Two weeks from tonight, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, we’ll include the Shehecheyanu prayer as part of the kiddush (sanctification) ritual. This prayer is an acknowledgment of the arrival of a new experience and expresses gratitude for help in our getting to this moment. However, I’m not sure if it will be able to fully encompass the uniqueness of celebrating the High Holy Days during life in a pandemic. The pandemic has forced all of us to adapt and re-configure so many aspects of our lives, with our ritual celebrations as no exception. So what are we to do? (Hint: part of the answer includes Beit T’Shuvah’s virtual services. Click here for more info.)
As it has for the past six months, this pandemic will cause us to find sacred space in front of our screens, not in a synagogue. It will cause us to find community in our separation and connection in our distancing. Our Founder Harriet Rossetto recently wrote, “… deprived of many of our traditional High Holiday rituals, we are invited to find new meaning in the coming Days of Awe. … Relieved of the trappings of external definition, how do I rediscover my essential self-worth?”
Fortunately for us, this week’s Torah portion provides us with some guidance. We find ourselves in the final chapters, of the final book of the Torah, in the final days of Moses’ life. He is standing in front of his community, offering a farewell address of reminders from the past forty years and instructions about what the next phase of their journey will look like.
Looking to the future, Moses describes a ritual that the Israelites are to initiate once they’ve entered into the Promised Land and settled. Every year, he says, they are to bring a portion of the first fruits of their harvest to the Holy Sanctuary as a donation to the priests and a sign of gratitude to G!D. Moreover, the Torah spells out unusually specific details about the ritual, including a fixed prayer each Israelite is to recite upon handing over their contribution. They are instructed to say:
My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us; they imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. Wherefore I now bring the first fruits of the soil which You, O Lord, have given me. (Deuteronomy 26:6-11)
These verses may sound familiar because, as a summary of the origin and redemption story of the Jewish people, they have become part of the Passover seder. One notable thing about this passage is its perspective: the Israelite is commanded to speak in the first person – my father…oppressed us…we cried…, etc. As on Passover, we are instructed to see how we have been freed from slavery through a personalized connection to a Power greater than ourselves.
And as we prepare for High Holy Days, we can focus on the verse, “We cried to the Lord, the G!D of our fathers, and the Lord heard our plea, and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression.” As the Hassidic Rebbe of Gur wrote:
The sigh, the groan, and the crying out of the children of Israel from the slavery was the beginning of redemption. As long as they did not cry out against their exile they were neither worthy nor ready for redemption.
The Torah is telling us that the way to find connection with the Divine is from a place of authenticity and vulnerability, outwardly acknowledging the pain, struggle, and uncertainty that we’re experiencing internally. It’s reminding us that when we take responsibility for our role in our continued transformation, we have a Partner to help guide and support us through the process. When we honestly approach the work of t’shuvah (repentance), t’fillah ( prayer), and t’zedakah (charity), we impact our relationship with G!D, and G!D responds in kind.
So, as we replace our synagogues with living rooms, our machzors with iPads, and our dinner attire with yoga pants and t-shirts, we can use lessons from this ritual to guide our spiritual search for meaning. While many aspects of these Holy Days will be different, certain aspects will, thankfully, stay the same. Our physical separation provides us with the opportunity to show up, reach out, and cry out to connect with the Holy.
Chaplain Adam Siegel