Punctuating the Monotony with Memorable Moments

Yesterday, Feb 2nd, was Groundhog Day. Sometime relatively early in Covid lockdown last spring, my family (re)watched the 1993 comedy by that name. Bill Murray plays the lead role in the film: a cynical TV weatherman assigned to cover the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, who gets stuck in a time loop and is forced to relive the same day over and over.

Yesterday, Feb 2nd, was Groundhog Day. Sometime relatively early in Covid lockdown last spring, my family (re)watched the 1993 comedy by that name. Bill Murray plays the lead role in the film: a cynical TV weatherman assigned to cover the annual Groundhog Day event in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, who gets stuck in a time loop and is forced to relive the same day over and over.

Perhaps it's not the deepest movie ever, but Groundhog Day is a 90's classic, and I've thought about it frequently during the past year, as we've lived through long stretches that have felt like a slew of successive Groundhog Days. Fortunately, I know that every day is not truly identical... and paying closer attention to the gradual changes of nature's cycles has been helpful for keeping this perspective. Still, the idea that on some fundamental level we've all been waking up in the same place to the same reality, day in and day out, rings true. Without vacation travel and birthday parties, concerts and conferences, everything has simply felt flatter; days and weeks and sometimes even months have blurred into one another.

And yet, specific days have stood out in sharp relief during these long months: memorable moments such as Jewish holidays, my daughter's bat mitzvah, and January 6th and 20th (for different reasons). I'm sure you've had memorable moments of your own this year, and perhaps you, too, feel that they stand out even more sharply than they would have otherwise given the relative monotony of the backdrop.

In this week's parasha, Yitro, the Mount Sinai experience emerges, similarly, in sharp relief from the relatively flat context of the Israelites' wanderings in the wilderness. The Israelites will, as we know, spend decades in Midbar Sinai (the Wilderness of Sinai): encamping and decamping, assembling and disassembling the mishkan and then reassembling it again, grumbling about water and eating the same manna, day in and day out. Against this backdrop, the singular event that stands out most dramatically is the revelation at Har Sinai (the Mountain of Sinai).

The Torah draws attention to this peak moment (pun intended) in every possible way. As the Israelites approach their big Mount Sinai moment, we witness a beautiful prelude: a declaration of love on God's part ("I have born you on eagles' wings"). This is followed by three days of physical and spiritual preparation. And then, the big light show begins, complete with thunder, lightning, a cloud, and the very loud blast of the shofar. The Israelites are trembling as they take their place at the foot of the mountain, and "the sound of the ram's horn grew stronger and stronger." (Click here to read this most dramatic description in Exodus 19.) The Torah's text makes it sound like Mount Sinai was the equivalent of the flashing lights of Times Square or the Las Vegas strip, plus a loud concert, plus a natural disaster... all rolled into one! This larger-than-life multisensory experience was meant to be impossible to ignore, and even moreso, impossible to forget!

If we do want experiences to stand out and feel memorable during this otherwise muted time, the Mount Sinai moment is certainly helpful as a model. It would instruct us to change up the pace, prepare well, stimulate all the senses, and evoke deep emotional connection in order to achieve lasting impact. These are indeed great practical tips to keep in mind as we begin to plan for our second pandemic Purim and Passover, as well as quarantine birthdays and all the rest.

At the end of the day, though, the Mount Sinai experience is meant to be memorable for a reason: it is here at the mountain that God first speaks the aseret ha-dibrot, the Ten Commandments. All the flashing arrows point the reader to a set of ten fundamental moral rules that are intended to help us become better -- more humble and honest and respectful and ethical -- people. The point of the peak moment is to help imprint upon us these core guidelines for life, such that we cannot possibly forget or overlook them. In the movie Groundhog Day, too, ethical living is also the main point, at the end of the day. The ill-tempered weatherman can't get out of his February 2nd repeat loop until he learns and internalizes the lesson of how to be a better, less selfish and more caring human being.

My sincere hope is that we, too, will emerge from this year of Groundhog Days having learned and grown, and -- on individual, communal and societal levels -- having become better, more compassionate human beings.

Meanwhile, though, yesterday's groundhog in Punxsutawney advised that we will have to wait another six weeks until spring. And so, while we're hanging out here in the wilderness, we can use Parashat Yitro's playbook to create some peak moments together!

This Saturday, it turns out, is National Eat Ice Cream for Breakfast Day (seriously, I'm not making this up!). While it doesn't entail flashing lights, shofar blasts or thunder, observing this "holiday" just might change up the pace enough to make for a memorable day. I'm envisioning waking up this Shabbat morning, eating a bowl of ice cream for breakfast, and then standing and reading the Ten Commandments from Parashat Yitro. In addition, I would welcome your participation in creating a memorable Purim experience for our Kavana community this year, one that will stand out from the monotonous backdrop! (Please see the Purim section below and be in touch if you'd like to help in any way.)

Wishing us all growth, alignment, and many peak moments as we move through these Groundhog Days together!

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum