Like many of you, I found myself glued to the news on Monday, as the first reports emerged about the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral. Despite the fact that I am neither French, nor Catholic, nor an architecture enthusiast, I felt sickened. Even when it was confirmed that no one had been killed or injured, my anxiety — uncharacteristically — did not subside. What if this beautiful church burned to the ground? How could it ever be rebuilt? Could a 21st century cathedral ever have the grandeur and depth of a 12th century one?
Thankfully, the damage was contained, and generous donors have stepped up to ensure that Notre Dame will be repaired. While the rebuilt spire will surely not be the same as the one that was destroyed, the cathedral will remain a powerful part of the Paris skyscape, and one if its religious homes. And yet the burning image stays in my mind.
This weekend, Jews and Christians will observe some of the most important holidays in our respective calendars. As so many of us spend these days in the comfort of our synagogues and churches, we will do so against an unsettling backdrop. It is not just the sight of Notre Dame burning — by all accounts, a blameless and thankfully victimless event — that we hold. From a synagogue in Pittsburgh, to a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, to three African-American churches in Louisiana, it seems like our holiest places have become associated with violence, destruction, and hatred. What a gross distortion of what they were built for — namely, sacred spaces where we can feel connection, holiness, aspiration, and vulnerability.
And yet Passover and Easter offer guidance for how to navigate this messy reality. They are both holidays about the birthing of new worlds — painful and frightening as it can be to bring something or someone new into the world. Two years ago, the Sikh civil rights activist Valarie Kaur asked us to reimagine these difficult days in which we live. “What if this darkness…what if it is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?” she asked. (You can watch her stirring speech opens in a new windowhere.) I have thought of her words many times over these months.
What if our world is giving birth to a new version of itself? What if we are on the brink of something so much better? What if we had faith that this is a redemptive story, in which we each play a role?
What if the people who stepped up to fund the restoration of the arsoned churches in Louisiana, or the Muslim community leaders who reached out with support and care in Pittsburgh, or the Prime Minister of New Zealand who moved to ban assault rifles in her country — what if they are the midwives to this new world?
What if we were, too?
Happy Holidays to all –
Rabbi Joanna Samuels
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