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World (Yom Kippur Morning)

September 28, 2020

Throughout the holidays, we’ve made our way through circles of connection - considering our relationship to our homes, our communities, our nation. Today, we consider our place in our world.

Today, our world feels smaller than ever. During the pandemic, our world grew smaller as our travel was restricted. Many of us stayed in one place for longer than we are accustomed. Trips, locally, regionally, or internationally went by the wayside. And for many of us, either at the beginning of the pandemic or still, our worlds grew even smaller, with our movements out and about and our social interactions limited to a small radius and a small circle of people.

Our world is not just smaller because we are separated from each other and rooted to one place. While I yearn for the day I can hop on plane to visit family or take a trip to another part of the world, our world has grown smaller because we are so connected. Virtual communication, real-time interaction across hundreds of thousands of miles, has never been simpler. Even those of us less accustomed to video chat and connecting online have grown more comfortable during this unusual time.

And our world has grown smaller because this pandemic, to a greater or lesser degree, is actually happening to everyone on our planet. Our world is smaller because we are united in common struggle. People stayed or are staying home around the globe. People are suffering from illness and dying in ever nation in the world. Coronavirus is an unfortunate common denominator around the planet.

There’s something striking about how small our world has become. This month, one of my dearest colleagues and friends took a new position as the rabbi of a synagogue in Singapore. Yes, Singapore. Here’s the thing - she lives in New Jersey, yet the congregation is in need of a rabbi now, so she is teaching b’nai mitzvah lessons and leading Friday night services at 6am rather than 6pm to account for the 12 hour time difference. She and her family will, of course, join the congregation physically on the other side of the globe when its safe to do so. And there is no true replacement for in-person connection - services, socializing, art, music, sports - none of them are the same, but they are all possible, in ways we never imagined before this period in time. Our world is more connected than ever before.

Pirke Avot teaches us our world is built on 3 things:
Al shlosha d’varim haolam omeid
Al ha Torah
Al ha Avodah
V’Al g’milut chasadim

Our world is built on Torah, on worship and service, on deeds of loving kindness.

Our world is built on Torah — what is our Torah, our teaching? What are we teaching, and what are we learning about ourselves, our homes, our communities, our nation, in this time period?

Our world is built on Avodah — meaning service in both senses of the word, our worship services and acts of service. How are we serving the world, beyond ourselves, this year? And how are our shabbat and holiday experiences serving us this year, in this time of distance and challenge?

Our world is built on Gmilut chasadim — the simple acts of kindness, the ripples we set off into the world through small acts and deeds. For as we learn and sing, olam chesed yibaneh - the world is built on loving-kindness.

Throughout the High Holy Days, beginning on Erev Rosh Hashanah, we’ve moved from considering the local - our homes - to the global - our world.

Over this past summer, beginning with our Spiritual Physical Fitness challenge in July and our period of introspection during the month of Elul, the last month of they Jewish calendar, we started with an even smaller circle of connection - ourselves. To that end, during Elul, a group of Temple members and friends began studying with me in a Tikkun Middot group, a Jewish spiritual reflection practice. The group will conclude our work together after the holidays. Each week, we focus on a different middah, or attribute, of our character. The goal of the practice is to bring ourselves into balance. Middah literally means measure, and Tikkun Middot practice is built on the idea of a scale.

In the week we studied the attribute of anavah, humility, we paired two phrases as our intention, our way of focusing on that middah:

I am but dust and ashes
The world was created for my sake

We learn these phrases from a story told by our rabbis. We are taught to keep each of these phrases in our pockets, and to pull each out, in turn, as need.

I am but dust and ashes
The world was created for my sake

For me these words are strongly associated with the unetaneh tokef prayer that we recited this morning, as we come face to face with our mortality. I am but dust and ashes. Adam yesodo m’afar, v’sofo l’afar. A human’s origin is dust, and to dust one shall return. And yet, we can also remind ourselves of the other note - the world was created for my sake.

The world was created for my sake - we are deserving of love, of comfort, of safety, of community, of respect, of happiness, of joy. The world was created for my sake - and therefore, it is our responsibility, it is on us, to partner with God, to care for our selves, our families and homes, our communities, our nation, and our world.

This year, may we walk through the world balancing these two poles -

I am but dust and ashes
The world was created for my sake

This year, our world is smaller than ever before. May we be stewards of our world, filling it with Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim.

Our world is changed forever by the events of this year. Many of the impacts are deeply challenging and troubling. And many should give us hope. May we begin the year 5781 filled with the wisdom of our past experiences and the insight to bring our world together. May we begin with ourselves. May we be sealed in the book of life. G’mar Chatimah Tovah.

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA
Tue, October 27 2020 9 Cheshvan 5781