Planning in a Pandemic (Rabbi Shalhevet)

Rabbi Jaimee ShalhevetAs I write this message, we have just recently completed our High Holy Day season. The High Holy Day season does not end with Yom Kippur, but rather also includes, Sukkot, Sh’mini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah. It’s quite a run. And when it ends after Simchat Torah, we enter into a month called “Mar Cheshvan.” It’s really just called “Cheshvan,” but the word “Mar” is added before it because it means “bitter.” This month is called “Bitter Cheshvan” because it is the only Jewish month that has no holidays in it at all. As I sit here writing in Mid-October as we enter Cheshvan, the next Jewish holiday we will celebrate is Chanukah. And that seems lightyears away.

So, I thought, “let’s get prepared for Chanukah.” You know what though? We can’t in the way we used to. And this has of course become the mantra of our day. We can’t plan for things in the future because we don’t know what the future holds. Where will we be COVID-wise? Where will our social distancing rules and mask-wearing mandates stand? Where will the economy be? Will everyone in my family be healthy? Will we be able to see each other and be near each other?

There are so many questions, that it seems near impossible to plan for something that is two months away.

And yet, do we ever know the future?

Ask anyone whose future changed in a split, unexpected, second. Anyone who won the lotto. Anyone in a devastating accident. Anyone who discovered they or a loved one had a terminal disease. Anyone who passed an entrance exam they didn’t expect to. There is a yiddish saying, “Mann Tracht, Un Gott Lacht,” meaning, “Man plans, and God laughs.” Now, in the seriousness of our current situation, I do not believe that God is laughing, but the point of the saying is that we never really know what to expect from the next month, day, or sometimes, even the next moment.

And yet, the same religion that gave us this handy quote, also urges us to prepare, that is, to plan, for that very unknown future. We are supposed to gather oil for this upcoming holiday of Chanukah. Oil is not quick to make, so we are supposed to begin creating and gathering it long in advance of the holiday with the assumption that it will come and we will be around to celebrate it. We are supposed to plant parsley on Tu B’shevat in order that it should sprout and grow strong enough to harvest for use on Passover, five months or so later. We don’t know for sure that the parsley will take root. We don’t know that it will be ready at exactly the correct time. We don’t even know what Passover will be like and, in ancient days, where we would be when this pilgrimage holiday fell. But we are commanded to prepare anyway – to live “as if.”

And so, in today’s very fragile, shaky, and unpredictable world, we must keep moving forward as if it were a commandment from God. Because it is.

I will plan for Chanukah. I will plan for in-person possibilities. I will plan for virtual possibilities. I will plan for everything I can think of in between. For whatever it is, I will plan. And God may laugh. But that’s ok. God will be laughing with us, not at us. For our perseverance is part of why God chose us. Our stubbornness to continue to plan in the face of dire uncertainty makes God smile, and keeps us alive and around.