This year, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the global Jewish community is not only saddened by the need to surrender many of the usual consolations of congregational worship — Halachic considerations make online broadcasts during Shabbos and Yom Tov impossible for many denominations within Judaism and, at the time of writing, communities in my home town of Tsfat in Israel (and all over the world) are formulating plastic-sheeted and encapsulated possibilities for some kind of communal worship still to take place.
Ritual details of home vs shul davening and attendance, complex indoor and outside regulations, and differing contemporary halachic rulings on minyan requirements in this year’s special circumstances have raised much anger and conflict. Many, presumably holy Yidden, will refuse to obey health and government authorities and will continue to ignore regulations that are designed to save life. The month of Elul has been torn apart by discord over the best way to observe the Holidays and yet still guard human life. In Ukraine, that discord has escalated to produce international and denominational fury and sectarian rebellion.
And all this mayhem has descended on us at a time in the liturgical year when we ought to be seeking ways to resolve our differences, focus on teshuvah, and be especially aware that all Jews (whether they are religious or not ) are responsible one for the other within the eternal community of Kehal Yisrael.
It is also a time in the year when, according to our tradition, the tiniest of our actions can tip the balance of Divine Judgement one way or the other. And that Judgement is a verdict on All Creation, not just Jews. Our shared responsibility right now is truly a matter of Awe.
I believe we are being asked three things this year:
(i) To use this year’s isolation events as an opportunity to be “Alone with G-d” positively, thus turning the apparent “curse” of lockdown into a “blessing”.
(ii) To think communally and globally and not selfishly or tribally. To be inclusive and not to generate or perpetuate division.
(iii) To embrace the spiritual core of our religion and its practices when the physical/communal externals are taken away from us by the circumstances of the pandemic.
Each one of those three challenges is an aspect of ATONEMENT: becoming “as one” with G-d and with each other.
Ten Years ago, I wrote a message for subscribers to my “Jewish Contemplatives” website on the subject of being alone for the Jewish New Year. I am reposting it here on Times of Israel Blogs in an attempt to draw your attention to the core function of these special days in Elul and Tishrei—to restore or create UNITY.
At the time I wrote it, I was in the middle of a twelve year experiment in solitary contemplative retreat in a cave-house in Salobreña, Southern Spain. The details of my original message will be out of date now, obviously—but I hope that some of you will gain strength from seeing them in this particular year when so many Jews will be feeling isolated and,chas v’sholom, needlessly alone. Here then is the message I wrote in 2010:
“Many of you will now be starting to make preparations for family or community gatherings to celebrate the coming New Year. Many, but not all — Some of you live far from Jewish community centres and may need encouragement ‘to feel part of the family’ as we gear up for the High Holidays.
I spend almost every Shabbos and Festival alone as I have no family, there are no Jews in my town, and the nearest services are not within travelling distance for me. I would love to be able to sit at a Shabbos or Festival table with other Jews, but for purely circumstantial reasons that has rarely been possible. I am happy to be alone most of the time, and I certainly value my weekday contemplative solitude as a gift and not as a trial.
Despite that I am aware that there are many Jews who are alone on Shabbos or on the Festivals who would desperately wish they were with a family, or amongst other Jewish friends, and who feel this ache especially acutely at times like Erev Shabbos and the Jewish New Year. These words are for you:
In a UK Machsor of 1985, Rabbi Jonathan Magonet wrote that on Yom Kippur we stand before G-d: “All of us together, each of us alone”.
This echoes the belief that, through Jewish collective responsibility, all Jews are reliant upon each other in the annual quest for community absolution. We are never truly alone on Yom Kippur.
Rabbi Isaac Luria said:
‘Why was the confession composed in the plural?
Because all Israel is one body and each individual Jew is a limb of that body.
We are all responsible for each other …’ (Yesod ha-Teshuvah vi)
The High Holidays are a time when all of us stand alone before G-d as we examine our lives and yet we simultaneously all act as ‘representatives of the community’ for each other.
As we are in the closing week of Elul, many of us will have been examining our consciences and will no doubt be feeling quite low. Now is the time to remember that we are by no means alone. We should not forget that our reflections are not meant to be exclusively self-centred. Nor are we preparing for this New Year alone. All of you visiting this site are part of an extended community and we are each responsible for the other. This should be a liberating and a consoling reflection!
In Kuntres M’arat ha-Lev I wrote:
‘The contemplative is always in community, whether that be a handful of neighbours, a family, a circle of distant friends kept often in mind, or the people they meet briefly or correspond with. Even if they were in total solitude they would still be part of the community of Creation: Responsible not only for themselves but for everyone. This is not just my own reflection. It is one which permeates the liturgy of Yom Kippur.’ (from “Cave of the Heart” Part One)
(The message from 2010 continues……)
“This year, and every year, there will be many Jews who are unavoidably isolated and simply unable to attend any form of communal worship over the High Holiday season. There will be many who, rightly or wrongly, also feel unwelcome at such gatherings even if they are physically able to attend them.
Alone on Rosh Hashanah?
But If you are going to be alone this coming Rosh Hashanah…whether by choice or circumstance…..I invite you to make a special remembrance for those of us who are also ‘alone’. This will make of us a special minyan which would transcend the boundaries of denominational affiliation, geography, and time.
Even if you are fortunate enough to have broadband internet (If your denominational affiliation or personal kind of religious observance permits it) or even if you are able to attend services and celebrations ‘in the flesh’—please make a special mention in your prayers of those who are truly alone over the Yamim Noraim.”
In our prayers during these closing days of Elul,over the approaching Ten Days of Teshuva, and especially on Yom Kippur,the Day for Atonement itself—may we make a sort of minyan which meets in intention if not physically.
Each of us alone. All of us together.