Michael and Doug’s wedding in March. The first of many joyful occasions through Zoom that enabled hundreds of people to celebrate together virtually.
To watch Friday Night’s Shabbat Service, click here.
One of the really hard parts of being a rabbi right now is witnessing the disappointment of the kids who had big plans, many of which have been cancelled this week. Big plans like going to camp or having b’mitzvah this spring.
It’s funny, so many kids go into the process kicking and screaming, like “I don’t want to do this, I don’t care about my Torah portion, I just want to have a party” Of course not Mishkan kids, all Mishkan kids love learning their Torah reading and are stoked to stand up in front of a crowd of strangers and talk about how Torah relates to their personal lives… Nonetheless, now that it’s here, they were prepared, they were actually excited! And nothing is happening the way it was supposed to.
Nothing is happening the way it was supposed to. Not for your Bar Mitzvah, and not for graduation, or ordination, and not for our trip this summer to Israel and the West Bank, or for my daughter’s first birthday, or for the work trips you were going to take to New York, or the vacation you were going to take. Nothing is happening the way it was supposed to for the much needed money you were going to make waiting tables, driving Uber, taking pictures, performing, seeing clients. Nothing’s happening the way it was supposed to. No marriages, no in-person baby introductions to your eager parents. The anxiety of preparation for events and milestones pales in comparison to the amount of disappointment that people are feeling.
And for the families of the over 65,000 Americans who have died from this illness, things didn’t go the way they were supposed to go for you, and for your family. And we are devastated by your loss – and it is because of the pain that you’re enduring right now, that we know we need to keep staying home, and keep flattening the curve, keep the virus from spreading.
And so many of the couples with wedding dates next week, and b’nai mitzvahs and baby namings – you’re rescheduling, for the fall or next year, in the expectation that things will be different, closer to what life felt like 2 months ago when we were blissfully ignorant of what was about to hit us. And the messaging from the White House continues to be reassurance that we’re on the road right “back to normal.” That we’ll have a vaccine by early next year, and that everything is going to be OK, and we will go back to normal again soon.
And of course we want to believe this. Because we love happy endings. We teach kids that this is how stories go. There’s a formula. Once upon a time things things were they way they were– maybe good, maybe bad… but we were getting along. Then one day something happens that changes the direction of the story and our hero faces a choice, or fights a battle, or makes a sacrifice and the story ends happily ever after. The Comedian Hannah Gadsby discusses this dynamic in her stand-up special Nanette: we build up the tension, in order to release the tension. And then we feel better. No wonder kids love Disney movies. We feel better. Things go the way they’re supposed to go at the end.
And it’s not just that kids love happy endings. We adults hold it together long enough to explain compassionately to our children, “I know it’s hard and it’s frustrating and sometimes things just don’t go the way you wanted them to.” It’s like the Rolling Stones said, in their very spiritually astute sermon, “You can’t always get what you want.” And we say “it’s OK, you can cry, I know you’re disappointed. And now, let’s make lemonade out of these lemons!” And then we put our kids to bed, and the truth is, we have just as hard a time with the uncertainty and disappointment. We also take refuge in a good happy ending.
Did you know that in the original ending of When Harry Met Sally, they don’t end up together? Did you know that in the original ending of Pretty Woman, Richard Gere and Julia Roberts don’t fall in love when the week is over? They walk away from one another, movie over. It didn’t play well with audiences. So you get the limo, the flowers, and the scene on the fire escape where Prince Charming and Cinderella rescue each other, just like the fairy tale. These were movies made for adults! We’re the ones who are supposed to be able to bear uncertainty and discomfort, but we too just want to see everything work out OK in the end. Even the freaking book of Job has a happy ending!
Wouldn’t it be great if it were as simple as having put in a good month or two of quarantine – and then poof! We could just go back to normal and expect that the future will look like the past?
But would that be a truly happy ending? I don’t think so.
I think in many ways spirituality is about getting in touch with our inner child, but right now, I want to suggest that we all need to tap into our reserves of spiritual maturity to continue to weather this moment. Spiritual maturity is the wisdom in a moment to know what is true, what is real, and not to wish it away, not to deny or bargain or resist, but to be with it, whatever it is. Spiritual maturity doesn’t mean being artificially happy or okay or somehow not disappointed or sad: it means being with sadness, being with disappointment, being with grief for the milestones and moments you had painted such vivid pictures of in your mind; really grieving the loss and then, after a good cry, asking, “Well, what is available in this moment, to make this moment holy?”
The Bal Shem Tov describes a 3 step approach to dealing with unwelcome experiences, such as sitting with prolonged uncertainty, as we are now: hach’na’ah (yielding), havdalah (assessing, discerning), and hamtakah (sweetening). (Thank you to Rabbi Dayle Friedman for your piece on this this week).
A colleague of mine posted this week on Facebook in a rabbinic discussion group called Dreaming Up High Holidays 2020, “What do you need to grieve in order to be fully present for the Yamim Nora’im the High Holidays?” What do you need to grieve in order to be fully present? This is hach’na’ah. Allowing ourselves to fully inhabit the discomfort of right now, stop trying to fight it. To cry, to journal, to rage, to run… to let go of the preconceived idea of what this moment was supposed to look like and accept instead what it actually looks like. It is an act of surrender. Doing this allows us to move from a place of magical thinking, of scripting the Disney movie version of this Pandemic, to a place where we can make rational choices based on reality not as we wish it was, but as it is.
This rationality makes havdallah possible – havdallah is teasing apart the strands of truth from fiction, negative from actually not so bad! Rabbi Friedman describes it as,”a bit like walking into a dark room. Initially, we see only undifferentiated darkness. But once our eyes get accustomed to the dark, we begin to discern different contours, shadows, shades of gray and black, and perhaps even a bit of light coming in under the door. We can grasp the complexity of our new reality and see the sparks of light and goodness within it. Where were the sparks of light in my day today? Was there a moment when I was able to bring light to someone else?”
This time of isolation and slowing down is not just filled with loss and disappointment. We know this. Discernment, havdallah, also means noticing the surprises, the delights and opportunities for growth. Every single morning in minyan, we tap into gratitude. As Jews waking up every morning with Modeh Modah Ani on our lips no matter what kind of shit is happening in our lives and in our world.
And this is what Bal Shem Tov calls hamtakah — sweetening. If we let go of the vision of what was supposed to happen, and make room instead not just for what is happening, but for what could happen, given the resources available to us, surprising possibilities emerge.
Michael and Doug’s wedding last month was the first of many joyful occasions I’ve been part of on Zoom involving champagne and cake and singing and tears. An event that enabled hundreds of people to celebrate who never could have come together in person. One after the next people having online Shivas will say, “Would it have been my first choice? Of course not. But it was amazing and I felt so supported and held by so many people.” We are connecting with extended family and friends and the other parents in our kids’ day care, colleagues and coworkers (our actual coworkers and the tiny ones who live with us) in ways we wouldn’t be if we were just going about normal lives. I would venture to guess that many of us are appreciating nature more intensely than ever and spending more time outside, especially as the weather gets nice.
These are the immediate tastes of hamtkah, sweetening. But bigger than this, I think many of us are hoping that the true sweetness here – if there is any to be found in all of the suffering, fear and loss of this plague – is the sweetening we will find if we don’t just return to business as usual. If we don’t say, ”since things aren’t the way they should be now, let’s at least just go back to the way things were.” No. Instead, let’s imagine not going back, but moving forward. What if we return not to the way things were, but to the way things should be?
The sweetening will be if we allow ourselves to change from this collective trauma. Personally I hope that every day I’m able to have dinner with my kids and put them to bed, as I have been for the past 6 weeks. A pretty small dream, all things considered, but one I didn’t realize I had til now. I think a sweetening would be that an emergency COVID relief package, and paid COVID sick leave, and insurance companies covering the costs of COVID-related testing and treatment are enough to finally show us how necessary it is for all Americans to have paid sick leave, and a living wage, and universal healthcare. As our overcrowded jails and detention centers are contemplating releasing non-violent criminals and people being held just because they don’t have the money for bail, a sweetening would be if we as a nation locked up and detained fewer people. This virus is disproportionately affecting minority communities; a sweetening here would be if there was a collective investment in supporting minority communities. And that we don’t stop when this is over but instead, we double down.
A sweetening would be if instead of returning to our previous consumption of gas, oil and fossil fuels, we worked more from home, traveled less; if we didn’t actually help the airline industry recover to its pre-COVID glory, but rather right sized it out of respect for the planet our children will inherit. We didn’t think it was possible til now to do all of that, but Covid has rewired our imagination and our sense of what is possible!
A sweetening would be if we always acted from a place of care and concern for our elderly, disabled and immunocompromised. If we generally followed the adage in this week’s Torah portion, the most important mitzvah in the Torah: “V’ahavta l’rayecha kamocha,” you will love your neighbor like yourself.
Nobody looks good in a mask, and they don’t protect you from getting COVID. So why wear them? To protect other people from you! And overnight we have made a shift. We’re doing it. V’ahavta l’rayecha kamocha. Because it’s what we’d want for us. So we’ll do it for each other.
Hopefully, we will continue to treasure and support the heroes of everyday life — those who staff supermarkets, clean hospitals, drive delivery services and, of course, do healthcare. May we never take for granted the privilege of food, of toilet paper, of having homes, schools, workplaces, libraries, theaters and parks. By recognizing that we are not living in a fairy tale, that we are guaranteed nothing about the future — as painful as that is — we can begin to see that normal wasn’t perfect either. That this is an opportunity to practice compassion, patience, and spiritual maturity. To do what we’re trying to teach our kids to do: to make lemonade out of lemons.
But in order to do that, you have to accept the lemons. You can’t try to negotiate them into something they’re not, or wish that they were strawberries or a pineapple. They’re lemons. They’re sour. That’s why making lemonade is such a trick… and why it’s so refreshing.
To Doug and Michael, and Jeff and Susie, and Rabbi Jeff and Stephanie, to Lillia and Ellen, Braedyn, and Gabe, Ella, Leila and Rafi, I’m sorry. I know you had a different picture in your mind of what was supposed to be happening right now. We all did. And it’s OK to be disappointed, and mad, and sad. And your ability to pivot and reimagine, to take the resources available and make not just the best of the situation, but a situation that is truly the best for what is possible in this moment, this is the kind of spiritual maturity that we all need to practice right now.
May we all have the grace and the imagination to believe that the happy ending is not going back to where we were, but moving forward and growing in ways we never thought possible.