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Sanity and Grace

Sermon Shabbat Behar – Bechukotai

Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, Arizona

My friends, as this extended spring of our pandemic discontent continues to work its way towards what promises to be a peculiar summer it’s becoming, to say the least, a most unusual time. While some businesses are beginning to open up around the country, it remains unclear what the path forward will yield, and just how dangerous it is to, say, go to dinner at a restaurant, or even to hold a Shabbat service. I have noticed—who could miss it?—that people are beginning to lose patience at being forced to stay home with their families, and to struggle against any restrictions on personal behavior, such as wearing masks in public or maintaining social distancing. While medical and scientific professionals continue to urge significant safety precautions be maintained by everyone, and warn of coming surges in illnesses and deaths, lots of otherwise responsible people are chafing at continuing to show restraint.

There is a certain mentality in most of us that urges us to say, “We’ve been fine so far, we don’t personally know anyone who has died of COVID-19, the heck with continuing to stay locked down. We want to go out and resume life!” And of course, the economic costs of the pandemic, and the ways we have curtailed our typical ways of spending money and making a living, are hitting home harder and harder. If we open things up and stop restricting our behavior, won’t the economy come roaring back to life?

It’s reasonable to ask these questions, and to struggle against the restrictions placed on our daily lives. Nobody wants to die miserably and alone from COVID-19. But lots of people don’t really believe they’ll catch the virus, or think they aren’t likely to get sick from it, or at least not very sick, even if they are in a high-risk group. And with the cacophony of voices opining on things in the media, social and otherwise, an increasing number of people are having a hard time believing what anyone in authority says, regardless of how qualified they are or how sensible they are being.

And so, when we go to a supermarket and see employees wearing masks but leaving them around their chins—rendering them useless, as I saw the other day in a Safeway—and when an increasing number of customers are not wearing masks at all, we do understand what is going on. Reasonable people are getting lazy about restrictions they no longer feel are totally necessary, and they are beginning to act irresponsibly.

Now I am not talking here about the foolish people who have publicly protested, sometimes violently, against legal restrictions placed upon their behavior, restrictions that prevent them from endangering other people’s lives. There is no possible justification for the criminals who attack and sometimes kill security guards who are simply doing their jobs enforcing masking requirements, or the jerks who beat up grocery store employees, or the idiots who insist on carrying confederate battle flags and AR-15s into state capitol buildings and rocket launchers—rocket launchers!—into ice cream parlors. These are the 5% of any society who act terribly. Look, there are always such people in every civilization in the world, and part of the job of sane, responsible governments, and societies, is to keep them under control and, if necessary, under lock and key. For example, 6% of American don’t believe we ever landed on the moon, and about that number believe the earth is flat.

I am also not talking about the USA Today poll last week that found that 32% of all Americans apparently think a cure for COVID-19 already exists and is being hidden from the US public for nefarious reasons. That number is somewhat terrifying—nearly 1/3 of all Americans believe we have a cure and someone, perhaps the deep state or Barack Obama’s secret minions are hiding it? Seriously? As PT Barnum famously said, no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public. I suppose it’s possible that 1/3 of all Americans believe Elvis is still alive, or that aliens landed in New Mexico and the government is hiding that fact from us. Still… that’s a lot of loose screws out there.

In any case, back to those of us who prefer sanity to conspiracy, and who are not trying to drink bleach to prevent COVID-19.

Let’s admit it: we are having a hard time by now after two months of lockdown and decreasing human contact. Look, when you have this much time to sit at home and read, to follow the strange and often depressing stories on the news, to binge watch TV series and old movies, you get frustrated and begin to chafe against the limitations. We Jews are a gregarious people. Although our Friday night services are done by 8pm each week, I have rarely been able to leave our normal, non-Coronavirus Ongei Shabbat until 9:30pm—which means we spend as much time talking and eating and hanging out with one another quite as long as we do praying on a typical Friday night. Saturday morning Kiddush is sometimes longer than services. This is only partly due to our extraordinarily delicious Shabbos food. It is because we crave the human contact that our truly warm and embracing community provides.

So being deprived of that connection that not only synagogue services and classes grant us but also the daily interactions with friends and acquaintances at meals, gyms, salons, restaurants, sporting events, concerts, shows and even—I can’t believe I am saying this--meetings had proven to be a particularly difficult thing indeed.

We all have had a bit too much alone time. And while we should be feeling grateful for being healthy, personally free of this deadly disease, and to one degree or another safe, we see so many people beginning to bang against the proverbial cages that restrain our social lives.

But then, in this peculiar period, we also have far more time that can be used for more productive pursuits. For example, instead of focusing on the latest TV series or video game or Facebook or Instagram topic, we can use this time to think about just what our own belief systems are really all about, and how we are choosing to live our personal lives. It’s a particularly splendid time to evaluate how we are experiencing our own version of Judaism. It may be a frustrating period, but it’s also an opportunity to explore how we choose to live our own Jewish lives.

In this period of the Counting of the Omer, the time between Passover and Shavu’ot, I have been engaged in doing two things I have never done regularly before. The first is the daily ritual of Counting the Omer. I always did it on Shabbat during services, but I would often forget to do it during the week. This year, I’ve been counting the Omer—with reminders from our small household, of course—every single day; not just when I remember to do it but every single day. That means taking a couple of minutes a day, at least, to note the passing of time from Pesach, the festival of freedom, to Shavuot, the holiday of covenant. It is a way to connect to God, to appreciate the natural world we have been given, to pray for a moment or two and see that the passing of time, day by day, can have meaning and purpose to it, even in isolation.

The second unique experience I’ve been having has been leading our Beit Simcha Mussar Study Group, which is engaged in exploring an area of Jewish study of our own personality qualities, our soul-traits that form our character and the way we conduct ourselves in this world. Mussar has become a popular field for people to explore in the progressive Jewish world over the last ten years or so. Our Mussar Group is a remarkable experience, a safe place to explore our own personal strengths and weaknesses in areas like generosity, kindness, patience, faith, courage, compassion and so on. We read a text that explains the individual trait we are working on that week, and then look at other texts about it, both Jewish and not, that reflect on its meaning and purpose. And then we discuss these texts and our own tendencies and beliefs in each area, and what helps us achieve better success in these qualities and what blocks us from doing so. The goal is to see how we might change our actions and attitudes in helpful, progressive, positive ways.

The group of people engaged in this are quite wonderful, self-reflective, honest, funny, generous and kind. We have had to move the Mussar Group, like all of our synagogue classes, to Zoom, and fortunately all but two people have managed to make the transition and stay deeply engaged. It has been inspirational to share this work with such a wonderful group, to be able to open up about what challenges us and what can help us become better people.

That combination of factors, the Mussar Group and the Counting of the Omer, have helped keep me sane and centered during this challenging time. Perhaps such Jewish engagement could do the same for you.

You know the old line about when life gives you lemons, make lemonade? I am suggesting that in times of stress and distress, when we are given the questionable gift of time to spare and limitations to our world, what we really can do is something our people has known to do for many generations: enhance our spiritual and intellectual life by exploring the fascinating and meaningful parameters of our own Jewish tradition. Add a little daily prayer into your life. And seek to find depth, meaning and commitment by studying a new aspect of Judaism.

The goal becomes turning pandemic prohibitions into spiritual purpose, and coronavirus tzoris into mindful growth and meaning.

May we each find ways to do this over this Shabbat, and in the coming week. And so stay sane, and grounded, and healthy in a truly Jewish way.

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