December 4, 2023 -
This post on If Not Now, When?, the interactive blog of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple, is the sermon shared by Rabbi Elle Muhlbaum on Rosh Hashanah, 2021.
It feels like it was just moments ago when we gathered together on Zoom, many of us for the first time, to welcome the Jewish year of 5781. And here we are again, gathering together virtually as we welcome the very real new year of 5782. As we join in the joy of this sacred day, we contemplate the progress we’ve made, and the experiences we’ve had, since this season last year. These days of awe call us to participate in cheshbon nefesh, an accounting of the soul. We are to look inward and reflect on how we’ve been as individuals this year. Where did we show up well for our loved ones? How did we help advocate for those in need? How were we generous, even when it was difficult? To whom did we show kindness? When did we miss the mark? How have we failed?
In many respects, the High Holy Day season is a chance for individual introspection. But as we make our way through the joy of Rosh HaShanah and prepare for the work of repentance for Yom Kippur, we move from the individual to the communal. By this time in ten days, we’ll be reciting a communal litany of sins, using plural forms to show how we, as a community of individuals, have gone astray and failed this year.
In a year like this one, I find myself thinking about group projects. As a teenager, I absolutely hated when teachers would assign group projects in class. I’m a driven, organized person with perfectionist tendencies, which means that in most group projects, I was the one staying up late dealing with the details and correcting the work of my classmates. I put too much burden on myself, resisting the possibility of a lackluster grade by taking on far more work than any teacher could have sensibly anticipated any one student would attempt to do alone.
As we enter this new year, we’re still very much in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. This will be the third school year interrupted by the pandemic, and in some ways, this feels like one of the worst group projects I’ve been a part of. Because to participate in human society is to participate in a group project. Each one of our actions impacts our fellow human beings, whether that’s our intention or not. As misinformation and distrust in science and official institutions flourish, we find ourselves divided and at odds with our neighbors. As truth seems to morph into something relative or subjective, the distance between us grows greater. My friend, Rabbi Nicole Auerbach, recently taught about the ancient Israelites as we encounter them in the book of Deuteronomy. There, Rabbi Auerbach teaches, we see catastrophic consequences for communal failures. Though we’re many generations past the ancient Israelites of the Torah, we’re still learning about the catastrophic consequences that come as a result of communal failures today.
We can look to the world around us for myriad examples of how our own actions impact beyond ourselves, how each one of us is an integral part of a larger whole. Judaism is also clear on the importance of community and how we rely on and are responsible to one another.
One clear example is the concept of a minyan, the assembly or quorum of at least ten adult Jews necessary to recite certain blessings. To further emphasize the importance of community, it is those prayers that speak of God’s holiness, like the Mourner’s Kaddish, and rituals like communal Torah readings that require a minyan. We are meant to live and pray and be Jewish together. As a covenantal community, we Jews have a responsibility to each other. The sages of our tradition taught us in Talmud (Shevuot 39a), kol yisrael areivim zeh bazeh: all of Israel are responsible for one another.
At this High Holy Day season, I encourage all of us to take a slightly more universalist view: all of humanity is responsible for one another. In Pirkei Avot 2:4, the ethical teachings of our rabbinic ancestors, we read: “Al tifrosh min hatzibur, v’al tadin et chavercha ad she’tagi’a limkomo … Hillel says: Do not separate yourself from the community…Do not judge your fellow until you come to their place.”
We lean into our community, because we are our community. You can’t separate yourself from something that’s a part of you. This call to connection is paired with an admonition: we can’t judge another person until we find ourselves in their position. This global pandemic has invited each human being into the human community: we cannot separate ourselves, because each of us is like a cell of the body of humanity.
But when our own actions seem in conflict or tension with others in our community, when, for instance, we feel we need more freedom from restriction or to employ more caution than our neighbors, we can feel lonely or alone. In early 2020, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the 19th Surgeon General of the United States of America published a book entitled, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. There, he provides the biological and evolutionary ways that humans are wired to connect and be in community together, as well as a discussion of what the consequences of our distance and loneliness can be.
About the pandemic, Dr. Murthy writes, “It seemed at first that this crisis must inevitably lead to social as well as physical isolation. If we could not meet, how could we connect? If we could not share the same space, how could we help each other? If we could not touch, how could we love? Even that term, social distancing, seemed to condemn us to loneliness. And then there was the issue of trust. Fear of infection and panic over the potential economic fallout drove some to ignore the official mandates and hoard emergency supplies…as the pandemic continues, however, it becomes ever clearer that social distancing is a misnomer. To be sure, [he continues,] we must practice physical distancing to stop the spread of COVID-19, but socially, we may emerge from this crisis feeling closer to friends and family members than ever before” (Murthy xiv).
We’re now experts at this pandemic. Physical distancing continues to be part of our daily experience of life, including this very celebration of Rosh HaShanah. But are we truly feeling closer to friends and family than we did in March of 2020? And how would we even measure that closeness, especially with friends and families whose approach to the pandemic has differed fundamentally from our own? Is there hope for continued connection even in the face of conflict?
In his book, Dr. Murthy shares the poignant story of Derek Black, the son of a grand wizard of the KKK and the godson of famed neo-nazi David Duke, whose path differed widely from that of his family. “He came to reject the dogma of his family’s culture, and though he tried to maintain his connection with them, they could not accept what they viewed as a betrayal of their core values. His relationship with his immediate family grew strained, and most in the white nationalist culture spurned him…’Real meaning and purpose in community,’ Derek reflected, ‘comes from having a common cause, rooted in a common belief.’ Whether these beliefs are based in religion, politics, or the arts or sports, they reflect a particular vision of an ideal world. But when the beliefs that serve as a basis for connection are based on hatred and fear, [says Murthy] they distill a poison that slowly corrodes the integrity of the community and, ultimately, the well-being of its people” (Murthy 69).
We know that there is so much realness, so much experienced truth in this teaching. As we feel the polarization around vaccines and masking, reproductive justice and voting rights, climate change and gun safety, we know how quickly a community’s well-being can corrode. It takes an investment of energy to prioritize connection and togetherness; it isn’t the default way we interact anymore. In Dr. Murthy’s view, “…we have veered too far away from the group and toward the individual–throwing culture out of balance in the process–more out of benign neglect than anything else” (Murthy 96). In other words, to change our culture, we must work with intention to build connections, even when it’s hard.
This moment in our Jewish year invites us to start a new chapter. This holiday is an acknowledgement of the passage of time, the cultivation of self-awareness, and the process of t’shuvah, repentance. What does it mean to start a new chapter in our own lives? After all, it isn’t always obvious to us when one chapter has ended and a new start has begun. How do we know when we’ve struck the best balance between our individual needs and those of the folks around us?
I’m thinking back to our teaching from Hillel: al tifrosh min hatzibur–don’t separate yourself from the community. I recently learned of the experience of 23 year old Marissa Meizz, whose story has gone viral in recent weeks. Marissa found herself the target of some online bullying on the popular social media app, TikTok; she was purposefully publicly excluded from a friend’s birthday celebration and became a bit of an internet meme. In a New York Times retelling of her story, we learn, “Marissa was out to dinner with a friend in the East Village in mid-May when her phone started buzzing. She tried to silence it, but the texts kept coming. They all wanted to know: Had she seen the TikTok video? She clicked the link and a young man appeared onscreen. “If your name’s Marissa,” he said, “please listen up.” He said he had just overheard some of her friends say they were deliberately choosing to hold a birthday party when she was out of town that weekend. “You need to know,” he said. “TikTok, help me find Marissa.”
Writer Taylor Lorenz writes, “Ms. Meizz’s story took hold as the coronavirus pandemic has radically transformed relationships. Some old friendships have withered after a lack of in-person interactions and people have forged more online connections to alleviate loneliness. What happened next to Ms. Meizz encapsulated those changes, with her online and offline worlds blurring to create something new — and joyful.”
It’s hard for me to imagine what I might do in the face of public, viral, social media bullying like what Marissa experienced, but I found her response to be so inspiring. She responded to the experience like we might respond to the attention-grabbing blast of the shofar, and took it as a call to action. In reflecting about the experience, she says, “I was like, OK, how can I use this to help people?”
She decided to start an organization called “No More Lonely Friends,” which has hosted in-person meet-ups in various cities throughout the country. With No More Lonely Friends, she’s helped other people seeking meaningful, trusting friendships to find new folks with whom to build community. Writer Taylor Lorenz shares an interview with 24 year old Max Grauer, a pastry baker in Los Angeles who attended a No More Lonely Friends gathering recently. He said, “At some point everyone has had that feeling of loneliness or, man, I have no friends…Being locked in your house for months on end, there’s a release of going out, seeing new people and experiencing new faces.” At the recent Central Park meet-up, Ms. Meizz was calm and upbeat. As people clustered in groups, some mingled and greeted potential new friends…“It’s kind of just turned into a big giant family,” she said.
As we enter into this new chapter, this new Jewish year, we have take the opportunity to review the year that has been. One powerful symbol of the High Holy Days is the Book of Life. We pray to be inscribed for another year of good days. Tonight, we think about the pages we wrote since last year began. Were they pages of connection and kindness? Or were they pages of fracture, separation, and isolation? We know, of course, that no book contains only one thing, and so it is with the books of life we each write with the way we live our days.
I’ll offer one more gleaning from Dr. Murthy, who writes, ““If you ask people today what they value most in life, most will point to family and friends. Yet the way we spend our days is often at odds with that value….and thanks to advances in technology, we can enjoy all the conveniences of community without directly interacting with other people…human connection is being edged out, or at best left to fit in around the edges” (Murthy 98). Perhaps our calling this year is to live by our value of community and show up meaningfully for each other.
My prayer for us as we enter into this new year is that we embrace the group project that is living in community. May we strive to serve our fellow human beings, and we hold the value of connection and togetherness, even when we cannot be physically present in the same space. May we live our lives upholding the sacred value of community, connecting with family and friends and neighbors. When we face adversity, may we transform our challenges into opportunities to help others, spread kindness, and embrace humanity.
Ken yehi ratzon: may this be God’s will.