Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת בהעלתך, תש״פ

Parshat B'ha'alotkha, 5780

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, June 13th, 2020

Back to Normal?

Lately, I’ve heard a lot of “I can’t wait for everything to get back to normal.” Way back in February, we could hug each other in public, we could go shopping without any thoughts of face masks or hand sanitizer, and we could attend concerts and weddings. We could visit our loved ones in the hospital and fly across the country to visit family for a graduation or a bat mitzvah. And while I cannot wait to finally be able to visit my parents in their new home in Idaho - while I would love to feel safe enough for the luxury of getting my nails done - this yearning reminds me just a bit of the Israelites’ complaints in our parashah today.

The Israelites crave meat, and they say to Moses, “We remember the fish that we used to eat for free in Egypt - the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, and the onions. And now, our souls are dry! The only thing our eyes can see is this manna!” (Numbers 11:6). The Israelites have the gift of manna - that substance that our Rabbinic commentary claims tastes like whatever it is that the Israelites want from it. And yet, in Egypt, whether because the Nile provided for wonderful produce and fishing opportunities or the Egyptians gave their slaves their plentiful leftovers, the Israelites ate fish for free, fish much more valuable to them than any freedom or protection from God. As medieval commentator Abarvanel writes, “We may learn from here how powerful is the selective ability of the memory. The terrible price they had to pay for this give-away diet - slavery, suffering, persecution, murder of their children is conveniently forgotten. What remained - the fish they ate freely, without paying for them.” Throughout the travails of the desert, the Israelites long to go back to where they were before, largely because of those rose-colored glasses through which we are programmed to see those good old days.

Yes, this moment in the world is catastrophic, BUT what I hope we can learn from this moment is not how important it is to go back, but rather, how important it is to go forward. Like the Israelites in the desert, we are experiencing endless challenges right now, but at the end of the day, the year 2020 has taught us so much about where we need to be in 2021. Over the past few months, we have learned how to connect with one another from a distance. Many of us celebrated Passover with friends and family we never would have considered inviting to our seders before. We have attended shivah minyanim for colleagues and loved ones across the country, across the world. Out of desperation to leave our homes, many of us have even learned how to enjoy the outdoors more often.

More broadly, over the past few months, we have learned what our society is missing in places such as healthcare and racial justice. In March and April, we watched as our doctors and nurses struggled to find protective gear and clothing to keep themselves and their patients safe. Throughout the past few months, we have learned more about social disparities in healthcare. In Louisiana alone, although only 33% of our citizens are African-American, they add up to 70% of those who have died from COVID-19. Whether because of politics, planning, geography, or simple prejudice, we have been hit hard with the reality that our healthcare system in the State of Louisiana - really, in our entire country - needs a whole lot of work. And in just the past few weeks, we have learned so much about our nation’s history and present regarding race - with all the time our country is spending reading right now, almost all of the top best-seller lists are completely filled with books about race and anti-racism, from Amazon to New York Times to Barnes and Noble, and everywhere in between. Because we have the time, we are taking this time to do our research, to work on ourselves, and to work on the world. Through the trauma we have experienced since February, I hope that we have learned that the reality we see in the wake of COVID-19 cannot be the same reality that we saw before. On both personal and global levels, we need a whole lot more than fish and cucumbers to get us back on our feet.

I do not envision our lives feeling entirely stable or “normal” any time soon, but as we begin to transition into more social interaction, into working more often, let us carry with us everything we have learned and experienced over the past few months. Let us let our research guide where we donate, how we vote, and most importantly, how we speak to the people around us. I’ll add another plug for the program I’m helping to spearhead throughout Louisiana - a series of online conversations between religious congregations of different beliefs and demographics, just to see what each of our experiences have been as Louisiana residents in our present reality. As we become busier, let us keep up our contact with our jet-setting friends and family, attending simchas and commemorations wherever in the world they may be. And of course, let us remember that not everyone is able to leave their homes; let us make our efforts to reach out to them too. Each of us has learned something different, each of us has altered our lives in some sort of different way since this February. Hang onto whatever it is that has kept you going, that has enhanced your life, or that has inspired you anew, and cling to it as you go forward into a life that starts to look a bit more “normal.” As you know if you’ve ever been to Israel, as the Israelites arrived at their holy land, there was no lack of fish or cucumbers or melons - there was simply a lack of the slavery and the persecution that they left in Egypt. Let us decide now what it is we’re taking and what it is we’re leaving as we journey from our past normal into the newness we are soon to discover.