Looking forward to the High Holy Days


I am looking forward to ushering in the year 5781.  There.  I said it.

 Yes, I acknowledge the sadness of not seeing my friends at shul.

Yes, I feel the loss of not sharing meals with family and friends.

Yes, I will miss the communal singing and sitting in meaningful spaces.

Yes, you are right, this year’s High Holy Days will feel different.

And yet, in spite of everything, I am still counting down the days until we can celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (and don’t forget about Sukkot and Simchat Torah!).  Because the truth is, although I will not be able to completely re-create the past, I can still elevate and celebrate the most fundamental aspects of the High Holy Days. 

Ours is not the first generation to reconsider how to worship in light of troubling times. Roughly 2,500 years ago, our exiled ancestors, unable to worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, asked in Psalm 137, “How can we sing a song of God on alien soil?”

 Similarly, we ask: How can we fully celebrate the High Holy Days when we are unable to access the familiar or comfortable?  How can we muster the strength to wish each other a shanah tovah um’tukah – a good and sweet new year – when many of us feel that our lives contain elements that are challenging and even a little bitter?

The answer, my friends, is to remind ourselves of our goal as a people and the essence of these sacred days.

In his book, “The Sabbath,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel teaches:  “Judaism is a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time. Unlike the space-minded man to whom time is unvaried, iterative, homogeneous, to whom all hours are alike, quality-less, empty shells, the Bible senses the diversified character of time. There are no two hours alike. Every hour is unique and the only one given at the moment, exclusive and endlessly precious.”

Traditionally, this time of the year is specifically set aside to evaluate who we were in the past year and who we would like to be in the year to come.  This sacred task is aided by teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah. These precious processes can still take place, even during a time of physical distancing.  

Teshuvah (repentance):  One can certainly still reach out to friends and family. The High Holy Days are the perfect time to reconnect with individuals and mend relationships that went awry during the previous year.  Whether on Zoom, Skype, Facebook, Facetime, or even the phone, almost everyone is just a click or a call away!

Tefillah (prayer):  One can still make prayer a central part of the High Holy Days experience.   Whether through online religious services, public-access television programming, a small-group in-person minyanim, or by taking the time to pray privately at home, there are many ways to engage in meaningful prayer experiences. 

Tzedakah (charity):  Finally, one can still make donations to worthy causes in our community and beyond.  Spend time thinking about how you want to allocate your donations this year to make the greatest impact.

I understand that there are a million reasons why this year’s High Holy Days might seem out of reach.  But I believe that there are a million and one ways that each of us can rise to the occasion. 

Should you find yourself unable to even imagine what the new year might look like, I offer a meditation from “Mahzor Lev Shalem” as a place to start: “May it be your will, our God and God of our ancestors, that the year 5781 be one of balanced and mindful growth for us as individuals, for our families, and our communities.

“May we return next year in good health and in appreciation of the year of greater peace, a year in which we deepened our lives through learning and the performance of mitzvot, a year in which we were conscious of the Divine Presence, a year in which we strengthened our shared commitment to the betterment of the world.”

May we each find the inner strength to make real the goals of the High Holy Days season, so that, despite 5781’s differences, it will still be a time in which we can “sing a song of God” and bring in a year that we hope will be good and sweet.

Shanah tovah!  

MICHAEL FEL is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, in Providence.