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Toward Shabbat: Vayehi

Last Wednesday began like most school days this year. I woke up, davenned, made breakfast for my kids, and then walked them to school accompanied by our dog. (My kids, and I, have been blessed to have in-person school this whole semester: a profound thank you to the leadership and teachers of Beit Rabban Day School.) Once we said goodbye, I headed up to Riverside Park. I did my usual ritual of putting in my headphones and turning on The Daily, a podcast of the New York Times. That episode of The Daily, unlike recent ones devoted to the pandemic, the election, and all the unrest in our nation and the world, was called “The Year in Good News.” Before the podcast, the host Michael Barbaro had invited listeners to send in a recording of something good that happened this year. For 25 minutes I found myself lost in the personal stories of good news of 2020: buying a vacuum cleaner, completing the knitting of a scarf after five years, learning the trumpet, overcoming illness, repairing a relationship, finding love, or finally getting pregnant after years of infertility. The last segment of good news was about the gift of waking up in the morning and being alive. As I strolled through the park, tears fell down my face and into the fabric of my mask. It felt like 2020 couldn’t leave fast enough. Good riddance. Almost 350,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, conspiracy theories parading as truth, profound questions of the viability of our democracy, the ongoing exposure and perniciousness of racism, and that’s just the beginning. There was so much loss in 2020: jobs, food security, and education. Not to mention life cycles celebrated isolated from family and friends. Mourning alone. Celebrating alone. Hugging or the gift of praying all together in our Sanctuary never felt so precious. 2020 was an unforgettable year that we might prefer to forget.


And yet, as the song “Seasons of Love” from the musical Rent reminds us, a year is composed of “five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes.” The song asks: “How do you measure? Measure a year?” How will we measure 2020 beyond its devastation? What will we learn from it, so we avoid facing the same lessons in 2021? What has been the good news of 2020, and how can we shine a light on it? What have we learned of our own resilience? The power of community and love and connection even at a distance? What of our privileges? What of our pains?

Our tradition teaches us to recite at significant moments the blessing of shehehiyanu:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’, אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, שֶׁהֶחֱיָנוּ וְקִיְּמָנוּ וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַזְּמַן הַזֶּה.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Who has given us life, sustained us, and brought us to this time.

Shehehiyanu is not only recited on holidays but also it is traditional to recite it upon eating a new fruit or the first fruit of a new season, buying or wearing something new, inheriting something or building something new. The Mishnah Berurah remarks that the essential element is a lev sameah (a sense of joy) with the novel experience. The Talmud in Berakhot 58b tells us, “R. Joshua ben Levi said: One who sees a friend after a lapse of thirty days says: Blessed is the One Who has kept us alive and preserved us and brought us to this season.”

We have arrived at 2021. Shehehiyanu. Marking this arrival is filled with a lot of devastation but also goodness and holiness. More than 525,300 minutes or so are left in this year. May the minutes of 2021 bring seasons of love, justice, comfort, healing, and peace. May we all have the gift of chanting shehehiyanu together in our sanctuary, arm in arm, marveling at the gift of being in person and the blessing of knowing there is always a blessing to say.

Shabbat shalom and happy 2021.