Happily Ever After

March 13, 2021

Author(s): Rabbi Michelle Robinson,

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Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei
March 13, 2021 — 29 Adar 5781
Happily Ever After
by Rabbi Michelle Robinson
Temple Emanuel, Newton, MA


From our earliest childhood days, we read a story – told through multiple characters in multiple ways – which always follows the same orderly and optimistic script: a young girl falls in love with a doting prince, who whisks her off to a gleaming castle where she lives in luxury and attendant joy all the days of her life. The princess lives “happily ever after.”

            Except when she doesn’t. When Meghan Markle sat down with Oprah last week, in front of an audience of 49 million, she challenged us to re-examine our script. As she shared her struggles with mental health – grappling with anxiety, racism, and invasion of privacy – the echoes of the past were palpable.

As has been often noted in the week since, to watch the interview was to be transported back in time to Harry’s mother Diana’s script-shattering interview 26 years before. Both women revealed deep struggles with anxiety, depression, and self-harm. Both felt trapped in the trappings of a fairy tale script that had become their nightmare.

            Now you may ask why, on this weekend that commemorates a grueling year of pandemic pain, should we dwell on Meghan and Diana? The answer has everything to do with this moment. You see, if there is one thing the pandemic has taught us, it is that “happily ever after” is not always on the menu – not for princesses and not for us.

We all have to grapple with the day we are given. And we all carry with us not only our present experience but echoes of the past. Echoes of bubbies and zadies who hid in cellars in the Shoah shadowing our early lockdown fears, echoes of the Depression here in America or deprivation in frozen European shtetls guiding our hands as we emptied grocery store shelves and filled our Instacarts with too much toilet paper.

How do we not repeat generational trauma? Our parasha this morning offers an answer in an unexpected way. Vayekhel-Pekudei is famous for the tremendous amount of time it spends on the details of the construction of a Tabernacle. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks points out that this is a very odd thing to do for one really obvious reason: the Tabernacle is temporary.

Unlike so many other things in the Torah which were we are meant to carry with us always, the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, was specifically meant for a particular time and a particular place – for the in-between desert days. It is exactly what is needed, until it is not, at which point we need a new move.

That lens can make all the difference. Indeed, that lens did make all the difference when our more permanent Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, not once but twice. When we find ourselves having to face a new normal, we can view the structures and experiences of our lives as a permanent narrative of who we are, what we can expect to be – what will always be. Or we can pick up our metaphorical tent pegs, carrying the ability to build anew, wherever we are.

We can see this pandemic as shaping us indelibly with scars that will bind our future. Like the depression generation that stuffed their pantries and saved every paper bag and piece of foil, will we find it hard to come casually close again, hard to imagine handshakes and hugs as we carry the Torah through packed aisles? Perhaps.

But just as one story of our people is that we have been hated and hunted throughout our history, sculpted by a long shadow of suffering from crusades to pogroms to the Shoah, the other story is that we are a people who have renewed and rebuilt again and again, not allowing the incredible hardships we have endured to limit our vision.

Today is the prooftext of that claim. Our parasha begins with “Va’yahkel” – gather. And we cannot gather physically. But that has not stopped us from coming together from all across the world to celebrate Andrew and Eytan on their bar mitzvah day. Instead of generational trauma, today we have generational triumph – the tabernacle different, but the ancient embrace the same.

Today is the prooftext of that claim. As we stand on the precipice of a modern miracle with increasing vaccination, there is so much lost – and so much learned. This past year we have lost beloved precious members of our community and our country, including, Eytan, your incredible grandfather Rabbi Stanley Urbas, may his memory always be for an inspiration. This year we have lost precious moments – being together to welcome new babies, graduations, proms, and first kisses. This year has been filled with anxiety and insecurity. We did not get to write that script.

But there is a script we do get to write. What will we carry with us, and what will we lay down? Will we carry the wonder of my newly fully-vaccinated friend as she exclaimed with delight, “This weekend I’m going to the grocery store!” – an appreciation that, as Abraham Joshua Heschel once said, “takes nothing for granted”? Will we carry the increased accessibility to community and learning that living on the internet has equalized for all?  Will we carry the enthusiasm of the previously surly teenagers who now cannot wait to go to school?

Will we continue to work to lay down prejudice and polarization? Will we lay down classism, shaped by the awareness the pandemic has given us of the critical contribution of each member of our society? Will we lay down our loneliness and our stigma about mental health – because we are all going to need each other to heal?

Which brings us back to Meghan. In so many heartbreaking ways, generational trauma throbbed through the Oprah interview. In so many heartbreaking ways, with all that has changed, too much has remained the same.

And yet Meghan’s move is also entirely new. This time, Harry sat by her side. This time, Meghan reflects the pulse of a world grappling with racial justice and is driving that conversation toward hope. This time, her vulnerability is the foundation of writing her own “happily ever after.”

“Happily ever after” is not automatic – not for Princesses and not for us – but in choosing what we will carry with us from this moment and what we will leave behind, it is a story we can begin to write today.

Shabbat Shalom.