Posts by Rabbi Mara Young

Friday, December 24, 2021

The End of 2021 and of Certainty

2021 started with isolation and insurrection. Yet we dared to hope when Amanda Gorman climbed the steps of the Capitol and in an affront to the pandemic, the terrorists and cynicsm, declared: “And so we lift our gaze, not to what stands between us, but what stands before us.”

And we clung to her every word. When she had finished, I thought, “we have surely been through the worst of it. Next winter will not be like this.”

And here we are, still eclipsed in the “never-ending shade” of loss, fear and division. Of course, first and foremost on our minds this evening: the pandemic. And then on top of that, even with a change of administration, our nation is still searching for its soul. Reproductive rights are being held hostage by the highest court in the nation. Misinformation swells and a culture obsessed with ME cannot fathom the WE enough to work united toward the public health. Citizens are overworked and depressed. Worldwide, refugees team at war-torn borders and natural disasters remind us that the planet is suffering along with its inhabitants.

I will not diminish the dread that permeates the air right now, God knows I’m feeling it potantly. But then I remind myself: because of the diligent work of scientists, medical personnel and heroic volunteers, my whole family is now vaccinated and unlikely to die from COVID. And then I start to look outside of the pandemic and realize we have moved forward more than it first appears. Gorman’s words from Jan 20th ring clear: I can be optimistic about “our nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.” 

As I open my eyes wider, I see the hammers and nails of our cultural carpentry; the demolition of the unstable institutions and the sounder renovation still in progress.

This winter, we sit in this empty and unfinished room, darkened by relentless obstacles. But despite those obstructions, there has in fact been forward progress in 2021. When we call it to mind, it is as if we light the candle of hope and its shine scatters the shadows. They are pockets of light in a heavy darkness, but beacons of belief nonetheless.

For example, the American justice system, operating against its instincts, delivered justice in two high profile cases. Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd in broad daylight. The three men who participated in the modern-day lynching of Ahmaud Arbery were convicted. As Charles Blow wrote for the New York Times: “[the convictions are like] a shooting star that streaks across the night sky, that disrupts the darkness, [and] is worthy of being noticed and appreciated. It doesn’t alter the night. It doesn’t convert it into day.” He’s right. We cannot see these convictions as evidence that racism is dead, but I pray that these miracles of progessive light will one day become a meteor shower and a sustained brightening.

I think also of #Metoo and how it rages on, engulfing the patriarchy and abusers in its avenging rage. Abusers are still being toppled. Workplaces are paying attention to power distribution and the abuses it perpetuates. These same workplaces are changing their cultures altogether as “The Great Resignation” forces us to invest in the happiness of our workers and DEI - Diversity, Equity and Inclusion - has now become part of our vocabulary and a common goal.

And who is leading the way in these arenas? Kudos to us adults for changing our deeply embedded ways, but the real trailblazers are Gen Z and their successors, Gen Alpha. If you’re looking for light, just find their brightly dyed hair and revolutionary spirit. 

I wish you all could experience our young people today the way we do. Abby, Avital, Lance and I often talk about how extraordinary they are. Let me present to you a case study: our current 7th grade.

The 7th grade is working on the Mitzvah Challenge, where the kids do a deep dive into subjects they care about and develop meaningful, sustainable action in those areas. What did today’s 13 year olds choose? Sexual assault, LGBTQ+ rights, environmental degradation, animal abuse, and women's rights. I can’t imagine my 13 year old self understanding half of that.

Then follow me to 7th Grade Family Torah study, where I don’t allow the kids to refer to God as “He.” Usually they correct themselves to use God’s name, abandoning pronouns altogether. But this year, without any prompting, when I called out the use of “He,” the kids corrected themselves, calling God by the pronoun “they.” Calling God by the singular pronoun “they” is pretty authentic to Jewish thought: God’s name Elohim is pretty nonbinary and uses the plural form to refer to a singular being. But this generation is the first to embrace what that means in full force - integrating they/them pronouns into their everyday speech and allowing for fluid and evolving approaches to gender. They do this in the name of authentic expression of self and, from pronouns to fashion to advocacy, are preaching openness and acceptance which leads to healthier, happier humans. 

Sure, I have my moments of Millenial curmudgeonliness, but when I look at our teens, our Kesher kids, and my own children, I’m amazed and excited about where they are leading us.

Which brings us back to Amanda Gorman, the most recent voice of this generation. Standing on the steps of the Capitol, she declared: “So, while once we asked, how could we possibly prevail over catastrophe, now we assert, how could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?”

The toll of 2021 is not to be underestimated: our mental health, our physical health, the health of our nation, are all ailing. But we have survived 100% of our worst days. How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us? Us…resilient, hopeful, downright stubborn humans who believe in the creative powers God instilled within us. 

In this week’s Torah portion, we yet again meet Shifra and Puah - two of my favorite Torah characters. When Pharaoh tells them to kill every baby boy born to an Israelite woman, the women righteously rebel, telling Pharaoh that the Israelite women are “chayot” - vigorous, strong and full of life, delivering the babies before the midwives even arrive.

Like Shifra and Puah, we will stand resolute in front of a year that sought to take us down. Like the Israelite women, we will give birth to 2022 in defiance of all that has been decried against us…and as we hear the cries of the next generation penetrate the darkness, we will know that a brighter future lays before us.

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