July 4, 2022 -

Witness

This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Joshua Caruso on Erev Rosh Hashanah, 2020.  

 

At break of day, the angels pushed Lot to get going, “Hurry. Get your wife and two daughters out of here before it’s too late and you’re caught in the punishment of the city.”

…When they had them outside, Lot was told, “Now run for your life! Don’t look back! Don’t stop anywhere on the plain—run for the hills or you’ll be swept away.”

Then God rained brimstone and fire down on Sodom and Gomorrah—a river of lava from God out of the sky!—and destroyed these cities and the entire plain and everyone who lived in the cities and everything that grew from the ground.

But Lot’s wife looked back and turned into a pillar of salt.[1]

This biblical story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a complicated tale filled with moral ambiguities and tangled back-stories.

It’s a difficult narrative, and let me just submit that beyond her transformation into a column of salt, the rabbinic sages don’t regard Lot’s wife as a pillar of anything (in the Torah, she was not even given a name)!

Still, it is Lot’s wife’s rearward gaze into a burning world that she is remembered by. Tradition says that in looking back, she saw the extraordinary, yet visually-forbidden, image of God and died due to her proximity to the Shekhina (the mystical idea linked to the divine presence). Curiously, rabbinic tradition actually gave Lot’s wife a name, Idit[2], connected to the Hebrew for “Witness”, an allusion to what her vision captured in those very last moments before she was frozen in place.

Scrutinize the text all you want, but you’d have a hard time figuring out if Idit was given the same warning that her husband heard to not look back. We will never know if Idit’s gaze into the abyss of the burning and destruction of her community was in direct defiance to the angels’ charge, or a simple gesture of compassion and care for the community she was fleeing.

Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso shares a modern interpretation of this ancient biblical story, and a perspective on Idit’s role in the account:

Idit saw not the Shekhinah but shekhenim, her neighbors, and seeing their travail, was consumed in tears, becoming a pillar of salt…This raises the complicated question of the role of witness, its necessity and its dangers.

Lot, indifferent, refuses to bear witness, even ignoring the fact that two of his daughters and sons-in-law remained in the cities. Idit, in her compassion, bears witness and is paralyzed.[3]

Lot and Idit each represent a side of us…like Idit, we are paralyzed in bearing profound witness to a world on fire, and we are also like Lot, so ready to move on and create a new world far better than where we are now.

But let me suggest that the truth of this moment does not simply lie in the witnessing of the disastrous months since the onset of COVID-19. And neither are we free to turn away from it all; to decidedly point our intentions towards the future. No, the truth of this moment is somewhere in the middle, between devastating loss and propitious hope.

Since the beginning of March we have witnessed a relentless sequence of adversities in the form of a triple threat: a deadly pandemic, a crippling economic and jobs downturn, and a racial justice reckoning.

Even though it might seem like many, many moons ago, those first weeks in March were perhaps the most traumatic of any. The constant temperature taking, repeated hand-washings, and faithful use of facemasks did not eliminate the sense of fear, panic and dread.

We have worried about loved ones who are home alone and are otherwise health compromised. We have been unable to physically be with our extended families and friends to share a warm hug or offer a fervent kiss. And parents of college students have sent their children to campus without guarantees for their ultimate well-being.

More acutely, our own temple members have witnessed, from afar, loved ones fighting for their lives in hospital ICU’s, unable to be with them, sit with them, and hold their hands.

Economic challenges followed soon after the pandemic hit, laying off or furloughing countless in the workforce.

Our Reform movement alone had to shut down its camps over the summer, losing millions of dollars and sidelining hundreds of employees. Temple members have had their business operations curtailed, their income scaled back, their pension plans tapped before retirement, and their livelihoods put in jeopardy.

If that were not enough, we have witnessed a cultural and racial reckoning in our nation, decades in the making.

Even for those of us who have not been directly touched by racial injustice, we have witnessed the breakdown of the social compact with our brothers and sister of color. When we witness such bald injustice, we absorb its traumatic effects because it undermines our strivings as Jews to build a world from love.

Even from our privileged perch, we feel defeated, broken and torn…torn like the black Keriah ribbon worn at the gravesites of our very own.

When we look back we see the fabric of our communities coming apart before our eyes.

Dear friends, we have witnessed far too much.

When you look back at these past months, consider for a brief moment….

What are the feelings that arise within you?

What simply freezes you in place?

What touches on your spirit of compassion and longing?

The sting and upset certainly remain, but let us take heed…we cannot stay frozen in place, paralyzed and afraid of looking ahead.

Leonard Fein, the writer and Jewish activist wrote:

The Jews are the quintessential witness. By virtue of our longevity, by virtue of our classic marginality, by virtue of the need for self-preservation, we have been precocious observers of our typically multiple worlds, witnesses to grandeur, to folly, to evil, to redemption. Our task is to speak out, to tell what we have seen, to say what we know.[4]

To witness in Judaism is a sacred act. In Jewish law, there are two different types of witnesses: witnesses who observe, clarify and shed light on an event, and witnesses who establish, and create something anew.

The latter is true when a Jew serves as a witness to a wedding couple, or to the Jew–by-Choice who begins her journey as a member of the tribe.

In both cases, the witness is vital to the authenticity of the ritual. Without witnesses, certain lifecycle events lack the imprimatur of legitimacy. It is the witness who animates the moments of joy, and provides a path to the future.

In this way, the witness is a partner in the creation of new life…and imagines a life ahead filled with possibility. Importantly, the witness is someone who testifies to the authenticity of their experience.

We are in between loss and hope, in the space where we can be a witness, and testify to what we have seen. Testifying is something that is exceedingly personal, but when our testimony is leveraged, we can generate healing and repair.

Surely, one can testify to witnessing a routine misdemeanor, but the kind of testimony that changes our world demands that we examine the gifts that we can offer, borne from the wounds of witnessing.

Fairmount Temple congregant, Taryn Isaacs, is a Nurse Practitioner at the Cleveland Clinic. Taryn’s gift as a community connecter and skilled communicator affords her a unique platform.

She has repeatedly shared her experiences on social media of the risks of contracting the Coronavirus, and in her heartfelt dispatches from the field she has helped so many in our community gain valuable awareness. She has exhorted us not to let our guard down, to continue wearing masks, and to be sensitive to symptoms that may prove to be problematic. Taryn has leveraged her witnessing, and she is a shining reminder that each one of us can find our own ways to testify.

In fact, Taryn is heeding the prophet, Isaiah’s call, when he proclaimed to the children of Israel, “You are my witnesses.”

This is the work we can do to fill the space between loss and hope, answering the call by giving testimony to what we have witnessed, and effecting healing in the world.

Tommy Fello, the longtime owner of Tommy’s Restaurant, a Cleveland Heights staple, had to move from a model where dining-in accounted for 90% of his business to a post-pandemic model where 70% of the business is now takeout. Fello shut down his restaurant in mid-March when Governor DeWine issued closure orders for all bars and restaurants, and reopened on May 4.

The restaurant struggled mightily, even after Tommy’s opened patio access across the street.

Still struggling, Tommy made a push in the media (along with other faithful Tommy’s followers) in an effort to help his 48 year-old eatery survive. The response the following weekend was tremendous. Tommy said, “It just took off. It was overwhelming, the amount of business,” He said. “That changed everything…”[5]

Now Tommy believes he won’t have to permanently close as a steady flow of local takeout traffic has continued ever since.

For many of us, supporting local businesses of any kind has been a testimony all its own. This pandemic has put a human face on the many businesses that keep us – and our local economy going.

We have witnessed the closure of beloved stores, restaurants and companies, but our testimony helps keep the struggling ones afloat. In these small acts we elevate our role as witnesses.

When we bear witness, we join generations of our ancestors who have animated the timeless idea that regardless of circumstance or station in life, we are all made in the image of God. Author Neil Blumofe wrote:

To witness means to state that we are here – that we see what is going on. To witness gives credence to someone else’s experience…a Jewish perspective on witnessing is that it is a religious act — a giving of agency and investment in someone else…To witness is not to offer a chance gaze – rather presence is constructed with intentionality – magnifying our investment in someone else’s well-being and their creation in (the) Divine image.[6]

Just this past week, the sports world celebrated U.S. Open winner, Naomi Osaka. Before the tournament, Osaka had seven pandemic facemasks created, one for every match she hoped she’d reach – which she did. Each mask featured the name of a person of color who lost their lives far too soon. Many died due to violence perpetrated by the very people tasked to protect them. Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Philando Castile, and Cleveland’s own, Tamir Rice.[7]

For a public figure like Osaka, using her unique platform to keep these tragic events in the public consciousness is her testimony.

Friends, I so wanted to be that rabbi who would give you the pep talk about the indomitable spirit of the Jewish people. And, make no mistake, that is certainly true. I imagined telling you about the light at the end of the tunnel that is coming just around the corner.

But I would be disingenuous to try to lead you down that path – because we are not there yet. Dr. Fauci, the closest thing we have to a chief rabbi in these United States, tells us that we better buckle down; we are in for a long year that will spill well over into 2021.

The only thing we cannot do is remain paralyzed, caught between loss and hope. This can be our time to make meaning from the loss, and to create our hope for the future.

On this Rosh Hashanah maybe we are meant to be right in the middle, placed firmly between the heaviness of loss and the promise of hope. Let us return to the biblical story of the burning Sodom and Gomorrah, and that fateful moment which teaches us this very day. Rabbi Sasso said it best: Our challenge today is to find the place between Idit and Lot—being able to witness and endure the pain of the present and move into a future of hope.”[8]

In this spirit, May we use our witnessing to heed the call of this broken world, which needs every hand, and every heart, to help it heal.

 

[1] Genesis 19: 15, 17, 24-26. Bible translation from “The Message” by Eugene Peterson

[2] Midrash Tanchuma Parshat VaYera #8

[3] http://evolve.reconstructingjudaism.org/witnessing-suffering

[4] https://forward.com/opinion/126450/the-jewish-mission-we-are-witnesses/

[5] https://www.cleveland.com/entertainment/2020/08/coventry-neighborhood-fights-to-maintain-business-during-coronavirus-pandemic.html

[6] https://blumofe.wordpress.com/tag/shema-yisrael/

[7] https://www.forbes.com/sites/carlieporterfield/2020/09/12/naomi-osaka-wears-7th-face-mask-this-one-emblazoned-with-tamir-rices-name-for-us-open-final/#a817d09653f6

[8] http://evolve.reconstructingjudaism.org/witnessing-suffering

We encourage you to share comments below, or to post the link to this post on social media such as Facebook or Twitter, or to share with others by email, to continue the conversations it engenders.