by Jacob Cytryn, Executive Director
In this week’s parashah, Re’eh, we find one of three holiday cycles in the Torah tracing Jewish time through the sabbatical years and then the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. This year the text exposes the struggle of relating to the Jewish calendar as it inexorably unfolds week after week while we live through a communal and global lifecycle event. There are events that cleave our lives into ‘before’ and ‘after,’ moments even more monumental than ‘where were you when?’ This pandemic, and possibly the political and social unrest that has boiled over within it, is surely one of these moments for many of us as well as wide swaths of our world. Placing lifecycles to the side – Zoom funerals, baby namings, bar/bat mitzvah, weddings, birthdays – we are living through one extended process of trauma and grief that has subsumed our entire calendar.
As we enter the month of Elul we are reminded of the Rabbinic teaching that the letters E-L-U-L are an acrostic of the phrase from Shir haShirim (Song of Songs 6:3) declaring the loving relationship between God and Israel, “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine.” I have to stop and wonder – what is the theology of 2020 that allows us to celebrate God’s love for the Jewish people in this moment? We approach the High Holy Day liturgy of untaneh tokef and the fears of mortality written in late antiquity will feel very real for all of us: “Who will live and who will die? Who in good time and who by an untimely death? Who by water and who by fire?” These questions are ones our ancestors, throughout the generations, have grappled with – in war, in exile, in famine, in pandemic – and we confront them anew as Jews and humans in 2020.
Perhaps one answer is to recognize the way that the pandemic has made all of us aware of our shared experience as humans. Recognizing and lamenting the painful disparities between individuals, families, and communities which have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and underscored by appropriate cries for racial and social justice, stories of selflessness and cooperation abound. In a moment of profound divisiveness, coalitions are somehow being built, from the banging of pots and cheering for medical professionals and other essential workers, to people actually speaking with their neighbors and recognizing each other on the street or in the grocery store, to marching together in solidarity in ways our country has not seen in decades. This spirit is captured by the end of the section of this week’s Torah reading that describes the festivals, a section we read not only this week but also on the last day of the three pilgrimage festivals. Instructing the Israelites, when they trek to the Temple on Sukkot, to not appear empty-handed, it says (16:17): “Each with his own gift, according to the blessing that the Lord God has bestowed upon you.” As Chancellor Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary Ismar Schorsch has taught, this verse is likely the origin of the custom of donating money in memory of a loved one at Yizkor as this is the last verse of the Torah we read before the Yizkor service. For us, in 2020, it is a reminder that we can only give that which we have, and that everyone ought to give something.
Bound up in the maelstrom of our historical moment, living through lifecycles and the Jewish calendar, we ought to allow ourselves the freedom to celebrate our lives exuberantly and to recognize the ways in which we are inexplicably bound up with others. The long history of pandemics is that they eventually end; the long history of humanity is that those who survive can become better people with greater appreciation for the gift of their lives.