Cultivating Flexibility and Adaptability, Like a Reed

Like many of you, I'm feeling the stress of this particular moment. Only a few short weeks ago, the mood felt very different: my household was finally fully vaccinated(!), Kavana was busy planning for a January return to many more in-person events, and there was a generally positive energy in the air... an optimistic zeitgeist. And then (as I'm sure I don't have to explain), this latest Omicron wave hit, like a dark cloud, complicating everything.

Like many of you, I'm feeling the stress of this particular moment. Only a few short weeks ago, the mood felt very different: my household was finally fully vaccinated(!), Kavana was busy planning for a January return to many more in-person events, and there was a generally positive energy in the air... an optimistic zeitgeist. And then (as I'm sure I don't have to explain), this latest Omicron wave hit, like a dark cloud, complicating everything.

Perhaps this week's Torah portion can help us move through this challenging moment.

Parashat Bo picks up in the middle of the ten plagues, beginning with an opening verse that reads: "Then the Lord said to Moses: 'Go to Pharaoh. For I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers (hichbad'ti et libo v'et lev avadav), in order that I may display these My signs among them... in order that you may know that I am the Lord'" (Exodus 10:1-2). This notion of the hardening of Pharaoh's heart is repeated like a refrain... for example, "But the Lord stiffened Pharaoh's heart ("vayichazek adonai et lev par'oh"), and he would not let the Israelites go" (Exodus 10:20). In fact, the Torah mentions the hardening of Pharaoh's heart a total of 20 times in the narrative of yetziat mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt!

The image of a hardened heart is easy to understand. In a physical sense, we humans rely on so many of our body parts -- our heart, our lungs, and more -- to be strong, but also flexible and pliable. Stiffness, literally, would mean an inability for our organs to function. In a more metaphorical sense, too, a hardened heart for Pharaoh and his courtiers also implies rigidity, and an inability to compromise or to cope with changing circumstances. Each instance of Pharaoh's hardened heart brings on a new plague, which means that it results in the swift and severe consequences of suffering and ultimately even deaths.

As for us in this moment, we too find ourselves up against rapidly changing circumstances. We would do well to use Pharaoh and his courtiers as negative examples... that is, to look to them for what not to do. Instead, we can aim to be as un-Pharaoh-like as possible, to cultivate precisely the opposite qualities in ourselves!

One Jewish teaching that may help here is a precept offered by Rabbi Elazar ben Shimon. He says: One should always be as flexible as a reed and not as unyielding as a cedar. This is why a reed merited to have made from it a quill to write a Sefer Torah, tefillin and mezuzot” (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 20b).

The core of Rabbi Elazar's teaching is that flexibility is prized. Inherent in flexibility is a kind of humility, a willingness to be wrong sometimes and to do teshuva and make changes or correct course; it's for this reason, he teaches, that a reed merited being the instrument for the scribal writing of our most sacred texts. Aesop offers a similar fable about an oak and a reed, and many other cultures teach, as well, the same essential lesson: that when the wind blows, it's better to bend than to be uprooted. True strength can be found in the capacity to bend and adapt.

In any case, here we are in January 2022 / Shevat 5782, facing down plague-like conditions and vacillations of both policy and mood. As we experience this newest Covid-19 wave, even if this Omicron variant turns out to be milder in its direct health impacts, its social impacts are already far-reaching. The degree of suffering and distress people are experiencing is real, as all of us wrestle with cancellations and changes of plans, disruptions of business and supply chains, and impacts on our schools and community organizations.

We can't control these conditions, but we can seek to cultivate within ourselves a capacity to respond with sensitivity and flexibility. If we set a kavana (intention) to be as un-like Pharaoh as possible, we can imagine ourselves as pliable and adaptable. We can be the reed, the instrument of holiness.

As you'll see below, this is precisely the approach that Kavana as a whole is trying to embrace right now. As a small, nimble organization with a supportive and flexible community base, we have the ability to adapt with relative ease to changing circumstances, and we will continue to do so. Due to the new surge in the pandemic and high transmission rates in our area, over the next few weeks, we'll be offering Kavana programming and community touch points mostly online. Yes, it's somewhat demoralizing to be back at this point, but we know that this is only temporary... and we hold out hope that within a matter of weeks, new circumstances will allow us to adapt yet again and resume facilitating in-person connections.

Meanwhile, though, as we weather this difficult time, let's do it together in all the ways that we can. We hope you will join us online... for Kabbalat Shabbat tomorrow night or for any of the dozens of other upcoming programs, services and events. And, if you need support of any kind, please say the word.

Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom... and the flexibility and adaptability of spirit that it will undoubtedly take to weather this moment,

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum