As we approach the holiest period of our Jewish calendar, the Jewish spark within us begins to exert its pull. Some of us resist that pull. But for many of us that force grows stronger and stronger as Rosh Hashanah approaches.
We start to make our plans like every other year. A shul to pray in with our community. Inviting family and friends to join us for the holiday meals. And we start to look inward to examine how we can improve our souls and uplift our communities.
This year, however, is very different. “Mah Nishtanah” on steroids! Sure, we still feel the lure of our tradition. But in the age of Covid-19 many of our families have been forced to remain physically apart and we are socially distanced from our communities, praying in small groups or online. Nothing feels certain anymore. We feel the gaping hole in our lives that this pandemic has left behind.
Well, the Jewish experience has been no stranger to adversity. We have endured persecution, annihilation and exile, which has also sensitized us to the plight of others who suffer anywhere. But it also taught us how to cultivate our inner strength and resilience. With our dark past, or perhaps in spite of it, the Jew has become particularly adept at facing challenges and overcoming obstacles.
When the Temple was destroyed and our people were forced into exile, we never gave up. We reinvented ourselves, and we unleashed the creative Jewish spirit like never before. The Talmud and our rich liturgy are but a few examples of that creative spark.
Likewise, Covid-19 has forced us to retool and reinvent ourselves. Some rabbis have even resorted to making cheesy “Hamilton” parody videos (guilty!) to keep folks engaged. As I look back and realize that I have led high holiday services for over 35 years, this year I feel like a newly minted rabbi straight out of school who has never led a service before!
No-doubt, we will do many things differently this year. Our sukkahs will be smaller. We will daven differently and may not be able to hold hands and dance together on this Simchat Torah. But we will overcome. We will use that same Jewish creativity and resilience to reinvent ourselves. And God-willing, this will all be but a temporary setback.
Right before the “Birkat HaMazon” (the grace after meals in “Shir Ha’Maalot”) we sing: Ha-zor’im b-dim’ah, b-rina yiktzoru. Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy. (Psalm 126). This year we may have to go without some of the pleasures of years past. But next year, God-willing, when we are able to be physically back together, our holidays will be all the sweeter.
From that deep well of our Jewish tradition we will find the strength to persevere and overcome this pandemic. And when we do come back together, it will be stronger and more joyful than ever before.
Rabbi Mark Zimmerman is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom.