There is an old story of a Rabbi who moves to a new congregation where they are arguing about whether to sit or stand for the Shma. The Rabbi consults with the Board, many members, and simply cannot figure out what the practice originally was. At the advice of the President, the Rabbi goes to the oldest living member of the congregation.
The Rabbi explains everything, and that there is no way to sort this out. The woman scratches her head, and says, “I’m not sure what the practice was…” The Rabbi adds, frustrated: “Please help me, they keep yelling and screaming at each other!” “Yes,” she says, “the yelling and screaming, that was the practice!!”
Among the things I love about this story is that this happened to me in my first two Synagogues. Both had the practice of standing for the Shma. And yet, the Mishnah is quite clear: we should remain in the position in which we find ourselves when we recite Shma. That is, God can be with us in whatever posture. Sitting, standing, in grief, in joy, when we go out and when we come in, God is there in all of it.
So right now it would be easy to see this as a time of curses. Illness, violence, racism, looting and riots, fires, surely we are living in the curses described in this weeks Torah reading. And yet, there are also words of comfort: Arise, arise, for your light has dawned, says the Prophet, amid times far worse than ours. In other words, even when surrounded by curses, there is still light and blessing. And the more we remember the blessing, the more we are able to build the world we need for when we emerge from these strange times.
We are less frenetic than we were six months ago. Though many complain of boredom, there is also a time to reflect. Our culture of overstimulation has given way and there is a chance for something deeper to emerge. There are opportunities now for learning and music and so much culture that were previously open only to a select few able to travel or afford such offerings.
We are more connected than ever before. With our time to reflect, I wonder if we can feel more connected to people. As the Prophet says, Raise your eyes and look around. Never before has a virus affected every human so dramatically. Perhaps this is why the whole world is wrestling with questions of race right now. Perhaps this can be a moment to remember that race and ethnicity are tools by which we uncover our sacred selves rather than something to divide and be judged by.
Says the Prophet: God shall be your light everlasting. I believe a new light is dawning, I believe God is working in us, and I believe we are surrounded right now by immense blessing that can empower us to heal the world and change our custom from screaming and yelling and fighting to learning and caring and healing.
Rabbi David Booth