Finding Rosh Hashanah meaning in lockdown
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Finding Rosh Hashanah meaning in lockdown

With High Holy Days in lockdown approaching for Sydney and Melbourne, six rabbis share their thoughts on how to still make the most of this reflective season.

Rabbi Ralph Genende

Caulfield Hebrew Congregation

Photo: Peter Haskin

Once again, we face the prospect of being locked out of shule. No shofar to blast you out of your sleep, no chazan and choir to get you out of your seat, no rabbi to get you onto your feet and no family and friends to greet and meet. As I’ve been reciting the twice-daily Psalm 27, one evocative verse has kept leaping out, “One thing I ask of the Lord, That I may sit in the house of God … and visit His sanctuary.” That’s not going to be granted to all of us this year. The psalmist, King David, neither started with this wish, nor did he end his magnificent psalm with this. David knew he wouldn’t get to build the Temple, or even visit it. But he knew that as much as he wanted it, the failure wouldn’t define him. He could see beyond the moment.

This may be the most challenging of times, but we, as a people, have experienced far worse. The generations who preceded us had an unshakeable determination; they came through. They taught us how to find the light of the Lord in the darkness. More than that they gave us the capacity to apprehend “all the light we cannot see”. I don’t know why God chose us to be the children of COVID, but I do know that he has given us a unique opportunity: A chance to seize the moment, to discover a different kind of connectedness, a deeper type of spirituality, a more discerning kind of meaning, a more discriminating way of treating each other and our planet.

The Baal Shem Tov would counsel that when faced with adversity we should take three steps, ha chna’ah (yielding), havdalah (discernment) and hamtakah (sweetening). Yielding is about submitting, letting go of hopes, expectations and dreams. We can then progress to havdalah, distinguishing the facts from fantasy, discounting conspiracy delusions and illusions that we don’t need lockdowns or vaccinations. The third step is hamtakah, the surprising recognition that in the bitter winter of COVID we have discovered a sweetness – the small acts of caring of others; the kindness of strangers; perhaps a gentleness within; the joy of a sunny day on your walk; or the wonder of Zoom and our community coming together. So, let’s see this Rosh Hashanah not as a punishment but a gift, not as a retribution but re-vision, not as a depressing confinement but a sweet liberation.

Rabbi Daniel Rabin

South Caulfield Hebrew Congregation

In the unfortunate event that we are in lockdown, all hope is definitely not lost. We can most certainly still make this High Holy Day period a meaningful one. In an ordinary year, people often come to shule with big expectations, hoping for inspiration and life-changing moments to occur! This is a noble quest and I hope that people find these magical experiences over the chagim. However, we find that the energy often quickly dissipates and the high is lost. I believe we have the formula backwards. You wouldn’t expect an Olympian to simply show up for the 100-metre race and be ready. It takes years of training and many previous races to prepare. Likewise, it is the preparation that we put into getting ready for the High Holy Days that will provide the greatest chance of it making a long-lasting and uplifting impact on your life. This year we might not be at the race, but we can still do the training. Listen to shiurim about the holidays, read insights into the various customs and look at commentary on the meaning of the prayers. All these activities will pay huge dividends whether we spend the High Holy Days at home or in shule.

The second idea is really an extension of the first. Select one or more of the above holiday rituals, prayers, customs or laws and take your time during the holiday to do it with intention, with reflection and being mindful during the process. This could be picking a particular prayer and spending time thinking about the words, their meaning and relevance to you. Even saying your own personal prayers that come directly from your heart is extremely powerful. For those with younger children, it might be taking a ritual, like the apple dipped in honey, and creating a hype around the activity and possibly even playing a game to keep it fun and engaging. Pick the areas that resonate most with you and do them with extra zest! Being at home for the High Holy Days is not our first choice, but we can still make sure they don’t come and go without leaving a positive, indelible impression on us and our families!

Rabbi Levi Wolff

Central Synagogue, Sydney

As this year knocked you down or saved your life? As we face the upcoming High Holy Days unable to congregate together in shule, here is something to ponder: During Denmark’s first soccer game within Euro 2020, a talented young midfielder did something alarming: he died! This is not a tragic tale to add to COVID calamities. Quite the opposite. The skilful Christian Eriksen collapsed and as the team doctor put it, “gone” only briefly suffering a cardiac arrest. Soon after he was in a stable condition. He could not recall what had happened. But instead of being resentful, he was grateful it occurred mid-match, when medical experts could immediately respond and not when he was driving or sleeping. Reflecting, he said, “It puts in perspective the value of each day … When you live through something like I did, it hits you square in the eyes that you really have to value each day. Do we say ‘I love you’ enough? Do we hug enough? Do we do the things with our family and friends that have value to them? Or do we just ‘live’?” Eriksen’s cardiac arrest didn’t kill him … it saved his life!

As I processed this soulful story, I ruminated that what Eriksen endured physically, this year so many have encountered on an emotional and spiritual level. Our routines have altered; our comfort zones curtailed. Yet we can learn an enormous amount about ourselves, our family and our individual character. In life, we sometimes fall, even collapse. There can be disappointments, health scares, relationship distress or even a temporary crisis of faith. We can wallow and see ourselves as victims or we can embrace the challenges, distil life lessons and come back stronger. Onwards and upwards. In years to come, the children of tomorrow will interview us: “Was 2021 the worst of times or the best of times?” The answer depends on the prism through which we view the world. I have personally witnessed so much ongoing communal support and caring chessed initiatives this year, each designed to buoy us all. Eriksen emerged enlightened and in many ways so have we.

Rabbi Yonatan Sadoff

Kehilat Nitzan, Melbourne

Photo: Peter Haskin

When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves,” wrote Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning. The Holocaust survivor was a psychiatrist and founder of the field of logotherapy. His approach focused on the future and on our ability to endure hardship and suffering through a search for purpose and meaning. Frankl saw the death of most of his family members during the Holocaust. He endured the worst horrors imaginable and learned that a search for purpose and meaning was the key to survival. He would devote his life’s work to help others do the same. While our current predicament cannot compare, what can we learn and how can we utilise this strategy to fill our High Holy Days with meaning?

Our tradition asks us to stop for 10 days to look at our lives and make amends with others and ourselves. What an incredibly wise practice! But do we take the full opportunity of going deep with this task? Ask yourself, any other year, do I attend synagogue? Do I look seriously at the state of my life, of my mind or my soul and of my family? Do I look at my relationships and ask forgiveness from the individuals whom I have hurt or who have felt hurt by me? Have I let go of the hurts I associate with the actions of others that only suffocate my soul? If you’ve answered yes to attending synagogue, but not to any of the other questions, this is the year to focus on that internal and relational work.

According to Frankl, we need to envision a bright future filled with hope, meaning and purpose. We must reconcile with our past to make changes in ourselves and in our relationships, so that we may be free to imagine and craft a bright future filled with meaning and purpose. What are your personal goals, family aspirations or dreams for your life’s work this coming year? Once we make a decision and dedicate ourselves, we can do anything if we just get out of our own way. That is the message of the Yamim Noramim.

Rabbi Nicole Roberts

North Shore Temple Emanuel

It’s Elul and we’re in lockdown, feeling sorely in exile from our places of worship, our community and our rituals. Can we still live a spiritually rich High Holy Days season without the traditional prompts such as hearing the shofar and gathering for slichot, and visiting gravestones of loved ones? This season will feel different – there’s no escaping that. Yet there are some acts which take on special meaning this year. Psalm 27: It is customary each day during Elul to recite Psalm 27. This year, one verse feels particularly resonant: “One thing I ask of God, only this I seek … to gaze upon the beauty of God and frequent God’s holy Temple.” How we wish we could see beyond our homes and walls that confine us, to set foot in our glorious places of worship! These are words we express this year with renewed fervour, greater understanding and a new appreciation for all that our sacred spaces inspire. We will return to them, and in the meantime, we hold them in our thoughts daily; our people’s history has afforded us much practice in this.

Extending Forgiveness: This season is not only about asking forgiveness, but granting it. We may not always agree with actions our leaders take as they struggle to balance their many concerns and responsibilities – protecting our lives, keeping the economy from collapse, ensuring hospitals don’t reach capacity, acquiring and distributing vaccines. Can we find it in our hearts to accept the shortcomings of those making difficult decisions under these extraordinary circumstances? Can we recognise that we are all navigating unchartered terrain, and model ourselves after the merciful God we pray to in seeking grace for our own failings?

Principles in Practice: The pandemic requires us to practise some of the most important principles in Judaism, including avoiding danger to life (sakanat nefashot) and looking after one’s own body (sh’mirat ha’guf). During the pandemic, we can protect ourselves and others every day, simply by staying in, wearing masks, getting tested and being vaccinated. The body is the vessel for the soul and this year the two could not be more intertwined.

Rabbi Shua Solomon

Bondi Mizrachi Synagogue

For almost all of us this will be a High Holy Days like no other. Not seeing family and friends at our local shule or around the Yom Tov table is something that we could never have imagined. But it also gives us an opportunity to have a different Rosh Hashanah experience, to try and find new ways of connecting to family, friends and our heritage. This year our Rosh Hashanah will be celebrated at home, which perhaps gives us a chance to have a family discussion and ask questions amongst our family. What has the past year brought and what will be in the next 12 months? For our family? Our community? The world? Perhaps a discussion of how we can be better individuals and really make time for what is important in our lives. How can we be better connected to each other and our community and the Almighty? Where do we want to be spiritually by next Rosh Hashanah? Instead of hearing the rabbi ask these questions in his sermon, this time we are asking each other these questions in a small, intimate setting.

I know that the spiritual leaders of each shule and community have been working tirelessly to provide their congregations with material to make their Rosh Hashanah more meaningful at home. Take time out to pray and sing your favourite tunes with your family and to contemplate the meaning of the central prayers of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The Rabbinical Council of NSW has also created many programs to help make our preparation leading up to the High Holy Days more meaningful and inspiring, as well as making sure that all those who want to can hear the thought-provoking sounds of the Shofar on Rosh Hashanah. Despite not being able to be with them physically, it is important to touch base with friends and family leading up to the High Holy Days. To make sure that they are okay and that they are also able to find a way to make their High Holy Days a different but inspiring and important time for themselves. We all hope to once again be together physically soon.

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