The Blessings in 2020’s Losses

By Rabbis B Elka Abrahamson, Misha Zinkow, Amir Zinkow,
and student rabbi Maya Zinkow*

Mom, Dad, Son and Daughter, all rabbis (Reform, Orthodox and Conservative) sheltered in place together for months. Our relationships with one another strengthened and together once again as the calendar year changes, we reflect on the year gone by focusing on sparks of light.

This week, our news feeds will present thought-piece after thought-piece that say “good riddance” to 2020: The Worst Year Ever. It is true that our global human community suffered tremendously this year. As the clock runs out on December, upwards of 330,000 American lives will have been lost to COVID-19, 1.76 million worldwide. These numbers are staggering, numbing even, and each life is a world lost unto its own. May the memories of each one of them be a blessing to those they loved and cherished in life. 

In the Jewish tradition, we say kaddish to mark transitions: from one section of liturgy to the next and from the end of a cycle of Torah learning; and for eleven months, a mourner recites the kaddish to mark the most painful of losses, and in that daily kaddish journey transitions from a world without a loved one’s physical presence to a world with a dear one’s lingering legacy. In each case, the formula for this ancient Aramaic praise of God differs slightly, but the message is always the same: when we reach an ending, tradition calls on us to take stock of what we’ve learned before turning to a new beginning. 

As we transition to a new calendar year, the temptation to write off 2020 as a blight on our history books, to move swiftly on and slam the door on what was is understandable. At the same time, 2020, with all of its challenges and pain, calls on us to reflect on what we have gained during these last 11 months because this has also been a year in which we have learned about new possibilities, have witnessed the very best in the spirit of humanity. Reflecting on the good in the departing year honors the memory of this chapter’s lengthy kaddish list.

We celebrate the good folks who we now regard as heroes. Doctors, nurses, nurse’s assistants, hospital administrators and maintenance staffs, chaplains, and other healthcare professionals have worked tirelessly to heal, comfort, and protect patients and their families. Retail employees, overworked delivery people, taxi and rideshare drivers, custodians, public transit operators, and others who work in direct service have stepped up to assume responsibility for public health by keeping their shops, cars, and other shared spaces safe and open. In the face of unthinkable challenges, we are grateful for the awareness that we can all be heroes

We celebrate the teachers who have demonstrated flexibility, creativity, and patience in the face of ever-changing educational environments. Religious leaders have opened new channels of prayer, inspiring us to turn our homes into houses of worship. Parents have juggled child care with work, single people have endured new kinds of isolation, and we all endured a year without offering a much needed hug to those yearning for human touch. On a clumsy and aggravating road of collective uncertainty, we have learned to be more resilient and adaptive

We have celebrated our blessings, yes, the basics, and in doing so have taken less for granted. We have expressed appreciation for the small courtesies: for showing up, for being on time, for completing assignments, for turning on your cameras, for muting ourselves when we’ve said too much. We have also offered gratitude for the grand miracles: for existing and enduring and for the waking up each day. These have become commonplace when once they were uncommon. We have opened our communications with “I hope you and your family are healthy,” and signed them with “let me know if I can do anything for you.” In a time when so much was lost, we have lifted up the essential gifts of our lives and offered gratitude often and out loud.

We have, perhaps to our surprise, recognized the core purpose of life cycle events. While at first dreading virtual rituals, talented rabbis, cantors, educators and Jewish professional leaders have reimagined these occasions on zoom screens. Yes, we all long to return to singing together, dancing in circles together and sitting at the side of a mourner and when we do, might we take these 2020 discoveries with us? We can celebrate Bnai Mitzvah without lavish parties or themes. We can rejoice at weddings without costly venues and lavish feasts, and yes, we can attend baby namings without a pound of lox. The Zoom shiva has been particularly powerful. It has become a holy space where the focus is solely to remember a loved one. Necessity has required us to observe these life cycle moments with focus on their essence and not the frills. We have witnessed the equalizing of these sacred moments of transition, and have come to a deeper appreciation of their original and intended purpose. In that time, may it be soon, when we return safely to inperson gatherings, let us remember that true simcha and tanchumim should be accessible to all, not through material trappings, but through sacred human connection.

We have confronted with renewed urgency the injustices that plague this nation and our world. The pandemic has laid bare the enormity of class disparity and has made clear how much work will be required in order to close this gap. The murder of Breonna Taylor, of George Floyd and so many others sparked a reinvigorated and much needed commitment to righting the wrongs of history, to working relentlessly towards racial equality. The deaths of tzaddikim Ruth Bader Ginsberg and John Lewis bequeath to us legacies of getting in good trouble. In the words of Rabbi Avi Weiss, In the spirit of the Divine mandate to give breath we should recall the last gasps of George Floyd, “I cant breathe,” and resolve, in his name, to live one of the most basic messages of the shofar blown at the Jewish change of year to usher in an era of justice, peace and life for all of humankind.”  

We too look forward to turning the page on 2020, knowing it will not bring an end to the challenges we face. People are still hungry, still suffering, still stretching to make their lives liveable. People are still gasping for breath. We cannot simply slam the door on this year and never look back. On the contrary: it is incumbent upon us, as our tradition teaches, to carry with us, to internalize, the lessons we have learned about ourselves and each other. In this era of sheltering in place, let us pray that the Holy One helps us create peace naaseh shalom in every home, let us create the space for learning and growing through loss, let us create light out of darkness.