Erev Rosh Hashana 5781 – Dismantling (and Building Anew)

A cluster of 4 rabbis made their winding way to Jerusalem. When they reached Mount Scopus, they looked out across the valley and could see what was once the magnificent and holy Temple, the centre of Jewish life, now destroyed, and they tore their garments in grief.

This scene takes place some time after 70 CE.  The Romans have dismantled Jewish leadership and sovereign rule. They have slaughtered thousands, exiled masses, burnt much of Jerusalem, and looted and destroyed the Temple.

It was not news to these rabbis that the Temple had been destroyed. They were not making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem expecting to see Jews flowing from all directions toward the holy city, coming together in celebration, carrying their offerings, as they had in the past. This had all ceased with Roman destruction. 

These rabbis had fled to northern Israel as the oppression worsened and there, they had been immersed in the most creative, radical work of building a whole new Judaism – new community structures, new interpretations, new practices – a new Judaism that could rise from the rubble.  But now, these rabbis were coming face to face with all that they had lost, and they tore their clothes in mourning.

The rabbis continued their journey down through the valley up to the Temple Mount. There, they saw a fox emerge from what was once Kodesh Hakodashim, the Holy of Holies.  Three of the rabbi broke down, weeping. And Rabbi Akiva laughed.

Rabbi Akiva asked the other rabbis, “Why are you weeping?” The other rabbis answered, “This site was once the home of God’s presence among us, a place of sacred gathering, a place so holy, that any non-priest who entered would die. And now, foxes run here. This is worthy of weeping.  And why are you laughing?”

Rabbi Akiva responded, “I am laughing for the same reason.”  At this, the rabbis were comforted.

We’ll turn to the laughter later, but right now I want to invite these rabbis to stand beside us and teach us how to make the essential pilgrimage into our own loss. 

We are now seven months into this global pandemic and all the ways that it has profoundly altered our lives, dismantled many of our institutions, unraveled our ways of participating in culture, being in community together, being in human relationship.  It has exposed inequities in our society, racism in our culture, the vulnerabilities that have always been there but are now being laid bare for all to see.  Even as children are going back to school and restaurants have been open, we are living in times of profound tragedy.

I know that many of you have been diligent seekers of goodness and joy wherever you can find it – spending more time outdoors, hugging trees, reading poetry and listening to music, making art and kombucha, having regular Zoom calls with friends around the world, spending time with family in ways you don’t usually have time for, checking in on dear ones and neighbours who are vulnerable, and doing anything you can to contribute.  Thank God for human resilience!  

It’s not a uniquely Jewish quality, but from a long history of catastrophe, it has become woven into Jewish DNA to cultivate ayin tova, a perspective of goodness, digging for blessings even in the most painful situations.  And this is certainly a time to practice gratitude on steroids, to kiss every subtle gift, to feel how precious it is to inhale and exhale, to let our eyes smile from behind a mask, and to make the most out of the conditions we are in.  

Alongside this, although we live in a wider culture that tends to be grief-illiterate and phobic of painful feelings, this is also a time to follow the rabbis of this talmudic story, on this journey into grieving.  Our ancestors took a conscious pause from their work of rebuilding.  The text doesn’t tell us why, but I imagine that they needed to sit in the thick of absence and brokenness, so that what they built could be a tender, attuned and relevant response to it.  I want to make room for us to turn toward grief, so that what we build in our lives, in Jewish community and in society can be a tender, attuned and relevant response to it. What have you lost during the pandemic? What are you seeing in the world, in the pain of others, that is worthy of weeping?  

Just among us gathered here, some of us are mourning the deaths of people we love.  Some of us have sat shiva with faces on a screen instead of being held in the physical arms of community.  Some of us have been ill or have a loved one who is ill.  

Some of us have not been able to hold the hands of elderly parents in nursing homes or hospitals.  Some of us live alone and haven’t touched another human being since March.  Some of us have lost work or other financial support and are struggling to make ends meet.  Some of us work in hospitals or grocery stores or on construction sites and live with physical risk in order to do our work.  Some of us are parents juggling work from home, trying to care for children, losing our minds, losing control and feeling like we aren’t doing any of it well. 

Some of us are People of Colour who have felt the personal shock waves of racism and haven’t been able to bring that pain into the support and partnership of our community.  

Some of us are stuck at home in relationships that are fraying or falling apart without the networks of support we have counted on.  Some of us are struggling with addiction, with depression, with mental illness and are barely holding on from one day to the next.  

All of us are sitting in our separate homes, looking at a screen, when what we yearn for is the experience of sitting side by side with whatever is in our hearts, finding belonging and buoyancy in a sea of voices and prayers of weeping and laughing so we can palpably know how connected we are.  All this, and more, is worthy of weeping.

So how do we face all of this without getting lost in despair?  For some of us it can feel like turning toward pain in our lives and in the world would open such a flood of sadness and anger that you feel you would drown in it.  

Some of us have learned how to function on top of grief, very skillfully, pushing through with a deep breath and a stiff upper lip.  But as Stephen Levine, author and teacher of grieving, writes – “it’s pretty hard to kiss someone who’s keeping a stiff upper lip!” That kind of self-protection might keep us moving through, but there is no love or understanding there.  

In order to feel our way through all the truths of this time, let’s lean into love and lean into understanding.  These 4 rabbis made the journey together.  There is no way to do this except together.  Don’t give in to the pull to isolate.  Whatever support you think you have, whatever support you give, reach out more.  Even in traveling through the valley of the shadow of death together, these rabbis offered each other the simplest act of generosity, connection and love.  They asked, why are you weeping?  They asked, why are you laughing?  

Ask people how they are.  Ask people you don’t know very well.  Ask people whose lives are different from yours.  When someone says they are fine, ask again – how are you, really?  And be ready to listen.  Be willing to cry and rage and laugh together.  We are each moving through different experiences, moments of resilience and joy worth sharing, and moments of tremendous struggle worth sharing.  

Rabbi Akiva’s laughter rises from this togetherness.  Hearts that learn to open together in grief have the agility to open together in laughter, moving back and forth between them, opening to everything that is real and true and alive.  This makes grieving expansive, rather than contracting into ourselves. 

When you feel that you are overwhelmed or stuck, when you feel like you have nothing to give, when you feel spent from giving too much, pray for the wellbeing of others.  Prayer doesn’t replace activism for change, but prayer is a form of activism. It places others at the centre of your concern, and strengthens a genuine desire for the safety and ease, goodness and peace for the benefit of other people.  Prayer is a leaning into the Divine Reality that we meet at the limits of our control.  And this is an essential time for that humility.

And when someone asks you how you are, can you practice noticing that there is another person there, walking alongside you?  Can you share your struggles, not as a kvetch, a dump of complaints, but as an invitation to sit together in the brokenness, an invitation of generosity, connection and love?  

Friends, this is what Jewish community is here to do.  We have to do this with and for each other, collectively.  This grieving is going to continue for long time.  It’s not only up to the Chesed committee or the rabbi but we all need to lean in here.  We need to be connected to each other in much deeper and new ways so that we can also be connected to the wider world with clear commitment and new, freed up energy.  The rabbis had a creative, radical, communal building project to go back to, that was informed by grieving and by laughter, and so do we.  Please make sure we don’t build it without you.

As Winston Churchill was working to form the United Nations after the devastation of WWII, he famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste”.  Let’s use this crisis well and wisely.  Let’s grieve together and let’s laugh together to meet all that this new year brings.

Shana tova!