Some of the most consistent memories of my childhood are going to shul for the high holidays, and then racing over to the Hebrew Home for the conclusion of their services with my grandmother. It’s now eight years since the last time I did that, and this year’s holidays couldn’t be any different from the past. And yet, the high holidays this year are here, and they are still the same as they have been for generations.
I’ve been attending Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur services for longer than I can remember. I don’t think I was ever taken to the family service or dropped off with the other kids. I sat next to my dad. We told each other which line we were on. We made not-entirely-appropriate jokes to each under under our breath.
Before heading to the temple, we’d eat a brisket. There was also chicken soup on Rosh Hashanah, and even a cabbage soup with flanken in the good years. My dad and sister and I would try to decide who’d get to be in the middle during service. We all wanted to be in the middle, surrounded by the two people we loved most.
In college, I’d inevitably end up attending services sitting next to my friends. Last year, I went home for Rosh Hashanah, and then attended Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur services with a friend in San Francisco.
But this year? I can attend services from my desk, or from the desk in my bedroom, or the kitchen counter, or the couch. And who will be there? Me. Just me. We feel small and alone reciting the viddui, but never before have I done it while physically alone. Going through some of the most difficult spiritual days of the year, alone, frankly scares me. These are scary days to begin with! We find comfort in the prayers we recite, but also in seeing a congregation around us, going through the same emotions I’m going through. Sitting next to someone you know is comforting. Sitting alone, in your own apartment, reciting your litany of woes? When the only comfort to be found has to come from within? I think it’s going to be hard.
There are powerful words we utter every year, during Tisha B’Av, during Rosh Hashanah, during Yom Kippur. Really, they all are powerful. We are a broken shard. Withering grass. A passing shadow. A fading cloud. Scattered dust. We feel these words, we live them every year at this time.
But this year, it feels more real. They are not tempered by my father’s presence beside me, by holding my sister’s hand. They are not tempered by a bright, sunny day, or a warm meal shared with family before the short drive to the synagogue. They are not even tempered by friends or a congregation around us. We are alone. I feel it.
This year, many of us have felt judgment’s ultimate harsh decree. We have seen sorrow and death perhaps more viscerally than ever before in my life. We have felt powerless for over half of the year as a plague has violently torn down the bonds of modern life that hold us close. Alone. That’s something incredibly foreign in 5780.
But despite all the strangeness, the weirdness, the sheer incredulity of this year, we follow the rituals of our ancestors. Even though it’s different this year, it’s the same. The words, the intention, the purpose, the prayer, is all the same.
We mourn the suffering our people have endured for generations, and the suffering and destruction and loss we see in our lives. We reflect and do teshuva for all the sin we have committed over the past year, all the suffering that has come at our hands or from the words out of our lips. We celebrate that we have reached a new year, and ask that it may be a sweet one. We proclaim the awesomeness of the day, and tremble as the Great Shofar is sounded. We atone and remember for what we have done that was not righteous, that was immoral, that was hurtful. We ask forgiveness for the vows that we know we will be unable to keep in the coming year, because we are human, we are fallable. We ask for our pleas to be heard, we admit that we have transgressed, and we appear on this day with little merit. We admit that we have not lived the lives we wished to lead. As the gates close, we grow fervent. We pray that our names may be inscribed in the Book of Life, for we have rehearsed our own death and find we would rather cling to life, make more our the life that we have been given. We would like to arrive at the next Yom Kippur being a little less meritless than we are this year. And then the sun has set, the gates our close, the books are sealed.
Chadesh yameinu kekedem. Renew us, as in the days of old. Renew us, so we may be better in the coming year. So we may face the challenges that befell us and brought us to sin, and this new year we shall overcome those challenges, completing our teshuva. As in the days of old, not because the days of old were easy, but because they were. This year has been dark. I write this under an ashen sky; the world is burning; we are beset by plague. And yet. And yet, there have been fires and floods and plagues and atrocities in our past. The Romans sacked the Temple. The kingdoms of Spain and England and Portugal expelled and tortured and killed us. We lived in the Pale of Settlement, and many did not live to leave it. We were slaughtered in the Shoah. And yet. We are here. I am here. Heneini. We are called to attention by the blast of the shofar. We are called to action, to waken from our slumber, because we are still here and there’s still work to do.
It is not up in the heavens, that you should say, “Who among us can go up to the heavens”... Neither is is beyong the sea, that you should say, “Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea”.... No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it.
We know what the work is. It is not a secret. It is not a great mysery. There is no excuse. Though we surely will stumble, because we are human, the work is not beyond our reach.
Chadesh yameinu kekedem. Renew us, as in the day of old. Task us with the work to build a more rightous world, so that our children, and our childrens children, may once again come together to partake in the coming of the new year. So that they may continue to uphold the covenant.