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Rabbi Sydni's Shabbat Sermons

פרשת כי תשא, תשפ״א

Parshat Ki Tisa, 5781

by Rabbi Sydni

Saturday, March 6th, 2021

Personal and Communal Growth in a Year of Pandemic

Exactly a year ago in the Hebrew calendar, we had our last Shabbat with a Kiddush lunch, with no social distancing restrictions. I’d like to share one of my kavannot or mini-sermons, from Ki Tissa, 5780:

In many parts of the country, quarantine is creeping in. For some, that social distancing may be scary, but as Jews, we should be used to taking some time off. Shabbat trains us for that experience of rest, for that knowledge that if we take some time off, the world will still be turning when we come back. Our parshah introduces V’shamru, our commandment to take a break once a week, as a remembrance for all time. And while we may not agree with our parshah’s insistence that we will die if we don’t take that time off, there is truth to danger in nonstop work and attention. There is truth to knowing that recuperation is necessary for productivity.

"During the next few weeks, if we should find ourselves disconnected, let us take the time to remember the importance of rest in God’s Creation story. Let us take the time to remember that even the Israelites rested when building the mishkan, the Tabernacle. We, too, are allowed to take our time off to call friends and family we’ve been avoiding, to chip away at that massive pile of books, and maybe even to catch up on a few hours of sleep. Yes, anxiety is allowed during this time, but you are a part of the Jewish community - you have experience with rest as a time to embrace the people, belongings, and space you have right now in the world. And ideally, our rest will give us the energy to step up and help out should anyone in our community be in need of our care."

Now, a year into this pandemic, that “rest” from what we once called usual has often taken more energy and caused a whole lot more strife than that usual itself. Our country has reached over 500,000 deaths from COVID-19. Over the past year, our ability to travel to family and friends has been severely limited; we haven’t been able to attend our loved ones’ weddings, britotmilah, and funerals. Many have lost once stable jobs, and many more have spent the past year lonely and isolated.

And yet, this pause, this rest from the usual has given us time to reflect on the strength and worth of that usual. As a “normal” day has changed so rapidly, many of us have seen that change as an excuse to reevaluate our relationships, our identities, even our hobbies. To set some order to the chaos of planning anything during this time, I have been exploring new journaling and organizational methods. To add some comfort into the anxiety of waiting for masks to come off, I have been welcoming more piano practice into my life, falling back in love with Beethoven and Dvorak.

I’m curious - how have the inconveniences, changes, and the tragedies of the past year helped you to learn and grow?

At this synagogue, we have lost the safety of hugs and handshakes, and we have lost the delight of a delicious Kiddush lunch. Annual potlucks and seders have been cancelled, and for the past few months, we have missed each other’s physical presence at Shabbat services. And yet, I believe that our community has grown in profound ways over the past year. Without as many in person programs, we have learned about our strengths and our challenges, and we have made some changes that seem to be sticking.

My next question for you, then: What are some ways in which our Agudath Achim community has grown and changed in the past year, as a result of the challenges of the pandemic?

In our personal and communal lives, while the past year has not necessarily given us rest, I do believe it has offered each of us a chance for growth and creativity. Each week’s Shabbat gives us time away from creative work, so that we can reflect on the past week for the sake of weeks to come. So too, the past year has given us a time out of the ordinary to reflect on our larger past and future. As we begin to “open up” our public spaces and to return to a schedule that resembles that of years past, we must bring our great successes and insights with us. Even if we bring no other lessons forward, let us bring with us our awareness that we are each creative and flexible enough to survive - and for many, to thrive - in this world of rapid change. Shabbat Shalom.