2020 has been compared to many things.
I’m willing to bet that many of our friends and family with Christmas trees have this ornament hanging on it. The reigning metaphor for 2020 became “Dumpster Fire.” I suppose it is appropriate because dumpsters are like bottomless pits of rotten and broken things, almost thirsty for the next horrible thing to be placed in its container.
There are also those who have crowned 2020 the longest year ever, and not just because February had a day added to it.
Or, if you have been pregnant, you are familiar with this yummy potion on the right – the Glucose Tolerance Test drink - which you have to chug in a matter of minutes, despite the fact that your stomach is full and the drink is disgusting. 2020 felt that way.
And then finally, there’s nothing more 2020 than an Amazon review – this one being particularly accurate.
There is something cathartic about these pop memes. They help us to laugh at the most bizarre and troubling year of most of our lives. We want to laugh at it, if we can, or honestly, we just want to leave it behind. With a vaccine coming, we begin to hope that we can just move on.
Yet as the year comes to an end, I’m beginning to rethink the urge to roll the 2020 dumpster fire into a dark corner of our emotional backyards. It does us no good to leave it full of junk, attracting cobwebs and mold. Because we all know…one day we’ll need to clean out the yard and when we do, we’ll be saddled with unhappy memories and the burden of finding a way to haul away the debris.
Here is where I think we need to become emotional environmentalists. I’ll explain: a few years ago, Woodlands cut our physical dumpster in half as we dedicated ourselves to better recycling and a concerted move to composting. It wasn’t an easy transition, it required lots of processing and planning by the Environmental Task Force and the Board of Trustees, but our temple and our planet was healthier for it in the end.
Indeed, some of 2020’s waste isn’t waste at all – we learned a lot about ourselves and the local, national and global realities we live in. 2020 can’t just be thrown out, instead, it should be composted. There are nutrients in this putrid refuse bin that can actually help us grow into stronger, more compassionate people in an improved world.
CNN Columnist Jane Greenway Carr calls 2020 a “great confessional…the year when Covid-19 cast America's longstanding sins of racial and economic inequality into newly harsh relief.” Her colleague Van Jones has called it a “great awakening…a cultural tsunami that is sweeping through media, the academy, houses of worship, Hollywood and even corporate board rooms. This new, building force may someday change the course of world history. In many ways, it already has.”
As we watched George Floyd take his last, strangled breath, we were finally able to declare that “Black Lives Matter.” 2020 declared it impossible to turn a blind eye to the systematic oppression of BIPOC communities in America.
As the country shut down, we saw the rich stay rich and the poor thrust into financial uncertainty. 4 times as many women than men left the labor force in September. We are reminded, again, of how women shoulder the burden of work and home life while being undervalued in both areas. Experts agree that the progress women have made in the workforce over the last 20 years was basically decimated overnight by the pandemic’s exploitation of deep-seeded societal misogyny and inequality. 2020 practically screams at us: See it. Fix it.
All that said, we’ve learned some positive things about ourselves too. In a year when people would have stayed away from the voting booth, fearful for their health, our nation took major steps toward enfranchising voters with record breaking mail-in voting, early voting, and carefully organizing our polling stations to make it safe and possible for all to vote. And even when that democratic process subsequently was attacked, the checks and balances of our constitution stood strong.
Which leads me to the most important caveat of the evening: Many of us look forward to 2021 as a return to normalcy, a way back to our previous lives. Yet that is the most unfortunate thing we could do: revert back, relapse into old habits. A new year does not mean all our ills are cured. Flawed immigration systems, climate change, inequality…we have taken heed of these plagues and more in unprecedented ways, and not a one of them will disappear when Joe Biden takes office or when we’re all vaccinated. Perhaps the soil will once again become conducive to progress, but we cannot forget how toxic it is to start. We must shine the light of our great awakening into it in order to grow a better future.
There is a character in this week’s Torah portion who embodies this charge: Serah bat Asher.
Parshat Vayigash mentions Serah as Asher’s daughter, Jacob’s granddaughter, a contemporary of Joseph and present for the move from Canaan to Egypt. Yet, hundreds of years later in the book of Numbers, as Moses takes a census, Serah, the daughter of Asher, is listed as if she is there. The rabbis wonder how this can be?! Over the course of much midrash, they conclude that this Serah in Numbers is the same Serah who went down to Egypt in the book of Exodus. An Elijah-type figure, she transcends time and space to guide the Israelites in the right direction.
One such story is told when Serah turns up in the Beit Midrash – the study house - of 1st century sage Yochanan ben Zakkai. One of his students asks what it looked like when the Red Sea parted. Yochanan ben Zakkai tells his students that the walls of water looked like walls of sprouting bushes. Suddenly, a voice comes through an open window in the back of the beit midrash: "No. That's not right." All the students turn around and see an old lady peering through the window. "I am Serah bat Asher. I know what the walls looked like because I was there! They looked like mirrors, mirrors in which every person was reflected, so that it looked like the generations that came before and the generations that would come after.”
I find great power in Serah’s words. As the Israelites passed through the narrow straits to freedom, they would have caught a glimpse of themselves and be forced to reckon with what they saw. Who is this person? Who is this nation? Once enslaved to a tyrant; once enslaved to doubt, fear and tedium, could they imagine themselves as something more? Could they have the courage to see their past as a part of them and choose a brighter future for themselves and for their children?
Serach’s insight teaches me that 2021 will not spring up like a budding bush out of untouched soil. Our growth and blossoming will come with an honest reckoning of what and who we are and then finding the courage to trudge forward toward something better.
Because have you noticed how often we mention Egypt in our prayers? We Jews never forget the hard times. We know there is a message in our suffering. Care for the stranger because you were a stranger in the land of Egypt. Remember how God brought you out with a mighty hand. Remember these not just for the glory of God, but for the assertion that evoking the lessons of trying times helps us to build stronger, more compassionate societies of the future.
Viktor Frankl said “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” 2020 was inflicted upon us. 2021 can be the year we unleash the greatest change yet, not by ignoring this most terrible year, but by learning from it.