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Returning, Renewing, and Repenting

09/06/2021 10:14:13 AM

Sep6

Good evening and gut yontif. We have been vaguely in the season of Teshuvah for a month now, and the High Holy Days are here. Are you prepared to Return, Renew, and Repent? I find I am not sure that I am this year. Even as I am happy to welcome so many of you back into our beautiful sanctuary, I cannot stave off the fear that this is also still unsafe. I cannot stave off the sadness that there are still so many more not here today. Those who have passed in the last 18 months, those who are immune-compromised and are still not able to return to in-person activities, and those who in the months of isolation feel they have lost their connections to our community. I look at the world that we find ourselves in this Rosh HaShana and can’t help but wonder, what is it that we are returning to? There was a glimpse of returning this summer, but now it feels that more than anything we are in the same place we’ve been in for too long. As a country, a community, and at least for me personally, everything still feels stagnant, paused, waiting for something to change with regard to Covid.

          Early on in the pandemic, I read Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and wrote in at least one sermon at the time about how the religion of the main character, Earthseed, resonates deeply with Reform Judaism. The main principle of Earthseed is that God is Change: “All that you touch you change. All that you change changes you. The only lasting truth is change. God is change.” I wrote back in May: God is change, Torah is an act of wrestling, and to be Jewish is to adapt and progress.

          Shortly after that, I discovered a podcast called Octavia’s Parables, hosted by Toshi Reagan and Adrienne Marie Brown. Brown wrote another book I had read early in the quarantine, Emergent Strategies, which was what had led me to read Parable of the Sower in the first place, so I was excited to hear her interpretations of the book and the world Butler paints. Early in the podcast, Brown comments that Lauren Olamina is alive now. Parable of the Sower takes place in the mid-to-late 2020’s, which probably felt futuristic to Butler in the early 1990’s, but we are entering that reality now. Olamina is a young teenager when the book opens, meaning she was born in the early 2010’s. Brown calls us to start looking around, identify the Olaminas in our life that need nurturing, and take notice of the slide into the “Pox,” as it is known in the book. Of course, that’s sort of the point of Butler’s writing in the first place, but when an author makes a fiction novel about a dystopian future, it’s easy to write it off as an exaggeration of reality, as metaphor, as bearing very little real resemblance to our lived reality. In Octavia’s Parables, the podcasts hosts highlight the ways in which our world really does reflect – at least for some people – the future Butler warned us of 30 years ago.

          Now, I’ve just finished the sequel, Parable of the Talents. It gives some bleak hope that feels even more realistic than the apocalyptic events of the first book. After the worst of things: disease pandemics (including a rise of previously eradicated diseases due to anti-vaxxers), climate change necessitating a dramatic change in technology and fuel sources, homelessness and poverty, the return of company towns and slavery, a xenophobic demagogue president whose supporters raid the homes of “heathens”, to name the highlights, Olamina finds some success with Earthseed. She retires comfortably, her community flourishes and uses its wealth to help those in poverty while leadership still has access to luxuries they would not have imagined in their own impoverished youth. The world and humanity recovers from it’s dark moment, but fundamentally very little seems to have changed in how people, including revolutionaries like Olamina, approach building society. Where is Olamina’s Change-God, then?

          In an episode of the second season of Octavia’s Parables, Adrienne Marie Brown asks, “If not Change, what else would you [or could Olamina] make a God of?” The wording is off-putting to this rabbi, but the question is real. We don’t make gods of anything, God just is. But we do each have different interpretations, visions, and relationships with the Divine, so to rephrase the question: How else could we envision God or shape our relationship with the Divine? While, God is change, Torah is an act of wrestling, and to be Jewish is to adapt and progress, sometimes change and progress feels stuck. When that happens, where do we find God, Torah, or Judaism?

          This Rosh HaShana, when the sense of returning may feel stilted, perhaps we focus instead on what we may still return to in the near future. This new year, when renewal feels out of reach, perhaps we focus instead on what changes in the last 18 months are worth keeping if and when this pandemic ever passes. This High Holy Days, when we may feel that we are owed repentance from God and Government more than any interpersonal mediations, perhaps we focus instead on looking toward what changes in society are necessary and possible to make any of this worthwhile and redeemable.

          A rabbi recently posted in a Facebook group that we are both in that his Kol Nidre sermon will be to just stand up at his podium and weep for ten minutes. I promise I won’t do this, but I recognize this sermon may not feel too far off. There are two main explanations for the purpose of the shofar call, and for the first time for me I see how they are both intertwined and exactly how I have been feeling this Elul. The most obvious, drawn pretty simply from the commandment to blow the shofar in the Torah, is that the shofar blast is a wake up call, a call to action, a rallying call. The other is a drash on the Torah portions traditionally ascribe to the first and second mornings of Rosh HaShana: the shofar blasts, particularly the staccato T’ruah blasts, recalls the weepings of both Hagar and Sarah – when the former is kicked out of her home and believes her child will die of thirst in the desert and when the latter hears from haSatan that Abraham has sacrificed her child.

          I cannot hide from you all, my congregation and community, my grief over this past year and a half, and my disappointment that this High Holy Days wasn’t quite the triumphant return I’d envisioned in June when things looked so promising. But my rabbinical wailing over the concern for our people is also a rallying cry. Octavia Butler and Lauren Olamina tells us we can shape God, we can shape change in the directions that we would like. Change toward community care and mutual aid. Change toward public health and interconnected living. Change toward endless compassion and constant improvement of self and society. Change toward repentance and forgiveness. Help this pandemic to pass, and add to its meaning by helping the society we rebuild next to be better than the one before.

          May we change toward good and for good. May we find God in the positive changes, and redouble efforts to bring forth holiness. And may we be written in the Book of Life for a year of Blessing and Peace.

Sat, May 28 2022 27 Iyyar 5782