Sign In Forgot Password

Most holidays are either joyous or sad.  They celebrate a victory or a good harvest or perhaps recall the destruction of our temple.  But, there are other holidays that are nether full of joy nor of sadness.  Their mood is serious and thoughtful.  These are the holidays when we look inside ourselves rather than outside at the world.  These are times when we think about what we have been doing with our lives.

The most important of these holidays is not a holiday at all.  It is a period of time; it is ten days and the days of preparation for those ten days.  We call these ten days which include two holidays, a fast day and a special Shabbos, the Days of Awe---the Yamin Noriam.

All of us need times to be serious about ourselves.  We need the time out from doing things, from being busy, to see where we’ve been going and where we ought to go.  Once each year, a Jew stands back from their life during ordinary days and regular Shabbosiam, and asks: What use have I made of my time?  Have I used it well or badly?

The Days of Awe begin with the celebration of the New Year and end with a day of promise.  It is not a time to be afraid or very joyous.  It is a time of remembering and thinking.  A time of measuring what we did last year so we can do better next year.

It’s true that many people no longer pay much attention to this period of remembering and thinking.  They attend services on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur but they do not bother with the days before and the days between.  They are too busy.  But, the busier people are, the more they need to know where the years are going.  If we forget the years that have passed, we can not understand ourselves.  At the beginning of each year, we need to spend some time close to G-d, to measure the past according to his rules and to plan the future according to what He wants of us. 

The Jewish attitude to life and time is given in the other name for this period.  The first ten days of the new year are also called Aseret Yema Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance.  We are taught that on Rosh Hashana, each person’s acts during the past year are judges.  His future is then decided according to the worth of that past and it is written down in the Book of Life.  But, the Book of Life for the New Year is not closed on Rosh Hashana.  It is left open for ten days, through Yom Kippur.  In the days between, everyone has the opportunity to change the judgment written in the book.  Each person has within themselves their own power to decide their own future.  No one, we are taught, is so bad that they can not change for the better, or so good that they can not become better.

 For many Jews, a high point of services on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is the Uneaneh Tokef prayer, which wonders who will live and who will die in the year ahead.

This year, that question will take on added meaning, as the High Holidays fall six months into a global pandemic that has reshaped lives, battered institutions and killed hundreds of thousands of people, including many in Jewish communities.

At the same time, the prayer will be experienced in dramatically new ways: in solo or socially distanced prayer services.

When Pesach arrived weeks into the pandemic, there was little time to rethink age-old communal traditions for a moment that required isolation. Five months later, congregations have a great deal of experience — although unplanned and unwanted — creating meaningful Jewish experiences that are safe amid a global crisis, and they are applying the lessons they’ve learned to the most-attended services of the year.

There will be no packed sanctuaries. Those synagogues that are convening in person are taking dramatic steps to keep congregants safe, including limiting attendance and shortening services to allow for multiple shifts.

The long sermons that are often a centerpiece of the holidays are being curtailed to limit virus exposure for those inside synagogues.

With singing considered among the most dangerous activities possible, choirs will not convene, nor will congregants’ voices rise together in song. In many cases, Orthodox synagogues are separating their service leaders from congregants, sometimes with Plexiglas sheaths, and some are discouraging congregants from singing at all.  For those who will be singing, there will be people who will be singing through masks, through Plexiglas, through masks plus face shields plus Plexiglas, etc.

The shofar will be heard in new ways. Rather than crowding their congregants into the sanctuary to hear the shofar blast, rabbis in many communities are fine-tuning schedules for shofar-blowing in local neighborhoods and public spaces. Many plan to apply a face mask on the open end of the ram’s horn in accordance with expert advice about how to protect against spreading the virus.

The sounds of children will be absent, too. With childcare settings carrying special risks, family services are not taking place in most synagogues that are open. Some are holding regular services in shifts so parents can take turns staying home with their children.

Some synagogues are trying to help families navigate the holidays at home, including by putting together boxes of supplies to be used instead of or in addition to family services at home.

Some see all the changes as yet another way that the pandemic is depriving Jews and others of important traditional experiences, much the way that Pesach this year lacked family Seders that typically characterize the holiday.

This may be services, but this is not shul. Shul means everyone is together in the space, davening together, and this is not that.

Simmering below the surface in the planning of many synagogues are deep fears that the pandemic’s extension through the High Holiday season may harm Jewish institutions for the long haul. Without the annual cash infusion that ticket sales for in-person High Holiday services bring, and with community members under financial pressure and potentially less able to pay dues, congregations across the denominational spectrum aren’t sure how they’ll make ends meet this year.

Whatever long-term changes this unprecedented High Holiday season may portend, and however Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are being experienced this year, the spiritual core of the holiday season is sure to endure, as it has for centuries already.

Beth and I are wishing everyone a Kiseva V-chaseema Tovah-We should all be written and sealed in the book of life, health, prosperity, and happiness. And may Hakodesh Barchu hear our prayers and bring a total healing to the world around us.

L’Shanah Tova.

Rabbi Dr. Michael Gottesman

Mon, October 26 2020 8 Cheshvan 5781