Rosh Hashanah - Day 1 - 2020/5781 - The Effects of COVID-19

Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine that I would be speaking to you today - on the first day of Rosh Hashanah - from a room in my home. I’ve been a rabbi for 31 years and your rabbi for 26 of those years and never have I ever had to conduct a service in this way. Rabbinical school prepared me with a solid grounding in Jewish texts in order to teach and preach and inspire. And I’ve been able to do that in conventional ways ever since I was ordained. But then the COVID-19 virus appeared last February and still continues to rage around the world, turning our lives upside down and creating turmoil in our daily routines. The virus forced us to reconfigure how we - the staff of your shul - created programs and services for you, and the virus forced us to create new ways to stay connected as a community.

I must share with you that the virus has been spiritually challenging to me. Back in April one of our long time and cherished members - May Savage - passed away. Many of us recall May from her weekly attendance at Shabbat morning services, her active involvement in Sisterhood and other programs, and her kind and good-hearted nature. For the past several years she was confined to her apartment in Bedford Court and had a caregiver with her to support her daily needs. Yet, even in her mid-90s May was comfortable on the computer and she always watched my Wednesday evening adult education classes on my youtube livestream! In fact, it was mostly due to May that we added a camera in the sanctuary and with the tremendous work of Ira Kolmaister and Jeff Winkler we began live streaming Shabbat and holiday services a couple of years ago. She was consistently one of the regular watchers of the services!

Tragically, May contracted the COVID-19 virus and passed away at Montgomery General Hospital. I couldn’t visit her there. I couldn’t sit by her bedside and share a prayer with her. I couldn’t tell her how much the congregation was praying for her. She died alone. And then instead of a funeral in our sanctuary with many people in attendance we had to have a funeral limited to 10 people. Congregants couldn’t share with her family in person how much May meant to the shul. Congregants instead joined a ZOOM minyan with her daughter in Colorado and shared memories that way.

Since the virus started restricting our movements and our ability to gather back in mid-March, I have had to officiate at the funerals of Sig Liberman, Yetta Buckberg, Marvin Roth, Harvey Perritt, Yvette Hirsch, Zelma Fink and Ruth Newhouse. For all of them my visits with the families were radically impacted and restricted and the funerals were far too small. Though the family members understood that there was no choice, the forced crowd control and limited attendance only exacerbated the emotional pain. Instead of feeling the comforting embrace both literally and figuratively of extended family, friends and members of the shul community, the families were left feeling numb and dejected.

Not only have these funerals been difficult, I have found that ZOOM has been spiritually challenging as well. In mid-March when we closed the shul, I entered the sanctuary by myself to conduct the Friday evening service. You can’t imagine how disconcerting and lonely that was. I stood at the Cantor’s podium, I looked toward the camera on the wall and I conducted the service. The sanctuary was empty and there was an echo in the room. The next morning Cantor Adina and her husband Glen came to shul and though we had three people together, it was still quite strange. Not only did we have to cut portions of the service to accommodate for not having a minyan present, we had to get used to “davenning” to a camera. The service transformed from a personal connection and communication with God to a performance to an unseen audience. Though many people were in attendance on the livestream - often more than we usually had in attendance in the building - and many felt moved, it was a vastly different experience for me.

Though I still enjoyed walking to shul and singing with Cantor Adina, it still felt very different even when the camera was switched to the more intimate Grosberg-Baumgart Chapel. We were able to celebrate the b'nai mitzvah of Elliot Goldstein, Will Berman, Sara Goldreich and Brig Barnett, but it was clear to me that something was missing. We lacked the sense of comfort and support that we felt when we were together. I had resisted switching to ZOOM for shabbat due to my reservations regarding issues of Jewish law but in July I changed my mind. I realized that we needed to see each other; we needed to schmooze; we needed to be reassured that we looked healthy and well; we needed to know that we were ok.

Though ZOOM has allowed us to feel as if we are in the same room - it’s clearly not the same. The first shabbat that I didn’t walk to shul was bizarre. I simply walked downstairs, turned on my computer (which I never had done on shabbat) and started ZOOM. Though the space I broadcast from is my designated “davenning” space, it doesn’t provide the same sense of sanctity. Even with the picture of the bima that you see behind me, I know that I’m still in my home office. Even wearing the holiday “kittel” in my attempt to dress for services, it still pales in comparison to walking into our shul, standing on the bima and seeing 500 or so people in front of me.

Though we all know that a vaccine will soon be available and that we will be able to gather in person again, nonetheless it is emotionally draining, physically challenging and spiritually difficult to navigate this time. The most troubling aspect is the lack of control that we feel. We take for granted that we can go to work, travel, simply go about our daily routines. Now, all that has been impacted - the control of our daily lives has been taken away by this unseen deadly force. Scientists are working around the clock to discover a safe and effective vaccine that will end this scourge and allow us to relax and resume our normal lives.

Imagine what it must have been like to have lived through the Spanish Flu pandemic 100 years ago. There was a sense that people needed to remain distant but beyond that people had no idea how to treat it let alone develop a vaccine for it. Synagogues restricted the amount of people who could attend services and even some synagogues closed for a while. The epidemic was so bad, and the fear and anxiety so devastating, that the Jewish community in Philadelphia resorted to an unusual ceremony. Dr. Jeremy Brown, in an article in an online magazine called The Lehrhaus describes “the Shvartze Chassanehs, the Black Weddings, [that would take] place in response to the terrible waves of cholera, typhus, and influenza that ravaged the Jews of Eastern Europe, Israel, and North America.”

Brown wrote that “one such ceremony took place 101 years ago, as the Jews of Philadelphia gathered in a cemetery with the goal of defeating the deadly influenza outbreak. By the time it was finally over, the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918-1919 claimed 50-100 million lives worldwide. In the U.S. over 670,000 people died, and the dead were piling up in the city of Philadelphia. And so the Jews there celebrated a Black Wedding. According to newspaper reports, they chose Fanny Jacobs and Harold Rosenberg as their bride and groom. The two were married at the “first line of graves in the Jewish cemetery” near Cobbs Creek at 3pm on Friday October 25, 1918. More than a thousand Jews watched as Rabbi Lipschutz officiated at the huppah.”...The Jewish community had chosen this intervention so that “the attention of God would be called to the affliction of their fellows if the most humble man and woman among them should join in marriage in the presence of the dead.”

Such Black Weddings date back to 1785 in Hassidic eastern Europe in response to a cholera outbreak and to Safed in Israel in 1865 in response to a devastating plague of locusts. Two weeks after the Black Wedding in Philadelphia another Black Wedding was held in a Jewish cemetery in Winnipeg in Canada with also 1,000 people in attendance.

Though I am not as desperate as the rabbis in Philadelphia and Winnipeg to even consider conducting such a ceremony today, I have been searching for meaning and inspiration. As the weeks and months drag on and we now embark on another season of Jewish holidays celebrated in isolation, I wonder where can we turn to find hope? What kind of prayers to God should we offer? What can we do to find deeper meaning in the midst of despair?

Though we didn’t read it this morning, the Torah portion assigned by the rabbis centuries ago for the first day of Rosh Hashanah begins with the miraculous birth of Isaac to his very aged parents Sarah and Abraham. That section itself could inspire us and remind us that God listens to our prayers - that even after a long, sad journey life and blessing can be celebrated. But there is more to this morning’s reading. Sarah becomes jealous of her handmaid Hagar (whom she had given to Abraham as a wife) and her child - legally Abraham and Sarah’s child. Sarah apparently wanted all of Abraham’s attention to herself and she coerces Abraham to expel Hagar and Ishmael from their home. With God’s assurance that Ishmael will yet become a father of a great nation, Abraham accedes to Sarah’s command. While in the wilderness, as their food and water have run out, Hagar sees an angel who pleads with Hagar not to despair.

Before I share what the angel told Hagar to do, we must understand that Hagar’s experience is our experience. Hagar had found herself in a stable and prosperous home. She had risen in stature among all the members of the household and had become the mother of Abraham and Sarah’s heir. Her position was secure - until it wasn’t. In seemingly just a blink of an eye Hagar lost everything and was left to fend for herself. What was she supposed to do? Where was she supposed to go? She and Ishmael were left to wander the desert until a miracle changed their lives.

What was the act that transformed Hagar’s life? What did the angel tell her to do? The text says at the beginning of what would have been the 5th aliyah today (Genesis 21:18-19): ק֚וּמִי שְׂאִ֣י אֶת־הַנַּ֔עַר וְהַחֲזִ֥יקִי אֶת־יָדֵ֖ךְ בּ֑וֹ - Come, lift up the boy and hold him by the hand”. And in the next sentence וַיִּפְקַ֤ח אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ וַתֵּ֖רֶא בְּאֵ֣ר מָ֑יִם - Then God opened her eyes and she saw a well of water.” Simply by holding Ishmael’s hand, Hagar was able to see the answer to their problems. By holding her son’s hand Hagar was able to see how they would survive.

The English translation though is really insufficient. It lacks the power and the nuance of the Hebrew - which often happens in translation. Those fluent in Hebrew know that the word used here describing an event 3600 years ago, is the same word used today. A parent in Israel would tell a child before crossing the street, תחזיק/י יד - hold [my] hand.

But the Hebrew root for this word is the same root - חזק - that means strong. Holding onto something, in Hebrew, suggests to gather or increase strength. By holding onto Ishmael, simply holding his hand, Hagar was strengthened - she gained emotional, physical and spiritual fortitude. The strength was so great that it enabled her to see a well of water. Holding onto her son enabled Hagar to see the solution to their problem, in fact an existential end to their problems. Instead of despairing of their survival, Hagar by simply holding her son’s hand, was able to be hopeful and optimistic about their future.

Surely I am not suggesting that the answer to our despair and the solution to the COVID-19 virus is to hold our loved one’s hand. But what I am saying is how much our community and the relationships we have established can embolden us and instill in us great power. Though I despair when I walk down to my home office, and shake my head about the new reality, I am emboldened when I see 20 smiling faces on my ZOOM screen ready to begin the shabbat morning service! Together we say shabbat shalom, we ensure that we’re all okay, welcome more people as they log on and enjoy hearing Cantor Adina begin chanting the service. It is in this way that we hold each others’ hand and based on the Hebrew, we strengthen one another.

I sincerely and hopefully pray that you can feel this same power. I pray that you today, by looking at your ZOOM screen can be emboldened by our virtual presence. Let this virtual service today be a reminder to us of the power of community. Let the fact that we so desperately miss each other inspire us and comfort us. May the year 5781 bring peace and health and may we be able to hold our hands and hug each other and renew our strength. Amen.