I was living in Jerusalem when the pandemic began — about to finish two years of study at yeshiva, a traditional Jewish learning institution. I was living with my sister there, and my partner, Benji, with whom I was long distance — he was in London at our home and I was in Jerusalem — rang me in the middle of March 2020, and said, “I think you should get a plane ticket and come home. They’re talking about locking down London.”
So I got on a plane. So few people were flying — and so little was known at that point about the coronavirus — that one man was wearing a full-on gas mask on the plane — and rather than think, “That’s a bit extreme,” I did have the fleeting thought instead of — “What does he know that I should know?” It’s fair to say that the airport in Tel Aviv and the airport in London when I landed were a bit apocalyptic — empty and clearly about to imminently shut down…
Two months later, I started as Rabbi of Kehillah. And a year and a half later, here we all are.
In the same way that gardening – or sour dough bread-making – or binging Tiger King – became fashionable in that first months-long lockdown… Mishnah Ta’anit became popular in the Jewish study world… In those spring months of 2020, (like all good human beings getting on with a global trend while in our individualised household or ‘bubbles’), I I sat and read this bit of Mishnah, Mishnah Ta’anit, in chevruta, in a Jewish study partnership, one on one, with my life partner, Benji.
The Mishnah is the core of the Talmud, which is itself our most important text outside of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible. The Mishnah is 2,000 years old, and the oral tradition and historical memory it preserves are much older. And Mishnah Ta’anit, the bit that became so popular with yeshiva buchers, Jewish students of Torah during those months of Thursday Claps for Carers and stay at home orders, Mishnah Ta’anit is one tractate — a section of the Mishnah — all about the calamities that can befall us as human beings.
And what we are meant to do about it when such horrible events happen to us…
You can see why it might have been popular in lockdown last year.
On the one hand, perhaps not the most cheering of readings…
So what does one do when there’s a drought, a famine, or disease in our land?? Our tradition says, “We decrease our engagement in business transactions, in building and planting, in betrothals and marriages, and in greetings between each person and his fellow, like people who have been rebuked by God….”
And “the congregation appoints an elder, who is experienced in leading prayer, as a communal prayer leader. And this prayer leader must have children and must have an empty house, that is, they must be poor, so that their heart will be fully concentrated on the prayer for the needs of their community.”
This little tractate of our Mishnah, Ta’anit, from some of our core traditional teachings, is very slim. Benji and I read it in a week or two, I think. And then the pandemic went on… And on. We have now all lived it for a year and a half.
And yet lines from that early learning in first lockdown keep regurgitating for me… Keep coming back up at the oddest moments.
And I have wondered why that is.
I would wager — quite simply — that I found something deeply comforting — in my moments of darkness — in the very clear proof, in the Mishnah’s pages, that we are not alone. That we are not the only generation to have faced such existential questions….
In our lives, each of us faces individual and collective difficulty. And most of us have faced more of it this past year and change than in normal times… And we have been so beset by our individual challenges — and gathering communally has been impossible at so many points — that we have often been alone with our own troubles.
A friend of mine from my old shul, before Kehillah, died of Covid that first spring. My grandmother — shut alone for her own safety, sick in her room alone for three months — declared to us that, if this was what life was like at 89 for her, she was ready to go, and entered hospice last summer — and passed away.
In London, we all weathered something like 9 months of lockdowns and restrictions together — with all their concomitant economic woes, loneliness and isolation, stress, home schooling, loss of jobs — necessary social protests and moral reckonings — on top of the simple, regular, daily stresses of life in non pandemic times…
It has been — to put it lightly — hard. No?
And Mishnah Ta’anit kept coming back up for me…. Because it’s really very bracing to know, with certainty, that our spiritual ancestors, in other times, faced these similar, recognisable challenges…
No, I hear some of you cry — BUT we have climate change and the rise of far-right nationalism (and with it rising antisemitism). And we are hard-hearted to each other when we should be kind. Surely our ancestors didn’t face such things! Well. The Mishnah says that even on Shabbat — when you are supposed to be celebrating — you can cry-out for the welfare of a city surrounded by armed “troops, or for a place in danger of being flooded by a river that has swelled its banks, or for a ship tossed about at sea.” There was baseless hatred between people back then, and they were in some ways more at the whims of climate than we. The ancient world was no less fraught with danger than ours.
And our human ingenuity to make things better — to fix things that we had broken (and have broken now) — is no less possible now. We know what needs to be done. And what’s more, we can and will figure out how to do it.
The Mishnah says we are meant to ‘cry out’ in these moments, to other human beings, to the skies, to the Divine, to summon help. And how is this ‘crying out’ meant to happen??
With the sound of the shofar.
We are meant to sound the shofar in such times of distress.
And what about a plague?
“What is considered a plague of disease?,” our tradition asks there. “When is a series of deaths treated as a plague? The mishna answers: If a city that…has a population of five hundred …[people], and three dead are taken out of it on three consecutive days, this is a plague of disease, which requires fasting and crying out [for help].”
So we sound the shofar.
And perhaps we say, as we just said here today in Avinu Malkeinu, and will continue to say throughout these Ten Days of Repentance: ‘Ayn Banu Ma’asim’. ‘We have few good deeds’. But we are worthy of help. Of giving it to others and of receiving it.
For the Mishnah in Ta’anit also reminds us, what was it that ‘helped’ in these moments, in the end? Did the Divine come down from on high and end the disease, the famine, the flood?
No, the Mishnah says. No.
The Mishnah instead reminds us of the Book of Jonah, which we will read in a week’s time here, on Yom Kippur. Which we read every year. When the people of Nineveh, our brothers, says the Mishnah, fasted and prayed for help, in the Book of Jonah there, it does not say there that God ‘saw their sackcloth and their fasting’ and helped them.
No, Rather, the verse says: “And God saw their deeds, that they had turned from their evil way” (Jonah 3:10). And in the Prophets it says: “And rend your hearts and not your garments, and return to the Eternal your God” (Joel 2:13).
It is not the death of the sinner that God requires, our liturgy reminds us today, but that they turn from their ways and live.
And not because any particular calamity is brought on by our moral action. No. The Mishnah is very clear about this. Those floods and disease and danger are not being visited on cities because they are wicked. Calamity is sometimes the lot of human beings — we flinch from it, but the notion that ‘who by fire’ is really about our own shared human vulnerability is at the heart of this.
So where is the comfort? Where comes the Hope? The answer?
Sound the shofar. Make amends. Be in the presen — for as the Midwest sage of binge-worthy lockdown TV, Ted Lasso, says — “The present is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.”
“The mishna relates: An incident occurred in the days of Rabbi Ḥalafta and Rabbi Ḥananya ben Teradyon, that … as the prayer leader [finished leading prayer that day]…the congregation did not answer amen after them. Instead, the attendant of the synagogue said: Sound the shofar with a long, unwavering sound, priests, blow the shofar. The prayer leader continued: the Divine Who answered Abraham on Mount Moriah, God will answer you and hear the sound of your cry on this day. Once again, the attendant announced: Blast the shofar, with a wavering sound, sons of Aaron, blast. The prayer leader resumed: the Divine Who answered our forefathers by the Red Sea, God will answer you and hear the sound of your cry on this day.”
And this was a custom of the Temple in Jerusalem, we’re told.
And that is, in fact, where Mishnah Ta’anit ends.
With the remembrance that, in fact, the two most solemn (one could argue sad) days of the year, the fast of Av and Yom Kippur, were also, paradoxically, the happiest of times.
“There were no days as joyous for the Jewish people as the fifteenth of Av and as Yom Kippur,” we are told, “as on them the daughters of Jerusalem would go out in white clothes, which each woman borrowed from another. Why were they borrowed? They did this so as not to embarrass one who did not have her own white garments.”
And what were they rejoicing about, these daughters of Zion, on these sad and difficult days?
That we could mend our ways, that we could create a better world, that we could be kind to one another in the midst of difficulty. Lift one another up because we know how much we ourselves need help being lifted….
How does our tradition speak of this? Well, it talks about rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem — something that the Jewish tradition understands can only happen when all human beings live in peace with one another and with all of the world.
And that is why we sound the shofar — to summon help. It’s to summon ourselves to account — to be each other’s help. To be God’s hands in the world.
Only our good deeds matter.
And our tradition does NOT say that our good deeds cure disease but it does say, as does our liturgy today — “that practicing t’shuva / repentance, prayer, and tzedakah or charity” lessen the harshness of our individual suffering, of the world’s suffering.
Acting gently and kindly — and with assertive and quick generosity — is the only thing that has ever helped.