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2020 and 2021

January 5, 2021

L’Fi Dati: As I See It

A Message from Rabbi Sam Weintraub

As we marked the New Year, we also saw a large number of harsh messages bidding the past year farewell. News headlines, TV pundits, and hashtags all joined in the chorus: “Good Riddance, 2020!”; “2020: Over and Out!”; “20?20: Great for vision; terrible year!”

I understand how frustrated we all are. But from Jewish theology I also know that events just don’t happen. In Hebrew the root KRA means both “to befall’ and “to call”. Nothing is haphazard and everything is connected. So, when we experience setbacks, we should try to find a message, a meaning therein.

For ten months, physically and psychically, we have been locked in. The most normal outings, from coffee at Starbucks to visiting grandparents, are off limits. It’s easy to feel held back. Still, the pandemic has not been a retardant but an accelerant. We have lived ten years in the last ten months. COVID?19 has spurred new thinking and new decisions about everything from our professional focus to where we live to our participation in politics.

In this regard, many of us experienced some of the process of the ba’alei teshuva, or penitents. The ba’al teshuva is often understood as an individual who firmly sets themself on a path of strict Jewish observance. In fact, the turn always begins with something more inchoate, a vague sense that despite one’s apparent comfort or success one’s life is off track and one needs to return to something more sustaining and more transcendent.

As Corona ba’alei teshuva, we have learned that life’s meaning is found not just in lording over secure routines and predictable environments, but also in wondering, in asking questions. In fact, experiences of encountering roadblocks and being stymied may spur us to find paths of innovation and, then, finally, increased security.

So let’s not “get rid” of 2020 but ask what we have learned from it. What was successful and what do we need to give up?

One salutary aspect of the year was its interiorization at home, we learned to listen to ourselves. Absent “normal” interactions and immediate gratifications, we’ve also learned how to long, and what is worth longing for.

Also, while I do not for a second, chas v’chalila, G?d forbid, minimize the tribulations and suffering of this pandemic—I have lost friends, inside and outside of our Congregation, to the virus. Still, this past year was more joyous than many of us realize. Here, I distinguish between joy and happiness, as defined by my friend and colleague, Rio de Janeiro Rabbi Nilton Bonder, in his recent book, Cabala e a arte de preservacao de alegria, (The Kabbalah and Art of Preserving Joy), written during the pandemic.

Therein, Rabbi Bonder distinguishes between felicidade (happiness) and alegria (joy). Happiness involves the pleasant feelings which arise automatically when good things happen to us. Joy is a psycho?spiritual disposition and is not related to what is happening outside of us. In fact, it is the ability to be open to life no matter what is brings. Rabbi Bonder writes, “If things that we think are good happen, we are happy and joyful. If painful things happen to us, we are unhappy but we can and should remain joyful.”

So I invite you to do a cheshbon nefesh, a personal accounting.

How did you manage to preserve joy through the year? What teachings, interactions, pastimes, or prayers gave you a sense of well being? What analysts or teachers sustained you, even on podcasts or Zoom? Keep a record of these as we leave the severe first year of the pandemic. They will offer ways to call up joy in the future.

Finally, I beg you, beware of the “return to normalcy” trope. It is a trap. Growth and truth come through effort, not passive waiting. Hope comes not from hearing hopeful messages but by experiencing adversity and managing to exercise some control through it. The moral lessons of the pandemic are about gaining the spiritual sophistication to see opportunities in constrained environments.

My father, Rabbi Lewis Weintraub, zichrono livracha, was a Chaplain in the Canadian Army in World War II. His fascinating stories spurred me to research the stories of Chaplains and other clergy in wartime. One account was about an American Rabbi, serving his community stateside, also in World War II. A family in his Congregation had a son who was deployed to Europe and lost in action. Every week, for years, the Rabbi visited this serviceman’s parents and tried to keep their hope alive by telling them that the odds were good that their son would return home.

As it turned out, the son had been captured and interred as a POW. After the War ended, he returned to his army base in Europe and found there a tall pile of letters waiting for him. They were all from the Rabbi, who wrote this son every week before he met with his parents. The Rabbi was then asked why he continued writing, when it was clear that his letters would not be answered. He explained that by writing this soldier—sharing news about their community and thoughts about the post?War future—he was able to keep his own hope alive and thereby strengthen the parents.

With that, a last bit of advice: Write your own, post?pandemic “inner soldier’ a letter. Try to be specific. Share the insights, teachings, conversations, exercise regimens, schemes, rituals, and everything that kept you healthy and hopeful through this trial. Let it be a blueprint for your and your family’s future as we go forward.

V’chen y’hi Ratzon – So is our desire!

Rabbi Weintraub

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