During this high holiday season, many Atlanta Jews are unable to connect with the traditions of Yom Kippur because they are homebound or otherwise unable to be in the sanctuary during the global pandemic. So we asked three Atlanta rabbis – one from each of the main denominations – to guide us to the top three thoughts, beliefs, feelings, concepts and focal points we should ponder to observe the holiest day of the Jewish year and make it personally meaningful.
Several of the rabbis focused on what we’ve learned from the pandemic, stressing our ability to change and improve while striving toward a better self and world.
Two rabbis focused on how fear can be used in a positive way
Rabbi Josh Hearshen, the new rabbi of Congregation Or VeShalom in Brookhaven, refers to it as anxiety and fear being used to grow. “I do not believe in the philosophy that things happen for a reason. Nor do I see God’s hand in these struggles and disasters,” Rabbi Hearshen said.
“God wants us to work to overcome adversity but does not cause the actual struggle. But we would be wrong to not learn and grow from our pain and adversity. I do not think we are dealing with this to learn, but we might as well learn and grow from it. So it is natural that we are anxious and that we are scared. It is natural that we are questioning. Now we need to see how we come out on the other side stronger and more able to live lives of meaning and value.”
Rabbi Isser New, a spiritual leader of the Congregation Beth Tefillah in Sandy Springs, quoted a well-worn phrase from Franklin D. Roosevelt. “There is nothing to fear but fear itself,” New said.
“In a pandemic, it is human nature to be fearful. In Judaism we believe that everything exists by divine providence and for a reason. If we can truly appreciate that we can grow within this pandemic to act within caution absent fear,” he said.
“Fear is debilitating; caution is sensible and constructive. We cannot single-handedly conquer a pandemic, but we can conquer our own fear. If we can shed our fear, we can continue to be productive even with caution.”
Rabbi New is among those interviewed for this article who stress our ability to change and improve.
“We must always be willing to make changes and do teshuva with Joy,” said New, who is also associate director of Chabad of Georgia. “G-d wants us to serve him with joy. Even when we look in the mirror on Yom Kippur and know that we need to make changes, that too must be done with joy. Joy breaks barriers while sadness creates them.”
The Chabad rabbi advises us to prioritize returning to our true nature.
“What does repentance mean? Where are we returning to? True change begins with knowing that one is returning to their true nature. In baseball, one scores when he/she returns to home plate. So too with teshuva. One truly returns to Hashem when they understand that good is their true nature,” he said. “That light, spirituality and goodness are our home field advantage. We are not physical beings that sometimes engage in a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings that come to this earth to bring that spirituality to a physical experience.”
Rabbi Jesse Charyn, spiritual leader of Temple Beth David in Snellville, asks us to concentrate on self-renewal or chidush-atzmi.
“God desires for us to learn, to grow, to improve. The concept of self-renewal is strongly associated with Yom Kippur and we are meant to continue reflecting on our actions and our relationship with God throughout the year, all the days of our lives,” the Reform rabbi said.
“According to Judaism, the decisions we made in the past do not define us for all eternity. Built into our daily worship after we recite the ‘Bar’chu,’ our call to prayer, we utter the words, ‘uvtuvo m’chadesh b’chol yom tamid ma’aseh v’reishit,’ with goodness God renews the work of creation each day. As human beings we are the creations of God and have this potential for continual renewal,” Rabbi Charyn said.
“Our capacity for self-renewal is deeply rooted in our Jewish faith and we are encouraged and supported to follow a more righteous path at any moment of our lives. Yom Kippur is an intensive 25-hour experience of this essential component to Judaism.”
He also urged us to strive toward wholeness (Shleimut)
“This year may present the appearance of being incomplete; our lives may feel like we are being deprived of what makes us feel whole. It is at this time that we find comfort and solace in our Jewish traditions. The Hebrew letters – shin, lamed, and mem – make up the shoresh, the root, of the words shleimut (wholeness) and shalom (peace). In order for us to achieve harmony and tranquility within ourselves and our world, we must possess a mindset of fullness,” Rabbi Charyn said. “Our lives may feel fractured due to the physical distancing necessitated by this terrible coronavirus pandemic plaguing our world. While we may logically understand we are not meeting in person this year to mitigate the spread and power of this virus, emotionally it is another matter entirely. This pandemic does not deny us of wholeness. Judaism is a very resilient faith and we must approach this Yom Kippur just as all the Yom HaKippurim that came before it, …wholeheartedly. As we tune into services this year remotely, we designate an area in our home as our mikdash me’at, our small sanctuary, with our mindset to strive toward wholeness, to strive toward peace.”
Two of Rabbi Hearshen’s priorities revolve around coming together as a community.
“I have the lyrics of a John Lennon song in my head: ‘You don’t know what you got until you lose it. Oh, baby, baby, baby, give me one more chance…’ As modern-day Jews we have lost some of our commitments to and affinity for our communities. This is in large part because of our addiction to the American religion of individualism,” said Hearshen, the rabbi of the traditionally Sephardic synagogue.
“Now that we are all without our communities in person, we are seeing just how real our loss is. We are seeing just how much we need it. So I think first this year we need to be thinking about what community means to us and how we need it desperately in our lives,” he said. “In Bereshit, God says ‘it is not good for man to be alone.’ God was right then and is right now. Now we can better appreciate the Talmudic dictum of al tifrosh min hatzibur, do not separate from the community.”
Hearshen believes we can find unity in our disagreement. “Our country is heading in the wrong direction when it comes to how we talk to each other and how we deal with our problems. That is not a political statement. It is a statement of fact that we need to do better, and we need to be willing to work with people who we disagree with,” Rabbi Hearshen said.
“We have these days to think and reflect. Normally we are bogged down with pomp and circumstance. This year we have the chance in our solitude to truly reflect. Are we a part of the problem or a part of the solution? If we are solely committed to ideological orthodoxy then we are part of the problem, … but if we are open to a heterogeneous ideology then we can truly become a part of the solution and help move our society and world forward.”
We end with Rabbi Charyn’s suggestion that we take time to express gratitude (Hakarat Ha’Tov).
“Judaism is a faith of thanksgiving. Our Jewish tradition teaches us that we should recite 100 blessings each day. I imagine that at least some of you reading this have some wearable technology that tells you how many steps you have taken, how many minutes of exercise you have achieved, how many calories you have burned, etc.,” he said.
“If only we had a tool that also informed us of how many times each day we took stock of the beautiful and life-enhancing things around us. This is the point of this practice to recite 100 blessings each day. If we do not take the time to articulate the good we encounter, we miss out on so much and we can become bitter, sad and disconnected,” Rabbi Charyn continued.
“Living with gratitude is a recipe for a life of intention. Yom Kippur is our annual reminder to reflect upon how we are living our lives. Judaism requires us to engage in the world around us, make meaningful contributions, and bring more light into our communities.” ⎧