I gave my sermon “live” on Zoom in realtime, and also pre-recorded it to go live with this blog post around the time I was offering it. If you prefer to watch the sermon, it’s above (and here on YouTube.) If you prefer to read it, the text appears below.
A few weeks ago, a congregant said to me: you know, it’s weird. Sometimes, especially reading Facebook, it feels like life is normal. We’re seeing everybody’s first day of school pictures, even if school is “from home” this fall. There are pictures of new kids or grandkids. Life seems to be continuing. And then other times I wake up and I’m immediately swamped by fear about the future of democracy, despair about the pandemic, and anxiety about totalitarianism, and nothing feels normal anymore at all.
I was really struck by that description of the disjunction between first-day-of-school pictures and creeping anxiety about what our world might be becoming.
I think we’ve all been living in that disjunction. It’s a normal day — and here are the latest case numbers in the global pandemic. It’s a normal day — and the news headlines are so outrageous that I feel numb. It’s a normal day — and nothing feels normal at all… As Rafia Zakaria wrote recently, “We live constantly with the weight of these juxtapositions between the banal and the utterly devastating.”
In pastoral conversations over the last six months, I’ve heard a lot of anxiety. About illness and covid-19 and our children and everything that’s happening in our world. About the coming election, and fears of authoritarianism, and the future of democracy, and a sense that everything could be about to unravel right before our eyes, and about whether this nation is a safe place to be Jewish, and whether anywhere in the world is safe. Colleagues who are therapists tell me they’re hearing all of these anxieties, too.
Several of you have asked me: if things really are that bad, then what can we do?
Here’s my answer: if things are really that bad, then we take care of each other. We protect the most vulnerable among us. We stand up for those who are more at-risk than we are. And we cultivate hope for a better world, and do what we can to get closer to that ideal in our lifetime.
And what if things aren’t that bad? If our democracy is actually pretty robust, and there isn’t going to be a civil war, and we’re not staring down the barrel of totalitarianism, and modern medicine finds an excellent vaccine for covid-19 and good government policies make it available to everyone, and together we can pursue the dream of a more perfect union with liberty and justice for all?
My answers don’t actually change.
We still need to take care of each other. And protect the most vulnerable among us. And stand up for those who are more at-risk than we are. And cultivate hope, and do what we can to build a better world. That’s our responsibility as Jews and as human beings, in the worst of times and in the best of times.
Over the last year, several friends and I have been studying the writings of the rabbi of the Warsaw Ghetto, R’ Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, sometimes known as the Piazeczyner.
The Piazeczyner was writing under incredibly difficult circumstances. The community he served was confined to the ghetto and their rights were being continually diminished. (Eventually, of course, they would be rounded up and taken to the camps… though he didn’t know that when he was writing these weekly commentaries.) Although he wrote these divrei Torah some eighty years ago, I have found his words to be deeply relevant to the spiritual needs of this moment.
The Piazeczyner writes that when times are tough, we feel “exiled” or distant from God, and those times are precisely when we feel the most powerful longing for God. (Aish Kodesh on Shabbat Ha-Gadol, 1941.) I think we can understand this as: when times are tough we despair, and we feel frightened about the world around us, and we yearn for safety and hope.
And, he says, when we “accept the yoke of the mitzvot” — when we accept our obligations to each other and to God — we grow in holiness. And when we do, it’s as though God’s own self becomes greater and more active in the world, because in our spiritual growth we become greater and more active in the world.
He could have said, these are terrible times. The world is broken, and we are not safe, and God has abandoned us. Instead, he said: the world is broken, that very brokenness arouses our yearning for a better world, and our yearning is the first step toward making it real. He said, remember the Exodus from Egypt. Remember the story of walking into the waters of the sea. Only when the waters reached our nostrils did the seas part.
The story of crossing the sea reminds us that we have to keep going “day and night.” We have to keep trying, and doing mitzvot, and building a better world. Even in times of pain and fear. Even — he wrote this in 1940 — when we’re confined to home and “commerce is brought to a standstill and businesses are closed, God forbid.” (Aish Kodesh on Beshalach, 1940.)
Torah tells us that when our spiritual ancestors wandered in the wilderness, a pillar of cloud went before us by day and a pillar of fire by night. The Piazeczyner teaches that this isn’t just a literal teaching, but also a spiritual one. The fire that we need to light our way forward is here for us, if only we will open our eyes. We need to hold on to our Source of strength and hope, and that will carry us through. In the words of Psalm 27, which we read each year at this season, “Keep hope in the One. Be strong and open your heart wide, and keep hoping in the One!”
I know that for some of us the word “God” is … complicated. Maybe we don’t believe in a God Who will step in and save us. Early in the pandemic, my son overheard me studying the Piazeczyner late one night with some colleagues. We were reading a commentary on how when the Israelites cried out in the hardships of slavery, God heard our cries and saved us. And my kid came into my study and said, “Mom, if we’re still the children of Israel, why isn’t God saving us from covid-19? Are we just not crying out enough?”
So we talked about whether God reaches into the world and changes things for us, or whether God acts in the world through our actions, or whether we find God — as Mister Rogers famously taught — “in the helpers,” in the doctors and nurses and scientists working to help people with covid-19. And I remember thinking: this may be the moment when his childhood theology falls away.
Even so, the psalmist’s instruction to be strong, open our hearts, and keep hoping is good spiritual medicine. And so is the Piazeczyner’s reminder that we have the inner resources to get through even the most difficult of times — and that the “yoke of the mitzvot” makes us responsible for and to one another. The mitzvot ask us to “be the helpers.”
As my friend and study partner Rabbi David Markus teaches, love is an action, not just a feeling. This is why the mitzvot commit us to taking care of each other: because love reaches its fullest potential when we not only feel, but also act.
Memory too is an action. The traditional silent Yizkor memorial prayer includes an explicit invitation to act. It says that we will give tzedakah in the memory of those who have died: tzedakah, not “charity” but a kind of giving that is rooted in tzedek, justice. (The version of the prayer we will say this morning pledges to “live justly and lovingly” in their memory.) That’s the Jewish way to remember: giving, and justice, and action.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg z”l died on the cusp of Rosh Hashanah. During these Ten Days of Teshuvah many of you have shared with me your grief at her passing, and your heightened fear of rights being eroded now that she’s gone. I feel those things too.
Justice Ginsburg will be remembered for standing up for the rights of women, from the right to have a credit card in my own name to the right to control my own body. She’ll be remembered for dissenting against stripping federal protections from voters of color. She’ll be remembered for asserting the full humanity of people with disabilities. What kind of giving, justice, and action might we undertake in her memory?
In the days since her death, I keep returning to these words that she offered to law students:
If you are going to be a lawyer and just practice your profession, you have a skill—very much like a plumber. But if you want to be a true professional, you will do something outside yourself, something to repair tears in your community, something that makes life a little better for people less fortunate than you.
That’s our Jewish obligation and our human calling: to do something that makes life better for people less fortunate than we. That obligation feels more important than ever before.
So many of the prayers we recite today are written in the plural: not “I,” but “we.” Torah also frames our obligations to each other in the plural. No matter what comes, we have responsibilities to each other.
Whether or not the world is spiraling out of control, our work of repairing the world, caring for the vulnerable, and pursuing justice doesn’t change. And maybe in fulfilling our obligations to each other, we can become for each other the pillar of fire that the Piaceczyner evoked: a beacon shining in the darkness, lighting each others’ path.
This is Rabbi Rachel’s Yom Kippur morning sermon (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)