It has been quite a week for milestones connected to the issues that have dominated the news during the past year.
On Monday, it was Martin Luther King Day in the United States, held each year on the third Monday in January to mark the birthday of Martin Luther King Junior on January 15, 1929. Dr King led the struggle to ensure that ‘Black Lives Matter’ back in the 1960s – and paid for it with his life, when he was gunned down on a balcony in a motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. I remember watching the news. A month short of my 13th birthday, a heavy pall of mourning descended on my family home.
So that was Monday. On Tuesday, 1,610 deaths were recorded in the UK, the highest daily number to date since the pandemic began. But then, there was Wednesday: 1,820 deaths – another gruesome, heart-breaking record. This country now tops the world in the number of coronavirus deaths per million people, with Brazil a close second, and the USA, 8th on the list .
Wednesday, January 20 was also the much-awaited date on the US calendar that saw the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States – alongside Kamala Harris, the first woman and person of colour as Vice-President. A momentous day held in the midst of a total lockdown of the city, following the assault on the Capitol by Trump supporters two weeks earlier – a right-wing insurrection that eclipsed the news of the Senate Democratic victories in Georgia that day.
Significantly, President-elect Biden chose to mark the eve of his inauguration by presiding over a Memorial Service to acknowledge the milestone of 400,000 coronavirus deaths in the US. The simple dusk service, which included the lighting of lamps alongside the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, opened with a prayer from the black Roman Catholic Archbishop of Washington DC, Wilton Gregory, the first African-American Cardinal. Next, Vice President-elect, Kamala Harris spoke, before inviting Lorie Marie Key, a black nurse from Detroit to sing ‘Amazing Grace’ – as she does when she ministers to Covid-19 patients. Finally, it was the turn of President-Elect Biden, who counselled: ‘It’s hard sometimes to remember, but that’s how we heal’. Of course, he was speaking from the heart, from his own experiences of personal tragedy, grief and loss.
So, a week, indeed, to remember. Will it usher in a time of healing?
Next week, on January 27, two very different commemorative dates fall on one day: International Holocaust Memorial Day and Tu Bishvat, the New Year for Trees. Unlike Yom Ha-Sho’ah on the 27th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, the Jewish day set aside for remembrance of the six million of our people who were murdered, January 27 is a date on the global calendar. The world is called to remembrance. Perhaps, Tu Bishvat should also be marked across the planet. After all, just as racism, inequality and injustice continue to stalk the globe 76 years after the defeat of Nazism, the Earth itself is in danger. Every nation and every people must heed the warnings of global warming and the loss of biodiversity – and act now.
We look for glimmers of hope. And there are some. The roll-out of the coronavirus virus vaccine, although slow, holds out the hope that infection rates will fall and the pandemic will be on the wane in the second half of 2021. Meanwhile, the reduction of flights during the pandemic has had some positive impact on the planet. When the coronavirus crisis is over, we know that we cannot return to life as ‘normal’; we have to create a new normal rooted in our guardianship of the Earth.
The new American administration offers hope – not least because of the decision to re-join the Paris Climate Accord confirmed on Inauguration Day. If he was alive today, Dr King would have seen glimmers of hope in the Biden/Harris team. And born as he was in Atlanta, Georgia, he would have detected bright flames of hope in the Georgia election on January 6 that saw the first black man from that state together with a Jew, elected to the Senate. A milestone in itself, the success of these two Democrats means that the Senate is now 50:50 between the two parties. And so, with the casting vote in the hands of the Vice President, the Democratic program of reform should have a chance to prevail.
We can certainly find hope in Tu Bishvat, which reminds us that even in the midst of winter, the sap is rising in the trees. And we can even find hope in remembrance of the Sho’ah on international Holocaust Memorial Day, which marks the moment on 27 January 1945 when the Red Army liberated Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Nevertheless, we are still living in a time of peril on all fronts – not least, the economic fallout of Brexit. How do we make sense of it all? How do we navigate a path for our lives in the challenging circumstances we are experiencing? In my view, to survive we need to think big and act small. Quoting a 19th-century American pastor, Martin Luther King Jr. taught that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
At this testing time that threatens to overwhelm us, it is essential that we keep the vision of that arc in our minds, while focusing on getting by day-by-day. Ten days ago, I began noting down a few things each day, however small, that gave me joy. I found an unused notebook, and decided to begin on Rosh Chodesh Sh’vat, the 1st day of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat, with its promise that, appearances to the contrary, spring is on its way. A lot of my entries focus on the delicious, nourishing meals that punctuate my day. I’ve also included, the sparkle of the early morning frost before sunrise, the sunshine breaking through the clouds, and my daily walk. I can really recommend taking a moment before going to bed to reflect and note down moments of joy, however fleeting. Acknowledging these micro-moments doesn’t change anything at the macro level, but it can change how we feel and enable us to carry on.
Today is Mental Health Awareness Shabbat, reminding us of the importance of recognising the mental health challenges we all face. If we manage to pay attention to moments of joy that we experience each day, we may also be able to remember that the seemingly insignificant things we do each day can make a difference to the wider world, even in these coronavirus times. Every time we recycle rather than throw away, every time we reach out to an isolated neighbour, every time we help someone in need or share what we have with others, we are contributing to the renewal of the planet. Every time we act with compassion and consideration, we help to transform the social climate.
We can’t wait for the long arc of the moral universe to arrive at its destination. Justice, compassion and healing won’t happen without our acts of justice, compassion and healing. More important, we can’t banish the forces of injustice and destruction by relegating them to an evil realm. In Psalm 89, verse 3, we find the phrase, Olam chesed yibbaneh, ‘the world will be built out of love’. But it’s not true. We have to rebuild and repair the world out of everything we find in it, including, the debris of hatred, fear and mistrust. That’s why, when my dear colleague, Rabbi Monique Mayer of Bristol and West Progressive Jewish Congregation, taught us an evocative tune for the words Olam chesed yibbaneh at our annual rabbinic retreat four years ago, taking my cue from the title of Amos Oz’s memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, I decided to add the word choshech, ‘darkness’. So: Olam chesed v’choshech yibbaneh – ‘The world will be built out of love and darkness’.
In this week’s Torah portion, Bo, the plagues visited on Egypt reach a crescendo, with the final three: locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn. It might seem that compared to locusts and mass death, darkness is less horrifying – and certainly does not constitute a plague. But the description in parashat Bo suggests otherwise: ‘The Eternal One said to Moses: “Hold out your arm towards the sky that there may be darkness upon the land of Egypt, darkness that can be touched.” / Moses then held out his arm towards the sky and thick darkness descended upon all the land of Egypt three days’
If you haven’t experienced it, try imagining a darkness so thick and powerful and enveloping that it can be felt. Such a darkness can be terrifying. We have to build the world even out of our greatest terrors as well as out of love.
But before we fall into the trap of binary thinking, let’s also remember that darkness can be nourishing and life-affirming. Every human being, is nurtured in the darkness of the womb. And we need the darkness of sleep in every 24-hour cycle in order to maintain our physical and mental health. Ideally, we should spend at least one third of our lives in this sleep-full darkness. By contrast, light, which is so often used as a metaphor for all that is good can be terrible if it is relentless. Subjecting prisoners to light around-the-clock is a form of torture. If the penultimate plague had been a plague of light for three days and three nights, it would have been equally unbearable.
Language is limited – and can confine our thinking, especially when we use it metaphorically. And yet, language can also lift our spirits, open our hearts to hope, and transform the moment. And so, it was with the spectacular poem that was the highlight of the Inauguration ceremony. Entitled, ‘The Hill we Climb’, it was written and spoken by the first National Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, a 22- year-old young black woman from Los Angeles. The poem is a powerful declaration of hope to the people of the USA, but the opening words speak to us all at this time:
When day comes, we ask ourselves where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade.
We’ve braved the belly of the beast.
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace,
and the norms and notions of what “just” is isn’t always justice.
And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it.
Somehow we do it.
‘The dawn’ is not yet ‘ours’ in Britain – or in most of the world – but yes: ‘Somehow we do it’. As we survey the events of the past week, look ahead to International Holocaust Memorial Day and Tu Bishvat next week, and continue to live through these challenging times, may we acknowledge all our feelings, our feelings of despair and of hope, and resolve to do what we can to generate healing and renewal, for ourselves and our loved ones, our society and our world. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
23rd January 2021 – 10th Sh’vat 5781
The 15th of the Hebrew month of Sh’vat. See: Mishnah Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:1 ↑
The Revd. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. ↑
Reverend Theodore Parker (1810-1860). President Barack Obama was also fond of this quotation. See: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/07/04/arts/obamas-eulogy-which-found-its-place-in-history.html ↑
Published in Hebrew in 2002 and in English in 2004. ↑
This revised phrase is included in the new draft Shabbat morning service of the forthcoming new prayer book of Liberal Judaism, Siddur Shirah Chadashah, which I am co-editing with Rabbi Lea Mühlstein of Northwood and Pinner Liberal Synagogue. ↑
Exodus 10:1-13:16. ↑
Exodus 10:21-22. ↑