The Strength to Go Gentle

Did you know that Shakespeare wrote King Lear while quarantining for possible exposure to the Bubonic plague? Possibly also Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. I assume all of us wrote at least one great masterwork of literature during the last year. No? 

Kinglear2

Surely at least we started baking with sourdough during the pandemic, creating spectacular loaves and sharing them on Instagram. Or maybe we reorganized our entire storage system, or finished all the home improvement projects we hadn’t had time to complete before, or learned a new language on Duolingo.

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The idea that we were “supposed” to do something great and meaningful during quarantine has become a meme, a running joke. As though that were the way to “win” at lockdown and isolation amid global pandemic. We laugh, but the laughter is uneasy. On some level, maybe we wonder: if I didn’t spend this first 18 months of pandemic doing something I can brag about, am I doing it wrong? 

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Kol nidrei: all the vows and promises and oaths that we fail to live up to…

Maybe we promised ourselves that 5781 would be the year we would finally start working out, or the year we would actually open those cookbooks, or the year we would learn to bake sourdough or write a screenplay… especially since many of us were sheltering-in-place or working from home, so obviously we had all that spare time, right? And instead it turned out that 5781 was a year that we spent trying to keep ourselves and each other afloat. It was a year that we spent watching millions die, and grieving, maybe grappling with survivor’s guilt. And it was a year that we spent watching some people politicize mask-wearing and vaccination, even questioning whether or not the virus is real.

In some ways, the jokes about sourdough and King Lear feel like gaslighting. They ask us to pretend away the inconceivable awfulness of what we’ve witnessed in the last year. ICUs filling with COVID patients again and again. Crematoria in India working overtime. Vaccine shortages in Asia and Africa, paired with vaccine refusers in our own country. And the climate crisis. And the assault on democracy. Our grief and our fear and our compassion have been in overdrive for so long: many are exhausted, or numb, or overwhelmed. And yet somehow we’re supposed to imagine that we’re supposed to ignore our heartbreak and fear and be productive, and if we failed at that, we’ve missed the mark? As though we needed another reason to feel lousy about ourselves tonight!

But feeling lousy about ourselves misses the point of today altogether. Yes, the liturgy of Yom Kippur reminds us that we missed the mark. Even if we’d spent every minute of the last year trying to pursue justice and act with compassion, human beings make mistakes. But the point isn’t self-flagellation, it’s promising in community (and as a community) that we will try to do better. 

My image of God is not the angry teacher who can’t wait to give us demerits for all of our flaws. Yes, we’ll spend these 25 hours searching our souls to find the inner work we need to do to be better. But that’s because our tradition gives us this holy season for introspection, calling us to become — not because God is poised to whack us with a ruler. On the contrary. As we heard right after Kol Nidre, “vayomer YHVH, salachti kidvarecha!” And God says: I forgive you, as I said I would!  We use the spiritual tools of prayer and contemplation and song to open our hearts so we can feel that forgiveness and be ready to try again. 

This year, I also imagine God saying: hey, be gentle with yourselves. One of my friends said to me, at the start of the long cold pandemic winter, that she was grading herself on a curve this year. Some days she felt able to be productive. Other days, it was all she could do to get through the day. And on those days, she gave herself permission to be as she was. What she called grading on a curve, I think of as being gentle with ourselves.

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In times of intense grief, clergy and therapists both say to lower the pressure we put on ourselves. I learned this anew when my mother died and grief fogged my vision. When we’re living with sorrow or uncertainty or trauma (or all of the above), just making it through the day can take all we’ve got. Over the last 18 months of pandemic, we’ve all been in that place, sometimes. 

Every year at this season we take a good hard look at our failings, and it’s easy to get stuck there — maybe especially this year. Maybe we didn’t take care of ourselves, or we ate and drank too much. Maybe we gave in to despair and doomscrolling, or we turned a blind eye to the world’s suffering… 

Jewish tradition calls us to look clearly at where we missed the mark, and it also calls us not to cling to our perceived shortcomings. God is always ready to forgive. That means that God also forgives us for not baking Instagram-worthy sourdough or writing a novel or becoming fluent in Hebrew during this second pandemic year. 

Tonight asks us to hold two competing truths in balance. One: Jewish values demand that we constantly work toward justice and healing for this broken world. And two: when we really make teshuvah (when we turn ourselves around, when we do our inner work), God forgives all of our failings. We need to be able to forgive ourselves.

That doesn’t mean there are no standards and anything goes. Gevurah — our theme for this year — asks us to maintain accountability for ourselves and for others. There are behaviors that are simply not okay. Torah is clear that lying, or cheating, or turning a blind eye to the suffering of others is flat wrong. Tomorrow afternoon’s Torah reading will remind us that God asks us to feed the hungry and care for the powerless, to pursue justice without bias, to love our fellow human beings. That Torah reading also reminds us to offer tochecha, corrective words, if we see our fellow human beings acting unethically — because if we let unethical behavior stand, we become complicit. 

And it is also a spiritual truth that sometimes it’s all we can do to get out of bed in the morning. When we’re living with uncertainty or trauma or grief, even the simplest tasks can be monumental. Sometimes we can’t offer tochecha or work toward justice because just completing life’s requisite tasks takes all we’ve got. And that’s okay.

Gevurah also can mean healthy boundaries. Sometimes the boundary we need to draw is one that says: I’m doing the best I can, and this is all I can do, and for now it’s going to have to be enough.

This is part of why we live in community. At any given time, some of us are struggling just to make it through the day. In these times of pandemic and climate crisis, that may be even more true than it used to be. We need to help each other through and remind each other that putting on one’s own oxygen mask first is not only okay, it’s necessary. And at any given time, some of us are doing well enough to make things better for someone else. That’s when it’s our job to be angels for each other, as I said on Rosh Hashanah.

So let’s go gentle into this Kol Nidre night. Let’s promise to help each other through the challenges of 5782. Let’s refrain from comparing ourselves to other people, even if their sourdough loaves look magazine-worthy. And let’s show up with open hearts and commit ourselves to trying to be better, because that’s what we’re here for. 

God can forgive us for barely holding it together — even for not being “productive” during the pandemic. Can we forgive ourselves?

This is Rabbi Rachel’s sermon for Kol Nidre this year (cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.O)

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