Let me start with the news from the health front. I had two televisits with doctors at Mt. Sinai. Dr. Keyzner wants to see me in person at Mt. Sinai the second week of June. I have not been there since February 5th when I had my last blood test. My nephrologist, Dr. Chung, also wants me to have some lab tests in June. Both doctors commented on the fact that I look good. They both said that I need to be careful and not go outside other than to exercise. They agreed that until there is a vaccine or effective treatment I will have to restrict my activities as I am doing now. I am so thankful to be alive, but my full reentry into the world has now been delayed. I think of the day five years ago when Dr. Keyzner said that the recovery from a bone marrow transplant would take six months to a year and how long that sounded to me. Now it looks like my restrictions will continue until two years or more after the transplant. So be it. I am very thankful just to be alive. I feel like saying to those who complain about the current restrictions, I understand that it is taking a great economic and psychic toll, but this is a lifesaving issue. Sometimes you have to be patient and sacrifice for the common good.
I have been keeping occupied. I continue to read, solve crossword puzzles and watch too much television (I was treated so poorly by Sprint that they gave me a free subscription to Hulu. I highly recommend Mrs. America). I keep myself attached to the rabbinic and synagogue world. I am captivated by the creative ways my colleagues deal with the pandemic. If I wanted to I could take a class, listen to a lecture or participate in a conference call every day. So many Jewish organizations are offering wonderful content. I am learning in a class with Rabbi Shai Held of the Hadar Institute about the Book of Psalms. This week I began a course for Rabbis and Jewish educators from the Pardes Institute called, Mahloket [Hebrew for conflict, or disagreement] Matters: How to Disagree Constructively. At this time when there are so many disputes and it seems that people are living in totally different realities, I look forward to learning how to try to bridge and understand those differences.
I also find that I cannot break an old habit. When I see or hear something that could be used in a sermon, I still cut it out or copy it to my computer. I recently found two fascinating pieces. Both deal with issues of religious life that parallel Jewish practices and sources. One is about mourning and the other about hope. In my pre-retirement life I would have woven them into a sermon. Since you won’t be hearing me speak from the bimah you can read the following or if you have heard too many of my sermons, you can skip the rest of this blog post. I won’t be insulted.
The first is from this week’s NY Times Sunday Magazine, “Insanity Can Keep You Sane If you can’t live normally, why not find little harebrained ways to warp reality?” By Molly Young. I like this because it offers a reflection of how a community supports a person who is mourning in ways that are similar to our practice of shiva.
Here is the quote:
Some years ago a friend of mine lived with a community called the Bruderhof. The Bruderhof is a constellation of settlements numbering about 3,000 people, spread over four continents, with roots in Anabaptism — a 16th-century radical offshoot of Protestantism that believes in a separation of church and state and adult baptism, among other reforms. Members are pacifists who renounce private property, live simply, dress modestly and — to judge by the official Bruderhof website — have a distinctive sense of humor. Amish-adjacent’’ is probably the easiest way to describe them, but they’re allowed to have smartphones, drive cars and upload (utterly delightful!) YouTube videos.
At some point in my friend’s residence, a pregnant couple from the community went to an outside hospital to give birth. The baby was stillborn. Instead of the planned celebration, a course of mourning began. The day after the couple returned, a busload of men and women from a neighboring settlement showed up to take over daily operations. For 10 days this fleet of visitors cooked, cleaned and performed whatever tasks needed doing while the home community paused. ‘‘It felt like something from ‘Lord of the Rings,’ ’’ my friend told me. ‘‘All of a sudden this ancillary battalion shows up over the hill, and you feel like you might win the battle.’’ I can’t claim to understand the exact meaning of this protocol, but it makes sense on its face. A grieving period is marked by altering outer reality to mimic the state of the bereaved’s inner world: absolute inertia, total cessation of routine. The ratification might not be curative, but at least it would feel cosmically sensical.
The philosophical underpinning of this process is something the Bruderhof calls gelassenheit, and like a lot of ultimately untranslatable German words, the meaning has been extensively discussed, debated and written about on the internet. (The Anabaptist blogging community is surprisingly robust.) Yielding, waiting, submitting to God, abandoning the self, surrendering pride, subordinating the individual to the community — this is the English word cloud around gelassenheit. One blogger described it as ‘‘an antidote to the sheer pompous weariness of the world,’’ which sounds about right.
If I were to quote this I would start with the fact that it is so difficult to grieve during this pandemic. “Lord of the Rings?” What the author heard about is something out of Jewish practice. Our observance of shiva and the article show how different religions understand the need for community at a time of loss. Nothing can substitute for the life that is gone, but the presence of your community can help you navigate those mournful times.
The second one is from a podcast by Kate Bowler, the author of Everything Happens for a Reason…and other Lies I Loved. She was interviewing Wajahat Ali, a New York Times Contributing Op-Ed writer, public speaker, attorney and father of two. From his bio, “He believes in sharing stories that are told through a culturally specific lens to entertain, educate and bridge the global divides. His essays, interviews, and reporting have appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and New York Review of Books. In 2019, right before he found out about his daughter’s diagnosis, [with cancer] he gave a highly watched TED Talk.”
Here is the quote: Wajahat Ali: …there’s…a saying of the Prophet Mohammed, which is very similar to Christian and Jewish teachings, where He told his followers that even if you see the Day of Judgment coming around the corner, you have to plant the seed. So if you have the sapling in your hand and you’re like, “oh, I was going to plant the seed. Oh, look, it’s the four horsemen. They just came over the mountain, huh? What should I do?” And yeah, in the, in the, in the command, in the recommendation rather, from Him was to plant the seed, which means even if it seems that literally everything will fall apart. You still have to have hope and not just have hope, you have to act on that hope.
Here is the parallel Jewish source, Avot d’Rabbi Natan 31b, “Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai [1st century C.E.] taught: “If you have a sapling in your hand, and someone says to you that the Messiah has come, stay and finish the planting, and then go to greet the Messiah.”
No knows when the pandemic will end and it can seem like things are falling apart. So many are grieving the death of a relative or friend, and there is great economic hardship. I have been fortunate not to face such loses. I try to be optimistic. Maybe we should go out and plant a tree or at least call the Jewish National Fund and have them plant trees in Israel in memory of those lost lives to remind us to hope.