What is Stronger Than a Storm, More Powerful Than a Pandemic?
February 6, 2021
Author(s): Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz,
February 6, 2021 — 24 Shevat 5781
What is Stronger Than a Storm, More Powerful Than a Pandemic?
by Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz
Temple Emanuel, Newton, MA
If I had to pick a word that captures the place where many of us find ourselves, that word would be stuck. S-t-u-c-k. Stuck.
We are stuck in winter. We’ve been through December’s cold, January’s cold, this past week’s storm. It’s early February, still cold, still icy. In previous years we might go somewhere warm. But not this year.
We are stuck in month 11 of the pandemic. While more people are beginning to get vaccinated, we still have such a long way to go. We are so far from Israel’s experience with vaccines. The wisest counsel that our wonderful health advisors give us is: be patient. We are in for a long ride, not clear how long, but long. We are stuck for longer than any of us wants living a pandemic life. We are stuck without places to go and things to do. A quiet and isolated Super Bowl, to go with all the other quiet and isolated holidays of this surreal year.
Here is my question: when we are stuck in winter, we can’t get out, we can’t get to a warm place, when we are stuck in Covid limbo, and we can’t have our friends or family over for our Super Bowl party, and we can’t change it, and we can’t control it, and the months roll on, how do we keep weariness at bay? How do we keep sadness and depression at bay? What do we do about what I will call our grumblies? Grumbling about the cold, grumbling about Covid, grumbling about life?
In our reading this morning, it is easy to imagine Yitro having the grumblies. His daughter Tziporah signed up for a husband, not an absentee husband. Grumble, grumble. His grandchildren Gershom and Eliezer deserve an actual father, but Moses is so busy being the father of a nation that he doesn’t have time to be their father. Grumble, grumble. Moses left his family, and I was left to take care of them, and I am not a spring chicken anymore. Grumble, grumble.
While Yitro has a case of the grumblies as he approaches his son in law, when he actually sees Moses in person, something happens to those grumblies. He sees that Moses is truly devoted to a higher purpose. There is this community, this covenantal community. It has been through a lot. The Exodus. The splitting of the Sea. A battle with Amalek. Through it all, Moses is leading it. Yitro sees that Moses is exhausted, burnt out, working every day from morning to night. Yitro’s heart melts. He is moved to help.
Yitro stages an intervention, suggesting that Moses learn a new skill, how to delegate; that Moses recruit other leaders who can do the community’s work too so that it does not all fall on Moses. Through the power of his caring and counsel, Yitro saves Moses from burnout.
But he did something else as well. He dispelled his own grumblies. Yitro learns that the best way to get rid of the grumblies is to invest your energy in a higher purpose.
What would that look like today, investing ourselves in a higher purpose?
Last year when the Kansas City Chiefs played in the Super Bowl, they had an offensive lineman named Laurent Duvernay-Tardif who started, who did an excellent job protecting their quarterback, and who was rewarded with a contract that paid him many millions of dollars. But Duvernay-Tardif has a whole other side. During the first four years of his pro career, he somehow found a way to finish medical school at McGill University, from which he earned an MD.
This past spring, he had a choice. He could continue to play for the Chiefs, who were favorites to repeat their Super Bowl victory. That would mean fame and fortune, glory and headlines, money and adulation. Or, he could ditch his football uniform for his white medical jacket and treat patients struggling with Covid and other illnesses at a hospital in Montreal.
He loves football. But he recognized that there will be other football seasons. Meanwhile, Covid is a desperate time, and he felt called to a higher purpose. He chose not to play this past year so that he could treat those in his hospital stricken with sorrow and sickness.
Now you might say that’s a nice story. But I’m not a football player. Most of us are not doctors. And indeed, many of us have very limited options to have real impact. What kind of higher purpose can we connect to when we can’t leave our house? What kind of higher purpose can we connect to when we’re afraid of slipping and falling on the ice? What kind of higher purpose can we connect to when we can’t even see people?
Let me answer that question with another question. What is the connection of Super Bowl Sunday to tefillin, the phylacteries we wrap before morning prayers? Every year the Conservative movement, and Temple Emanuel, tie tefillin to the Super Bowl. What is the connection?
To get to the Super Bowl, both teams have to summon their head, hand and heart to be the best version of their football selves. So too, tefillin is about mobilizing our head, heart, and hand to work together to do some higher purpose. Let me offer you two examples.
One higher purpose is to make phone calls to people who, 11 months later, are feeling increasingly alone, lonely, isolated and disconnected. We need 200 more volunteers to make calls. To actually do this, to commit to doing it, is no easy thing. It requires head, heart and hand to make that call, but what a difference you can make when you do.
A second higher purpose is to make and, consistent with our Covid safety protocols, deliver homemade food to families in our community who could use some help. Cooking up dinner for somebody is also no easy thing. It too rquires head, heart and hand, but there is almost nothing so holy as a casserole made and delivered with love. I
Yitro dispelled his grumblies by connecting to a higher purpose. We can, too. Which brings us back to the Super Bowl.
This week, with Super Bowl excitement mounting, Duvernay-Tardif was interviewed by the Washington Post. The reporter said to him: If you had played this year, you would be going to the Super Bowl. How do you feel now?
Duvernay-Tardif acknowledged that it hurt not to be with his team. It hurt giving up a year of playing when he is literally in his prime. You don’t get your prime back. He gave up a lot.
And yet, he got a lot in return, the feeling of being there for people in their most vulnerable moments. He told the story of a young man who had been in a terrible accident and was being treated in the hospital for many weeks. Because of Covid, he had had no contact with anyone in his family, including his wife. One morning Duvernay-Tardif made rounds and saw that he was very downcast. Away from home. Away from family. Without energy. Duvernay- Tardif took out his own cell phone and used it to face time this patient’s wife. When this man saw his wife again, he cried tears of joy. Duvernay-Tardif told the reporter: I cried too, what else is there to do?
What else is there to do? So much. Mobilize your head, heart and hand to help somebody else. Call somebody who feels lonely. Deliver a homemade dinner made with love. Our grumblies go away when we connect to our higher purpose. Shabbat shalom.