regular things like shopping for food in a new way.
The day after we delivered mishloach manot in person and said L’hit’raot (“until we see each other”), we sent out a note to whole congregation that we would for the time being gather only online, starting that night, Monday, March 16. I took a bunch of screenshots of that minyan. 24 screens and regular phones all together, most of us named but some identified still by number or e-mail; we were still figuring out Zoom. I must have asked everyone to smile, because in one photo Stan is smiling and Larry is smiling, and Richard and Carol are smiling on different screens in the same home,, and Carlos and Joy and Jessica and Jerry and Laura and Gordon and Nancy and Elliot and Daniel are smiling. And Ira I think is smiling but you can’t really see in the dark of his room. Very quickly we added minyanim for Saturday and Sunday nights, and there hasn’t been a single day we haven’t had a minyan of ten. That Thursday was our first online Religious School class; our triumph was getting Rina Scharf online.
At our best we have been full of mitzvot. We’ve been building a capacity to check in with people by phone; we’ve connected people to resources and support, in personal conversations and what we can put up online. On the fly, we’ve had to figure out how to safely do bikkur cholim, to visit people who have been sick, and dying; how to gather safely for burial; how to comfort people during shiva. Without hugs and with masks; with iPhones streaming and Zooms instead of living rooms. All the extra burdens on those in mourning to stare into that screen at everyone all at once, rather than having people come up to you one by one. I worry about the pent-up and incomplete grief of our mourners.
I am so proud to be connected to the caregivers -- nurses and doctors and elder care and home care workers -- who from the start went into dangers known and unknown, and many of whom volunteer now on their off hours to give vaccines. I am so proud to see in the news and at local meetings members of this congregation who work in public health, in professional roles and on governing boards. I am so grateful to the teachers, and everyone who has had to or who has chosen to go to work in places with known or unknown risks.
In the daily life of Beth Abraham for a year, we have had online gatherings every day and often more than once a day. I believe we have saved at least one life through these gatherings, and we have made other lives more bearable.
So many of our members early on became mask makers. Some sewing by hand, some working for hours after their regular jobs, some converting their slowed-down businesses into mask manufacture, some joining up with calls to action from individual leaders or town organizations. Making masks for frontline workers, who were so short of them at the start. Masks for anyone they worried about, particularly older people but even for my family, so people could go shopping safely. Many of you did that work, to help bridge the weeks it took for an entire industry to get up and running.
At our best as a society scientists and technicians and engineers, and the companies and universities and labs that organize them, have been working nonstop on lifesaving discovery and creation and manufacture and distribution on a huge scale. At our best as a society, we reengineered a system for holding democratic elections, and cried out against continuing racial injustice even as we cried out about everything. At our best, our elected representatives to the Congress in a poisonous political environment worked several times to come to the aid of all of us in massive ways.
Here in the wilderness of New Hampshire, our shul built its new mishkan out of everything we had. We have our Betzalels and their teams-- our tech designers and operators, our Zoom supervisors, our people who know their way around a soundboard and a camera and networking equipment. We have our Aharons and other equivalents to the Kohanim and Levi’im, who organize and lead our services so we could do far more than go through the motions. These things we do, to interact and hear each other and see each other, to create a live service from so many locations -- it’s amazing and I’m proud that we’re toward the forefront. We have our Miryams, who provide inspiration and joy, every week through singing and over coffee and yarn, and cooking and Torah and Hebrew language for adults and for children.
We have been building a mishkan out of things we have. Our fabrics and threads and animals skins include our wires and plexiglass and donated monitors. And of course the money contributed toward this mishkan, the Temple itself. At a time of economic contraction, the synagogue has been stable and we just raised the most money from the Purim baskets we ever have. Incredibly, new people have joined the congregation since a year ago today.
And if I might say something about the Moshe’s, the rabbis. Not just me, but the rabbis of congregations all over North America and the clergy of Greater Nashua who have drawn so close to each other. A year ago, I thought that innovators in American Jewish life were leaving synagogue jobs or never even thinking of coming to work in shuls, all of them off starting their own ventures to do Jewish learning or spirituality. It turns out there are at least a few hundred of us, talking the same language and inventing the same things in parallel, sending around the concept papers and how-to guides, asking each other over and over what do our congregants need, how can we do more than just hold the line. I have personally met at least a dozen amazing colleagues through this grassroots work, people who you’ll never read about in the Times of Israel or the Forward, amazing partners and teachers. All of us know it’s not about the techniques, it’s not about preserving the shuls and our jobs -- it’s about taking care of you.
The pandemic has challenged the practice of Judaism and the reality of Jewish community. I haven’t been in a hospital or an assisted living place or a nursing home, or even inside a shiva home, in this past year. I made that decision with other clergy in town all at once. That was the hardest thing to decide a year ago, and holding back from you at hard times has been the most awful part of my year personally as a rabbi.
We decided, consciously, to change the character of our relationship to computers in the shul on Shabbat. It is absolutely the right decision but it doesn’t work for everyone. Our second or third Shabbat morning on Zoom something was wrong with the setup or people didn’t have the right link, and as I led services by myself I was also checking e-mails and texts from people right here on the bimah. Now we’ll decide what it means to integrate technology into Shabbat the way a previous generation integrated the automobile. Most of all in services, we just miss each others’ voices and spiritual energy.
I have joked occasionally that there is a warehouse somewhere full of all the gefilte fish and pastries that have not been eaten in our shul and other shuls for a year. There was an article a couple months ago in The Atlantic about the loss of Kiddush, the time after services. Actually the word “Kiddush” never appears in the article by Amanda Mull about the loss in our lives of the people we don’t have a good name for -- the relationships of standing around together after services or sitting at a table, deciding to talk for a minute or five or for an hour just on the spot. The conversations that aren’t prearranged but just happen, the intergenerational moments, the moments that breathe with volume and quiet, with interruptions and not just turn-taking, where people sit down and get up in the middle and come back later. A community is supposed to be a place where connections and conversations don’t only take place when they are scheduled or work-oriented or agenda-driven. The loss of Kiddush is profound, the loss of Shabbat dinners and Shabbat lunches and holy days together too.
As a symbol of some of these losses and challenges, I have stubbornly kept our Shabbat service different the past year in a few ways. I have held us back from some of the rituals of reading the Torah and Haftarah -- not only because you are not here and not only because it would not be safe yet to walk around with the Torah if you were. I've insisted on using the not-perfect aspects of Zoom. I’ve done this because our prayer experience itself needs to have some of the not-smoothness and the chaos of our lives, or it won’t be real. I know no one likes the moments when we try to be a minyan together singing or reciting something on Zoom. It doesn’t sound great, but the cacophany has to be here, in the mishkan, a brokenness we bring when we are before the Divine.
What a year since Shabbat Ha-Chodesh twelve months ago. We have brought everything we have to create the mishkan that is our lives; we have been building it for a year and we are still in the desert. I am so grateful for this Shabbat community that has stayed together. I miss you and worry about you. I want to sing with you and just linger with you, with no hurry to get out. I am grateful that you have wanted something for yourself on Shabbat morning, and wanted to be with others when this is not easy. That you have wanted to hear Torah from me, that you have wanted Shabbat to be still somehow a time of joy and a time of mutual support.
Let’s not forget of course that each of us has our own story of this year, and let’s not forget the losses that can never be recovered and especially the people who you have lost and we have lost together.
It is a whole year, an important year we are concluding. We are still in the midbar, still on our way, and may the mishkenot, the spiritual centers of every sort we have built help guide us on our desert journeys ahead -- just like the daytime cloud and the nighttime fire that began on the first day of the first month of the second year, and guided the people on their journeys and never went out. Baruch she-hecheyanu v’kiynmanu v’higiuyanu lazman hazeh – how blessed we are to be alive, to be kept alive, to have arrived at this time. Chazak chazak v’nitchazek -- may we each find strength and continue to give our strength to each other.
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