Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson
I saw a fun item on Facebook this week, if it’s possible to have fun with pandemics. It read like this:
I don’t know what Jewish holiday it is now:
We walk around in slippers like it’s Tisha B’Av
We wear masks like it’s Purim
We eat outside like it’s Sukkos
We walk around with cleaning wipes like it’s Pesach
We eat every meal with our families like it’s Shabbes.
So what Jewish holiday is this and when does it end?
Because I’m ready for Havdallah.
I think we are all ready for Havdallah ‘round about now, ready to end this game and play something else. But I also think this pandemic of COVID-19 isn’t going away anytime soon. Which brings me to a very strange source for inspiration during this depressing pandemic that I encountered last week.
Sophia Korb directed me to listen to a podcast interview with Jimmy Buffet. That’s right, that old Parrot-head, Jimmy Buffet, king of soft-rock jangly island tunes, the most relaxed person to ever become a popular music industry icon, and definitely not Jewish. He was interviewed last week on a somewhat obscure but often entertaining podcast called “My Brother, My Brother and Me,” put out by three brothers named McElroy. Apparently, these guys are good friends with Jimmy Buffet and have had him on their show many times, gone to his concerts and been backstage and done all that fun stuff. Anyway, the McElroy brothers were interviewing the hero of “A Pirate Looks at 40” and “A Parrot Looks at 50” and songs like “Changes in Latitude” and the inspiration for the whole “Margaritaville” restaurant chain, which no doubt has also made him very rich.
On the surface, Jimmy Buffet didn’t seem like a great place to find deep wisdom, or even solid advice on how to survive and turn this Coronavirus near lock-in into something beneficial.
But then the McElroy brothers asked him how he was surviving the pandemic. And this came out of good ‘ol Jimmy’s mouth, the same guy who wrote “wasting away again in Margaritaville”:
“So, I've got this beautiful jazz guitar, and… y'know, I'm not a very jazz player, but I love listenin’ to it. So I started playing a little, looking for some little augmented seconds and chords as I was writing, and I had this guitar. I'm doing like, an hour a day of just playing guitar, and also, an hour a day of uh, learning French. Cause I, y'know, I speak fairly good French, but this is a good time to work on it—and I'm doing better now, cause I'm doing it a lot. I go up on a podcast and talk to people, and I'm reading The Little Prince in French.”
And after some more banter with the interviewers, they asked Jimmy if he was doing anything else besides learning jazz guitar and working on his conversational French. And Jimmy Buffet said, “Well, y'know, keep a little bit busy, but do something? like… reading. To me, if you start there, and you read good books. And if you're not a reader, start reading, because it can take you there. It really can. We all know great writers read and listen… I start first in reading. Basic. And then, if you got room, uh, get a ping pong table.”
I’ve been to a couple of Jimmy Buffet concerts, years ago. They were really fun, even if all the songs agreeably sound kind of the same, but I don’t think anyone in the entire crowd at the concerts I attended was thinking about reading great books, or speaking French, or playing jazz guitar.
But by golly, Jimmy Buffet is right. How many of us have used this strange, isolating time to make ourselves better in a meaningful way? How many of us have seen this as an opportunity to do more than rearrange our closets, or binge on every reasonably good Netflix show, or Facebook message people we haven’t seen in 20 years, or get better at a video game?
I personally have an OK excuse for not having accomplished more during this pandemic: I had a major operation and I’ve been healing and rehabilitating a rebuilt spine, having had three vertebrae fused back in early June. Still, Jimmy Buffet’s words struck home a bit: why haven’t I taken advantage of this lull in life to learn a new language, or read the twenty or so books stacked next to my bed, or train my cat to fetch coffee for me?
Buffet really is right. It’s actually a Jewish message. Just do something productive; grow yourself. What is it that Pirkei Avot tells us? Lo Alecha Hamlacha Ligmor vlo ata ben chorin l’hibateil mimenah—it’s not your job to finish the work, but you aren’t free to desist from it either. And im ein ani li, mi li. If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
We learn from many people. Who knew that Jimmy Buffet could be a pretty good rabbi in a time of pandemic?
Now I’m not saying that all the wisdom of the world comes from listening to the guy who wrote, “Why Don’t We Get Drunk” and “Cheeseburger in Paradise.” But the notion that unexpected downtime can be a real blessing if we choose to make it so; well, that’s pretty darned good advice.
I thought about that as I contemplated the Torah portion for this week, too, Devarim, first parshah in the Book of Deuteronomy. Ostensibly, it’s a portion that picks up the tale of the Israelites after they have waited for some 38 years to enter the promised land of Israel. Deuteronomy is composed of some long discourses by Moses, rather like a long set of commencement speeches to the people before they matriculate into their new status as conquerors of Canaan.
Remember, the People of Israel, our ancestors, spent about two years from the time of their Exodus from Egypt until they reached the borders of Canaan for the first time. But they were not ready at that point to come into the land, and were forced, after failing to listen to Moses and God, to sojourn for the next 38 years, literally waiting for the generation of slavery to die out, until they were prepared for something really new, like conquering and possessing and settling their permanent home, promised by God.
Now 38 years is a long time to be stuck at some desert oasis, just waiting and waiting. And the Israelites didn’t have Netflix, or Amazon Prime, or Disney + to entertain themselves in that interim; they didn’t even have basic cable, let alone email, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok or Snapchat. So just what did they do for nearly four decades?
Our own struggles to stay occupied, engaged, and healthy during the few months of this pandemic pale in comparison, don’t they?
But the Israelites, in their long sojourn in the wilderness, did accomplish something signally important. They learned to cast off the shackles of slavish thinking and became a truly free nation. They transformed from a perpetually kvetching rabble into a genuine people, with energy, motivation, unity. They became what they needed to be: an idealistic nation that could act with decision and effectiveness.
I thought, too, about the early Zionists, and their efforts to create, in Erets Yisrael’s Yishuv, a “New Jew.” They insisted on casting off what they saw as the shackles of life in ghettos and shtetlach, where Jews were downtrodden and oppressed, and embracing a new vision of independence and self-reliance. It took a little time to create the culture that spurred the development of the dynamic State of Israel, but not much more than the 40 years the Torah recorded from the Exodus to the entrance into the Land of Israel. And in remaking their ideas of what a Jew is, they remade themselves first and foremost.
I’m not suggesting that we can use this time to completely remake ourselves or reinvent our world as our ancestors did. But I am suggesting that this is a unique time for all of us. And if we choose to embrace this challenge, we have the potential to change ourselves, our institutions and our world for the better.
So, in keeping with Rabbi Jimmy Buffet, but also with our sages and our ancestors and the founders of the State of Israel, I challenge each of you out there, whether live or present virtually, to embrace this challenge and choose two things: First, one way that you will seek to improve yourself during this enforced COVID-19 sojourn, that you will take on a task or a goal or an ideal for personal growth and fulfill it. And second, I urge you to find one way you will seek to improve the world, to live up to the divine injunction l’Takein Olam b’malchut Shadai, Tikun Olam, to try to repair our damaged society and world.
Because as we all know: we now have the time to do these things. All that we need to do is apply ourselves. To try.
May this be God’s will for us—but mostly, may it be ours. And then this pandemic hiatus can be transformed into something truly valuable, and truly good.