Rosh Hashanah

The JN asked some local rabbis to share their messages for Rosh Hashanah.

Despite Pandemic, Feeling Hope in the New Year

“Hope in the LORD. Be strong and of good courage. Hope in the LORD.” We recite these words from Psalm 27 daily during the Season of Repentance, and they carry especially great meaning today.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, I believe that we have reason to hope; justification for optimism; and grounds for proclaiming that we are “nearly free” from the COVID chains that bind us.

Rabbi Aaron Starr
Rabbi Aaron Starr

As recently as July, many of us felt certain that the worst of COVID was behind us. Then the variants struck. The vaccinated are wearing masks again. Our concern for our unvaccinated children grows, especially as the start of school approaches. The sick fill hospital beds. Delta is the primary conversation of every phone call and visit. Whereas a month ago, we seemingly saw the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, many of us are again struggling. 

Nevertheless, the Bible declares, “Hope in the LORD. Be strong and of good courage. Hope in the LORD.” 

Indeed, this year we have reason to hope. Studies show that vaccinations are incredibly successful at preventing the worst of the virus’ symptoms, and Jews nationally are the highest vaccinated ethnic group. As such, unlike this time last year, many of us now are gathering again with family and friends. Grandparents are able again to hug and to kiss grandchildren. That is cause for hope.

Additionally, in-person prayer is again an option for most synagogues across our area. At Congregation Shaarey Zedek, for example, because of the size of our synagogue and the success of mask-wearing, our sanctuary can safely accommodate all who wish to celebrate the holidays inside. Moreover, unlike last year, synagogues know they can safely utilize their campuses for outdoor gatherings, ensuring that children and their families can gather, too. 

At CSZ, we are calling our youth and family experiences “The Prayground.” At the Prayground, through music, teaching and hands-on activities, kids and adults alike can feel the joy and excitement of the High Holidays in a meaningful and safe outdoor environment.

Compared to last year’s High Holidays, this is indeed progress! In the face of ongoing pandemic and fully aware of the strength of the variants, we are nevertheless making significant strides. 

No, the pandemic will not disappear in the blink of an eye. Too many adults remain unvaccinated, and most of our children cannot yet be vaccinated. Perhaps we should even repent for our naivete and impatience in thinking that we were closer to the end than we are. But progress is being made.

Though slow and non-linear, the pandemic is improving. We have reason to hope; justification for optimism; and grounds for proclaiming that we are, as compared to last year, “nearly free” from the COVID chains that bind us. And by the way, there is healing in hope.

In this New Year, may God bless us with gratitude for all who enabled our society to make such significant progress against a terrible virus in truly a short amount of time. May God bless us with the wisdom to celebrate the progress made.May God bless us with patience and with the commitment to take steps to protect lives.

Finally, in this New Year and beyond, may God bless us all with health, with joy, and with the strength and courage, truly, to trust in God and in God’s goodness. “Hope in the LORD. Be strong and of good courage. Hope in the LORD.” 

Rabbi Aaron Starr serves Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.

Searching for the Still, Small Voice

Every year on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we recite the piyyut (liturgical poem) Unetaneh Tokef. You know the one — “who by fire, who by water.” I have always struggled with this piece of text, especially in the years in which I had lost someone I loved. 

Rabbi Alicia Harris
Rabbi Alicia Harris

It never made sense to me that in the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a decision was made about who would live and die. I always questioned if this meant that their repentance was not good enough. I thought that their fate was to be excluded from inscription in the book of life because during the 10 days they cut someone off in traffic or were impatient or took a harsh tone.

These past two years, of all years, the line “who by earthquake and who by plague” has taken on new meaning. Over these past 18 months, we have witnessed so much death, tragedy, destruction, anger and sadness. How can we possibly recite these same words?

It turns out the answer to this conundrum is also found in the piyyut, but just a bit earlier: “The great Shofar is sounded, the still, small voice is heard …” This mention of the still, small voice, kol demamah dakah, alludes to I Kings 19:12 in which Elijah hears the voice of God after experiencing a wind so strong it broke apart mountains followed by an earthquake and a fire. 

As readers of the text, we, like Elijah, expect God’s presence to be in these disasters, but it is only after things have quieted that Elijah experiences God — not on a grandiose scale, but on a personal level. Perhaps God’s voice was there the whole time, but Elijah wasn’t able to find enough quiet to hear it over his own anger and jealousy that preceded the raging natural disasters.

This is the message we must focus on this year when we recite Unetaneh Tokef. That throughout the chaos, the justified anger, the sadness, the devastation, that God is with us. In moments of stillness, we can connect with ourselves and with the Divine. The still, small, voice is here. It has always been, and it always will be. 

May this next year be one that is more calm and allows us even more moments to connect to the still, small, voice. May we find strength in that connection and in connection with one another. 

Rabbi Alicia Harris serves Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy.

A Time for Self-Care, Too

Before last year, I would have taken this space to share a bit of teaching about what tradition tells us about the preparation we can and should take as we near the holiest days of the Jewish calendar. In the days leading up to and immediately following Rosh Hashanah, we are invited by our tradition to spend time setting our intention as to how we want the coming year to go, and we are invited to think about what we would like to do differently from last year. 

Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh
Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh

We are given a beautiful opportunity to own the mistakes we have made in our relationships with others, and we are invited to search our souls as we interact with the missteps that remain between us and God.

Alongside the difficult work of trying to right our wrongs, our focus naturally shifts to all of the planning and activities that go along with the High Holidays — attending services, joining with loved ones for meals, taking time from work, helping our children relate to the holidays — observing the High Holidays takes planning and, together with our work to mend our wrongs, we can easily find ourselves caught up in the world around us, focused outwardly. 

This year we find ourselves not just preparing for the Yamim Noraim (The Days of Awe), we find ourselves preparing for the Yamim Noraim during a pandemic. Not just a pandemic — a pandemic that has lasted, so far, for two High Holiday seasons. Preparation for everything is a bit harder. Relationships may feel harder. Things we once did with little thought may require extra attention. We may find ourselves drawn to the news with more regularity, looking for the next spike, the next conflict, the next thing to which we react. 

We have been in reaction mode for more than a year and a half. As good as our minds and bodies are about reacting when confronted with a real or perceived threat, our bodies are not used to being in such a state of reaction for so long, and it begins to take its toll on our mental and physical wellbeing.

While preparation for the Yamim Noraim does dictate that we make right our wrongs and set our intention for the coming year, this year I would like to invite us all to add an additional piece to our High Holiday preparation: self-care. 

Self-care is the practice of caring for all of the parts of our being — not only our physical health, but also our mental, spiritual and emotional health as well. While it sounds difficult, the hardest part of self-care is making the time for it.

Self-care can be as simple as taking time to sit down and eat a good meal with no extraneous distractions, making time to connect with good friends, walking or hiking in nature, having a deep conversation, listening to good music, even taking an extra-long and extra-hot shower or bath. 

Whatever caring for yourself looks like, we owe it to ourselves to make time to take care of our whole selves so that we can be prepared to engage with the hard work expected of us over the Yamim Noraim. 

Torah teaches that we were each created B’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God. Our bodies are the closest thing to an image of God that we have — it is our holy work to care for these vessels and ensure that we are bringing our whole, intact selves into the New Year. 

Rabbi Matthew Zerwekh serves Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park.

The Compassion of Transcending Time

The special Selichos prayers, which we recite before and during the High Holidays, revolve around the “13 attributes of compassion.” These “attributes” were pronounced by God Himself to Moshe as Moshe interceded on behalf of the people following the sin of the golden calf.

Rabbi Dov Loketch
Rabbi Dov Loketch

The Talmud teaches that God instructed Moshe that when we ask for forgiveness, we must invoke these 13 attributes that describe various aspects of God’s compassion toward His beloved nation.

Most of these attributes — qualities like rachum (“merciful”) and erech apayim (“patient”) — require little explanation. The first, however, seems more difficult to understand, as it is simply one of God’s Names, the Name of “Havaya,” spelled yud-hei-vav-hei, but pronounced “Ado-nai.” This Name, somehow, represents one of the attributes of mercy which we invoke as we beg for God’s forgiveness.

One explanation arises from the rabbis’ understanding of this Name as an allusion to the phrase היהי הווה היה — “was, is and will be.” The Name of Havaya expresses God’s transcending time, that for Him, there is no difference at all between the past, the present and the future. He sees everything simultaneously — everything that is happening now, everything that has ever happened in the past and everything that will happen in the future.

We do not pronounce the Name of Havaya the way it is written because we are incapable of this perspective and can perceive only that which we see and experience in the present, remember a small fraction of past experiences and only guess about the future. 

This implication of the Name “Havaya” might explain why it is associated with God’s compassion. When we see somebody act improperly, our assessment of the individual and the act is, necessarily, a function of our very limited purview. But God sees the broader picture. He knows everything about this person’s past and is, therefore, able to put this particular misdeed into a broader perspective and view it against the backdrop of the individual’s upbringing and experiences throughout his life. 

And, God also knows the future. He knows that any mistake a person makes is not necessarily the last chapter of the book, so to speak. He knows, already now, whether the person will learn and grow from this mistake, such that it will become a valuable learning experience, rather than simply a failure. 

When a negative action is viewed from the perspective of היהי הווה היה — past, present and future — it can be assessed with compassion, with an awareness of the countless mitigating factors involved and of the prospect of future growth. And thus the Name of Havaya is associated with God’s unparalleled mercy.

Many rabbis have taught that we earn God’s mercy not by simply invoking these 13 attributes, but also by applying them to our interpersonal relationships, by following God’s example of compassion in our dealings with people. Accordingly, the attribute of “Havaya” informs us of the way we are to regard our fellow — with the perspective of “past, present and future.”

There is so much about other people that we don’t know. There are so many reasons why people act and speak as they do. There is so much invisible “baggage” that we all carry.

And, no less importantly, everyone has the capacity to change and improve. The mistakes people make are not their final word. We need to believe in them and give them a chance to grow and recover.

This perspective will help us be more compassionate and forgiving, in the merit of which we will be worthy of God’s compassion and forgiveness, and a year filled with joy and blessings, amen. 

Rabbi Dov Loketch is a rabbi at Agudas Yisrael Mogen Avraham synagogue in Southfield.

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