Erev Rosh Hashanah - 5782/2021 Rabbi Joel Nickerson

  • 5782/2021
  • Rabbi Nickerson
  • Rosh Hashanah

A psychiatrist in Florida has recently begun using a new phrase to explain Americans’ growing desire to stay home.  He calls it ‘cave syndrome’.  Research shows that even those who are fully vaccinated have developed an anxiety and unease about venturing out into the world, choosing instead to remain safe and secure in their homes.  There are many days that ‘cave syndrome’ perfectly captures my state of mind.  But I have a career that takes me out into the world, children who need to go to school and continue with their social-emotional development, and friendships I’d like to maintain.  It’s not easy to balance these conflicting values – the safety, security, and comfort of cave dwelling with the yearning for interpersonal connections, enjoyable entertainment, and a date night with my wife every once in a while.  As we slowly move into the next phase of this pandemic, I keep asking myself, ‘how can I make sure I don’t lose sight of the lessons I’ve learned during this pandemic?’  I fear we are going to come out of this and be tempted to block the last year and a half from our minds; to treat it like a bad dream and try and return to how things used to be.  But that’s just not possible and we have an incredible opportunity to hold on to the lessons of this pandemic and use them to improve ourselves and the world around us.  Our tradition offers a strategy to come out of this braver, stronger, smarter, and happier.  Earlier in the pandemic, I taught a 30-week online course called ‘Talmud Tales’.  Each week, we explored a story from the ancient rabbis and connected it to our own lives.  There is one story that speaks to this current moment like no other.  It’s about a man and his son and their time in a cave. 

In the first century, soon after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son were being hunted by the Roman authorities and they needed a place to hide.  They found a cave, the perfect place to isolate and protect themselves from the outside world.  As they settled in, they spent their days focused only on the things that mattered the most to them - spiritual development, sharpened intellect, and father-son bonding.  They came to enjoy this world of isolation because their personal priorities were the only priorities that mattered.  It was a reprieve from the chaos of the outside world and they quickly grew accustomed to their new life in the cave.  

My family and I marked the start of our own cave-dwelling by sitting together at dinner and watching Mayor Garcetti make his Safer at Home announcement last March.  As we would soon discover, those family meals would become a central part of our cave experience.  For the next year and a half, we tried to make the most of it.  We spent hours bonding and laughing by making parody music videos about life in quarantine.  We got a dog.  We took family walks.  I had quality time with each of my girls.  I cooked and BBQ’d constantly.  We celebrated Jewish holidays with family and friends from around the country on Zoom.  We read books.  I spent time focusing on the things that mattered the most in my life – my family, my mental and physical health, and creativity within my own career.  I’ve spoken with many people who have had a similar experience.  We’ve tended to call these the ‘silver linings’ of the pandemic; the ability to reconnect with people and personal values in ways with which we just didn’t have the energy or time before all of this.  Many of us know people who have even decided to change careers, move to new places, retire early, or reconfigure their entire lifestyle.  Just like the rabbi and his son, in many ways, our time at home has been a reprieve from a previously overscheduled life.  Many of us were able to take advantage of our time in isolation.  But we also knew that the time in our caves wasn’t going to last forever.   

Finally, after twelve years in the cave, Elijah the Prophet visited the rabbi and his son and told them it was safe to emerge.  They were unsure of what they would discover.  As they stepped out into the light, they saw a group of people working in the fields, doing normal, daily tasks; living their lives in the new world.  This infuriated them.  “What are these people doing wasting their time with these tasks?!” they cried out.  “Why aren’t they completely dedicated to the one thing we know matters the most – spiritual enlightenment?!”  And with that, the Talmud imagines they magically transformed into ancient super villains.  Everywhere they looked, objects burst into flames.  They destroyed everything in their path.  They had no interest in talking with strangers or listening to ideas that didn’t fully align with their own.  Instead, better to destroy everything and replace it with their own agenda.  They shot out flames of harsh judgement and anger.  In their minds, they had come out of the cave to a society that was on the verge of collapse and the only way to reverse the downward trajectory was to burn it all down.

We have witnessed something eerily similar as we’ve slowly emerged from our own pandemic isolation.  Physical assaults on airplanes have reached an all-time high.  Violence has become standard fare at school board meetings and political rallies.  From Maine to California, more motorists are driving recklessly and exceeding 100 mph than ever before.  Cancel culture has become a mainstay and the false information disseminated on social media platforms has bolstered mudslinging and aggression.  I’m appalled by the number of shouting matches I’ve witnessed on our streets these past months.  Rage is in the air.  And then there’s the judgement.  It seems like we’re judging each other more harshly and more often - what activities you determine are safe to do during COVID, how and when you wear a mask, your vaccination status, what you post, or don’t post, on social media.  These choices lead to assumptions and critiques about political affiliation, an unwillingness to give people the benefit of the doubt, and sometimes lead to friendships quietly ending. Many believe they have an individual right, if not a responsibility, to serve as judge, jury, and executioner.  We have come out of our caves with a fiery look in our eyes and a posture that says, ‘Don’t mess with me.’ 

But self-righteous indignation was not the way the rabbi and his son were supposed to come out of the cave.  “Did you come here to destroy my world?” God challenges. “Go back into your cave!”  And with that, they were forced back inside.  This time, going back in did something to the rabbi.  He was forced to contend with a different side of the cave experience.  This time it felt different.  This time it felt like hell.  This part of the story reminds us about the other side of our year and a half in isolation.  The monotony, the anxiety, the fear, the loneliness, the uncertainty.  There are those whose isolation has only amplified the pain of being alone during difficult times.  There are others who realized they no longer want to share a bed with the person sleeping next to them.  Sales of alcohol and drugs have skyrocketed during this pandemic as many have looked for ways to dull the overwhelming emotions that flood us on a regular basis.  Many of us have worked harder at our jobs than ever before, feeling a new level of burnout that we didn’t think was possible.  Others have lost their jobs entirely and worry about their financial futures.  And of course, there are the lives we’ve lost - the millions around the world to the virus itself, and the countless others who died during this time for other reasons.  My grandfather and my step-mother both died during this pandemic, not from COVID, but because of all the pandemic restrictions, my family couldn’t mourn together, properly.  In many ways, this pandemic has imprisoned us.  It’s felt like hell.  It has forced us to confront internal demons, to address inconsistencies between the vision we had for our lives and our reality, to dig deep in order to find strength and resilience, to meet challenges we never imagined we would have to face, and to look in the mirror and take a good, hard look at ourselves.  

Back inside for yet another period of time, the rabbi and his son were able to reflect and recalibrate.  They were able to sit with both sides of the cave experience – the gift of being able to refocus on the things that truly matter as well as the pain and anxiety that had come with such isolation.  They had learned many lessons during their two times in the cave; lessons that had challenged them, inspired them, frustrated them, changed them.  The only thing they had to figure out was how they were going to hold on to those lessons when they would finally be able to leave the cave.  The test that confronts all who reemerge from the cave is learning how to integrate both worlds without losing the uniqueness of each.  After twelve more months in isolation, a heavenly voice called out and said, “Go out from your cave.”  Unlike their first emergence, the rabbi and his son realized this was their opportunity to come out the way God intended.  

It was a Friday afternoon when they emerged and they noticed that everyone was getting ready for Shabbat.  They saw an old man carrying two large bunches of fragrant spices and curiously asked him why he needed them.  “To honor the Sabbath; to make it more meaningful and more beautiful,” he told them.  “But wouldn’t just one bunch be enough?” they asked.  “No,” he replied.  “It is my job to do this mitzvah; to bring about as much beauty to Shabbat as I possibly can.”  The old man’s answer seemed to provide the last remaining instruction needed for Rabbi Shimon to take the lessons of the cave and carry them into the future.  He turned to his son, smiled, and said, “See, my son, how dear and special a mitzvah is for the Jewish people?”  And with that, their minds were set at ease and they were able to live peacefully in the outside world.  

What was it about that old man carrying the spices that solidified everything for the rabbi and his son?  What is this story from the Talmud teaching us about the nature of a Jewish spiritual life after destruction, chaos, and trauma?  The Jewish response to trauma and pain; the antidote to all the suffering, anger, hostility, and isolation is to bring more beauty into the world.  And the Jewish way to do that is through mitzvot – actions that counteract the negative forces that surround us; actions that focus us on things greater than ourselves.  The story reminds us that the way to come out of this pandemic stronger, braver, healthier, and happier is to hold on to the lessons we learned and then use those teachings to turn our attention to improving the world around us.  

When most people study this story, they tend to stop after the rabbi and his son meet the old man.  But there’s one more piece of the story that is essential to understanding it’s message.  Rabbi Shimon’s son-in-law hears the news about their emergence, runs to greet them, and starts tending to the cuts and sores that developed on the rabbi’s body.  After all, there is no way to come out of the cave without injuries.  We are all going to emerge from this with pain and wounds that will fester if we don’t tend to them.  Embarrassed to see someone he loves in such physical and emotional pain, the rabbi’s son-in-law starts crying, saying, “I’m so sorry I have to see you like this.”  But the rabbi stops him and replies, “You should be happy that you are getting to see me like this.  If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t have been exposed to all the knowledge and lessons I’ve learned from my time in the cave.  Since a miracle transpired for me and I survived this ordeal, I will go out and repair something for the sake of others.  Please, direct me to that which needs to be fixed.”  And with that, the story ends.  

We have learned a lot about ourselves and our society during our year and a half of cave dwelling.  There were parts of our lives before COVID that had been broken and needed repair.  There were cultural and political challenges that needed addressing.  Our time in the cave revealed much that had been hidden and as a result, we have gained personal and collective wisdom that can guide us towards a bright future.  We must not emerge with a desire to burn it all down, but rather, a willingness to heal and to find the beauty.  Our tradition believes that the way to do that is by directing our energies outward.  It is through mitzvot, actions that focus us on things greater than ourselves, whether it be tzedakah, pursuing justice, caring for the stranger, healing the sick, providing for the poor, or working for peace, that we not only heal the world, but we can heal ourselves as well.  With the lessons from the cave fresh in our minds, let us emerge anew, into a new year full of hope, healing, and possibility.

Shana tova.