On the morning before the first Seder, it is customary to hold a siyyum, the conclusion of a section of study of a traditional text. This is done in order that the participants can then join in what is known as a Seudat Mitzvah, the meal celebrating the completion of a commandment. This occasion overrides the “fast of the first born” and enables those who would otherwise fast to eat through the day.
This year, I am going to be presenting the Siyyum at Beth Israel and I wanted to share the teaching in this way. If you do plan to attend and participate in the Siyyum, please don’t continue reading but join together with us through Zoom (link is on the Beth Israel website homepage).
For the siyyum this year, I studied Masechet Ta’anit, a section of the Talmud which focuses on traditions relating to fast days, particularly those which were called by the leaders of the community at times of drought. It was felt that drought was a punishment from God and therefore, if rain did not fall during the rainy season, public fasts and rituals of atonement were instituted which became more and more strict as the drought continued.
When I began to study this tractate at the beginning of January, I had perhaps heard of Covid19 but it certainly was not something I was concerned about and could never have envisioned that it would impact our lives as it has. As the pandemic worsened, the sections of the Talmud took on a great deal of additional meaning and raised many questions in my mind.
For many years, influenced by my teachers, books such as Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People, and just by observing life itself, I have come to embrace a theology which does not include God’s intervening in day to day life. I do not see God as micromanaging the world or in any way judging people or nations and sending punishments where appropriate.
So, I am not inclined in any way to see this pandemic as a punishment sent by God. I do see some aspects of the disease and certainly some of the failures to respond to it properly as evidence of arrogance of human beings but that is a matter of free will and while I believe it disappoints God greatly, I would not put the blame on God for this.
But, the question then becomes: What is the role of prayer during this crisis? If I can’t pray to God to stop the disease, what can I pray for?
We can certainly pray for strength and wisdom to make intelligent decisions. We can certainly pray for patience when suddenly spending intensive time at home becomes difficult. We can certainly say prayers of thanks- I have started each morning to say Modeh Ani, the prayer of thanks for awakening in the morning, a prayer I hadn’t really said that often since my days at Camp Ramah where it was the first of our morning tefillot– and prayers which recognize the miracle of our bodies.
And, we can ask God to send healing, in whatever way possible, to those who are battling this horrible disease. This last prayer can certainly be seen as challenging my theology of God’s non-intervention. But, I believe that on some level, a prayer of this kind can bring comfort and a healing of spirit that those who are ill so desperately need.
So, there is a place for prayer as we face this crisis, no matter what our theology is.
Another thought that studying this section of Talmud raised came from a story in Ta’anit about the Talmudic Rabbi, Rav Huna. It is said that before he sat down to eat each meal, he would say: “Let all who are hungry come and eat”. This, many believe, is the source for the statement that we make at the Seder: kol dichfin yaytay v’yachul, let all who are hungry come and eat.
These words remind us each year of the importance of giving tzedakah before the holiday so that all can celebrate a full Seder. But, it also emphasizes the hospitality which is part of the experience of a Seder, opening ones home to family, friends and strangers who need a place to celebrate the holiday. We will not be doing that this year although many of us will be connecting online with others. This line in the Haggadah will certainly cause us to recognize once again where we are at this time in our lives.
There is an interpretation of this line in the Seder which says that the reason that Rav Huna could make this invitation was because he was in fact wealthy. And, while we may not be able to open our homes to everyone for every meal, on Pesach night, if we have a home of freedom to celebrate the holiday in, we are wealthy in every sense of the word and must then share that home and our wealth with others.
I thought of that interpretation quite a bit over the past few days as I have read many articles, including one in Monday’s New York Times by Charles M. Blow, which call our attention to the disparity that exists in the suffering brought by Covid19. Blow points out, as so many have, that a disproportionate number of those who have died from the disease are people of color and that the poor have suffered in such significantly higher numbers.
This is in great part due to the fact that while many of us can afford to “shelter in place” and, in fact, have a warm, safe place to shelter, so many do not. So, if all we have to complain about is boredom and cancelled vacations, we are wealthy indeed.
We can’t wait until after the pandemic eases to address issues of inequality in this nation but this experience has called us once more to seriously confront the issues of race and of poverty in this nation. We see the impact clearly in the course of this disease and we must address this issue seriously and passionately.
Finally, I want to share the teaching from the end of the tractate which I will teach to end the siyyum.
The tractate of Ta’anit goes into great detail in teaching about Tisha B’av, the fast day of the 9th of Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. It then turns its attention briefly to the ancient holiday of Tu B’av, the 15th of Av which was considered a day of great celebration.
One of the traditions of Tu B’av was that the women of Jerusalem would join in a dance together to celebrate the day and the Talmudic tractate ends with a vision of the time of the Messiah.
Ulla teaches that in the future, “God would arrange a dance of the righteous and will sit among them in the Garden of Eden. Each and every one would see God so clearly that they would point to God and say in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Behold this is our God, for whom we waited that He might save us“.
How can we understand this text and what does it say for us today?
I thought quite a bit about this section and tried to envision how it might be relevant to us. And, then I thought that if according to this vision, God were visible to all, God must have been standing, as it were, in the middle of a circle of dancers.
If we envision ourselves today as standing in that circle, we can ask ourselves: where is God during all of this?
I believe that if we look across the circle into the eyes of others, we can see the presence of God. We see the presence of God in the doctors, nurses, EMTs, police and fire fighters, and all those who are serving in hospitals and doctors offices, putting their own safety second as they attend to the needs of those in danger.
We can see the presence of God in the social workers and other helping professionals who are reaching out to those in emotional distress.
We can see the presence of God in the dedication of people who work in grocery stores and restaurants who are serving the needs of those of us who have the privilege of sheltering in place.
And, we see the presence of God in each other, as we inspire each other and continue to support each other through this crisis.
May that circle grow stronger and may we stand (appropriately physically apart) during this holiday season and continue to hope for an end to suffering for all.
Best wishes to everyone for a healthy Passover and Easter season.