A year ago at this time, our major concern was Security. Coming on the heels of the shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, and the attacks at a kosher market in Jersey City, and at a Hanukkah party in Rockland County, we were focused on what to do in case of an active shooter at our Temple. We hired a professional Security firm, we installed locks in the doors of the Sanctuary and Social Hall, and we downloaded a special App that would bring the Police here within moments.
All of that seems like ancient history now. This year we’ve been hit with four major crises- any one of which would have been a great challenge to overcome.
The first was the Coronavirus. Monday night, March 9th we held a wonderful Purim service. A few Temples had cancelled their celebrations out of an abundance of caution. Days later we learned that some of our congregants became ill, and we shut down services, Hebrew School, and the office. We were able to live-stream our daily and Shabbat services. We did celebrate a wedding here- with just 10 people, all wearing masks, and we did have two Bat and one Bar Mitzvah -during the week- with only immediate family present, everyone in a mask, and the service “zoomed” to family and friends. It’s hard to process the number of people who have died in our country from the virus in such a short time- over 175,000 since February! In our own small Temple, we’ve lost nine congregants since January, some from Covid, some from other causes.
State and local authorities came to understand that it would be necessary to order businesses and schools to close. More than twenty million people were put out of work, and the stock market crashed. Religious institutions also had to shut their doors. Some churches foolishly said that God would protect them and refused to close; others felt that now is when the church was needed most, and they fought to stay open. In the Jewish world, with but a few exceptions, it was understood that preserving life and staying healthy was the highest priority.
Then, on May 25th, George Floyd was killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, touching off protests against police brutality- mostly peaceful, but some including rioting and looting and violence. This quickly snowballed into a larger movement against systemic racism. That led to calls to defund or even abolish the police; in the south there were calls to get rid of Confederate flags, and to take down statues of confederate war heroes. That led to nationwide demands to remove all statues of slaveholders, and racists, which led to calls to expunge the racist images on food products, and the names of sports teams- and even to ban certain movies.
On top of all this, we are in the midst of a national election campaign. There seems to be two radically different strategies for winning 270 electoral votes: One candidate, evoking the spirit of FDR during the Depression and the Second World War, speaks of uniting the Nation. The other candidate, channeling Nixon and Wallace in 1968, seeks to divide and conquer.
Where does all of this leave us today? We’re scared.
We’re scared for our health. How do we stay safe? Can we go shopping? To the bank? To the post office? Do we send our kids off to school, or insist that they stay home and learn from a lap top? Can we vote without catching or transmitting the virus? Can we touch a package or the mail dropped off at our door? Doctors and scientists don’t know for certain, and the message keeps changing. All the while, politicians don’t hesitate to say whatever they think people want to hear. Even if I’m careful to wear a mask, wash my hands, and stay 6 feet away from everyone, there are still LAZY people out there who will forget, or CRAZY people out there who will refuse. (It’s an interesting difference in our dual heritage: America is mostly about our Rights, and our freedom to do as we choose; Judaism is mainly about our Obligations and our responsibilities to something greater than ourselves.)
We’re scared about our Financial Security. Will we keep our jobs, and if we’ve lost them, how will we manage? Sometimes it seems as if the government is more interested in taking care of large corporations, and doesn’t care so much about “the little guy.” What will become of our Pensions, or our Retirement funds- or even our Savings accounts? We planned to put aside a little for a “rainy day.” What happens when it doesn’t stop raining and we’re facing “Monsoon season?”
We’re scared about civil unrest. What happens to people whose businesses are burned down or looted? What happens when it’s no longer safe to walk the streets? What happens when the hatred of one side for another spills over into violence. It would not take much in the current climate for there to be bloodshed, for a horror just short of civil war to engulf our nation. We face a “tyranny of the minority.” On the Right, people armed to the teeth with weapons, trying to hold on to or restore an idealized vision of what America once was; on the Left, a Cancel Culture that is determined to allow only what- and whom- it deems Politically Correct.
And we’re scared about the institutions of our democracy. Congress seems more and more interested only in raising funds to get themselves re-elected, instead of doing the People’s Work. The Fourth Estate is no longer the watchdog of Democracy, and it no longer reports “the facts.” The Press has become mostly about Advocacy, as we can no longer agree on what the facts are.
It’s precisely at such a time that the synagogue, the church, the mosque can offer just what we need the most. Religion serves four major roles:
- It teaches Values, letting us know what is Right, and what is Wrong.
- It provides Rituals that help us to meaningfully mark the seasons of the year with holidays, and give significance to the milestones of our Life cycle.
- It strengthens our group identity, by putting us in touch with our past, and with our people.
- And finally- and perhaps most importantly- it connects us to God and that which is Eternal.
They say that there are no atheists in a foxhole: Even if you didn’t believe in God, you’d certainly turn to Him when people are shooting at you. As we begin the New Jewish Year, it feels like they’re shooting at us from four different directions. Our Leaders aren’t leading, our experts don’t know what to tell us, and it’s clear that we’re overwhelmed and can’t get ourselves out of trouble. This New Year, more than most in a long, long time, we’re ready to pray; we need to pray. But what do we pray for?
It seems to me that there are two kinds of people, and two kinds of prayer:
One guy offers this Tefilah:
Please keep me and my loved ones from catching the virus and dying from it!
Please don’t let me lose my job and my ability to support and care for my family!
Please protect us from harm, and my property from vandalism and destruction!
Please guide and protect our Country during these difficult days!”
This person believes that God listens to the prayers of every single human being; He also knows what’s in our hearts, even if we don’t put our deepest fears into words. Then God evaluates whether what we’re asking for is worthy of granting. If it is, He decides whether or not the person asking this prayer is worthy of being given what they prayed for. And then God has to figure out whether granting that request would fit it with all God’s other plans.
I assume that none of us ever hears from God personally. There’s no “Message received” e-mail , Or “I’ll get back to you on that” memo. Sometimes, the things we’ve asked for seem to happen, and we figure that God gave us what we prayed for. But often, there’s no change in our lives, and we assume that God is just mean (How could He, after all, say “No” to me?), or we come to the conclusion that there is no God up there, and that Prayer is just a waste of time. You’re on your own; live with it!
But there’s another kind of person, with a very different idea of Prayer. Here’s what they say:
Dear God! We’re going through some tough times now. What I need from You is Wisdom, to make good choices; Courage to move ahead and despite the obstacles and opposition to follow through with my plans, and Strength to do and complete the job.
I may not be a physician, but every person is capable of bringing some measure of healing to the world. Help me to see people’s pain, and to do what I can to alleviate it.
I may not be a billionaire, but I have been blessed with the resources to make some difference, even in the life of one person. When I see others in need, may I fulfill the Mitzvah of Tzedakah.
Give me patience, and teach me how to talk to people I disagree with; help me to listen to them and to understand what frightens them, and brings them pain. Let me be, like the High Priest Aharon HaKohen, a Lover of Peace and a Pursuer of Peace. Let me follow the words of the Prophet Micha: Do Justice, Love kindness, and walk modestly with God.
And finally, may I understand that Politics is too important to be left to the Politicians; may I become engaged in the process of making our Country into a more perfect Union, demanding of those the People elect to live up to the highest ideals of our great Nation.
A week after the Israelites left Egypt, they found themselves caught between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army. They cried out to Moses, who prayed to God. God answered: “Why are you yelling at Me? Tell the Israelites: ‘Go forward!’ “
Instead of us dumping all our problems onto God’s lap, God is expecting us to help Him to repair our world. We’re not Superman, we can’t “change the course of mighty rivers or leap tall buildings in a single bound”, but we can- each of us- do small things that can make a real difference. That’s what God expects us to do: Go forward!
There’s a prayer in the Mahzor:
May the old year, and its curses, come to an end; May the New Year- with its blessings, now begin.
It’s up to us to bring about those blessings.