Remarks shared with Hillel colleagues, January 2021:
As always, I’m so thankful for such a stellar group of colleagues and for the space that’s been created today. I’m a social worker by training and as any of my fellow MSWs know, we live by the ethos ‘meet the client where they are’. I feel blessed that the nature of our Hillel work is that we are charged to do the same with our students and our professional peers.
Of course, that begs the question, on this difficult week or any other – where are we? I’ve thought about that question a lot lately. Where am I as a parent or child, in the midst of this challenging pandemic? Where am I as a citizen – am I doing enough of my share of the work that must be done to fix the ills of the world? Where are we as a nation that the events of this week could have transpired?
This question of location was very present over the past 48 hours, as friends from far and wide reached out to see how my family and I were doing. Were we safe? Were we okay? And I always wrote back with a similar response – we’re sad, like you are. We’re troubled, like you are. Beyond a curfew I barely noticed or helicopters overhead my home, I might as well have been in Alaska. Why should anyone be more concerned about me than about themselves?
And yet – I know the closeness matters, and this closeness is what I’d like to briefly speak about today.
Closeness, on a bad day, can be a liability or a blind spot, a road block to seeing a bigger picture. During this entire pandemic, I’ve never once thought, until this week, I’m so glad our students are not here. Closeness can be an invitation to danger, an opening to paths I might hope to shelter them from. During my own time as an undergraduate at NYU, I lived through the dark season of 9/11. As a sophomore, I lived only a few blocks from the World Trade Center, seeing things that day that I wish I could forget. As the world fell apart, I rode the bus, I went to a class on urban education, and then I was perplexed that when I left the class, all seemed so quiet. My cell phone wouldn’t work so I found a pay phone on West 4th Street and magically got through to my father. Only once hearing his distant and shaky voice, hours after I had seen with my own eyes what had happened, did I begin to understand. His distance brought me close, but my actual closeness temporarily blinded me.
But I am an optimist at heart. And while closeness may be an impediment, it might also be the exact elixir we need to solve the problems of this nation.
Over the past months, and earlier this week, we have lived through charged Election Days. I keep the TV on far too often and have watched the image news stations show of a divided Senate. The graphic is shaped like a semi circle and has 100 empty grey spaces, representative of 100 Senate seats. To demonstrate whether each seat is held by a Republican or Democrat, the blocks will slowly fill in from the outer area of the image, merging towards the center halfway seam. As we now know, with the results of the Georgia run-offs, this week the colors perfectly cleaved together.
I recognize that one analysis of such an image is the epitome of divisiveness. See how divided we are! What a mess this country has become!
But the image flashed me back to my wedding chuppah, nearly 13 years ago. Our beloved colleague, Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, stood with my husband and I, sharing the often reflected idea that each of us are a unique letter in the Torah. Even those who make poor choices are holy beings, needed to complete the text. But Yehuda expanded upon this idea, sharing that we are not simply letters, but we are letters with one face that points outwards, and another that cleaves to the parchment, a private side unseen by most.
This image of the Senate seam, of a meeting of differences perfectly cleaved together just as the private side of a letter and parchment are, was on my mind as reports from the Capitol of private spaces where our elected representatives were hidden away while madness ensued outside. In my hopeful imagination, I assume that many public personas might have been put aside, that blustery rhetoric was silenced. A majority of our nation’s leadership evaluated what they were living through, cleaved together to one another, and hit the reset button together. Precisely because of their closeness to the event and to each other, they emerged determined to stay up late into the night, preserving the values of our great nation, allowing democracy to prevail.
Closeness can temporarily blind us to what we’re truly seeing, but it can also be the exact blessing needed to power us forward. Whether in DC or simply watching on the TV screen this week, we were all close enough to a moment of deep sadness and tragedy for our country. Will we now turn away to try to get distance, or will we cleave ourselves more deeply to the values and choices that will help our country do better? Will the images of the week make us turn further away from difficult conversations, or try to go closer to them in order to make long-needed headway?
As we enter Shabbat, may closeness to your loved ones bring you joy, may the private side of your own letter in the Torah bring you wisdom, and may we light candles tonight with a prayer that our country should and CAN do better.