A Rosh Hashanah Like No Other
Encountering this Religious Experience in this Most Uncommon Moment

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

With all of its physical limitations, the Jewish New Year of 5781 will represent the single most significant religious gathering of Jews. As a result of our virtual connections, it is likely that more Jews will experience some form of the High Holy Day ritual experience than at any time in history.

This moment may be as well the most challenging experience of our lifetime. How do we understand the idea of “future,” even the meaning of a “New Year” amidst this pandemic and the backlash of social unrest and economic chaos?

While some Jews are experiencing a sense of isolation and loneliness and remain uncertain about the future, others appear to be thriving, finding creative ways to build community and remain connected not only with the Jewish world but also in concert with the broader society.

Reflections on this Experience:

Pandemics place humanity in a compromising position where actions, borne out of fear, seem to revert to an earlier place in time.

We are suddenly finding ourselves transferred back in time, as conspiracy notions overwhelm a commitment to reason, hateful conduct dominates over peaceful practice, and despair appears to replace hope.

New beginnings, as represented by Rosh Hashonah, are powerful motifs in Judaism. Indeed, Yavneh represented the epitome in charting new directions in connection with Jewish life and our tradition. In some ways, this moment may symbolize our own Yavneh Moment, transformative as it is uncertain.

We welcome the sound of the shofar, as maybe never before, hoping that in its piercing call there is an awakening that alters our condition, this nightmare of our uncertainty. Possibility and hope are our aspiring visions. The human spirit in this hour is seeking a degree of wholeness.

No prayer or words are more striking in the HIgh Holy Day liturgy than the Unetanneh Tokef prayer. It is filled with both hope and dread, as it asks: Who shall live and who shall die? Its words are haunting as they are real:

On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is to be sealed. Who will live and who will die?

Who in their time, and who not in their time?

Who by fire and who by water?

Who by sword and who by beast?

Who by hunger and who by thirst?

Who will be safe and who will be torn?

Who will become poor and who will get rich?

Who will be made humble and who will be raised up?

But Teshuvah and Tefillah and Tzedakah (Return and Prayer and Righteous Acts) deflect the evil of the decree.

In one instant we are confronted with all of our real and imagined challenges but also the potential for growth and the possibilities of renewal. In all other contexts, we would most likely reclaim the power to create our own destiny. But in this moment, we are suddenly brought to a different reality that our lives are not fully our own, and our future is not ours alone to construct. Not only does the pandemic remind us of our frailties but also our dramatic encounter with Rosh Hashanah. This poetic rendering brings into stark relief whether we own our lives.

Helen Plotkin reminds us about this moment:

But like many Jewish holidays they are a training ground for living all year. For 10 days we are in intensive training on this point: Something will happen and we don’t know what. We are in a plot, and we don’t get to write it. We would very much like to be in control of our own lives, but the fact is we are not. The great joys and sorrows will happen largely without our consent.[1]

Renewal, we are taught through these challenging verses, is framed through righteous actions. In what ways will we see ourselves as partners in the remaking the world? This New Year affords us an extraordinary opportunity to rethink our life’s journey amidst this pandemic.

Possibly, unlike any other Rosh Hashanah, as we exchange the traditional greeting: Leshana tovah tikatev – “May you be inscribed for a good year”- we offer these words with a very different understanding of its meaning and its message, especially its outcome!

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com

[1] https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/belief/articles/unetanah-tokef