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Rosh Hashanah Morning 5781: Lessons From The Pandemic

09/21/2020 08:29:36 AM


Rabbi Robbie Weiner


             So, I don’t know about any of you, but family dinner has definitely changed. What used to be dining for two while the children ate around their own activity schedules has now become dining with the whole family on a regular basis. And because the family was sitting together for dinner more often, our dinner conversations became quite… enlightening. You see, most of our dinners started with one of my kids eloquently stating, “Did you know that…” Now let me be clear, what usually followed was some extremely fascinating “fact” that then led to an interesting conversation. For instance, one evening, we heard, “Did you know that America makes up 2% of the population of the world but we make up over 20% of the coronavirus cases?” Fascinating, no? Another night we heard, “Did you know that there was vandalism at the University of Delaware Hillel? And what is worse, did you know that the local authorities are not prosecuting it as a hate crime?” This is great stuff.

And the same level of significance was also placed on the following, “Did you know that current day depictions of Jesus are based on Leonardo da Vinci’s boyfriend?” Or how about, “Did you know that the only reason mummies are rare is because Europeans would eat them?” Thank you Tik-Tok, since that was where they were learning all of these wonderful things. And because my kids would declare all these “facts” with the same level of sincerity, you can imagine how often Ellen and I had our heads in our hands during our meals.


             Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, is a text that was written 2000 years ago which provides us with guidance about values and morals. The enlightening book has embedded within it my favorite rabbinic dictum:


Who is strong? The one who overpowers his good and evil inclinations. Who is rich? The one who is satisfied with everything that is within his possession. And who is wise? The one who learns from everything - Veizehu chacham, Halomeid, mi kol adam.


The person who was wise is the one that learns from everything around. If we are seeking wisdom, if we are seeking to better ourselves, this 2000-year-old text teaches us that we should not just seek knowledge from the people in our family. It also teaches us that we should not just seek knowledge from our closest friends or just our teachers. No, the one who is truly wise, according to Judaism, is the one that learns from every experience under heaven.


             At the dawn of the coming year, we are always encouraged to look back on the past and assess the journey traveled. Last year, I know that many of us had to “become wise.” Because of the pandemic, many of us learned a great deal. Today’s service is a testament to us learning how to use Zoom. Some of us had to learn how to use Google Meet. And even others had to learn how to have a Zoom gathering with friends and family. Last year seemed to be a year where we journeyed from learning about one thing to the next.

             The wisdom that we gained was not only technological. Over the past months, I encouraged all of us to internalize some of the grander lessons taught to us by our experience of the pandemic. One of the most obvious lessons taught by the pandemic is to savor the moment. Another grand lesson taught by our current state is the need to have hope above all else. Hope is the thing that can keep us going and keeps us looking to the future, keeping our eye on tomorrow. I spoke about these grand messages earlier in the year and their overarching wisdom is still important for us today.

             For me, in this moment, the meaning of that text of “who is wise” speaks not only about the grand messages, but more specifically about the lessons that I can learn from individuals. When I look back on my encounters over the past year, I think about not only what I have learned on a grand scale, but more importantly what I have learned from what individuals have experienced during this time. The lessons that they have taught me from their individual experiences. The wisdom that I have learned from individuals, I believe, can help us start the year 5781 in the right way.


             Who is wise? The one who learns from everyone. In this past year, I learned a lot from individuals who span different age groups. I once heard a conversation with a high schooler and her response to the pandemic. She was talking about how she was excited about being in the early parts of high school. She loved her year, but it was the relationship that she had with her first real boyfriend that really put a smile on her face. And while the smile held her, a tear started to form in the corner of her eye. She then retold how sad she was because though she wasn’t going to see her boyfriend in school; she was also sad because she wasn’t going to have her first kiss anytime soon.

             Appreciate first kisses. Such a little thing. Yet, it has so much weight. Think about that for a moment. How many of us, regardless of our ages, take those for granted. Think for a moment about all of the young people who had to delay those first kisses. They weren’t able to experience those butterflies that then lead to pure joy and sunshine. I’m sure many of us remember our first kisses. To be wise is to appreciate and have a certain level of understanding for all of the individuals who were not able to have their first kisses this past year. We must learn to appreciate and be more understanding of everyone because they all have gone through so much.


             Last winter, I began working with a couple on preparations for their wedding. I met with them multiple times. We got to know each other quite well. I learned about their hopes and their dreams. I also learned about how they had been dating for quite some time and how much they were looking forward to living together, starting their journey as one. And then, Covid set in. As we got closer and closer to May, their anxiety about a Jewish wedding underneath the chuppah with their friends and family became greater and greater...until finally, I received that phone call three weeks before the wedding date, when the bride said, “The venue will not allow us to gather. The caterer has canceled. We understand that you cannot be present for health reasons. We understand our current state.” There was a long pause. … And then she asked, “Would you be open to conducting the wedding over Zoom while we will be at my house? We really want to get married on that date. And that is our priority. Getting married.”

             Getting married, that’s what’s important. Having the ritual moment, that’s what counts. Being in the moment. Being present for our friends and family. That’s what I learned from this bride. So many of the millennials that I worked with during this period had gigantic plans of elaborate ceremonies and celebrations, yet with this crisis, the focus has returned to what’s truly important: the life cycle, the spiritual moment. I learned from this bride that solidifying what is truly important is a lesson here. Peeling away the chaff, all to get to the center, revealing the beauty, that is wisdom we can take with us in spite of this pandemic.


             A few months ago, I had a conversation with one of our congregants who was in his early 70s. We spoke because he was telling me about how his daughter, a nurse, had contracted the coronavirus. He spoke of the challenges that she faced not only because of her health but also because her family needed her. He was so conflicted because he wanted to help them as much as he could, and yet, because of the virus, and because of his age, he felt helpless. Eventually, his daughter returned to health and even returned to the hospital to fight on the front lines. But throughout the conversations that we had over the months, the mantra that I kept on hearing from him was: at least I have my health.

             At least I have my health. An adage that we all have said countless times under much different circumstances. How many of us have said, “at least I have my health,” as a joke or as some sort of flippant response? The wisdom gained by this congregant during the crisis is that we can’t take our health for granted. As we move out of this phase and into better times, we must continually remember that we need to take care of ourselves. And if we are blessed with health, we need to thank God every day for it. Thank you God, for my health -lesson learned.


One of my favorite conversations that I had this past year was when I called a congregant who was a child during World War II. I was calling to check on her, just to see how she was doing. But her response was, “Why are you calling me? This is nothing. I lived through the blitz. My family and I were completely relocated. All I have to do with this is just stay in my house. This is nothing.”

Perspective is an amazing thing. Many, if not all of us, are traveling through this crisis thinking the world has been turned upside down. Yet, for this congregant, the world is just tilted a little bit. Why? It’s because her life experience included bombs falling from the sky. Cities being decimated. The lesson clearly being taught here is a lesson I also learned from my own mother - things could always be worse. When we internalize this message, it empowers us to move forward. When we learn the lesson, maybe it gives us the strength to get out of bed, help the kids get ready for school, and get ourselves off to work. Things could be worse.


I would like to end my journey of wisdom with a lesson that I learned from one of our youngest members. Ellen and I were conducting one of our Welcoming Shabbat programs for our tots in the community. One of the most adorable three-year-olds wanted to have a little chat with me after the program. Of course, we were doing this over Zoom. After everyone signed off, it was just me and her on the screen. She looked into the camera and said, “Rabbi, I really miss seeing you.” “I miss seeing you, too, sweetheart.” “But what I really miss most of all is that at the end of each Shabbat, I would give you my special gift.” “What was that, maybe you can still give it to me?” “No, Rabbi, that’s the reason why I am so sad. The gift that I would always give you at the end of each Shabbat was a Shabbat hug.” Of course, we hugged virtually, but it definitely wasn’t the same.

             When we think about the entire pandemic experience, we can learn that we need to have hope. We can also learn about savoring every moment. This three-year-old taught me how important a simple but important hug can be. Physical touch, which we have lived with for all of our lives, has been taken away from us during this pandemic. I don’t know if any of you have contemplated this, but we are not as affectionate as we used to be, because we can’t be. And for many of us, it makes us sad. It affects us. The lesson I learned from this three-year-old was how much I miss offering hugs and handshakes to all of you. I hope I’m not alone in realizing just how powerful physical touch can be for so many of us. When this crisis is all over, I hope we all can be committed not to take for granted our hugs, our handshakes, and our embraces.


             As a rabbi, I take the search for wisdom seriously. Some look to books, others look to newspapers. Jewish tradition encourages us to look in many places and learn from everyone. This past year I feel like I learned a great deal from our current crisis. Yes, I learned to have hope and savor the moment. But I also learned a great deal from individuals. I learned how important little things are, like first kisses. I learned to focus on what’s truly important from a blushing bride. I learned how important my health is and I shouldn’t take it for granted. I learned about perspective. And I learned to never forsake a hug.

“Who is wise,” the rabbis ask? The one who learns from everyone. May we learn and continue to learn from everyone around us. May we not only learn from the general experience, but may we learn from individuals and their stories and may we share those lessons with everyone that we meet. In doing so, we all become wise.


May 5781 be not only a year of joy and blessing, but may it also be a year of health for everyone.


May it be God’s will as we say together, Amen.




Tue, April 20 2021 8 Iyar 5781