A Treasury of Life
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Even back then, the dangers of public assembly were well understood, and in deference to the pre-eminent Jewish value of preserving life, Zahalon decreed that communal prayer be suspended until the plague passed. “None were permitted to go out on the street,” records Zahalon, as guards patrolled the city to enforce the lockdown. But Jewish life did not come to a standstill; Zahalon was, after all, a rabbi invested in the faith of his flock. His diary recounts: “So I, Jacob Zahalon, preached from the window on Catalena Street, the corner house of David Gatigno . . .” and “I, Jacob Zahalon, preached from the window on Toscano Street. . . ,” the people listening to my sermon.” If you have been to Rome’s Jewish Ghetto, you can imagine the scene. Not just Zahalon, but different rabbis on different streets, leaning out windows, preaching to the Jewish community, as people seeking spiritual growth from the narrowest circumstance peered through their windows to connect with tradition, connect with their clergy, and no doubt connect with each other. Shabbat to Shabbat, holiday to holiday, until after nine months, Zahalon’s plague diary records: “The disease came to an end . . . the gates to the ghetto were opened and Israel returned to the synagogue to pray as in former times.”
It is over 350 years later, another pandemic has struck, and we, the clergy of Park Avenue Synagogue, reach out from our virtual windows on the corner of 87th and Madison to you, our congregational family, wherever you are, as you peer through your virtual windows. From generation to generation, from window to window, Jewish communities leveraging every means at our disposal to connect with tradition, connect with community, and connect with each other. Choose life, our tradition teaches. Like our predecessors, we have chosen public health over all else, doing our part to stem COVID’s further spread, and modeling what it means to be a congregation that prizes both community and public safety. You should be proud of the lay and professional team of your synagogue. Our present-day efforts are just a tad more involved than that of seventeenth-century Rome. A recent Bat Mitzvah parent compared our production favorably to the TODAY show at Rockefeller Center. (Cantor Schwartz, that makes us Hoda and Jenna. I leave it to you to decide who is Al Roker.) We have worked hard; we are excited. We hope our members have received your L’Shanah Tovah care package. All the information you need is on the PAS website, and we look forward to you joining us throughout the holidays and throughout the year.
There is so much for which to be grateful – and we are. But we would do ourselves a disservice if we failed to acknowledge how we have all been made a bit smaller by the year gone by. We are all peering through much smaller windows, the apertures of our souls narrowed by the events of the past year. Some of our limitations are obvious. You are there; we are here. We cannot all be physically together; we are not at holiday tables with friends and family; the festival sounds of joy are muted as a result. For some, the spiritual contraction is particularly acute: a loved one no longer present or a brush with illness from which we have yet to recover. For many, the loss can be quantified as lost savings, lost employment, and lost prospects; for others, the losses are beyond measure. Everyone feels it differently, but everyone feels it. A lost semester, a lost summer, a lost opportunity to swipe right. The Peletons and puppies we have purchased are cold comfort for far more profound diminutions of spirit. The landscapes of our lives are not as expansive as they were last year.
Every year, we know, the spiritual charge of the holidays is to find beauty, meaning, and purpose in this world despite the finite span of our lives. Every year the High Holidays prompt us to juxtapose the brevity of our own existence against the vastness of eternity. We are in this world for just two hot seconds, but we can live our lives and leave our mark in a manner that will extend well beyond our length of years, in the words of William Blake: to “hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.” These are the central themes of the season: We do not know who will live and who will die, but we can make every deed count. Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah – repentance, prayer, and righteous giving – are well within our reach. The central personalities of the season – Sarah, Hagar, Hannah, and Rachel – each one facing a setback, each one mustering the spiritual wherewithal to find hope and meaning. At this time of year, we are meant to feel like we did when we used to write postcards to each other. You begin writing with large script, believing you have all the room in the world, and then you realize space is limited and your writing grows smaller and smaller as you try to cram it all in. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once observed that “the meaning of life is to build a life as if it were a work of art.” What is the message of the holidays? Our postcard, our canvas, our window is not as large as you think, so fill it with beauty. Make it an original. Make it worthy of inspiration and imitation. Make it a work of art.
And this year the canvases of our lives are even smaller, reduced well beyond what we have ever known. This year none of us are Jackson Pollack flinging paint on sprawling canvases. Our geography, our opportunities, our lives are all circumscribed. Nothing is monumental; everything is in miniature. Even so, the call for beauty still beckons. As any artist will tell you, when it comes to art, there is no correlation between beauty and size; one has the same if not increased intention and intensity on a small project as a large one. Try telling William Carlos Williams, Bob Dylan, or Fabergé that their craft is any less exquisite for its economy of scale. Are our lives smaller this year than last? Yes, of course they are. Do we have fewer options, not more? Unquestionably so. But sobering as that realization may be, it is also a thought that can inspire – a thought that can impel us to think grandly, even, and especially, on a smaller scale. As Richard Wilbur put it: “Limitation makes for power: the strength of the genie comes from it being confined in the bottle.” Sometimes, it is the very act of contraction that reveals the beauty and meaning that would other elude us.
There is a story of a rabbi of a well-to-do Los Angeles synagogue who, at one Rosh Hashanah service, delivered a forty-five-minute sermonic discourse on the philosophical underpinnings of repentance. At the conclusion of the service, a famous television producer approached the rabbi and said: “Rabbi, I am the executive producer of a nationally syndicated show. Rabbi, do you think you could condense the message of your sermon into three minutes?
With visions of national prominence, the rabbi immediately blurted: “Yes, of course I could do that!”
To which the producer replied: “So, nu . . . Why didn’t you?”
Even rabbis have a thing or two to learn about the relationship between beauty and scale.
If I could snap my fingers, turn back the clock and have all the pain go away, I would do so in a heartbeat. But as I look back on the year gone by to identify moments of beauty, they have all occurred on a canvas that is anything but expansive. I think of my colleagues here at the synagogue, the educators from our Early Childhood Center, Young Family Education department, Congregational School, high school, and Adult Education, who were able to communicate both content and community despite having one and sometimes two hands tied behind their back. I think of the too-many-to-count graveside funerals, with just family present, with no long speeches or processions, but possessing a raw authenticity the likes of which I will never forget. I think of the stirring tributes shared on Zoom shivas – a setting nobody anticipated or sought – but breathtaking in the tenderness of memory and communal support. I recall the brissen and the baby namings, new children entering this world and community; what an earth-shattering realization it is to discover that a child can enter the covenant of the Jewish people without platters of nova lox! I think of a wedding at which I was asked to officiate, initially planned as a gala affair, then postponed indefinitely, and then came the call to inform me that the young couple just love each other, they just want their parents at their sides under the huppah . . . and the rest will figure itself out. And you know what? It was beautiful. And I think, I think especially of the smile on my daughter’s face when her mother handed her her high school diploma in our kitchen. Like so many high school graduations, it happened with a modesty and intimacy and beauty of a magnitude that stretched to the very heavens.
I wish to God I could make all the pain go away, but looking back on the year, it is not at all hard to understand why Rabbi Zahalon titled his plague journal Otzar Hahayim, “Treasury of Life.” This pandemic has diminished us all, but life-affirming treasures remain, we have all been forced to consider what really matters and where beauty is to be found.
And because our timeline remains uncertain, let’s leverage this acquired wisdom from the year gone by into the year ahead. Let us love freely, forgive readily, and find beauty wherever we can. Our families, our relationships, our selves are all capable of renewal and beauty. We can, even in these narrow straits, let our spirit expand. This is not about turning a blind eye to the severity of the hour. There are profound limitations that encumber us. But recognizing these limitations can elevate our spiritual strivings. “The challenge I face,” wrote Heschel, “is how to actualize, how to concretize the quiet eminence of my being.” This year and every year, the spiritual charge of Rosh Hashanah is one and the same: to let shine the quiet eminence, the divine spark, embedded with us all.
Where is beauty to be found? I have saved the best for last. The Bnei Mitzvah of these past six months. These young men and women, when given their dates years ago, never imagined that their s’machot would be celebrated virtually. You have taught us how to meet adversity with poise, grace, and generosity of spirit. Taylor Guberman, who comported herself with such grace last March as she sat alone in the sanctuary with just her family while the community watched from afar. Tanys Mayman, who smiled so widely during our very first Zoom bat mitzvah that other families just sort of fell into line following her lead. Ava Siminou, who kept her cool just last week even when our internet went down. Each one of you and all of you, the virtual Bnei Mitzvah class of COVID-19 have taught us and continue to teach us more about finding beauty in this world, about the spirit of renewal than any of us could have ever asked. We are grateful to you, we raise a glass to you, we wish you Mazal Tov on becoming Bnei Mitzvah, and on this, the Friday night beginning Rosh Hashanah, we call you to the Zoom screen as we say Kiddush, giving thanks to God for this moment and all the beauty-filled moments to come.