Emily Kirschenbaum

Being Together in Our Aloneness

We were meant to be attending a small Rosh Hashana tefila with a few families – keeping to the rules of the lockdown and feeling safe in the fact that we are all in the same “capsule” and see each other frequently. 

For a variety of reasons – quarantines and potential exposures (par for the course by now), there was an unanimous agreement that having this gathering is not a good idea.

I had been tasked (fine, I bullied them all into letting me) with giving a brief “dvar torah” – the message that I was going to share still rings true to me, maybe even more so given the decision of all of us to stay home  and consider what’s best for the greater good rather than our own individual desires. 

This is what I was going to say:

* * *

Barack Obama said:

“Jewish tradition teaches us that for the next ten days, the Book of Life is open. As millions of Jews ask God to inscribe their names in that book, we recognize how much lies beyond our control, yet during these days of awe we recognize our tremendous power to make a difference in our lives and in our world.”

There is so much that is out of our control – we can all relate to that as the last 6 months have shown us just how little control we have. Who would have thought a teeny tiny virus in China could so drastically change our lives.

Sadly, there has not been strong leadership guiding us and helping us get through this crisis – confusing lockdown rules, government leaders violating the rules and having meals with their families over Pesach, and just a general sense of chaos. We can’t control this lack of leadership- except by voting- so, it is up to us as individuals to figure out the right things to do in order to protect ourselves and our world.

I want to focus for a second on “our world” and what that means. When there’s a crisis and we feel endangered, it is human nature to want to protect ourselves and our children and those closest to us. But, we need to remember that we live in a larger community and wider world.

Until March, none of us cared what happened in Wuhan China. But now we know how small the world is. It may be cliche, but There’s nothing like a good crisis to bring people together. I remember NYC in the days after September 11th- I had never seen or felt unity like that before – there was a clear sense that we were all in this scary unknown together and everyone was ready to protect anyone else, regardless of who they were.

Israelis are the most caring people I have ever met, but that unity is missing right now. People are too busy trying to understand the lockdown rules and argue over them to focus on the actual matter at hand which is coming together and fighting the virus.

The virus doesn’t care if someone is Jewish or Arab, male or female, religious or secular. So I can’t help but ask – what are we actually doing here? How can we be standing here in a group gathering just because we are praying? But a group of secular friends or extended family cannot be together? Wouldn’t it have been the greatest showing of unity if rabbis decreed that everyone should pray at home, that we should all stay home and, while that would mean some people would be alone, we would all be together in the fight against the virus.

The truth is, it’s not that simple. And I’m proud of us all for making the best of the situation. We all had the option of going to our shul with a much bigger crowd (and air conditioning) and we all had the option of staying home. But we compromised in the interest of fulfilling our individual needs to pray as a community and our communal responsibility to obey the rules.

To make it even more personal, if this minyan wasn’t happening, I would not only not have gone to shul, I would not have even opened a machzor or said one word of tefila. Truth is, I am not here for the tefila, I am here to feel like part of a community on a day that I associate with communal life.

So, here we are. A group of friends, each here for their own individual reasons, united in our desire to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Let this be a thought that guides us into the new year and help us make the best decisions that we can as we try to keep ourselves and our families safe and also protect the community and world at large.

* * *

So while we won’t actually physically be together even in that smaller group, we are definitely more united than ever in our understanding that we are part of something bigger and that we have a responsibility to help keep everyone safe. 

With best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year!

About the Author
Emily Kirschenbaum planned to spend one year in Israel 16 years ago...She now resides happily in Ra'anana with her husband, 3 Israeli-American kids and the cutest dog in the world. In her professional life, she runs a content marketing business ( with an awesome partner!
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