Wearing Masks and Standing in Lines During the “Great Pause”

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Cantor Juval Porat

Most likely none of us could have foreseen the length of this “great pause” that we’ve all been asked to lean into. I sincerely hope you are all taking care of yourselves and your loved ones. While the scope of the suffering during this global pandemic cannot be downplayed, the conversations, acts of kindness, and connections made at this time prove to be a tremendous source of blessing and gratitude for me. How are you doing at this time? What sustains you? What practices have you found helpful in countering or softening anxiety, worry, and a sense of isolation? What has been helping you feel a greater sense of centeredness?

I’ve been thinking about the expanded meaning of masks at this time, juxtaposed with the way we used them only a couple of months ago during Purim. Each time I visit BCC, to work from my office or to lead Zoom services, I stumble upon the Purim scripts lying on the piano and the poster announcing the shpiel on our bulletin board – an eerie reminder of how life as we knew it has been taking a break (Editor’s Note: You’ll find some photos from Purim later in this issue).  

Back then, we covered our faces to reveal a playful, often concealed component of our personality. We used our masks to amuse, to celebrate the courage to be authentically ourselves, rooted in our heritage, identity and larger community. These days the masks that cover our faces may still be creative – check out https://maskoncollective.de/ for some DIY mask inspiration, or https://www.facebook.com/wfpkrakow/videos/2727955233982406/ for an origami version of a facemask.  But now they are a means to shield us from an external adversary as well as to protect the larger community from being exposed to the virus that has been the source of so much upheaval and disruption in our lives. 

During the first weeks of physical distancing and lines forming in front of grocery stores, our weekly Torah portions recounted the many opportunities provided to the Israelites to worship through sacrificial offerings. Those offerings were the common practice to meet the need to communicate with the Divine, give thanks, express regret, attempt atonement, and express status. I’ve been imagining the lines of people forming outside of the Temple in ancient times — lines of people coming from all over the land, each with an offering they hope will be worthy of acceptance, perhaps eyeing the offerings of those in front or behind them. 

A midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 3:5, an ancient commentary on the Biblical text) recounts a story in which a woman is said to have brought a handful of fine flour as an offering to the Temple. It is said that the priest scorned her, saying: “Look what she is sacrificing! It’s too cheap to sacrifice! It’s too cheap to burn on the altar!” The midrash goes on to say that the Divine appeared to the priest in a dream: “Do not scorn her! It’s as if she sacrificed her life.” The author of this midrash casts the Divine (and not a fellow human being) with the role of teaching the value of appreciating everyone’s gifts, of recognizing the gifts of the disadvantaged in our society who have to work harder and have so much less. This stresses for me the ethical importance of practicing generous acceptance of everyone’s offerings and resisting the human tendency to value someone’s worth by their material possessions. 

As we stand in lines outside grocery stores, waiting to be let in and to be given the opportunity to meet our need for sustenance for ourselves and our loved ones, wondering if there will be flour on the shelves or toilet paper or pasta, I hope we can remember the poorest among us and how, to quote Rabbi Rick Jacobs, “poverty may in fact be the deadliest underlying condition.” This midrash in Leviticus Rabbah reminds me that in ancient times, as well as during this strange time we find ourselves in, our society is plagued by inequality and the opportunity to reflect upon our choices and actions while standing in lines. 

The days leading up to and following Passover reminded me of the ongoing narrative of liberation. As Jews, we recount the past — the journey of our people from slavery to freedom, from being faithless to introducing monotheism to the world.  We affirm the present as we connect with each other during the Seder to share our current struggles and triumphs in our experiences of freedom.  And we hope for the future, as we declare in the Haggadah: “This year we are slaves, next year we will be free people”. We can choose the ways in which our stories fit into this narrative of freedom. The need for active listening in telling our stories has been particularly meaningful to me during these times — both while offering an ear to friends, congregants and family, and when sharing my own experiences with others.

Ghost-town-like neighborhoods, darkened restaurants and closed parks, the daunting news and endless uncertainty can all have a disorienting effect on us. The ritual of counting the Omer during these weeks has been helping me establish a routine at the end of each day, giving thanks for the blessings and affirming that which needs yet to be done. Check out 49 contributions by BCC members, one for each day of the Omer, the counting of the days between the second day of Passover and the holiday of Shavuot, at https://bcc-la.org/?s=Omer.

And then there’s Shabbat. Even though we get to “see” each other on our respective screens as we come together in community, prayer and song, we can still rediscover “the deep interconnectedness between us,” as Rabbi Lisa Goldstein puts it. 

These are just a few examples of answers to the questions I asked at the top of this article. Jewish tradition, liturgy, music, and rituals have been instructive for me in providing meaning, centeredness, and encouragement to keep moving forward. I would love to hear what’s been working for you, and I hope you take advantage of your BCC community at this time as we come together online to celebrate, honor, study, sing and observe all that our tradition has to offer.

Please subscribe to and check out our weekly e-blasts and Facebook page for updated programming, Shabbat services, study sessions and holiday observances. Please consider contributing to the Pandemic Relief Fund at https://pandemicrelief.unitedwayla.org/ to help bring assistance and daily necessities to people living on the streets, people at risk of homelessness, students, individuals, and families.

Thank you for the many ways you’ve been showing up, lifting up and supporting each other and our communities. I’m looking forward to reconnecting with each other face-to-face – without screens between us and with masks put aside. In the meantime, may this “great pause” gently direct us toward our innermost truths and intentions, and may we as a community be there for each other in living those truths and intentions to the best of our abilities.

With gratitude,

Cantor Juval

P.S.  As Rabbi Alyson Solomon’s tenure at BCC comes to an end, I want to thank her for her service and leadership. Thank you for “rabbi”-ing with us, for providing a sense of stability and a chance to explore the myriad ways of living Jewishly at BCC. Thank you for your guidance and support of the BCC community through reflecting on our rabbinic transition and assisting us in processing these changes. May you be blessed as you go on your way, Rabbi Solomon!

 

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