I, like many people, knew that Rosh Hashanah this year would be memorable. Every event this year will be marked in our memories as “the one that happened during a pandemic.” But, along with two friends, I tried to find some normalcy for our New Year celebrations. We quarantined beforehand and took COVID tests and then went out to the woods in West Virginia. And we brought apples and honey and brisket and tried to put together an experience that felt, as much as possible, like the times before.
We sat on a porch, poured wine, and talked about something other than life in quarantine. The transition to 5781 felt calm, peaceful even. In fact, it felt simple and easy.
And then we learned that Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away.
In a year already fraught with uncertainty and an election that felt disastrously contentious, this felt like it was simply too much. Mourning Justice Ginsburg wasn’t just about losing someone so monumentally important, it was also mourning a whole world that we would no longer get to experience. A world that, at least in my head, felt a little bit less contentious, an election a little bit less fraught, one full of debates and conversation that were just a little bit easier. And then, all at once, everything felt broken. Again.
Rabbi Alan Lew posits that the Jewish High Holidays period does not begin on Rosh Hashanah, or Elul (the month of introspection prior to the High Holidays), but rather, on Tisha B’Av. Tisha B’Av is the day when we remember and mourn the loss and catastrophe of the destruction of the Temple. Thus, the High Holidays do not begin with celebration or even introspection, but with everything falling down around us.
Judaism actually has a fair amount to say about what to do when you find yourself in a place where it feels like everything has fallen apart because, well, *gestures to all of Jewish history*
One teaching, from Berakhot, the book of the Talmud about blessings, tells us that Rabbi Yosei, while walking along the road, enters the ruins of an abandoned building “among the ruins of Jerusalem [in order] to pray.” While praying, he notices the prophet Elijah guarding the entrance. After greeting Elijah, they have the following exchange:
And Elijah said to me: My son, why did you enter this ruin? I said to him: In order to pray. And Elijah said to me: You should have prayed on the road. And I said to him: I was unable to pray along the road, because I was afraid that I might be interrupted by travelers and would be unable to focus. Elijah said to me: You should have recited the abbreviated prayer instituted for just such circumstances.
What, Rabbi Yosei asks, about all of my plans? What about trying to do things exactly the way it feels like we are supposed to?
Elijah’s firm response – that you cannot pray in a ruin, regardless of the goodness of your intent – teaches Rabbi Yosei that “one may not enter a ruin; and I learned that one need not enter a building to pray, but one may pray along the road.”
I think that the lesson the Rabbis want us to take is this: You cannot stay in the ruin, not just because everything it represents is gone, but because eventually, it very likely will collapse around you. This is, of course, not ideal. And you are not freed from your responsibilities – but you take them on the road. You keep moving.
Since Rosh Hashanah, I’ve been trying to keep moving. I told myself it’s what the “Notorious RBG” would have wanted of me. I obsessively double checked my DC voter registration, waiting for my ballot to arrive in the mail. And I signed up for every phone bank I could find. I donated every time I received a fundraising email. I (to the point of annoyance of most of my friends) was constantly texting about the hope I felt from the idea that we had to work, we had to keep going, and eventually we’d get to the place we were supposed to be.
And then I learned that progressing is hard. My ballot got lost in the mail and I spent hours on hold with various people trying to track it down. After I gave money, I found myself inundated with emails asking me to give more money to even more people. And phone banking? I, quite honestly, was not very good at it. My computer froze multiple times. Leaving me without a script, I had no idea what to say. People yelled at me, asking for no one to ever call them again. One person pretended (I assume), quite insistently, that I had in fact just reached Area 51.
Like Rabbi Yosei, I just wanted to go back to a place where everything made a little bit more sense.
On one of the occasions where my computer froze, I absolutely failed at every part of the call. I got the person’s name wrong. I forgot half of what I was supposed to ask. Finally, after stumbling through what I could remember of the script, the woman on the other end interrupted me. “Yes, I do know how I’m going to vote,” she said and then carefully walked me through her plans to mail her ballot.
“I’m so glad to hear that,” I replied, relieved both that she had a plan to vote and that she’d put an end to my rambling.
“Thanks for checking on me,” she said. She meant it. And then, just before hanging up she added, “Keep it up, kiddo.”
I started to cry, completely overwhelmed by the fact that a complete stranger took the time to tell me to keep going when I didn’t feel like I had it in me.
To be honest, there are days that I’m not sure I do have it in me. After a whole cycle of the High Holidays, I have not turned into an optimist. I haven’t gotten much better at phone banking. I feel guilty when I delete text messages asking me for money…but also continue to keep deleting the text messages. It’s on the way, I’m told, but I still haven’t gotten my mail-in ballot.
And, everything still feels like it’s falling apart. But, I take comfort in the fact that just as Tisha B’Av comes every year, it also passes. We begin the High Holidays every year in mourning, but we don’t stay there. In fact, if we keep going, we end the cycle with Sukkot – a holiday in which we are literally commanded to feel joy.
As we near the end of the election, joy feels like a lot to ask. But, in spite of it all, I can’t stop thinking about the encouragement of a complete stranger I met in my travels. She didn’t give me joy – she gave me hope. And with it, I’m going to keep going.
Author’s note: Thank you to Sienna Girgenti, Trey Meehan, Alexandra Tureau, and Rabbi Ilana Zietman. I am so grateful to be in community with you all, to have had the chance to learn with each of you this past High Holidays. I hope you can all see that your wisdom and teachings are threaded throughout this essay.
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