Column: Rosh Hashanah in a pandemic

Rabbi Robert Goldstein  

Last April as I witnessed my Christian colleagues quickly alter their plans for their Easter observance, I marveled at how nimbly they adapted their services. I have to admit I was relieved thinking the pandemic would soon end and we would not have to make such draconian adjustments come our own sacred High Holy Days in the fall.

Alas, as poet Robert Burns so aptly wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men often go awry.” 

This year, on our High Holy Days (Rosh Hashanah begins Friday night, Sept. 18, and continues on Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 19 and 20, followed by Yom Kippur on Monday, Sept. 28) my congregation, like the majority of synagogues, will offer mostly virtual High Holy Day services. At Temple Emanuel, we are planning to use a hybrid model, a combination of pre-recorded, Zoom and in-person observances.

My Christian colleagues tell me that attendance at Sunday morning virtual church services has risen. I can happily say that our turnout has increased as well.

Some suggest the pandemic is a reminder of our mortality and our yearning for the kind of reassurance and comfort found in our religious communities. Others suggest the higher numbers are a function of convenience. When worshipping at home there is no need to drive or dress for church or synagogue. 

Though I look forward to a time when I can greet my congregants in person, the adjustments the pandemic has forced us to make have taught us some important lessons.

In ancient times, the Israelites worshipped at one Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Two thousand years ago, when the Temple was destroyed, worship shifted to a number of small emerging synagogues. At the same time, the holiness of the home was elevated and the table around which the family gathered to celebrate the Sabbath and holidays became the altar. 

We have spent a lot more time at home in recent months. Many of us have done much of our work from home, our children have greeted their teachers from the kitchen table, and we have attended Sabbath services from the comfort of our living rooms (sometimes in sweat pants).

Though these adjustments are imperfect, we have found that we can be more flexible than we imagined.

Nothing can justify the pain the pandemic has caused; the illness, the loss of life, the family celebrations delayed or cancelled, and the students kept from in-person learning. However, when it all ends, I hope we will remember the lessons we have learned.

Home is a sacred place, gathering around the table with loved ones is an act of holiness, our health is to be cherished, and mostly, just being able to step outside and breathe in the clear crisp autumn air is in itself a blessing.

Rabbi Robert S. Goldstein is spiritual leader of Temple Emanuel in Andover.


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