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Comfort in a Physically Distant World

In May, as my rabbinical ordination ceremony was approaching, I felt honored and grateful to be bestowed with the title of “Rabbi.” At the same time, however, I felt decidedly ambivalent about the ceremony itself, which was to be held on Zoom. Also being ordained were three other rabbis, two chaplains and two Masters of Jewish Studies students. My heart hurt for all of my fellow graduates, as they had spent many years studying while making enormous personal and financial sacrifices to reach this pinnacle moment in their lives. During discussions with my fellow rabbinical graduates, we had all agreed that what truly mattered to us the most was our achievement and not the pageantry; still, I felt a twinge of disappointment. A Zoom graduation ceremony, I assumed, would be anticlimactic to say the least.

I could not have been more wrong.

In fact, our ceremony was truly one of the most meaningful events of my life. Yes, we did not have had the opportunity to hear the Shofar blasts as we stood in our robes and cowls, poised to march down the aisle of the synagogue sanctuary, or to smile as hundreds of people cheered and clapped as we processed while past and present cantorial students sang the familiar “Baruch Haba” (Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord). We did not each make a speech or get to hold each other in congratulatory embraces.

But what we did have was the warmth, caring, and heartfelt good wishes of our fellow students, the faculty, past graduates and guests, all of which was palpable through the screen. We were inspired by the hard work of the cantorial students, who had spent hours and hours preparing beautiful videos of meaningful and relevant music. (Their “L’dor Vador” (From Generation to Generation) still brings tears to my eyes.) Our deans and other esteemed speakers opened their hearts, offering blessings to each of us as we prepared to take on new roles in the Jewish community. Next year’s graduates implored us to continue learning as we move through the world with our holy work, to carry inclusivity and caring for our community wherever we go, wished for us the ability to see the Ark of God in each person we encounter, to find our creative path in a new world landscape, and to find peace in our fragmented world.

What I was reminded of is that we can hold our Jewish traditions close to our hearts even under the most difficult of circumstances. We can be inspired to be part of the creation of a better world even when we are at a distance from each other. We can be uplifted by others and lift others up even when it seems like the world is falling apart.

This Shabbat we begin the “Seven Weeks of Consolation” that begin after Tisha B’Av and continue until Rosh Hashanah. Each week, after the weekly Torah portion is read, the Haftarah (from the “Book of Isaiah”) for that week is chanted. This week’s reading is known as “Shabbat Nachamu” or “Shabbat of Comfort,” named as such because of the first words of the Haftarah: “Comfort, oh comfort my people.” These prophetic words were meant to comfort the Jews whose Temple would be destroyed by the Babylonians and who would be exiled from their homes in Jerusalem.

While we surely seek comfort from family, friends, our community and God during these challenging times, I take these words also as an obligation for us to offer comfort to others who are suffering. Each of us is bound by a moral imperative to do our part in repairing this broken world.

As written in Pirkei Avot (“Lessons of the Fathers”), the world stands on three pillars: Torah (learning), Worship and Acts of Lovingkindness. These are our core Jewish values, and each of us needs to believe that we can always stretch ourselves to do just a bit more than we think we are capable of doing. Future generations depend on it. They watch and learn from us; our values and our actions shape their behavior and their lives. Let us empower them by living our Jewish values and upholding our Jewish traditions to the best of our abilities.

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