By Rabbi Sam Yolen, Congregation Beth Israel (Lebanon)
Last September I turned thirty in quarantine. It was the birthday I had been preparing for since I had moved out to south central Pennsylvania, the birthday that I had hoped would finally transform me into the mature adult I had set out to be when I entered seminary eight years ago.
All the aspirations of my ambitious twenties would be crowned by this birthday, I told myself, and so I took the preparation for this day seriously. Ten months before my birthday, I started running a few times a week, and lifting weights. Eight months before, I started a more serious yoga practice. Six months before, I would visualize the entire day before I got up in the morning, holding gratitude in my head for all the best case scenarios, and making space for the challenges I would overcome.
I exerted more discipline on my schedule, cut out bad habits, traded fried chicken for organic salads and I felt better than I had ever felt. I thought to myself, “I am ready to be thirty.”
I had also dovetailed this personal spurt of growth with my professional ambitions. I had just been published in the Jewish Exponent and had secured a ticket to AJC’s International Conference in Berlin. I had been appointed to a permanent spot on the local college’s interfaith dialogue panel. I had been certified by Moishe House to host retreats at Congregation Beth Israel and had even turned a few classrooms into dorms for hosting participants.
The first retreat I had developed was on Small Town Jewish Life, and we were in the process of getting approved for a grant. This meant that young adults would be visiting our town and participating in services on a regular basis. It was nothing short of a miracle. My heart leapt, 2020 was going to be my year!
As you already know, the Coronavirus ripped its way from the East to the West and derailed all of these plans. We all suffered the collapse of our expectations alone as individuals, and then together as a community. If we were brave, we modeled this disappointment in tradition and rituals. A digital Passover allowed us to say, “Next year in person.” A springtime thaw allowed us to picnic outside with one another. For some this was the first time we had seen each other in months.
I had no extra energy to discipline myself into approaching my thirtieth birthday. I stopped running. I stopped yoga. I ate more ice cream in those six months than I had for the two years previous. I wrote an article for the Community Review on being gentle and forgiving with yourself in this time period, and I slid into my thirtieth birthday holding my breath that things would come back around.
Those things didn’t come back around though. People who passed away didn’t come back. Businesses that had closed remain closed. It took time, but I reluctantly accepted the reality that most of my professional plans had dissolved entirely. Instead of any of the ambition I had nurtured in my twenties, I adopted a crisis preparedness mindset. The status of the shul’s wi-fi connection took precedence over the cancelled trip to Germany. The digital capabilities of my congregants took a primary role in the connective tissue of the community - I made house calls to set people up as best as they could manage. I delivered food.
I found that, like you all, I was working much harder for much less of a return. And on Shabbat nights, when I would usually refill my spiritual canteen with blessings and love, I was left with one guitar, two Shabbat candles, and an empty sanctuary. Of course everyone can attend on Zoom, but without a hot knish and a chance to kibbitz, our community slipped into a dormancy we will forever grapple with.
And what was the birthday present I gave myself as a thirty-one year old? I unwrapped each and every goal I had like a present I was discovering for the first time - and I let them go. I changed the definition of success that I subscribed to and I softened to accommodate myself, my community, and the era we all happen to be in.
The world is tough enough. If I’m going to be a healthy thirty-one year old, it’s not by haranguing myself with outdated goals, it’s by continuing to feed the deep spirit of God within me, the spirit that knows that right now is not a time for frivolous trips, but a time to gird down and appreciate what you already have, no matter how meager.
Victor Frankl tells a story in his book Man’s Search for Meaning about a woman nearing death in the concentration camps. As Dr. Frankl is treating her, she looks outside her window and says, “What a beautiful tree. Growing up, I had everything, but I could not appreciate it. Now, I have this tree and I am so appreciative.”
My thirtieth birthday wasn’t what I had expected or wanted. When I was younger, I imagined I’d be okay with the world around me, that I’d be comfortable with the mark I had made, and satisfied with the cadence of my freneticism. Now that I’m thirty-one, I look out my window at a beautiful tree swaying in the autumn light and say, “Wow, what beautiful colors those leaves are.”
It is quiet on the roads and, in my apartment I’m surrounded with mundane chores that need to be completed. I sigh and remind myself, “if you finish the laundry and get out your guitar, there’s a great melody you can teach yourself for Kabbalat Shabbat. And if you do that, there may be someone who Zooms in on Friday night, and if they hear that song, they’ll have a great week because you were able to learn it.”
Sure it’s less glamorous than an AJC trip to Germany, but can God really say it’s less important?