This sermon was shared on Rosh Hashanah 5781.
“All at once
The world can overwhelm me
There’s almost nothin’ that you could tell me
That could ease my mind”
—Singer-songwriter Jack Johnson in “All At Once”
These High Holy Days are unlike any that we’ve ever experienced. You see us more closely, but we’ve never been farther apart. You can hear us, but we can’t hear you. We’re in the sanctuary, but you’re in your homes. You sit with a TV, computer or phone, rather than with the friend you normally see each year.
Yes, these High Holy Days are different, but they also present opportunities for improvement, like a Rosh Hashanah seder, videos featuring congregants and modifications to enhance spiritual fulfillment. Likewise, our lives have been diminished and constrained, but there are also seeds of a better future. The COVID-19 pandemic invites us to remake our lives in previously unimaginable ways.
To emerge from this crisis with our best and strongest selves, we must allow ourselves to acknowledge our losses. We must give ourselves space to be sad, disappointed and even to grieve. For, by doing so, we will maximize this opportunity to transform our lives, our community and our country for the better.
Mourning is something we know how to do. One of the lesser-known commemorations on the Jewish calendar is Tisha B’Av, the day our sages set aside as a national day of mourning for the destruction of the First and Second Temples and other major catastrophes that befell the Jewish people.
One poem in the Tisha B’Av liturgy laments, “Everything that has dwindled and is missing from the people of Israel in the wake of the destruction.” Each line begins with חסרה, hasra, missing/gone.
|חָסְרָה נְגִינָתִי וְשִׂמְחָתִי||Gone is my melody and my joy|
|חָסְרָה קְהִלַּת אֵל||Gone is the community of God|
|חָסְרָה כְּבוֹד שַׁבָּת||Gone is the glory of Shabbat|
|חָסְרָה עֲנוֹת קַדִּישׁ||Gone is the congregation’s reply to the Kaddish|
|חָסְרָה חֲנִינַת אֵל||Gone is Divine grace|
|חָסְרָה שְׁכִינָה||Gone is the Divine Presence that was revealed|
|חָסְרָה מְתִיקוּת מִבְּנֵי עַמִּי||Gone is the sweetness of the children of my people|
The poem names each loss, painting a composite picture of the total devastation of Jewish communal and spiritual life. By taking one day to intensely remember these tragedies, our tradition offers us a way to grieve, but not be consumed by all the calamities that have befallen the Jewish people.
Like the Tisha B’Av poem, let us name our losses.
Gone are nearly 1 million human beings.
Gone are congregants, parents and loved ones.
Gone are 20 million jobs and their salaries and dignity.
Gone is the chance to hold a dying parent’s hand.
Gone is peace in the home as parents and children spend each day together.
Gone is summer camp and school as we knew it.
Gone are graduations, weddings and bnei mitzvah celebrations.
Gone is playing with grandchildren and holding the new baby.
Gone are the visits with friends and the touch of a hand.
Gone is the freedom to move about town without fear.
All of our lives have been diminished. Some have lost a loved one. Others haven’t worked in six months. Mark Twain cautions us against judging the magnitude or appropriateness of the loss we feel. He says: “Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of proportion a child’s loss of a doll and a king’s loss of a crown are events of the same size.”
Therefore, let us not judge our pain, but let us simply pause to acknowledge our feelings and give ourselves the permission to be sad, disappointed and to grieve.
Indeed that very approach—growth through acknowledging pain—has proven successful for the Jewish people. Recall the 1940s: World War II, the Holocaust and Israel’s independence. In America, during World War II, mainstream American culture sought to encourage public support for the war effort. Only years later did movies like “Saving Private Ryan” show the brutalities of that war. By contrast, mainstream culture in the Yishuv, the Jewish community in Palestine prior to independence, sought to forge a new nation through awareness of the anguish that would accompany the struggle for independence.
Just three weeks and a day after the euphoria of the passage of the 1947 U.N. partition plan, Natan Alterman published his sobering poem, “The Silver Platter.” In this poem, Alterman hints at the transformation of the Jewish people through statehood from the passive sufferers of pogroms to courageous pioneers who defend themselves, from subjugated and submissive Jews to those who are sovereign and capable of fighting back. The Jewish State will be, “The miracle that has no parallel,” greater than the Exodus from Egypt. Sovereignty, the “new Jews,” will be the realization of the Zionist dream.
But after this introduction, Alterman turns his gaze upon a young man and woman and the price at which this transformation will come. He writes:
Tear-stained, wondering, the people ask,
“Who are you?”—softly reply the two,
“We are the silver platter, on which
The Jewish State is handed you!”
In shadow they fall when their tale is told—
The rest let Israel’s story unfold.
With 120 Israelis, mostly young people, dead within three weeks of the Partition Plan’s passage (equivalent to 62,000 Americans today), Alterman calls the nation’s attention to the sacrifice that would be made for the realization of the Zionist dream. He gives voice to the not-yet-nation’s anguish and sets the tone for future generations. This poem has become engraved on Israeli consciousness, memorized by schoolchildren and a staple of public ceremonies.
In Jewish tradition, we mourn loss by acknowledging it, by leaning into it. When a loved one dies, we tear our clothes, we bury our dead and we open our hearts with the thud of earth hitting the casket. We sit shiva and say kaddish for 11 months.
In this time of pandemic, let us acknowledge our sadness, our disappointment and our loss. Let us name what’s missing or has been absent from your life. Say it aloud while walking on the beach, write it in a journal or share it with a friend. And let us know that the world we dream of will not be handed to us on a silver platter.
As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross writes, “When you look back at the anguish, suffering, and traumas in your life, you’ll see that these are the periods of biggest growth.” Therefore, like Natan Alterman in December 1947, let us lean into the possibility of what can be when we are honest with our losses. Let us give ourselves the best chance to look back upon this time as one that seeded a brighter future, by acknowledging and feeling the losses foisted upon us by the pandemic. And may this crisis be the catalyst for the lives we want to lead, the community we want to build and the nation we want to become.
L’shana tova tikateivu v’teihateimu. May you and your family be written and sealed for a year of goodness, blessing and hope.
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