rabbinic writing
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rabbinic writing

The Longest Shabbat

Like stars waiting patiently to emerge.

Stars at Night, Photo by Paige Weber on Unsplash

I’d like to share this poem with you. It is dated 3/11/20.
It has been a full year.

Pandemic — by Lynn Unger

What if you thought of it
as the Jews consider the Sabbath —
the most sacred of times?
Cease from travel. Cease from buying and selling.
Give up, just for now,
on trying to make the world different than it is.
Sing. Pray. Touch only those
to whom you commit your life.
Center down.

And when your body has become still,
reach out with your heart.
Know that we are connected
in ways that are terrifying and beautiful.
(You could hardly deny it now.)
Know that our lives
are in one another’s hands.
(Surely, that has come clear.)
Do not reach out your hands.
Reach out your heart.
Reach out your words.
Reach out all the tendrils
of compassion that move, invisibly,
where we cannot touch.

Promise this world your love–
for better or for worse,
in sickness and in health,
so long as we all shall live.

I first read this poem in the early days, before we knew everything we know now.

Before we all had masks in our pockets. Before we tried baking bread.
Before we built a pod of our dearest in-town people.
Before we rescheduled the gala or the wedding or the long-awaited trip.
Before we logged-on to zoom.
It was before people we knew got sick, and before most of them got better.
Before others died alone and afraid and gasping for air.
Before we attended a funeral over livestream or shiva by zoom.
Before it all became political.
Before we fought this new reality, then accepted it, and then grew fatigued.
Before we counted the many silver linings.
Before restaurants re-opened. Before schools stayed closed.
Before we gave in and bought the green screen or the blue light glasses or the tablet for a child who doesn’t even know how to read yet.
Before we forgot what normal was.
Before the vaccine. Before this new hope.

We are all waiting to feel like this long shabbat is finally coming to an end.

We are like a kaleidoscope of butterflies coming out of our cocoons, or like a sleuth of bears coming out of hibernation. We are like the hesitant stars that come out one by one — each tiny glimmer a signal that shabbat is ending.

Slowly, purposefully, carefully, we emerge.

We are both exhausted and exhilarated.
We are rested and we are restless.
We are nervous and we are nourished.

With re-entry we see a world that is, in some ways, as we left it — and in many ways it is as though we are strangers once again, finding ourselves in a strange new land.

We read:
וַיְהִ֞י בַּחֹ֧דֶשׁ הָרִאשׁ֛וֹן בַּשָּׁנָ֥ה הַשֵּׁנִ֖ית בְּאֶחָ֣ד לַחֹ֑דֶשׁ הוּקַ֖ם הַמִּשְׁכָּֽן
In the first month of the second year, on the first of the month, the Tabernacle was set up. (Ex 40:17)

The first day of the first month of the second year…
Otherwise known as the first anniversary of the day the world changed. The Israelites lay eyes on a brand new structure. It is physical: a tabernacle they have built with their own hearts and hands. It is also metaphorical: with the tabernacle comes a new way of living. It will take getting used to. There will be new rhythms and new routines. There will be new expectations for what it means to live in the world together.

A year ago, they had nothing.
And now, they are one another’s everything.
A lot can change in a year.
A whole world can change in a year.

“We’ve lost our belief in certainty,” grief therapist Megan Devine explained to Julie Beck in an article for the Atlantic. “Certainty is the way that we cheerlead ourselves through difficult times — I’m going to get to do this.” But, Beck points out, “thinking this way about the end of the pandemic might not be realistic.” “The world is too uncertain for that kind of hope.” Devine said.

Give Up, Ellen Unger reminded us in her poem,
Just for now
on trying to make the world different than it is.

This is the only certainty in this moment, in this present, in this ‘now.’

Our text continues:

“When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting, because the cloud had settled upon it and the Presence of the Eternal filled the Tabernacle. When the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the Israelites would set out, on their various journeys; but if the cloud did not lift they would not set out until such time as it did lift. For over the Tabernacle a cloud of the Eternal rested by day, and fire would appear in it by night, in the view of all the house of Israel throughout their journeys.” (Ex 40:33–38)

The cloud is lifting. Not all at once, and not with any kind of certainty.

But with a corner here, and a ripple there. A light breeze. A cover of stars.
A holy presence.

Clouds lifting over the desert. Photo by Joshua Case on Unsplash

We have done the impossible this year. We have met impossible sadness and impossible fear and impossible loneliness and impossible joy and impossible closeness and impossible resilience.

For the Israelites, this moment is the result of a full year of doing the impossible. The crossed the sea. They witnessed thunderbolts and lightning at the foot of Mount Sinai. And now, the Israelites are building a desert home for God made out of dolphin skins and acacia wood.

The Israelites live now, each day, in the shadow of the tabernacle that they built with their very own hands. And with this new normal, the burden of the midbar, of the narrow place, begins to lift.

What if you thought of it — asked the poet —
As the Jews consider the sabbath?
The most sacred of times.

We could measure this year in the challahs we baked and the livestreams we watched. The glasses of wine we shared on the couch, the yahrzeits we typed into the comments. The holy moments we made in our home tabernacles.
The nostalgia for what was.
The appreciation for what is.
The worrying about what will be.

Certainty won’t resume in one fell swoop. This cloud lifts slowly.
Gently. Cautiously. Tenderly.

And like a shabbat that lasts for a year, the stars that signal its end will come out one by one. This Havdalah, this change, this adjustment to ‘regular,’ might be twice as long as the sabbath itself.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/22551162@N03/2235438774/

We, too, will come out one by one.
When we are ready.
When the time is right.

Perhaps, when we take that first step out, the clouds, like the seas, will begin to part. We are surviving. We are thriving. We are learning to live in this ever-changing world. We are doing the impossible.

This part of the story comes to a slow and steady end. But it is far from over.
We crack the binding on part two, on year two.
There is no certainty.
There is no knowing where we will find ourselves one year from now.
But with each careful step, with each steady breath, with every new ritual and routine and reminder, we ready ourselves for tomorrow.

Chazak chazak v’nitchazek.

Be strong, be strong, and together may we all be strengthened.

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin
Parashat Vayeikhel-Pekudei, 3.12.2021
Congregation Beth Israel, Scottsdale

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Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale, AZ.