Everything Is Uncertain – Shabbat Vayikra, Friday, March 27, 2020

So I have a special anniversary coming up in a couple of weeks. You won’t find it on the Temple web site or as a special event on Facebook. And this year, you won’t even sweat over your tax returns, since the federal government has pushed back the filing deadline to mid-summer. But April 15th is still a red-flag day for me, nonetheless. On April 15th, 1998, I was diagnosed with Stage Two breast cancer.

I’d found the lump in my right breast two and a half years earlier, during the ten days of penitence between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur – a time when we are told God holds life and death in the balance. But it took two and a half years and a change in my medical team to find a surgeon who would take out something that clearly didn’t belong there.

I don’t know if it would have been cancerous had it been removed when I found it. I don’t know if it went from not-cancer to cancer at some point. I don’t know why I was lucky that, if it had to be cancer, it turned out to be the old-lady slow-growing type. Basically, there’s a lot I still don’t know.

At the time, the uncertainty of not knowing how or if I would even survive was terrifying. In the five years after, there was the uncertainty of the cancer returning even with extended medication. Two years ago, twenty years after the surgeries, there was uncertainty whether some shadow that appeared in my left breast was cancerous. It wasn’t, but I had it out anyway, to relieve any of the uncertainty – in the knowledge that that nagging feeling would never go away.

Columnist David Brooks, in the New York Times this week, likened the fear and the uncertainty the world is now experiencing with coronavirus to what we cancer patients go through individually. He called it our “wisdom.” I’d call it more of a truth. The truth that we just can’t know.

“Don’t expect life to be predictable or fair,” he wrote. “Don’t try to tame the situation with some feel-good lie or confident prediction. Embrace the uncertainty of this whole life-or-death deal.”[1]

I don’t know that I embrace the uncertainty as much as just cope with it day by day. But he’s right about wanting all the facts, about not wanting anything sugar coated. I wanted to know the whole truth. I wanted to know what my short-term chances were with every different kind of chemotherapy, and what months of daily radiation would add to my long-term chances. I wanted my decisions to be based on the best information available, and I wanted it from the smartest and most experienced medical professionals I could find.

That’s exactly the same thing that everybody wants today.

Back then, I knew nothing they said or did gave me a sense of certainty. But as long as I could trust that I was being told the truth, as much as they knew it, it did give me hope. It gave me – and still gives me – a deep appreciation for what I get to do for a living. Blessing people and times and seasons. Sharing the most intimate times in families’ lives. And looking forward to the next Shabbat with joy.

David Brooks calls that humility. “There’s a weird clarity that comes with that embrace” of uncertainty, he wrote. “There is a humility that comes with realizing you’re not the glorious plans you made for your life. When the plans are upset, there’s a quieter and better you beneath them.”

The greatest of our rabbis had that humility. Generations of them had witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem, the slaughter and exile of the people, the martyrdom of their teachers – all, they believed, part of a great plan that God had laid out for us, but that we could not yet understand.

They taught: “Eileh olam k’minhago noheg” – and yet the world pursues its natural course.[2] Sometimes it makes no sense. Sometimes it’s just not fair. But as David Brooks recommended to us, the rabbis embraced the uncertainty, not expecting what they could know of this life to be predictable or fair.

What we who have battled illness know, and what the rabbis experienced – that’s the whole world now. That’s everybody from here to Italy and back. We are all, Brooks writes, “connected by a virus that reminds us of the fundamental fact of interdependence.”

The irony, as he points out, is that at the same time we share a universal experience, we are all practicing social distancing. We are all sitting in our own personal space, all sharing the same fears and challenges. We should have been the generation that could handle being along together. After all, that’s really what social networking is, right? Instant chats, ephemeral images, there and gone – leaving us alone again.

And yet, we have discovered through living in these bubbles at least six feet apart from each other that we really, really need each other now more than ever. When we are told we cannot have social contact – that it’s no longer a choice – we really crave it.

Brooks writes that there’s a reason for this. The social connections that we get through SnapChat and YouTube and incessant texting — that’s not enough. What we crave is not social connections – but social solidarity. The sense that, not only are we all in this together, but we all desperately need each other to get through it.

The concept of social solidarity is written into the very verses of Torah that begin the Book of Leviticus this week. God calls Moses into the just-completed Tent of Meeting and tells him to give this message to the children of Israel about the sacrificial worship that is soon to begin there:

אָדָם כִּי־יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן לַיהוָֹה מִן־הַבְּהֵמָה מִן־הַבָּקָר וּמִן־הַצֹּאן תַּקְרִיבוּ אֶת־קָרְבַּנְכֶם:

When any of you presents a korban offering to God, you shall bring your offerings of the cattle, of the herd or of the flock.

But the Hebrew leads us to something deeper. It starts out in the singular “Adam ki yakriv” – when a man, an individual, brings the offering. And then it says “takrivu et korbanchem” – “You” in the plural, any of you, all of you shall bring the offerings forward.

Why does it do that?

Rabbi Isaac Karo, who created an extensive commentary on the Torah in early 16th century Spain, said it referred to something the sages of the Talmud taught: “If a person has fulfilled a single commandment, he is fortunate, for he has tipped both himself and the whole world to the side of merit.”[3] In this case, he said, when one person brings a sacrifice to God, he helps not only himself, but the entire world.[4]

That’s social solidarity: Every good thing should be seen as a common good.

We’re pretty lucky if we’re just dealing with kids at home with a dwindling supply of toilet paper. It’s annoying, yes. And boring. But think of the bravery of all the people practicing social solidarity on our behalf. The exhausted doctors and nurses and support personnel in the hospitals, terrified because they don’t have the protective gear that they need and deserve. The police officers trying to persuade recalcitrant business owners to follow the governor’s orders to close. The grocery store employees diligently restocking packages when they don’t know where the boxes have been or who’s been touching them.

They’re doing it to get paid, yes. But they know there are risks. And they’re taking those risks to help the entire world.

So we do what we can. Blair County Mutual Aid has places where you can drop off food and paper goods and baby supplies on peoples’ porches, where neighbors in need can come pick them up. (A very Jewish concept, by the way, that goes back to the Torah and to the anonymous distribution of alms at the Temple).

Parent volunteers are distributing take-out, drive-up breakfasts and lunches in school parking lots all over town to their kids’ classmates who might otherwise go without.

Libraries and art museums and music centers and Broadway show producers are opening up their archives and their streaming services for free, and internet providers are giving away connections for families in need.

Every single one of you here tonight has tipped the scale toward merit – not just for yourselves but for all of us. You’ve helped make a minyan for someone who needs to say kaddish. Or someone who just needs the gift of Shabbat to bring a little peace and comfort into an otherwise tumultuous time.

When this is all over – and, eventually, it will subside — I hope people remember how important social solidarity is. I hope they – you, us – will keep making Shabbat, and providing meals to kids, and playing music for elderly neighbors. I hope all of us remember these moments, what it feels like to be alone and afraid and full of uncertainty – and that we will be the ones who will be there for someone else who feels the same way.

Do we really embrace the uncertainty? I don’t know. Maybe we just deal with it the best we can. But the best way we can do that is together.

Ken yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our own. As we say together: Amen.


©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin


[1] David Brooks, “Screw This Virus!” New York Times, March 19, 2020.

[2] Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 54b.

[3] Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 40b: “R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon said: Because the world is judged by its majority, and an individual [too] is judged by his majority [of deeds, good or bad], if he performs one good deed, happy is he for turning the scale both for himself and for the whole world on the side of merit; if he commits one transgression, woe to him for weighting himself and the whole world in the scale of guilt.”

[4] Torah Gems Vol. II, compiled by Aharon Yaakov Greenberg, translated by Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Himelstein. (Tel Aviv: Yavneh Publishing House, 1992), p. 243.

One thought on “Everything Is Uncertain – Shabbat Vayikra, Friday, March 27, 2020

  1. Your perspective, as always, provides a beautiful anchor right now for souls in turmoil against an unseen monster. Let us pray that the lessons during these troubled times are indeed enduring….and that the monster outside us is not.

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