Who Can See What Will Happen After?

This post was originally delivered as a Yom Kippur Memorial sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago in September 2020. It was part of a series on Five Jewish Questions. Video is available here.           

One Jewish year ago, no one at our Yom Kippur memorial service expected to be participating today on a screen instead of with me in this sanctuary. Over the last 6 months, we have become a little accustomed to not being in charge of our present. An exposure requiring quarantine, or a cough or sniffle we would have ignored in the past, school schedules that change on a dime, and the omnipresent threat of another coronavirus wave – we do not know what will happen in the morning, or what the afternoon will bring. I once went to visit my aunts in New York City, who didn’t want to plan anything until the morning we were getting together, which is NOT how I like to plan! I’ve had similar experiences trying to schedule events in Israel, and with other people. So some people can adapt to living in an unpredictable present. What has made this time even more challenging is not being able to predict the future! Not in terms of prophecy or forecasting, but the absence of general predictability. What should we do about our family Bar Mitzvah next spring? Can I use expiring airline miles to buy a ticket for, well, ANY time in the future? When will I see out of town family or friends again in THREE dimensions and not just on a screen? We do not know what we enjoy until it is gone, and not knowing what comes after turns out to be a challenging place to be.

That place of now knowing what happens after is where we have always been, whether we realized it or not. Over 2000 years ago, an unknown author penned the book of Ecclesiastes. The text is clearly influenced by Greek philosophy, by Near Eastern and Hebrew traditions of wisdom literature, and by life experience. Supposedly it was written by King Solomon near the end of his life – he wrote the Song of Songs when he was young and randy, the book of Proverbs when he was middle-aged and wise, and Ecclesiastes when he was old and bitter. The book is famous for its cynicism: no matter what we do, all is in vain because the world runs on its own schedule independent of our desires. There is a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to reap, whether we like it or not, and that wheel will turn….turn….turn no matter what. At times, Ecclesiastes is depressed by the eternal turning of events, disheartened to realize that the same end happens to both the wicked and the innocent with no cosmic justice. And at times he draws comfort, knowing that the best he can do is enjoy this life while he has it and get enough wisdom to avoid stupid mistakes and understand the flow of time.

Most meaningful for us today, however, is a question he asks in chapter 8, our last Jewish question for this new year season.

There is a time for every experience, including doom; for a man’s calamity overwhelms him. Indeed, he does not know what is to happen; even when it is on the point of happening, who can tell him what will happen after?

On some level, we know that life is a terminal condition – we are all going to die, though we do not know when or how. In the ancient world, life was much more precarious. Death came any day, any minute, from any direction. Over the centuries from Ecclesiastes’ day to our own, we have slowly learned to tame disease and domesticate death into mostly predictable patterns – cancer, strokes, accidents and natural disasters still happen, but our average life span has doubled from then to now because of human efforts. This has been the greatest global project in our history on the planet – to live more.

Yet in this moment, OUR calamity, our moment overwhelms us, we too ask “what will happen after?” – after the Jewish year just ended, after 2020, after this pandemic, after this and that and the other crisis. I have no magic answers for when there will be a vaccine or when life will return to something more like normal. I cannot tell you what the next unpleasant surprise will be, the next sudden loss, the next assault on stability. We are grieving the loss of predictability, and grief itself is unpredictable. When we lose someone we love, a book on the shelf, or a particular food, or a piece of music can bring us back to that place of loss in an instant and we are undone… again. As time goes on, though, and the painful memory of loss fades into warmer memories of a full life, as we learn to accept grief along with joy. There is a time to mourn, and a time to dance, and we learn how to do one and then the other in turn.

I have no specific answers to “what will happen after?” just as Ecclesiastes could not answer for his era either. But I do have an answer to the existential issue this question represents. What will happen after? How will I handle my grief? When will I get over this loss of a person or of predictability? My answer is this: “What will happen after? I do not know, and we will handle whatever it is together.” Humanists can live with “I don’t know” – it is a resolution that Rabbi Sherwin Wine called the Life of Courage, or Staying Sane in a Crazy World. Whatever our future holds, a time to laugh or a time to weep, you will not laugh or weep alone. Yes, this Yom Kippur we are apart in our own homes. We are apart but not alone. We are as present with others as we make ourselves in 21st century reality.

So call your family; Facetime with your friends. Be part of your children’s or your parents’ lives. There is a time to be silent, and a time to speak. And the time to speak is now, and tomorrow, and next week, even until next year if necessary. We will see each other outside, distanced, masked, in small groups, however we need to in order to be safe and healthy, and to wish each other Happy New Year at our next Rosh Hashana in 5782. Whether we do that in the same space face to face or some other way – who can say what will happen after? I do not know, and we will get through it together. A meditation I wrote for our Rosh Hashana Morning service articulates what I think we will need moving forward – the need to be “in person”, wherever we are, through this new Jewish year.

What does it mean
To be “in person”?
Is it our body
on a map, in a building,
at a place?
Is that “in person”?
You can be
physically in person
and mentally wander
through imagination
into memory and
beyond walls.

“In person” must be more, and different.
Full presence,
focus and calm,
to think and to be.
We can be present
in person
from many places.

There is no one location to be
in agreement.
There is no one place to be
in love.
There is no one space to be
in touch.

Why should place
decree if we are
in person
or not?

Start the New Year

wherever you are,
in person.

About Rabbi Adam Chalom

Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in north suburban Chicago. He is also the Dean for North America of the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.
This entry was posted in Funerals, High Holidays and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Who Can See What Will Happen After?

  1. Pingback: Five Jewish Questions – High Holidays 2020/5781 | Shalom from Rabbi Chalom

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