September 26, 2022 | In Times of Crisis (Rosh HaShanah 5783)
In Time of Crisis
Rabbi Lisa Rubin, Rosh HaShanah 5783
On October 25, 1918, Fanny Jacobs and Harold Rosenberg were married in Philadelphia in front of more than 1,000 people. It was a notable wedding for several reasons: Fanny and Harold had never met before the ceremony. The wedding took place in a cemetery under a black chuppah. And all around them raged what would later be known as The Great Influenza Pandemic.
In Yiddish, this event is referred to as a Shvartze Chasanah, a Black Wedding. Born of superstition in Eastern Europe, it was thought that to marry two individuals who otherwise would not be able to marry because they were poor, sick, or orphaned-- would divert God’s attention and therefore avert the plague.i It was hoped the great mitzvah of providing for an unlikely couple and celebrating a new union—while acknowledging the death toll—would win God’s favor and halt the spread of the disease.
Black Weddings were used all over Europe in the last few hundred years as a response to disaster in Jewish communities. Cholera outbreaks, plagues of locusts, typhus epidemics—all were reasons to raise a black chuppah and try to invoke God’s mercy.
It may sound crazy to us now, but considering no one a hundred years ago knew what caused disease, how to stop its spread, or how to cure it, how could a wedding in a cemetery be the wrong remedy? After all, the first drafts of history being written now say the community of 2020 responded to the Covid-19 pandemic by stockpiling toilet paper.
For two and a half years, Covid has battered the world. The Angel of Death came for millions, causing unspeakable pain and suffering as families and communities were ripped apart. Who among us did not lose someone? Many of those who had it early and survived suffer long term symptoms. Gross deficiencies in our healthcare system were laid bare. Not knowing when it will truly be over has triggered chronic stress, depression, and anxiety in our general population. This would be enough to bring any society to its knees, any individual to the breaking point.
But since March of 2020, we have also witnessed ongoing waves of civil unrest in response to racial and policing issues. The turbulence we saw in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, and others to follow, was the greatest we’ve experienced since perhaps the Civil Rights era.
And if that weren’t enough, since March of 2020, we’ve lived through 1,728 mass shootings. One thousand, seven hundred twenty eight.ii Our country has never seen gun violence on this scale.
And still if that weren’t enough, our political system has become unglued. The polarization of American society has left some loosely speaking of another Civil War. Baby Boomers say they can’t remember a time of such national division and anger since the Vietnam War.
Add a brutal war in Ukraine. Instability in the financial markets. The Supreme Court’s decision to reverse past precedents regarding guns, campaign financing, and years of hard won abortion rights. These two and a half years have been a crucible, testing us by fire. These are truly extraordinary times. I would officiate 100 weddings in a cemetery if I thought it would help.
The Psalms say that joy comes in the morning.iii But what happens when life seems like an endless night? We have endured a prolonged state of anxiety and unease. We’ve suffered immeasurable heartbreak and felt real hopelessness. When the outside landscape is grim, our inner lives often mirror the darkness. So many of us lost our equilibrium during this time. All of us lost any sense of life’s predictability and controllability.
People often asked me how the community here at Central was holding up. I’d say, “We’re ok! We’re Jews. Jews are built for crisis.” We’re no strangers to disease—the Torah is filled with instructions for quarantine and communal safety in the times of illness. We have suffered the pain of being a minority, too, and were treated like second class citizens so many times in history. We have witnessed political upheaval so threatening that Jews were expelled from their homelands, imprisoned in ghettos, or worse. Ancient Israel knew, and modern Israel knows, war very well. Unfortunately, we are built for crisis.
As a result, the Jewish narrative is one of resilience. A trait most people and communities need to hone, resilience is an old, dependable friend of the Jews. Because of our historical cycle of trauma and renewal, it is an inherent characteristic we possess. Think of resilience as part of the Jewish DNA.
This collective memory guides us in our current time of compound crisis: We can be strengthened by our communal and individual history. We can double down on what’s important in our lives and we can reconsider the rest.
There are countless examples in Jewish history when hard times and catastrophe did not spell the end. When the great Temples in Jerusalem—the centers of civilization—fell, our ancestors prevailed. They redefined Judaism to focus on individual synagogues and home observance. After expulsion from Spain, the Sephardic Jews maintained their culture and language. They established communities all over the world. Widespread European anti-Semitism gave way to a nationalist movement that would secure a Jewish home after 2,000 years without one. We are a people who rebuild. Refocus. Redesign. Redistribute. Whatever needs to be done to survive and sustain, we do it. What we currently have on our plate cannot be minimized. But it is not more than our ancestors ever had.
Becoming a student of Jewish history is not just about knowing that we as a people have always persevered, although that is helpful for perspective. It is also about knowing where we individually come from. A study conducted at Emory University involved identifying indicators for resilience in children. The psychologists found that the more kids knew about their family history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives and the higher their self-esteem.iv The conclusions had to do with the children’s sense of being a part of something larger. They learned from the narratives of their family. And we can, too.
There was a woman in her mid-twenties who got divorced when all her friends were getting married and it sparked a period of isolation such as she had never known. A few months later, her only brother died suddenly and tragically. The grief was profound. A few months after that, she lost her grandmother—a guiding light in her life. Three life changing losses in 12 months.
I know that story well because that woman was me. Twenty years ago. Even though the Latin source of the word resilience means to “leap back,” I did not bounce right back to my old life. Stress and grief changed me so deeply. Finding my footing wasn’t about overcoming these losses. It was about becoming someone new. And I was able to do it, in part, by embracing my Jewish narrative. By remembering who and what came before me. I moved to Israel right after these traumas for my 4th year of graduate school.
Knowing that my ancestors had walked out of years of slavery in Egypt to arrive on that same soil meant something to me. Knowing that even more recent relatives had narrowly escaped Hitler and got to Israel meant something to me. Knowing how Israeli’s had suffered, how they fought, how loss was a daily part of life there—it all gave me strength. These ghosts of history kept me company. As I visited with my ancestors, long gone, I realized my descendants, too, would be in Israel one day. Like the kids in that Emory study, I saw myself as a part of something much larger. And yet it was so personal. My brother and grandmother, both gone from this world, sat with me, in my Jerusalem apartment, and helped me find the fortitude to face my future.
Reports from concentration camps throughout Europe revealed that prisoners who were too weak to walk, or even stand, were immediately shot dead if they fell to the ground. The people were said to put their frailest in the middle of the group, pressing against them to hold them up. The weak of the community were carried in the middle until they were ready to stand again on their own.
I was put in the middle that year by my fellow classmates. I wasn’t living through anything close to a death camp (there is no comparison), but they held me up all the same. I saw that resilience can grow by receiving the help and kindness that others will give to you. I learned that in Judaism, the whole community is responsible for the person who suffers.
I don’t share my story with you to say, “I did it and so can you.” But every life has suffering, and every life has loss and if we remember we aren’t the first to agonize and won’t be the last, then a reason can be found for putting one foot in front of another.
A story from our Center for Exploring Judaism: With permission I share that one of our students, Aaron, age 42, was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor two months into our class. He had a wife, Ashley and a young son, Jack. Through teaching the Jewish values of caring for the sick and carrying the weak, the class understood that this family was our responsibility. How they stepped up! They sent challah every week, holiday meals, and toys for Jack. A nanny in our class babysat. Other classmates drove Aaron to treatments and visited him while in the hospital. One couple who lived nearby walked their dog. Another student, a home health aide, moved in with this family to lighten Ashley’s load. And ultimately, many of them attended Aaron’s funeral two months ago and we grieved together.
The class found resilience in each other and sometimes that is the best it gets. Judaism doesn’t have the answer for why a 42-year old man would be taken from his family and the world. But our actions embodied our response. There is power and comfort in community. We walked together in the Valley of the Shadow of Death and now we walk Ashley and Jack back into the sun after an inconceivable loss.
Being part of a community is key to weathering misfortune when it arrives. I always tell my students we can’t be Jewish alone, and so too, we cannot carry the weight of the last two and a half years by ourselves. Many of us found that our community—beginning with our families—were much more important than we thought. Going forward, many of us will never have a Passover Seder without a zoom option to include far away relatives. Many will now always designate one night of shiva to be virtual for the same reasons. So many people befriended their neighbors for the first time in their lives, recognizing the gift of micro community. While our country may feel as divided as it has ever been in our lifetimes, family and communal bonds are stronger than ever.v
How many of us found new hobbies, new interests, new ways to connect with the simple things right in front of us? We can continue to do this—we don’t need to return to the life we had before. The world changes after every period of crisis, and we can too. Consider these examples of a world transformed.
In the 18th century, when the Jews of Europe were emancipated as a result of the Age of Enlightenment, the community experienced a massive crisis of identity. Susannah Heschel writes that, “This ferment sparked tremendous cultural creativity, itself a vibrant expression of resilience – witness Spinoza’s philosophy, Marx’s political theory, Freud’s psychiatry, Durkheim’s sociology, Einstein’s physics, Schoenberg’s compositions, and the list goes on.”vi
After World War I and the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, there was a change in how people assembled. The years following showed new interest in social interactions. The 1920’s saw a rise of jazz clubs, organized athletics, fraternal organizations and the golden age of cinema.vii As the current pandemic subsides, we see more outdoor events and activity options as well as a whole virtual world of programming.
Rosh Hashanah is always a wake-up call because it’s a milestone in time—a year ends, a year begins. But this year, the universe has sent a wake-up call, too, and we’d be smart not to hit the snooze button. The imagery of the liturgy is about the Book of Life and God as the editor. But if we think about our personal book, many pages might not feel appropriate anymore after this trying time. We can edit them or cut them out. They should reflect what we’ve learned; how we’ve grown. What, if not these past years, have convinced us that time waits for no one? Life changes in a moment? Who, if not us-- the survivors-- can write a new chapter as we decide exactly how we want to move ahead?
No one can say when or if Covid will ever be truly over. It may drag on in some form for generations. We have already learned to coexist with so many new realities. Our lives have been turned upside down and inside out by illness, loss, civil unrest, gun violence, and a world at war on multiple fronts. Everything looks different. But even as we sort all this out and realign our realities and expectations, it’s interesting to note what returned to our community first: Weddings.
Not Black Weddings, but white ones. Not fearful but joyous. Whether a cautious meeting between two people and their rabbi, or a family of six on a patio, or the backyard party for 50 with a zoom set up, weddings returned. We officiated so many of them. There is nothing more hopeful. A wedding is the start of a new life, a new journey, a leap of faith that the future will be bright.
Armed with that hope—and strengthened by our ancestral, familial, and individual resilience-- we can scan our new horizons for new commitments. A new goal, a new job, a new interest, a new friend. 5783 can be just the right time in human history for a new age of enlightenment. Energized by what we’ve come through, it can be the time for generations to join together— to fight for justice for all people, to refuse to accept ill will toward each other, and do what we’re called as Jews to do. Tikkun olam—repair the world— is among our highest imperatives. With these efforts, we can add pages to our own book of life as we strive to earn God’s blessings and spread them as far we can.
[iii] Psalm 30:5
[iv] The Stories that Bind Us. https://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/17/fashion/the-family-stories-that-bind-us-this-life.html