Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781: “The Six Things I Learned About Life and Teshuvah from What I Did During Quarantine”

Taking advantage of our need to lean into technology during this time of COVID, I recorded my Rosh Hashanah sermon.

I know we complain that 2020 can not be over soon enough, but look on the bright side, 5780 is over tonight.

It has been a most difficult year. And while gathering like this, virtually, remotely, is a reminder that the difficulty is still with us, we can take comfort and draw strength from the fact that we are together.

As I turn to share with you some thoughts, this year I am torn. I know we need to confront the horrors of our world head on. I want to acknowledge your fear and anxiety, most importantly because I share it with you. I want to provide some comfort.

And yet, if you have been around me long enough, you know that I like to enter our High Holiday season on a bit of a lighter note, drawing on events of my past year, to present you on Erev Rosh Hashanah with a list of things I have learned or come to understand based on those events.

And well, perhaps those two impulses are not so far off. So much has happened this past year, and it is hard to disassociate the events in our greater world from what happened to me this past year. And by sharing a list, what you have come to expect (what is, indeed, “traditional” for our celebration of the new year,) I hope to provide some comfort.

It seems like just yesterday and forever ago that our world shut down. It was right after Purim, the last gathering we held at TBH, that we retreated to our homes in the face of the coronavirus. We had to adapt to new realities of work and school and—in this case—spiritual community. And because certain activities to which we were accustomed were closed off to us, we discovered new ways to spend our time.

And so, as we gather at this new year, I present to you, “the 6 things I have learned about life and teshuvah from what I did during quarantine.”

First, I baked. Yes, it is a quarantine cliché—we all started baking. Flour and yeast were hard to come by in the stores. And while I did make my share of banana breads, and I never got on the sourdough train, I spent most of my time doing what I called “Jewish nostalgia baking”—making foods I loved and missed from my Jewish upbringing in New York, both from the bakeries around us, and from the kitchen of my mother and grandmother.

In addition to making challah for the first time in my life, I researched and learned how to make black and white cookies, almond cookies with a chocolate drop, kichel (which I always called bowties), Kaiser rolls and bagels that I remember from the delis and bakeries we would frequent. And after securing the recipes, I made my mother’s rugelach. The oily apple cake that was my grandfather’s favorite on Rosh Hashana, and pletzlach the onion bread that would be an all day affair to make, which when received would be a very special treat.

Of course, there was the eating aspect to baking, as well as the focusing on home skills at a time when we are spending most of our time at home. But there was another meaningful aspect to this for me. I called it nostalgia baking, for there was that aspect of looking back at things I enjoyed from my past. But for me, this baking was also about the future.

There was something about the quarantine time, the being isolated from others, and the fear of the pandemic, that inspired a need to think about personal traditions. It was those that would ground us, to find comfort in the known when there is so much unknown. And there was something that reminded me that I am the next link in a chain, and that if I didn’t claim certain things for myself.

I needed to know for myself that I can make these recipes and claim them as my own. By doing so, I would be able to then pass them down, that I wouldn’t need to rely on others.

We are living in a time when institutions are being challenged, when the norms and routines of our lives are being upended. This is a time then, to reclaim and to hold onto things that help define who we are. Not necessarily so we can go backwards, but so that we can provide continuity with the future.

What traditions are you the keeper of? What is important to pass on? What chain of our tradition are you taking responsibility for? As we confront loss and disruption, how will you find continuity?

Thinking forward, and looking backward. The second thing I did during quarantine is genealogy.

A few years ago, when TBH was celebrating its 75th anniversary, we sponsored a program with the Washington State Jewish Genealogy Society on researching your roots. I got excited by it, set up an account on Ancestry.com, and jumped in building my family tree. Then a few weeks later, I put it aside.

Until this year, when during the pandemic I picked up the genealogy bug again and did a deep dive into researching my family. Sifting through documents, conducting searches, pouring through lists, I was able to piece together branches of my family I did not know about. And I ended up connecting with distant cousins to share information (and from whom I received this picture of my grandmother, my great grandparents, and my great-great grandparents.)

My goal was to at least find out the cities from which my great grandparents came (my grandparents were born in the US), the year of their crossing, and the vessel that brought them to these shores. I wasn’t 100% successful with each set of great grandparents thus far, but I found a lot of answers, some moving documents, learned interesting stories and the searching continues.

Our past stories don’t wholly define us, but they are what brought us to this place in this moment. Our stories carry hope and promise, trauma and pain. We don’t live in the past, but we ask ourselves how do our own narratives inspire who we are and what we do?

And narrative is playing a big role in our society today. The growing power of Black Lives Matter and the movement for racial justice has challenged us to think about the narratives we tell in this country about its founding, its history, and its “progress”—asking questions about privilege that bring us to reevaluate and reexamine what we know and assume.

And even for our own stories—I think of my own my own immigrant ancestors, how they were privileged in that they came to this country freely on the deck of a boat rather than in chains below it.

And once we have a better picture of the past, we have a better foundation to write the future. On the High Holidays we begin to write the next chapter of our lives. And like any good story, it involves not only creativity and imagination, but research and reflection. What stories will you write, and rewrite, in the year to come?

Staying, and working, from home leads to number three, playing guitar.

Granted this one may be a bit of a cheat because as you know I started taking guitar lessons about a year before we entered the pandemic, a fulfillment of a desire I had for the past 20 years to learn an instrument. Or perhaps even longer, nursing the regret I felt for quitting the clarinet in elementary school after only 6 months. I particularly wanted to learn guitar to bring new spirit and music to our services and programs.

And while I had been taking lessons before quarantine, this time has provided a new opportunity to lean into the instrument. And not only because more time at home should translate into more practice time (which it did, more or less.) But because I found I was less self-conscious playing the guitar for services in front of a screen as opposed to in front of a room full of people. Without the pressure of real time response that I could see—it is harder to read responses on zoom and non-existent livestreaming—allowed me to take more risks.

This coupled from the encouragement from my teacher, who counselled me to just go for it even if I hadn’t already perfected a song. That ultimately is the way to grow and learn, by just jumping in and doing it.

And here, too, is a lesson in humility. Not only the humility that must come from taking on a new skill as an adult, something that requires a new way of thinking and doing. And not just the humility of being guided by someone for whom this comes so naturally, as I stumble over chord changes.

But the humility of leading while learning, of being able to stumble and recover, of being able to be present while incomplete. When I play guitar during our remote Shabbat services, I know I’m not hitting every chord. I know I run out of breath while singing. And yet the screen has allowed me to take risks, something that will carry over into when we return to being in person.

We acknowledge on this day that we are not defined by our past mistakes, we are always trying and falling short, and seeking the right conditions to take risks and learn from them. We must jump right in, even if it is not perfect.

During the quarantine our house got a bit more full as school moved to online learning for our younger son, and our older son came home from college. But it got a little more full as—number four—we added a kitten to our family.

At some point it seemed that kittens became a pandemic trend as well, as post after post on my Facebook feed were from people showing off their new kittens. And we got on that bandwagon as well when we came home to discover that Ozi had rescued a kitten from a litter that was dropped off at the farm where he is working.

While we have a bunch of animals at home, it has been a while since we had a kitten. Trout fit in very well with our family, gets along mostly well with the other cats and dogs, and brings a whole new energy into our house: bursts of activity, climbing on everything, ferocious attacks on legs and feet.

Why did kittens become a pandemic thing for some? I know for us, it was having an opportunity for new life in our house, and something that we could unconditionally love. Pets are always exercises in compassion, bringing another living thing into your home that is dependent on your care, your providing basic needs, your offering of shelter and companionship.

All of which is so needed at this time. At a time of illness and loss, it felt especially meaningful to celebrate life, to find opportunities to be a nurturer, to care for something—or someone—who is dependent on you.

The pandemic and time in quarantine has reminded us in so many ways that we are responsible for one another. And we can look upon that responsibility as a source of joy, not than a burden. By willingly bringing a new pet into our homes, we affirmed that a basic part of human nature is to care for others, especially those who are dependent on you.

Introducing a new kitten into our family was not the only change in our house, as the fifth thing I did during quarantine was paint our bathroom.

We have lived in our same house the entire time we have lived in Olympia, almost 18 years now. Our house is a combination of an older property and new construction, and for those who have been around a while you will remember that one of my first one of these types of sermons was describing what I learned when a backhoe hit our house.

In the newer construction part of our house, the walls were not painted when we moved in, and we set about almost immediately to adding color to the bedrooms, living rooms, and even the finished basement. But we never painted the bathroom. For years we were fine with the white primer coat, it never seemed to matter. Then a few weeks ago after swapping out the lightbulbs for ones with higher wattage, it struck us how plain this space was.

So, one Sunday, I prepped the space, bought the supplies, and painted the bathroom, and it now feels like a completely new space, feels more like our home.

Perhaps it makes sense that during this time of much more time at home, we turn our energy to those things at home that require our attention—the parts of our physical space that we can fix, improve, and spiff up. We definitely brainstormed more projects than we have capacity for at this time.

But painting the bathroom had the impact it did because it was one of those things you put off because of all the work you anticipate putting into it, only to realize it is not that much work and you could have done it much sooner. We all have these in our lives, and for me it took the pandemic to learn again that what we spend so much energy avoiding can turn out to be not just a big deal.

There is a Jewish teaching that when you build a house you should leave a corner of one’s house unfinished in remembrance of the destruction of the Temple, and as a sign that the world can continually be perfected. While I could claim that I left the bathroom unpainted for so long in honor of this tradition, I will say that sometimes our piece of perfecting the world takes a while to complete, and every time we make a repair or an improvement is the right time. And, of course, there is always more to do. We are constantly engaged in the work of repair.

And following on the painting project, the sixth meaningful thing I did during quarantine is–buying new shelves for the refrigerator door.

It may not seem like much but it did lead me to what we might call the “dark web” of wholesale replacement parts. I found a supplier down in Texas and after entering the exact model of the fridge, we were able to buy new shelves to replace the ones that cracked and broken over time.

In total it was two brackets, one shelf, and both crisper drawers on the bottom needed replacement. The shelf still worked, but the fact that we had no crisper drawers means we piled produce on the bottom of the fridge, and since we were missing two of three door brackets, we stored everything in the main compartment. They had broken over time, not all at once, and yet when that big box from Texas arrived, our fridge was reborn.

And yet, while it was maybe the simplest thing and quickest thing to do, replacing those parts provided the most profound lesson for me during quarantine. For over time, as each drawer broke, as each bracket cracked, we just adapted. We moved things around, we crammed things together, stacked things on top of each other.  

After putting in those new drawers and brackets, it was as if we had a new refrigerator. Things were in their place, they were easier to find, it was more organized. It was only after making those fixes that I even realized how awkward and hard it was to live like that. It was only after making the repair did we realize how broken things had been.

And yet, that is, honestly, how we are most of the time. When things are broken, the easiest thing we do is to just adapt to the brokenness. And if Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur teach us anything, it is that life does not need to be this way. Life should not be this way. We do not just need to adapt to the brokenness, to live with the way things are. We can create our reality; we can and we must fix what’s broken.

It is hard work. It may not be as simple as ordering parts from an online catalog. But it is the work that we are called upon to do during these holy days.  

Of course, these are not the only six things I did during quarantine. With the family home we had more family dinners—including Shabbat dinners—in the past few months then we had in 18 years. When things began to open up somewhat I took up fishing, something I had wanted to do for a long time. I binge watched TV shows and joined TikTok. Plus I have to admit that are the projects I started and did not complete, like putting in a garden, even though we did manage to level out a slope and build a retaining wall. And, of course, I continued to work and serve this community in new ways.

The quarantine is and has been a unique period of our lifetimes, and we know it is not over yet. The intensity of March has led to the loosening of September, but we know that we will be under some form of quarantine for some time. Some things, like meeting together in synagogue, may not happen for a while.

It has been a time of anxiety, and it has been a time of adaptation. And for me, I have tried to use it for a time of self-care and self-discovery. During this time, I laid claim to the traditions that are mine to pass down, confronted the past so to better face the future, took risks and persevered through my missteps, affirmed our human capacity for compassion and care, brought about repair and improvement to our world, and vowed not to adapt to brokenness but create the world I want.

These are things that will persist long after the quarantine is over. These are things that are not just for me to affirm, but for all of us.

And for all of these things that we did do, perhaps the most precious, the most holy, is what we didn’t do during quarantine: we didn’t go out, we didn’t draw close to people, we didn’t reveal our faces. And by doing this, we recognized and honored the divine spark in each and every one of us. We declared, I am not more important than another. We affirmed that each one of us is worthy.

For indeed, we are. Let us continue to live into that into the coming year.

2 thoughts on “Erev Rosh Hashanah 5781: “The Six Things I Learned About Life and Teshuvah from What I Did During Quarantine”

  1. Doreen Garcia

    Rabbi Seth,

    Thank you for sharing this! And thank you for a wonderful full, loving Rosh Hashanah. Starting the new year was divine.

    Fondly, Doreen

    Doreen Garcia

    >

    Like

Leave a Reply to Doreen Garcia Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s