A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 5.7.2020

When the archives of the Coronavirus era are opened, future generations will find a mass of information. News reports, medical updates, accounts of leadership failures and successes, economic analyses, the slow-motion unfolding of massive, lasting social change. But above all, they will find stories. Millions and millions of stories. Stories of heroism on the part of front-line workers; stories of terrible tragedy – of families wiped out, of people dying alone; stories of neighbors helping one another in ways great and small; stories of unimaginable selfishness and stupidity (they will laugh at our folly); stories of economic ruin and great generosity, deep faith and lost faith. And from these stories, they will weave a picture of what this time was like. It won’t be quite right – history is merely a shadow cast on the future – but every little story adds to the bigger picture, making the pixels smaller and smaller, so that something approaching historical reality can ultimately be gleaned.

The website of StoryCorps, the extraordinary American story archive, says that we tell stories “to remind one another of our shared humanity, to strengthen and build the connections between people, to teach the value of listening, and to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters.” What a noble endeavor, or to translate this into a Jewish sensibility, what a holy endeavor.

I spoke on Pesach about the power of the hesped/eulogy as a tool for self-improvement. But our everyday stories, the stories of the living, are also tools of elevation. In the context of a synagogue community, knowing someone’s story transforms that person from a face that you recognize in the pews (or in their little Zoom box) into a whole person, with a history, with lived experience, with wisdom. All of a sudden you have something in common with them, and you share the mutuality of your humanity in a new way.

In our own communal Coronavirus era, at EMJC, we are launching an effort to collect your stories, specifically your Coronavirus era stories (and specifically how they might relate to EMJC):

How has EMJC been there for you in this time?

How has someone from your EMJC community been there for you (or you for them)?

How have you engaged with the synagogue?

Is there an object or a scene or a view that defines this time for you?

Is there a single story or interaction you’ve had that has helped you or defined this era for you?

How has this time affected you?

How has it changed things for the better? For the worse?

Have you learned anything about yourself, your friends and family, your community, the broader society?

How are you passing the time?

How are you connecting with people?

You can include photos (of yourself, of others, of objects, of scenes/views, pictures your kids have drawn, etc…) or other media (short videos?). Be as creative as you like, and make any connections you can.

We are asking you to share your experiences so that we can all connect in yet another way. It may be a sentence or two, or a paragraph or two (in general, shorter is better), but we’d like to hear your story and perhaps post it on our website so that we can all compare experiences, make connections, and discover new things about one another. We will have a few examples up in the next few days if you’d like to see what others are doing.

This Shabbat, I’ll be talking about how, at its core, the book of Leviticus is all about connection – to God and to others – and how this connection elevates us all. French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas viewed this idea through a contemporary lens. He said: “My relationship to God is mediated through my relationship to the human other, whom I am face to face with.”

Our stories allow us to get face to face with one another. In this time of social isolation, let’s break down the barriers of separation by getting up close to one another in other ways. I’m reminded of a quote from the prophet Micah (2:12-13):

I will assemble Jacob, all of you… I will make them all like sheep… Like a flock inside its pen— They will be noisy with people. One who makes a breach [God] goes before them; They enlarge it to a gate and leave by it.

Our stories can be our breach, enlarging our confinement to a gate (though I can’t promise that we’ll be able to leave by it). And thus we come into contact with something greater than ourselves.

Shabbat shalom u’mevorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,

Rabbi Sam Levine