On July 10th Congregation Shirat Hayam officially re-opened, and 150 people came to welcome our new cantor, Sarah Freudenberger. Proof of vaccination was required, and no one wore a mask except kids under 12. Seeing people and smiles in person for the first time in 16 months filled my heart with love and joy. We were still here and once again able to be with each other!
And then, on July 29th, the Washington Post reported that the CDC had determined that the delta variant “spreads as easily aschickenpox” and “[v]accinated people infected with delta have measurable viral loads similar to those who are unvaccinated and infected with the variant.”
Masks returned and Shabbat attendance declined as older adults, the immunocompromised, those with chronic conditions, and others had to stay home.
For a second year we will celebrate the High Holy Days during the coronavirus pandemic. Although almost every shul I know will offer in-person services, I expect that more people will participate from home than in-person. So, for many, it will be another year apart. For everyone, experience of community will be dampened.
As is often the case, Judaism offers an expansive perspective, an opportunity to see our reality within a larger context. We have survived plague and pandemic before. Rabbi Haim ben Betzalel of Friedberg writes in 1578 of a recurrence of the Black Plague and the need to remain locked inside – no one coming in, no one going out – for two months. Shivtei Ha-Besht tells of the plague in Israel in 1777 and the need to quarantine and create “pods” (i.e., a fixed group of people) for holding prayer services. Finally, during the third cholera pandemic (1846-1860), Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, also known as the Tzemach Tzedek, advised his followers to give tzedekah. He recognized both the spiritual power of tzedekah and the financial hardships that had occurred because of the pandemic.
Our ancestors managed life through pandemics and continued on. We can draw strength and hope from them while we experience pain and hardship.
Similarly, the Torah readings for Rosh Hashanah invite us to hold both hardship and hope. In the first reading, Abraham expels his son Yishmael and Hagar, who finds herself alone in the desert in despair, without water, fearing for the life of her son. In the second reading, God tells Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. The agony is explicit in the first story, and we can imagine it in the second. Both readings contain near-death experiences.
And yet, both are also stories of deliverance. In the first story, “an angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not ….’ ” (Genesis 21:17). In the second story, just before Abraham takes a knife to his son, “an angel of the LORD called to [Abraham] …. And he said, ‘Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him.’ ” (Genesis 22:11-12).
Both Biblical stories invite us to identify with the hardship and despair of the ancient ones and with the divine deliverance that they experience. We are allowed to acknowledge the reality of what is, and we are allowed to hope.
The Days of Awe are a time for reflection and renewal. Our scriptural readings invite us to enter them with a lev shalem, a whole heart, one that holds both the good and the bad. With hardship and hope, sadness and strength, we start the year anew.
May you and your family be written and sealed in the book of life for a good year.
Rabbi Michael Ragozin leads Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott.