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Emerging from the Cave | Words of Torah:  Rosh Hashanah 2021/5782

09/13/2021 12:56:11 PM


Words of Torah from Rabbi Marc Soloway from Rosh Hashanah Day 1 Services on September 7, 2021. 

The Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai spoke critically of the Roman government and was reported to the authorities and Rabbi Shimon and his son, Rabbi Elazar, were sentenced to death. They hid in a cave for twelve years, studying Torah day and night, nourished by a carob tree and spring of water which had miraculously appeared in the cave. To preserve their clothes, they wore them only for their daily prayers, the rest of the time they buried themselves naked in sand up to their necks as they immersed themselves in intense study.

After twelve years of isolation in the cave, the emperor died and the death sentence was lifted. Elijah the prophet came to the entrance of the cave and said “who will tell Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Rabbi Elazar that the decree has been lifted and it was safe to leave the cave?”

They emerged from the cave, and saw ordinary people who were plowing and sowing. Rabbi Shimon bar Yoḥai said: These people abandon eternal life of Torah study and engage in temporal life for their own sustenance. Every place that Rabbi Shimon and his son Rabbi Elazar directed their eyes immediately burst into flames. A Divine Voice came forth and said to them: Did you emerge from your isolation in the cave in order to destroy My world? Return to the cave. They went back and sat in the cave for another twelve months until a Divine Voice said to them: “Emerge from your cave.” They came back into the world. Everywhere that Rabbi Elazar would strike with his eyes, his father Rabbi Shimon would heal. Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Elazar: My son, you and I suffice for the entire world, as the two of us are engaged in the proper study of Torah.  Rabbi Shimon’s enigmatic comment perhaps implies that we need fire and water, din and rachamim, harsh judgment and sweet mercy, balancing and integrating.

There is not a single one of us who could have predicted or imagined the impact of the last year and a half.  Can we even begin to contemplate the mental, emotional, spiritual and physical toll it has had on us?  All of us.  Yes, we have experienced being in caves of isolation to emerge and perhaps to go back and to emerge again.  The rabbinic father and son did not have zoom to keep them connected to their community and got their directives from Elijah the Prophet and heavenly voices, rather than the CDC, state protocols or various media sources.  

In June, the New Yorker published an article called The Age of Reopening Anxiety by Anna Russel in which she says

"...All that trial-and-error crashing around is enough to make you want to stay inside, where the codes are known. Inside, you are the code. Recently, I spoke with Arthur Bregman, a psychiatrist in Coral Gables, Florida, who has been using a new phrase to describe our desire to stay at home: “cave syndrome.” Bregman has been seeing patients for more than forty years. As Covid vaccinations have become more commonplace, he has noticed a reluctance to venture out again among his patients, even the fully immunized. “People can’t shake the anxiety,” he told me. “They feel fearful and insecure about the uncertainty of the situation. So they’re very kind of timid and uneasy."

Sometimes when I need to leave my sweet dog Baruch alone for a long while, I put him in his crate with a peanut-butter filled Kong toy.  Very often when I open the door to set him free, he stays there.  He feels safe. Cave syndrome?

So now that most of us, though not all, have stepped out from our caves, how are we emerging back into the world? Are we looking at one another with love and kindness and positivity or are we burning up the world with fear, suspicion and judgment?  Have we learned a sweet and generous Torah of wisdom in the cave that deepens our sense of connection to each other and to all beings, or have we become more entrenched in our beliefs and positions?  

As a colleague, Rabbi Danny Burkeman in a recent article in ejewishphilanthropy put it:

“Like Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar, we may not emerge from isolation in the right way at the first time of asking. But hopefully we can learn the lessons from their example. If we are disdainful of each other, filled with judgment and contempt, we will find ourselves back in quarantine very quickly. When we recognize our interconnectedness, when we talk to each other, and when we care for one another, only then can we truly emerge back into life.”

But this is not just about Covid-19, it is about a collective sense of trauma that has surely, in ways we cannot fully understand, impacted us all.  We simply have not had the time, nor the skills to process all of the different traumas we have faced. It is kind of like a cruel reversal of Dayenu.  Wouldn’t it have been enough to have a deadly global pandemic?  No, we also had a terrifying insurrection on January 6th at our capitol;  our beloved city of Boulder experienced a brutal mass shooting in King Soopers in March (and as the trial begins that trauma will be reopened for so many of us); the continuing racial inequity and rising antisemitism; our skies and our eyes were full of smoke from devastating wildfires in the west while others were submerged in flood waters; we have seen howling, horrific hurricanes, another catastrophic earthquake in Haiti and all in the backdrop of the alarming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2021 report; and of course the frightening and deadly old new reality in Afghanistan.  Dayenu!  Enough already.  Has any of us really fully processed any one of these?  I haven’t.  Our whole culture is in a state of PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder.  I heard about a colleague who had a breakdown and disappeared for a few days.  So many of us need mental and emotional support. (We invite you to consider participating in the Re'im Friendship Circle facilitated by Rosalie Osian and Sara Schechtman for emotional and spiritual well being starting soon.) Trauma can express itself in many different ways and most of us are not aware of how it operates, but many researchers have studied how it sticks around in our systems.  I was in an interfaith clergy meeting a few months ago and a Christian colleague made the comment that the most important role for us right now is to be a non-anxious presence.  I immediately balked knowing how often my presence is anxious rather than calming. I am sorry for those times that I added to the anxiety rather than helped to calm it.

Professor Bessel A van der Kolk of Boston University bestselling 2015 book The Body Keeps the Score has been selling all over again recently.  The subtitle is Memory and the Evolving Psychobiology of Posttraumatic Stress.  I confess I have not read the book, but I have listened to Ezra Klein’s podcast interview with the author, which is almost as good.

Van der Kolk says “Ever since people's responses to overwhelming experiences have been systematically explored, researchers have noted that a trauma is stored in somatic memory and expressed as changes in the biological stress response. Intense emotions at the time of the trauma initiate the long-term conditional responses to reminders of the event, which are associated both with chronic alterations in the physiological stress response and with the amnesias and hypermnesias characteristic of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)...The inability of people with PTSD to integrate traumatic experiences and their tendency, instead, to continuously relive the past are mirrored physiologically and hormonally in the misinterpretation of innocuous stimuli as potential threats.” The Body Keeps the Score: Memory and the Evolving Psychobiology of Posttraumatic Stress, Bessel A van der Kolk, Boston University

This is a scientific way of saying that it is impossible to predict how we are going to behave when something reactivates a traumatic memory.  I feel sure that the culture wars that are being waged in this country and throughout the world come from trauma, from fear, from the anxiety of not feeling safe.  The horrific ways in which we have simply lost the ability to listen to each other, to speak to each other kindly when we don’t agree, entrenched in our narratives, in our way of seeing the world and with the destructive potential to set fire to those with different ideas. 

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks died in November 2020 and I have been quoting something from his writings almost every Shabbat since.  Earlier that same year one of his last books, Morality, was published.  At the beginning of chapter 13 called Two Ways of Arguing, he quotes a 2019 speech by Barack Obama.

“The idea of purity, and that you’re never compromised, and you’re always politically woke - you should get over that quickly...The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.  People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”   

Rabbi Sacks continues, “in other words, social and political issues are complex and multifaceted. Not every issue is a clash between right and wrong. Sometimes it is between right and right, between two strong but incompatible ideals.” Morality, p.183

We got a painful taste of this recently in our community as an attempt to let a voice be heard backfired terribly and I and others were the recipients of some very strongly and not particularly kindly stated opinions.  In a few minutes I will be leading Rosh HaShanah mussaf for the first time in my life and I have so many mixed emotions, including some very deep sadness along with trepidation.  Even if we collectively made the right decision for the community, it is less about science and safety than sanity and civility.  There are some very strong feelings on both sides and it is not about the outcome, but the process, which was flawed.  Like most of us, I was eagerly awaiting the vaccines and was one of the first in my age group to get vaccinated and have publicly promoted and encouraged us all to get it, but I will listen to and remain in community with those who are not vaccinated and hear their arguments.  I don’t want to get into the specifics about natural immunity or long term effects of antibodies and of the vaccine, and I personally have no doubt that life has changed because we have been able to achieve substantial levels of immunity allowing many of us, including me, to see family and friends for the first time in so long, but please let’s not force those who are not vaccinated into a whole new level of social isolation as outcasts and pariahs.  Let’s retain enough humility and humanity to acknowledge that there is still so very much that we do not know, and enter this New Year, whether we are still in our caves or out in the world, with kindness and generosity.  Rosh HaShanah, also known as Yom HaDin, Judgment Day, is in part about our fervent prayers and hopes that God’s mercy and compassion will outweigh the harsh decrees of justice.  Recognizing all the intense trauma, let’s enter into a new year with compassion for ourselves and each other, knowing how imperfect and afraid we are.  

Way too much in our society has become politicized. At what cost?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks continues in that chapter in his book Morality to talk about the biblical figure of Korah, who challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron, as the first political populist.  Rabbi Sacks says:

“What links populism on the one hand, and the phenomenon of “wokeness”...on the other, is that they are both binary, both extreme.  Both divide the world into good and evil, black and white, with no shades of grey. Both see themselves as oppressed and their opponents as the oppressors. They see no saving grace on the other side.”  Jonathan Sacks, Morality, p.188

As I age, I find myself becoming more centrist, not as a political ideology, but as a profoundly Jewish and spiritual principle of striving for balance and nuance rather than a need to be right in a world that feels increasingly perplexing and uncertain. As a result, I have been criticized both for being too conservative and too progressive, too woke and not woke enough, with painful consequences. We cannot cancel each other when we don’t agree with each other. Too many relationships have been broken and reputations lost.  I absolutely do not deny science, yet I am not sure that science is always about certainty and answers, but sometimes, like religion and art, it is about asking questions.  In patient care, doctors teach their students and trainees that medicine is“as much art as science.” We are a Mamlechet Kohanim, a Kingdom of Priests, not of immunologists, not of politicians, nor even of activists, but rather a community of peace makers, not of those who shun and excommunicate dissenters, but those who find room in the tent, or on the patio, grass or inside the building, for everyone.

Of course we have an obligation to be safe and to keep others safe and healthy, but we need to be cautious and sensitive about how we do that.  Our community is engaged in the deeply exciting and energizing project of imagining a new building on this campus.  The creative process with Finegold Alexander, architects out of Boston generously funded to help us in this concept design phase, has opened up the essential questions of health, safety and security, along with sustainability, deep connection to the outdoors and the land, transitions from secular to sacred spaces, social, intellectual and spiritual expressions.  The most important question, however, is who are we going to be as a community preparing to enter into a future new building. What are the values that we most want reflected that will allow us to thrive in a new home?  There are many ways we could each answer that question, but respect and dignity for the multiple human faces who enter and seek safety, connection and refuge is at the heart of all of it. 

In that podcast with Bessel A van der Kolk on his book The Body Keeps the Score, he talks powerfully about the tools that help with the body’s reaction to trauma including therapies like EMDR and MDMA, but also about dancing, yoga, singing, praying, meditating together.  These are all modalities that transcend the pain and anxiety of separation and difference and that we can all engage in during these holidays whether we are inside, outside or at home.  

The famous cave story from the Talmud with which I opened (Shabbat 33b) concludes with the father and son seeing a man carrying two bundles of fragrant myrtle right before Shabbat. R. Elazar asks him, “why two bundles, wouldn’t one suffice?”  The man explains, “one for zachor, remembering and one for shamor, keeping the Shabbat.”  Rabbi Shimon was comforted and said “see how precious are the mitzvot to the Jewish people!”  The power of the rituals and the liturgy of Rosh HaShanah, the voice of the shofar - beautiful and elevating rituals, mitzvot inspiring and aromatic and pleasing, like those myrtle branches.  From behind a mask and with open hearts and eyes we emerge from a dark cave, seeing with tenderness, love and possibility the beauty and hope, even in the knowledge that we don’t know what is happening next nor when we might have to go back into the cave.


Thu, July 7 2022 8 Tammuz 5782