In March 2020, Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order to slow the spread of COVID-19. The two years since then have been full of fear and heartbreak — but there are also reasons to be hopeful.
To mark the anniversary of the shutdown, we teamed up with the University of Chicago to ask faith leaders from across the city to share short sermons reflecting on the pandemic for people of all beliefs.
Below are remarks from Mishkan founder Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, whose organization seeks to reimagine and breathe new life into Judaism. Press the “Listen” button to follow along.
There is a Hebrew blessing we say for first times. Sounds like this: Barukh atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man haZeh. Blessed is the One who gave us life, who held us up and who brought us into this moment.
Fundamentally, blessings are a way of bringing spiritual consciousness to an action, and elevating that action from the mundane to the spiritual by saying a blessing for it. Jews have blessings for eating and drinking. We have a blessing for going to the bathroom. Blessings for doing ritual practices like putting on a tallis (a prayer shawl) or lighting shabbat candles. Usually when we say this particular blessing, the shehecheyanu, it’s for things we’re grateful for having arrived in life to witness: tasting a new fruit or vegetable, seeing the sunrise in a new place. It was interesting saying shehecheyanu as we blessed wine on screen for what was thousands of Jewish people’s first online seder April 9 of 2020, just two weeks after we went into lockdown. It was a reminder that as much as the situation was not ideal, it was no less a moment for spiritual consciousness than it would have been in person.
So much of this pandemic has been exactly that — balancing the admission that of course is not what any of us would have chosen, but as long as it is what it is, let’s try to do our best to do what human beings have always done in times like this: Find the meaning in it, the blessing in it.
On the Jewish calendar, we celebrated a new year in September of 2021, and with every new year we say: Shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man haZeh. We are still here, we are still finding reasons to bless, to bless each other, to bless food, to bless sunshine, to bless that we’re here, to bless anything at all. We made it through delta. Here we are a few months into 2022 — we’ve made it through omicron. There’s something unexpected I can bless: Now I know half the Greek alphabet.
What we’re going through now is not qualitatively different from what we go through every day, every week, year in and year out. Maybe different in degree, but not different in kind. We are always being invited to rise to the challenge of blessing the moment, this now moment, whatever is it. And while it wouldn’t have been my first choice to expend the amount of time and energy thinking about risk tolerance and mask-wearing, and whether to host my son’s fourth birthday party or my husband’s 40th birthday party on Zoom or in-person … all of these decisions built our collective capacity for living, for making the best decisions for ourselves, our loved one, and the people around us, given the circumstances. COVID has been a canvas, a backdrop against which to practice our most deeply valued spiritual and practical skills: blessing the moment. Shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man haZeh.
As we offer each other our loving hearts, our forgiveness, our generosity, our patience, in the midst of all that we don’t know, know this: as long as you’re here, you can labor, you can love and you can bless.
So sit up a little straighter, take a deep breath, and repeat after me:
Barukh atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam,
Shehecheyanu, v’kiy’manu, v’higiyanu laz’man haZeh.
We bless You, the Sacred, the Mystery that flows throughout our universe and inside of each one of us. Thank you for giving us life, for holding us up, and enabling each one of us to reach this moment.
This piece was produced for broadcast by WBEZ’s Lauren Frost, together with The Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Chicago. Follow them @frostlaur and @UChiDivinity.