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Sermon: Parshat Shmini, 4/17/20

04/22/2020 09:37:05 AM


Rabbi Charlie

Shabbat Shalom!

I know that we need something uplifting this evening. We’ll get there. Sometimes we have to face the facts before we can find the silver lining. Parshat Shmini is a tragic wake up call. On the very day that Israel’s priests are consecrated as priests, two of our almost priests, two of Aaron’s sons die because they made a mistake.

All who witness this moment are shocked. While Moses tries to offer an explanation, Aaron is silent. What could he say? Especially when Aaron and his two living sons are unable to mourn in that moment – they have to stay to finish the ritual. They had been given the instructions, they knew they had to perform the rituals just right, but no one expected such quick and total judgment.

And while plenty of epidemiologists warned about the possibility of a pandemic, the vast majority of us were completely unprepared for what life looks like under COVID19. We have learned that one mistake, one gathering, can have dire effects. We’ve gained a new understanding of fragility regarding our mortality, our economy, and our sense of normal.

We would be just in crying out to God as we do in the Mechilta D’Rabbi Ishmael (15:11 in Sefaria). Instead of “Mi Chamocha Ba-Elim Adonai – Who is like You among the gods?” The Mechilta asks: “Mi Chamocha ba-ilmim? Who is like you among the mute?” You, God, hear the difficulties of Your children and You remain silent!

We’re suffering, so of course we want to cry out. It’s frustrating. It’s disheartening. And it’s reality. Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar, Israeli teacher and writer known for his work on happiness, positive psychology, and leadership, explains that most of us look at suffering as an “unwelcome interruption of our pursuit of happiness… [and we] search for quick-fix solutions to get rid of it.” Instead, he references Proverbs to suggest that wisdom can be found in the midst of suffering.

Dr. Ben-Shahar argues that “one of the most significant benefits of suffering is that it breeds a deep respect for reality, for what is… our potential, our limitation, and our humanity.” Suffering, difficulty, challenge – these are a part of life. “And when we truly accept grief and sorrow as inevitable, we actually suffer less.”

That’s from an expert on happiness. And what’s it mean? We need to accept the reality that’s in front of us: this will be a marathon and not a sprint. While some efforts might be made to loosen a few restrictions, such as our Governor’s announcements earlier today, numerous and diverse sources agree that we’re not going to feel a sense of safety and security until widespread testing is available. All indications are that it could be months. This is our reality. So how do we make it through the marathon?

Just like in an actual marathon, the key is balance. One version of balance comes from Rabbi Simcha Bunim who taught, every person should have two pockets. In one pocket should be a piece of paper saying: "I am only dust and ashes…." In the other pocket should be a piece of paper saying: "For my sake was the world created...."

This beautiful teaching encourage us to find some kind of middle path between selfishness and generosity, between agony and joy, between despair and hope. And it turns out that balance isn’t just good for us, even God tries to find daily balance. Our rabbis envision what God’s day must be like. According to the Talmud, God spends time each day to study, dispense justice, providing for the needs of the world’s creatures, and of course God has to play with God’s pet – the Leviathan (Avodah Zarah 3b). I love the fact that God’s pet is a giant sea monster!

This is the way to live during ordinary times. And when we are so far from ordinary, a sense of stability can be a real life line. Our marathon begins with finding balance in the day to day. We have to make sure we have the basic necessities; we have to be able to stay safe. Beyond that, make sure to find some time to mix it up. Workaholics, job seekers, homework doers, Netflix bingers… find balance. If you’re only doing one thing – taking care of children, taking care of other people, mix it up. People have talked a lot about how our kids need structure – a lot of adults do to. Put together a schedule for the day – a bit of prayer or meditation, a bit of exercise, a bit of reading or Jewish study, and don’t forget some kind of human interaction – call someone, call several someones. Make a schedule and stick to it.

Our reality is challenging right now. It makes it easier when we can accept it for what it is and find the balance we need to get through it. It’s going to take time, but this how we can get through it together.

Shabbat Shalom!

Fri, October 23 2020 5 Cheshvan 5781