• Rabbi Neil P.G. Hirsch

The View Through My Zoom Window

Parashat Tazria-M’tzora 5781


Delivered to a fully virtual service conducted on Zoom on April 15, 2021.


For the past thirteen months, we have been doing this: gathering online, creating a virtual sanctuary, and doing our best to welcome in Shabbat together. We pray together, and we have striven to be in fellowship with one another. At this point of the pandemic, let us affirm that we have been doing our best. As the pace of vaccination rate goes up and the case count in our community stabilizes and decreases, we will soon be offering in-person gatherings on Shabbat, for adult learning, and the like.

Likely, this Shabbat is my last before I am on paternal leave. Baby Hirsch #2 is due to arrive sometime next week. Over the last few days, I have been wrapping up projects and getting other things in good enough shape to leave it paused for several weeks, while Liz and I focus on our family.

All of this activity prior to the baby’s arrival has put me in a reflective mood. My hope is that when I return from family leave, it will also coincide with our return to in-person services. We may be off by a week or two, but the two trains are traveling on parallel tracks. For that reason, tonight, given that this will be perhaps—I pray—my last fully-Zoom service with all of you, I want to describe for you the view that I have had through my Zoom window. What can I say about our community, about all of you, after thirteen months of operating an exclusively virtual congregation?

Around the community, Hevreh is known as a destination for Jewish life, learning, and community. This three-part structure—life, learning, and community—is a riff on the three-part design of what a synagogue is: a house of worship, a house of learning, and a meeting house. That captures the architecture and what happens inside of its rooms. But it does not capture the attitude that each of us brings when we walking into our synagogue. For that, we need a different text, one that I hope is familiar: The world is founded upon three things, Torah, worship, and acts of loving-kindness (Pirkei Avot 1:2) These three pillars are paths to doing Jewish. Like a three-part gauge, each of us, to various degrees, is motivated by head, heart, and hand. The view through my Zoom window has given me a picture of Hevreh members who regularly act out of these Jewish motivations.

Allow me to describe for you what I have seen.

We created an online Jewish community centered around Torah. Torah was already central to what we do as Hevreh, but, like clay successfully fired in a kiln, something about this solidified during the pandemic. Saturday mornings were the most obvious place where this was true. During the pandemic, we launched the Creative Beit Midrash: a group of writers, painters, photographers, and musicians who brought their art to one another, and through thoughtful conversation, explore the impact of their art on others. Each week, we study one another’s creations, talking about what is evocative in the work; what stimulates thinking and reflection. Those who have participated in Creative Beit Midrash have brought their whole selves to one another, sharing their lived experiences, their own Torah, with one another. Our tradition says that when two people sit together in the Torah study, that is where God’s presence lies. I have seen that in the Creative Beit Midrash. Moreover, I have noticed God saying hello in our regular Lunch n’ Learn sessions. I have heard God laughing along with all of the students in Adult Hebrew as the students do their best to remember my silly ways of remembering that a bet has a belly button and and tav has a toe. Spirituality resonated through our Saturday Morning Torah Study, too. When we as a community have gathered around the proverbial Torah, something profound, special, and sacred has emerged. Friends, we have met God on Zoom.

I felt this as well in many of our Zoom Shabbatot. I will admit, several months into Zoom Shabbat Services, Rabbi Gordon and I were fatigued. Finding a spiritual center to shepherd our congregation when so distant was demanding. Recreating our congregation online was daunting, not because we do not love and care for all of you, but because the new model was imperfect. We were mourning the loss of Shabbat Services in our sanctuary at 270 State Road. How was I supposed to pass out shakers during L’cha Dodi? Would we ever be able to catch up over oneg again? These questions eclipsed our mood, and made it difficult to be fully present with you in this virtual space. But along the way, we chose to stop lamenting, realizing that what we had in the present would be our way out of the spiritual conundrum we faced. Seeing you embrace Zoom, we embraced how we were doing services. For months, Liz and I have not had any childcare on Friday evenings, and sometimes I have had to be dad and rabbi simultaneously. I am grateful for your graciousness. Showing one another’s family photos warmed up the Zoom space for me, drawing lines of connection over our sometimes unstable internet connections. And you let me be my chatty self, often taking a moment while Rabbi Gordon or Gabe led, to send messages around to each of you. As I would message you, I turned it into a spiritual process, setting a kavanah when offering each of you Shabbat Shalom. I look at your Zoom window and think, “Image of God, Image of God, Image of God....” Each of us, created B’tzelem Elohim, have come into this Zoom space to try to find a touch of the sacred. And we—your rabbis—are called to help facilitate that. Realizing this, embracing this calling yet again, re-energized your clergy. I pray our service to you has met the aspirations we set.

Many among our staff team and the congregational leadership have noted our attendance at Zoom services. Attendance does not tell us much. Still, we have had more people, more

consistently on Zoom across these thirteen months than we had in-person in the prior year. I cannot remember a week where we have had fewer than 35 households in attendance. I admire the dedication of all of you to sign in each and every week. And I wonder: What has motivated your commitment to Shabbat during this pandemic? What changed for you? What was the experience like? And do you intend to carry it through as we return to in-person life? I certainly hope so, and would welcome more conversation about that in the future. Dedication to one another, to a community, also generates g’milut chasidim, acts of loving- kindness. During this pandemic, we have talked extensively about loss. Many of us have lost loved ones and friends this year, forced to mourn in an atypical fashion. Before this year, who would have imagined that Zoom shivas would have become a thing, and that we would find them meaningful, too? Beyond our obligation to comfort our mourners, I have seen us find new and creative ways to show kindness to one another. I think about the care packages you all delivered to one another around the holidays. Have community, will travel. This was more than an act of tzedakah. Our tradition teaches that g’milut chasidim is greater than tzedakah. When giving tzedakah, one fulfills his obligation by providing money alone. To perform g’milut chasidim, you have to go farther, giving something of your bodily self (Rabbeinu Yonah on Pirkei Avot 1:2, based on Sukkah 49b).


The last verse of the hokey-pokey teaches the lesson best: you put your whole self in. That’s what it’s all about. If Hevreh is about g’milut chasidim, we have proved that with our actions in the ways we have gotten in our cars and driven to one another, called one another, made sure to connect with one another.

While our Zoom rooms have been packed, I am curious about who is not with us. Many of us stuck with Zoom, though we have members who have not tapped into their Jewish community's online offerings. Some live without reliable access to the internet. Others are thrown by the technology. For some, Zoom is a painful reminder of loneliness. As we begin to come back together in person, we are called to include as many as possible and actively seek out those who have not engaged during the pandemic. That obligation is on all of us. I invite us to think about what each of us can do for one another, to not just welcome one another back across our synagogue’s threshold, but to make sure that each of us is solidly embraced by one another. I wonder what is going on for those who were so active but who have recently stayed away. I am also curious about recent transplants to the community who have yet to engage. I hope we can be compassionate, eager to be inclusive, and a little bit evangelical about coming to—or coming back to—Hevreh.

I say that because the view through my Zoom window has been more good than bad, more blessings even while struggling. Many on this call are new to our community. Some of us have not yet met anyone else in person. By looking backward, I also am conscious of our need to move forward. Our congregation's core endures: Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Chasidim define what we do together. And as is the Hevreh way, we continue to preserve that core while defining pathways that stimulate a progressive Judaism that is vibrant, relevant, and contemporary.

We find the teaching that our world stands on the three pillars of Torah, Avodah, and G’milut Chasidim in Mishneh Avot. We say this phrase assertively, that the world is established on these three things. But are there other pillars upon which our world could be built? A few mishnayot later, after this famous saying, another rabbi asserts that the world is established on three other things: on din/law, emet/truth, and shalom, peace. Commentators spill a tremendous amount of ink describing how the world can be established on six factors rather than just three. They show how these six values are not in conflict with one another but act in harmony. The trick to understanding this is in the word usage. The first rabbi teaches that upon three things the world stands, while the second asserts that the world is established upon three things. Were they to have used the same phrase, they would have been in disagreement with one another. Instead, by using slightly different phrasing, they open the door to different interpretive possibilities—different perspectives that can live with one another. Holding onto both possibilities remind us that God created the world with all of these factors— Torah and law, truth and worship, acts of loving-kindness and peace—in mind (HaMeiri on Pirkei Avot 1:2).

Finally, I offer a slightly divergent reading from that. That the early rabbis and later commentators manipulate the verbs and have this debate give us permission to play. We can categorize our world view in many tripartite ways, creating a kaleidoscope through which we can see the many beautiful angles of our lived experience. As we look through our Zoom rooms at our sacred congregation, what core values would you describe as the pillars of our world, of our Hevreh? For me, tonight, I would offer the following three: our community is established upon three things—on dedication to one another, on creativity believing there is always something new to say out of the Torah of our lives, and on tenacity to endure discomfort, wrestling prayers out of difficult situations.

Friends, may our dedication, our creativity, and our tenacity yield God’s blessings for each of us in our lives. I have looked forward to each Shabbat, seeing you through my Zoom window. I now hope and look forward to seeing you in person when I am back.

Shabbat Shalom.

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