In late March, when I wrote “It’s OK to Mourn the Seder That Will Not Be,” it did not cross my mind that months later we would be approaching the High Holidays still in the midst of a pandemic. Fast forward to now. The pandemic is still raging, summer has ended, schools are beginning in a way no one could have imagined and Rosh Hashanah is fast approaching. The gallons of frozen soup I had prepared for Passover are still in my freezer, and I have begun using them as ice packs in my cooler.
Most of us managed reasonably well at Passover. There was sadness, there was loss and grief, but there were also some newfound experiences. I was able to “be” with my sister in Oregon for one night of Passover, and I was not exhausted by the preparation and clean-up from our large seders. There were online experiences of all shapes and sizes that I participated in, and many more that others told me about. Some of the new experiences may impact my future Passover observance.
Now we are in the middle of Elul and my email and news feed are full of ways to celebrate the holidays virtually. The first reaction of many is sadness again. Here we are, still not able to be with our families, our friends and our communities in a physical way. Still tethered to our computers and our homes. For those of us feeling that loss, it’s also valuable to remember that one reason we feel the loss is because of all we have, because we have families, homes and communities that we care about. We may complain about our families, our sermons, parts of our services, but we also realize how much we want and need them.
I have begun to acknowledge that, ideally, I (and we) must take ownership of ourselves and our needs this year. What is it that we need from the holidays? What is it that is so meaningful? If ever there was a year to pull back the curtains and think about the why of the holiday, this is the year.
For me, the High Holiday season is a time of reflection. It’s a time to think about the past year and look toward to next year. None of us can possibly know what the next year will bring for us (we have all learned that this year), but we can try and control what we will bring to the next year. Historically, much of my work of reflection happens sitting in the synagogue. It often begins with greeting and catching up with many whom I have not seen in a long time. It continues through the service as beautiful music surrounds me and I recite ancient words, reading through some of the prayers in the Mishkan Hanefesh that are not part of the service.
Yes, that means I don’t always listen to every word from the bimah. I spend the High Holidays inspired or challenged by a sermon, filling a paper bag of food for the youth group food drive, witnessing the power of the Kolin Torah being welcomed every year into our community, and culminating in the haunting and chaotic sounds of the communal shofar blown during Ne’ila. And there are so many moments in between. Too many to count. Together, each of those small moments contribute to my experience.
This year, those particular moments cannot possibly impact me in the way they usually do. I’m sure some of them will be part of a virtual service, but others just can’t be virtual. They can only be in person. Therefore, this year, I (and all of us) must work harder. We can’t leave the work entirely to our clergy, staff, educators or even our buildings. It’s up to each of us to make our experience meaningful.
I encourage us (and that includes me) to think anew this year. What do I need from this holiday season? The season where we enter 5781? How can I do my best reflecting? Some of it may be via Zoom or live-stream, but some of it may not be. And that’s OK. I (and you) don’t have to do exactly what everyone else in our community does this year. If Zoom works, that’s great. If quietly being in nature works, let’s find some nature. Maybe writing or making art is what you or I need. If apple-picking is part of the holiday season, find an apple orchard nearby.
If cooking a big brisket feels important, then why not cook the brisket and share it with neighbors? I promise they will thank you! Most importantly, it doesn’t all have to be done at once and doesn’t have to all be done in the time we would be in services. There is time until sunset on Yom Kippur. Mix and match. Choose your own adventure. There are services, live-streams and so much more, open to all from around the world. Participate in one, participate in many. Learn what works for you. Do what works for you. Try not to feel guilty or badly that what works for others is not giving you what you need, even if those others are family members, community members and friends.
Share your learning and ideas with others in your community so that together we use this as a year of growth and not as a year of “what cannot be.” Judaism is a living, breathing religion that is in response to the times. This is a year that enables each of us to embrace that piece of our Judaism. By doing so, we will truly make our communities stronger.
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