The book, Jacob the Baker by Noah BenShea, starts with a bakery apprentice named Jacob, who has flashes of insight and wisdom that he scribbles on little pieces of paper. Then one week, the notes fall into the Challah dough, (in a clean and sanitary way), and there you have it; challah with notes of wisdom baked in. As the community eats its challah for Shabbat, they discover and read the notes.
Jacob becomes a celebrity, teacher and curiosity in his little town.
In one of the stories, an old woman approaches the protagonist, Jacob, and declares, “listen, young man! I want to ask you something. I heard you talk about dying, and I’m going to die soon. I have a great deal of money. If you’re so smart, why not tell me how I can take it with me?” The old woman released a wicked little gurgle of greed.
Jacob just looked at her. Her voice was more raspy with impatience, “Well? Well? What can be carried to the other side?”
“Everything of value,” replied Jacob.
Her greed excited, the old woman shouted, “How? How?”
Jacob drew calmer, “in your memory,” he answered.
“Memory?” said the woman, dumbstruck at this suggestion. “Memory can’t carry wealth!”
Jacob’s focus seized the woman’s eye, “That is only because you have already forgotten what is of value.”1
Like this woman, we are facing death and loss on so many levels. First and foremost are the tens of thousands who are dying from Covid-19 and its effects on our human community. In addition to so many deaths, how many are mourning lost jobs and businesses? We have poured heart and soul, countless hours and resources for financial stability and security, only to see Covid-19 disrupt and potentially wipe away so much progress. Also to be mourned is so much of our lives that we have had to postpone and cancel – graduations, anniversary celebrations, Passover…moments with family and friends that instead we have had to spend in isolation connected by phone and video chat. Even our daily routine has been upended. As April becomes May, it is clear that as we face Covid-19, the world that we knew is gone in so many ways and a new reality is here, at least for the foreseeable future.
We are like this woman demanding to know what can be salvaged, what can be restored, maintained and protected. We also have to be like Jacob, asking and reflecting, what do we really value, and how do we bring that into this new reality with us?
Another woman offers some of the answers to some of these questions. Kat Hawkins lost both her legs to a bout of bacterial meningitis. A life long dancer, she was challenged to find ways to participate in the activity and art that meant so much to her. She finally found a dance troupe that worked with people who had disabilities.
There was an emphasis on adaptations, a word I’d never even heard said in a dance studio before. We would be shown a phrase of choreography and then spend some time adapting it for our own bodies and assistive devices.
Wheelchairs, prosthetics, crutches and canes were no longer just medical aids, but objects filled with possibilities. It was there that I began to learn about fear – the fear I felt at being in my body and of showing it to others. As soon as I was in an environment where that fear was removed, where all bodies were equal, I began to focus on possibilities.2
Our people have stood at the abyss many times. Personally, but also communally, we have stared death, loss, and destruction down many generations over. We have examples from the Rabbis at Yavneh and the Mishnah to the survivors of Auschwitz. Our ancestors and sages, in partnership with the Divine, built resilience and renewal into our tradition and experience from Abraham’s first steps away from Mesopotamia and Moses’ first steps from Egypt. Once they survived or were in the midst of their survival, they demonstrated time and again how to retain values and anchors, and how to adjust to a new reality. Now, in our generation, we must do this again. We should consider what we value, and then find ways with our new limitation and flow of time, energy and activity, to live out those values.
Our Campus may be closed, but we can still create a House of Shalom – a community that lives and shares a sense of wholeness, harmony and peace. From our virtual worship to study groups, to Facebook postings and comments, to Caring Community phone calls… if we all bring energy of community forward, reaching out, engaging, offering our ideas and sharing in the bounty of our blessings, we can get through this Valley of the Shadow of Death, and be part of the light and love on the journey and on the other side.
1 Jacob the Baker by Noah benShea Page 54 and 55
Rabbi Michael Birnholz