Chad gadya, a raccoon in the park, and a second chasidic story.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020 | 13th Nissan 5780

Dear All,

There’s an old chasidic story about someone who fears that the angel of death is coming for them, at a particular place and a particular time. Quickly they change their plans. They go to a different village… and then of course the angel of death is right there, in that different village, waiting to meet them, exactly at the appointed time.
And the message of the story: when our time is up, our time is up.

I wish for all of us long life, for sure.
But it’s not unhelpful to be reminded of our mortality.
For most of human history we knew that we were vulnerable, we saw death. We lived without penicillin. Women died far more frequently in childbirth. We died of polio and malaria, we died when the wrong flea bit us, we died of an abscess or a ruptured appendix.
Only when I was writing a hesped for my grandma did I learn that as well as giving birth to my mother and my aunt, she had also had two sons, each of whom died young. I never knew that.

And so to this week. A friend’s mother died, and a first-ever virtual shiva.
Another friend’s mother died, and thus death and dislocation across distance.
Then Tina, z”l, a friend of my mother’s for 65 years.
And another friend’s father is in the ICU, fighting for his life… and is this his time, or not?
We none of us know.
We pray for life. But the angel of death – the angel who passes over the homes of the Israelites, the night before they leave Egypt; the angel of death whom we sing about in Chad Gadya, at the end of the seder… the angel of death is more visible right now.

And this shocks us, unsettles us, destabilizes us.
This night is different because this year we hear the angel’s wings, we see its shadow, crossing our cities and our homes.

And meanwhile, I’m walking in the park, on a beautiful day. The sun shining. Ducks bobbing in the reservoir. (The new field hospital, white tents, over to my left.) Yesterday I saw a raccoon, just climbing a tree. The trees are blossoming, exploding with color and with life. Two friends had babies.
My newish nephew gurgles happily on FaceTime; he should be alive in 2100, thriving, a healthy 80-something, in a world yet to be imagined.

And from this unique moment, I really believe in teshuva, in repentance and return.
It is occasionally too easy for a job, a role – being CEO of Hazon, for instance – to become formulaic.  “Judaism and the environment.” Yes. “Living more sustainably.” – yes. “The Hazon Seal of Sustainability;” Jewish Outdoor, Food, Farming & Environmental Education,” the importance of retreats and immersive education – yes, and yes, and yes.

I believe in all those things and we are part of them. (And a special shout-out to JFNA, the Jewish Federations of North America, who have done a spectacular job since all this started.)

But I want for myself and for all of us to step outside those things, outside the habits and patterns, the organizational jargon, the acronyms.

For now: freshness. Springtime. Away with the old crockery. Fresh herbs and fresh resolutions.
Reconnecting with friends and family.
The greatness of humor and laughter. The need for connection, and the new ways of connecting.
The power of kindness.
Less time in cars and planes and instead the healing power of trees, natural things, the living world all around us.

May we not forget these things, when “normal life” returns. The true ground of our lives is not organizational, it is human, cultural, societal, religious; and it is the earth itself, adamah, soil that is alive and oxygenated, soil that we liven or deplete, each day, by how we live.

And so may our springtime resolutions be a springboard to reconnection and our better selves.

And if fiscal policy can swing within a week to encompass two trillion new dollars of emergency spending, perhaps in the future it could swing more rationally and more slowly, to build better health systems for all?

May we not forget that the skies, once again, like the skies after 9/11, are clear and fresh.
Pollution is down, wild creatures are tiptoeing back into old/new habitats. Asthma rates are going down. Can we find future ways to accomplish these goods without needing tragedy to cause them?
Can we renew Jewish communities – schools, synagogues, camps, JCCs, federations, retreat centers – so that these values are central and not incidental to how we live, learn, and celebrate?

Can we, in short, and after all this, engender the good that is so prevalent amidst death and illness – without the death and illness itself?

And, maybe, by the way, we cannot.
Maybe human nature is too damaged.
Maybe we are too selfish, too much out for ourselves, too acquisitive, too argumentative, too fragile in our egos and too unconstrained in our ids.
But I don’t believe so. Jewish tradition sees us as imperfect, but always able to learn, to reflect, to self-correct, to influence each other for good.

So these are my thoughts, heading into seder night.

And a dear friend reminded me of a different chasidic story, germane to all this, with which I will end.

A man wants to go find eliyahu hanavi, Elijah the prophet.
(It is Eliyahu for whom we open the door, near the end of the seder, and it is for Eliyahu that we spill drops of wine for the fifth cup, the messianic cup.)

So the man prepares himself, gathers food, sets off, because he has heard that Eliyahu will be at this one particular seder, in this small village, in the middle of nowhere.

And finally, after a long journey, he approaches the house, old and ramshackle.
He looks in through the cracked window at an extended family, gathered for the seder.
They are wearing their yontef finest… and yet he can see that they are poor, their clothes are patched, the walls are bare; even for this, the greatest meal of the year, their fare is very simple food.
And he wonders: can Eliyahu really be here?

Sadly he realizes that he must have come to the wrong house, that Eliayahu cannot possibly be here at this table. So he starts to walk away.
And as he walks away he forgets about Eliyahu, and is simply heartened by the warmth, the children smiling and singing, the lights of the candles.
And then he thinks about the fact that he has so much food, and they have so little – and isn’t this the night when we say, “let all who are hungry come and eat…?”
So on a whim he turns and retraces his steps, thinking to share his food.
Nervously, a little shy, finally he knocks on the door.
He hears small footsteps. One of the children opens the door, slowly, slowly – and then the child’s face lights up, and he turns and shouts back to his family –
you see Tateh!
you see Mameh! 

I told you Eliyahu really would come to visit us…!!

So: think about this, as you spill Elijah’s cup, as we all do.
We each are the child. We each are the parent. We each right now are in a moment of fear, or despair, or confusion.
And, yet, we each – also – are Eliyahu. We each are reaching out, offering, giving, helping, being generous in word or in deed. Our small kindnesses may be more impactful than we realize.
And we have within us, unknown, unknown to those around us, unknown to we ourselves; we have within us the seeds of redemption, the seeds of hope, the seeds of new vision.

So I bless you, and me, and all of us that the angel of death… shouldn’t visit us until our time is done; until we have really brought our own unique gifts to the world.
May this year’s very different night of seder call us indeed to freedom, to kindness, to connection, to wisdom, and to a truly more sustainable world for all.

Chag sameach,


PS – more prosaically: after a grueling and rather boundary-less five weeks, please bear with us as we put up this auto-responder on most, and ideally all, Hazon email accounts from late tomorrow through Thursday, April 16th:

We are closed for Pesach, and we’re treating all emails during Pesach as chametz – null and void. If your email is important, please resend it on Friday, April 17th, the day after Pesach.

PPS: Counting the omer starts Thursday night. And then please join us on Earth Day, April 22nd, as we #soundthecall.