Home But Not Alone This Rosh Hashanah

Home, but not alone. Artwork by Avital Sheldon.

Many in the Jewish world are facing Rosh Hashanah in virus-imposed isolation. But none of us need feel we are facing this time alone.

Israel is back in lockdown. Elsewhere, many of us are celebrating away from family or communities, because they infected, at high-risk, or because of local restrictions.

But even the most isolated among us, if praying, will refer to us as a collective — the word “we” is one of the most common in the whole of the festival prayer book.

The image of a person who normally celebrates Yom Tov surrounded by loved ones praying alone because of the pandemic is indeed a desperately sad one.

At the same time, the fact that he or she, at the moment of prayer, will be acknowledge that we are part of a remarkable collective called the Jewish People, and approach the Almighty as such, is very powerful.

This Rosh Hashanah will be an emotional roller coaster for many of us. There will be moments when we feel like crying because of all we’re missing this year. And there will be moments of gratitude, when we appreciate what we have.

In a sense, Rosh Hashanah always brings mixed emotions. There’s a pronounced sense of dissonance in its themes. On the one hand, it’s a day of personal judgement, captured best by the image from the traditional prayers of each person passing before God like sheep.

This sense of facing personal judgement can resonate with an intense loneliness and anxiety.

On the other hand, we mark Rosh Hashanah as a regal celebration, dressed in finest clothes and eating delicious foods.

The Talmud gives us a clue of how to resolve this tension, between spotlighting the individual and the collective . It says that on this day we have a choice to stand up and be counted as part of one people with everyone surveyed as such by the Almighty, together, in one all encompassing swoop.

And such, this is a cause for great confidence and celebration: The powerful experience and internalisation of a spiritual encounter for the whole Jewish People connecting with God, His creation and master plan. All of us facing the future and our destiny together — whatever it may bring.

It is a festival and a time when we think of ourselves, describe ourselves in prayer, and have the potential to truly connect- as one. And even if we have our differences, and sometimes struggle to express unity, the fact that we involve this ideal of one people with one heart at this time has an enormous capacity to lift our spirits as one too.

It is heartwarming to see how many people in Jewish communities worldwide are taking the opportunity in order to take steps to ensure this sense of togetherness is strongly felt in these challenging new times.

Everywhere, there are inspiring initiatives to connect people, from people baking and shopping for those who can’t get out to online study sessions and meaningful home services and innovative engaging activities. I have felt compelled to comment throughout this pandemic that I hope and pray that this momentous epoch will prompt us to put our differences aside and reach out to Jewish people who are different than ourselves, religiously or politically, and Thank God in some circles we see this happening too.

We can probably all think of a moment when we felt alone and scared, and then company arrived and we felt exhilarated. For me, the most memorable occasion was about 25 years ago, when I was an IDF soldier, and we were operating in a very tough situation inside a particular refugee camp.

I had been selected that day to carry the heavy radio unit, and as a result when piling off the army vehicle at each confrontation, I seemed to lag behind and lag behind my army comrades (I was in reserves at the time and had let my fitness level deteriorate since compulsory service, it seems). On the day in question, between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the other soldiers had left our vehicle, and by the the time I got moving, I couldn’t see them anywhere.

I found myself emerging from the narrow alleys of the refugee camp into a wide open square on market day, being pelted with stones by hundreds of people. There was no help in sight. It was frightening. Standing alone, I was sure this was the end for me. After that which seemed an eternity, I suddenly noticed the green uniforms of my IDF comrades in the corner of my eye, called for help, and as the other soldiers fired in to the air and the rioters dispersed, I knew I was safe. Many years later I still carry with me the stark difference between standing alone versus standing together.

Today, many of us feel like we’re in our own daunting moment of Home Alone. However, this is precisely the dramatic choice we face this year in particular. We are faced with a stark decision. To stand alone this week focusing our thoughts, prayers and shopping exclusively for our own health, prosperity and well-being or to chose to connect, pray and act for something far greater- the Jewish People and ultimately mankind as a whole. The vision of a world united, the aspiration to play our role in the majestic completion of the task with which our people were charged so many generations ago.

As King David famously recalled in the book of Psalms- I was saved from the trials and tribulations that challenged me throughout life – simply “ki berabim hayu imadi” because I was always connected with the community, the collective, the people. I didn’t go it alone.

We will see a revival of Jewish communal life. But even before we do, we see that while we may not be gathering exactly as we normally do to mark the festivals, the ideals and aspirations that underpin our lives as Jews, our traditions, customs, celebrations and values are strong as ever.

Our synagogues provide a stage, however this year we may be reminded that real connection may not be via theatre. We can adopt and own an attitude and a mindset that can be invigorated by the richness of our liturgy and tradition during this strangest of times.

We can choose this year to be home but not to be alone.

Shana Tova

About the Author
Rabbi Naftali Schiff is the Founder and CEO of Jewish Futures, a diverse family of non-profit educational organisations each addressing a specific need and niche. These include JRoots, GIFT, Aish UK, Chazak, Chazon, Shelanu, Ta’am, Time4Torah, Legacy Live, Aleinu, and the Forum for Jewish Leadership. Jewish Futures is committed to creating and implementing far reaching solutions that will realise the vision of a brighter Jewish future. Naftali studied Economics and International Relations at the London School of Economics, received Rabbinic ordination from the Israel and Jerusalem Rabbinate and Diploma of Education from Israel Ministry of Education. He served in the IDF Givati Infantry unit and is a founding board member of Loving World and a number of philanthropic foundations.
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