This Ain’t Our First Rodeo

A sermon by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor

Erev Rosh Hashana, 5782

Congregation Shirat HaYam, Nantucket

On March 12, 2020, I drove to Tarrytown, New York, to meet up with some friends who were giving a concert at the Tarrytown Music Hall.  They had been on tour for the past several weeks and expected to continue the tour for another 2 months.  I have had a long-standing friendship with Dweezil Zappa, and several of his band members I count as close friends.  At sound check, which took place at 5:30, Dweezil told me that he was concerned as the tour might have to be canceled. Two other members confided that they were upset about the possible cancellation of the tour, not only because they loved doing their work, but it would also mean an end of their paychecks, which for a musician was quite scary.   Right before opening curtain, Dweezil told me that the plug had been pulled on the tour and the band and crew would begin their return to their homes in LA after the show.  But, they would leave everything they had to give on stage – and the concert was cosmic – and it was the last taste of live music and performance for me and everyone else as of the evening of March 12.  Broadway hosted their last performances and theatres and concert halls all over went dark.

On March 13, 2020, Marianne and I got on a flight to visit our son Zachary in Austin, TX.  There were many empty seats on the flight.  We returned to NYC on March 17 just as airlines began to shut down and we were on one of the last flights to take place for quite a while.  Our son’s partner Shelby, who was also visiting at the time, and had a return flight to NYC the following week. Her flight was cancelled – and she ended up living in Austin and only returned to NY several months later to clear out her apartment and move back to Austin (I guess the issue of whether they were making a long-term commitment was solidified at that time).

As ABC news reported (“A year of COVID-19: What was going on in the US in March 2020”

By Ivan Pereira and Arielle Mitropoulos March 6, 2021):

The U.S. would never be the same after March 2020. While the novel coronavirus had been in the country for at least a month, in March cases began to jump at alarming rates as did the hospitalizations and deaths. Former President Trump and other federal leaders initially claimed that the virus would not be a major problem, but many changed their stance by the end of the month and the virus was declared a national emergency. Still, relatively little was understood about the disease and politicians on both sides of the aisle as well as leading public health officials issued guidance, including about mask-wearing…. In fact, masks were recommended and then required in some places, like New York, the next month. One by one, states issued stay-at-home orders shutting down all non-essential businesses, travel, and gatherings, creating a ripple effect that crippled the American economy for months to come.

Now, 18 months later, after massive research and the creation of vaccines, and their administration, overall, about 189.9 million people — or 57 percent of the total U.S. population — have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to latest figures from the CDC. About 163.9 million people, or 49 percent of the total U.S. population, have now been fully vaccinated. Despite this massive effort, over-confidence and ennui have set in making more people careless – and even belligerently ignoring accepted science — so that here on Nantucket, and in most urban and suburban settings, the number of cases, once falling are now rising, precipitously. 

And even if one can envisage an end to the on-going crisis brought on by Covid-19, most say that our world will never be the same.  Life, as we once knew it will be transformed into a new, and yet-known pattern.

Having COVID-19 take over our lives for the past 18 months has been all-consuming.  Where we work, where we play, where and how we socialize, how we exercise, how our children and/or grandchildren learn – all of it is painted with a covid paintbrush.  These things have changed how we dress, how we dine, where and how we travel.  It is very easy to view this experience as so unique, so transformative, so life-changing that we are ill prepared to deal with the fall-out, and we cannot fathom how life might return to “normal.”  Perhaps it is the wisdom of King Solomon that might help us have a more sober view.

Ecc 1:1-11: These are the words of Kohelet (the Teacher, Solomon), son of David, King in Jerusalem. “It is useless (or impermanent), Kohelet said, it is all useless.  Everything is useless.” What do you gain with all your work, with everything you do under the sun? One generation goes and another generation comes.  But the earth always remains the same. The sun rises and the sun sets, and glides back to where it rises. Going to the South, then turning Northward, the wind goes around and around, and on its rounds, the wind comes back.  All rivers flow into the sea.  Yet the sea is never full. To the place where they flow, the rivers flow back again. Everything is exhausting.  You can’t speak.  The eye can’t see enough.  The ear can’t hear enough. What was is what will be. What has been done is what will be done.  There is nothing new under the sun. There might be something that one might say, “Look! Here is something new!” But it already happened a long time ago, before our time.” (Translation by Leonard S.  Kravitz and Kerry M. Olitzky “Kohelet: A Modern Commentary on Ecclesiastes” UAHC Press 2003)

Because of the immediacy of the pandemic, we forget that we have been through this before – multiple times.  The cause may well have been different, but the effect has been similar.  In each situation in the past we wondered, “Will our world ever be the same? Will we ever be able to return the lives we once knew?”

There is nothing new under the sun. This ain’t our first rodeo – we have dealt with and lived through tragedies before.  September 15, 2008 – the fall of Lehman Brothers which precipitated an economic crisis that continued for longer than 18 months.  Twenty years ago this week, terrorists turned planes into guided missiles and almost 4,000 lives were vaporized and as a nation and a continent, we felt less secure than ever before.  October 19, 1987, stock markets around the world lost over 20% of their value in one day.  In 1981 a strange disease began afflicting gay men which marked the start of the AIDS crisis, and its impact was felt everywhere, from the arts community to the impact on sexuality and intimacy across the board. Swine Flu, Polio from 1916-1954 (my father lived in an iron lung and doctors thought he would never walk, – he did, but he gained a permanent crooked smile as some of his facial muscles remained paralyzed). World War II, the Stock Market Crash of 1931, World War I….  And I am just mentioning life-changing, transformative, all-consuming events of the past century. 

Jewish life is filled with similar cataclysmic events, from which our people could not imagine what life would be like on the other side: the destruction of the First Temple, the exile to Babylonia, the destruction of the Second Temple, Bar Kochba’s fall at Betar, Constantine’s marginalization of Judaism, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Expulsion from Spain… Need I add more?

The RMBM, Moses Maimonides, in countering the Muslim philosophers of his day stated, “…We believe that the Divine Will ordained everything at creation, and that all things, at all times, are regulated by the laws of nature, and run their natural course, in accordance with what Solomon said, (Ecclesiastes 1:19) “As it was, so it will ever be, as it was made so it continues, and there is nothing new under the sun”. (Maimonides “Eight Chapters on Ethics” 8:9)

Life follows a biological pattern – birth, growth, decay, health, sickness, adaptation and cessation of life.  History does as well – it follows the same organic pattern. We have experienced devasting and transforming moments, and life continued on the other side. 

Yet, with each experience, we learned something new, changed some habits, broadened our outlook.  When we get to the other side of this pandemic, we will have learned some important lessons and we will have incorporated numerous changes into our daily lives.

First, we have learned gratitude.  Early in the pandemic, festooned around our neighborhood (and probably yours as well) hand lettered colorful signs expressed appreciation for people we had ignored, and their services simply expected. Saying thanks as we passed by essential workers; giving much larger tips to service providers.  Especially recognizing he people that we domicile with and the tender gestures they offered to help get through this time.  I now know the UPS driver, the postal workers, the mail carriers.  I ask the names of merchants who kept their stores opened.  We frequent restaurants that toughed it out to feed us. We have become a more grateful society.

We have learned to better balance work and family. Those who worked from home often found that they could take breaks and insert activities in between work assignments.  Marianne and I cleared our calendars for 90 minutes daily to take a yoga or Pilates class together, converting a room into a virtual yoga studio. Parents with children at home had to pay attention and even monitor activities. And despite the artificiality of ZOOM or Skype or FaceTime, we made appointments to check in with family and friends.  We may well have worked longer than the usual appointed 8-hour shift, but we broke work up to live a little.  We may even have discovered to define ourselves by who we are and not what we do.

Having been deprived for so long, we learned that human contact is essential for happiness. The first hugs or handshakes were revelatory.  Human contact is necessary to emotional well-being. Those who suffered in isolation while battling COVID, or watched a loved one through a window or door know that the slightest touch is a huge acknowledgement of our humanity. 

We even learned that we don’t need as much “stuff” (who knew that a pair of jeans, or yoga pants or sweat-pants were all we needed for almost every occasion?).  I got by most of the pandemic in two pairs of jeans and maybe a dozen shirts. When I had to conduct a zoom funeral or memorial service, I put on a shirt, jacket and tie and left my jeans on. Marianne conducted high level business meetings with government agencies wearing yoga pants, a white blouse and added a necklace and earrings and even an occasional bit of make-up.   

Even Shirat HaYam learned something: we could serve our community throughout the year, not just from Memorial Day to the end of the High Holidays.  Many of our services were well attended on zoom, and the same with our virtual adult education classes and virtual world travel.  People who rarely got to see one another while on island, connected through the chat feature before and after (and occasionally during) services.  Congregants who only knew of each other, but because of vacation schedules never met, discovered the richness of Shirat HaYam’s community. 

Life maybe a bit different once we passed through this challenge, but that happens anyway with the passage of time.  Life is organic – it grows and changes.

There is a fable about King Solomon (found in a 19th Century compilation, it may well have its roots in Sufi literature, and Abraham Lincoln also references it).  Solomon wanted to humble one of his servants and demands that he find a magical ring that would make him happy when he was sad, and sad when he was happy.  The servant went to a jewelry shop in the old city and described what he needed.  The grandfather of the jeweler comes out from the back of the shop and says, “I know exactly what you need.”  He takes a gold ring and carves nine letters on it.  The servant returns to King Solomon, who believed that he had given his servant an impossible task.  The servant places the ring in the King’s hand – and the King knew that the servant succeeded. The letters on the ring spelled three words, “Gam Zeh Ya’avor” which means, “This, too, shall pass.”

This ain’t our first rodeo, and this, too, shall pass. And because life and time change, we changed, too. And all we need to be is better than before. (h/t ruchikoval Out of the Orthodox Box

Shannah tova u’metuka!

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