I don’t like uncertainty. My natural orientation is to prefer that things be clear-cut, black-and-white. We know that our world is one of shades of gray. We do not know why G-d brought COVID-19 to us, when there will be a vaccine, why so many are dying. We could go crazy trying to answer every permutation that these questions raise.
I have learned a lot from working with Rabbi Mitch Chefitz as my Hevruta. He taught me early on in our studies that the goal is transformation rather than information. I have been blessed with an excellent memory and the ability to quickly learn and process information, yet he raised the question of how well that serves me/how useful is it? He has been teaching me through mystical literature how to become transformed by a text in a life-changing way. In one of our conversations he shared something that will stick with me forever: anxiety is the opposite of faith. In my words, if one is so worried about possible outcomes or catastrophizes worst-case scenarios, s/he will not have the faith necessary to sustain him/herself through the most difficult of times.
When our world is turned upside down, as it was with the onset of COVID-19 becoming a pandemic in March, many of us were like deer in the headlights. In a matter of days our entire calendar for months was erased, every event cancelled. Some of us did not know when or how to close-up shop, or we did it (like me) thinking we would be back in business as normal by Pesach. Without knowing if/when there will be a successful vaccine/vaccination, we have learned to live in an age of COVID-19, taking precautions such as limiting our travels, not frequenting public places, and wearing face masks. Some of us have not hugged grandchildren who were recently born or seen family members or friends in months, and we recognize that it could last for a year or two. We are frightened and vulnerable, not knowing what the future has in store for us.
One prayer that can help us access our feelings of uncertainty is Unetaneh Tokef. In the beautiful rendition that Cantor Levy will recite, we learn the following: מי יחיה ומי ימות, מי בקצו ומי לא בקצו, “Who shall live and who shall die: who in his/her proper time and who not in his/her proper time.” These words should cause us to quake in our boots (appropriate feelings for TODAY, the Day of Judgment) as many of us know people taken well before their time from COVID-19. I just buried someone taken by COVID-19. How do we respond to this time of darkness, a time which can easily give way to depression, to throwing up our hands and feeling ‘Why does it matter: there’s nothing we can do?’
Rabbi Fred Klein taught in his class “Pandemics: Practical, Emotional and Spiritual Responses from the Jewish Tradition” that the Jewish response comes from a Talmudic phrase later inserted into the end of Unetaneh Tokef: ותשובה, ותפילה, וצדקה מעבירין את רע הגזרה, repentance, prayer and justice can alter the severity of the decree. Repentance/return, the idea that we can control ourselves and our responses to any given situation, is huge. Prayer, the concept that we can connect with a force greater than ourselves in a full relationship, whether having gratitude for our bounty or lashing out in anger, is also ours to do. Justice, how we treat others in the proper way, is also a form of purposeful action for us to take. While we do not know our fate, all these actions are in our control. Similarly taking heed to the sound of the Shofar, which we will do tomorrow afternoon, that’s in our power. Does the Shofar arouse us to action or is it just a nice musical touch that comes and fades? Our response in these avenues is completely in our hands.
Let us pray on this Rosh Hashanah each of us will strive to live a life filled with meaning and growth. I hope we will appreciate how despite not being able to congregate in person, we have new ways of connecting with one another in this virtual age. As Rabbi Chefitz said at my installation, we are now in 5G Judaism, and it is still in the process of formation. Our Judaism is no longer centered on a building, on gathering in person in a community or even on a Rabbi or Cantor. With our ability to see livestreamed services in Brazil, Uganda, Israel or Los Angeles, to have our souls transformed by a cantor in Wichita or to take a class from a rabbi in Salem or to watch either 3 days later on YouTube, our Judaism metamorphosizes from what we knew before into something in formation. While we will never know how the world works and will have to live with uncertainty, one thing which is guaranteed to be in our control is how we respond to any given situation. Let us consider all the options and strive to always make a wise, thoughtful, well-formulated response rather than one which is impulsive or erratic. In so doing, may we gain strength to help ourselves through this time of plague and darkness and to give ourselves the resolve to continue, one step at a time.
In just a short while, we will be reciting Unetaneh Tokef, prescribed to Rabbi Amnon of Mainz. As Rabbi Fred Klein taught me, Amnon means faith, Emunah. Amnon, who might not have written Unetaneh Tokef but who certainly lived its message, was the epitome of faith, looking at a world of antisemitism and spitting in its face, saying “I will continue on!” We need to do the same, to ensure that no matter what befalls us in 5781, and how unfair it might be, we will continue on with devotion and with faith in a better future for ourselves and for our community. We CANNOT, MUST NOT throw in the towel and give up. Faith is dependent on being at peace with whatever comes our way, striving to feel גם זה לטובה, this is also for the good, perhaps only to learn from it and to strive to do better next time. כן יהי רצון, may it be our will to strive to engage in this endeavor to the best of our abilities.