The cicadas returned this past spring after 17 years spent underground. My earliest memory in life is 68 years ago as thousands of cicadas covered the red slat fence that surrounded my nursery school playground. Their shrill, relentless music and sheer numbers frightened my shy four-year-old self.
At about the same time as the cicadas emerged this spring, I returned to a Shabbat morning service in the BJ Sanctuary after 17 months davening alone on Shabbat in my living room. It was the first time I had re-entered a communal setting following the onset of the pandemic, and it was as if I, too, had emerged from underground.
My earliest memory of services in the BJ Sanctuary is a Friday night 30 years ago when I was mid-career serving as the rabbi of a congregation on Long Island. I took a busman’s holiday and spent Shabbat in the city, attending services in the packed main Sanctuary of BJ. The beauty of the Friday night singing and the melodies brought me to tears, and restored a spiritual connection that had been severed by the relentless demands of the congregational rabbinate. That experience changed how I understood prayer and reshaped the next two decades of my career in the pulpit.
With the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul in a few days, we enter into the season of the Yamim Nora’im and to its broader themes of return and teshuvah. To what will we turn back and to where should we return as these days of awe and repentance approach?
None of us has been untouched or unchanged by these past months of the pandemic. Some of us have been devastated by the death of someone we love, or have suffered from illness ourselves or within our family. Some of us were deprived of hugging our grandchildren and of Shabbat and holiday meals with our family. All of us have been reminded of our vulnerability—that there are forces in the universe greater than ourselves. We are “as clay in the hand of the potter who thickens it or thins it at will,” as we chant in the liturgy of Yom Kippur.
Yet for some of us there were silver linings in these months of isolation as well. We had more time to listen to and to be heard by those we love—our partners, our children, our grandchildren. (My adult children began calling every day to speak to us and check that we were not venturing outside.) We were able to shed the busyness which normally distracts us and to focus upon what is essential in our lives. We experimented with new challah recipes. We took longer walks in the park, noticed more closely the blooming of flowers and trees, and gazed at skies that were a deeper blue with the decline of traffic and pollution. I spent many mornings writing stories about my childhood so that my children and grandchildren will have a greater understanding of the events that have shaped my life.
For 17 months we burrowed into the ground, but now have cautiously re-emerged and engaged with the world. What do we need to cast aside from our pre-pandemic lives and what do we need to grasp again and hold tight? Whom do we need to relinquish from our previous lives and whom do we need to hug once again and bring close? What had we put off in our lives that we now need to do? My own eclectic list included giving blood, leading the morning minyan, eating out with close friends, getting a haircut, seeing the dentist (reluctantly), playing pickleball, replacing my empty Sodastream cartridges, and finally, and most importantly, playing Sorry and Jenga with my Israeli grandchildren who, God willing, are coming to visit us this week!
At the beginning of this week’s Parashat Re’eh, the Israelites stand poised on the banks of the Jordan River preparing to re-enter the land that God promised to their ancestors. They return to the Promised Land a different people with the accumulated memory of 400 years of slavery and 40 years of wandering in the desert uncertain of what they will find. As we stand on the threshold of this Shabbat and enter into this season of the Yamim Nora’im, we, too, engage the world as different people—certainly more vulnerable, undoubtedly more grateful for our health and our lives, and hopefully more appreciative of the fragility and beauty of life.
The cicadas emerge only for a month to mate; the nymphs then burrow into the ground for 17 more years cut off from a sunlit world. We do not seek to retreat into the sequestered depths of the pandemic world even with the uncertainties of new Covid variants. Our challenge is to re-embrace life fully conscious of how we have changed, and choosing wisely what we want to return to, in a world in which we learn to live with a pandemic as only one part of our lives.
Postscript: To follow up on my last summer’s “Toward Shabbat” column, I never was able to use the “Jeremiah-inspired” plane tickets to travel to see my family in Israel last Pesah, but have rebooked for next Pesah.