Navigating the Nonideal
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I don’t have to tell you that this is not the kind of Rosh Hashanah any of us ever imagined or wanted. We should all be together today – crammed in our seats, dressed nicely, abuzz with the excitement of a large crowd and a holy day. Instead, I am staring at a camera and you’re participating through a screen. Our incredible and pristine new buildings have been left mostly unused. Our staff moved Heaven and Earth to ensure that we didn’t miss a beat in the switch to virtual gatherings. Rabbi Cosgrove yesterday recounted all the ways in which we have made the best of the smaller canvas we have been given. We have done online brises, baby namings, bnei mitzvah, weddings, funerals, lectures, seders, conversions, minyans, classes and meetings all tallying some 36 thousand hours and well over 75 thousand participants since the pandemic began. The virtual normal does have some unsought benefits: More people can participate and they can do it from anywhere. But none of this was by choice nor is it anything close to ideal. As a rabbi, I might not know digital communication, but I do know to reach for the past to find wisdom on the present. During these Days of Awe, we read examples of Biblical characters struggling with the unexpected, and mostly we learn what not to do.
Abraham was no stranger to life taking unexpected turns. He begins his story as a young man, minding his business, living with his family, smashing idols, just doing his thing when God shows up out of the blue and says “Go!” So Abe goes. This begins a long history of Abraham giving in to a seemingly capricious God. He thought he would live in Ur; God told him to leave and he left. He thought he wouldn’t have children; God said he would and he did. He thought he would raise those children; God told him to kill them. . . . So he does. To Abraham’s discredit, he just gives up his own free will in the face of fate. . . . He lets God take the wheel and isn’t planning on grabbing it back.
His handmaid Hagar doesn’t fare much better. When she is banished with her child and sent into the wilderness, she doesn’t try to fight fate, nor does she hope for salvation. She puts Ishmael under a bush and lays down on the ground completely resigned to their doom. Can any of us begrudge Hagar her reaction? Far from Abraham’s blind faith in God, Hagar is exhausted. Sometimes the curves life throws us are legitimately too much to bear. Her problems seem insurmountable, and so she simply gives up.
To say life throws some curves at Jonah, whose story we read next week, is an understatement. I doubt he ever had “be a harbinger of doom” on his bucket list. When God calls to him, Jonah doesn’t give in or give up. . . . He runs away. Jonah’s reaction to upheaval is to will it away, pretend that it isn’t happening. He flees and, it should be noted that in hiding, Jonah takes God’s warning to the people with him. His flight, his obfuscation of responsibility, threatens his own safety, the safety of the people on the ship with him, and the entire city of Nineveh that, but for his help, would have been destroyed.
Hearing these reactions to life’s upheaval, we might see ourselves quite well represented. We have all experienced dramatic disruption this year, and we’ve all reacted differently. I would imagine we have, in fact, reacted differently multiple times a day over the course of the last seven months. For some, the disruption has been ultimate and tragic as loved ones and friends are lost to this terrible pandemic. . . . As anyone who gets our community’s bereavement notices knows . . . this past year has taken its toll in the worst way. For others, finances and livelihoods have been lost and futures cast into doubt. For those fortunate enough to be spared the worst, thank merciful Heaven, life has still been an avalanche of disruptions: lockdowns, school closures, cancelled camps, Zoom school, Zoom dating, Zoom work, Zoom happy hour, and Zoom synagogue. We have missed family traditions, family firsts, friends, anniversaries, trips, and more. To make matters worse, we have no idea when this will end or if it will get worse before it gets better.
And still, these hardships pale in comparison to the state of the wider world. The toll this pandemic has taken in lives lost, long-term health in jeopardy, and an economy in trouble is great. It is also compounded by the inequalities of race and economics and the realities of climate change that have been festering and were brought to the fore this year.
Is it any surprise that some of us have acted like Hagar, throwing our hands up and saying, “I can’t watch anymore”? Or we have, like Abraham, put our faith in something: God, science, a political party, a potential treatment or the magic of the free market and said . . . “It will provide, it will make things okay.”
Nor is it unbelievable that many have reacted like Jonah and ran. I do not mean the people who left NYC. I mean people who have turned from the issue and the hard work required. I mean those who ignore what is going on and wait this one out without getting involved, without trying to help. These Biblical reactions to a world gone wrong are just as common today as they were back then.
But, of course . . . our tradition can do more than provide examples of what not to do. Reading Biblical reactions to turmoil from thousands of years ago reminds us that we stand on the shoulders of survivors. The world is in crisis, to be sure . . . but there are those who have been here before and know the way out.
Rabbi Cosgrove spoke yesterday about the creation of rabbinic Judaism from the ashes of the destruction of our Temple. Our entire religion was built out of crisis and gives us tools on how we can move forward in productive ways. One of the first rabbis to teach after the destruction – a rabbi named Tarfon – said that “You are not obligated to finish the task, but neither are you free to leave it alone.” You don’t have to solve the problem, but you can’t stop trying. In the wake of destruction and upheaval, in the face of the urge to throw up one’s hands or run away, Rabbi Tarfon pushed his followers to keep moving. Even if we know that we will never fix something, we are obligated to continue working on the repairs. This aphorism is apt for our day, but it is not so instructive. How do I continue the work even when I know I can’t do it perfectly?
Rabbi Tarfon’s successors went on to create a language and framework for this principle and, of course, they did it in the way rabbis know best: They used obscure legal reasoning. Jewish law differentiates between two scenarios . . . לכתחילה, meaning something like “at the outset” [ab initio], and בדיעבד, meaning after the fact [ex post facto]. Sometimes these categories are time bound: At the outset, it is against Jewish law to mix milk in your meat. . . . After the fact, if a small enough amount of milk falls into the chicken soup by accident, its okay to eat. But mostly they represent the “ideal” way a law should be fulfilled and the “nonideal” situations where imperfect actions nevertheless comply with the law. It is a command to put the hanukkiah that we light on Hanukah in the window to fulfill the mitzvah of publicizing the miracle. However, says the Talmud, in a time of danger, when we might not want to identify our homes as Jewish . . . if one lights the candles somewhere hidden, they have still fulfilled their obligation. The legal idea of b’deiavad underscores the notion that we can be holy – can still be “good” – even if we can’t do everything. These categories are essential to Judaism’s success: we need the l’hathila, the ideal. Otherwise we wouldn’t be pushing people to be their best. But without acknowledging the b’deiavad, the nonideal, we would be so out of touch with reality that we wouldn’t be useful.
In creating these two categories of law — one for ideal and one for nonideal situations — the rabbis are codifying what we already know: that the world doesn’t always work out the way we want it to. There will be scarcities, conflicts, mistakes, and problems beyond our control. The rabbis know that a system that would govern human beings must be prepared for a plan B, and that we the users need to be prepared for moments when we can’t do exactly what we wish. They also teach us something about how to navigate these moments. When its Hanukkah, but the enemies of the Jews are everywhere, the rabbis could say, “Light the candles and trust God to protect you.” That would be Abraham’s answer. Hagar and Jonah throw up their hands and say don’t light them at all. . . . Hanukkah is canceled this year. The rabbis reject both extremes and say we must do something, but we must also take into account the dangers and realities of the world.
Living in a nonideal world means balance. If we had all the time and resources we wanted, we could do everything. It is when things get hard and we have to throw some things overboard that we discover what is truly important to us. For Hanukkah, lighting the candles is deemed more important than having them shine in the window. In terms of the milk falling in my chicken soup, the waste and financial loss of throwing out the food win out over the prohibition of mixing milk and meat.
Most of rabbinic literature is the record of negotiating values and refining the main point of each commandment. It is understood that mitzvot can be complex, with many meanings behind them, but that each mitzvah has one core idea at its center. This main point is known in Hebrew as the ikar – the essential defining meaning behind something. . . We search for the ikar so that we know how to move ahead in times when every value can’t be realized.
The process of finding the ikar – the main point – has been given new life and new urgency in the last seven months. As individuals, we have been made to balance our health and the health of those around us with a million activities that we have, up to this point, taken for granted. As it should be, the ikar – the overriding principle we follow – is the preservation of life and health around us.
In the name of that all-important value, we have been asked to make changes and sacrifices in our lives. But, as we have found, lockdown cannot mean shutdown. We must move forward, and in order to do that, we must find the essential value in certain moments of our lives. Is a Zoom happy hour ideal? No, but does it serve the essential purpose of friends showing that they care? Yes it does. A Zoom bar mitzvah might not be anyone’s l’hathila, but as a b’deiavad choice, it allows everyone to share in the joy of adding a new link in the unbroken chain of Jewish tradition and to do it while preserving everyone’s health.
We have shown time and time again over these past months that we as individuals have an incredible capacity to step into a nonideal world and make the best of it. We have the ability to persevere through bad times and preserve the ikar, the core of what we want and need out of life. And friends, we are going to have to use that capacity for a little while longer, it seems. Trust yourself, trust the community. We can do this together, and like our rabbinic forebears, we can build something beautiful, even if it wasn't exactly what we intended to build when we laid the first stone.
This imperfect world is doing what it should be: It is balancing values. Balancing values of status quo vs. systemic change, of universalism vs. tribalism, of the needs of the one vs. the needs of the whole. Our job over the days and weeks ahead is to have the courage to be a part of the balancing. In a b’deiavad world, we are asked to think about the values that are important to us. . . . What are the essential values that we would preserve above all else? We cannot sit this out. This is the year to get involved. . . . We need to, all of us, save the principles that matter most, lest they get lost in the b’deiavad shuffle. We need to work for them, donate to them, and vote for them. The world is balancing values right now. Which ones are we going to fight for?
While this task is daunting, Rosh Hashanah reminds us that each year renews. The rabbinic laws remind us that the nonideal isn’t forever. Just because we can’t light the candles in the window one year doesn’t mean we don’t try again the next. The most important thing is that we keep working to address the imperfections as best we can. We cannot be like Abraham, not knowing right from wrong but simply giving in to what the world has in store. We cannot be like Hagar, overwhelmed by the situation and inactive. Nor can we be like Jonah, sitting on the ability to go and help the world around us and hiding instead. Abraham gave in, Hagar gave up, and Jonah ran . . . but in the end, each of them acted and finished their story as heroes. They were all brought back to the path by God, but that Biblical luxury is not available to us. We cannot wait for miracles to correct our behavior. We need to do it ourselves. We are not obligated to finish the task, but we cannot stop either. It takes some courage to enter the b’deiavad, to acknowledge that this world is not perfect and some things are going to have to give, but that we will not compromise our core values. It is a balancing act that can be as frustrating as it is demanding . . . but it is a balancing act that has kept our people for millennia, and one that will keep us as we protect what is important and bring it into a new world in the year ahead of us. This is not the world that any of us would have chosen. . . . It is not the world most of us were prepared for, but it is the world we have, and on this day of judgment, what we do with this world is what we will be judged for. The road ahead may not be ideal, but the only to get to the end is to keep walking.
 Mishna Avot 2:16
 BT Shabbat 21b
 Just ask someone why we eat dairy on Shavuot.