Our tradition calls us in so many ways to acknowledge that joy and sorrow, fear and hope, security and vulnerability, are interwoven throughout our lives as individuals and as communities. Think of how we break a glass at the conclusion of a wedding, or the tradition of sprinkling sweet challah with salt on Shabbat. Judaism is honest about life containing both “the beauty and the terror” (to cite one of my favorite (non-Jewish) poets, Rainer Maria Rilke). Acknowledging and honoring the full spectrum of experience and emotion helps us to meet whatever we face. Jewish tradition, ritual, and community bind us to one another and remind us that we are not alone as we move through the moments of beauty or terror, of exultation or of despair.
Yesterday, 22 year old Amanda Gorman took the dais at President Biden’s inauguration as the nation’s first National Youth Poet Laureate. She delivered a breathtaking spoken word poem (please follow this link to watch and listen, if you missed it yesterday) which reflected our communal moment which holds a complex emotional spectrum: Grief for the many losses brought on by this pandemic, including over 400,000 of our fellow Americans; the sorrow and the anxiety around our democracy’s vulnerability and the horror of the breach of the Capitol building two weeks ago, and a sense of hope for our nation’s future as we ushered in a new era in which values of truth, compassion, justice, equality, inclusion, and belief in science will be manifest in our highest levels of government.
You can read Amanda Gorman’s poem in its entirety here. I want to highlight some of the lines which struck me as particularly resonant with our Jewish tradition, and which I believe hold the core of the message we must hear, and must act upon, at this precious and precarious moment in our history and in our lives:
According to Jewish tradition, we are God’s partner in the ongoing creation and healing of our world. It was given to us unfinished. Gorman writes: “Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed/a nation that isn’t broken/but simply unfinished.” The idea that we are necessary and active participants in the “finishing” or “perfection” of what seems broken, is a foundational Jewish value. “And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us/but what stands before us.” Etched into the ark in our chapel, and into many arks throughout the world, are the words: Da lifnei mi atah omed (know before whom you stand). We must look honestly and without despair at the task which stands before us, but also we must recognize that we are part of something larger than ourselves, that we “stand before” God and must actively participate in our sacred covenantal partnership. If we keep our gaze on “what stands before us” in both senses of the word, it weakens the power of that which seems to “stand between us” and allows us to work to bring this world to wholeness and healing.
Gorman writes of this time: “Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:/That even as we grieved, we grew/That even as we hurt, we hoped/That even as we tired, we tried/That we’ll forever be tied together…” What a beautiful expression of the mixture of emotion and experience that binds us to one another.
“We did not feel prepared to be the heirs/of such a terrifying hour/but within it we found the power/to author a new chapter.” Like the ancient Israelites and like our more modern ancestors, we find ourselves meeting challenges we could not have imagined we would have the strength to face and to overcome. But the power and resilience of the human spirit arise in ways that surprise us, especially when we walk alongside each other and hold one another up through the journey.
Reflected in so much of our sacred texts and liturgy is the idea that we must repair our world and build it up for those to come after us. “So let us leave behind a country/better than the one we were left with/Every breath from my bronze-pounded chest/we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one.”
May this Shabbat give us a soul-replenishing rest, which will help us carry out our sacred task as God’s partner. May connection to the blessings of tradition, community, and love remind us that “There is always light,/If only we’re brave enough to see it/If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
With gratitude for Amanda Gorman’s words, for our tradition through which they resound, and for this community, which even though the darkest times, shows us that there is always light, and that together, we can be brave enough to see it, and to be it.
Rabbi Audrey Marcus Berkman