Reflection on High Holy Days in the pandemic: Don’t repeat the errors of the past (Town Square)
By RABBI DAVID GREENSTEIN
Special to Montclair Local
“The holidays are early this year.” Either that or they are “late.” In our Jewish community, this is a perennial observation and joke made every year when the Jewish holidays approach. Of course, the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashana, always begins on the very same Hebrew date, the first of the Hebrew month of Tishrei. But since the Jewish calendar is not synchronized with the secular calendar, the dates on that calendar — the one we use for practically every other aspect of our lives — can fall any time from early September to early October.
This year, they were early. But next year they will be late. (Don’t ask!)
All this is to say that even in conventional times, it is a juggling act to keep Jewish time along with one’s usual timekeeping. Keeping track of everything in one’s life is more complicated if one also wants to pay attention to the Jewish rhythm of time. And the challenge is even greater when we turn to the special times called the “High Holy Days” — Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). These holidays are meant to be times of spiritual renewal, family and communal assembly. It is a daunting task to open times for these moments within a social world that keeps time differently. Shall the kids miss school? Shall I take off a day from work?
This extra effort to make room for Jewish sacred time has become even more difficult with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Our Sabbath and holiday get-togethers and worship services were canceled. We scrambled — as everyone had to in their own way - to find ways to overcome our losses. Congregation Shomrei Emunah, and its other partners in Jewish life in the Montclair area, understood that health and safety of everyone in this world come first. We did not make the sacrilegious error of thinking that our religious services were exempt from the real obligations we had to accept, in order to keep everyone safe and to support with compassion those who were tragically overloaded with caring for the growing numbers of suffering victims. One of the many lessons we should have learned from this pandemic is not to make an idol out of the value of freedom — even religious freedom — when we should really understand how interdependent we really are.
So we had to connect with each other in different ways. Worship, study and meetings went virtual. We called everyone we could. And we met and met and met to assess our situation and our response to it, all the time trying to balance our values of compassion, community and the sanctity of tradition.
The value of community has become so clear during the pandemic. Without compromising anyone’s privacy, the community made itself available to all who wanted it and we were able to accomplish so much more together than we could as individuals. We were there for each other in practical ways and in emotional and spiritual ways, in times of grief and joy. We shopped and cooked for those who needed it. We created small groups for discussion and sharing. We enhanced our explorations of social action tasks.
We hoped that the rollout of vaccinations would revolutionize our world and return to it a semblance of normalcy. Sadly, we still have a long way to go. Still, things are so much better than a year ago. It took tons of discussion and brainstorming and struggle, but we created a way for so many of us to once more gather in person for these special days. Paying close attention to safety concerns, we held services indoors and outside. We were able to experience the delicious taste of seeing a real, flesh-and-blood human being. We recited a blessing taught by our tradition, a blessing to be recited when one sees a dear friend for the first time in a year or more — “Majestic Presence of the universe, abounding in blessings, You bring the dead to life.”
We have tragically experienced real loss of life, and even the fortunate among us have experienced the loss of our normal sense of life. As we rebuild and go forward, bringing the dead to life again, we must face many questions. The days from Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur are called the Ten Days of Teshuvah. “Teshuvah” can mean, among many things, “repentance, returning, responding.” These meanings speak to different vectors of thought and behavior. Returning can sound like going back to what was. But repentance means not repeating the errors of the past.
Responding to our present situation entails deciding what must be returned to and what must be changed. Do we wish to return to systemic inequality and hatred or are we ready to build a better community and society?
It has been so beautiful to finally gather together in prayer, song and solidarity. But we need to ask ourselves: Will our ethnic and religious traditions and identities simply serve as sources of individual and group pride, or even solace? Or will we allow them to actively prod us to take responsibility for — to respond to — fixing all the broken pieces of our world that have been so brutally exposed by the pandemic’s effects?
David Greenstein is rabbi of Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair
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