Today is such a big day and an important transition for our country.
Today is such a big day and an important transition for our country.
As Jews, we know a thing or two about marking transitions and elevating time! In this week's Torah portion, Parashat Bo, our ancestors are making their final preparations to leave Egypt. But, in the center of the Torah portion, in Exodus 12, not only are the Israelites commanded to sacrifice a lamb per household, but they are also being instructed about how this big moment will be commemorated in the future. It's an amazing example of ritual, tradition, and liturgy all being created in real time, before our very eyes! In this parasha, we learn that "throughout the ages" and "for all time," the Israelites' descendants will spend a week eating matzah and refraining from work, and we will answer our children's questions as we explain the story to the next generation. (And indeed, thousands of years later, the Passover holiday and especially its seder ritual are still among the most widely observed Jewish traditions.)
This morning, we will witness one of the most established and powerful civic rituals we have here in the United States of America. Inauguration Day comes complete with traditions, norms, and social conventions, as well as its own elaborate "halakhah" (legal rules - for example, about the precise time that a peaceful transition of power takes effect, etc.). Click here to read PBS's guide to Inauguration Day to learn more about the schedule and plans for today.
To all of the civic rituals we will witness shortly, I plan to overlay a short Jewish liturgy of my own today. After a lot of thought, I plan to recite two short blessings that I find appropriate and resonant for this occasion -- and I'd like to explain my thinking and invite you to join me in this new ritual mash-up today.
1) The first blessing I plan to recite is called birkat ha-gomel. Traditionally, this bracha is recited by an individual who has survived a near miss of some sort, such as recovering from a serious illness, surviving a car accident, or returning from a dangerous journey. The blessing is a one-liner, recited at the Torah, and in that context, the community witnesses and affirms by responding with a line of their own.
To me, part of the power of this day is that it marks that we, as a country, have survived four years of an incredibly dangerous presidency. We are not foolish enough to think that all danger has passed -- indeed, we know that some very evil forces are lurking, dangerous ideologies have been activated, 400,000(!) Americans have died from Covid-19, and there is so much damage to repair. That said, today I breathe a huge sigh of relief that some of the particular fears associated with this outgoing presidential administration are, in fact, over. In the days following the election results in November, and again since the attack on the Capitol, I have returned to the thought time and again that we have experienced a near miss as an American society... this train-wreck of an era could have been even worse, and I shudder at the thought of the "what ifs." So, at 12pm Eastern / 9am Pacific time, I will recite birkat ha-gomel, adapted slightly to adjust the language to the plural ("us"), in recognition of the fact that we have collectively survived this near miss, and we are so very lucky. In prayer vocabulary, here's what this sounds like:
Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam ha-gomel l'chayavim tovot she'g'malanu kol tov.
Blessed are You, Adonai, Ruler of the world, who rewards the undeserving with goodness, and has rewarded us with goodness.
2) The second blessing I plan to recite today is shehecheyanu, one that I know is more familiar to many of us. This is also a blessing of gratitude, but in a different way: it's traditionally recited for new and positive occurrences and occasions: upon doing something new for the first time (e.g. putting on new clothing), doing something for the first time in a full year (so, for example, it's recited on the first night of Chanukah, and as part of kiddush on the first night of Passover, Rosh Hashanah or Sukkot), or reaching a new milestone (e.g. the birth of a child, or converting to Judaism).
Today, as we celebrate the inauguration, we will witness Joseph Biden become the 46th president of these United States. In addition, we are witnessing history in the making, as many glass ceilings are being shattered in this moment. As a woman, Vice President Kamala Harris will be an incredibly important first! And, the Biden-Harris cabinet is filled with individuals who represent the diversity of this nation: African-American, Indigenous, Latinx, LGBTQ+, and yes, even a minyan of Jewish leaders. When we recite shehecheyanu, we assert that it is a blessing that we have lived to see this day, and truly, I feel this to be the case; I am so grateful to witness this moment in my lifetime. I will say these words:
Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam shehecheyanu v'kiy'manu v'higiyanu laz'man hazeh.
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the world, who has kept us alive, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this moment.
To be clear, neither of these two blessings suggests that the story is over... that there won't be more danger in our future, or that there isn't still work to do in our society. And yet, both birkat hagomel and shehecheyanu are fundamentally about pausing to acknowledge the importance and sanctity of this moment of transition.
Returning to our Torah portion: we will all have the opportunity to celebrate the Passover holiday and enact some of the rituals that were created in real time at a moment of transition thousands of years ago, in just two short months (relatively "early" this year, as the first seder is on Saturday night, March 27th). But today, we stand in our own moment of transition -- one of critical importance for our nation. As you watch the inauguration this morning, I invite you to join me in pausing to recite these two Jewish blessings of gratitude, for having survived this fraught chapter and arrived at this hopeful moment in history.
Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum
P.S. - If you are an early riser, you may be able to catch the Virtual Inaugural Prayer Service which will be livestreamed at 7am PST this morning. I'm excited that my colleague from the Jewish Emergent Network, Rabbi Sharon Brous, will be participating (together with many other faith leaders). Click here for more details, and here to watch this and other Inauguration Day events.
Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum's Yom Kippur sermon is available as an audio recording, video recording, and also in writing.
Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum's Rosh Hashanah sermon is available as an audio recording, video recording, and also in writing.
This week, as I've watched news unfold in Afghanistan -- a crisis on so many levels -- my mind keeps returning to the country's women and girls. I can't even begin to fathom what life will be like for them now that they are once again living under Taliban rule. Yesterday, I read one news report proclaiming that "there are no women in the streets" of Kabul, and another explaining that burqa prices have surged tenfold in recent days.