Celebrating the High Holidays in Difficult Times

By Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman

On two Sundays in August, one by one and at thirty-minute intervals, members of Shaarei Shamayim entered our building to chant their Torah portions for the High Holidays. Our videographer recorded each of them so we could play the recordings at our virtual High Holiday services. It took hours, but listening to them was one of the most meaningful experiences I had this month.

It was a stark reminder that we will not be together in person this year. We won’t share holiday meals, see old friends, and pack into a synagogue. We won’t sing together. Many of us, myself included, feel so much loss right now with the holidays approaching. Nevertheless, our Torah readers gave me hope that we can make these holidays special, even if they will be different. They spent hours preparing, and they chanted their portions beautifully. It occurred to me that we could have just skipped the holidays or moved through the motions without much care, but our readers – many of them teenagers – brought a sense of intentionality that I found quite moving. They taught me that preparing a Torah portion matters so much right now. They taught me that we can each bring ourselves to these holidays — even if they are, honestly, a little weird on Zoom.

Most of us are experiencing real challenges and deep anxiety right now. We are stressed to be sending our toddlers to childcare centers or our older kids to school in their bedrooms. We are worried about how safe the university will be now that it has opened. We have lost our jobs or seen a reduction in our income. We are isolated at home and nervous about the spread of COVID. We are working at a job that doesn’t feel safe. We are outraged by white supremacy and racial injustice. We are afraid that our democracy is slipping away. We are fearful about the impending election. At this time, it’s more important than ever that we come together. We have to make these holidays special to remind us to be intentional, to focus on what really matters, and to immerse ourselves in community and Jewish tradition.

When we hear the sound of the shofar, we are taught to open our hearts. The intensity of the sound offers an opportunity to allow in the divine presence. Let’s let it soothe us, but also compel us to make change. This Rosh Hashanah, may we engage in deep personal reflection, make amends in our relationships, and turn to our best selves. Let’s let the shofar blast be a wake-up call to build a just world. Let’s fight injustice and hatred and create a world we actually want to live in.

This year at Shaarei Shamayim, we welcome back our High Holiday Cantor, Shira Stanford-Asiyo, who will be leading us virtually from Vancouver. All are welcome to join us online or attend our small outdoor gatherings. Visit us at www.shamayim.org/highholidays for more information.

On behalf of Congregation Shaarei Shamayim, I wish the Madison Jewish community a shanah tovah, a new year filled with sweetness, health, and happiness.

Laurie Zimmerman is the Rabbi at Congregation Shaarei Shamayim.

Disclaimer: The From Our Rabbis feature seeks to provide a platform representing the diversity of our community clergy. The views, information, or opinions expressed in the From Our Rabbis articles are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Jewish Federation of Madison.