Are We There Yet?
Sermon by Rabbi Sarah H. Reines on Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5782
September 6, 2021
Remember childhood road trips? Visiting Grandma, or driving somewhere on vacation. After a few rounds of songs, a game of 20 questions, a snack or two and a pit stop, the sense of adventure slowly wears off. With endless highway stretching before us, seat belts constricting around our waist, the whimpering begins: “Are we there yet?”
There’s no answer to this question that isn’t really a question. It’s a cry of exhaustion and exasperation for everyone involved.
Well, here we are. Are we there yet?
18 months ago, our city shut down, and we sheltered in our homes, fearing the touch of a doorknob or the contamination of groceries. We made our way through a wilderness no one could have imagined: Broadway indefinitely dark; schools shuttered; the eerie quiet of NYC streets, pierced only by chirping birds and ambulance sirens.
Three vaccines and more than a year later we were finally feeling safe enough to travel, to gather at an outdoor celebration, to eat inside a well ventilated restaurant. Many of us were looking forward to High Holidays in the Sanctuary – singing, praying and hugging people we haven’t seen in months. Then Delta peaked, and suddenly, the destination so tantalizingly close. . . off, again, in the distance.
Are we there yet?! We don’t know where “there” is. We don’t even know where we are! At a recent staff meeting, someone said, “Well, that was when we were in the middle of COVID,” to which another person replied, “I don’t know – are we still in the middle of COVID?”
Yes, we are so much better off this year than last, but suddenly we are not where we thought we were, and definitely not where we expected to be. And we have no GPS to predict how variants may create tie-ups ahead.
The confusion is real. Do we buy those concert tickets? Is that sore throat reason to take a COVID test? Ride the subway or walk? Work in the office or at home? Is it risky to visit our grandparents? Attend our 6 year old nephew’s birthday party? Are we being irrational or prudent? What is the line between caution and paranoia?
Uncertainty agitates each of us differently. For rabbis, it’s all about ritual. In June, which now feels long ago and far away, I started thinking about tonight, how we would be gathering in the wake of this uniquely shared experience: facing a common threat to life. I pictured hundreds of us together in the Sanctuary – finally back in our congregational home after so many months of Shabbats, after last year’s High Holidays when no one was here, other than clergy and cameras. My instinct, and that of many colleagues, was to mark this return liturgically, and Birkat HaGomel, the blessing of Gomel, felt right.
This blessing is traditionally recited during the Torah service by individuals after coming through a life-threatening experience: “Baruch Ata Adonai, sheg’malani kol tov – Thank you God, who has been so good to me.” I imagined us, on this evening of our homecoming, offering our Jewish blessing of survival, in a collective voice.
Then, a few weeks ago, it all changed.
Most people who were planning on coming, were now unsure or decided to stay home. And given the sudden rise in COVID cases and deaths, clergy colleagues started deliberating if it would be appropriate to offer a congregational Gomel blessing at this stage of the pandemic. I have been equivocating ever since.
Many of you may not be familiar with the Gomel blessing, and given the circumstances for saying it, that’s not a bad thing. It’s come to be said after facing peril – escaping Afghanistan or fleeing southern storms, surviving a car accident or a bad biopsy result. Maybe you’ve lived that kind of experience – suddenly your mortality looms before you… then a rush of relief when it recedes to the background.
The Talmud specifies four circumstances when we must recite Gomel: release from prison, crossing a sea, traveling through a desert, and recovering from illness. The first three instances have a clear point of arrival, like pulling into Grandma’s driveway and finally getting out of the car. We know when prison gates slam behind us. We know when we dock on dry land, or step from the desert into habitation.1
But at what point can we say we have recovered from illness? Maybe the fever broke but we aren’t well enough to get out of bed. We got through surgery but need rehab. And what if full recovery isn’t possible – we will always need dialysis, or monthly scans, or we are in recovery from a mental illness and are receiving ongoing treatment – but we are living a far fuller life since we fell ill or were injured?
Our sages knew what they were doing when they included that vague category of recovering from illness with the other three. It means that the Gomel blessing captures a tension inherent to the human condition: crossing a finish line while we keep circling the track.
This murkiness fuels the confusion about whether it’s time to recite this survivor’s blessing, or whether we need to wait: Do effective vaccines protect us enough to authentically offer Gomel? Or, with the Delta’s high viral load, and the unknown risk of long-haul COVID in breakthrough infections, is saying Gomel premature?
The rabbis of the early centuries weren’t debating synagogue capacity or mask regulations. And most Jews today aren’t obsessing about which blessing to say at services. But throughout time and space, we are all giving voice to the same plaintive cry, “Are we there yet?”
Is this time time for a congregational Gomel? The question isn’t simply how far along we are in the fight against COVID. The discrepancy in protection may be reason enough to wait. Young children are still ineligible for vaccines. And there is also tremendous inequity in availability. At this point, more than 80% of doses have gone to people in high-income and upper-middle-income countries. Less than 2% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose.2 Assuming our immediate community is in a safe enough situation to offer gratitude, should we, while so many can’t?
This discomfort is actually embedded in a later wording of the Gomel blessing “Thank you God, Who has been so good to me, the undeserving.” Taken literally, that presents a distasteful theology – some people are not more or less deserving of survival than others. But this blessing doesn’t come from the head; it comes from the gut. In the same way that “Are we there yet” is a cry and not a question, Gomel is an emotional response
Describing ourselves as “undeserving” gives voice to the guilt we might feel for our good fortune, while grieving those left behind in prison, those who didn’t make it across the waters or through the desert, those who never got off the ventilator, who never left the ICU.
Survivors’ guilt comes from compassion. In the wake of the mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida High School, two Jewish teenagers recited the Gomel prayer. Their mother watched, flooded with gratitude and choked by pain for the parents and children who couldn’t speak those words.3
Gomel is like the sound of the shofar – at the same time, both celebratory and mournful. On Rosh Hashanah, we blow the shofar 100 times to remember the 100 cries of a mother in scripture whose warrior son didn’t return from battle.4 Meanwhile, the shofar, itself, is a reminder of a child who survived near death.
The shofar blasts and the Gomel blessing both insist this truth that we live, but often doubt – our hearts are deep enough and strong enough to hold gratitude and grief together.
There’s something unique to Gomel that sets it apart from most Jewish blessings. It’s a call and response prayer – a personal offering that we are directed to say in the midst of community. The survivor says, “Thank you God, Who has been so good to me.” Those gathered respond: “May God who was good to you, be good to you always.” Scholar, Dr. Ellen Frankel, points out the profound impact of the structure of this prayer in mitigating survivor’s guilt by having other people present and expressing gratitude. The survivor is assured that their delivery from danger is an absolute blessing.5
The community’s participation in this prayer reflects our interdependency on one another to survive and thrive.6 Studies show that even a brief, friendly exchange with the cashier, or a stranger on the subway, lifts us.7 Over those long months when keeping safe meant staying distant, we organically developed our own ritual of gratitude and connection. Every night at 7:00pm, we hung out of our windows, clapping, hooting and clanging on pots and pans. It felt like a small but significant way of offering gratitude to those who were putting themselves at risk for our welfare. It was also a way of coming together, despite our isolation.
Some argue we should recite Gomel, even if we are unsure of where we are in the fight against COVID, because this responsive ritual actually aids us in recovery – spiritually and biochemically. Imagine being chased by a lion. Our body shifts into survival mode, flooding hormones, triggering systemic reactions, all spurring us to run. We glance back and see the lion has found other prey to pursue. Great news! We’re out of danger! But our body hasn’t gotten that message – our nervous system is still in high gear.
Only after we arrive back in our village, recount the story of our harrowing escape, and receive grateful hugs and joyful high fives from family and neighbors, does our body absorb the signal of safety. Our panic chemicals turn off and our system cools down in response to being seen, heard, and cared for.8
Reciting the Gomel in the midst of community, “Thank you, God, for being so good to me,” and receiving people’s response, “May God Who was good to you, be good to you always,” furthers our well-being, and bolsters us in moving forward. We are wished endless good fortune, even in the certain uncertainty that lies ahead.
* * * * *
“Are we there yet?” is not just a contemporary cry from the back seats of station wagons and minivans. That feeling of being neither here nor there is a familiar one. Centuries ago, we trudged through the Sinai desert, unable to go back where we started, and unsure of the way ahead. We came close to that land of promise, tiptoed in, and then were tossed back onto a twisting turning path with no clear end.9
Forty years later, we again saw our destination laid out before us. We stood there, distrustful – weary from years of raised and dashed hopes, traumatized by loss. Moses reminded us how far we had come, that we were survivors. “You’ve escaped bondage, crossed waters, journeyed through a desert, and survived plague. That has all brought you to this place. Yes, sometimes you will still feel lost, unsure of your footing. Much is beyond your control. Life and death, blessing and curse are all laid out before you. Choose life! Express gratitude even as you grieve.“10
Moses spoke those words knowing he would not be celebrating survival with us. But even as his mortality loomed, he leaned into life; he urged us forward with blessing.
I still don’t know if this is the time to say Gomel. Tomorrow, we will all have the ability to make that choice for ourselves. Those of us who feel ready will recite the blessing. Those of us who don’t will respond to our friends, wishing them boundless good fortune, always.
Either way, we will all be choosing life, answering “yes” to “Are we there yet?” Saying, “Yes, here we are, together.”
Birkat HaGomel, by Rabbi Noam Katz
(sung by Cantor Todd Kipnis)
We have lost and we have learned
persevered through every turn
on this long and ever-winding path
We have heard and hoped
found the inner sense to cope
even as we’ve had to catch our breath.
Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, sheg’malanu kol tov: Amen.
We have cried and we have cursed
felt it couldn’t get much worse
held on tightly to our Tree of Life
We have mourned and overcome
giving thanks unto the One
for enabling us to reach this day
Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu, Melech ha-olam, sheg’malanu kol tov: Amen.
We have lived another year
through the struggles and the fears
and before us, possibility . . .
1 Brachot, 54b https://www.sefaria.org/Berakhot.54b?lang=bi
2 These links are continually updated, so they may reflect different statistics than stated in this sermon:
4 Rosh Hashanah 33b https://www.sefaria.org/Rosh_Hashanah.33b.2?lang=bi
5 Lawrence A. Hoffman, ed. My People’s Prayer Book Vol4: Seder K’rat Hatorah, pp 114, 117
9 Numbers 13:34
10 Deuteronomy 30:19