“I’m done.” “I want to be done.” That’s what I hear a lot from, from a lot of people, these days — about the difficulties of the pandemic.
At Rosh Hashanah, we were 6 months into this, into some form of lockdown, and NOW, Rosh Hashanah was 6 months ago. We are about to hit the year-mark of this situation. At Rosh Hashanah, I talked of it as an endurance race, a marathon. Specifically, I likened it to an Alaskan dog sled race, and quoted the Jewish dog sled racer Blair Braverman, who said then:
“Midpandemic… we have no idea how far it is to the finish line… What this means for people, for us, is that we can’t just plan to take care of ourselves later. We shouldn’t expect to catch up on sleep when we really crash, or to reach out to loved ones after we’re struck by loneliness. We should ask for support before we need it. We should support others before they ask. Because if you don’t know how far you’re going, you need to act like you’re going forever.
“Planning for forever is essentially impossible, which can actually be freeing: It brings you back into the present. How long will this pandemic last? Right now, that’s irrelevant; what matters is eating a nourishing meal, telling someone you love them, walking your dog, getting enough sleep. What matters is that, to the degree you can, you make your own life sustainable every day.”
We think and we hope that we are further along the endurance race than we were then… We have a roadmap out of London lockdown, and we as a community are drawing up an intentional, safe roadmap for slowing opening up ourselves. That is partly why I am here in the building today — the hope is that my presence here is a sign of things to come– a taste of when, God willing, we can all be back here, in this space, together.
The Torah portion Jeanette leyned so beautifully today starts, “Ki voshesh Moshe la-redet,” we the Jewish people were getting antsy, nervous, frustrated, strung out.. Because Moses had been so long up the mountain. He dallied, or was delayed… At the very least, he wasn’t present when we got tired and scared.
The people started to say to Aaron, his brother, “I’m done.” “I want to be done.”
WE ARE In that same place. Beyond our own individual circumstances, as a collective we are exhausted. And underneath it we have all been afraid.
No wonder the Jewish people, in a last desperate act, threw off their gold earrings into the fire and built the Golden Calf. Better to have something than nothing. Better to have something than this uncertainty.
There are two well-known and very different ways to look at this moment of the Golden Calf, Jewishly. Sforno, the Italian Renaissance commentator, teaches us that it is a defining moment — because, perhaps, life and our experience of it is about cycles. Sometimes we are content or flourishing or doing well. And sometimes life is hard, a terrible struggle, and we are setback. The Golden Calf moment was perhaps our deepest setback. The moment when we felt so utterly alone — having escaped slavery in Egypt, and found ourselves in the Wilderness — and waiting and waiting to endure Moses’ long absence up Mount Sinai, we made a statute in place of the Divine — we wanted surety. We had learned about God — we had learned that God’s demand (really Life’s demand) was that we be patient and resilient and compassionate and big-pictured about the warp and weft of the universe’s infinite interconnectedness… That was too hard.
Sforno says life is full of collective setbacks like this. Where we endure hard things, make hard choices, sometimes the wrong ones.
Nachmanides, the famous commentator from the Golden Age of Spain, in his telling of the Jewish story — he ignores our Golden Calf moment altogether. He says — our story and the story of life is the story of progress, of learning, and getting better, and eventually building a redeemed world, fixing the brokenness. The Golden Calf story — a setback like this — has no such place in that story of progression, of moral progress.
So Sforno says life is struggle. That we’re due a pandemic. And Nachmanides says we are learning something from it, that we are progressing.
And perhaps both are true.
There’s a mystical Jewish idea that life began with redemption — the Garden of Eden — and life will end with redemption, when we achieve tikkun olam, the fixing of this broken world. And that the steps in between do look like a cycle still — of setbacks and triumphs, real hardship and great joy. So both Sforno and Nachmanides are right.
“You’re done.” “I’m done” “We want to be done.”
Moses has tarried too long on the mountain, and we are tired and scared. This broken moment is then hopefully one where we can also learn. And not to say that any of this difficulty is justified. Just to say — it is happening — so what are we going to do about it?
Shabbat provides some answer too. Shabbat is about time outside of time. A time to abide. Not to be frustrated. Or concerned about what will happen next. Not to wish things otherwise. Now is like this.
So in extremis, in our difficulty, we will still continue to make mistakes, to throw our earrings in the fire and hope an easy, concrete Golden Calf answer comes out of it. In the meantime, though, there is indeed the truth of what we are reminded of in this week’s parsha — we can still try to be patient and resilient and compassionate and big-pictured about the warp and weft of the universe’s infinite interconnectedness… We can still, on this Shabbat, try to simply abide.
In that spirit, I’ll end with one final answer– or thought. By Arab-American poet Naomi Shihab (Shee-hab) Nye:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.