Our Protective Shells – January 21, 2022

A sermon from Rabbi Julia Weisz, Co-Written by Rabbinic Intern Mira Weller 

Shabbat Shalom. First let me thank Agoura Hills Mayor, Deborah Klein Lopez, Calabasas City Councilor Peter Kraut and Immediate Past President Lesli Kraut, Calabasas Mayor Mary Sue Maurer, Westlake Village Mayor Brad Halpern for being with us this evening and for participating in our Shabbat services.

This past week I keep thinking about…

Bananas. Pomegranates. Almonds.

A list of items that all have one thing in common.

What is it?

These are all fruits

And these fruits all have a tough outer shell or peel.

And these fruits, like many others, grow on trees.

This past weekend we celebrated trees for Tu Bshvat, one of the four “new years” in the Jewish calendar. Tu Bshvat is the New Year for the trees, the birthday of the trees and we celebrate by being out in nature and eating fruit from the trees. Like Bananas. Pomegranates and almonds. This past week I have especially resonated with the bananas, the pomegranates and the almonds. Because, each of them have this outer layer protecting the sweetness of what is inside yet hiding the sweetness from view. This protective shield holds the fruit and allows it to grow in its own time amidst harsh weather, insects, and even intruders. When we’re ready to eat the yumminess inside,  we can remove this layer. But until that moment, the fruit’s own peel or skin or shell keeps its sweet interior safe so that the fruit can ripen and flourish despite its difficult environment

Perhaps another reason we celebrate Tu B’shvat is because people aren’t so different from fruit. We too have skin that keeps our bodies intact. Our communities keep us together just like the pomegranate’s white insides hold its many seeds in place. Torah, prayer, and synagogue life helps to keep our Jewish community together. These in turn give us a safe place in our hearts and in our lives that helps us grow and ripen to our sweetest selves.  

For some of us, hat happened this past Shabbat in Colleyville, was as if our protective peel, our outer shell, broke open. Watching the news, scrolling social media, hearing no significant updates for hours upon hours left some of us feeling vulnerable and afraid. If this happened in Texas, during Shabbat,  in a synagogue – a sanctuary where we should all feel free enough to pray and gather together – is there any place left where we can live without fear?– I am vulnerable and I am afraid.

What happened in Colleyville is only one of many instances in the past two years where we as a people felt vulnerable and afraid. This pandemic, the spread of Covid-19, vulnerability and fear were driving forces behind decisions we were and still are making in our daily lives. Our protective shell was exposed. Our bodies were vulnerable to Covid-19, to a disease we knew little about except that it could make us and our loved ones really sick. Should I travel with my family this winter? No, I am worried I will get sick and have to quarantine or worse, go to the hospital. Should I have coffee, tea, lunch or dinner with a friend. No I am afraid. Should I attend that birthday party? NO! And on and on. 

Fear because of the hostage situation in Colleyville. Fear because of Covid-19. Fear felt by the Israelites who in this week’s Torah portion prepare to receive the 10 commandments from Mount Sinai. Imagine this: The people stood at the foot of a mountain covered in thick smoke that rose high above them like the smoke in a kiln. The whole mountain shook violently. The blare of a a shofar grew louder and louder as lightening and thunder crashed and then suddenly, God spoke.

Moses could sense the people’s fear. The terrifying scene stripped their protective shell and they were vulnerable. He responded to them: And Moses responds to the people’s fear by saying, “Do not be afraid. God only spoke directly so that the fear of Adonai, God, may forever be with you, so that you do not go astray.” In that very special, rare moment, God peeled away the protective shells from the Israelites, and inspired something amidst their fear. When God asks the Israelites to accept the Torah, they respond, for the first time in the Torah, in one courageous and unified voice: “Na’aseh”. We’ll do it. Together. 

Why did Torah use the word fear to describe this transformative moment at Mt. Sinai? Dr Zachary Sikora a Northwestern Medicine Clinical Psychologist explains that “Fear is a natural and biological condition that we all experience. It’s important that we experience fear because it keeps us safe.” The Hebrew word for fear, found in our Torah portion, is yirah which can also be translated as awe or respect. So, amidst all this vulnerability and fear around the Colleyville crisis, the pandemic, God’s revelation of the 10 commandments, could we also be experiencing awe and wonder amidst the fear?

I think Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate, helps answer this question in her article found in yesterday’s New York Times. The article is titled: Why I Almost Didn’t Read My Poem at Inauguration. The article begins: It’s told like this: Amanda Gorman performed at the inauguration, and the rest is history.

The truth is I almost declined to be the inaugural poet. Why?

I was terrified.

Then she goes on to explain what were her fears and why her fear almost stopped her from reading her poem last year.

And this is the part I want to share with all of you-how fear and awe can sometimes be one in the same.

She writes about the impact of the pandemic and how some of our fears from a year ago are still the same. But, we are not. Amanda writes, If nothing else, this must be known: Even as we’ve grieved, we’ve grown; even fatigued we’ve found that this hill we climb is one we must mount together. We are battered, but bolder; worn, but wiser. I’m not telling you to not be tired or afraid. If anything, the very fact that we’re weary means we are, by definition, changed; we are brave enough to listen to, and learn from, our fear. This time will be different because this time we’ll be different. We’ll be riper, more tender, and richer inside. We already are.

Just like the Israelites at Mount Sinai who stood before God and received the 10 commandments in fear. They were brave enough to listen, they were changed in that moment in time. In fact, it was not until they received the Torah that they were considered the PEOPLE of Israel. We ripened that day.We became a community.

Just like we have changed during this pandemic. Our fear has made us reprioritize our social relationships, be conscious and helpful towards others who are sicker and older, be especially grateful for our own health.

And then there is Colleyville. It is too new and too hard at the moment to see that any awe in this because the hostage situation was so AWFUL but definitely not awe-filled. However, I do believe that our fear on that Shabbat a week ago is moving jewish communities around the country towards change-implementing tighter security systems, feeling gratitude and support for the Jewish people and the communities we build within our synagogues.This Shabbat, we stand, is also Repro Shabbat where communities celebrate the crucial importance of reproductive health access. Like the Israelites, together in solidarity against threats to reproductive rights – the protective shell that helps young people flourish in their own time, just as fruits ripening for Tu B’shvat.

And together in this community of resilience and support, may the words of Amanda Gorman ring in our ears this Shabbat: 

“So do not fear your fear. Own it. Free it. This isn’t a liberation that I or anyone can give you — it’s a power you must look for, learn, love, lead and locate for yourself.

Why? The truth is, hope isn’t a promise we give. It’s a promise we live. Tell it like this, and we, like our words, will not rest.

And the rest is history.”

Shabbat Shalom my friends.