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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת ויגש, תשפ״א

Parshat Vayigash, 5781

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, December 26th, 2020

Danger on the Road - Acknowledging Impulses in Times of Darkness

The New York Times published an article yesterday morning entitled, “Vodka in Your Coffee Cup: When Pandemic Drinking Goes Too Far.” The author, Alix Strauss described how at the beginning of the pandemic, many women began to drink more as a reprieve during what they believed was a time of temporary chaos and uncertainty. Some of these women began by drinking a glass or two of wine in the afternoon or evening to soothe their worries, and as homeschooling, changes in work environment, and the general frustration of being cooped up began to pile up, that drinking moved earlier into the day, into greater quantities. It wasn’t helpful that liquor stores were deemed essential businesses from the beginning and that delivery culture fostered this new behavioral trend. At one New York treatment center, since May, 70% of the addiction patients admitted have been women in their 40s and 50s, a population that has historically been about 15% of those admitted. Without a set schedule or projected end in sight to the chaos of COVID-19, so many women, and truly, so many of us in general, have continued and expanded upon vices we picked up in April or May.

We are not alone in the pattern of human history. Time and time again, humanity has proven that when darkness and disorientation strike, it is all too easy to turn benign habits into life altering misdeeds. Our patriarch Jacob is all too aware of our human tendencies; while his older sons may have gotten themselves into trouble before, Jacob cannot stand to risk his youngest being exposed to mischief on the road. In last week’s parashah, and again, in Judah’s retelling in this week’s parashah, Jacob tries to withhold Benjamin from the journey to Egypt because he is worried that karahu ason - mischief or misdeed will happen to him. Rashi expands on Jacob’s words, reminding the reader that HaSatan - the evil impulse, strikes in a time of danger. Jacob is not particularly worried that something will happen to Benjamin; rather, he is worried that Benjamin will become involved in mischief as a result of the danger present on the road.

Often, when we are especially lonely, bored, or just disoriented from the usual, all we feel we can turn to are our base instincts - to eat more, to desensitize, to lash out, or even to turn to more desperate measures. Especially at this time, when so many of us are going through the parallel experience of not having been in a pandemic before, we don’t have that historical guidance to show us the right way to schedule out our days, to celebrate our holidays, or perhaps even to make ends meet.

As I mentioned quite a bit at the beginning of the pandemic, one resource Judaism provides us is some sort of schedule by which to live our lives. Through the Jewish calendar, we have dates upon which to celebrate, we have thrice daily prayer, and we have blessings to say over what we might otherwise see as mundane tasks - eating, using the restroom, or wearing a new pair of socks. Even in a pandemic, we have structures through which to embrace the little moments of joy we experience each day. We have moral obligations - respecting our parents, loving the other with the same love we expect for ourselves, and refraining from lashon ha-ra, insidious speech about others. Even in a pandemic, we are expected to live our parents’ best values forward, to check in with those we love, and to stay positive in our relationships with others. But as we have also experienced for the past several months, the pandemic has placed roadblocks on our Jewish structures - we have only been able to gather to read Torah on and off, the value of hakhnasat orkhim (welcoming guests) has been nearly impossible, and we have gone through periods of time during which a trip to Dallas or New Orleans for kosher food has either been impossible or far too risky.

While promoting and teaching about scheduled ritual action can be effective at preventing the distress that leads to misdeed, this congregation also serves the much more important purpose of fostering community. By providing each other with that basic need for human companionship, we as a community help guide each other through these unprecedented times. We learn together, we laugh together, we check on each other, and sometimes for better or for worse, we call each other out when we know we’re not making the best decisions. Sometimes, all that we need to keep us away from the distraction of our vices is to embrace the distraction of good company, and I am proud to help provide that with this space, right here. While Rabbi Feivel is currently the only other person in this physical building, I know that when I open my email inbox tonight, I will read some sort of comment about this service, positive or negative, reminding me that I function as part of a vibrant community. I know that I have a meeting with a family tomorrow morning, that I’ll be learning Hebrew with several of you on Tuesday, and that I’ll be speaking on the phone with even more of you throughout the week. Even more importantly, when I’m speaking to you over the course of the week, I know that you will mention others in the community with whom you have shared a Zoom meal or long phone conversation. Even though we don’t see each other in person, at least not very often, our synagogue provides us a network of people with whom to seek companionship, when the alternative to companionship might be harmful to us or the people we love.

We know that it is far too simple to get into mischief when the ways in which we can perform the good - attending synagogue, volunteering in person, and visiting face to face - are limited; however, the simple act of being on the same screen or phone line as another human being, perhaps someone from our synagogue community, can be a life-saving balm at this moment in time. Vaccines are coming, the symbolism of a promising New Year is just days away, and some of us are even penciling plans for the coming fall. As I mentioned just a few weeks ago, although we don’t exactly know the distance of the light, there is a light at the end of this tunnel, and we can find the tools to get there through continuing to reach out to one another. Since May, I’ve found light and life in a Rodgers and Hammerstein song:

When you walk through a storm

Hold your head up high

And don't be afraid of the dark

At the end of a storm

There's a golden sky

And the sweet silver song of a lark

Walk on through the wind

Walk on through the rain

Though your dreams be tossed and blown

Walk on, walk on

With hope in your heart

And you'll never walk alone

You'll never walk alone

Shabbat Shalom