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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת וישב, תשפ״א

Parshat Vayeisheiv, 5781

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, December 12th, 2020

A Tunnel With Lights on Either End

This past Wednesday, in a meeting with rabbis across the state, Governor John Bel Edwards described Louisiana’s relationship with COVID through a brilliant metaphor: We are currently in a tunnel with lights on either end. As the next few months are bound to be even deadlier than we have seen so far, we see the light of a train coming straight towards us. Unlike previous COVID surges, because the entire country is under pressure, no extra medical staff exists to share between regions. At the same time, however, we see the light at the other end of the tunnel, the light of vaccines just about to be authorized. According to our governor, we may start to see vaccinations given to our state’s medical professionals within a week or two. And while Pfizer and Moderna are the two vaccines with the most press at the moment, more vaccines are in various stages of testing; we may very well see an increased availability and diversity of vaccines in the coming months. Now, it is largely up to us to choose which light to pursue.

This is certainly not the only winter fraught with the great darkness. In my favorite Hanukah story, nestled in the Talmudic tractate Avodah Zarah, Adam is terrified at the approach of his very first winter. Little by little, daylight is shortening, and the loneliness of night seems all-consuming. Adam is convinced that he is being punished for his wrongdoings in the Garden of Eden, and that one day soon, the entire world will be consumed by darkness. When the daylight begins to increase once more, Adam celebrates by not only creating Hanukah, but also, by creating the Greek holidays of Kalenda and Saturna at this time of year. Cultures throughout history have celebrated right around the Winter Solstice because we need this reminder that light is coming, and even more importantly, that opportunities for light are present right here and right now.

Celebrating Hanukah is an active choice. By taking the actions of lighting candles each night, sharing gifts with one another, and eating foods that make us smile, we choose to recognize the miracles we have experienced, those we experience every day, and those we are bound to experience in time to come. So too, walking towards the positive light at the end of our current tunnel must be an active choice. In order to achieve a world in which we can yet again enjoy handshakes and embraces without worry, in which we can yet again see relatives who live across the country and across the world, we must maintain this practice of wearing masks wherever we go. We must think critically about the safety of each gathering in which we participate. We must embrace vaccination when it is available to us. By celebrating Hanukah, we remind ourselves of the good that is coming, and at the same time, we remind ourselves of our responsibility for helping God to bring about that good.

Each night of Hanukah, we sing Maoz Tzur, asking God for another miracle beyond what God has enacted for us up until now. We don’t often listen to the verses that follow the first, but they are worth a Google search. With each verse, the author reminds God of a different miracle God has worked for the Jewish people - bringing us out of Egypt, rebuilding the Holy Temple after our first exile, saving us from genocide in the time of Esther, and finally, restoring our Temple yet again, in the miracle we now celebrate on Hanukah. In our liturgy, in our songs, and in our stories about Hanukah, we praise God’s “saving power,” and yet, we could not have been saved in any of these situations without our own willingness to take action. Without the human dedication of Moses, Ezra and Nehemiah, Mord’khai and Esther, the Maccabees, and the people who supported and trusted them, God’s potential for miracle making may have gone unnoticed. Just as we sing about God and our ancestors joining together to defeat the historical foes of Egypt, Babylonia, Haman, and the Seleucid Greeks, we sing to God to help us be the heroes to defeat our universal foe of COVID in the coming months.

We see God’s potential for miracles each and every day - in the beauty of art and music and nature, in the joy of encountering the people we love, in the laughter drawn from a simple joke. Like a table full of Hanukiyot, crowded together on the last night of Hanukah, we know the powerful effect just a few little hopeful beams can have on our sensibilities. We grab onto the joy we know is possible as inspiration to act with compassion and safety in the coming months, helping God to enact miracles with the wondrous power of our own two hands. Shabbat Shalom and Hag Urim Sameah.