By Rabbi Jonathan Biatch
This has been an amazingly difficult year for all of us in this sacred community. The confinement and struggles from the pandemic, not to mention the illnesses and deaths affecting hundreds of thousands both in the world and here in our community, have caused us to cry out with the book of Psalms, “Out of the deep and miserable of places I have called to you, Eternal One. O God, listen to my plea.”1
Yet even with the restrictions, quarantines, and disappointments of the past eighteen months, we have continually shown up for one another … we have been present for one another … we have provided tangible resources for those in need … we have been active in the work for social justice … and we have joyfully worshiped together. We have shown resilience in the face of personal and communal difficulties, and – even in our angst – most of us have demonstrated resistance to skepticism. So, we might also say with the Biblical author of Deuteronomy, "Life itself has placed before us life and death, curse and blessing, and we have chosen life."2
Resilience. Patience. Courage. Hope.
These are the qualities we need to possess and employ in the year ahead, just as we have needed them for the last eighteen months.
Admittedly, some do not feel so optimistic or hopeful. There are those who are frightened, still unable to easily leave their homes and enter the public realm. And there are those who cannot go out because of infirmity, comorbidities, lack of mobility, or lack of transportation.
So, in our community, it is essential that we help everyone: those who are unable to join us: we can serve remotely or go to them; those who are reluctant to be in person will tell us when they are ready to move forward, and we need to listen, try to comprehend their situation, and to accept them with open arms.
According to the Talmud, one of the rabbis of our tradition spent time in isolation, and the difficulties he confronted could be instructive to us as we consider where our world has been in the last eighteen months, and what we need to bear in mind as we re-emerge into society.
I am referring to Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, one of the most cited rabbinic authorities in the Mishnah. He lived for preserving Torah: inhaling its fragrance and exhaling teachings to new rabbis whom he ordained regularly. Teaching Torah was a consuming passion in his life.
It was during his lifetime, however – the Second century of the Common Era – that Rome, as an occupying power in the land of Israel, had decreed torture and death for Torah scholars and for those who ordained rabbis. Rabbi Shimon not only taught and promoted Torah study, but he also publicly criticized Rome because of its prohibition of religious instruction and tyranny over the Jewish community. In retribution, Rome sentenced Rabbi Shimon and his son, Rabbi Eliezer, to death, for conspiracy and treason, really just for teaching Torah.
The father and son fled, taking shelter in an isolated cave in northern Israel, where, in defiance of the Roman authorities, they studied and taught Torah, day and night for twelve years, eating only carob fruit and drinking only water.3 Eventually, the Roman emperor died, Rome reversed their death sentence, and the rabbis could finally leave their protective confinement.
It’s not difficult to imagine how they felt when they finally emerged from that cave: elated that the danger no longer existed; thrilled to be in the sun once again; happy to return to the God-fearing community of Israel.
But the world into which they emerged in no way resembled the world they remembered twelve years before. They found a world that was – in their view, at least – unguided by Torah. This infuriated the rabbis. And the Talmud inserts a fantastical tale: Wherever the rabbis looked, their eyes literally incinerated every person at whom they cast their glance. Hundreds of people died.
God was so despondent at this behavior that the Holy One banished the rabbis, returning them to their cave for an additional year,4 punishing the rabbis for their audacious behavior and giving Divine Approval for the normal, everyday lives of people.
Those rabbis had their reaction to being confined for so long, and we have had ours. The last eighteen months have, indeed, left us scarred and battered – but not beaten, or defeated, or bereft of our core values:
- We have answered the call of adaptability
- We have accepted the challenge of adjusting to new circumstances.
- We have responded with the approach of Deuteronomy: “Life itself has placed before us life and death, curse and blessing, and we need to choose life."5
Jewish tradition affords us further guidance. As Rabbi Tarfon reminds us in the Mishnah, "The day is short, the work expands, and the workers are lazy. Yet the payoff is enormous, the master of the house presses forward … and we recall that it is not our responsibility to finish the work, but neither are we free to neglect it."6 Despite the difficulties of the past and the challenges we will confront in the future, Rabbi Tarfon reminds us that we must push ahead.
Being confined and quarantined this year has neither deactivated our humanity nor our ability to perform the work of social justice. And it certainly does not absolve us of the responsibilities we have toward one another.
Let us answer the call to service even when it is most difficult. May we each have a year of health, peace, and joy.
1 Psalm 130
2 Paraphrase of Deuteronomy 30:19
3 BT Shabbat 33b
4 BT Shabbat 33b
5 Paraphrase of Deuteronomy 30:19
6 Mishnah Pirkei Avot 2:15-16
Rabbi Jonathan Biatch, DD, MAHL earned a BA from California State University, Northridge, in radio-television broadcast management and then participated in a Jewish students’ institute and worked as a television production assistant in Israel. He earned a master’s degree in Jewish communal service from Brandeis University and worked for seven years at Jewish Federations in Buffalo, St. Louis, and Houston. He then entered the rabbinical program at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, receiving his master’s degree in Hebrew letters in 1991 and rabbinic ordination in 1992. Rabbi Biatch served pulpits in Staunton, Harrisonburg, and Alexandria, Virginia, and in Glendale, California, before joining Temple Beth El in 2005.