Shortly after BRS shut down in March, someone said to me, almost half-jokingly, “Imagine if things are still like this for Rosh Hashanah.” I vividly remember dismissing the sentiment saying there is no way, this shutdown will only last a few weeks at most, and it will most certainly be figured out by Rosh Hashanah.
Well, here we are welcoming in the month of Elul and, with it, the launch of the Yamim Noraim season. While we know more now than we did then and things are a bit more under control, this pandemic continues to grip the globe and to significantly hamper our lives, lifestyles and, in all likelihood, our High Holidays.
Planning, providing and coordinating meaningful shiurim, classes, programs, and most of all minyanim this year is extraordinarily complicated and challenging. The questions and dilemmas of what to do are not limited to decision-makers at institutions like Shuls and schools. These questions are also very real and present for the stakeholders of those institutions who have to decide comfort level, safety threshold, personal risk factors and more before determining if, what, where and how to participate.
I fear that when considering how hard it is to access inspiration in this unprecedented climate, many people will simply write off this Elul and Yamim Noraim, take the spiritual loss, and move on hoping to make it up when this all passes. Such an attitude is understandable, even enticing. After all, who doesn’t have corona fatigue, who isn’t done with Zooming? Many are lonely, most are emotionally spent, all are very tired of this.
While there has been lots of learning over Zoom and amazing chesed efforts that have been creatively coordinated, there is also a sense of spiritual apathy, a sentiment of trying to survive religiously, rather than to thrive. This complacency manifests itself in several ways, including in participation in minyanim—both outdoors and in Shul.
Even now, some people are continuing to stay home or daven in a local development minyan because of genuine health concerns, and these people are doing the absolutely correct thing. Let me be clear: Someone who davens alone or outdoors near their home out of safety considerations should not feel at all guilty, ashamed or hesitant and they should continue until they feel it is safe to do otherwise.
That said, let’s be honest. Many people are also not coming to shul or staying home entirely out of sheer convenience. That becomes evident when the level of personal comfort and concern when it comes to sharing meals, playdates, shopping and socializing is radically more permissive and lenient than it is when it comes to joining davening.
I understand the attraction of davening on the block. After all, it is more conducive to dressing in whatever is most comfortable, it is condensed, there is no Torah reading or Haftorah, no speech or announcements. One person recently commented that he is very comfortable coming back to shul from a health perspective, but he doesn’t want to because the davening on his block is in and out, quick and easy.
In and out, quick and easy. Is that what our Judaism has been reduced to? Does living through a pandemic mean we can’t have spiritual ambitions or aspirations, that we can’t push ourselves beyond our comfort zone or stretch to do what is right, not what is easy, what is virtuous, not what is most convenient, what will give the greatest nachas ruach to Hashem, not necessarily what is most expedient or convenient for me?
Some will counter that davening at shul isn’t normal either. We are making compromises in the minyanim at shul: we start at a different place in the davening, singing is reduced, the derasha is shortened, there is no socializing, no Kiddush, no place for young children. For some people, some or all of this contributes towards the desire not to come back. Honestly, I hear that, I really do. I miss those same things terribly and ache from their absence.
But let me ask you this – if your loved one were convalescing and you were told you can start visiting them again but you have to wear a mask, you cannot hold their hand or come too close, you cannot stay long and you can only talk to them from the doorway, would you say, “Well that isn’t the normal way or the ideal way to visit so I am just going to continue waving from outside the window”? Of course not. You would take what you could get, grateful for the opportunity to come just a bit closer, to feel more in their presence, to communicate how badly you want to draw close once again.
Yes, this year is dramatically different from all others. In most years, we can rely on others to generate our inspiration. We attend the talk of the speaker who motivates us, listen to the chazzan who inspires us, join the tzibbur who lifts us. This year, for those who must daven alone and even for those who can attend shul, we won’t have the same support system, the same external drivers of inspiration. But I plead with you: do not write off this season. Do not take a loss on the Yamim Noraim this year.
Inspiration, motivation, growth, and change are all readily available to us this year as much as any other when we realize that ultimately, these things must come from within ourselves. They don’t depend on others and we can experience them if only we are determined to.
Indeed, even in normal times, many who have yet to make needed changes in their emotional, physical or spiritual health say, if only I had someone to inspire me, if only I read the right book, attended the perfect seminar. If only my spouse were on the same page, if only my children were more obedient and compliant, if only my rabbi was more available, if only my boss was more supportive, if only my parents were more encouraging, if only…
But those are excuses, they are deflections and distractions. Of course, supportive surroundings help us but if we are not motivated, inspired, or driven to make changes they will never happen no matter who we are married to, how our children behave, what DNA our parents gave us or what virus is plaguing the globe.
Elul and the holidays present us with a list of questions to consider – who are we, who do we want to be, what difference are we meant to make, how are we thought of by others and by Hashem, how do we ultimately want to be remembered? The word teshuva literally means an answer or answers as in she’eilos u’teshuvos – questions and answers.
The truth is that every single year, the answers we are looking for are not found in others, they aren’t available or provided by anyone or anything other than us. The Yamim Noraim are a large mirror held up to us, covered with these questions and others. Sometimes the teshuva is easy, a minor adjustment, a tweak. Other times the teshuva, providing meaningful answers, may involve a large overhaul. If we are sincere and genuine in the process of responding to the questions, then we have done teshuva, we have provided teshuvos, meaningful answers.
The most valuable, satisfying, gratifying and meaningful things in life are never in and out, quick and easy. They take effort and struggle, they often demand sacrifice, but they are worth it.
Whether you can come back to shul, can only daven in an outdoor minyan, or need to daven alone, don’t sell yourself short, don’t underachieve or write off this time spiritually. Persevere, fight through, and push yourself. Set goals and make resolutions to achieve them. Inspire yourself and your family to not only survive but to thrive, to make choices now that will allow you later to look back and see how much you grew, how you were transformed by the lasting meaningful changes you made during the pandemic Yamim Noraim.
For the forty days from the beginning of Elul through Yom Kippur take on a challenge. Perhaps it can be to start wearing tzitzis or putting on tefillin each day, maybe a promise to turn your cell phone entirely off each time you daven, perhaps to listen to a shiur or learn on your own a little more each day. Consider pushing yourself to exercise or to eat in a more healthy way. Resolve to interact better with a specific family member or friend. You choose the challenge, but understand that no matter your environment, only you can provide the teshuva, the answer.
If you accept this challenge, these forty days likely won’t be quick and easy, but I guarantee you that the results will be well worth it.