Sign In Forgot Password

If Not Now, When   

05/20/2020 09:32:43 AM


  by Joshua Lesser - written as a lead article for the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association's newsletter on Responses to Covid-19 


...How does one plan when the wave washed away the concrete of our intentions?

How does one reschedule with a calendar that doesn't have dates?

...All the whens have fled.

...If not when, then now.  (excerpt from “Begging the Question,”  by Joshua Lesser)


Mourn all the losses, little and big. It is how we are able to let go so that we may respond to the “now” of this pandemic. Depending on where we live, our realities differ, yet I have been asked to take momentary stock.

It doesn’t quite feel right to look back yet at the lessons learned from this pandemic; we are not on solid ground.  Instead, this moment calls us to be open to the flowing, dissembling that is happening right now. Even more seductive is looking ahead, predicting what the future of Judaism and the rabbinate will look like. By the time I finished this piece, the landscape had already changed and by the time you read this, it will have changed again.

I fight being in the unfolding moment because I hunger for resolution, for outcomes. Isn’t that what grant cycles teach us: we need predictable, measurable outcomes. Isn’t that what we are taught makes for a successful rabbinate, or life?  Except how much do we have to deny or hide from view to make it seem so contained in a narrative with either a happy or sensible ending?

From a spiritual perspective, our ability to be in the now is essential even when it is difficult.  As rabbis, we often excel in being purveyors of a rich and wise past. But I believe what is needed most is cultivating our ability to be with the reality of the moment even at its most discomforting and to support those we serve to achieve the same.

 I look towards the rabbis who survived Jerusalem’s siege and ultimate destruction. Were they planful in their outcomes; did know they would be inventing an entirely new Judaism? Or were they doing their best to respond to the need at the moment by surrendering to their reality moving forward with their values?

My spiritual journey has taught me that resolution along with traditional notions of success is often illusory. Tibetan Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron wrote in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times,  “As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However...we suffer from resolution. We don't deserve resolution; we deserve something better... We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.” (pp.65-66)  Can we lead from this “middle way”?

As the pandemic was unfolding, we were reading about what happens after the Israelites’  liberation from Mitzrayim, their unknown future. And while there was an irony in a time of our constraint to be reading about freedom, this idea of our birthright being an embracing of not knowing felt exactly right. Their fragility and imperfect strivings crossed with the possibilities of freedom encapsulated the same sense of tragic optimism of Chodron’s paradox. Viktor Frankel expressed his ability to survive some of life’s greatest trials by his ability to hold two opposing truths: life is inescapably bound with pain and loss and genuine faith that one can persevere with joy despite the severity of one’s challenges. This is the middle way of our “now”.

At first, much of what I felt was the sense of urgency as news of the coronavirus felt like it was barreling towards us. It was overwhelming. The news and the rules kept changing. We quickly assembled a team of members who work at the Centers for Disease Control to help determine what our course of action should be. Internally, I had to contend with the displeasure of what they said, but I knew I had to subdue my will; surrender to the reality the best we knew it. The sooner I let go of my attachments of what congregational life looked like, the more we could adapt.  The less I felt like Abraham bargaining with God,the more I felt like Betzalel creating a new kind of sanctuary for this “now’.

But then a new trap emerged.

I was caught up for all the right reasons wanting to do this well as if there was a rabbinic merit badge for pandemic response. But new waves crashed, receiving challenging news just before my first Zoom meditation. Despite having found the  “perfect words and teachings” my internet connection was faulty;  people kept yelling that they couldn’t understand me. Undone, I had to surrender my vision of perfection to the loss, powerlessness, and fear, regardless of expertise. I was reduced and uplifted to the most human version of myself. 

It was then I discovered these words, which Chodron put above her desk, “Only to the extent that we expose ourselves over and over to annihilation can that which is indestructible be found in us...It [is] all about letting go of everything.” 

The theology of undoing is embracing the counterintuitive notion that our strength lies in our vulnerability, that we bend like the reed and avoid the rigidity (and pride) of the cedar (Ta’anit 20b).  It is embracing imperfection even as it annihilates the ego; the idea of the rabbi with all of the answers and with all the salve for comfort.  It is leaning into the practice of confronting the paramount fear that we are not enough. We are enough.

If we walk this middle path with integrity to the “now” of our unfolding experience, then we can put down the insatiable need to do more and be more than what this moment calls for even when it is grief and even if it means to pause. The daunting nature of leading communities through a shelter-in-place quarantine with economic collapse on the horizon for many (and perhaps our own communities) and the loss of family and friends who may suffer or die alone with our rituals primarily on the screen should not be underestimated. We too, must grieve all of the losses, make time for silence, sit still, pray, let loose our expectations.

Engaging in practices that allow us to let go, I think about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, escaping Jerusalem in a coffin before it is destroyed. He engages in a series of risky deceptions and machinations for his own survival and that of Judaism itself. It is powerful and counterintuitive to see that our survival is connected to our community’s survival. But that is exactly what our CDC taskforce articulated.

On our second call, they shared priorities from which we should make decisions. The first one was to protect the leadership. “We must create policies that limit the risk to the rabbi and the staff because they are serving the common good of the community.”  Somehow in the rush, in my desire to be purposeful, I had neglected that my safety and well-being should somehow be considered.

Perhaps considering your own well-being as central is a thought that comes naturally to some, but for others, the service of the rabbinate by definition comes with sacrifice. And even though the Torah of filling one’s well first is a regular teaching of mine, it is uncomfortable to admit that I have felt that sometimes it does not apply to me. The rabbinate does not grant immunity from the scariness, the anxiety, the humbling and the undoing of these times. We are not invincible and more bracingly, we too, can and will die. It is why I created a Facebook group for clergy, because even more than sharing resources, we need a place where we can safely come undone.

I have come to realize that my spiritual practices are not for their own sake, they should not be to sate my hunger for perfection or for the appearance that my life is under control. Rather, they are to awaken me to this moment, awe and wonder, my own undoing and strength.  I think of my ancestors who boarded boats to unknown destinations, who bartered for their existence, who took chances without any guarantees. They only did so, by relinquishing their control and creating the possibility of not knowing. They had a tragic optimism that allowed disappointment and fear to become only a part of their journey. They did not know where it would all end--and neither do we.  But we do have now.

Joshua Lesser (RRC ’99) is rabbi of Congregation Bet Haverim in Atlanta.

Mon, May 10 2021 28 Iyyar 5781