Biking down my alley this afternoon, the sun was warm and bright, there were birds chirping, and I thought to myself, "What a beautiful day." The two strangest things about this moment of awareness were that I was carrying an otherwise unreasonable amount of groceries and that I had not noticed the glorious spring day earlier.
For the past month or so I have been teaching a class called Chaos & Order. The original idea was to study Megillat Esther and the world of chaos it represents. And then to study the Haggadah, and the seder, or order, it prescribes. What became abundantly clear in the very first class is that chaos and order are inseparable, in the megillah, in the seder, and certainly in our daily lives. This is an extreme moment, when literally we realize that on 12 hours notice the world can be turned upside down, all routine and structure canceled. But it is not unique, in Jewish mythology and in human existence.
While we spent the last two weeks singing, "When Adar enters, joy increases," this Adar what feels more accurate is that uncertainty abounds. Truly, the month of Adar has shown us the power we have to turn the world upside down (na'afochu). As Rabbi Aviva Richman wrote, "This year, ushering in Adar doesn't correlate with ushering in more joy. As we look towards Purim with increased spread of illness and more and more people worldwide, including many American Jews, under quarantine, it doesn't really feel like a time of great joy. But then, the megillah itself isn't monolithically joyful. It is a drama of extremes, and most of the story is about being on the verge of disaster. Fear and uncertainty are right at home in the rhythm of this holiday."
And in truth, they are right at home in this week's parsha as well. Just after Moses ascends the mountain to retrieve the Divine word etched on stone tablets, the Israelites grow anxious. Fear and uncertainty abound. Will Moses return? Why hasn't he returned yet? Is there really a God up there? Why did we leave Egypt anyway? What was so bad about idols - at least I could see and touch them! The well of doubt grows wider and deeper, until the people have pooled all their gold and welded it into a golden calf.
While the soundtrack of fear and doubt sound different for us, surely they are playing on repeat these days. For the Israelites it was the lack of Moses' presence that led people to stray into old habits that otherwise didn't serve them. Meanwhile, we hear Moses in distress, literally begging to see God's face. He goes on to say, "Har'eini na et Kevodecha," "please show me your Presence" (Exodus 33:18). There is a lot of anxiety in our parsha, and in our hearts, about the nature of absence and presence, as it relates to chaos and order.
In our case, there is a lot of anxiety about both presence and absence. We are fearful to come close, lest we unwittingly contract or transmit this virus. And we are fearful to let go of each other, to take the needed social distance, lest we come to feel a larger absence in our lives.
What the students of the Chaos & Order class have taught me (which I think we are all surrogate students of these days) is that just as chaos and order are inseparable, so too are absence and presence. Even as we take physical space from each other, we are extending invisible lines of care and connection. And as we show up virtually, I feel confident we will feel a deep sense of presence and connection.
These are turbulent times and I am in awe of our collective capacity to be reflective, responsive and resilient. I take great comfort in knowing that we are reaching out to our neighbors and creating real systems for mutual aid. Our experience responding to this virus is helping us gain the skills we already need in order to be increasingly responsive to climate crises on the local level.
As we see in our parsha, fear itself is incapacitating, and not as useful as it feels. All of these cancelations are a concrete thing we can do, which makes them both powerful mitigants to both contagions and fear. But let us not let the scale of chaos inflate our fears further. I invite you to create as many opportunities in each day to come back to center, to the moment you are in, to notice the birds and the sun, and respond to that which is within your power.
Joy, ritual, and community are our superpowers.
For the next few weeks, in the absence of school and routine, let's imagine we are on a heightened retreat of sorts, deepening our collective practice and presence.
In the words of poet Jan Richardson,
Let there be
into the quiet
that lies beneath
where you find
you did not think
and see what shimmers
within the storm.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.