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Another way to be

09/10/2021 09:06:42 AM


Rabbi Boris Dolin

Rosh Hashanah Day 1 Sermon 


Last year, I’d say around late April or May, I started imagining I was in Anatevka, the fictional shtetl from Fiddler on the Roof.  It may have started, well I am sure it started, after a particularly stressful week of horrible pandemic news and a genuine feeling of being overwhelmed by the tragedy of the beginning of the Covid experience. So what else could I do?  I laid down on the couch after the kids had gone to bed and watched Fiddler on the Roof!  Resisting the temptation to put on my tallis and march around the house singing “If I Was a Rich Man”, if only because it would wake up the kids--I watched the movie play out.  Those scenes of the shtetl, of Tevya and his family, of that strange dream of Tevya's where he receives an omen that Zeitel should marry Motel, and of course of the many scenes of Tevya prancing through his village, past the run down shacks and farm animals, the little shteibele shul and so many of the quaint reminders of his “tradition filled” shtetl life.  When it was all over, I felt a real longing for something that at first I couldn't quite label.  I didn't necessarily want to move to the shtetl, but stuck in the pandemic and feeling a bit lost and fearful, I did want to feel that simple sense of community, safety and comfort that Tevya felt so strongly. Or as he says right before the song begins, that balance.  “And how do we keep our balance?”  “Tradition!”  Still early on in the pandemic, separated from others and confused, it wasn't just about the movie, I had come down with something that I know so many others were also feeling.  I had a tough case of nostalgia.

I of course am not the first to reflect on how nostalgia has taken hold of us during these pandemic times.  We saw it happen within a few weeks of the worldwide shutdown last year, finding its place in the bags of flour disappearing off the shelves as the sourdough craze began, or as Netflix became the place to go to watch old episodes of TV favorites, and as people started knitting, running, or even going so far as God forbid, closing laptops taking out their pens and writing old fashioned  letters to family or friends.  Don’t worry, I only took it that far a few times.

Of course this may have just had come from a desire to keep us busy during lockdown while we were stuck at home, but there was clearly more going on then simply a few pandemic fads.  In some powerful way, we were stepping back a bit from the painful realities of contemporary society, from truths that were present even before the pandemic, and with the extra time and space gifted to us in some strange way by COVID, we were trying to do something that had been long overdue.  We were trying to see if there was another way to be.

While it is hard to put these experiences into words, in a way, we were and are all homesick--missing the places and people that we believed were part of the “world of our past”, even if at the same time, we are realizing that the past we were remembering was not as perfect as it seemed.  Stuck in this alternate universe of pandemic life, we began to see that maybe the fast-paced world of pre-covid times was not the true ideal.  We were trying to see if there was another way to be.

And in reality, it is not too far-fetched to say that for those months, so many of us were actually sick with nostalgia.  The sadness, the loneliness, the fear. In fact, the word nostalgia is rooted in this idea of homesickness, an actual physical ailment that needed healing as much as a virus or broken leg.

Now a year and a half later, we can see clearly how this pandemic has changed us, and how all aspects of our society have been torn apart even as they have been creatively patched together, sometimes in the most powerful and enlightening ways.  From our own Jewish community, to businesses, schools and other institutions we all had to rethink what it meant to be in community and be in relationship with each other.  Long held traditions and ways of behaving for the first time were being questioned.  We could no longer hug or do la beeze when we met a friend, even meeting together in a closed room became a logistical mess..  Movies, concerts, Shabbat services, restaurants, schools, the list goes on.

Assumptions about the sustaining systems of our society were challenged, causing us to rethink everything from healthcare to politics, to entertainment, to our food, to race relations to environmental destruction, to the way we treat animals and I hope, to the way we treat each other.  It may have been the fact that we were spending too much time at home, but this past year and a half of pandemic life, was also a year of incredible activism and life changing realizations.  From the world shattering protests of black lives matter, to thousands of people quitting their jobs or switching careers as they reflected on the meaning of work, money and life in general-- the shock of Covid also allowed so many of us to break out of the expected patterns of our individual lives and our society. 

Hidden among all of the brokenness wrought by the pandemic, to paraphrase Leonard Cohen, some very real light was getting in.

Yet at the same time that we were out on the streets angry and fighting, or sitting along on the park bench or on our couches deeply rethinking our lives, so many of us just wanted to feel not have so much complicated to think about.  We just wanted the simple sense of comfort of the “way things used to be”.  Along with everything else, these feelings of nostalgia have oddly been as uniting a force as the pandemic itself.  

Yet, now a year and a half in, I think we can say that looking back, holding on to this nostalgia as a way of solving these many issues which we find in front of us will only get us so far.  Sourdough and Seinfeld can’t solve the problems of the world.

Let me begin with the experience we find ourselves in right now.  Sitting here in the sanctuary or at home, experiencing this Rosh Hashanah service.

As we gather together each holiday season for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, it is very clear that our connection to the days is both strong and deep, but also as much held together by the mysterious threads of nostalgia as the prayers, melodies and the people.  For some, you are here because of a true search for Teshuva or religious connection with God, godliness or something beyond ourselves.  For others, especially this year, you may gain a quiet strength from the simple sense of community felt during the holidays, the powerful reminder that we are not alone.

And then I know that there are those that would say that the pull to be here, to be with others during these days might even have a bit of guilt--you have to come to at least one service a year!  But I don’t think it is that easy.  These holidays, and I would argue so much of Jewish tradition, hold their power through the way they inspire the deepest kind of longing--one that gives us the space to hold on to the past, but also does not give up on the future.  

Through the context of Jewish community and ritual we can live in the familiar, no matter what else is happening in the world around us.  Through the regularity of the Jewish calendar we can revel in the predictable--and this can be a blessing, no matter where you place yourselves on the religious spectrum.  Shabbat comes every Friday, and Rosh Hashanah comes every fall.  Bagels and cream cheese come every Sunday Morning at 8:30.  Or maybe that’s just me!  This is of course why we often expect the same melodies, the same recipes, maybe even the same seat in the sanctuary when holidays come around.  And on that note, I am sorry to disappoint every single one of you this year!  

But that’s just it.  I think part of what makes this year so challenging, is that so much of the familiar and the predictable has been ripped away from us. In this experience, and in life.  It feels as if we are entering this space after a year and a half of wandering, and no matter how much we can look back at the way things used to be, we don't know exactly what we should expect as we sit here today.  No matter how hard we try, nothing feels the same.  Just take a look around, whether you are here in the sanctuary or at home.  We know that this is not what we are used to.

But thankfully, while it may be much easier to imagine that the ancient rabbis, the philosophers and scholars who created these prayers, to make this experience  to connect with us on a religious level, to be about prayer, God, and repentance, they knew as well as we do that every experience, especially this one, connects with us on multiple levels.  The prayers may be written on the book in front of us, but they are there to become part of us in a wholly unique way, to become real in the moment.

If as you sit here chanting the prayers of the Yamim Noraim, you maybe are brought back to those childhood memories of sitting in shul with your bubbe or zayde, or even of the foods and the traditions of this season, let that be your spiritual wellspring that guides you through these days.  If you are sitting here with a mind full of questions and maybe even frustrations, but you find strength from the simple fact that we are still here, after thousands of years, still sitting together, in person and online, doing our best to stay connected to our past and to each other, then that can be your stable pillar that keeps you strong during these days.  These holidays were created to be the ultimate uniting force that connects us with our past, gives holy space for nostalgia, reminds us to live in the present, while also giving us hope for a better future.  In a magical way if we let it be, today can be a bit of much needed Jewish time travel.

Yet I would offer a bit of a warning about feeling too comfortable.  In the same way that basing our understanding of Jewish community on the world of Anatevka will lead us to base our identity on a mythological world that never was, our Jewish identity today, and our Jewish community can’t only survive on nostalgia.  This feeling of longing can bring us back to a place that once was.  It can provide us a very real and a very healthy sense of comfort and connection, but no matter how hard we try it can’t always give us what we need to survive the realities of what we live with around us.  Our Judaism no longer can be stuck in a shtetl.  It can only survive if it breaks free to evolve to be even more relevant and if those traditions and rituals can be lived with intention and strength to become part of all of who we are, not just our Jewish selves.  

My dreamed living room rendition of the top hits of Fiddler on the Roof can put a smile on my face, and help me reflect a bit on my life, but it won’t necessarily give me all I need to confront the challenges I find around me.  Nostalgia, Jewish and otherwise, is a necessary and helpful way that we encounter the ups and downs of our life, but only can help us when we both utilize it and also realize its failures.

Stepping out for a moment from our Jewish community, we can see the many ways that this longing is such a core part of how we interact with the world.  It anchors us, but like an anchor, it can also hold us down.

Svetlana Boym, puts it well in her recent book, The Future of Nostalgia:

“...nostalgia goes beyond individual psychology. At first glance, nostalgia is a longing for a place, but actually it is a yearning for a different time - the time of our childhood, the slower rhythms of our dreams. In a broader sense, nostalgia is a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress. The nostalgic desire to obliterate history and turn it into a private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition.”

“Refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition.”

Isn’t this what has happened so much to us over the past year and a half?  

We find ourselves this year, still stuck in the midst of the pandemic but in so many ways in such a different place than we were last year.  Time has passed, but not enough has changed.  For better or for worse, we now have become used to the realities of pandemic life: the separation, the masks, the lingering fear.  Yet at the same time, the sense of perspective and the opportunity for reflection have also brought us to some new insights.  One of the most important is the strength which we now know that we can’t control everything.  We can put up physical and spiritual walls of protection around us, through our homes, our things, our masks, our vaccines, our technology,  and even our most strongly held beliefs, but we know that one little virus can, with the ease of a single breath, break it all down.  You would have to be entirely oblivious to let the perspective that this time has given us pass you by.  But this doesn’t stop us from trying our best.

Back in the 1980s, the futurist and philosopher, Faith Popcorn--who with a name like that must be trusted--came up with the concept of “cocooning” which she said is when we are “trying to control everything to protect ourselves from a harsh and unpredictable world”.  In the context of the 80s, the time of my childhood, this is why she believed, there were so many wholesome TV shows such as the Cosby show  (which at least back then was wholesome) or the many other laugh track laden shows of happy families, and light and cheesy humor.  According to her, this also led to the popularity of TV dinners, bringing us back to the convenience of home cooked meals, and also in a strange but not surprising way, more gun ownership.  

After the political and social challenges of the 70s and 80s, (think the rise of feminism, racism, drugs, AIDS and urban blight) cocooning took hold in the 80s with abandon.  Yet, as is the case with the creative ways we have survived this pandemic, it did not necessarily deal directly with the issues at hand, but did in a very real way give us a sense of comfort and safety that brought us through these years in one piece.  

And now we find ourselves, once again in a broken world, where we seem to have lost our path, or at least our knowledge of which path we are meant to head down.  Our cocooning, our healing has come from that bread baking, and movie watching, from the taking up of new hobbies, or reminiscing about the mythological shtetl which once wasn't. 

But…Ashamnu, we may not have done all that we could.

We can’t let our current bout of nostalgia cover up the realities of our world which need not just reflection but action.  We can hold on to the healing powers of all that has held us together the past few years, but we also need to look at what is right in front of us, to see both what caused this pandemic and also how we can find a way out.  

We may hate to admit it, but there is simply no longer any way to deny that our way of life is the root of so many of our societal problems and of this pandemic.  It’s not all on us, but neither are we entirely innocent.  Our actions are causing environmental destruction, the hurricanes, and the floods.  Our political leaders, our institutions and our own behaviors continue to allow poverty and hunger to fester among the most neglected in our society.  For the sake of convenience and our palates, our acceptance of the exploitation and abuse of animals helped cause the very situations which made Covid to run rampant. We allow a world where racism and ignorance can stay strong, and we let brokenness, loneliness and separation hold sway, and leave too much space for darkness to overshadow the light which we need to bring into the world.  Ashamnu.  It may not have been us alone, but we all need to change.

We now know more than ever, that what we do, how we act, does make a difference.

Ashamnu.  We have sinned. But lo lefached klal, we also must not be afraid of the task that lies ahead.

The only way nostalgia, that looking back at our past, back at this past year and a half, and all the way back to the lives of our ancestors can serve its ultimate goal is if we don’t only dwell in the place we find ourselves, but if we move beyond it.

We have to remember that one of the core ideas of these days, teshuva does ask us to turn back.  But are we turning back, a full turn to the people we once were, to the world that once was?  This is not the goal, and we know that this is not possible and not always best.  In fact it is the smallest turns that can make the biggest difference, and what matters most is that we will put ourselves back on track, on a new path that will lead us where we need to go.  This year as we look back at the year that has passed, this year of challenge and separation, we might feel stuck like there is too much brokenness to hold on to, and that change is too difficult.  But what matters is that we start the process of change, and keep fighting, keep turning until we find ourselves in a new and better world.  Start with a small turn, and see where it takes us.

So where does this leave us now?  We need to utilize the nostalgia and the acts of hope that we have created for ourselves to give us what we need to move forward.  Yet no more than I can imagine that the myth of the shtetl of Fiddler on the Roof can be any more than a dream version of a past which was just as broken and challenging as our present, we can’t imagine that living in nostalgia is the best way to move forward.

With the reminder given to us from our Jewish world, we know that while we can survive in a world of feelings, the sense of connection and comfort, familiarity and food that makes up so much of these holidays, Judaism, and life demands action.  This experience of the holidays is meant to be brought out into the world.   We need to remember that it is exactly when things start getting too comfortable that we need to break free and cause a little ruckus.  If the prayers become rote, if the experiences become too easy or too difficult, we need to do what we can to make them our own, to learn more, to connect more, to challenge more, and to make all that we do more relevant.  

Here’s one thing that our tradition tells us, a lesson that extends through our entire lives: if you are not willing to put in the hard work of learning, exploring, falling in love with and being bothered by our traditions and whatever the world throws at you, then it may not give back to you what you want to receive.  Judaism, like life in general, was never meant to be easy, and we’ll need more than catchy songs, or familiar prayers to bring us forward.

This is the time to “see if there is another way”.  This is the time to step out of separation and into community.  This is the time to no longer accept that convenience and comfort will necessarily make you deeply happy, and instead do what is necessary to create a just and sustainable society. This is the time to finally break free from the paths that have held us down, to make those small turns, and chart new trails that may lead us to places and ways of being which we never thought possible.  Amid all of the pain, loss and separation, this pandemic is an opportunity.  This is the time to see if there is another way. 

This is the time to finally, once and for all, recognize that we no longer need to see brokenness as the default, and instead see hope as the path forward. 

Now is the time to step out of the comfort of the past to stand up and fight for the world that we know is possible.  We know now that there is another way to be, and it is up us to find it.

Shanah Tova!


Sun, May 28 2023 8 Sivan 5783