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What’s Real in a Time of Pandemic


Introduction to Rosh HaShanah 5781

Rabbi Sam Cohon, Congregation Beit Simcha, Tucson, AZ

My friends, this will be the most unusual Rosh HaShanah most of us have experienced in our entire lives. Instead of gathering in our finest clothing to welcome the new Jewish year in the synagogue, inviting family and friends to big meals at our homes, and hugging and kissing everyone we know at shul, we are mostly on Facebook or Zoom service viewings in our dining rooms and dens, eating socially-distanced Rosh HaShanah dinners in our backyards, and doing phone calls or FaceTime connections to wish our relatives and friends “L’Shana Tovah!” If we meet in person, it’s all elbow-to-elbow greetings. While it’s a central mitzvah, a commandment of Rosh HaShanah to hear the shofar blasts in person, this year most of us will be hearing them through our laptop’s tinny internal speakers or, perhaps, our Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones. And as for sharing Kiddush and honey cake and apples-and-honey after services, schmoozing and eating? That’s happening in our breakfast rooms with our immediate families.

You know, most Jewish holidays are centered around the home, and don’t lose nearly as much as the High Holy Days do by being exiled from the synagogue, as most of you will be this 5781 New Year. Each week you can light Shabbat candles, have Kiddush and a lovely Sabbath meal with your family, do Birkat HaMazon, Grace after Meals, sing Zemirot, songs of Shabbat joy to your heart’s content all at home. The Passover Seder is meant to be held in every Jewish home, and Chanukah candles highlight a home-based festival as well. Sukkot, coming up after Yom Kippur, is enjoyed in a temporary booth in our yards, sitting outside with friends and family.

But the High Holy Days are not so home-based. Sure, in more normal times you can invite family and friends for Rosh HaShanah dinner before or after services, and it’s nice to gather for a meal after the longer Rosh HaShanah morning services tomorrow. I know people who spend all of Yom Kippur setting up their homes for a Break-the-Fast meal and never make it to shul to offer their own prayers for forgiveness at all. But the essence of the High Holy Days is what happens here at the temple.

And this year, most people can’t go to temple, or synagogue, or shul, or their congregation Beit Simcha, at all.

So how do we compensate for this?

Well, there are lots of interesting things going on out there in Jewish cyberspace this fall to help Jews connect when we can’t actually do so in person. Some congregations actually pre-recorded their entire services, including the music and sermons, in fancy recording studios so they could create the best TV show possible for their congregants. In other words, in July or August they went into sound and video booths and, well, faked the whole Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur experience.

I’m not sure exactly what the rabbis and cantors who did this will be doing tonight or tomorrow on Rosh HaShanah and next week on Yom Kippur—vacationing in the Caribbean? Lipsyncing at home to their own Zoom or YouTube images? Playing air-guitar in their kitchens? —but it reminds me of a sermon I once did comparing the Jewish High Holy Days to the then-new phenomenon of reality TV shows. You know, for ten days you dress up and work really hard to make sure you aren’t voted off the island in the coming year by God, and so on. Well, these pre-recorded “High Holy Day Services” take the reality TV show theme even farther, since they, in fact, are also pre-recorded and largely faked, just like those High Holy Day services are.

No doubt the music of these ersatz yomtovs will be lovely—AutoTune is a handy music studio tool to make every choir sound spot-on and every Cantor hit the high notes perfectly—and with multiple takes I’ll bet the rabbis never give the wrong page or screw up a single word or phrase of their sermons. But isn’t something altogether lost when “live prayer” becomes pre-recorded video studio performance? Why not just watch last year’s recorded HD service and substitute a new sermon about Coronavirus? Or shop around for the best-produced High Holy Day broadcast you can find on-line, regardless if you know the people involved?

Anyway, for those of us who haven’t given in to the “We can have perfect High Holy Day services with great studio musicians and vocalists doing our stuff if we just record Kol Nidrei on July 22nd!” trend, we’ve had to be a little more innovative in our approaches. Some congregations delivered, no-contact, honey cake and High Holy Day machzors to congregants. We are holding a drive-in Rosh HaShanah celebration tomorrow night at the Gaslight Theater, and inviting the Jewish community to come and see each other in 3-D, safely, outdoors.

But what are we to make of the fake services-trend, or even this very online imitation of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur that the rest of us have to pull off?

Only this: that the truth is that repentance, prayers, and acts of charity, teshuvah, tefilah and tzedakah are what really matter this year, and every year. They are what’s real. They are what matters now. Whether we are gathered virtually or in person, on Facebook or wearing masks over our faces, we are all here tonight to seek holiness. Whatever strange twists this strangest of all years has taken, we are joined together tonight and tomorrow and tomorrow night and next week in a mutual quest for a much better year. And that is very real indeed, and very good indeed.

As the old Piyyut, the prayer-poem for the High Holy Days has it, tichleh shanah v’chil’loteha; tocheil shanah uvirchoteha! Let the old year and its curses end. Let the New Year and its blessings begin! And may there be many more blessings in this 5781 year. L’shana Tova.