Author of "Embracing Auschwitz" and "Mensch•Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi - Wisdom for Untethered Times." Winner of the Rockower Award, the highest honor in Jewish journalism and 2019 Religion News Association Award for Excellence in Commentary. Musings of a rabbi, journalist, father, husband, poodle-owner, Red Sox fan and self-proclaimed mensch, taken from essays, columns, sermons and thin air. Writes regularly in the New York Jewish Week and Times of Israel.
Thursday, September 2, 2021
In This Moment (Rosh Hashanah Edition)
In This Moment
Last Shabbat morning, services were held for the first time in our Matthew Klein Memorial Garden. It will definitely not be the last. We celebrated the ufruf of Gary Freilich and Danielle Hauser with a nice (distanced) live gathering and many more on Zoom. With Cantor Katie's lovely voice and Torah assistance from Susan Schneiderman, Joy Katz and Rabbi Gerry Ginsburg. As pastoral and lovely as the screen grabs look (see more, along with the archived service video, here), it was even better to be there, with birds chirping (without masks!) - including a hawk doing lazy circles in the sky - trees swaying and a country pathway through the tall grass leading to…look! An ark!
I hope you are all well, following last night's biblical rains. With the east being submerged under water and the west on fire, and everywhere people continuing to suffer from Covid, our country feels like it is at a precipice. In that spirit, with deep questions as to whether it's even proper to speak about being written into a Book of Life after nearly 650,000 have died, I present below an alternative version of the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, written for this unique year.
The news regarding abortion rights is bleak. This is a very serious attack on our freedom of religious expression as Jews, as well as the US Constitution. And it is a direct attack on women's health and the right to privacy. Read the Rabbinical Assembly'sStatement on Reproductive Freedom. Also see the Reform Movement's Religious Action Center's resource page on Reproductive Health and Rights.
Every year, in the run-up to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish People Policy Institute publishes its Annual Assessment of the Situation and Dynamics of the Jewish People. The report emphasizes five main dimensions of Jewish well-being: geopolitics, material resources, community bonds, identity and identification, and demography. JPPI has found no change in some of these areas over the last year, but in others there has been an alarming deterioration – both in the internal Jewish arena and in relations between Jews and the rest of the world.
The farmers giving their land a year off(Israel 21c) In Israel, every seventh year is supposed to be a sabbath year when farmers don’t raise crops. It’s a great rest for the fields, but a huge test of faith.
Why do Jews go to synagogue on the High Holidays?(Jewish Journal, written pre-Covid)I know many Jews feel uncomfortable in synagogue. The service is too long. They can't read Hebrew. They feel like hypocrites because they don't keep all the laws. Yes, there are many excuses to explain why shul can be a real "pain" — not to mention all that sitting in one place. Try this for a change — make up some excuses about why it is so great to be in the synagogue of your choice. Think of the possibilities. Have you ever noticed how easy it is to make excuses about doing something you want to do anyway? Maybe this year you can say (even if it is only to yourself): "I want to go to shul, I am not exactly sure why, but I want to be there." For many of us that would be a strange confession, but consider it. Go to services this year with an open mind. Yes, there is some reason you want to be there. Yes, there is something that makes it a special day and a special place. Yes, you did go there looking for something. To read my take on this, click here.
The TBE Covid Memory Project: This fabulous collection of congregant-written essays may have snuck past you when they appeared in our July-August Bulletin. Take another look at them now, as we prepare for our second high holidays under the shadow of the pandemic. This exercise helps us to recall what we endured and how we grew from it, as well as how much we missed the normalcy that is still so elusive.
I have one more homework assignment for you. Read Emily's famous monologue from the third act of "Our Town"with the experiences of the past 18 months in mind. How have we gained some insight that she (spoiler alert) could not appreciate until she was dead? Or have we not gained any insight even after all this upheaval? Now, rewrite her speech in your own words. What are all the things that you have had to say good-bye to, that you had taken for granted for so many years? With the High Holidays in-person experience to be so truncated - what are you saying "goodbye" to - even if it's hopefully not forever? To the choir, to the hugs, to the enormous room filled with sound, to the smiles of babies being blessed on our bima, the wondrous looks in the eyes of kids hearing the shofar up close - and to the people - all the people whom we've lost (and some so needlessly) to this disease. We must say a wistful goodbye to all that. And in the back of our minds, there is that nagging reminder that nothing is forever - except perhaps for Rosh Hashanah itself. We are all Emily on the hillside, looking down at her implacably shortsighted friends and family, who never really understand how brief, and how wondrous, life really is.
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To Sing or Not to Sing?
There is an old story about a young boy who had to give a message to his father who was seated in a synagogue on Yom Kippur night. He tried to go in but he had no ticket for a seat. The boy explained he would not be going to stay; it was just for a moment that he needed to speak to his father. The usher
grudgingly admitted the lad but then gave him a stern warning "I'll let you in, but don't let me catch you praying."
This classic Jewish joke is feeling strangely relevant this year. Medical experts have been debating the dangers of congregational singing, given the increased dangers posed by the Delta variant. And while my personal preference would be to call on everyone attending to belt out each prayer with abandon, we also have to be mindful of our neighbors. The bottom line is that the High Holidays are about reconnecting our destiny to that of our community and the Jewish people. While there is a good deal of individualized soul searching that goes with it, the Talmud states explicitly, "Do not separate from the group."
So here's what I propose. Go light on the singing. How light? As light as you would if you were working in a cubicle and your favorite song began playing in your earpiece. You can imagine yourself belting it out, without actually uttering a sound.
There are other options. Humming is OK. Singing with your eyes. Or how about putting a graphic on your mask that represents your favorite prayer, or your thoughts about the holidays, the human condition, whatever message you want to send up to the gates of heaven, where it will certainly be accepted at Rosh Hashanah Headquarters, once it takes a Covid test.
And what are you doing, listening to music while you should be working, anyway?
For those of you who will be participating remotely, and I know there will be a lot, you can sing as loud as you want, and it will be up to you to make up for the volume we in the room will be sacrificing. Your voices will be heard, and will lift up those of us who are in the room.
Please note that we do not make these suggestions lightly. We've heard from many experts and consulted with other synagogues. It is also noteworthy that shortly after the decision was made not to have an active choir this year, one of the members of the choir came down with Covid. We were very lucky to have stopped the rehearsals well before that happened, but had we continued rehearsing in close quarters, the illness certainly would have spread.
So, to summarize, Cantor Katie and I request that you hum into your mask and imagine the sound of a whole room singing along. And then, simply enjoy the amazing musicians that we will hear.
Note that the question is whether to sing, not whether to pray. We just need to focus our spiritual energy more internally than externally this year. Covid does not spread through prayer.
But hope does.
May the new year bring you and your family only sweetness, good health and joy.