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Word of the Month: COVID-coping calls on kabbalists’ lessons

Cantor Sharon Hordes

D’var Torah
Cantor Sharon Hordes

I distinctly remember sitting down to write my annual D’var Torah for Community last March. I had just found out that school would be cancelled for both of my girls, due to something called the coronavirus, and I was rushing to finish the piece because I felt I might be too focused on my kids to write a decent article.
My main concern in that moment was getting my work done without distraction. How little did I know what was really in store.
Over these past nine months, we have learned a great deal about the health effects of this virus, how it spreads, but even more about how to adapt to this new reality.
Many of us had to Zoom our Passover seders with friends and family and the High Holy Days as well. Even if we have been attending worship services in person, with mandatory mask wearing and social distancing, the experiences have been a far cry from what we were used to.
Throughout this unintentional human experiment of quarantining and managing the fear and stress related to the virus, what has amazed me is how well, for the most part, we as a community have managed.
Our children are still learning via remote school or in socially distanced in-person classes. We have gotten used to putting on a mask and grabbing our hand sanitizer before leaving the house.
Over these past nine months, I have noticed parallels between the challenges we faced as Jews throughout the millennia and how we have successfully faced these challenges today, surviving and even thriving. Resilience seems to be baked into Judaism, enabling us to evolve and change to meet whatever is thrown our way.
There are many examples of this, but the one that most stands out to me is the optimistic poetry of Kabbalat Shabbat, specifically L’cha Dodi. The Kabbalat Shabbat service was created by 16th century mystics, a group of exiles and descendants of exiles, from Spain, who had settled in the Galilean town of Tzfat. They were crushed in the wake of the rejection they faced in Spain, a land in which their families had been living and thriving for generations. How did they cope with this existential pain? They focused on the intense and intimate love that God had for them.
“Rise up from destruction and fear no more,” wrote Shlomo HaLevi Alkabetz, the poet of L’cha Dodi, encouraging the exiled Jews. “End your dwelling in the tear-filled valley, for with God’s compassion you will be upraised.”
Alkabetz used such encouraging imperatives as “Awake! Arise from the dust” and “Dress yourself in this people’s pride.” These are the people from whom we have descended. Resiliency and hope in the future are our birthrights.
Jews have faced adversity again and again throughout our existence, and despite all the odds, we’re still here.
Once again, I have no idea what things will look like by the time you read my D’var Torah. Will an effective vaccine have been approved and administered to the groups most in danger of catching the virus? Will we have succeeded in flattening the curve again through social distancing and mask wearing?
Just as the kabbalists of Tzfat didn’t know how things would turn out for the Jewish people of the future, we don’t know how our battle with COVD-19 will end. But we can take a page from their book and move forward with confidence, trust in God, and adopt an attitude of optimism. If we are guided by both our heads and our hearts, we can make the world a better place.

(Cantor Sharon Hordes is the spiritual leader of Keneseth Israel.)

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