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Creating New Realities After Crises

07/24/2020 11:09:55 AM


Rabbi Samuel Gordon

About a half-hour before Rosh Hashanah services of 2002 were to begin, a mini-tornado ripped through Wilmette, largely along Lake Avenue. Trees were down, roads were blocked, and power was out. A hailstorm brought a covering of white ice on the ground. Just as suddenly as the tornado hit, it passed, and the skies opened again to soft and warm light. People started arriving at the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, our sanctuary for the High Holy Days, but all the lights were out inside the building.

It was clear that we could not safely enter to worship together. So we gathered in the parking lot. The choir stood together, using a tuning fork to set the pitch for a cappella hymns. We had flashlights, car headlights, and light wands leftover from a recent bar mitzvah party. We shouted out responsive reading of Avinu Malkenu and other prayers, and the “service” concluded in twenty minutes. What might have been a disaster, turned out to be one of the most memorable Rosh Hashanah experiences in the history of our congregation. People who were there still speak of that night as their favorite service in Sukkat Shalom’s history. The crisis of the tornado and power outage forced us to respond with creativity and innovation.

This year, we are also observing the Holy Days in the midst of challenging times. The services will be unlike any we have experienced before. We will be in our own homes, connected through our internet devices. Many are probably wondering how Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur will be truly meaningful and inspirational given the severe limitations we are confronting. We realize that we cannot greet each other or sit with friends and extended family. We cannot raise our voices in song or reach out and touch the Torah as it is carried in a procession around the sanctuary.

But we can respond with creativity and adapt our services to this new reality. In the future, when we look back at this moment, I really hope that we will remember it as a time of renewal and recommitment to enduring values.

I offer a view from history. We are now in the Hebrew month of Av. Next Thursday, July 30th, is Tisha B’Av, the 9th day of Av. Tisha B’Av is observed as the anniversary of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, first by the Babylonians in 586 BCE and then by the Romans in the year 70.

Traditionally, Tisha B’Av is a day of mourning, but for many Reform Jews and others, we do not choose to mourn the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and for the religious rites and practices of the Biblical sacrificial system. Indeed, we are grateful for the end of that ancient method of worshipping God through animal sacrifices and offerings at the altar.

What we learn from the supposed disaster of 70CE is that, out of the destruction, turmoil, and chaos of that moment something radically new was born. The rabbis reimagined Judaism and completely transformed it. Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai and his students abandoned the walls of the smoldering Jerusalem and escaped to a new town, Yavneh. There, they created study halls and the Rabbinic system of laws and inquiry that would give birth to the Mishnah and the Talmud. The Temple was replaced by our homes, and the altar became our dining room tables. We are the inheritors of that radically new Rabbinic Judaism born some 2,000 years ago.

Our current crisis is certainly not equal to the two historical destructions of Jerusalem, yet we might well be facing another “Yavneh moment.” The future we face will be very different from the past we knew. We can choose to mourn the past and be stuck there, or we can respond with creativity and adapt to a new reality. That is our task as we look to the future.

Let us hope that the worst aspects of this current pandemic will soon end. Vaccines and medications will eventually reduce the health dangers that have so upended our society and patterns of behavior, but will we ever fully return to what was once normal before Covid-19 arrived? What will the post-COVID-19 world look like?

As we look ahead to the High Holy Days, we know we will miss seeing our community in person, but I think you will be very pleasantly surprised by the opportunity’s technology will provide for us. Services will certainly not be the same, but our goal is not to re-create our traditional Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur worship and then merely Livestream it to your home computer or iPad. Instead, we are hoping to transform that worship experience in radically new ways. We have been challenged by this new reality, born of crisis, but we are responding with creativity and the commitment to adapt and find new ways to carry our message and our tradition forward.

We look forward to celebrating the New Year together as one community and extended family.

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784