If this were last year – if this were the last month of a 162-game Red Sox season, if the Celtics were in preseason warmups for an 82-game season ahead rather than having labored in the NBA bubble in Florida, if sunbathers were still lingering in tight clusters on Singing Beach and Crane Beach – I would start this column this way: New year, new beginning. And if this were next year – perhaps with a more robust Sox team, with an ordinary pro basketball season, and with a summer of beach leisure behind us – I would also start this column this way: New year, new beginning.
But it’s not last year nor next, and the advent of a new year is not bringing much of a new beginning. This year more than most, we can see the symbolism in the round challah served this season. That round challah has no beginning and no end. With the coronavirus stubbornly sticking with us, the health crisis, the fear, the social distancing, the quarantine – they all seem to have no end.
Maybe that is not such an unusual phenomenon. Sally Priesand, who in 1972 became the first female ordained rabbi in America, believes that the High Holy Days prompt consideration of both repetition and change, and that these days are “an opportunity to think about how repetition can be a meaningful part of our lives.” Our lives this past year have been nothing if not freighted by change – and then repetitive.
Even so, at this High Holy Days season we mark a new year but, sadly, not much of a new beginning.
At this season, we customarily grow more contemplative, more reflective. We examine our conduct and our relationships, to be sure, but we also examine our sense of purpose and measure our values against our performance. This Rosh Hashanah may mark the beginning of a new year but it does not mark the beginning of that sort of inner evaluation. The hurt, the isolation, the death of the last two-thirds of the Hebrew year 5780 – together they have made all of us more aware of the fragility of life but, moreover, together they have prompted months of the kind of contemplation we ordinarily confine to this season.
One of the Mekhilta spiritual rules teaches us that “all beginnings are hard.’’ This beginning is hard because it is also a continuation. Remember this about the virus: It spreads, it extends its range, it has no respect for boundaries or calendars.
Pass the challah. It’s round.
And gather round to remember that after 40 years of wandering, and many more years of exile, Jews found it difficult to see a positive future – but members of that ancient band made plans for the Promised Land. In so doing, they kept hope alive.
And yet there is more to contemplate at this season than the virus that has dominated our lives until now – and that will dominate it well into 5781 and the secular year 2021.
Last month, President Donald J. Trump traveled to the swing state of Wisconsin for a political speech. “We moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem,” Mr. Trump said, which wasn’t exactly true, as Jerusalem has been Israel’s official capital since 1949. But no one missed the point: The president moved the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018. “That’s for the evangelicals. You know, it’s amazing with that – the evangelicals are more excited by that than Jewish people. It’s incredible.”
But what is also “incredible,’’ or at least intriguing, is that polls show that American Jews are as supportive, or perhaps even more supportive, of Israel now than they were five years ago. A poll of 2,500 Jews undertaken by the Ruderman Family Foundation found that 80 percent of those surveyed said they were “pro-Israel,” with 67 percent reporting that they were emotionally “attached” or “very attached” to Israel.
New year, but not a new beginning.
I’m a political columnist most weeks of the year, but this is not a political column and you won’t find any advice, predictions, or points of view in this column. I don’t do that. (It’s not against my religion; two out of five of the American Jews in the Ruderman poll said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s support for Mr. Trump and the administration’s policies were the principal reason for their criticisms of the Jewish state.) But I will affirm what both Trump and Joe Biden say – perhaps the only thing on which both candidates agree: that this election has consequences.
More than a half century ago, but within living memory, former Vice President Richard M. Nixon undertook his second presidential campaign. In that difficult year of 1968 – the year the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, the year riots broke out at the Chicago site of the Democratic National Convention – one of his slogans has unusual resonance for us in 2020: Vote like your whole world depended on it.
Mr. Nixon, to be sure, was no hero of the Jewish people; he won only 17 percent of the Jewish vote against Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey that year, about the same as he won eight years earlier when he ran against Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. But his slogan was a powerful statement in a time of upheaval much like our own – and in its way it was a peculiarly Jewish statement growing out of one of the principal meanings of this season.
“The High Holy Days force us to confront the radically unpredictable trajectory of our lives and live as if every single day truly might be our last,” Rabbi Natalie Louise Shribman, who was my young daughter before she was the mature leader of Temple Beth El of Dubuque, Iowa, said in one of her sermons at this season. She explained to her congregants, and to her father, that this time reminds us “that what we do really matters; that our actions have consequences, and those actions will be remembered.’’
Those actions are in our everyday lives, and in our meditations at this season, and they are in quarantine and in social distancing. They are not hidden by masks nor do they remain behind Plexiglass windows.
And so perhaps this can be said, not at the beginning of this column but maybe at the end: New year. Maybe the possibility of a new start after all.
David M. Shribman received the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for his writing on American political culture. A North Shore native, he was executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 16 years and led the newspaper’s coverage of the Tree of Life massacre that won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize.