Following a Path Toward Redemption When the Way is Unfamiliar

By Rabbi Barbara Cohen 

I saw a bald eagle this morning and I wonder what it saw.

High atop the dead pinnacle of a living tree, the eagle sat peering down and I wondered what the world looked like from up there. I was floating in a kayak in the very early rising light and mist on Laurel Lake, no other humans in sight, and the eagle’s ability to see clearly, through the air, into the murky water, to know what it was searching for and to wait patiently for it, filled me with a longing to be that focused, that ‘on mission,’ in the world that I inhabit. Most of us had a misconception before the pandemic that we could plan ahead, maintaining the illusion that things would always continue to operate by recognizable principles and that when life didn’t do what we expected, that there would be some well-worn pathways to getting back on track. Now…not so much.

The word ‘unprecedented’ has been so exhausted to describe things that have been going on for the last few years. Some people, with the trait of braggadocio, assert that things have never been this great, big, fantastic and no one has ever done better, been smarter, known everything…even more than the experts, no matter which field is being discussed. Others, with the breathlessness of anxious incredulity, are saying nothing like this has ever been done before…challenging the long-established social contract and the very foundations of our democratic and constitutional history. It is not just the word ‘unprecedented’ that is exhausted. Everyone I speak with both casually and in pastoral conversation is so tired that it is hard to find a way to replenish our energy, especially under the circumstances of COVID-19 restrictions. Remember what a good hug from a friend did for our spirits? A handshake when we met a new person? A meal out in a favorite or new restaurant? These antidotes to weariness are no longer available to us. How about breathing your own expired carbon dioxide as a steady diet? What’s that doing to our brains and tissues over the long run? COVID brain is affecting everyone and because this situation is ‘unprecedented,’ no one knows what the long-term effects of this gaseous exchange irregularity will leave in its wake.

Our tradition comes to the rescue. Although most of us will be sharing our High Holy Days online, we are called upon to FOCUS. On ourselves, our relationships, and the ways that we interact with our inner higher sense of self and our connection with the Divine, however we each understand that Unknowable. We are asked to reflect and ponder who we have been, who we are, and who we would hope to become in the year that is unfolding before us.

And not just for ourselves alone. Who are we to others? How do we ask for forgiveness for the regrettable things that we have done during the year past? How do we stand up and face, with honesty, humility, and courage, what we have thought and done in this unprecedented year? What is the redemption we seek and what does it feel like? How open are we to literally, spiritually, or figuratively prostrate ourselves before the ‘Heavenly Court’ to ask that we be pointed toward the path of redemption when the way has become so unfamiliar, so dark and filled with landmarks we have never seen before? Can we open our hearts and souls to the work that this requires of us?

Ultimately, although we pray this year in (virtual) community, it is as if we are praying alone. The demands of the High Holy Days, the ten Days of Awe, are a solitary journey. These days are filled with words and yet the silence is profound…perhaps deafening. We can become lost in that void, the sound of the shofar bringing us home to this world and also raising us up to the world above. A ram’s horn…imagine that… in 2020, beginning the Jewish New Year 5781, we harken and resonate to the sound of a person blowing the horn of an animal – not the notification sounds on our phones. The sound of human breath making an animal’s horn vibrate, the signal of our attention to the Holy. Pay attention, the shofar demands, to the details, the notes, the differences of the calls of ba’al tekiah, how your body experiences the sounds of tekiah, teruah, shevarim. Or if you feel nothing, pay attention to that, too. Where are you? Who are you? How are you? What will you grow towards as your life moves forward? What do you see for yourself as your path?

The eagle sees it all. Piercing the density of air and water it knows what it is made to do. It waits, scans and dives to retrieve from this world that which sustains it and provides for those other beings in its life. How fortunate to be that clear in these unprecedented times. How we might long to feel that inner surety of purpose. Alas, we are human and all we have is our own inner voice and hopefully the voices of those upon whom we rely and trust. And the voice of the Shofar…calling us from on high to dive, to scan and to retrieve from this world what is good and nourishing for us, our loved ones, and all the world. Shanah tovah and may 5781 bring light, truth and the courage to dare.

With prayers for health and an end to these times of trouble.

 Rabbi Barbara Cohen is the spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavath Sholom in Great Barrington.