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Zooming Out

One of my favorite things as a child, was seeing what happened when a TV show that I loved would come to an end. I remember so vividly the series finale of a show that I loved--- Family Ties. On that very last episode, at the conclusion of the show, the cameras zoomed out, and suddenly, the kitchen where Alex and Mallory had tested the boundaries of adolescence with their parents, Steve and Elyse, was just a TV set. Three walls, not four, and no ceiling. The Keaton home which had been so real to me just moments earlier, was now more like the imaginary playhouses of my Polly Pocket dolls--- a miniature world which I could look into.

The thing that stands out to me as I think about that memory now, is that even at a young age, it didn’t ruin the magic of the story for me: the Keaton’s were no less real, even as Alex P. Keaton took a bow as the actor Michael J. Fox, and his TV mom was now Meredith Baxter Birney once more. On the contrary--- there was something that made the experience of watching this family story unfold that felt even more real to me, having seen everything that was beyond the camera.

In effect, what I loved about that ending is that it broke the fourth wall--- that invisible, imagined wall which typically separates actors from the audience. While the audience can see through this "wall", the convention assumes, the actors act as if they cannot. The actors ignore the audience, focus their attention exclusively on the dramatic world, and remain absorbed in its fiction, in a state that the theatre practitioner Konstantin Stanislavski called "public solitude"[3] (the ability to behave as one would in private, despite, in actuality, being watched intently while so doing, or to be 'alone in public').

Tonight, in some ways, reminds me of that series finale that captured my attention so deeply back in 1989: as we celebrate this last Shabbat that will take place entirely on Zoom, I am noticing this moment for what it has been for these last 16 months: an attempt to overcome the public and private solitude of living through a pandemic. For these last 16 months, we have encountered one another in this digital sanctuary, working hard to elude that fourth wall: to allow our souls to escape the confines of our digital space, and to connect with one another.

One of the things that I loved about Hevreh from the very first Shabbat that I spent here more than 10 years ago is that we do not have much use for convention, or for imaginary barriers between us. No fourth wall for us--- a mistake is made on the bima? Well, your rabbis are likely to gracefully acknowledge it and laugh it off. There are no rehearsals and no performances--- we aim to be together in real time, to connect across space by looking meaningfully into each other’s eyes, and saying “Hineni” --- here I am, as I am.

We have had the unique blessing of being able to peer into each other’s homes and lives over the last year. We have celebrated Shabbat, ushered in the new year, lit Chanukah candles, and sung the four questions at each other’s kitchen tables. We have prayed together with your children and your pets--- sometimes with one or both of them literally walking across the screen. We have smiled with patience and generosity as each of us (myself included) have been stymied by the mute button. We have worked hard to make this screen between us a bridge, and not a barrier. And still--- much like that TV set, if we were to zoom out- I suspect we would gain insight from a broader view into each other’s homes and lives.

As we anticipate moving toward a mixed access Shabbat experience in the weeks ahead, with some folks continuing to connect via zoom, while others will join in person, I hope you’ll permit me a moment of personal reflection.

For the last year, you have all encountered me at my dining room table--- the end of which we have taken to just calling “Hevreh” in our house. Mid-week, when a Barbie doll or box of crayons goes wandering, where is it? “Oh- I think I saw it on the Hevreh end of the table.” And just like that tv series finale allowed us to see the crew who made it all possible, were you to zoom out from the Hevreh end of my dining room table—you would see the crew who helped to make Shabbat possible in my home. If I were to turn my camera out on the panorama surrounding my little Hevreh corner, you would see my husband Josh, week in and week out, lighting candles in the kitchen with my girls, making a game out of getting them to eat their dinner quietly while I lead services. If I were to turn my camera around, you’d see the way in which Hevreh has existed in my home, amongst the arts and crafts and 1st grade worksheets, and the basket of masks that we keep handy to grab on our way out. And truly, Hevreh has never felt more whole or holy to me--- my Shabbat practice having become integrated with my reality candle by candle, zoom by zoom, over this past year.

This past year, we have experienced moments of connection despite the personal solitude, and found new ways to connect beyond the performance of public solitude.

And this moment now marks yet another transition---

Next week, our gathering will be different.

Some of us will continue to join from our homes.

Some of us will gather beneath a tent.

And with every change, comes some loss--- even as we anticipate that change with excitement. For as much as the cameras panning out brings greater perspective, it also means that our sense of being close up is diminished.

Over this last year, we have been truly panim el panim--- face to face, in moments of great joy, in moments of laughter and celebration, and in moments of pain, fear, and loss. In some ways, with the close-up of our Zoom screens, we have been more face to face than ever before. With the next phase of our community’s return to in person gathering in front of us, we will need to find our footing together once more, in our next normal. And yes- there will be a new and different kind of distance for us to navigate.

I want to finish by offering a vision of what we have to gain, even as we move through this next version of our communal reality--- and that is of the unique possibilities that exist when we find ourselves shoulder to shoulder, under one magnificent ohel mo’ed--- our tent of gathering.

It is what philosopher Emile Durkheim describes as collective effervescence--- the feeling we get when we are among other people; that feeling of energy, joy, and yes- effervescence that comes from lifting up our voices together in song, and in prayer.

Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz, reminds us:

Alone, I cannot lift my voice in song.

Then you come near and sing with me.

Our prayers fuse, and a new voice soars.

Our bond is beyond voice and voice.

Our bond is one of spirit and spirit.

I look forward to all that we have ahead of us, and pray that the weeks ahead will be filled with joy, good health, and peace.


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