Elevated Possibility, Born of Constraint

This Shabbat we read Parashat Vayeilech. Although it has fewer psukim(verses) than any other parasha in the Torah (only 30!), it is packed with an intensity and richness befitting of Shabbat Shuva, this Shabbat of Return that comes between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (Click here to access the whole parasha.)

This Shabbat we read Parashat Vayeilech. Although it has fewer psukim(verses) than any other parasha in the Torah (only 30!), it is packed with an intensity and richness befitting of Shabbat Shuva, this Shabbat of Return that comes between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. (Click here to access the whole parasha.)

The Torah portion opens with Moses speaking to the Israelites, and sharing a most dramatic constraint. He says: "I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer come and go. Moreover, the LORD has said to me, 'You shall not go across yonder Jordan.'" In a single verse, Moses acknowledges his age, his frailty, his limitations.

Rather than constitute an end, however, these acknowledgements seem instead to open him up to do all sorts of forward-looking things! In verse 6, Moses instructs the people to "be strong and resolute and do not fear." In verse 7, he calls on Joshua to lead and gives him the same charge. In verse 8, he writes down the teaching and transmits it to the priests and elders, instructing them to read it every seven years (during Sukkot of the shmitah year, which incidentally we'll arrive at just a few weeks from now!).

Throughout the parasha, God reminds Moses of his limitations again and again, in different language each time. For example, God says in verse 14: "the time is drawing near for you to die," and in verse 16: "you are soon to lie with your fathers'.' Moses continues to respond with bold, ambitious actions. In verse 22, he writes down a poem and teaches it to the Israelites so they will have the instruction they need once he is gone; in verses 25-29, he gives the Levites instructions about what to do with it; and finally in verse 30, he recites the words of the poem for all the Israelites to hear.

Like Moses, who begins this parasha with a statement of his limitations, Kavana is a non-profit devoted to building meaningful Jewish community, and yet we haven't been able to gather people physically with regularity for the past year and a half. When it came to planning the High Holidays, we too began from the premise of dramatic constraint. Indeed, our go-to modes of being together over the High Holidays have in the past included packing people into small fellowship halls to share meals, and cramming extra chairs into sanctuary spaces so we can sit shoulder to shoulder and sing together in harmony... precisely the kinds of activities that are most risky right now!

The Moses of Parashat Vayeilech serves as a brilliant model for us this year, as we seek to pivot and adapt. Moses seems to say: if it can't be me accompanying the people across the Jordan, let me tap Joshua. Given that you won't have my words in the future, let me give them to you now, in song form so you can memorize them.

At Kavana, we've tried to act similarly: accepting the present realities, adapting as fully as possible, trying new and creative strategies to accomplish the same objectives. Whereas for some congregations, the constraints of the pandemic have perhaps resulted in a diminished HighHoliday experience, for our community, the combination of openness and flexibility, hard work, and a good measure of sheer luck (great weather! no smoke!) resulted in a Rosh Hashanah experience that felt uplifted and elevated... even better than our usual baseline! This was a most memorable New Year celebration, characterized by parks and picnics, hikes with friends and natural beauty, coffee carts and open air experiences, the call of the shofar in the open and beautiful music of prayer.

Although the vision for these High Holidays at Kavana was born in the wake of limitations and less-than-ideal circumstances, the emails we've received over the last few days have been a testament to just how good Rosh Hashanah felt to all of you. One person described our Rosh Hashanah programs as "having a family-reunion quality," another said that being together was "exactly what I needed," and a third that these "might just be the most beautiful services ever at Kavana." I am so grateful to the Kavana community for making this possible -- to our extraordinary staff and volunteers, of course, and really everyone who took Covid compliance seriously and made it possible for us to gather safely in such a wide variety of ways.

If you missed out on Rosh Hashanah and want to get the flavor, please enjoy the photos below. You can also click here to listen/watch/read my Rosh Hashanah sermon, and/or click here to watch the Rosh Hashanah Family Service featuring me and Chava Mirel.

Even with the ultimate constraints of mortality upon him, Moses looks to the future, to teaching and poetry. So too our community. Even with the constraints of this pandemic upon us, we take to heart Moses's charge to "be strong and resolute," turning to creativity and expansiveness, to words and to wordlessness, to hope and possibility, to divinity and community. On this Shabbat Shuva, we turn and we return.

I look forward to seeing many of you over Yom Kippur -- please see below for more details about the gorgeous and deeply meaningful day we have in store for the Kavana community. Wishing each and every one of you a sweet, happy and healthy New Year,  

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum