When the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE the rabbi sages of the Jewish community were faced with an impossible situation.
How could the people practice their religion when the center for its practice no longer existed? The Rabbis developed a new way to practice; their vision of Jewish law became a means by which ordinary people could engage with the sacred in their daily lives in a way meaningful to the vast majority.
This included the formalization of study with the development of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Rather than having a central place of worship, Jews would gather in smaller groups in their individual towns, advised by the rabbi of their community who would learn with them. It’s how we still practice today.
I am sharing this story to hopefully encourage anyone who is afraid of the crisis facing us now. We do not need to feel defeated due to our new normal. The necessary and essential communal response to the coronavirus is forcing a similar kind of inspired evolution, one that at least temporarily will not include large gatherings or international travel. Until this virus is somehow contained and a vaccine delivered, our lives are going to be upturned.
Most of our regularly scheduled and special events have been cancelled, entire industries are watching their economy collapse, countless thousands of people might have their paychecks interrupted. This is serious. This is real. How we respond will determine how well we endure this crisis and what our society looks like when the virus is under control.
In Jewish mysticism there is a concept of Sefirot, often drawn as a tree with 10 branches. Each of the branches represents an aspect of God’s Being, and two are in particular relationship with one another,Gevurah (Judgement) and Chesed (Lovingkindness). In a very human irony we pray to be seen through Chesed, all the while we look at others via Gevurah. In other words, we want (demand, expect) forgiveness while greeting the world with judgement.
I know that there are religious leaders who refer to Judgement in their pronouncements, claiming that the sufferer deserved their suffering. I know that there are political leaders who are free with their own judgements about the failures of others. I know how it feels to be judged, and I believe that you, dear reader, know this feeling as well. It is unpleasant, painful, scaring, and detrimental. It is not kind, nor does it help forward anyone toward a solution.
What would it feel like, do you think, to see and be seen through Chesed rather than Gevurah? As I sometimes mention during a sermon, imagine you are driving down 95 towards Miami on a Friday afternoon at 5 p.m. on a holiday weekend. There is traffic everywhere and people are not on their best behavior. How easy would it be to angrily judge your countless fellow travelers? Ask yourself the question: In the hour it takes you to get from the right lane to exit Ives Dairy Rd to actually driving on Ives Dairy Rd, do you want to be filled with Judgement or be filled with Lovingkindness? Your choice. Do you spend the time contemplating your many blessings, or the many ways these strangers are annoying you? Up to you.
My prayer is that you lean towards the side of Chesed, and that where there once was a quick and harsh judgement is now an easy and warm forgiveness. None of us have many answers to how we are going to manage our new normal, and few if any of us are happy about being forced to make the changes necessary to keep ourselves and our community safe. Still, here we are.
From our prayer book, the message is this: …there is a better place, a promised land; that the winding way to that promise passes through the wilderness. That there is no way to get from here to there except by joining hands and marching together.
Rabbi Noah Kitty
Congregation Etz Chaim