It’s been a year, hasn’t it? And yet we gather today to celebrate the birthday of humanity— and I want to talk about creation. It’s like we are in the midst of a huge pregnancy, waiting for an election, for a vaccine to prove safe and effective, and in my family’s case, waiting for my first grandchild, in 3 weeks.
It’s been something—the first time I’ve ever lived with a pregnant woman through her pregnancy, which started not long before we began sheltering in place. (We adopted our beloved daughter Olya almost 30 years ago.) The first trimester felt like those first three months of the pandemic—worrisome but with the intention of helping each other and being calm and grateful that we all had or were providing support.
In the second trimester, we realized that maybe we were in for a long haul, but Olya was in the best mood and was feeling the best I can remember in a long time. That alone caused joy in our house. This was also the time when most of us realized that we were not in a sprint but a marathon. We might have done better had we imagined it as a relay, recognizing that each of us had a part. We wear our masks, maintain physical distance, haven’t congregated in a group for months. Not because we are making a political statement, but because we want to be part of the public health solution. Nonetheless, some of us have felt the loneliness of the long-distance runner, especially people who are sheltering alone and lack good internet access or computer skills, or indeed access at all…
And now we’re in Olya’s third trimester. She’s uncomfortable, ungainly, needs help getting her socks on, anxious about the birth. She can’t sit for long, especially by the end of the day. She feels like it’s never going to end. And that’s where a lot of us are: we can’t picture an effective vaccine or real cures any time soon. And so, we wait, trying to connect, trying to maintain hope for a happy outcome.
I have faith that we will emerge from this state: for my family, with a hopefully healthy happy baby. For all of us, a new world that we can play a part in creating. And so tomorrow, we are reading about creation. I encourage us all to imagine what creation of the post pandemic world might look like, feel like, BE like. I want to offer a few ideas about a Jewish vision of that new world.
The first idea comes from the wonderful book, The Liberating Path of the Hebrew Prophets: Then and Now, by Rabbi Nahum Ward-Lev. His teachings have been heart opening to me in ways I haven’t felt since I first read Alan Lew (z”l)’s This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, the best High Holy Days book I’ve ever read.
Ward-Lev teaches that the prophetic stream in general and of each of the individual prophets shared 3 qualities:
- An encounter with divine love and concern for the world
- Courage to name oppression
- And the moral imagination to articulate an alternative future. (p. 11)
Just hearing those words makes me feel that what happened before is happening again, as though he were writing right this minute, rather than last year, or in the prophets’ case, millennia ago. We might not be prophets—our sages taught us that the age of prophets ended long ago. But most of us know what Ward-Lev describes as “the presence of a great love, a love that includes the whole world” (p. 11) in some form or experience or moments. We too are aggrieved in the face of oppression, and we want change: a better, more just world for all. Fueled by our own particular yearning, we can follow our ratzon, our will, to help to liberate some corner of the world’s oppressed peoples.
The prophetic stream didn’t just spring from the prophets themselves—in some ways, it’s been flowing since the moment when God began to create the heavens and the earth/ בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ. The first words of the Torah. When God kick-started creation, God didn’t do it just by DOING it. No, God spoke that important word, “יְהִי”—Let there be. God called forth every new creation—sun and moon and stars, water and dry land, grasses and trees and seeds, animals of all sorts, and finally us humans… God spoke the words in a call to liberate our inherent potential, and we—everything in creation—responded by fulfilling that potential. Seeds brought forth grasses and flowers and trees, the stars twinkled, the waves crashed, the bees made honey.
We have been in relationship with God, the energy of creation, from the beginning. As we say in the Hamotzi— הַמּוֹצִיא לֶֽחֶם מִן הָאָֽרֶץ—we give thanks for the lechem—bread that comes forth from the earth. Of course, we don’t harvest bread; we bake bread from the flour we buy at the store that got it from the trucker who loaded in from the miller who bought the wheat from the farmer. We have always been in relationship with God and nature and other people. Always, from the beginning. Nahum-Ward describes this as God’s great love for all creation.
Each day, God liberated the energy of each new part of our universe and empowered it to emerge. Our creation story empowers US to face the chaos that was present at the beginning and is present now in our time, “see it clearly for what it is, and, in relationship to that chaos, bring forth new ways of being,” (p. 47) as Ward-Lev proposes.
Imagine it—here we are in this pregnant moment—this gestational period of waiting, suffering, grieving, conserving energy, and someday, the birth of a new time will come. What will it look like? And what will we each be doing? How will we be with each other? Will we be kind? Will we act? Will we sit on the sidelines, thinking someone else will do it, I’m too old, or disabled, or busy, or otherwise indisposed? Will we help to build policies that take care of the widow, orphan and stranger, all vulnerable people? Will we recognize the spark of the divine in each human being—no matter what they look like, whom they pray to, or whom they love, or whom they vote for?
These are the questions we need to ask ourselves and our community: How much like prophets can we be?
Have we encountered divine love and concern for the world?Doesn’t have to be flashy—could just be love between people, or with animals…bigger than ourselves. Yes?
Have we been cared for? I have.
Do we have the courage to name oppression when we see, hear or encounter it? I hope so.
And do we have the moral imagination to imagine—and help to enact an alternative future? I think so.
These are some Jewish questions for our time…And I offer a few suggestions for answers.
During the Aleinu prayer that we pray at the end of each service, we too often skip over these words:
Therefore we put our hope in You, Eternal our God, to soon envision the tiferet—the glory, the beauty—of Your courage, to remove all idols from the Earth, and to completely cut off all false gods—envision here greed, power, celebrity, arrogance—to repair the world, Your holy world. And we hope to live for the day when all that breathes—animal, mineral, vegetable—good and wicked and in between—turn to You—for that world of kindness, beauty, truth and love.
Imagine this vision of the post-pandemic new world: a world that is repaired so that each of us recognizes and values ourselves AND every other person (and living thing) as being the image of holiness, and therefore our society—both its laws and policies and our interactions with each other—offers equality of opportunity, equality of treatment by those chosen to lead us through free and fair elections, and that all of us would turn toward kindness and love. Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof/Justice, justice shall you pursue. Equal justice under the law is another component of a Jewish vision of a post-pandemic world.
We could also turn to the weekday Amidah prayer for inspiration. The 13 intermediate prayers also propose a Jewish vision of our post-pandemic world. This would be a world in which
- we were all filled with wisdom, understanding, and knowledge;
- we have the opportunity to turn toward goodness, away from our mistakes and poor behavior;
- we could acknowledge our mistakes and be forgiven;
- we would be seen and supported in our internal battles;
- we would pray for healing for ourselves and our loved ones;
- nature would secure all of us enough to eat;
- all of us would experience freedom and realize that each of us is part of one family;
- equal justice would prevail;
- wickedness would disappear;
- our elders, our sages and all of us would be cared for;
- the meeting of Heaven and Earth—the connection with the divine—would be protected and valued;
- our prayers would be answered (although sometimes the answer might be no or not yet);
- and finally, we would serve all that is holy in the world…
Our people have prayed for these condition 6 days a week for millennia. It prescribes a healthy vision of a healthy, happy world.
As Rabbi Tarfon pronounced in Pirkei Avot, the wisdom of our ancestors, while we are not expected to finish the work, neither are we allowed to desist from taking it up. I imagine many of us saying, How long, dear God, how long, must we live in a world of such division and hatred, such income inequality, in a world where black lives don’t matter and antisemitism thrives; where terrorism can be applauded by the police, and cheered from the highest places in government? Where insults are hurled daily and lies multiply before our eyes?
No, it is time for us to recognize that even in the last weeks of pregnancy, even in the later months of the pandemic, we must not stand idly by the bloods of our neighbors. Whether we write post cards, text or call other citizens, our own family members, our representatives; whether we march for justice, take care of our elders, or ask for or grant forgiveness, act with overt kindness, treat everyone with respect, feed the hungry—we must act to make this new, post-pandemic healthy and happy for everyone. That’s what we Jews do, what we have always done. We might not arrive at such a world in our lifetimes, but that doesn’t allow us to stand around do nothing before the face of suffering.
Let us empower each other to bring forth what is the best in ourselves and empower our communities and nation and world to bring forth our best potential to be the world we want it to be.
Ken yehi ratzon. May it be your will.