A few months ago, I saw a cartoon that was a picture of a bookstore with bookshelves organized by genre. And the employee was standing there with a marker and
re-organizing the sections. The moment depicted was him standing in the “Dystopian Science Fiction” section, and he was crossing out the words “Dystopian science fiction” and replacing them with the words “Current Events.” And I’ll admit, I got a pretty dark chuckle out of that.
But, of course, it’s stuck with me because well, yeah. Stories about finding patient zero in a global pandemic that is whipping through communities, and the race against time to stop it – that is box office worthy material. Wasn’t Will Smith literally just in that movie? And it’s not just the pandemic. Massive weather events destroying everything in their path – that used to be watched with a bowl of popcorn for evening entertainment. Gloves and masks and fires and floods – these were the props for any good apocalyptic story which transported us to a future – not our future, thank goodness, but some other time and place, where its poor inhabitants were faced with unprecedented new realities.
We could hardly imagine it.
Well, some people could imagine it – global virologists, climate scientists, some of our sisters and brothers in the global south. But for many of us here, maybe even most of us – this past year and a half has been a surprising turn of events.
And yet. Here we are. In this new world. A world of uncertainties, and unknowns. It feels measurably different now. And it’s changed us, probably in some ways we can’t even name yet. Maybe it’s softened us in some ways, maybe it’s hardened us in some ways, too. For sure, though, it has opened our eyes to a different world than the one we knew just eighteen months ago. We have seen now what is possible and so we can’t help but have a new, and sometimes unrelenting, imagination for what might be just down the road.
How do we live in this new world? How do we survive it? Adjust to it? Engage with it? How do we live in this world now that we have seen what we have seen?
It would be understandable to just curl up in a ball and shut down our hearts some – they’ve been so bruised in recent months. Or to say: if it’s my time, it’s my time, and just live with abandon. Or to walk around looking unphased on the surface, but just a few layers beneath, really be struggling with it all.
And to be clear, I’m asking these questions because they are my questions, too. I don’t come with textbook answers or obvious solutions, but rather – to try to figure it out together.
And here on this Yom Kippur morning, on which we set aside all of this time to think about how we are living our lives, we have a chance to think together about how to be in this new world, how to not just go through the motions or quietly ache, all the while just waiting for the other shoe to drop.
I think our tradition has some ways to guide us. I want to share just a handful of Midrashim with you – three stories that the rabbis pulled all from the same moment in our sacred narrative. This moment. But a long time ago. This moment, but starring other characters. This moment, but at the beginning of the world.
Each of the stories comes from what happened after Adam and Eve leave the Garden of Eden. The story begins: God places Adam and Eve in the garden. They are the first two human beings in creation. It’s love at first sight. Oh, it’s like they’re made for each other. I mean, literally, they are made for each other.
And then God places in the middle of the garden, the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad. And God tells them – you can eat anything from this garden, except for the fruit of that tree. So for about ten minutes, they do what they are told and then, a serpent persuades Eve to eat the fruit and Eve gives it to Adam and he eats as well.
And the text says: Vatipakachna einei sh’neihem – “their eyes were opened.” And suddenly, all they once knew falls away. They see each other and themselves and the world differently. And this beautiful and lush garden, the world they once knew, was now no longer available to them. God banishes them and places an angel with a fiery twirling sword at the gate, so they could not return.
In a heartbeat, everything was different. Like us, their eyes had been opened and they could not unsee what they had seen. Like us, there was a world behind them that they could not return to. And like us, they needed to figure out what the heck they were going to do now. Knock until God let them back in? Curl up and wither away? Live as if nothing were different? The rabbis of the Midrash are very invested in this moment, our moment, and they wonder a lot about what Adam and Eve go through after their world changes. As we stand in this mirror moment, perhaps these midrashim can guide us.
First, a caveat – the world we were in before was clearly not idyllic, like the Garden of Eden is imagined to be. Simply, like Adam and Eve, it was what we knew and thought we’d always kind of know.
So – Midrash number 1:
The first thing the rabbis say happened next, was that the sun began to set. Unfamiliar with nightfall, Adam and Eve are terrified. Adam laments: the world is returning to darkness and desolation! And so they sit down together to cry. Ultimately, come morning, the sun rises again, and they exclaim: “minhago shel olam hu!” Oh! This is the way of the world and we did not know.
What can we take from this midrash for our own lives in our new world? Two things.
First, the very first thing that Adam and Eve do is they cry. They say out loud that they are afraid and sad. They don’t choke back their tears or attempt to appear “cool with this.” They allow themselves to feel raw and honest emotion.
Sometimes, too often, showing emotion has been seen as weakness. Buck up, we have said, walk it off, we have urged our children, to help them develop resilience. But Adam weeps and it brings him closer to Eve, to himself, and even to God and this earth. And so I want to suggest that maybe we leave those instincts to quash emotion in the before-times. They are not serving us now. They are shutting us off from each other, and maybe making it seem like others are doing great while we alone are struggling. This is not helping us.
May I invite you to speak it out loud now? In just a whisper. How are you feeling? Maybe you’re great or hopeful – that is beautiful! Maybe you’re not. That is beautiful, too. We are not alone in feeling even the hardest things and that pushes the darkness away just a bit.
In fact, just then, as they are crying, the sun does rise for Adam and Eve. And they say: minhago shel olam hu. Oh. This is the way of the world now and we did not know. They acknowledge that things have changed – which frees them to figure out how to respond to that change, how THEY need to change in this new day.
There are ways we have lived that have basically worked well enough – until recently. Many of us live as a nuclear family or alone, fiercely independent, with small networks, with family – chosen or birth – far away. When all of this began, I know in my family, we found ourselves up that unenviable creek with no paddles to be found. We had just moved, no one to pod with, no help for two working parents with a young child – totally unsustainable. I spoke with older folks and also single folks in the community that suddenly became completely isolated and desperately lonely. “It takes a village,” never felt more true or more unattainable.
We also note that “minhago shel olam,” “the way of the world” has changed. How might our response to this world change, too? This new world is not gentle on the podless. This new world needs neighbors bailing water together at 2am. This new world needs to share childcare and cooking and elder care. And people who can get comfortable asking one another for help, which is a really hard thing to do.
Now, it would take some pretty radical decisions to change our living structures and culture. It’s okay that we don’t know if or how to do it yet – we are still just blinking into the new light of this day. But perhaps this new “way of the world” opens us to new models of living and home and community and caring for one another, too.
Midrash number 2: God also wants to change the way we live.
So the next move in the Adam and Eve saga is God’s. The midrash says that while they were in the garden, everything happened very quickly. The constellations revolved in short courses and at great speed. A seed could be planted in the morning and you’d be eating sweet figs from its branches by the afternoon. But after they left Eden, vayechulu hashamayim v’ha’aretz – which the rabbis interpret to mean “speed in the Heavens and growth on earth were diminished.” In this new reality, God slowed down and lengthened the cycles of the constellations. The fig trees would ripen over months and the seasons would come in their time.
We might read this slowing down as punishment and certainly some do. But what if there is also a deep wisdom in God slowing it all down? Adam and Eve now had a whole new world to tend to and now we have a whole new world to tend to. The frenzied pace that worked in the garden where they lived footloose and fancy free would surely leave them exhausted in this new world, heads spinning as they tried to keep up. So familiar.
We have lived at a frenetic pace. It was exhausting before this new reality descended on us – now it is nearly impossible. The rat race, the race against time, the race to the top – and then things broke. And Zoom school and full time work and surges and losses have called into question the pace we have kept.
Now there is still urgency in this world – urgency related to human suffering, related to climate change, related to dangerous laws passed under the cover of darkness. But it turns out, everything is not as urgent as we thought it was. What if we embrace that?
We call NY the city that never sleeps, yet our bodies and our hearts need rest. What if being whole in this new world requires us to slow down in most things that we do? To accept the wisdom of a decelerated cosmos so human beings would have time to touch the soil, plant a seed, grow something nourishing, luxuriate in the colors and the smells, the textures. If the world must be breaking all around us, can we exchange our learned need to have and be and do it all for the ability to pay attention to the things that matter most to us.
What might it take for us, for you, to adjust your pace? What would slowing down give you back? What joyful time could you spend with loved ones? What might hurt less in your body? What in this world would heal from our having the time to tend to it?
Story number three:
What comes next are a whole array of midrashim that say that upon realizing they were no longer immortal, the very first thing that Adam did was to be physically intimate with Eve in order to have children and therefore, a legacy. That is an understandable instinct.
But there is one unassuming midrash that seems to come from a writer who knew something deeper about this moment. It says that when Adam saw the angel with the fiery sword, he realized that if he were to have children, they would be destined to feel pain and to die. And so he ran. Far away from Eve. And he refused to be intimate, because the way this new world was hard on his heart, was far too great for such closeness and dreams of a future.
From this empathic text, I want to pull two ideas for us today.
If Adam’s need to pull away from intimacy and closeness resonates with you – that is not weird or strange. When we are anxious and exhausted, we put up walls to protect our vulnerable selves. We might withdraw from the intimacies of romantic, physical, friend, or familial relationships, stopping anyone from getting too close as we hope the levees of our bodies and hearts will hold. We might pull back from joy or pleasure or closeness.
But Adam does return to Eve and they are intimate again and the pleasure and joy of their love, it does not break them – it strengthens them. He has a vision of a joyful future and takes the risk to embrace it.
We are not an ascetic faith. There is healing to be found in letting each other in, and seeking out pleasure and joyful connection and closeness, in all the forms that it takes. It helps to make the future, whatever is in store, palatable.
Which brings us to one last nugget of wisdom from this midrash. Eve and Adam do ultimately decide to procreate. The way I want to read that for us is not about physically having children, but rather it is that they decide not to abandon the new world or let it die with them.
They decide that they will build it up and contribute to it and try to make it more beautiful and alive. They engage in a radical act of hope for the next generations.
We may feel, quite understandably, that we only have the energy to focus inward on all the responsibilities we have just in our own small circle. Yet turning outward to care for this world ends up bringing Adam and Eve meaning and purpose in their new existence.
How might we turn outward in a way that would bring us meaning and purpose, too, and what will be our acts of hope? What is our power and vision to build up this world and make it better, to soften its rough edges for the most vulnerable, uncover its beauty and rescue it from its most insidious turns. Even now, perhaps especially now.
So we have gathered up some teachings for this new world: We can try to let our emotions through more often. We might want to live differently with more communal instincts now. We may need to slow down, a lot. A lot a lot. We can catch ourselves pulling away from joy and intimacy, and reverse course. And we can still make this world better. Maybe one of these tugs at us today. Maybe another will ripen later as we learn this place.
There’s an idea in the framework of community organizing in which we consider the world as it is vs. the world as it should be. And immediately upon learning this concept, most students of organizing lionize the world as it should be and kick to the curb this grubby world as it is. But a good organizer will always teach that we cannot cast off the world as it is. For that is this world. And it doesn’t help us to daydream about what once was or lament about what is not yet. Here and now, we can wrest goodness and humanity, we can grow and learn and break and heal – only here in this world. We can love each other and hold each other up, only here. Only now.
I learned this lesson through the pandemic, too. Over the past year and a half, I’ve lied to our four year old daughter. Pointing out raindrops on spider webs. Rainbows in everything. Look, Ravi, at the orange flecks in that leaf, look, Ravi at that enormous fungus. Look at how pretty that license plate is. I was lying. Not about all of it, of course, but I was exaggerating for sure. I was trying to sell her on this world. To make it beautiful and surprising and full of delight. Of hope. To protect her from what actually was.
And then the other day, we were looking out her window after a recent deluge and everything was mucky. And she pointed at the dirty asphalt, muddy with wet tires kicking up the loose gravel. And she found just a stripe of light hitting that Brooklyn street, and she whispered to me – look how it sparkles. It looks like twinkling stars. It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?
This new world – some days it feels like more than we can handle. But we can love this world. We don’t need to give up on this world. This earth. Each other. We can find ways to live in it, so we aren’t trying to navigate it stoically or all alone. We can slow down and find joy and pleasure and beauty here. We can still rise up in this world to make it better and kinder and more just. We may not be able to go back, but we can go forward. We have that in us – it was planted in us in the very first days of creation.
Hashiveinu Adonai eilecha v’nashuva, chadesh yameinu k’kedem. Return us to you God, and we will return. Renew our days k’kedem, as if they were the days of old, but chadesh us – renew us, God, kadimah – as we face toward the future and step together into all that is next. Amen.
G’mar Chatimah Tovah.