By Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman
Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman delivered this talk at the Community Tikkun Leil Shavuot: Building Resiliency in Uncertain Times on May 28, 2020.
I could have never imagined that I would grab a hand-sewn mask and a bottle of sanitizer before leaving the house to run an errand, or that I would pull out a yardstick to show my daughter how far away to stand from her friend. Or that I would spend Shavuot gathering in little boxes on a screen with no communal cheesecake.
I could have never imagined that over 100,000 Americans would have died from a virus in just a few months. I struggle to wrap my head around the incalculable loss of jobs and income; the flourishing of white supremacy, domestic violence, and hunger; and the tremendous suffering and upheaval wrought by COVID-19.
Tonight on Shavuot, we celebrate Revelation, when God gave the Torah to the Jewish people on Mount Sinai. The people stand at the foot of the mountain. There is thunder and lightning, smoke and fire, the deafening sound of a horn. God speaks directly to the people. This is our mythic story.
Now the ancient rabbis disagree about what actually transpired in those sacred, transformative moments. What did God say, and what did the people hear? Countless commentaries through the generations have analyzed the text and re-imagined the encounter.
I’d like to share one text: The 19th century Hasidic Rabbi Naftali of Ropshitz focuses on the Ten Commandments, and specifically the three words that comprise the first commandment. He writes:
It is possible that at Sinai, we heard nothing from the mouth of God other than the letter alef of the first utterance “Anochi Adonai Elohechem, I am YHWH your God.”
The letter alef, for those who do not know Hebrew, is silent. All the people heard, in the words of Simon and Garfunkel, was the “sound of silence.”
With so much chatter and tweets and endless news, this text beckons us to listen to God’s presence in the silence. We can build resiliency in ourselves by turning off and unplugging, by focusing on our internal life, on the intricacies of our relationships, by creating practices that encourage us to slow down and be present. Maybe it’s prayer or meditation or ritual. Or making art or listening to music or gardening. Anything to get us to sit in silence and to clear our minds and open our hearts.
Over these past couple months, I have felt a tendency within myself to mentally jump to a dark and unknown future. I felt this tendency acutely when seeing images of people in Milwaukee standing in line for hours just to cast a vote. Or when the bars opened just after the Supreme Court overturned our “safer at home” orders. I asked myself repeatedly what this meant for our state and for our nation. What kind of chaos, injustice, and suffering would these next months bring?
When we brood about the future too much, it leads to despair, and we cannot be resilient when we are hopeless, desperate, and overflowing with anguish. But bringing ourselves back to the present, taking each moment as it comes, and centering ourselves with the silence of that alef can help us build resiliency. It can help us focus not only on our needs but on the needs of others. We don’t want to ignore the world around us or endlessly distract ourselves with social media or Netflix. It will only lead us into an individualistic bubble. Other people need us. They need our calm focus, our presence, our kindness, and our companionship.
I find that this is really hard to do, but I come back to the importance of having a practice that can ground us when life feels so out of control, when our future is so uncertain.
I don’t relate much to this hierarchical God at Mount Sinai who booms out commandments with fire and smoke and thunder. But it’s a great story, and I do very much appreciate that for generations Jews have been wrestling with this sacred moment. For me, that alef is a reminder of everything that is sacred in our world. It’s the tremendous outpouring of love and support for the victims of COVID-19, for healthcare workers who risk their lives to protect and serve others, for teachers, social workers, and therapists who reach out beyond themselves to be of use to others. For volunteers who sort supplies at food banks and serve food at homeless shelters. For activists protesting white supremacy and police brutality.
We are not going to get through this alone or with individual solutions. We need community. We need each other. We need to hold each other up and show up when one of us falls. This is how we will build resiliency in uncertain times.
Laurie Zimmerman is the Rabbi at Congregation Shaarei Shamayim.