Kol Nidrei 5781 ~ September 2020
Most of us have experienced the death of loved ones in our lives. The day of the funeral and that week of shiva are emotional roller coasters. What were the sounds during that ride from the funeral home to the cemetery? Or maybe you are recalling graveside funerals. Was there snow? Sun? Rain? Take a moment and remember what it was like when the funeral concluded.
Perhaps you walked through rows of friends and family as they offered you comforting words and then you went home for shiva. The most important people in your world, friends and family, were there. And they kept coming all week long. They davened with you. They cried with you. They sent in way too much food. They showed up.
The coronavirus robbed those precious memories from people who suffered loss since mid-March.
Our brilliant collection of traditional Jewish rituals that we inherited for grief and bereavement is temporarily broken, or out of service.
What can we do when we feel broken?
First, we need to accept and embrace that the feeling of brokenness is part of being human.
Imagine you are Moses. You have been up on a mountain with God for a really long time, receiving Torah, and then when you finally descend, you see your people dancing and worshipping a calf made out of gold.
What did Moses do? According to Exodus 32:19, he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. Not so long after, the situation changed and a second set of tablets were created. But, as we learn in the Talmud, the tablets as well as the broken pieces of the tablets were placed in the Ark.
The brokenness never went away. Reminders of the broken tablets travelled with the Israelites as if to say it happened. It happens.
On more than one occasion, Moses experienced mashber, that feeling of brokenness.
"There is nothing more whole than a broken heart," said Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. Countless experiences in our lives make us feel like they can break us. COVID only exacerbates other illnesses, loneliness, rejection, insecurity, loss and the death of those we love.
Through the Centre for Spiritual Well Being, we created a "Loss in the Time of Covid" program in the early spring. I have the zchut, the privilege, to moderate this group along with Debbie Berlin. Originally, we thought it was going to be a one-time thing. But no. The need was so strong that it has been ongoing biweekly ever since. Some people come once. Others attempt to join each time. What they have in common is they came home to an empty house after they buried their mother, father, partner or sibling.
Most weeks I keep my tears inside for the 75 minutes we are together, but I nearly always break down once we log off Zoom. The raw emotions shared in this group shatter my soul.
We all know that COVID stripped so much away from people this year. It also stripped away kavod hamet, the honour one receives as they transition to the world to come.
I don’t use the expression “this is not fair” too often, but I use it for this.
When nobody was permitted at a funeral. Not fair.
When funerals could only accommodate ten people and grandchildren could not attend. Not fair.
When a funeral could only be 30 minutes long and we were not given the choice or opportunity to fully shovel. Not fair.
Over and over again, I listened as people described the experience of leaving the cemetery and going to an empty home.
But, as Dr. Erica Brown writes, “These experiences also make us more whole as human beings. They expand our range of consciousness and compassion. They enlarge our capacity for inclusion. They make us stronger and help us reach out to others with greater empathy and concern. When we acknowledge that we are broken, we enter a universe where we are not measured by perfection, but by our willingness to repair ourselves and the world. We stop judging others only when we can recognize our own inadequacies.”
Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk mysteriously spent the last 20 years of his life in seclusion. He defied our sage Hillel who said in Pirkei Avot, “Do not separate from the community.” How broken must he have been if he, a Hasidic master, needed to leave those he loved?
When we feel broken, a second option is not to be like Menachem Mendel of Kotzk. Don’t separate from the community. We learn from Orchot Tzadikim 5:18, "There is a great benefit to one who conducts himself with love and friendship with people."
The people who join our "Loss in the Time of COVID" group have something in common and have found community. When everyone on the planet is feeling multiple forms of grief, what these people lost can never be returned. I commend the courageous people who come back week after week.
There is a popular Pirkei Avot verse: find a good teacher and acquire for yourself a friend. Usually we focus on the first part, which is find a good teacher. But the second part, acquire for yourself a friend is equally as crucial, especially when you are feeling broken and it is hard to put yourself back together.
Avot d’Rabbi Natan (8:3) asks, “How does one acquire a friend? A person acquires a friend by eating and drinking with their friend, by studying Torah with their friend, by lodging with their friend, by sharing their private thoughts about Torah and other parts of life…” In other words, we make community by sharing. To the authors of Avot d’Rabbi Natan, Torah-learning and life-living are interconnected, and one way to access that connection is to make a friend by learning with them. Learn anything. Be together.
Kohelet teaches, “The two are better than the one for they have great reward from their efforts.” That is probably why when Job’s friends heard all about his tsuris, they made an appointment to come to bemoan and comfort him together. They knew the importance of community.
During this time of extended isolation, our synagogue is an exemplary place for community. We are launching our small groups initiative which provides opportunities to connect with other people over a shared goal or interest and to build relationships. We come together to daven, to learn how to cook and bake, to grieve, to learn, to grow and to sing. As I reflect on the last six months, I am amazed at how fast we have pivoted. While everything that we have offered is mostly online, and that is mandated by public health, not us, we have enhanced our offerings for our community.
The third option I wish to share tonight, for when you feel broken, comes from the book of Deuteronomy. They are vnishmartem me’od l’nafshoteichem. These three words can be translated as take care of yourself. Or, watch over your own soul.
In the Jerusalem Talmud in Nedarim 30b, Rabbi Akiva says “Love your fellow as yourself; that is the greatest principle of the Torah.” In order to be able to love others, we first need to love ourselves. It is crucial that we find ways to love and take care of ourselves before we move on to others. It helps as we enter into community with others and it helps cultivate the empathy I spoke about on Rosh Hashanah.
Rabbi Akiva’s wisdom on this topic continues, this time in the Babylonian Talmud. Two people are stranded and one of them has in their possession a flask of water. If both drink from it, they will both die. However, if only one of them drinks, that person will be able to make it out alive. Ben Petura expounded: It is better that both should drink and die than one should witness the death of his fellow. Then Rabbi Akiva came and taught, “Your brother shall live with you (Vayikra 25:36) — your life comes first, before the life of your friend.” Rabbi Akiva put on his own oxygen mask first. In order to really help your neighbour or another person, you have to be able to at least sustain yourself first.
There is this seemingly cute mishnah (Brakhot 2:6) about Rabban Gamliel, which if we look at it through this prism is actually rather instructive. Rabban Gamliel bathed on the first night after the death of his wife. His disciples said to him: ‘Master, have you not taught us, that a mourner is forbidden to bathe?’ He replied to them: ‘I am not like other men, I am very delicate.’ Rabban Gamliel knew what he needed at that moment. He took care of himself. He knew his own strengths, limits and needs.
V’nishmartem me’od l’nafshoteichem also means taking care of our physical bodies. Maimonides, who aside from being a scholar was also a physician, warned us that anyone who sits around and does not exercise... even if he eats good foods and he guards himself according to [the dictates of] medicine—all of his days will be [full of] ailments and he will become weak. And gluttonous eating is like a deadly poison for every person and it is the essence of all sicknesses. We need to exercise and we need to eat healthy. We even recite and Al H̱et for this. We beat our chests for the sin we committed in eating and drinking. From personal experience, I am telling you, I feel better when I eat healthy and when I exercise. It makes me feel better.
Better, but I still feel a little broken sometimes.
Soon we will sing the poem Ki Hinei HaH̱omer. It begins with acknowledging that we, humanity, are like clay in the hands of the potter, God. And what do we know about pottery or items made out of clay? Sometimes they fall out of our hands and break. And even if we glue them back together, they are never exactly the same. But these broken fragments can still last a long, long time.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: "The world is a broken place, literally a broken vessel, and our human task is to put those fragments together—to repair the brokenness." We are all a little broken in some way. But it is important to remember that we’re in good company when we feel this way.
Tonight could just be Sunday night, and you could have chosen to ignore Yom Kippur. Most of us are understandably not in shul anyway due to COVID. But that is not what we are doing. Instead, we are fasting, refraining from life pleasures, and gathering separately together to beat our chests and say “God we are not perfect. We are broken. Ahsamnu, bagadanu, Al H̱et for this, Al H̱et for that.” God, we need a little help—from You and from each other.
Right behind me is the Aron Kodesh, the Ark that holds Sifrei Torah, our sacred scrolls, reminiscent of the ark carrying both sets of the tablets: the whole tablets and the broken tablets from long ago. We carry that brokenness with us in our DNA.
Along with our desire for tikkun, for repair, this brokenness is what makes us who we are, a people who, for millennia, have gotten back up when we have been pushed or fallen down.
As a parent looks kindly on a child, may you God look kindly on us, especially because all of your children are a little broken right now.
Ken Yehi Ratzon.