September 18, 2020
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According to the mystics, the world began with a shattering.
In the book of Genesis, the world’s birth is portrayed as a gentle unfolding: a series of peaceful separations, the intimate animation of clay from earth’s four corners by God’s own breath.
But in the 16th century, the kabbalist Rabbi Isaac Luria put forth the possibility of something more violent as the catalyst for creation. According to Luria, the world began with something breaking.
Before the creation of the world, Luria said, God was Ein Sof, without beginning and without end, filling the universe from one end to the other. For the world as we know it to be created, God would have to make room.
So God performed the act of tzimtzum, contracting all the divine light into clay vessels. (My dad and other clever nudnikim would ask where the vessels came from, but just follow me on this one).
Of course, no vessel could contain all the divine light in the universe. So, several centuries before scientists coined the term ‘big bang,” Luria proposed that the world began with a cosmic explosion.
The vessels shattered, scattering shards of divine light and sacred container everywhere. For the kabbalists, the phrase tikkun olam, repairing the world, meant uncovering these shards of clay and light, and restoring them through our own righteous actions.
On most years at this season, rabbis might lift up this text as a way to talk about what needs to be fixed in our world. But as this New Year begins, we need a moment to recognize, and mourn for, what has broken.
Something shattered back in March, which simultaneously feels like yesterday and a decade ago. At the time, it felt like a small disruption. We quietly canceled programming for the week, scaled down the guest list for the bar mitzvah, and upgraded our Zoom account.
We thought it might be two weeks. It has now been over six months.
Life cycle events have been postponed, canceled, or moved online. Our 12th graders missed the culminating activities of their senior year, and began the next chapter of their lives under profoundly different circumstances. Our five-year-olds started kindergarten on a screen.
Those of us fortunate enough to be working have either been moved online or deemed “essential.” Many have been furloughed or laid off. Those who are retired can no longer engage in the activities that give their days structure and meaning.
Schools went remote, turning every parent and guardian into both teaching assistant and tech support, stretching families to their limits. Our senior citizens, and others who live alone, fight isolation, depression, and loneliness. We have been faced with terrible choices. On lighter days, we have to choose between public safety and the small pleasures that might bring us joy. On darker days, we have lost the ability to care for loved ones who are ill, or even to be present for their final moments.
And we were the lucky ones, compared to so many who have lost their lives, or lost a loved one, to this disease, and others whose lives will be permanently marked by this illness.
While some aspects of our life seem to have collapsed out of nowhere, this time has also exposed many cracks that have been there for a long time.
Relationships have been tested, both by distance and by forced closeness. Inequities in divisions of household labor have become more obvious. Learning challenges and mental health concerns have been exacerbated, as routines and support systems crumbled.
This unexpected pressure has also revealed the cracks in our longstanding societal structures. We were reminded how many children relied on our schools for the majority of their meals, or even a safe place to be every day. We saw in real time how many households were one missed paycheck—or unexpected health crisis—away from poverty. We discovered how many essential workers aren’t guaranteed safe conditions or a living wage.
Tonight, we hold all of that brokenness in our hearts as we begin this New Year. We do not dismiss it or diminish it. We brace ourselves for the possibility that there is more to come. We recognize that much of this brokenness is not temporary, and that what we once considered “normal” might not be coming back.
We remind ourselves tonight that the world began with a shattering. And that out of this shattering, something new will undoubtedly emerge. While we cannot necessarily control what shatters, we might have something to say about how we respond to that shattering, and what we build in its wake.
When I was writing this sermon, I asked people to share what this experience had “shattered” for them. There was a great deal of pain in their responses. Many had lost faith in their fellow human beings or in civil society, their sense of security or even sanity. They mourned the loss of the separation between work and home; the missed handshakes, hugs, and real life gatherings with loved ones. Many hearts have been broken, for themselves and for the losses, large and small, their loved ones have had to face.
There were moments of humor as well. My colleague Rabbi Rachel Wiesenberg wrote that the pandemic had “broken all our furniture from too much use. … we had to get two new couches because our two little boys were literally climbing the walls.”
And we also learned that not everything that shattered was a tragedy.
Many told me how their understanding of themselves in relation to the world has changed dramatically. Even as social distancing made it difficult to gather in groups, many saw the breaking down of barriers between themselves and their neighbors. Though everyone had moments of feeling isolated, some people felt less lonely knowing that everyone in the world was fighting the same fight. Rabbi Nicole Auerbach said that this time broke down her “belief that human connection requires physical proximity.” And what is a better example of that than our gathering “here” tonight? (Though I look forward to when I no longer have to preach to a screen).
People who were always “on top of things” revealed how this time taught them to relinquish control and adjust their expectations. People who planned everything had to learn to be flexible and let go. People who spent much of their time “looking ahead” to the next milestone or accomplishment are learning, slowly to be more present in the moment.
While I’m sure many of us developed some new bad habits during the pandemic, many of us found that certain go-to excuses were shattered, leaving no reason not to take a walk outside or eat dinner with our family. One parent hopes that mask-wearing will break her children’s habits of nail-biting and nose-picking.
Overall, watching things break down, even as it has been terrifying, has taught us about who we are and what matters to us. So many things that we took for granted are now more deeply appreciated: our essential workers, our relationships, the mundane routines of our day, and especially our health and well-being.
And many things we thought were important turned out not to be. One of my favorite pick-me-ups in these times has been watching how people celebrate their birthdays and other special occasions within the restrictions of quarantine. The wedding that took place on a New York City street-corner with the officiant yelling out a second-story window. The b’nai mitzvah celebrated with takeout pizza and festive car parades. The young birthday girl whose past and future celebrations will pale in comparison to the excitement of the 45 minute family car ride to pick up the cake. I hope that when this is all a distant memory, we will remember how little we needed to make a moment special.
Even in our darkest moments, we’ve learned to come together in new ways. I never thought we could recreate the intimacy of a shiva minyan on a screen. But somehow, we did. Even better, we were able to show up for the people we love all over the world, without leaving the safety of our homes.
Rosh Hashana is the birthday of the world. And the world began with a shattering.
So tonight I’d like to tell you another story about shattering, this one, a little less cosmic, from a modern kabbalist, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner.
When Rabbi Kushner’s family moved into their first house, they, like many new homeowners, developed a “punch list” of improvements they wanted to make to the property.
“Always, near the bottom of the list,” Rabbi Kushner writes, “was the chandelier in the dining room. It wasn’t broken nor did it look particularly awful. We just didn’t like it very much. … It wasn’t egregiously wrong enough to require immediate attention, so, as with so many things in life, whenever we found some money or energy, we would end up spending them on something else. Rooms were painted and wallpapered. Floors were sanded and varnished. The roof was replaced. We even put on an addition. But the chandelier remained.”
Being bothered by ugly light fixtures is a privilege in these times. But it can also be a sign of our own inertia, when everything else seems more pressing.
One day, Rabbi Kushner’s father showed up with a hammer. “I was going to break that chandelier you’re always complaining about” he said … “I figured if somebody didn’t break it you’d never get around to getting yourselves a new one.” So together, they broke the chandelier and, the very next day, they put a new one in its place.
As it happens, this wasn’t the first time a light fixture had taken on such significance in the Kushner family narrative. Back in the Ukraine, he learned, his grandfather would take down the chandelier every time there was mischief in the village, so that flying projectiles wouldn’t break it. Rabbi Kushner’s aunt tells the story, “One week, while Pa was trying to get that chandelier safely into the attic, he dropped it and it broke with a crash into a thousand pieces. I overheard him say to Ma, ‘That does it: We’re going to America!’” (Invisible Lines of Connection, pp. 85-87).
On a normal year, I might have used this story to ask about the personal habits we have trouble shaking, or the societal paradigms that need shattering.
On this year, in particular, I wanted to tell this story as we prepare for a major transition in the life of our congregation. While nothing is set in stone—isn’t that true of everything right now?—we are preparing for the possibility that this will be our last High Holy Days on High School Road. Or for those of you at home, that our last High Holy Days in this space were our last High Holy Days on High School Road.
The last few years have shattered our illusion that our local Jewish community would always keep growing, and that Jewish families would always seek to be a part of synagogue communities. No amount of openness or outreach, clever marketing or quality programming, could counter the shifting demographics or changing attitudes toward affiliation. Not even being the best version of ourselves, which we are still striving to be, would help us reach the numbers that would make staying on this property sustainable. And trying to do so was a heavy burden on our shoulders.
Even knowing all this, it feels like a shattering. This is the end of an era. But it is also a beginning.
In December, I talked about how we might we be able to be adaptable, creative, and innovative if we could let go of the responsibilities of maintaining this property. We reminded each other how we spent many years as “wandering Jews,” and that we are more than our building, wherever we go.
Back then, it was just a hypothetical. Now, it is our reality. We were shattered early, when COVID-19 forced us to close our doors.
While we always felt in our heart of hearts that this community is more than our building, now we know it for sure. Being (mostly) out of this building for the last six months has not stopped us from coming together to engage in our primary Jewish acts of study, worship, loving kindness and the pursuit of justice. Of course we will be grateful to be back in person when that is possible once again. But we don’t need this building to show up for one another’s simchas, or take care of each other in difficult times. We don’t need this building to raise up the next generation of proud Jews, or to welcome our neighbors from other faiths into our worship space. We’ve done all that and more, since we’ve been online.
Not only has this shattering not prevented us from gathering, we’ve learned new ways of doing so that are more accessible and more widely attended. While it took some doing getting our more tech-phobic members on Zoom, now families with young children can turn on our services and sing along while they get ready for bed. Friends and relatives from all over the country have been able to celebrate Shabbat and holidays together in our virtual space. Tonight, friends and family are joining us from military bases, nursing homes, and college dorms.
We have learned to be patient, persistent, and flexible, to navigate through glitches and to give everyone credit for trying. And these are lessons we will carry with us into our new home and use them to create something new and wonderful.
Next year, we pray, we will be physically present with one another again. We pray that we will have a new place to call home speedily and soon. It will not be the same as it was before. But that is not necessarily a bad thing.
So tonight we ask ourselves—in our own lives, in the life of our community, and in our wider world: What might this shattering make room for?
We started tonight with the words of the mystics: that the world began with a shattering. But our nechemta, our closing words of comfort, come from the modern psalmist Leonard Cohen, now immortalized in Mishkan HaNefesh:
The birds, they sang
At the break of day
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what has passed away
Or what is yet to be. …
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Rabbi Leah R. Berkowitz