The High Holidays 5781: Different and the Same

I, like you, am struggling during these times.

For me, my number one symptom in response to the pandemic and the disruption it has brought has been my time management. Since this pandemic began, time has become completely upended. School schedules changed, work schedules changed, family routines turned around. Our older son who had moved out, moved back.

This has meant for me the feeling that time has been moving both very slow and very fast. I lose track of days, have double-booked appointments and been slow to respond to tasks. Sometimes it feels like if I can get one thing done a day I am successful. And as further proof, this is the first time I have written my weekly message in about a month.

In our Jewish marking of time, we begin the month of Elul today. Elul is the month leading up to the High Holidays, so it is in many ways the beginning of the High Holiday season. This is a time for spiritual preparation, as we begin to examine our past year and make plans for the next one.

This year, as we make our spiritual preparations, we are also thrown perhaps by having to make new preparations in general. We will not be able to observe the holidays in the way we are accustomed, and so everything about these holidays will be new and different, not just the stage of life we find ourselves in.

For many, this may provoke a profound sense of loss. One of the highlights for me at the High Holiday is the energy in the sanctuary when we come together in our largest numbers. It’s exciting to meet new people, revisit with familiar faces, and to laugh and cry and sing with one another. For others, the loss may be in not being able to spend the holidays with loved ones, or in having to change plans long held.

It is OK to start with loss, but we should not end there. For we will still be celebrating the holidays, and we still will be able to connect with one another and the traditions, albeit in different ways. And this has been one of my kavvanot (intentions) throughout this time of physically-distant spiritual community: that while there are things that we have (temporarily) lost, there is also much to gain.

In planning for the High Holidays, there are some things that we will try to recreate, so as to maintain the continuity and expectations of our regular observances–with so much uprooted, it is important to find support in the familiar. And there are things that we will do that are brand new, because circumstances have forced us to think creatively.

We just saw this with the Democratic National Convention this week, and will see it in the Republican National Convention next week. These quadrennial events have their own norms and traditions that we have come to expect, that this year circumstance has forced to change. Some things were noticeably missing (I always enjoy the energy of the crowd as the nominees make a final appearance and the balloons fall), but other innovations were welcome changes (I liked the roll call visiting the different states, and the overall tenor of the speeches were more intimate and affecting.)

So while I feel a sense of loss over missing certain things this year, I also know that there is nothing to do about it. An unforseen situation has forced this change, and this is one of those instances that we can breathe deep and acknowledge that we do not have control.

So while we mourn the losses, let’s recognize the gifts. Having to do the holidays differently this year will help us think creatively and different. It may identify aspects of our observances that we may have wanted to change anyway, and introduce things that we will maintain as the pandemic subsides. It will force us to focus on the values and ideas of the holidays, rather than just the forms those are usually expressed.

[And, I also recognize that Jews throughout history have faced worse challenges, and have still maintained connection and continuity.]

The High Holidays will be different this year because they have to be, and they will be just that, different–not worse. As we enter into this Elul, we do so knowing that while we have had our individual losses and successes over the past year, we are also brought together by the shared experience of the pandemic and the general fragility we feel during this time. And so we will still celebrate this sacred time as we always do, together.

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