COVID Keepers- Rosh HaShanah I Sermon

Posted on September 17, 2021

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There was a man who found the cocoon of a butterfly. One day a small opening appeared. He sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could and could go no further. 

So the man decided to help the butterfly. He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon. The butterfly then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small shriveled wings. 

The man continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time. Neither happened! In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly. (1)

The man in the story failed to understand the importance of pressure and discomfort in the butterfly’s emergence into the world. Squeezing through the opening was the final and essential stage in its transformation, and while it was uncomfortable and probably painful, it was also necessary.  

A caterpillar becomes a butterfly, a grain of sand becomes a pearl, a piece of coal becomes a diamond – all of these transformations occur in a place of discomfort, of pressure, of pain; but at the end something new, something better emerges. Real change and progress rarely occur in places of comfort; rather it is through facing adversity, through dealing with discomfort, through experiencing challenges that something new can be born.  

On this day of Rosh Hashanah, there is so much that we could speak about. We have been living through unprecedentedly trying times, we have suffered pressure and discomfort like never before, and we have witnessed so much pain and bereavement. It is easy and understandable to be consumed by the anguish. But this morning, because it is Rosh Hashanah, a day filled with hope and potential as the new year begins, I want to try to focus on a positive message, to think about the ways in which the previous 18 months of discomfort, pressure, and pain might have changed us and our society for the better. I offer these words, like so many other sermons, because I need to hear them, I need to reassure myself about the progress we are making, I need to find the positive amidst the despair, I need to believe that there will be silver linings when we finally emerge from under this cloud.  

I have become increasingly aware that in the midst of this challenging period there have been positive changes in myself, in my life, in our community and our world. These are the COVID Keepers, the shifts in our lives that have taken place as a result of living through a pandemic. They can be changes in behavior, changes in beliefs, changes in attitudes. They are the light in the darkness, the hope in despair, the promise for a better future.  

This is not to diminish the very real pain and suffering that many of us have experienced and are experiencing. Rather, it is to acknowledge that alongside this we might also have been positively transformed in our own lives and as a society through this period of adversity. 

This is, and has always been, our Jewish response. We have always recognized the potential for growth through hardship, to be strengthened by challenges, to emerged renewed at the end. What is the eternal journey to the Promised Land if not a declaration that despite hardships and challenges, there will always be progress that will bring us closer to realizing a better world? We experienced the hardship of slavery in Egypt, but we emerged as a people, Bnei Yisrael – the Children of Israel. We spent 40 years in the wilderness, a period filled with trials and tribulations, but through it we became free, we received the Torah and we carried it with us to Israel and shared it with the world.  

Just before the pandemic, in January 2020, my grandmother in England died. With the distance and the speed at which her funeral was planned there was unfortunately no way for me to make the journey back to mourn with my family. COVID didn’t keep us apart; rather we were separated by the challenges of geography and time. I had to hear about the funeral from my parents and sister rather than experiencing it for myself, and I am certain that this impacted my mourning.  

When my Safta, my Israeli grandmother, died just over six months later, in the midst of the pandemic, there was no way that I or any of my British family could be physically present for the funeral in Tel Aviv. But there was also no question that we would be able to join via Facetime or Zoom. We were able to mourn together as a family, separated by geography, but united by technology. On the 30th day after her death, I accompanied my Saba, my grandfather, as he went to the cemetery to mark the end of Sheloshim, the thirty days of mourning. I was not there in person. I was actually sitting in my office at the synagogue; but I was there on the screen. I heard his words, I saw his face, and I was able to share in that moment with him. 

It’s not that technology changed so drastically in those six months; the potential to join together digitally had been there for many years, but we rarely if ever utilized it in those ways. As COVID forced us to maintain a physical separation both at home and abroad, we began to engage with technology in ways that we previously had not. We have built community on the screen. We have come together to celebrate the most joyful moments and we have comforted each other in times of suffering. And we’ve done all of this without leaving our homes, using technology to bridge divides and to bring people together. While I know that nothing can fully substitute being together in person, the way that we now use technology to come together is a COVID Keeper, which means that no grandchild should ever need to miss their grandparent’s funeral due to the challenges of geography or time.  

COVID has forced us to think differently about how we come together, how we build community, and how we share in some of life’s most important moments. Through the use of technology, we have strengthened and deepened our community and our connections – this is a communal COVID Keeper. Not everyone will be able to join us in the Sanctuary for Shabbat services, but they will always be able to join via the livestream. Our home will never be large enough to invite the entire community in to celebrate the Seder together, but our screen can expand so that all are welcome. And the synagogue will no longer be limited by the size of the building, as everyone, everywhere can join on the screen. 

We have changed as a community, and I also hope and see evidence that we have changed as a society. 

We have been at war with an invisible adversary that attacks everyone regardless of race, gender, religion, sexuality, or nationality. This is a fight that has united the world against a common enemy.  And at the same time, it has helped us see the humanity that we all share with each other. These past 18 months have emphasized the way in which our individual fate depends on our collective response and action.  

It shouldn’t have required a pandemic for us to realize how interconnected we all are. We shouldn’t have needed this period of hardship to understand that we can only survive and flourish together – collectively. It shouldn’t have taken this moment to fully open our eyes to the inequalities that have always been present in our society and the fact that while we are all in the same storm, we are not in the same boat.  

But, it is no accident that a pandemic has forced us to take a closer look at our society and the way that different groups are treated. Were it not for the pandemic, we might wonder if the brutal murder of George Floyd would have garnered the response that it did? He unfortunately wasn’t the first black person to be murdered by police; he was another tragic example of racial injustice. He was, at the time, the latest victim of the pandemic of racism. And yet, the response was unprecedented. People came together in support of and solidarity with the black community. And the response was not just here in America, but around the world. Facing a deadly disease of the body forced us to confront a deadly disease within society.  

We must ensure that the awakening that we have seen to matters of racial inequality and injustice is a COVID Keeper. We cannot return to the way things were, but need to ensure that the progress of this moment in recognizing our interconnectedness and interdependence is protected and maintained. We have fought this dreadful disease not by simply taking care of ourselves, but by protecting and caring for each other. We wear masks to protect each other, we have stayed home to stop the spread, and we are being vaccinated to achieve a herd immunity and defeat this disease. No longer will we only say Kol Yisrael aravim zeh bazeh – All Israel are responsible for one another. Because our COVID Keeper is to say, to recognize, and to fulfill the words: Kol Bnei Adam aravim zeh bazeh – all humanity are responsible for one another. 

And while we have changed as a community and a society, we have also changed as individuals. Under the pressure of living through a pandemic, we will all emerge differently from how we were before.  

For 41 years of my life I was running, not as an actual athlete or competitor, but in the way that I approached life. I was always on the go, always looking for the next opportunity, always eager to fill time and stay busy. This was my approach to work, as my colleagues can tell you, and this was my approach at home, as my family can tell you. Using the Yiddish word, my dad would always say that I have no sitzflesich – no ability to just sit still and be. And then the pandemic hit; suddenly we had to stay at home, we couldn’t go out, we were forced to slow down.  

I’ll admit, this wasn’t and hasn’t been easy for me. As someone who likes to be on the go, this enforced period of slowing down has been challenging. Yet I am also aware of the ways that it has been good for me, my family, and my work – even though, as both my colleagues and family will tell you, I am still very much a work in progress.  

In taking things slower, one of my COVID activities has been gardening. Alison Weikel, who is not just a great Jewish educator, but also a wonderful gardening instructor has been our guide. One of the projects involved uprooting a small lilac tree that was growing in an unsustainable location, to place it by the side of our house where it could be a focal point.  

Now the flip side of being someone who’s always on the go is that I’m not very good at waiting. I’m the person constantly changing lanes in a traffic jam or looking to see if the food is cooked – you might call me impatient. And so, I was disheartened when I did not immediately see signs of growth in our little tree. On more than one occasion, I impatiently reached out to Alison to ask why nothing was happening – each time she reassured me that I simply had to wait; that nature takes time. Slowly, I learned to stop checking the tree daily, I learned to wait, and just as promised, when spring finally arrived, buds appeared on our little lilac tree. It didn’t happen at the speed I would have wanted, but it happened just the way that nature intended. The lilac tree has reinforced my personal COVID Keeper that I need to slow down and be more patient. 

I honestly find it hard to imagine in what other circumstances I would have really learned this lesson or begun, slowly, making this change in my life. In many ways pre-COVID, our society reinforced this approach of being constantly on the go and running from place to place. Judaism had been trying to teach me this lesson my whole life with a weekly Shabbat as a day of rest, a day to pause, a day to slow down. But it has taken COVID for me to really learn it and to slowly, tentatively make this change in my life – that’s my COVID Keeper.  

It is sometimes said that Rabbis give the sermons that they themselves need to hear. On this Rosh Hashanah, with a new year stretching out before us, but with so many challenges being carried over, I need to hear this sermon. I need to believe that through this period of adversity and challenge something better will be born. I need these COVID Keepers as ways of seeing light amidst the darkness.  

This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are many other ways in which I have changed, and we have changed. I would encourage each one of us to think about our own COVID Keepers to recognize the growth and learning that have taken place in the face of adversity. A journey of true transformation is never easy; we know this from the natural world where the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, and from the Jewish world where we become a people out of the bonds of slavery. And while this journey is far from over, on this day of joy and celebration, we can take a moment to reflect on the positives, to draw strength from our experiences, and to recognize the way in which our COVID Keepers can give us hope as we enter the new year. Shana Tova.