The JN invited local rabbis to share holiday messages with the community.
Bridging the Distance
The last six months brought with them many challenges. We’ve instituted extreme measures for the safety of ourselves and others. We’ve made the difficult decision to close our synagogues, barring ourselves from communal prayer for the sake of communal health.
For some, that reality persists even today, and the High Holidays will therefore take unprecedented form. For others, despite being in person, the service includes masks, social distancing and limited attendance. During the season in which we come together we feel unusually disconnected.
In another sense, though, we remind ourselves that such distance is relegated to the physical realm alone. Specifically, at this time, we’re reminded of the intimacy with which we can connect spiritually — to ourselves, and to God Himself. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 18) tells us that Hashem is to be found more imminently during the Days of Awe (based on Isaiah 55:6). Despite the spiritual power of a physical quorum, an individual can produce that same energy during this time.
But that proximity is hard to fathom. For so many of us, our most spiritually uplifting moments occur in the places that we regard as the most spiritual — the synagogues or the study halls. As the Chassidic saying goes, however, at this time, Hashem is not only reachable by appointment in the palace. Instead, “HaMelech basadeh,” the King is even in the field. He’s accessible and approachable, yearning for that intimacy.
An interesting symbol of this lesson is actually embedded within a tradition many shuls follow during davening. At the start of the Shacharit service, the first “HaMelech” is chanted aloud by the chazzan. But to begin, the chazzan doesn’t do so from the bimah, but rather from his own seat, no matter where that might be. To understand this custom, some point to a phrase that many of us are familiar with: “Baruch Kevod Hashem Mimkomo,” “Blessed is Hashem from His place” (Ezekiel 3:12). On his way out of Jerusalem, Yechezkel is told through prophecy that God can be blessed no matter where He is, even in exile. Some even say that the relocation does not refer to God, but to each individual. No matter where we find ourselves, even at a distance from our ideal sanctuary, we can still produce that blessing.
In terms of our usual, religious rituals, we find ourselves at an unfortunate loss. But especially during the Days of Awe, we remind ourselves that despite the distance — whether physical or spiritual — we now have the opportunity to grow closer than ever before.
Ketivah vachatimah tovah (A good inscription and sealing).
Rabbi Shaya Katz is the spiritual leader of Young Israel of Oak Park.
Caring Is Connection
To say these High Holidays are once in a lifetime is almost trite. Just consider the fact that everything we have been experiencing these past six months has been a first. I find it mindboggling to recount what we have altered and how we have adapted. What we thought was briefly lived practically today has become the expected.
Yet, now is the season traditionally when we return — we return to our congregations and communities and excitedly greet one another. We embrace. We leave uplifted and ready to tackle another year.
The words of Elie Wiesel are echoing in my ears. In asking what it means to be a synagogue, a congregation, he answered, “It means to care about each other. Pray? We can pray at home. We come together as a congregation in order to share in each other’s lives and in order to share in the life of the Jewish people — past, present and future.”
Yet, that seems far from possible today. Our realities on the surface restrict our opportunities to be together, and yes, to even pray together. But does it? I find it remarkable the ways we have innovated in these past months and created something unique and special. How much the more so will our New Year reflect this certainty.
No doubt there is a lot we will miss in being in person together. But I believe the connections we honor and continue to create demonstrate exactly what Elie Wiesel profoundly taught. We are a part of this community because we do care deeply about one another — and we will continue to do so. That is and must be our mission.
For me, in looking at our faith, there are very few “have-to’s” right now. Similar to our ancestors carried off into diaspora nearly 2,600 years ago, they focused on what made us a people — to live with holiness, to honor every individual as created B’tselem Elohim (in the image of God), to create community even without the Temple, and do so with their mikdash me’at, their home sanctuaries, so to speak. We will do the very same right now. And in so doing, we’ll make our faith more relevant in our lives and our people even more resilient.
Rabbi Michael L. Moskowitz is spiritual leader at Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield.
Rosh Hashanah is Yom Harat Olam, the anniversary of the creation of the world. The anniversary of God creating light. The anniversary of the potential to see.
I have been thinking a lot about seeing as we approach the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe). The Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah come from Parshat Vaeira. The word vaeira comes from the verb to see. And what the characters are able to see, and not see, matters a lot.
Sarah sees Ishmael, the son of her slave Hagar and Abraham, and envisions an unacceptable future in which the son of a slave might share some of the inheritance of her own son, Isaac. The consequences of Sarah’s feared vision are dire. Hagar and her son are treated as if their lives did not matter and are cast into the wilderness. Sarah tears a family apart and creates enmity between the Israelites and Ishmaelites.
After Hagar and Ishmael run out of water, we get an image that is haunting during this time of separation. Hagar assumes her son will die and self-isolates so she does not have to see it. But after God intervenes, Hagar instead sees the well that will save their lives.
In the Akeidah, Abraham assures Isaac that “God will see to the sheep for the burnt offering.” When God stops Abraham from killing his son, Abraham is able to see the ram that is sacrificed instead.
We have all seen, and some of us have experienced, a lot of suffering this year. It may be hard to enter the New Year fully able to see the way to a more hopeful future. We can use our texts, and surprisingly, our technology to teach us.
In a few days, many of us will be seeing each other on a screen once again. Maybe we are used to it by now. Maybe we will never be. However, this disconnected connection allows us to see differently. To see people in the context of their own homes, to see people who have been unable to join in the past and to see ancient words in new formats.
I hope we engage with these images and words and not just watch them. And that they enable us, as we look up from our screens and into the world, to see new possibilities. As we celebrate and remember creation, may we, created in the image of God, see new ways to see each other, honor memories, build hope and create anew. L’Shanah Tovah U’metukah (To a good and sweet year).
Rabbi Ariana Silverman is the spiritual leader at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit.