It is a deep and devastating secret, buried beneath the historical edifices of one of America’s great cities.
In Boston, Massachusetts, the foundations of urban life are crumbling. I’m not talking about traffic or pollution or crime. I’m talking about the actual foundations of the multi-million-dollar townhomes for which the city is so famous, and of which Bostonians are so proud.
The Wall Street Journal chronicled the devastation in an article last March, just before the pandemic exploded. Here’s the gist of the problem:
“Much of modern-day Boston,” wrote Candace Taylor, “was under water when European settlers first arrived on the Shawmut Peninsula. From the late-1700s to the late-1800s, the city aggressively expanded, filling parts of Massachusetts Bay with soil, sand and gravel. Today, the city has about 5,250 acres of filled land . .
“To build on the unstable surface, builders drove tree trunks into the fill until they hit firmer ground, then placed foundation stones on top of these wooden piles. The technique was used until the 1920s when foundation-building technology changed.”
Now, that was fine – as long as the tree-trunk pilings were covered by groundwater.
Except. Except that Boston grew. And people demanded things like a subway system, and tunnels, and sewers and basements. And all of that dropped the groundwater table. Which exposed the tree trunks.
Which rotted the tops of the tree trunks. And when they started to crumble, so did the gorgeous, historic buildings that they support.
There are about 6-thousand buildings in Boston that rest on these exposed tree trunks. And people who want to live in the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods are finding themselves, well, in a very deep hole.
Here’s the thing about buying in Boston. The state of Massachusetts is a “buyer beware” state. Nobody’s going to tell you that the $3 million dollar home you want to buy on Beacon Hill could collapse at any moment. Sellers have to answer questions truthfully. But you have to know to ask, and a lot of people don’t. The buyer is always responsible for the complicated repairs needed to stabilize the home – into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. And insurance doesn’t cover it.
Can you imagine being one of those eager buyers, finally able to purchase a historic home in a dream location – only to find that the earth could literally swallow you up? Can you imagine how it feels when the foundation under your feet – the foundation you thought was so solid – is nothing but sawdust?
Actually, yes, we can. I think this is a pretty good metaphor for what we’ve all been going through the last few months. Just after this story was published, the world as we know it disappeared. The ground beneath our feet became unstable. We have felt disoriented, unable to regain our balance. Work, school, even grocery-shopping have become an ordeal. Nothing – including our worship on this Day of Atonement – is normal or natural.
Buyer-beware? Like the fourth child in the Passover Seder, we didn’t even know how to ask.
But here’s the thing. It’s Erev Yom Kippur during a deadly, worldwide pandemic. And we are together. We look into each other’s eyes. We listen to the mournful strains of Kol Nidre. We offer our hearts to God, along with the promises of our lips. We want to do better and be better, even as the ground beneath our feet threatens to give way.
We are Jews. And for thousands of years, our people have lived on shaky ground. Save for the tiny time spans when we were sovereign in our own land, we have been subject to the whims of princes and barons and kings; we have been victimized by blood-libel and ignorance and hatred; we have been ghettoized and we have been exiled.
We have tried to make our home wherever we are – despite anti-Jewish sentiments that survive today, even here in America, on both the left and the right. We have not only survived, but we have thrived.
And this is what drove author Bari Weiss to proclaim at a rally in New York last January her pride in being a Jew. And this is what inspired me to use her words throughout these Days of Awe. Here is part of her message:
“I am a Jew because even after the heart of Judaism and Jewish sovereignty were destroyed, my people refused to accept the logic of history and disappear. And I am a Jew because some of our greatest renewals took place in exile.”
It’s true. Much of our Judaism today – how we pray, how we mourn, how we celebrate, how we speak – was shaped by the two thousand years between the destruction of the Second Temple and the establishment of the modern State of Israel.
Under Christendom and Islam, under Caliphs and Tsars, in large cities and small towns and shtetels, we have re-created Jewish life over and over again — adjusting to the shifting ground beneath our feet. And we have done so in the three areas that are at the heart of the Days of Awe: Prayer, Atonement, and Righteous Living.
First: Prayer T’fillah:
Our worship service was largely shaped when we were exiled from Jerusalem under the Romans. The early rabbis, who had fled the destruction of the Temple and the holy city, re-established themselves in the north, in the Galilee.
And there, using Torah, tradition, and their own courage and imagination as their guides, they created the first rules for Jewish living in a post-Temple world. Avodah, the Temple priests’ service to God, was transformed into T’fillah, the prayers each of us utters without the need for a filter, or an intermediary.
But: what to say? Not all of us feel our own words are clear enough, or elegant enough, for God. So the first prayer book we know of was fashioned in the leading Jewish academy of 9th-century Baghdad, under strict Muslim rule during what was considered the Golden Age of Islam.
The structured liturgy was important, and necessary, to bring communities together. It spread throughout the Jewish world, under Islam and under Christendom, in places where Jews were more or less persecuted but were never their own masters. Each community modified the prayer service to suit its own needs.
Poems were added – odes for feast days and elegies for fast days.
The tradition of eulogizing the martyrs of our people was added in the wake of the slaughter of Jews by Crusaders who marched through the Rhineland in 1096 on their way to Jerusalem.
And a standardized schedule of scriptural readings for every Shabbat and holy day meant that Jews throughout the world would be reading the same sacred words at the same time, uniting far-flung Jewish communities that often had little communication with one another.
All of this and more are reflected in our prayer book even today.
But according to rabbinic lore, the seeds of Judaism’s future were sown literally on the ash heap of destruction, as though the earliest rabbis knew what we would need, not only in their generation but in ours:
“Once, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was walking with his disciple, Rabbi Yehoshua, near Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Yehoshua looked at the Temple ruins and cried: ‘Woe is us! The place that atoned for the sins of the people Israel – through animal sacrifice – lies in ruins!’ Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai spoke to him in comfort: ‘Do not be too sad, my son. We have another, equally meritorious way of gaining atonement: through deeds of loving kindness. For as the prophet Hosea proclaimed so long ago: ‘It is lovingkindness that I seek and not sacrifice; knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.’”
This story brings us to the second area at the heart of our Days of Awe:
2. T’shuvah: Responding and returning to God.
Our tradition and our history call us to acknowledge that we must be constantly vigilant, in body and spirit. Nobody gets a pass. A quick apology doesn’t cut it. T’shuvah and forgiveness are not automatic, and they do not come easily or quickly. We have to be sincere and courageous in standing before God and admitting where we’ve fallen short of our own expectations for ourselves. But we also have to make amends with anyone we’ve hurt, and immediately change our behavior and stick with the change. Harder still, we must allow those who have hurt us the opportunity for atonement as well – if, and only if, they are sincere about it.
The rabbis were very well aware of how hard it is to forgive someone who has done you an injustice. Even the great among them didn’t always practice what they preached. Here’s one story from the Talmud:
“There were some lawless men living in the neighborhood of Rabbi Meir, and they used to cause him pain. Once Rabbi Meir asked of God that they should die. His wife, Beruriah, asked, “What are you thinking? Is it because it is written (in the book of Psalms), ‘Let sinners cease from the earth’? But look at the text carefully! Does it really say hoteim (sinners)? No! It says hata’im (sins).
“And look at the end of the same verse! It says: ‘And let the wicked be no more.’ So: ‘when sins cease,’ then ‘the wicked will be no more.’ Meir, don’t ask God that these men should die. Ask God that they repent and stop being evil.’ So Rabbi Meir asked God on their behalf and they repented.”
The pandemic may have given us a unique opportunity for teshuvah. Because, if nothing else, it is a perfect example of the truth that we need to take responsibility for our own behavior. And we have learned what happens when we don’t. Like the guidelines for the pandemic, our teshuvah has an impact not only on us, but on everybody around us. And not just our family and friends, who feel so keenly the effects of isolation and virtual exile from anything that approaches normality and stability. It also affects people we meet just in passing, who are either hurt or helped by what we choose to say and do.
Rabbi Meir learned his lesson. Here’s another quote from the Talmud:
“It was taught by the early rabbis that Rabbi Meir would say: Great is repentance because the entire world is forgiven on account of one individual who repents. As the prophet Hosea (14:5) declared on God’s behalf: ‘I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely; for My anger has turned away from him.’ Because one individual repented, everyone will be healed.”
Because one individual repented, everyone will be healed.
I don’t think that’s magic. I think that’s us. I think that’s just one of us being responsible for our own behavior, making an example of ourselves to inspire others, and to protect others. That’s what God calls on Jews to do. And the world needs it, now more than ever.
It is one thing to want to change, to want to be better and do better. But knowing how – well, that’s something else again.
3. And this brings us to the third and final element in the process of awakening that God laid out for us: Tzedakah.We think most often of tzedakah as righteous giving. But its root is tzedek: righteous living.
The Torah and Haftarah portions we will read throughout the day tomorrow give us a guided road map to living a life that fulfills God’s purpose for us.
In the morning reading from Deuteronomy, Moses reminds us that God gave us Torah on Sinai and expected us to embrace it and to live it. Lo Bashanayim hi, Moses declares: It’s not in the heavens, or on the far shores of the sea. It’s in our hearts and our minds and our mouths – and it is our responsibility to fulfill its mission.
In the afternoon portion from the Holiness code of Leviticus, we are taught how to do that: justice in our communities; fairness in our business practices; honor to the elderly; assistance to those who are most at risk.
And just for good measure, we will have the Haftarah from the prophet Isaiah (ch. 58) reminding us – in the powerful language that echoes through millennia — that it is never, ever enough to sit in prayer and ruminate on the good that Torah can bring to the world – because we need to do the bringing.
We must do everything we can – based on our own history – to help everyone around us feel that they are safe once again on solid ground. That they are no longer in exile from normality.
We know how to ask. And we know how to answer.
As Bari Weiss concluded in her inspiring speech back in January:
“The Jewish people were not put on Earth to be anti-anti-Semites. We were put on Earth to be Jews.
“We are the people whose God never slumbers or sleeps, and so neither can we.
“We are the lamp-lighters.
“We are the ever-dying people that refuses to die.
“The people of Israel lives now and forever.
“Am Yisrael Chai.”
Kein yehi ratson. Be this God’s will and our mission. And let us say together: Amen.
©2020 Audrey R. Korotkin
 Candace Taylor, “The Secret In Boston’s Basement,” The Wall Street Journal, Friday, March 6, 2020, Mansion Page M1,
 Bari Weiss, “No Hate, No Fear,” published in the “Opinion” page of the Jewish Journal on January 16, 2020 and accessed at https://jewishjournal.org/2020/01/16/no-hate-no-fear/
 Avot d’Rabbi Natan 4:5