This is the sermon that I delivered on Rosh Hashanah morning 5781 (2020) in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is about the ways that we can be there for each other, even when we can’t be together.
The text is below, or you can watch it here:
When I was four years old my grandparents had a 40th anniversary celebration. I don’t actually remember it (though I’ve seen the pictures). But what I do remember is the invitation. And particularly the last line of the invitation. After listing the time, date, and location, it said:
Your presence not your presents please.
As a kid, I was flabbergasted by this. Why wouldn’t you want presents? What’s the point of even having a party if you’re not going to get presents? It was all too much for my 4-year-old brain to understand.
But now, many years later, and with my grandparents both gone for decades, I do finally understand what they meant: What they really wanted in that special moment was to be surrounded by loved ones. Because our presence, being there for each other, is the most important present that we can ever give.
That’s a lesson we’ve all learned over and over again in the last six months, during this time of quarantine and social distancing. This has been a lonely time. And it’s been a scary time: even six months in there is still a lot of uncertainty. How long will this last? When will things get back to normal? What will normal even look like when we get there?
And while our infection rates in Canada have mercifully been lower than some other countries, we have before us now a a new school year; the beginning of a second wave; a long winter where it won’t be possible to eat on patios, or take socially distanced walks in the park.
And on top of all of that – on top of the anxiety and the uncertainty – we are literally not allowed to come near one another. No hugs, no high fives, no handshakes. No concerts, no days at the ballpark or nights out on the town. I don’t have to tell you about it, as you sit here watching us lead services on a screen in your living rooms rather than being here together in the synagogue. We are missing each other. And it’s taking a toll on us.
As human beings, we need each other. That’s a documented scientific fact. Studies have shown over and over again that our connections with each other actually increase our wellness. Having strong social relationships is associated with lower incidence of heart disease, high blood pressure, and cancer. It helps decrease anxiety; it builds immunity. It’s good for our physical health, which is good for our mental health, which in turn is good for our physical health. We are social creatures, and we are at our best when we are in relationship with one another.
That’s what makes a time like this so incredibly difficult – we actually suffer, we are literally less healthy when we don’t have each other. Which means that during these difficult times we have to work extra hard to be there for each other.
This morning’s Torah portion tells a story of two people who are there for each other in the hardest of circumstances. Those two are Abraham and his son Issac, and the scenario – as many of you know – is that Abraham has been commanded by God to offer Isaac as a sacrifice.
We know the end of the story, and we know that in the end he doesn’t have to do it. But of course Abraham and Issac don’t know that. And we can well imagine that as they make their way across the hills to the designated spot for the sacrifice, it is one of the most terrifying, disconnecting moments of their lives. The Torah describes them as walking along in silence, as if they just don’t know what to say to each other. Until finally, Isaac speaks:
ויאמר יצחק אל-אברהם אביו – Isaac called out to his father.
וַיֹּ֖אמֶר הִנֶּ֣נִּֽי בְנִ֑י – and Abraham answered “Hineini – Here I am, my son.”
Isaac said: “Here is the firestone and here the wood; but where is the sheep for the offering?” And Abraham said, “God will see to the sheep, my son.”
And it concludes: Vayelchu sh’neihim yachdav. And then the two of them walked on together.
In these two short verses, the entire feeling of the narrative shifts. Where previously they were walking separately, disconnectedly, in silence, now it says “Vayelchu sh’neihim yachdav:” they walked forward together.
And what has happened to facilitate that shift? Isaac reaches out for information: “Hey Dad, where’s the sheep?” And Abraham… doesn’t give him any information – because he doesn’t know the answer. All he says is: “God will see to the sheep, son.”
So what’s led to the shift, what has facilitate the closeness between father and son is not the offering of information or solving the problem. (The problem is not solved. They’re still in this hard place.) Rather, what led to the closeness was the fact that when Isaac reached out, his father said: “Hineini – I’m here.”
In the hardest of times – in those moments when we feel most afraid, most disconnected, most unsure – the most important thing we can offer one another is our presence.
That is, maybe, the most important lesson of the 2020 pandemic. During this time of anxiety, we have needed each other more than ever. And during this time of social distancing, we’ve had to get creative about how we reach out to each other.
Think about the ways you’ve connected with loved ones of the last 6 months. For example:
- The Zoom Passover Seder
- The Facebook live Shabbat service
- The Facetime family conference call
- The socially distanced circle of friends in the driveway with every chair 6 feet apart
- The indoor-outdoor wave to the grandchildren through the window while talking to them on the cellphone
Our technologies, imperfect as they are, have allowed us the blessing of continuing to connect with each other. Our technologies have given us the gift of affiliation and connection that is so important to who we are. In that sense, we are very lucky to be going through this in 2020, as opposed to 1920 or 1520 when those technologies didn’t exist yet.
But interestingly enough, our ancestors – who lived long before the advent of videoconferencing software – were also thinking about the importance of affiliation and connection in difficult times. And they were also getting creative.
The Talmud (Berachot 7b) tells this, presumably true, story: Once, a sage by the name of Rabbi Yitzhak noticed that his colleague Rav Nachman was absent from daily prayers. He stopped by Rav Nachman’s house to find out what was going on.
“Rav Nachman, we missed you!” He greeted his friend. “Where have you been?”
Rav Nachman replied that he was sick and not able to get to the synagogue.
Rabbi Yitzhak replied, “If you can’t make it to shul, why don’t we bring the shul to you? We’ll simply gather a minyan of 10 people to come over to your house and pray with you?”
But Rav Nachman rejected that idea. He didn’t feel up to it, he said, and didn’t want to ask that of the community members.
So Rabbi Yitzhak thought it over and came up with another solution. “Community is important,” he said. “And here is what we will do. When the prayers at the synagogue are about to begin, we will send a messenger to your home to let you know. That way, even if you can’t pray with the community, you can at least pray at the same time as the community, and thus be part of us.” (Based on B. Berachot 7b)
Long before zoom. Long before FaceTime or Facebook live, our tradition recognized the power of being together. And it recognized equally that there are ways to be together even when we can’t be together. We can pray at the same time; we can engage in similar actions or rituals. In fact, a lot of Jewish ritual is designed to do just that – to help us maintain our sense of ourselves as a community even from a distance.
That’s what we do when we light candles on Friday evening, or put on a tallit at the morning service, knowing that Jews all over the world are doing the same thing. It’s what we mean when we say that all Jews stood together at Sinai – even those of us who weren’t actually there. The Zoom service is simply a modern adaptation of a very ancient idea. An ancient sense of connectedness and affiliation that has been shaping our identity as Jews for as long as our people have existed. In fact, in the Torah portion that we’ll read next week on Yom Kippur morning, God declares to the Israelites in the desert that:
וְלֹ֥א אִתְּכֶ֖ם לְבַדְּכֶ֑ם אָנֹכִ֗י כֹּרֵת֙ אֶת־הַבְּרִ֣ית הַזֹּ֔את – I’m not only making this covenant with those of you who are standing here today, but also with those who are not standing here today. (Deut. 29:13-14)
To be a Jew is to have a sense of ourselves as standing together, even when we are not together. It is to believe that we have the power to carry each other through difficult times, no matter what life throws our way. It is to pick up the phone, to send the text, to initiate the videochat, to wave through the window. To do whatever we can to offer support and comfort. It is to say Hineini: I am here, when you need me.
In our community, there are so many who have said Hineini, who have been there for each other these last months. To all who made meals, or made phone calls, who checked in with each other, who offered baking lessons or mindfulness classes on Zoom, who were there for each other in a thousand ways – thank you. In fact, I suspect that we’ve almost all been on the receiving end of some act of kindness during this time. Our responsibility is simply to pay it forward – to someone else who may be anxious, or lonely, or in need of some support. That’s the thing about saying Hineini – it doesn’t cost much, and you don’t have to worry about saying the wrong thing. All it takes is being present.
The author Leo Buscaglia once wrote about a child, whom he called the most caring, empathetic child he had ever seen. It was a four-year-old whose elderly neighbor had recently lost his wife. Seeing the man cry, the little boy went into the old gentleman’s yard, and sat beside him. When his mother later asked him what he had said to the neighbor to help him feel better, the little boy said, “Nothing… I just helped him cry.” (Adapted from Chicken Soup for the Soul)
Sometimes the most powerful gift we can offer one another is our simply being present.
In this new year, may we cry together when we need to cry, and may we find lots of opportunities to laugh together as well.
Like Abraham and Isaac, may we reach out in support. And like Rabbi Yitzhak and Rav Nahman, may we know that the community is there for us.
May our connections with each other and with the people that we love carry us through these difficult times.
And may we never hesitate to say to one another: Hineini: I am here.