Like most everything this pandemic has touched, the month of Elul has gone silent. The shofar, traditionally blown every day after the shacharit, or morning service, will not happen. It only takes one errant aerosolized droplet to infect someone with the coronavirus. This fact brings us to the principle of pikuach hanefesh—the preservation of life. Most any Jewish law or tradition can and must be overridden to save a life.
Adhering to the standard of pikuach hanefesh, houses of worship are empty. Afraid of spreading the virus, people no longer come together in a physical space for prayer and kinship. Yet no matter how creative we’ve become in reinventing our communities digitally and virtually, something remains amiss. In Elul, also the month of cheshbon hanefesh—an accounting of the soul—there’s an opportunity to identify what has gone missing in this new and strange normal.
To appreciate what Elul can mean to us in these trying pandemic times, I turned to my rabbis, Aliza Berger and Wesley Gardenswartz of Temple Emanuel in Newton. We had a wide-ranging conversation about carrying out High Holiday preparations in Elul, reconsidering how our homes can become spiritual places to prepare for the High Holidays, and the fact that the time we’re living through has no precedent in living memory.
Rabbi Gardenswartz framed the experience of Elul as a time of emotional and social reckoning. However, in this pandemic, he notes, “Four crises have converged. There is the health crisis, the economic crisis, which includes the worst unemployment since the Great Depression, and social unrest where systemic racism and COVID-19 have ravaged communities of color. This election season is more challenged than any other. These are four negative dayenus. Any one of them would have been enough, but we have all four at once.”
There is no context, no roadmap, for how to live or worship in our new world. But somewhere in the darkness, there are rays of light and a bit of hope. Rabbi Berger says we need each other more than ever and has planned two Elul-based programs for her congregants.
She has centered one of the programs on the Elul retreats she fondly remembers growing up in Colorado. The retreat, held in the Rocky Mountains, was a mixture of meditation, reflection and text study. Berger’s Zoom workshop will embrace writing, thinking and reflecting on the four Kabbalistic worlds of the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual.
“We’ve been taken out of normal ways of being,” she notes. “How do we want to re-enter post-COVID? These four elements help us to get better and do better, so next year is not the same as the last.” Part of Berger’s Elul curriculum also involves spending time in nature. She plans to lead socially distanced nature walks that aim to decrease participants’ overall stress. “On those walks, we’ll maximize what we can do together in silent reflection, group conversation and singing,” she says. “I’m dreaming of the day that Zoom technology can accommodate group singing!”
Gardenswartz adds that “the job of a synagogue is not only to have programs and services, but also to inspire members to build deep relationships.” To that end, he and the temple’s lay leadership are planning Elul get-togethers in members’ backyards. “We’re hoping to have hundreds of conversations over the next month where our congregants live,” he says. “We’ll have a maximum of 12 people in a backyard to have meaningful, purposeful conversations.”
Those conversations will include sharing what people have learned about themselves in the pandemic and what silver linings have appeared in their lives. Temple Emanuel’s clergy is also invested in understanding how Judaism can be helpful to people in the middle of a pandemic. Connected to that outreach is the overarching question of whether God is real to people in this tense time. Do prayers speak to people? That is one of the key questions, which Elul has always brought forward for me.
During the month of Elul, Berger and Gardenswartz also want to help people prepare for a meaningful High Holiday experience at home—an experience in which their congregants won’t be coming together in communal prayer most likely for the first time in their lives. “It can be bereft to have a synagogue without Jews or a congregation without congregants,” Gardenswartz says. “I’ll never get used to sermonizing to an empty sanctuary. Trying to feel that there are people out there is like praying to God. Is God there? Are the people there? You hope that your words go out and connect with people over livestream.”
Both rabbis agree there is a “flipside of the season.” There has never been a greater opportunity for “finding and making meaning.” This year may be a season of empty pews, but it’s still a time in which deeper contemplation, love and encouragement emerge even in an uncharacteristically silent Elul. Gardenswartz says he has observed people mobilizing to support one another through many of the spiritual crises that have cropped up during the pandemic. “When we look back on how we connected in an impossibly dark season, we’ll be stronger than ever on the other side of this,” he adds.