Thursday, March 19, 2020

The Planned and the Unplanned

When the coronavirus arrived it was met immediately with denial. Nobody wanted to imagine that this annoying microbe could somehow undermine long-standing plans. How dare it get in the way of my work, social life and schooling? How dare it undermine synagogue and Shabbat? I speaking in the office about what we called then "the possibility" that perhaps some of the Passover programs will cancel, and we would need to come up with a way to have catered meals in the synagogue for those who stay home. Of course even those contingency plans got tossed out in a matter of days.

People hate their plans going awry. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert points out, the ability to dream of a future is the defining characteristic of humanity. We dream of the future, and expect it to happen. And a plan fulfilled is a thing of beauty. This week's Torah reading is fundamentally a celebration of the plan working out to the last detail. Earlier, The Torah tells us of the plans for the sanctuary in the desert; and in this week's Torah reading we see the plans fulfilled detail after detail. The Torah proudly proclaims ויעש, and it was done, כאשר צוה , as God had commanded. 

Yet in between the command to build the sanctuary and its execution there is a completely different narrative. The Torah tells us that when Moses went up to Mount Sinai to get the tablets with the Ten Commandments written on them, he returned to find the people having accepted upon themselves the worship of a Golden Calf. Moses then broke the tablets, and after a long period of penitence, the Jewish people received a second set of tablets. It was these second set of tablets, along with the broken first set of tablets, that would be placed in the Ark in the very heart of the new Sanctuary. Ironically, the very items in the center of this built to perfection new sanctuary are themselves a product of a plan that went wrong!

The lesson is clear. Even when there is a facade of perfection, at its heart are plans that were broken. 

We are now living in an time of broken tablets. A future we took for granted three weeks ago is gone, dashed, and broken. We sit in shock wondering what we should dream of now. 

We are not the first generation of Jews to live through upheaval and heartbreak. Previous generations got through their days of broken tablets by mastering the art of improvisation. Even when your plans are destroyed, you dream of a second chance, all while carrying your broken tablets with you. When this crisis concludes, we will do the same, following an example that's 3,300 years old.

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