Socially Distant, Spiritually Close: Rosh Hashanah Day 1 5781

Temple Beth-El’s sanctuary, empty of worshippers since mid-March 2020. What does a synagogue mean, and why are synagogues necessary, when we can’t gather in person?

About six months ago, we began a journey into an uncharted wilderness. 

I wish I could say today that we made it through to the Promised Land. But here we are. Or, perhaps more accurately — here we’re not.

That’s what I want to talk about with you today: how do we contend with the difficult ongoing difficult reality of social distancing. 

If you’re like me, “social distancing” is a term you didn’t know existed six months ago. Yet it is ubiquitous now, even if you are leaving your house more frequently than you did back in March. Since every venture into public space continues to be fraught with the danger of contracting or unknowingly communicating a highly contagious and deadly virus, we continue to stay at home as much as possible and avoid gatherings. When we do go out, we wear masks and keep our distance from one another.

Most of us haven’t been to a party, concert, or movie theater in many months. Many of our children are still unable to go back to school or even have playdates in person. Many of us have missed out on long-standing family traditions. Some of us have endured being sick in isolation, or being barred from visiting a loved one battling illness. Some of us have even had to watch on helplessly as a relative died alone, or to watch a funeral with no in-person attendees via livestream, miles away from friends and family. 

All this social distancing has had a measurable effect on our wellbeing. According to the CDC, more than 4 in 10 American adults reported this past June that they are struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. During the same period last year, the rate was closer to 10%, a nearly fourfold increase. One cause of this spike is almost certainly the fact that, at the time of the survey, most Americans had been socially distancing and sheltering in place for months. 

Though we live in a culture that idealizes the rugged individualist, we cannot escape the fact that we humans are a social species, built for community. True, some of us enjoy crowds more than others, and most of us appreciate solitude at least once in a while, but these personal preferences or personality types ought not obscure the basic fact that we thrive when we connect with others, and we wither when we are too long removed from interpersonal interaction. Research shows that isolation is, in the words of contemporary psychologist and author Susan Pinker, “at least as dangerous to your health as a pack-a-day cigarette habit, hypertension, or obesity.”  So, even if you are not among the over 40% of Americans who have wrestled with anxiety or depression over the past six months, chances are good that your mental — and perhaps even your physical — health has been negatively impacted by social distancing.

Social distancing similarly imperils social institutions — like synagogues. Many of us, understandably, wonder what a synagogue means, or if a synagogue remains necessary, when we can’t gather in person. After all, the very term “synagogue” is from the Greek for “meeting place,” which reflects the term we use for synagogue in Hebrew, beit k’nesset, literally “house of meeting.” What is the purpose of a “house of meeting” when you can’t meet? For those of us who love and are attached to our synagogues, and for those of us who believe in the centrality of the synagogue to meaningful Jewish life in America, this is indeed a source of great concern.

Unfortunately, social distancing may be part of our lives indefinitely. Experts agree that even with a vaccine, this virus is likely to be with us for a long time. Additionally, even if we eradicate this virus, scientists warn that pandemics like this one are for various reasons likely to become more frequent. It’s just a matter of time before we once again face a similar experience. And irrespective of this pandemic, many of us have struggled with being physically distant from friends and loved ones — including deceased loved ones — or just simply feel really lonely from time to time. In fact, a couple of years ago experts diagnosed an epidemic of loneliness in America. We may not have realized it, but many of us have been socially distant for a long time, and we will continue to struggle with isolation long after we defeat COVID-19. 

Given these realities, what wisdom might our tradition have, what spiritual resources might our tradition offer us — for us as individuals and as a congregation — to make it through — and perhaps even grow from — the challenges borne of physical distancing and isolation from one another?

It turns out that today’s parashah offers deep insight and powerful wisdom for this moment. Abraham and Sarah are unable to have children, so they agree to use Sarah’s Egyptian slave, Hagar, as a kind of surrogate. Abraham impregnates Hagar, who conceives and gives birth to a son, Ishmael. 

For some time, Ishmael is raised as Abraham’s only child. But then, miraculously, Sarah conceives and gives birth to a son, whom she and Abraham name Isaac. 

Isaac’s infancy passes by without incident. However, at some point during Isaac’s early childhood, Sarah sees Ishmael engaged in a morally questionable activity. In response to this unspecified offense, Sarah orders Abraham to expel Hagar and her son.

Sarah’s request distresses Abraham, but he ultimately consents. Early the next morning, Abraham gives Hagar some bread and water and sends her and Ishmael away into the wilderness.

Let us pause here for a moment to note that our parashah, which seems set up at the onset to be a happily-ever-after story of fulfilled promises takes a dark turn, becoming a tale of shattered expectations, broken relationships, and, as we will see, the pain and danger of separation, alienation, and isolation.

Disoriented and aimless as a result of radically changed circumstances, Hagar and Ishmael wander in the desert. But when they run out of water, matters start to get dire. Ishmael apparently is close to dying of thirst. Out of options, Hagar leaves Ishmael under a bush, and positions herself a bowshot’s distance away — maybe 50 or 75 yards — so that she wouldn’t have to watch her son die. 

Distance is emphasized in this passage. Twice, the narrator tells us, “va-teshev mineged,” Hagar sat at a distance. According to Rashi, the Torah repeats this phrase to indicate that Hagar kept moving further away from her dying son. Already reeling from being torn from the life she knew, and away from the people she had come to call her family, Hagar cannot bear to witness the death of her son, the only loved one she has left. Ironically, however, in separating herself from Ishmael, Hagar compounds her and Ishmael’s isolation, the loneliness of exile now exacerbated by the loneliness Hagar experiences watching on helplessly as her son dies alone, and by the loneliness Ishmael must have experienced dying without the comfort of a loved one by his side. 

Having been abandoned herself, Hagar turns around and abandons her son. This may seem unthinkable, but it strikes me that in the course of the pandemic, many of us, even if unintentionally, have acted similarly. Forced into isolation, many of us have been tempted to react — or have actually reacted — by closing ourselves off. Perhaps unwittingly, we allowed the forces that pulled us physically apart to also pull us spiritually apart, loneliness compounded upon loneliness. No wonder these months have been so profoundly difficult for so many of us. 

But our Torah portion teaches us that this outcome is not inevitable. There is in fact another way.

As Hagar waits for her son to die while sitting far away, all this alienation, all this suffering, becomes too much for her to bear. She bursts into tears. Immediately, an angel calls to her, saying: “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heeded the cry of the boy where he is.” 

This is quite an astonishing statement. While the narrator notes that Hagar cries, the narrator never says that Ishmael was crying. 

Remember, though, that Hagar made a point of separating herself from Ishmael, leaving him on his own and situating herself at a great distance from him. Perhaps Hagar was so far away that she wouldn’t have been able to hear her son cry. And we, hearing this story from Hagar’s perspective, also would have no way of knowing whether Ishmael was crying.

The angel thus gives Hagar and us new information that we wouldn’t otherwise have had: Ishmael in fact was crying. He was by himself, and Hagar was too far away to hear him. But with God, even when we are by ourselves, we are never alone. And no matter how physically far away we might be from other people, we are never too distant for God to hear us, see us, and indeed, be with us. That’s why the text says “God has heeded the cry of the boy ba-asher hu sham, where he is,” and concludes by saying, “va-y’hi Elohim et ha-na’ar, God was with the boy,” because while Hagar may have been too far away to hear Ishmael, God is never too far away from us, nor are we ever too far away from God. No matter how distant we are, God is close by.

Those of us who hold a fairly traditional theology — that is, those of us who believe that God is a recognizable entity with identifiable characteristics who relates with human beings in willful and personal ways — might have an easier time appreciating this message from the Torah. If you conceive of God this way, then our parashah’s insight probably both makes intuitive sense and is thoroughly comforting. Secure in that belief, you know that you are never alone, because God is always right there with you; that there is no place you can travel that is too far for God to reach you; that even when you are physically distant, God is spiritually close.

But what about those of us who struggle, for various reasons, with that understanding of God? What about those of us who believe differently, or not at all?

If you fit into one of those categories, then allow me to offer another way of thinking about God, which I have found to be both logically and spiritually satisfying: God is what we call that which is deepest within us, that which is woven between us, and that which is greatest beyond us

In The Empire Strikes Back, Master Yoda tells Luke Skywalker that the Force “surrounds us and binds us.” That’s also a good way of summarizing the view of God that I am offering. Yoda’s perspective echoes Jewish tradition. For example, according to the prophet Jeremiah, God “fills both the heavens and the earth.” This view is reiterated in the midrash, which asserts, “there is no place lacking the Divine Presence;” in the Talmud, which teaches, “God’s presence is in all places;” and throughout the mystical and hasidic traditions, which frequently insist, “לית אתר פנוי מיניה, there is no place devoid of God,” and even more radically, “all existence is God.” If God is everywhere, and all the more so if God is everything and everything is God, then God is simultaneously within each of us, between all of us, and beyond; in other words, God, like the Force, surrounds us and binds us. 

Additionally, if God is everywhere, then that means we are all of us connected through God not only to everyone and everything that exists, but also simultaneously to everyone and everything that ever has and ever will exist, because God in our tradition is understood to transcend not only space, but time as well. Even when we are by ourselves, we are never alone. Even when we are physically separated from loved ones, we are perpetually bound to and surrounded by them, and indeed, by everyone and everything — past, present, and future. 

Unfortunately, the fact that we are deeply interconnected with everyone and everything doesn’t mean we can “use the Force” like a Jedi. If only! But it does mean that, on a fundamental level, while we may at times be by ourselves, we are never alone. Wherever we are, we are constantly accompanied by everyone and everything that has ever existed or will ever exist. Even when we are socially distant from one another, we remain spiritually close.

True, there is no substitute for physical presence, in-person conversation, or loving touch. But that doesn’t mean other ways of connecting are meaningless. In the mishnah, the first-century sage Rabban Gamliel famously taught that the world is sustained by three things: Torah, prayer, and acts of lovingkindness. And throughout the pandemic, I have marveled at the fact that it is precisely these three pursuits that have sustained me, and that have enabled us to sustain each other, because these three acts are uniquely able to help us feel and strengthen our connections to one another. 

Let’s start with acts of lovingkindness. Back in March, when social distancing was just ramping up, Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation in Los Angeles wrote, “Every hand that we don’t shake must become a phone call that we place. Every embrace that we avoid must become a verbal expression of warmth and concern. Every inch and every foot that we physically place between ourselves and another, must become a thought as to how we might be of help to that other, should the need arise.” In other words, social distancing does not prevent us from performing acts of lovingkindness. On the contrary, it ought to propel us to do more loving deeds for one another.

I am proud and moved to share that so many members of our congregation have showed up in these ways during this challenging season. Congregants have made weekly phone calls to those who are isolated at home, picked up groceries and delivered meals for those in need, and supported congregants who were sick or struggling financially. Some folks have gone out of their way to log on to Zoom for minyan every day in case someone needs to say Kaddish, or delivered a siddur to someone’s doorstep so they could worship with the community. I am deeply grateful to everyone who has lent a hand to those in need. These loving acts of congregants supporting each other are perfect examples of how we remain spiritually close even when we are socially distant. 

Prayer is another critical way to remain spiritually close even when we are physically distant. When we pray for someone who is ill, we impact them, and they impact us, even when we are distant from them. According to some cutting-edge research, our prayers even have a measurable effect on people who don’t know we’re praying for them. Similarly, when we attend a synagogue service — even when we log onto a Zoom minyan — to join a congregation in prayer, we intensify our connections to the other members of the community who are present, and likewise their connections to us are strengthened. 

The same thing happens even when a person davvens on their own. Through participating in an action that is shared by others with similar values, commitments, and traditions, the individual davvener attaches themself to every other davvener, every other person reciting that same liturgy with similar intentionality, at that moment. And more than that, since our spiritual connections to one another transcend both space and time, since even death cannot break the bonds we share, when we pray as Jews, we strengthen our connection to every davvener in every moment — present, past, and future. 

In the same sense, any time we perform a mitzvah, a sacred act dictated by tradition, we connect not only with every Jew everywhere who is performing that same act at the same time, but also every Jew everywhere who has ever and who will ever perform that mitzvah. As the great 20th century sage Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik put it, whenever a Jew studies Torah, they live in the midst of the “entire company of sages.” To consider a talmudic passage today is to simultaneously discuss and argue about the text with our ancient ancestors and future descendants. “All of them,” Soloveitchik taught, “merge into one time experience.” When we participate in Jewish study and practice, we walk alongside Maimonides, listen to Rabbi Akiva, and sit at the feet of Regina Jonas. When we pursue justice, we do so alongside Emma Lazarus and Abraham Joshua Heschel and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. When we work to support our people’s restoration in our homeland, we do so arm in arm with Rav Kook and Henrietta Szold. As Soloveitchik put it, “there can be no death and expiration among the company of the sages of tradition. Eternity and immortality reign here in unbounded fashion. Both past and future become, in such circumstances, ever-present realities.” When you’re performing a mitzvah, you’re never alone.

Torah, prayer, and acts of lovingkindness are meaningful, perhaps necessary, ways of being spiritually close to one another, even when we are physically distant. Because of this fact, congregations like ours remain indispensable, even and perhaps especially when we can’t gather in person. A synagogue is way more than just a building. Rather, we are a kehillah kedoshah, a holy community, bound together by shared values, by common purpose, and by a sense of collective responsibility for each other and for the wider world. And therefore synagogues — not the buildings, but the people who constitute congregations, the kehillah kedoshah — are more essential than ever in a context like ours, because they are the hub that facilitates, nurtures, encourages, and strengthens those connections, the wellspring from which these nourishing waters of life and love emerge.

To be part of a kehillah kedoshah is not only to recognize but also to perpetually feel the reality that no matter where we are, or how far away we are removed from others, we are not and are never alone. Recognizing that we are deeply and inextricably connected to everyone and everything that exists, has existed, and will ever exist, feeling and strengthening these connections through acting with lovingkindness toward each other, and participating in the traditions we share with one another — that’s how we can overcome all this physical distancing and isolation from one another. 

Acknowledging and tending to our connections in these ways enables us to never feel alone, even when we are by ourselves; to remain spiritually close, even while we are socially distant. 

But a kehlliah kedoshah isn’t born; it’s made. It requires everyone’s investment, everyone’s participation, everyone’s involvement. Making a kehillah kedoshah not only requires that we recognize our connections to one another. More importantly, it requires that we actively take responsibility for one another, cultivating and strengthening those connections at every turn. 

In the year to come, we will be putting considerable emphasis on nurturing this dimension of our kehillah kedoshah — through expanded and innovative opportunities for personal and communal prayer and study; through initiatives to empower congregants to take on new Jewish practices and to share Jewish experiences with each other; and by encouraging members of our congregation to perform acts of lovingkindness for each other. One such initiative is our Caring Crews, in which congregants reach out to fellow congregants, especially those who may feel isolated or lonely. Please speak with me or Cantor Rosenblatt to learn how you can get involved in these efforts. However you choose to participate, I pray that each and every one of us will do our part to foster the connections that bind us together, ensuring that our congregation remains a true kehillah kedoshah, a holy community.

Just as the novel coronavirus ravaged bodies biologically unprepared to fight it, the pandemic hit a society that was spiritually unprepared for it. Back in 2017, scholar and best-selling author Brene Brown diagnosed our society as undergoing “a collective spiritual crisis,” rooted in our inability to recognize, much less celebrate, our connections with one another. Over the past six months, this spiritual crisis has manifested in myriad ways — in the hoarding of scarce resources, in epidemic levels of anxiety and depression, in protests against stay-at-home orders and social distancing rules, and in rushing to “reopen” before it was medically safe to do so. This spiritual crisis is arguably more dangerous than the virus itself, as it has led to prolonging the length and intensifying the severity of the pandemic for all of us. We will therefore never successfully navigate this season, or others like it in the future, unless we treat this underlying spiritual condition. 

But unlike COVID-19, there is a cure for this spiritual illness: let us reorient ourselves to see our inextricable connections to each other — connections which transcend space and time, connections which even death cannot sever, connections which call us to care for each other. Let us nurture these connections by caring for one another, by speaking and acting with kindness and love toward each other. And let us embrace the traditions we share with one another in order to maintain our connections with each other across space, and beyond time. 

As we begin a new year, I wish you health, resilience, and sweetness. Know that Cantor Rosenblatt and I are always here for you, in times of trouble as well as in times of joy. Please don’t hesitate to reach out. And remember, also, that to be part of a kehillah kedoshah means to be there for one another, especially during tough times. May we all not only feel, but also show each other, that even when we are socially distant, we are always spiritually close. 

Shanah Tovah.

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