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Turning the page to 5781… alone

‘Social distance’ is the exact opposite of what we need as we ask forgiveness from God and one another
'Atonement has always been a collective act for Jews' (iStock)
'Atonement has always been a collective act for Jews' (iStock)

The prospect of COVID-19 High Holidays brought to mind a vivid memory from a quarter century ago. I am sitting on a bench outside the auditorium where services are taking place, trying to explain to an inquisitive seven-year-old why “the Jewish New Year” takes place on the first day of the seventh month rather than at the start of the first month, as one would expect. I talk about the historical evolution of the Jewish calendar, the melding over the centuries of divergent sacred traditions, and the deep satisfaction I feel at having my life ordered by that calendar and enriched by those traditions. Before leaving the boy to return to the service, I venture the hope that someday he too will happily trade minor offenses against rationality, like having the new year begin in the seventh month, for the immense satisfaction that comes with life as a Jew.

Transmission of that lesson about the High Holidays in 2020 would include the heartfelt wish that this new year could inaugurate a new period in world history, turn the page that gets us past the pandemic, instead of merely marking the seventh month of struggle against global plague. So many people lost loved ones or livelihoods over the past few months, and many are marking the holidays alone. There is no in-person attendance at services for most Jews anywhere in the world this year.

I roasted and stuffed a turkey for Rosh Hashana as usual, as always following my mother’s hand-written recipe, but only my wife and I were present to enjoy it. Sunday afternoon, after “going to synagogue” via live-stream in the morning, we went down to the Hudson to cast bread crumbs into the water — careful to wash hands before and after, wear masks that cover mouth and nose, and observe as much “social distance” as the path by the river allows.

“Social distancing” is the point where this virus collides most directly with the essence of the High Holy Days. Although it is clear that Zoom does have its plus-sides where Jewish life and ritual are concerned — one can attend brises, funerals and shivas with family and friends far away; study with renowned teachers from Israel and around the world; and listen to cantors and rabbis whose gifts one would otherwise never get to enjoy — nonetheless: “social distance” is the exact opposite of what we need as we ask forgiveness from God and one another. Atonement has always been a collective act for Jews. “We have transgressed, we have gone astray, we have led others astray….forgive us, pardon us, grant us atonement.” In the Days of Teshuvah we do our best to come together as one, body and spirit. Bridging the distance from others, especially the loved ones close by, is an integral part of the effort to achieve wholeness in ourselves.

I’ve always experienced this truth viscerally in shul during the High Holidays. The hope that I can actually be a better person than I have been thus far is strengthened by the knowledge that the people sitting near me share this resolve. Being tangibly at-one with a community in the practice of atonement, vibrating to the same age-old melodies and words, is crucial to the work of teshuvah. I’m not sure how this will happen on Zoom, much less when viewing pre-recorded videos in the privacy of home.

Along with the rest of humanity, Jews got a greater sense of what unity might look like in the early days of the pandemic, as we stared at pictures of people in every other corner of the globe sheltering in place just as we were, while medical personnel everywhere tried to cope with the surge of hospital patients and scientists everywhere began the common search for vaccines and cures. Jews in my corner of the Diaspora paid special attention to what friends and relatives were experiencing in Tel Aviv and Bnei Brak. The images were all the more meaningful because, with borders closed, one cannot visit these places in person. For the same reason that the chant of “Next Year in Jerusalem” at the close of Yom Kippur will have special resonance. The ability to journey to Jerusalem once again will mark major progress in the fight against the disease.

That yawning abyss of mutual hostility

I find myself, an American Jew, making yet another 2020 New Year’s wish: that Election Day could somehow be moved forward, so we can all turn that page on the calendar too. America’s choice of political leaders at this time of peril will have direct and long-lasting impact on the answer to the fateful question chanted at one of the high points of the High Holiday liturgy: “who shall live and who shall die,” who by fire and who by flood, who will be brought low, and who will be raised up.

The news is grim at these High Holidays. Covid-19 continues to claim victims in many parts of the world, with Israel in renewed lockdown. In the United States, fires rage on the West Coast, while hurricane-induced flooding surges on the Gulf Coast. One wants to face these challenges as a nation united in purpose – and Americans by all accounts are more polarized politically, have less trust in their leaders and one another, than ever before. Mutual respect across political, ethnic and racial divides is more and more rare, even though individual acts of generosity and altruism thankfully remain widespread.

For this reason too it might have been helpful for Jews to be together physically in synagogue on these Days of Awe: it would have forced us to reckon with the fact that others in our congregations, as in our society, do not share some of our most deeply-held convictions. Truths that I personally had thought were “self-evident,” including the value of truth-telling itself, can no longer be taken for granted in America.

Normal divisions between Republicans and Democrats, Liberals and Conservative, and even long-held differences on morally-freighted matters such as immigration, help for the poor, or women’s reproductive rights, have given way to yawning abysses of incomprehension and hostility. It’s truly hard for me to understand the lack of concern among many Americans at global warming. I don’t get the increasingly widespread belief that people one disagrees with on political or moral issues should be treated as enemies, unworthy of tolerance or respect, and deserving of hatred or even physical attack.

The meaning of my life, my confidence that in this both individuals and societies can and must choose life, goodness and blessing, rests on the concluding affirmation of the U-Netana Tokef prayer: “repentance, prayer and good deeds have the power to mitigate the evil of the decree.” All must be done together. That is what makes new beginnings possible, even in the seventh month of a difficult year and a deadly virus.

I pray we will all turn and return in a year that is good and sweet.

About the Author
Arnold Eisen, one of the world’s foremost experts on American Judaism, is Chancellor Emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
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