Rosh haShanah Day 1 Sermon
I don’t know if I can speak on behalf of anyone else, but I have felt the silent emptiness stretch like a wasteland across my soul. ‘Al taster panecha mimeni’, the 27th Psalm states, ‘do not hide Your face from me.’ I cannot help but wrestle with the paradox that Your face seems hidden and how, perhaps, that is not a bad thing.
I’ve turned these questions over in my head; part intellectual exercise, part existential crisis. Is God in the pandemic? What is God’s role in this pandemic? And I assure myself and all those who will listen that the answer is a hard no. After all, aren’t we Moderns far too sophisticated for such deterministic superstitions? I haven’t felt You in the pandemic, whatever that is supposed to me. I have turned to the epidemiologists and the data; not to superstition and blind faith. In the early months, the John Hopkins University Covid tracker was my siddur (prayer book). I would faithfully check it on my tablet, twice a day, evening and morning, and witness the one truth that any of us could discern from the pixelated growing red blotches on the world map. Whether we like it or not, we are in this together.
This became my Sh’ma; my credo.
I have a confession to make, God. I know many rabbis have struggled with it this year. What about the High Holiday liturgy? I mean, wow. It’s either breathtakingly relevant or horrifyingly triggering.
‘Unetaneh tokef kedushat hayom’ – ‘Let us speak of the sacred power of this day—profound and awe-inspiring… Truly, You are Judge and Prosecutor, Expert, and Witness, completing the indictment, bringing the case, and enumerating the counts.’ And that’s the easy part. The real gut wrenching part follows on. ‘Kamah ya’av’run v’chama yibare’un; mi yichyeh u’mi yamut.’ Who will live and who will die? Who by fire and who by water, whoy by sword and who by beast; who by hunger and who by thirst; who by earthquake and who by…’
Dare we say it?
‘U’mi bamageifah’ – ‘Who by plague.’
In my dark moments, I have a snide answer to that question. It’s all indexed on that John Hopkins University COVID-19 tracker, although the CDC has the figures too. In fact, God, here they are, fresh off the Internet. There are over 30 million COVID cases worldwide and 950,000 deaths. 6.6 million in the US. Almost 200,000 deaths in the US alone. We have not seen infectious disease on this scale for a hundred years.
But You are not in the pandemic. It reminds me of the book of Job, where You speak out of the tempest and every possible force of nature. You laid the foundations of the earth and scattered the stars across the firmament, but not this. Perhaps You created the virus. Isn’t that what Isaiah’s statement encapsulates? ‘Yotzer or u’vorey choshech, oseh shalom u’vorey harah’ – ‘Creator of light, Creator of darkness, Maker of peace and Creator of evil.’ But You didn’t cause the pandemic. Creating the virus and causing the pandemic. Those are two different things, aren’t they? Between those realities, at the door crouches our sin, ready to pounce.
Well, God, if this isn’t about blaming You for this situation, then what do we make of this? Maybe the Machzor will speak to us more deeply to us than before. Maybe this is the time to embrace or at least reacquaint ourselves with the language of sin. It’s not a loved word among us liberal Jews, of course. Sin. It feels musty and dark, heavy in its judgment, a gnarled, trembling finger pointing at our innermost intentions. Still, there’s no denying. ‘Al chet she’chatanu lefanecha’ – ‘for the sin that we have committed before You.’
Does the old litany suffice or do we need to write a new one? All of us can fill in the dotted line. Greed, callousness, falsehood, selfishness, obfuscation, denial… all consequences of the warping of the free will we have been given.
But is it that easy? Should we let You off the hook, just like that? It’s this time of year that we read that bone-chilling account in the Book of Genesis. The Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac. Abraham eagerly schlepped his unsuspecting son up the mountain at the crack of dawn. Bound him on the altar and hovered his knife over the boy’s throat.
But who sinned against who?
Did Abraham sin against You for not following through or for threatening to follow through? Or did You sin against Abraham for making such an abhorrent request in the first place? Or… did both of you sin against poor, wretched Isaac? You, the God of justice and mercy Who should have known better, and Abraham, your beloved, who only moments earlier faced off against You in defense of Sodom and Gomorrah. Who prayed for sons so desperately. He should have known better too. As in many times in human history, it is children who pay the price; who are sacrificed on the altar of their parents’ egos. The sacrificial knife could be a bajonet, a gun, or the red button launching a thousand nuclear warheads.
Does it matter?
There has to be another way, Holy One.
We can feign indifference. Perhaps You are not in the pandemic because You do not concern Yourself with the affairs of humanity. In that case, are the words of the Machzor little more than scribbles on the page? An indifferent God is a metaphor, I’m sure. But a metaphor for what?
We can careen towards open confrontation. Maybe you are in the pandemic and we find ourselves locked in a cosmic battle, between the Leviathan and the Behemoth. We are cast between Divine punishment and human recalcitrance. Is thiswhat we choose to believe? That You clamp down on a cosmic war of all against all?
There has to be a third way. Where we neither submit nor overpower. Where You are the still, small voice within us. Where You are the still, small voice in the pandemic; neither cause nor effect, but lure. You are the lure to goodness, to love, to kindness and compassion, to every virtue that we need to excavate up from the depths of our soul in order to get through this year of the plague.
You are with the nurses, quietly padding the halls of the ICU unit in the stillness of the night, their footsteps falling in with the mechanical rhythms of the ventilator. You are with the essential workers; overworked, overlooked, unseen and underpaid, stocking the shelves with quiet resolve, ensuring the supply chains don’t break. You are with the scientists, unglamorously punching in numbers, crunching the data, placing slides under microscopes, pathogens in vials, running trial after trial after trial. You are in every small act, in – as the 24th Psalm tells us – ‘in pure hearts and clean hands.’ In freshly scrubbed hands, soap and water, twenty seconds. In a cotton mask strapped across the face in grim determination and unwavering solidarity. In the many small kindnesses for neighbors and friends, colleagues and children. You are present with teachers on Zoom. With parents doing the improbable and impossible caring for their kids, their elderly parents and their work, we find you in the relentless toys scattered on the living room floor and dishes stacked up in the sink.
‘Ki anu amecha v’Atah…’ for we are Your people, and You are our…
A socially-distanced walk. A safe hug through plastic sheeting, more quenching to the soul than all of Miriam’s well. A well-stocked food bank helping those who need it most. Act upon act of untrammeled compassion, precious, beautiful, iridiscent shards collected from the dull debris of the greatest crisis in a hundred years.
It’s hard times, God, and we feel stressed and isolated, alone and hopeless, angry and penned in, experiencing that signature chronic low-grade stress of pandemic living.
But maybe the secret of our perseverance and our resilience lies in the silence. Maybe the silence that we feel isn’t empty wasteland. Maybe it’s tohu va’vohu, unformed, untapped but eternal, primordial potential. Presence. Space. Grace. It’s not that You aren’t there. You are. ‘Ruach Elohim merafechet al p’nei hamayim’ – ‘and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters.’ Today is ‘harat olam’, the birthday of the world, after all. In this silence and solitude, Adonai, I have felt the growing swell of Your love.
Dear God, we can fill the silence and hold the questions in our hearts. May the silence bring us wisdom to create light from dark, the discernment to separate good from evil and the strength to never cease bringing Your great and abiding love into our broken world.
You are here. It’s up to each of us to figure out for ourselves what You are and how You show up.
But You are here. Now we must be here also, for each other.