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Shanah Tovah from Beit Rabban

Beginning of the Year Message

September 9th, 2021 | 5th of Tishrei, 5782 | Vayeilech וַיֵּלֶךְ

Dear Beit Rabban Community,  I have always loved the build up to the Jewish new year, with all the optimism it represents and the hope it brings. I love the good wishes and blessings we give to each other for the year to come. When I was little I would regularly wake up at the crack of dawn to attend early morning selichot with my father during the month of Elul before Rosh Hashanah. Our Mizrachi community met each morning to sing as the sun came up, and those are the tunes I instinctively hum when I think about the new year. For weeks before, during, and after Rosh Hashanah, my father would greet every Jewish person we encountered on the street with a hearty wish of “תזכו לשנים רבות - נעימות וטובות,” may you merit many pleasant and good years,” which he would often follow up with lengthy, personalized blessings that alternated between Arabic, English and an assortment of other languages paying homage to the person’s country of origin. No matter what the past year brought or the circumstances of the current moment, the new year presented the possibility of infinite blessing. How could you not feel hopeful? This has not been my experience lately. Hope has not felt intuitive or natural to me in the build up to this new year, and I understand that I may not be alone in this feeling. We have all read articles about the phenomenon of “languishing,” of the myriad of mental health struggles campers faced this summer, of the emotional toll it has taken to embrace reentry in the early summer only to find that it was short lived. This is the sort of emotional backdrop that can make a person overly focused on the “who will die” aspects of the Rosh Hashanah liturgy, rather that on the empowering liturgical refrain that assures us that the choice to live is in our hands, depending only on “return, prayer, and giving.” My remarkable rabbi, Barry Dov Katz, who has held our community through the unimaginable circumstances of pandemic life with wisdom, love and perseverance, spoke on Rosh Hashanah about hope as an affirmative decision. He talked about Rav Yehuda HaNasi, who compiled the Mishnah in the period post destruction of the Temple, a dark and hopeless time with no clear path toward the reconstituting of our people. You might have imagined that Rav Yehuda HaNasi would open this corpus of Jewish law with words of inspiration, maybe a rallying cry toward unity and belief in the collective capacity to turn things around. Instead, he opens the Mishnah with the famous and ostensibly technical question: “Until when does the time for the recitation of the evening Shema extend?” If you look a little closer, however, you will notice that there is a phrase that repeats four times in the Mishnah: עַד שֶׁיַּעֲלֶה עַמּוּד הַשָּׁחַר, "until dawn." Rav Yehuda HaNasi is addressing the people at the darkest time at night, and he is emphasizing that the first light will come because it inevitably does. His words teach us to keep pushing through until that moment- doing what we do, waking up and going to sleep with the shema on our tongues. Similarly, Rabbi Katz pointed out that Rav Yosef Kairo wrote the historic code of law the Shulchan Aruch in the post-inquisition time when Judaism was again precariously trying to re-find its footing. The Shulchan Aruch is not poetic, it is halachic and detailed. But Rav Yosef Kairo starts with a short poem in his introduction “יתגבר כארי לעמוד בבוקר לעבודת בוראו שיהא הוא מעורר השחר,” "one should strengthen themself like a lion to get up in the morning to serve their Creator, so that it is they who awakens the dawn." Not only do we have to keep going until dawn as Ravi Yehuda HaNasi teaches, but Rav Yosef Kairo assures us that our toil has the power of actually hastening the light of dawn. How many of us are just plugging through right now. Instead of reaching for the stars, we are reaching to accomplish the day to day. For some of us it is a reach to get up each morning, and to pull up our masks and smile with our eyes. For some of our fellow human beings the reach is more immediately existential: it is the reach to find shelter again each new evening, or to return day in and day out to the visa line that could save your life. Whatever it is, it can feel like it requires the energy of a lion to just make it through until the next day. And, indeed, all this requires the choice of hope, which in turn requires the belief that this year can be better than last -- that our toil can bring the dawn. As Jews, we have a bias toward action. We are not obligated to believe, but to do. We take action that cultivates dispositions and beliefs, however long it takes. In fact, the Rabbis repeatedly remind us to do the right thing even if it is not for the right reason, and the right reason will follow (שֶׁמִּתּוֹךְ שֶׁלֹּא לִשְׁמָהּ בָּא לִשְׁמָהּ, Pesachim 50b). I feel this way about hope. Choose to hope, and the hope will come. Force yourself to smile, and joy will come. Of course, this is not about denial. It is about facing the truth however exhausting and demoralizing it is and trying so hard not to let it debilitate you. So, I prayed on Rosh Hashanah to have the strength to hope. I could not bring myself to pray for redemption this year, not even for all those who are desperately in need of it at this very moment. I didn’t have that faith in my “kishkes” (not a word learned from my Mizrachi family) to pray for those things. But, I was able to focus deeply on my desire to be hopeful, to wake up each morning like a lion ready to serve my Creator, whether that service entails completing my children’s daily Covid questionnaires, greeting my students with a gigantic masked smiled at arrival, or responding to the myriad of Covid related questions as clearly and sympathetically as possible. I may not have gotten into this- whether the “this” is parenting, Jewish education, adulthood- for the purpose of just keeping on keeping on, but I will keep trying to do it until dawn. And maybe it will help me believe that the morning light is getting closer. And so, this morning I got out of bed early, showered in a rush, and stopped at my local coffee shop on my way to work. I complained to my friend Kate, who owns the shop, that we were restarting COVID-19 surveillance testing today at school. When we ended the school year in June on a high, optimistic note I did not think that we would restart surveillance testing this fall, let alone increase its regularity. It disrupts the schedule, introduces the possibility of false positives, and, most importantly, reminds us all that COVID-19 is still a threat. Another year of this, mustering the energy of a lion just to get through the basics, choosing to hope for the light at the end of this long pandemic night. And then… I realized, this is the first time we are rapid testing students on a Friday with results in a mere 15 minutes. Once all the tests come back negative, we can feel confident that no one is contagious on that day, even if someone is harboring a low viral count that will increase over the days to come. You know what that means? It means that we can be slightly more relaxed in our COVID-19 protocols. Specifically, it means we can SING together! For the first time since March 2020, today we can sing together during our Friday assemblies (albeit each class zooming in from their own room). We can sing our school song, we can sing along as we boogie to the pre-shabbat ruach, we can share in the call and response of “Shabbat Shalom Beit Rabban!” And, all of a sudden, my prayers felt answered. I feel hopeful. I am also reminded that beyond choosing hope and acting in a way that assumes the light will come, I may also have to change my perspective to see the light. Surveillance testing could be the darkest hour before dawn, or it could be the light at the end of the darkness. Right now it feels like the latter. May this year bring much needed light to each of us, to all of us, and to the whole world. As we wait for that light, may we have the strength of a lion to maintain hope, and may we experience the blessing of pivoting perspectives to catch each glimpse of light as it appears. Tizku Leshanim Rabot - Ne'imot veTovot! Stephanie


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