From Grief to Re-imagination
D’VAR TORAH / SERMON
RABBI DAVID BENJAMIN FAINSILBER
1 TISHREI 5781 / SEPTEMBER 19, 2020
as we gather for this new year, 5781—
scattered across the wavelengths for these holy days—
I cannot help but feel the enormity of grief we all face.
Today, we are dealing with a pandemic,
the loss of which reaches 200,000 lives in the U.S.
and close to 1 million worldwide.
Each life… a precious loss.
The outcomes of this pandemic
include economic devastation
with tens of million unemployed,
and 100,000 small businesses that closed down permanently, with more still yet to come.
We also face other sorrows,
with huge amounts of uncertainty,
and the world as we once knew it fractured.
We long for family members and friends we cannot visit,
the loss of physical connection, hugs and handshakes,
the increased anxiety at even going to the grocery store.
The weddings postponed,
the Mitzvah celebrations turned into Zoomitzvahs,
the funerals and shivas from a distance.
Even for these High Holy Days,
we have lost the safe ability to freely congregate.
Some of us experience this pandemic worse off than others.
Some gathered today have lost loved ones.
Some have been laid off.
Minority communities and those with the least among us
have been hit severely worse than others.
What do we do with this deep grief…
and with the continued uncertainty that is yet to come?
As we face these losses each day—
how will we get through this?
In the Torah portion for Rosh Hashanah that we just read,
we hear the story of Hagar,
the Egyptian secondary wife of Abraham.
In the story, Sarah tells Abraham:
גָּרֵ֛שׁ הָאָמָ֥ה הַזֹּ֖את וְאֶת־בְּנָ֑הּ
“Cast out that slave-woman (Hagar) and her son (Ishmael)…”
And so he does.
Early the next morning, Abraham sends them off
with some bread and water.
Hagar and Ishmael wander about in the wilderness,
but their water eventually runs dry.
In utter despair,
Hagar leaves Ishmael under a bush,
and sits a distance away from him, thinking:
אַל־אֶרְאֶ֖ה בְּמ֣וֹת הַיָּ֑לֶד
“Let me not look as my child dies!”
Sitting there, alone, Hagar bursts into tears.
So, too, does Ishmael.
G-d hears their cries,
and calls to Hagar, saying:
מַה־לָּ֣ךְ הָגָ֑ר אַל־תִּ֣ירְאִ֔י
“What troubles you, Hagar?
Do not be afraid, for God has heard your cries.
וַיִּפְקַ֤ח אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־עֵינֶ֔יהָ
Then God opens Hagar’s eyes
וַתֵּ֖רֶא בְּאֵ֣ר מָ֑יִם
and she sees a well of water.
She goes and fills her water, and gives some to Ishmael.
In this potent story of longing,
Hagar goes into the depths of her soul,
sitting with her grief,
וַתִּשָּׂ֥א אֶת־קֹלָ֖הּ וַתֵּֽבְךְּ
She lifts up her cries, wailing and moaning for her child’s life.
In that moment of expressed despair,
G-d opens her eyes,
and her needs are met.
who sits with her grief and experiences it,
our modern moment calls us
to face the despair of loss we are going through.
In her surprisingly uplifting book,
Healing through the dark emotions:
The wisdom of grief, fear, and despair,
Miriam Greenspan writes:
“The only way to heal is to go straight into the dark parts of ourselves
and make friends with whatever we find there.”
We lack much control over our lives:
Most acute today,
we face how loss—
in whatever ways we experience it—
could always be but a moment away.
Yet, what is under our control is
how we choose to live and to face our grief.
Like Hagar once did, we must turn towards our grief, and surrender to it.
What have you lost?
What are you grieving in these times?
To heal, we might first grieve the loss of life,
the increased loneliness, anxiety, and depression,
the loss of jobs and economic devastation,
and face the heartache that
some communities are suffering more than others.
To heal, we ought to see the precariousness
of our older adults who are at greater risk,
and be humbled at how
essential workers at hospitals, in grocery stores,
caregivers and educators of our children—
all those on the front lines of this pandemic—
are risking their health for the greater good.
We must “make friends” with these waves of grief,
born from within and without.
In facing the heartache, we can heal hearts and transform.
In Greenspans’ words:
“Griefwork is not a return to the pre-loss status quo.
People do not get ‘back to normal’… after any profound loss.
Grief is an opportunity not for ‘resolution’… but for transformation:
a wholly new awareness of reality, self, beloved, and world.”
As we face our grief, we let it flow through us and transform us.
How has the grief of this time in history
changed you, your family, and your community?
In these past months,
I have been so moved by how,
conversations often start where the person asks:
‘How are you?’
Not in the typical, casual way,
but instead really, truly, as I ask you now,
beloved friends and community:
‘How are you right now!?’
Grief in coronavirus times has meant that
we see with new eyes how interconnected we are—
as our hearts expand in greater depths
of empathy, care, and authenticity
than we thought possible.
Our care for each of us
has grown alongside our collective care for all of us.
Facing our collective grief has meant
new ways in which our society has stepped up for each other.
We have provided meals to countless in need,
delivered food by neighbours for neighbours,
made extra calls to the the most vulnerable just to say:
how are you?! how can I help?
We have worn sometimes uncomfortable masks,
kept our distances from other,
and washed our hands thousands of times to keep ourselves and each other safe.
At JCOGS, while we could not meet in person,
we’ve connected over Zoom,
reached out to individual members in need,
and celebrated Zoomitzvahs over the past months that were utterly beautiful,
as the Mitzvah students transformed into young Jewish adults.
In the wider community,
our Lamoille Community House warming shelter
immediately tripled its capacity in March
to serve families who became homeless overnight due to the economic situation,
while a county-wide organisation came together
to help raise awareness from health services to economic recovery to housing opportunities.
On a national scale, people are standing up for racial injustice
for Black and Brown people who are disproportionately affected by this virus—
further expanding our sense of empathy into greater action.
This time of COVID-19 has meant greater supports for those in need—
so many of us giving and receiving for our collective needs.
Now, is the time to re-imagine a society that is good for all.
This moment in history calls on us to re-envision
a way of life that acts on our empathy for others,
where everyone’s needs are met.
As Hagar cried tears from her eyes for the imminent loss of her child,
only to then open those same eyes
to see her and her child’s needs met,
so may we, too, cry our own tears of loss,
and then re-imagine a new world of health, dignity, and prosperity
for us, for our children, and our children’s children.