Ma Nishtanah??? Why is this time different from all other times of our lives? That question, adapted from the Passover Seder, was raised during the Rosh Hashanah service by a Zoom attendee. It reminded me of a “vow” I made at Passover, when we cancelled the 2nd night community Seder, as the risk of assembling due to the Corona Virus took over our lives and schedules. The Torah instructs us concerning a 2nd Passover, “Pesach Sheni”, for those unable to be with community in its proper time, whether away from the area or in isolation due to spiritual impurity. The unique remedy from Torah, in this instance, is to keep a second Passover one month later, when it is safe to be together. Taking the teaching metaphorically, it occurred to me that whenever we are fully and safely able to reassemble, (presumably after a vaccine is readily available), one early event to look forward to will be a special Pesach Sheni reopening celebration.
Six months later, here we are observing the Days of Awe, via Zoom, still awaiting that day, when it is safe to reopen. As I write these words, conditions are improving, and partial re-openings are now being permitted. With Judaism’s accentuation on life as sacred above any ritual observances, we still need to proceed with caution.
So, here we are, in a grand experiment, finding unique ways to assemble, via technology, and, in so doing, and to this point, with lovely attendance and participation, I am reminded of one of the key factors why the Jewish people continue to celebrate life in spite of the many obstacles to our continuity throughout over 2000 years of diaspora.
From the time of receiving the Torah at Sinai, we have found ways to maintain and perpetuate tradition along with understanding the need to adapt to changing times, throughout the ages.
We owe our intellectual prowess and wherewithal to interpret Torah and teachings, in changing times, to the Greeks. They used intellect and logic originating with Socrates and Plato to elevate the human being to God-like status, accentuating reverence for mind and body (first in introducing the gymnasium). Under Greek influence, our Talmud became a blend of both, inherited teachings traced back to Moses at Sinai, and, at times, heated intellectual encounters, all in the pursuit of understanding how to draw closer to God, while learning to value and cherish inclusion of differing opinions.
That set a tone for learning from external conditions how to adapt, not just to changes in human challenges and understanding of how the world works, but to absorb external insights for the purpose of better appreciating and understanding God’s Presence and teachings in our lives, under changed circumstances.
In terms of vouchsafing life, more than the observance of ritual, the Maccabees showed the way, when they made the radical, if not seemingly heretical, decision to fight the Syrians on the Sabbath, until then unheard of, since the giving of Torah. They realized that were they not to do so, Jewish community would not likely survive to observe a Sabbath in the future. Their decision to introduce such a change kept us alive and brought renewed meaning to the non-sacrifice of Isaac, which we read of on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, itself a lesson from God, that life was to be treated sacred above all else.
Now, in conditions of pandemic, we find ourselves learning from the outside, once again, from the world of technology, to find ways to continue as a people, even in times when it is still not safe to fully assemble as community. To this point, our gathering on Zoom for Shabbat and holiday services, classes and meet & greet sessions and board and committee meetings, have all enabled us not only to continue to function, but, in some surprising ways, to find opportunities for increased involvement and enhanced community spirit. Paradoxically, by functioning in place in our homes, we have welcomed folks to our activities and services not previously possible because of physical distance.
It was uplifting during Rosh Hashanah to see folks join us who otherwise could not do so, i.e. welcoming back longtime member Susie, now in LA, family members joining one another from Oregon, New York and even Israel. Mike and Robin, in Rio Vista, have become fully involved members due to the ease of commuting to their computers. As Martin pointed out, this year, no one is complaining about the cold sanctuary, with each now in control of their own thermostats. In leading prayers or giving a drash, I am animated seeing so many vibrant smiling faces of participants in the Zoom format.
It takes enormous effort and flexibility to adapt, in moving forward with positive energy, to turn the liability of home isolation into a positive experience via the computer camera lens; yet, feedback, so far, indicates many benefits that have, if not outweighed the detriments, at least, neutralized many of them. One amazing effort that has allowed us to function on Zoom has been Martin’s gift of many trips around the county to distribute the Machzor for the services.
While we approached these days not just with trepidation, inherent in their seriousness, as we address themes of change in our lives, and overwhelming problems in our world, but also in terms of how this could work while isolated at home, it seems many have found the experience, to this point, more rewarding than they imagined possible.
In the spirit and history of learning throughout the ages, from changed conditions, how to enhance Jewish life and connectivity for the future, I imagine when that time comes that we can safely assemble for Pesach Sheni to celebrate a return to some normalcy, our Jewish experience will be forever enriched by what we are now going through. In that day, in addition to being back in our CBI sanctuary, we will likely enjoy an added dimension: the choice for people to attend via computer, even as we provide a new category of belonging that will enrich us all: Virtual Membership.
I look forward to “seeing you” on Yom Kippur and Sukkot, as we continue to welcome this unprecedented new year: 5781. Gmar Chatimah Tova! May all of us, and all our world be inscribed for a year of blessing and transformation in the direction of Shalom!