The World On Fire: A Rabbi’s Response To The Pandemic
When I was a kid, if my mom was on the phone in the kitchen and you needed something from the refrigerator you had to weave, bob, duck, and do the limbo to get around the curly cord that stretched from the unit on the wall to the receiver wedged between her shoulder and cheek as she stood at the kitchen sink.
My kids have no idea what it’s like to enter the kitchen with the fear of being clothes-lined.
Things have changed a lot.
On March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell placed a phone call to his assistant, Thomas Watson. The first words ever said over the phone were, “Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you.”
And now with my phone, I can not only summon people, but I can also summon food, book flights, find that obscure song I first heard in my friend’s bedroom in high school, answer any question that comes to mind, set a wake-up call, navigate through traffic in real-time, find a parking spot, remind myself where my car is, take and catalogue photos, find out which way is east, keep all my books in my pocket, access all of my documents, coordinate personal and work schedules, set up meetings, shop for groceries, find out the weather, find out what Gal Gadot is thinking, maybe tell her what I’m thinking.
Nothing is out of reach as long as my phone is in reach.
And my phone is tough. The commercial I watched that convinced me to get it tells me that its casing was reinforced down to the atomic level. It’s water-resistant. It’s dust resistant. It has the fastest chip, hours of battery life, and a high-quality camera with image stabilization.
I’m holding my phone as I walk behind the casket trying to keep the lens steady so everyone on the zoom, the family in their cars on the cemetery road behind me, and those in their homes all over the country, can see what is happening. The image is anything but stabilized.
It is April and the grass is still brown, it is overcast and the wind is cool. For a second, I look up and see a desolate landscape. We are the only funeral allowed in the entire cemetery at that moment. The funeral director instructs me to stand back as the cemetery workers lower the casket. I check to make sure I am unmuted so little people in little boxes can hear. I look for the small button that allows me to turn the camera around so they can see me. I try to steady my finger before I push it so I don’t end the whole thing before it’s even started. At that moment I wish to be my phone. I wish to be reinforced down to the atomic level.
I begin to speak and I notice that the people in the boxes are jittery and pixelating. The cell reception is not great. I’m not seeing enough bars to be reassured. I fumble with the rabbis manual in one hand as I hold the entire community in the other. I begin to chant “gam ki elech b’gei tzalmavet, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and it is muffled behind my mask.
If a suppressed prayer hits the world’s most advanced microphone does it make a sound?
I look at the 5-inch screen and catch a glimpse of my half-covered face as I ask the widow if she wants to say anything.
I ask again.
I see little faces looking confused.
Finally, her voice bursts out of the phone and, from the back seat of her daughter’s car, she describes through tears the man she married, the man with whom she built a family, the man who cared for her. The man who slowly slipped away from her and into the unreachable land of Alzheimer’s. A place to which she called out and from which he eventually stopped responding. And how much she misses him.
The phone shook in my hand as her cries resonated through the world’s most advanced phone speaker and out onto the barren, unforgiving landscape and towards the leafless trees that fanned out from the foot of the grave where the funeral director and I stood.
All the capabilities in the smallest of technological wonders designed by a trillion-dollar business and the instinct that led to its invention is still its most powerful purpose: We miss people when they aren’t with us.
“Mr. Watson, come here I want to see you.”
My phone was wholly inadequate at containing the love that filled and threatened to burst from it.
What seemed ridiculous at that moment were all the expectations we had fabricated and all the ways those apps were engineered to cater to those expectations.
The presumption that we could design a world that bent to our will and catered to our needs seemed fantastical when somehow one of the smallest elements of nature, a virus, had succeeded in making all of our worlds radically smaller. Circumscribing our travels, squeezing our communities into small screens, and retracting our future visions and plans.
Our expectations of ourselves, of others, and of our lives all contracted. Everything pulled back.
This pandemic has knocked us off our sure footing in this world. It’s revealed to us a world we hardly knew. But it turns out it’s not only the world that is alien, it’s also our approach to the world that we have for so long taken for granted that is now alien.
And the rabbis knew this well. They wrote in the wake of the decimation of their world, after the destruction of the Temple. And so they began with the assumption of a world inhospitable and alien to all things precious. However, they did not view devastation fatalistically, but the very thing that drafted us into service to save the sacred.
The Mishna, the rabbinic discussion of Torah law raises a question: if there is a fire you should try to save the Torah. But what actually qualifies as a Torah?
When we think of the Torah, we think of a scroll around wooden spindles and dressed in velvet. We know of scrolls that have been saved from all kinds of devastation and destruction historically. If at all possible, we do what we can to save Torahs. They are sacred to us. We even adorn them with silver breastplates and crowns. Parade them around and kiss them.
And we have so obviously been missing the Torah. We should have been parading them around the sanctuary last night. Each of them dressed in white. Hands stretched out to touch and kiss.
But what the Talmud is interested in is not the obvious, impressive manifestation of the Torah, but the irreducible minimum of sacredness.
How small can Torah contract and still be Torah? What if a Torah is being written and not finished? What if a Torah contains some verses, but not all? At what point does it become sacred? When does something transform from a simple object to something that evokes reverence?
Our rabbis focus on the verse in the Torah “Vayehi binsoa ha’aron vayomer moshe kuma adonai va’yafutzu oyvecha vaynusu mesanecha mipanecha…” When they traveled with the ark, Moses would say ‘Arise, God, may your enemies be scattered. May your foes flee before you.'”
This is the verse we chant when we open the ark during the Torah service. If you look at this verse as it is calligraphed in every Torah, it is bracketed by the two Hebrew letter nuns which literally are in the shape of brackets so that the verse is surrounded by disjointed and floating nuns. A strange scribal occurrence in the Torah.
The rabbis say this was a scribal notation telling us that this verse was out of place in the Torah. In fact, it does seem out of place in the context where it is found.
Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, the editor of the Mishnah, disagrees. He says “it is because that verse is considered a book of Torah unto itself.” In other words, a Torah within the Torah.
From this teaching, the rabbis determined that if a Torah contains 85 letters, the number of letters in this verse, that Torah has the status of sanctity
But, they wonder, what if those 85 letters are scattered throughout the parchment and not in order? Is that still considered sacred?
And what about the white parchment surrounding those letters above and below? And what about the blank parchment at the beginning and the end of the Torah? Is that sacred too?
The rabbis are not dealing in ideals and best-case scenarios. They are assuming the worst and investigating the limits of our moral response. When the things in the world that mean the most to us are threatened, how far will we go to save the remnants?
We have spent so much of our lives in abundance we could hardly understand this rabbinic investigation of scarcity. Until now.
At first, we thought we could reschedule our summer plans and graduations, push the benefits and celebrations to the fall, delay the sports season, hold the wedding outdoors. We’ve rescheduled before, not ideal, but we can do this. You just shift your expectations slightly and by the way, the fall is actually nicer.
And then it really sank in. And the disappointment was pervasive. Plans were decimated, dreams dashed, hopes extinguished.
And people were getting sick.
My family and I walked into Mt Kisco one Shabbat afternoon and saw a mass food distribution. Cars lined up around town. And not the cars you would associate with food insecurity.
The system of Jewish practice was supposed to be built to deal with devastation. We take slavery and turn it into an intellectual and moral feast. We take death and we turn it into an outpouring of love. But, when you can’t gather for seders or funerals or shivas, all you’re left with is the slavery and the mourning.
The root of the word religion is the same as the word ligament. It is the thing that holds us and our lives together with a sense of meaning. And in March and April, as people were sick, dying, and feeling isolated, those ligaments began to tear.
When we needed it most, we couldn’t be there for each other in person, in homes and hospitals, and even in the sanctuary. We logged on to Zoom and did our best.
We read Torah without a Torah.
I often say that disappointment is the gap between expectations and reality.
One of the things I learned early on in this pandemic is that we all had to mourn the loss of our expectations. That there was no moving on from our disappointment until we fully acknowledged and let go of our expectations. Once we let that go, we were better able to receive the unanticipated blessings and possibilities in this new space.
The Mishna begins with this understanding. We are not to enter this world assuming that it is a playground for the realization of our plans and aspirations.
The world is actually on fire and our job is to save the Torah.
The world is not hospitable to sacred things and yet we are gifted with the ability to recognize holiness. We can feel it when we stand in front of the ark at the end of Yom Kippur, when we see true loving-kindness when we see a young person gently hold and kiss the hand of an older person. We are built to sense the sacred.
And the world is starved for it. The world is on fire and we are the only ones who can save Torah before it is burned.
But the Torah is scattered and dispersed and we must search for the irreducible minimum, the smallest component part of sacredness.
Entropy, the tendency for things to move from order to disorder, to lose energy, to weaken the ligaments that keep them together, entropy is working against us all the time.
It’s not just our plans, it’s our health, our climate, our patience, our ideals. Things fall apart.
It is into this world that Abraham, our forefather walks. God tells him to lech lecha, go forward and bring Torah, bring sacredness to the world.
A pagan world in which gods were representations of needs. The need for rain for crops, healthy cattle, and sun. A belief system meant to give people the illusion of as much control as possible over their lives. To create a world that was less erratic and more predictable. A world that bent to their will and catered to their needs.
The rabbis ask why Abraham was chosen for this mission. One response is the story of how he smashed the idols in his father Terach’s idol shop. He rebelled against monetizing people’s fears and insecurities. He rejected the commercialization of needs.
The world can be unforgiving and the business of idols preyed upon the mass disappointment that resulted from the gap between people’s expectations and reality.
But there is another midrash, another rabbinic story that describes Abraham’s reaction to such a world as not merely destructive of the unscrupulous leveraging of people’s vulnerabilities. A midrash that provides the vision of an entirely different response to this broken world.
Rabbi Yitzchak tells of a man who is walking from place to place and happens upon a large home in flames. The man asks, “Is it possible that there is no one to look after this home?”
The caretaker of the home appears and says, “I am the caretaker of this home.”
Rabbi Yitzchak teaches that this is what happened with Abraham. He looked at the world and saw the pain, the struggle, the suffering, the disappointment, the entropy, and asked, “Is there no caretaker for this world?”
And God responded, “I am the caretaker.”
As I stood on that desolate landscape next to the grave with no family, a mound of dirt with no shovel, and no lines of friends, I turned to the funeral director, made sure my phone was muted, and said with shock and horror something I cannot repeat in public. Especially on Yom Kippur.
And then I said, “This is not ok! How is this even possible?”
Who would make a world where there is pain and suffering, make us aware of it, capable of addressing it with love, partner with us to create an elaborate religious system of ligamentation, and then prevent us from getting the love to where it is most needed?
Who is the caretaker of this world on fire?
Abraham was chosen for his honesty and his horror. Because Abraham asked this question God told him to lech lecha, go forth, and bring Torah to the world.
Since then we have been channeling his shock and horror.
And the rabbis don’t monetize our fears and insecurities. Instead, they draft us into sacred service and teach not if, but when, there is a fire in this world of entropy, you must seek out the smallest component parts of sacredness: the 85 letters on a scroll. Even if they are scattered and disconnected. Even the white parchment connected to those letters.
In this world of entropy, the mistake is expecting order and the sin is despair. Our shock is what saves us and our search for the sacred, what makes us human.
Where is the sacred amidst this desolation?
It was her voice.
It resonated through the phone and out towards the naked trees. Like words of Torah from this glass and aluminum ark. “I loved him. He was a good father. A good husband.”
When we can’t have the whole Torah, we search for and care for and savor the letters. It was her voice.
And the doctor who told me about the nurse who offered to sit with patients whose families could not visit them.
The b’nei mitzvah who sang happy birthday over zoom on the day of their celebration to a 90-year-old.
The 800 Shabbat meals delivered to the isolated and front-line workers. The shofar blowers who made home visits.
The synagogue parking lot that became holy when used by clients of the food pantry. Scattered sacred letters.
Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi called those scattered and sacred letters a Torah unto itself. “Vayehi binsoa aron…and when they traveled with the ark Moses would say, rise, God, may your enemies scatter and your foes flee.”
About those letters. They’re not just letters. Those letters tell a story of a people lost in the desolate wilderness carrying an ark containing something sacred. Fearful of enemies and vulnerable to the elements, knowing that there must be a caretaker, and going forth as caretakers themselves of even the smallest amount of sacredness in a profane world.
The verses that measure the smallest amount of sacredness worth saving are a reminder that there once was a people who made it their mission to carry almost imperceptibly small sacredness through an unforgiving world. As if to say, in this seemingly caretaker-less world, “Know that you are not alone.”
You are not alone as you save the sacred from the fire. You are not alone as you stand in a desolate world.
We are exhausted and lonely and done and ready to go back to the lives we never knew to appreciate. And we have never been more clear that we live in a world that is not as hospitable as we thought. Certainly not to sacred things.
And we are so endlessly fortunate to be here. Just to be in this world.
It may not be possible to be reassured down to the atomic level but we will not stop using our gift to sense the sacred and search for every atom of sanctity in this world.
There has never been another time in our lifetimes when it has been more clear that the world is on fire. And so we mourn our disappointment, we mourn our lost expectations and dreams. And then we shout in horror.
This is not ok.
Lekh Lekha, go forth and save the sacred. It’s why we are here. And you are not alone.
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