Rosh Hashanah 5781 ~ September 2020
As Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Yehoshuah were leaving Jerusalem, Yehoshuah turned around and saw the city aﬂame. The Temple, a wonder of the Roman world and perhaps the largest building project of the 1st century B.C.E., and the City of Gold were in ruins. Rabbi Yehoshuah started to cry.
If you’ve been to Jerusalem, to the Southern Wall excavations or on the Temple Tunnel Tour, you too have seen evidence of the magnitude of that moment. The impact of two-ton stones being pushed oﬀ the side of the Temple platform, cratering the street below, is clearly visible. As are the Roman catapults. As is the soot of the raging ﬁres burned into the stone itself. Across the way, on the Temple Mount, there is an archeological site sifting through the remains of the battle that took place. There, renowned archeologist Gabi Barkay is identifying arrowheads, swords, remains of shields, spears and other evidence of the events of the sacking of Jerusalem that made Rabbi Yehoshuah cry. The destruction of Jerusalem changed Judaism forever. Rabbi Yehoshuah cried because he understood that his world was never going to be the same again.
“That feeling,” writes Lori Fox in an August 15 "Opinion" in The Globe and Mail, “is grief.” And that’s the feeling many of us feel at this moment. “We can go out and get a coﬀee, we can walk in the park, we can drink a beer on the patio,” [we can attend Rosh Hashanah services on a livestream], “but it doesn’t really matter. The world we knew is gone. The life you thought you were going to have is gone. The lives we thought we were going to have are gone.”
The pandemic is reshaping every aspect of our lives; of our world. It is changing the way we think, behave and relate to each other. Marcelo Gleiser, the 2019 Templeton Prize Laureate and a professor at Dartmouth College, goes so far as to suggest that “COVID-19 will change us as a species.” He states that the, “... virus will not wipe us out. But it is causing untold pain and loss, destabilizing global markets, and turning our daily lives into a surreal dreamscape. Our vulnerability and co-dependence are openly exposed. Nature doesn’t care about our arrogance.” (CNN, March 29, 2020)
Things are scary. It’s ok to not be ok. We are allowed to be anxious and afraid. It’s ok to grieve. Like Rabbi Yehoshuah, it’s ok to cry. I’ve cried too.
I’ve also been reading with fascination the pundits’ thoughts on how our world will change. The Globe and Mail outlined 41 ways everything from new forms of greeting, to how we parent, to economics and politics, to how we gather, go to work, go to school, see the doctor, travel and leisure. When was the last time you used cash? Even how we experience shul will be diﬀerent.
Mark Lila, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, writes that “people facing immediate danger want to hear an authoritative voice they can draw assurance from; they want to be told what will occur, how they should prepare, and that all will be well.” (NYTimes, May 24, 2020). We speculate about the future, we engage in prophecy, because we mortals are not well suited for uncertainty. Alas, “Lo navi anokhi v’lo ben navi anokhi—I am neither a prophet nor the child of a prophet”. (Amos 7) The truth is that no one knows what’s going to happen. As Lila writes “we live in a state of radical uncertainty. The ﬁrst step is to accept it.”
Unetane Tokef, the emotional centerpiece of the Maẖzor liturgy, is our tradition’s acceptance of uncertainty; that so much of what happens to us in life is beyond our control. It portrays God as standing in judgment upon us weighing our deeds to determine our fate. “Mi yihyeh u’mi yamut—Who will live and who will die?” Who will be inscribed B’sefer Hahayim, in the Book of Life? And who will be inscribed (whisper) in the other book? The point is that we really do not know.
Rabbi David Teutsch says this:
In our everyday lives, we live with an illusion of control. We guard our health by eating well, exercising, and getting regular checkups. We get ahead professionally by working hard and building eﬀective relationships. At the liturgical moment of Unetane Tokef, we are forced to admit how profoundly our lives can be altered by random occurrences over which we have no control. A brain hemorrhage or heart attack can come out of nowhere. A drunk driver can cripple or kill. An organization’s sudden economic reversal can unexpectedly result in layoﬀs or ﬁrings. (Who by Fire, Who by Water, Hoﬀman, page 227)
And a once in a century plague can disrupt the entire globe. Mi bara’ash u’mibamagayfah—who by earthquake and who by plague.” Every year we recite these words. This year we really feel it.
What is in our control is how we respond to what happens to us; how we live with life’s uncertainties. For Unetane Tokef, teshuvah, teﬁllah and tzedakah will mitigate the severity of life’s decrees. Teshuvah, meaning returning to the awareness of God and walking in the path of Torah. Teﬁllah, meaning cultivating an inner spirituality, mindfulness and gratitude that connects us to the Divine. Tzedakah meaning justice; not simply charity, but rather, a calling to put the pursuit of righteousness in the centre of our lives. “Teshuvah, teﬁllah and tzedakah will not stop stock-market crashes, lung cancer or the other blows that come our way.” They won’t stop a plague. “But they can radically transform how we are aﬀected by those blows.” (Ibid)
Escaping the city, as the ﬂames of the Holy of Holies ﬂashed in his eyes, Rabbi Yehoshuah lamented, “How will we sacriﬁce now to atone for the sins of Israel?” To comfort him in his grief Rabbi Yohanan replied: “‘Al yareh l’kha—Do not fear. We have another form of atonement that is just as eﬀective.’
‘V’ayzeh zeh—and what is it?’
'H̱esed—acts of profound loving-kindness. Ki ẖesed hafatzti, v’lo zevakh—I (God), desire ẖesed and not sacriﬁce. (Amos)” (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 4:7)
Wow. Look how Rabbi Yohanan responds to the crisis of his time. He replaces what’s lost, what will never be the same again, the Temple and its sacriﬁcial ritual, with ẖesed. It’s an astonishing reordering of the priorities of Judaism. Rather than oﬀering sacriﬁces in the Beit Mikdash, the priority becomes how we behave in private and in public toward each other. God desires not an oﬀering of our crops or our ﬂocks, rather, the rabbis assert that what God truly desires is ẖesed. With this shift of priorities, reinforced by countless texts of the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash and more, loving-kindness becomes the foundation of Jewish practice. As Hillel said when asked to teach Torah on one foot: “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you. The rest is commentary, tzay ulmad—go and learn”. (Shabbat 31a) In other words, the purpose of both the study of Torah and the observance of mitzvot is to learn ẖesed.
The rabbis didn’t need to scour the Bible to ﬁnd support for their assertion of the primacy of ẖesed. Isaiah’s plea that we read on Yom Kippur emphasizes this point when he exclaims: “Is this the fast I desire? ... No, [the fast I desire is] to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free;... to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe them.” (Isaiah 58:5-7)
For the rabbis “Torah t’khalta gemilut hasadim v’sofo b’gemilut hasadim—The Torah begins and ends with ẖesed.” (Sotah 14a) It begins with the ẖesed of God clothing Adam and Eve and it concludes with the ẖesed of God burying Moses. The act of burial we call ẖesed shel emet—the truest act of kindness—for we do it for another without any expectation or possibility of reward or return. No wonder one of the 13 attributes we call upon God when we ask for forgiveness is God as notzer ẖesed—abounding in loving-kindness.
For the Psalmist, not only does Torah begin and end with ẖesed, but Olam ẖesed yibaneh (Psalm 89:3), the very foundation of the world is built on ẖesed. This is also the argument that Professor Nicholas Christakis, the author of a fascinating book titled Blueprint that I read this summer makes. Christakis is a physician and sociologist who directs the Human Nature Lab at Yale University. Through his research he introduces the idea that despite “a human history replete with violence, we cannot escape our blueprint for goodness.” (Back cover) At the core of all societies, he concludes, is the “social suite;” eight instinctive behaviours. Included among them is love, friendship, social networks and cooperation. In other words, ẖesed is “a biological feature of our species, just like the ability to walk upright”. (Page 13)
And yet, when we see or experience acts of ẖesed we are surprised? Perhaps that’s because the disruption that we feel today in society is so profound we’ve become used to division and discord and our expectations of others have plummeted. Until, we experienced a trauma so pervasive we, all of us, are awoken to the fundamental truth, that indeed Olam ẖesed ibaneh, that indeed the world is built on loving-kindness.
We see all over the world that ẖesed is prevailing in these uncertain times. People are singing on balconies in Italy and praying Kabbalat Shabbat together on rooftops in Israel. People are volunteering, thanking frontline workers, reconnecting with friends and relatives and, apparently, adopting more pets than ever before.
In our community, we strove to call every member of Beth Tzedec to check in, see if people had the supplies they needed, were getting groceries and were being cared for. Hundreds of volunteers helped us to make thousands of calls. And we continue to meet those needs. We partner with UJA to go grocery shopping, we deliver specialty food and medicine, we provide regular calls to the lonely, we pastor to those who need it and to those who may not realize they do, we set up a COVID-19 bereavement group, and so much more.
And we know that these acts of ẖesed are happening all over our community as organizations and individuals are stepping up to help others. UJA Federation has led our community in addressing food and poverty issues exacerbated by the pandemic. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, working with 24 chefs plus dozens of assistants, sent 500,000 meals to the staﬀ and families at 14 Toronto hospitals as well as 30 non-proﬁt community centres, agencies, shelters and food banks. (goodness.org). We have a member who has been mobilizing the St. Clair West neighbourhood to support St. Michael’s Shelter. Neighbours, some who may not have known each other well are shopping for each other, checking in and providing support.
You know what else is ẖesed? It is a ẖesed when doctors and nurses, grocery clerks, maintenance staﬀ, truck drivers and every one who works a frontline job that keeps our essential services and supply lines running, show up for work despite the risks. That, too, is ẖesed.
This is the all-important point made by Albert Camus, the Nobel Laureate in Literature and author of the 1947 French classic book The Plague. The plot, like Unetane Tokef “stresses the powerlessness of individuals to aﬀect their destinies”. (Wikipedia) As the three main characters are discussing their diﬀering approaches to ﬁght the plague, Dr. Rieux responds to Rambert:
“There is one thing I must tell you. There is no question of heroism in all this. It’s a matter of common decency.
That’s an idea that may make people smile, but the only means of ﬁghting a plague is—common decency.”
“What do you mean by common decency?” Rambert’s tone was grave. “I don’t know what it means for other people. But in my case I know it consists in doing my job.” (Page 163)
Jews call common decency ẖesed.
“Hayom harat olam, Today, the world stands as at birth.” The rabbis debated whether Rosh Hashanah marks the ﬁrst day of creation or the sixth day, the formation of humanity. In emphasizing Hayom, “today,” the Maẖzor suggests that both are “re-created anew today.” (Lev Shalom, 158) In other words, once a year, every year, we come together to reﬂect on the state of our lives and to reevaluate our priorities. More importantly, we come together to challenge ourselves to renew our lives through those priorities. We look forward not back. We do not seek to “go back to normal,” rather we seek to create a “new normal.”
In a provocative opinion piece entitled “Normal is a Failure of Imagination,” Tessa McWatt writes that her hope for the future is “not about asking for more inclusion into a system that is already broken, but rather about replacing it. It’s a hope that we align our responsibility to ourselves with our responsibility to others. And it’s time for us all to engage in radical, mutual care to repair our relations with each other and the planet.” (The Globe and Mail, August 8, 2020)
That’s why we are here. That’s what Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur challenge us to do; to renew ourselves and recreate our world. The coronavirus pandemic, as diﬃcult as it is, is also an opportunity to move ourselves and our world in a better and more loving direction. We will hold on to what is good as we let go of what holds us back from creating an Olam ẖesed yibaneh—A world built on a foundation of loving-kindness.