By Jacob Gurvis
Any rabbi seeking to connect his or her High Holiday sermons to current events has plenty to draw from this year.
There’s the global public health crisis that has claimed more than 4 million lives. There’s the recent conflict in Israel and Gaza. There’s the cloud of climate change and its accelerating impacts on daily life. And so on.
During this time of renewal and introspection, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reached out to rabbis spanning geography and denominations to ask for reflections on this unique moment — and what messages they are sharing with their communities during these High Holidays.
Their responses have been edited for length and clarity.
“We must be together”
Rabbi Ari Hart, Skokie Valley Agudath Jacob, Skokie, Ill.
What is worse than death? In the Torah, the most severe consequence a Jew can face, more severe than death itself, is karet.
What is karet? It means to be cut off. To be completely alone, forever.
Our society is facing many problems right now: mental health struggles, violence, addiction, extremism. Karet — people being cut off from one another — lies at the core of many of these afflictions. The pandemic has only deepened the wounds of loneliness.
Yom Kippur, with its powerful communal focus, teaches us that we must be together. Our prayers and our forgiveness happens as a group, not as individuals. If we cannot figure out how to be together, all will be ruined. If we can be together, we can be redeemed.
We celebrate a shmittah this year, the final year of a seven-year Sabbath cycle. Each shmittah year, the entire Jewish people would gather in Jerusalem to perform the mitzvah of Hakhel — gathering. Let us commit to finding ways this year to celebrate that mitzvah — to safely bring others and ourselves out of isolation.
“A bittersweet new year”
Rabbi Hannah Goldstein, Temple Sinai, Washington, D.C.
This is a bittersweet new year. As the delta variant brings another round of loss and uncertainty, and we confront fires and floods, the erosion of voting rights and reproductive rights, this is a frightening time.
The high holidays are a time for honestly taking stock of our own lives and the world around us. We confront our own mortality, and make the brave decision to ‘choose life’ in the face of so many challenges.
And, as some return to their synagogues (or tents outside their synagogues!), this new year represents a time of joyfully being in community. Though many communities are not at full capacity, and many will be joining services online, I am looking forward to the energy of a bustling building and the sound of the congregation singing together again.
As we welcome 5782, I pray for a happy and healthy new year for all of us and for the strength and determination necessary to help fix our broken world.
“It’s time to come home”
Rabbi Stephen Slater, Agudas Achim, Bexley, Ohio
“It’s time to come home,” said the voice on the other line.
“Why? Am I needed right now?”
“Yes. We need you here now.”
This is a summons that we don’t always enjoy receiving, and may even fear. The call to come home. We all know it could come at any moment. Your son or daughter might be unwell, or God forbid an aging parent with a health crisis. In any case, the call reminds us that we are part of a “we.” We are needed. We live in order to share ourselves with others. And Home is where we do that sharing.
This year is also a time to come home. At this time in our world, the Holy Days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are not unlike such a phone call. It has been a long time since many Jews were physically in their shuls. And despite the modern miracles of a vaccine, and the extensive precautions that our synagogues are taking, some may still be afraid. At my synagogue, we are very happy to be able to gather again physically in our synagogue home. We are taking every necessary precaution to make sure that it’s safe to do so. It is a year when many of us have lost our sense of home. It is a year when ironically, we have been stuck at home, yet feel strangely far away from a sense of “Home.” This year, I encourage you to hear the ancient themes of our machzor as a message of teshuvah as a kind of coming home. Though we may feel like we are in indefinite exile, it’s time to come home.
What does it mean to “Come Home” to God? What are the complex meanings of Home?
What does it mean to come back home out of exile, and back into our synagogue — after a year and half away?
We have designed it to be a time of refreshment for this new year. We hope it will be a time of reflection and inspiration. We hope that you will connect with other beloved members of the synagogue family. And we hope that this year’s experience of coming home will change how you pray.
“The call to social justice is loud”
Rabbi Mara Nathan, Temple Beth-El, San Antonio, Texas
A second high holidays in pandemic mode has presented its own set of challenges.
Last year we were committed to presenting all our services online. This year we have a combination of live and livestream. Our singers, Torah readers and other participants have all committed to PCR tests. Folks in the pews will be required to show proof of vaccination, remain masked, and sit socially distanced from other families or social pods.
Still, the message of hope and renewal remains ever present and we understand how important this time of gathering is for our congregation.
As a Reform rabbi in Texas, at the largest Jewish congregation in San Antonio, the call to social justice is loud. I had already planned to speak about current day challenges to women’s autonomy and make the claim that being pro-choice is a Jewish value we see clearly in our Rabbinic text. The timing of Texas SB8 taking effect on Sept. 1, and the Supreme Court’s refusal to block it, heightens the urgency of this message.
“Slow down and release”
Rabbi Yosef Goldman, Shaare Torah, Gaithersburg
As the great violinist Isaac Stern would say, “Music is what goes on between the notes.” I will be speaking about learning to stay in the in-between space that we are now in, the liminal space when one moment or identity has ended and a new one hasn’t fully formed — it’s a moment of deep anxiety and great generative potential. Paradigms and identities have been broken and new ones have yet to emerge and that is OK. That is good!
We are all experiencing liminality at every level of community and society. In so many ways we are stuck in between. We are not who we were before the pandemic; we know that we will not be “going back to normal.” And yet it is not yet clear who we are becoming, what the contours are of the paradigms of our new reality, how we organize our sense of self personally and collectively. This is true in our broader American society, and Jewish communal life, and on a global level as well.
The arrival of shmittah invites us to pause a while longer, rather than to rush through this liminal period to get to what comes next. Thank God, the worst of the pandemic is behind us.
In fits and starts we are opening up again, things are restarting. And even as we return and rejoice, shmittah calls us to release into this space of uncertainty, to pause and embrace the possibility of regeneration and renewal here, in the in-between, embracing the wisdom of dormancy that is inherent in the cycle of life of all organisms in nature.
We are not even looking for answers, but for the questions to be asking now so that we may then think of regenerating. That’s not enough. That is still in a framework of ultimately thinking of value in terms of productivity, of generativity. Shmittah teaches us that there is value in the release because we are more than what we do and make. Period.
We need to slow down and release. Embrace the blessing of this liminal moment, for our shul, for our country, for our planet.
“Not a single one of us is really OK”
Rabbi Emily Cohen, West End Synagogue, New York City
It turns out that it’s kind of hard to crystalize thoughts into sermons when I just keep thinking about the fact that my city flooded days ago, killing dozens and causing horrific damage across the region, and around the same time — across the country in Northern California — my 90-year-old grandma got evacuated from her home because of wildfire.
She’s fine, thank God, and so is the house where she raised my mom, but the reality of climate change is searing itself onto our landscape.
It’s hard to crystalize thoughts into sermons when you’re someone of child-bearing age — someone who very much hopes to be a mother but believes that parenthood should be a choice — and the foundation of choice is shattered in Texas, setting a precedent that could eliminate choice nationwide.
It’s hard to crystallize thoughts into sermons when the risk of breakthrough infection makes every decision about events to attend in person — or even a question of how long it’s safe to stay on a train or in a store — arduous.
My brain is mush. My heart is broken. And I know I’m not the only one. The truth is that, after this year, not a single one of us is really OK.
“Rebuild the covenant that ties us all together”
Rabbi Meir Goldstein, The Oregon Hillel Foundation
One of my favorite prayers of the entire year is “Avinu Malkeinu,” “Our Parent, Our Sovereign,” which we recite on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and throughout this season.
Despite the communal emphasis of our prayers, we each stand as individuals in front of the Holy One of Blessing, echoing the truth that every human being is created in Tzelem Elohim, “God’s image.”
The past year has provided poignant reminders that the creation of each person as Tzelem Elohim remains counter-cultural, and it is our holy duty to ensure our society recognizes the dignity, rights and infinite worth of every person.
As we seek to rebuild the covenant that ties us all together, we are left with essential questions about how to elevate dignity across difference, transcending all borders. Both personally and communally, I am asking myself:
How might I better hear the cry of the other?
How might I better elevate the infinite value of those who look different, who love differently, and who vote differently?
My prayer is that in 5782 “Avinu Malkeinu” will remind us of our covenantal responsibility to elevate the dignity and Divine value of every member of our society.