This wasn’t where we expected to be by now. We thought the vaccination rate would have stopped variants and we’d be having concerts again, and masks, at least here, would be a thing of the past. Deaths to covid would have ended… But here we are, masked…in a small group…
I have to say the fact that none of you have gotten Covid is amazing—awe-inspiring, even. But the social isolation, the loneliness, the not being able to hear anyone through a mask, the underlying fear…and the grief for and of so many are soul-wrenching.
As society reopens, I’ve read and heard stories that stand my hair on end or make my heart ache or both. And rather than using our time alone to envision a better future, many people (including me, I admit) are showing that we haven’t improved ourselves as much as the times require.
Cases in point:
A restaurant on Cape Cod gave its staff a “Day of Kindness,” closing to give staff a break from too many customers who had become abusive. Restaurants all over the country shared similar anecdotes.
Flight attendants are being squeezed on both ends. First, the airlines are requiring them to work longer hours with less break time between flights. More people are flying than 2 years ago in the same period, with fewer staff to serve more flyers. (I admit, this shocked me.) Then, because it is the flight attendants’ responsibility to police mask use onboard, they are suffering three times more abuse from flyers—including physical abuse.
A friend told me about a friend of his, a nurse at Highland Hospital. She described the PTSD that she and her colleagues are experiencing—from working around so much death and fear…and then going home and accidentally infecting their family—and losing loved ones because of their work.
Then all the climate crises: my former congregants in Tahoe are experiencing the trauma of the fires, while one of us lost her family home, where everyone gathers. Just imagine how hard it is for the Tahoe rabbi to organize High Holy Days right now.
Thanks to Hurricane Ida, my sister’s building flooded outside of New York City, but she’s been one of the lucky ones: she has electricity and can take her dog for walks, and doesn’t live in a basement apartment.
The people in Louisiana are without electricity amid excessive heat warnings.
One third of the counties in the US have experienced a weather disaster this summer, according to the Washington Post, including us with our severe drought.
I could add Afghanistan and Texas—and the women in both places facing serious threats to their humanity. And racism. And transphobia. The increase in antisemitism. January 6 and the threats to our democracy.
Rabbi Leah Herz calls it a tsunami of tsuris.
And I know that many of you—you who have marched, organized, advocated, donated, served, taught—you are tired. One resident (at SPT) noted that it now takes her an hour to get dressed in the morning and almost that long to get ready for bed, and she doesn’t have the energy in between to do much about what is happening in the world.
I know many of you are discouraged: you wanted to leave the world a better place than you found it. (Know this: you already have, I promise you.)
What to DO??? Let me offer a few suggestions.
The first is that you don’t necessarily have to DO much.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, the Tibetan monk who wrote in In Love with the World,
People everywhere try so hard to make the world better. Their intentions are admirable. Yet they seek to change everything but themselves. To make yourself a better person is to make the world a better place. Who develops industries that fill the air and water with toxic waste? How did we humans become immune to the plight of refugees…? Until we transform ourselves, we are like mobs of angry people screaming for peace…Nothing is more essential for the twenty-first century and beyond than personal transformation. It’s our only hope. Transforming ourselves is transforming the world.
The Chofetz Chaim, the 19th-20th Century Polish chassidic rebbe, had a tremendous impact on the Jewish world through his writings and teachings. When asked how he had achieved this success, he answered, “I set out to try to change the world, but I failed. So, I decided to scale back my efforts and only try to influence the Jewish community of Poland, but I failed there, too. So, I targeted the community in my hometown of Radin but achieved no greater success. Then I gave all my effort to changing my own family and failed at that as well. Finally, I decided to change myself, and that’s how I had such an impact on the Jewish world.”
Different cultures, same story…
Ok, I exaggerated…you DO have to DO something…keep working on being the best you you can be. We can talk about the particulars another time.
I shared the Chofetz Chaim story with my Wise Aging group in Santa Rosa, and one person, an inveterate hippie, reminded us that we are all made of energy, and the energy we put out in the world ripples and affects the people around us. One angry person can spark a mob. One hopeful person can spread hope.
That’s a definition of social contagion: when energy as manifested as behavior or emotions spread spontaneously through a community or social network. On the positive side, research shows that happiness spreads through a social network, up to three degrees of separation from the initial happy person. If you have a happy next door neighbor, you are 34% more likely to be happy. You might want to seek out the happy people in the community and spread it around to the less happy people.
Jewish tradition is filled with stories of social contagion. The building of the Golden Calf when Moses was late coming down Mt. Sinai and the mass hysteria following the reports of giants from the spies are two of the negative ones.
On the other side, after the Golden Calf incident, Moses asked the people whose hearts were so moved to bring gifts to build the Mishkan. They brought so much that Moses had to ask them to stop them.
And we have the midrash of Nachshon: he was the one person who was willing to step into the Sea of Reeds as the Egyptian army nipped at their heels. He waded in up to his eyeballs before it parted, and then everyone followed to the other side and to freedom.
And when she reached the other side, Miriam joined Moses in the Song of the Sea and all the women followed her. Indeed, Rashi commented that Miriam and the righteous women surely believed in redemption, because they packed musical instruments for celebration while making haste to leave Egypt behind. (Rashi on Ex. 15:20)
We have such influence over each other—for good and for disaster…Certainly all the rudeness at restaurants and planes and the unwillingness to wear masks or be vaccinated fall into the disaster category…One person acts out and so does the next person. And the next and the next…
But we can be forces for good.
Another person at my meeting added that social change often comes because of role models—think Gandhi and MLK and John Lewis. I shared one of my favorite stories—about how MLK and John Lewis’ example led to Cory Booker being in the Senate…so yes. Being a role model for good is important.
Here, you don’t really have to DO anything except BE your wonderful selves.
Yet I wonder: can we be satisfied with knowing that working on ourselves is enough? Can we believe that by making ourselves more patient, more hopeful, more generous, more welcoming, kinder, we help to transform the world?
The High Holy Days, in its most challenging liturgy, offers us another way—or three. Toward the end of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer—who shall live, who shall die…the liturgist hands us three ways to “mitigate the severity of the decree.” And I think these are the true crux of the prayer.
Teshuvah, tefillah and tzedakah…
T’shuvah is often translated as repentance…It comes from the root that means return or turn. It’s about turning back to our purest, truest selves, who we are after we’ve cleaned up our act, or polished it. This is the lesson of both the Chofetz Chaim and Mingyur Rinpoche. It is also about a change in perspective. Alan Lew, in his amazing book, This is Real and You are Completely Unprepared, notes that teshuvah changes the way we see what happens to us or the world. “We no longer see things as evil, we simply see them as they are, and that makes all the difference.”
The next is tefillah—generally translated as prayer. The word itself is a reflexive verb—it’s something we do within ourselves. Rabbi Ami Silver believes that it involves inhabiting our inner experience, listening to what is happening in the present, allowing our inner reality to express itself…” Arnie Eisen, Chancellor Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary, notes that “Prayer is about exposing and facing up to depths of self, asking difficult questions and trying to answer them.” My friend and colleague Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz teaches that “we know prayer changes us. Prayer sparks a moral revolution in our soul.” On the other hand, Rav Kook taught that “when praying, we feel at one with the whole creation, and raise it to the very source of blessing and life.”
Prayer is complicated. It can be about connecting to God, or about pouring energy into the universe, or seeking answers to difficult essential questions, or feeling at one with all of creation…It can certainly calm the soul. If you are not someone who believes in God, however you imagine God, you can still pray.
And finally tzedakah…generally translated as charity. It’s about doing justice, what is required of us. It CAN be donations, but it can also be time and it can be labor or expertise…But it’s what is required of us, out of a sense of justice, a sense of what’s right. You have all done works of tzedakah, whether with your wallets, your work, your engagement. And I believe, from conversations we have had, that doing them makes you feel more connected with the world, with others.
I think I should make one thing clear…working on ourselves, turning to our truest selves, practicing tefillah and tzedakah…all of these offer us multiple choices for seeking to help make a better world. But all of them require practice and kavannah or intention. We can’t just wish our way to a better attitude. But DO consider hanging out with the people who are happy. If you want more ideas, come see me sometime. And think about spreading hope, kindness and generosity wherever you go…
And as my teacher, Reb Mel Gottlieb was wont to say: Any way is a way if you make it a way.
But you have to make it a way.
 Lew, Alan. This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation (p. 131). Little, Brown and Company. Kindle Edition.