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Time to leave the ark, and build a new world

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The year is coming to an end. As is customary in media all over the world, there must be at least one column in each newspaper that attempts to make sense of the past year.

Typically, the writer will offer their summary of trend changes, geopolitical dynamics, advances (or the lack thereof) in entertainment, technology, medicine; then bemoan the imperfections of the world relative to their theory of utopia; then wrap it all up beautifully in a literary box; and thus goes up the “closed” sign on the previous year.

I have been offered the distinguished task of doing so for this past year, 5780, in the Jewish calendar. I’m not sure whether I’m feeling distinguished or extinguished as I sit at my laptop trying to type the first word on this topic. Seriously, what does one even say of the most unpredictable, unusual, and, to be honest, unbelievable year in our lifetime?

Do I point out all the types of suffering which entered our world as an outcome of that one fella who decided that eating a bat was a good idea? Do I focus on the obvious and oft repeated lesson on the power of one person to influence change? Do I share my empathy and love with those who have suffered loss during or because of the pandemic?

I just did. And I mean it with all my heart.

As for my summation of this year, I choose to focus on its simplicity. Our lives have been simpler these past months than they have been in a long time – decades perhaps.

What does simple mean?

The Oxford dictionary defines the word “simple” as “plain, basic, or uncomplicated in form, nature, or design, without much decoration or ornamentation” – exactly what the physicality of our lives has looked like over this period.

Are you kidding? Uncomplicated? Rabbi, what are you blabbering about? This world is so complicated, and more confused than ever.

True. And not true. (Said like a rabbi.)

What is true is how many people are confused and their ideas more complicated than in the past.

What is also true is that in spite of the anxiety, stress, bad political ideas, and other social negatives that have been amplified by the pandemic, the world has also become simpler.

Less cars on the road. Less flights. Less eating out. Less holidays. Less partying. Less drinking (ok, maybe not). More family time (some might say too much time). More time to reflect (or binge watch Netflix). More down time. Integrating family and work life, and hopefully finding the balance.

Most importantly: more time to connect with ourselves and our faith. More Torah learning was accomplished in our community this year than over many years combined! The amount of content that has been shared and studied on platforms such as Zoom, YouTube, and Facebook Live is remarkable. Although our shuls have been closed until recently, and are now open under severe restrictions, communities have been more active than ever.

So many of my colleagues have shared how busy they have been over this period. In many ways, these past few months have been the most fulfilling of my rabbinic career. Most of my time was spent teaching and communicating with congregants, with much less logistics than usual. I spent my time learning, teaching, counselling, comforting mourners, running Zoom Barmitzvahs, and enjoying the blessing of family and community.

An analogy that comes to mind over this period is that these past six months have felt like being in Noah’s Ark. There is a storm outside. We locked ourselves into our ark-homes. There were jobs to do at home, just as Noah was occupied with feeding all the animals, but all in all, there was this safety of home which protected most of us from the pandemic.

And now, as I write these words, we are in level two of lockdown. Schools are open. Shuls are opening. Life is bringing many of us back outdoors.

And like Noah of old, we might feel trepidation about this new world we are cautiously entering. This new world is unlike the pre-flood (pre-COVID-19) world, and unlike the ark (lockdown). It’s a new reality. A third reality. Noah was tasked with being the second Adam, and together with his family, rebuilding humanity from scratch. We are being called upon to create a new world.

I refer to more than the fact that this new world has masks on our faces, social distancing, no human touch other than our home-mates, and a quite different economic and social climate. I refer to the new world of our minds. We are a changed people. These six months have changed us, formed our character, and tested our resilience.

We are the new world. It is us who have changed, hopefully for the better. It is us who see reality with new eyes. Our perspectives have matured. Our hearts have broadened. Our priorities have been realigned.

“Leave the ark,” is what Hashem tells Noah. Did he really need convincing to leave that claustrophobic wooden lifeboat? Yes. Even an ark can start feeling like home after long enough. And, at moments like these we are called to embrace the new-new stage. After we’ve mostly adjusted to the new normal of lockdown, now we are called to the normal of “living-with-COVID-19”.

Did Noah have all the answers? Nope. He became overwhelmed by it all, and got drunk on wine. Let’s not repeat that mistake. Although alcohol is accessible again, please drink (or don’t drink) responsibly.

We don’t have the answers. In some cases, we don’t even know the questions. And we’ll be okay. We are that strong. Let’s take with us the lesson of simplicity that we’ve learned in these times, and a suitcase of experience, faith, and tenacity to help us through this new stage. Like Noah, we will build a beautiful new world.

  • Rabbi Levi Avtzon is the rabbi at Linksfield Shul.

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