At this moment in the season – marked by the High Holydays, the return to school, the end of summer vacations – the traditional themes simply do not fit. Much to our distress, it is not a time of new beginnings. Much to our disappointment, it is not a time of endings. It does not even merit the Churchillian juncture, prompted by the 1942 Second Battle of El Alamein, of being the end of the beginning rather than the beginning of the end.
The coronavirus still rages across the country. We still feel fear in the streets, in stores, even in the sanctuary, a term that has lost much of its meaning in this season of COVID. We still wear masks. Our political system has not been purged of tension. Our public conversation still is animated by conspiracy theories. We still do not understand why our rivals, or even our neighbors, think the way they do – about the virus, about vaccinations, about the infrastructure bill, about the Senate filibuster, about Donald J. Trump or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
We have had High Holydays before that were marred by some of these sorts of divisions and conflicts. The years 1942 (as America settled into the Second World War), 1968 (after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy and the tumult at the Democratic National Convention), and 2001 (after the terrorist attacks in Manhattan, Pennsylvania and Washington) come to mind. But seldom, at least in peacetime, have we begun a year with so many persistent anxieties – though last year comes close.
As a result, rabbis are struggling with their High Holydays sermons. (So, too, are columnists for Jewish newspapers whose remit is to mark this moment.) That is because little seems new, and less seems resolved. Instead, this is a time of unrequited wishes and dashed hopes. Instead, this seems like a time when the question of who shall live and who shall die – a phrase with unusual resonance for Jews even in ordinary times – seems urgent, intimate, even dangerous. It is not only by fire and by water (though fires rage and water surges these days) or by sword or by beast (though wars continue and bats are widely blamed for the pandemic) that we are in danger today.
“This season just is not feeling as ‘new’ as I hoped it would,” said Rabbi David J. Meyer of Temple Emanu-El in Marblehead. “It is not only the delta variant. There also is a tension, a divisiveness within American society, that doesn’t seem to be healing of itself. The question always is what feels new. This year so much seems the same.”
Even so, at this passage especially, there is a human need – it is not too much to say a human craving – for the creation of a sense of novelty and freshness, a breeze of new opportunity and, let it be said, a sentiment of new beginnings.
And if those beginnings seem elusive – if they do not, to cadge a phrase from the Book of Isaiah, soar on wings like eagles; or run and not grow weary, or walk and not be faint – then surely it is true that, as the prophet said, those who hope in God might at this season renew their strength.
They – we – might start in a counterintuitive way, by seeing fresh hope in some elements of the past.
To wit: In our pre-holiday hibernation we learned to reach outside our homes even if we did not venture outside. (This was in part a function of new technology that, had the pandemic occurred even a half decade ago, would have altered the character of the crisis entirely.) We kept our values, especially at a time when it was believed that the masks we donned did not protect us so much as they protected others. (That “truth” now has been altered, but the sentiment was noble, and ennobling.) Services were held remotely, and then in parks and gardens. (The sermons and the soothing rhythms of our chants and prayers were only slightly less intimate than they might have been in person.)
My friend the columnist Ellen Goodman once said that at the turn of the calendar we find ourselves “walking through our lives, room by room, drawing up a list of work to be done, cracks to be patched.” With so much work to be done, and so many cracks to be patched, I called up my one-time Boston Globe colleague and found wisdom in her reflections on her own words.
“We are not sure we are looking forward so much as we are looking backward – to all the suffering, all the losses,” she said from her seaside retreat in Maine. “The end of a year and a beginning of the new year with all of its harvest and hopes is very real but this year is also a little dicey. We don’t know whether we have come to the end of something, and we don’t know what new is ahead of us. This is a tender time.”
Last year at this time I struggled with what to write about new beginnings at a time when nothing seemed new and no beginnings were on the horizon. I typed up a passage about the symbolism of the round challah, with no beginning and no end, not thinking that a year later there would be a fragile beginning of the return to normal life but no end to the threat and misery of the virus. “With the coronavirus stubbornly sticking with us, the health crisis, the fear, the social distancing, the quarantine – they all seem to have no end.” I wrote that sentence last year. I am merely retyping it this year.
But as I do so, I am taking comfort – you might, too – in the words of the inspirational writer Alan Cohen, whose insight has real power at this season: “Do not wait until the conditions are perfect to begin. Beginning makes the conditions perfect.”
So – as John F. Kennedy said in his 1961 Inaugural Address – let us begin.
And in doing so, perhaps we might find succor in an unusual place, in a speech best remembered for the phrase “Let us continue,” a deliberate echo of the Kennedy Inaugural that was suggested by Horace Busby, a longtime aide to Lyndon B. Johnson, Mr. Kennedy’s successor, and a onetime occasional historical mentor to me.
That “let us continue” speech was delivered by Mr. Johnson, newly sworn in at a terrible November juncture in our history, and in his speech before a joint session of Congress, the 36th president – son of a Baptist mother, himself a self-proclaimed adherent of the Disciples of Christ, baptized at age 15 in the Pedernales River during a summertime revival meeting service of the First Christian Church of Johnson City – uttered words Jews might embrace more than a half century later:
“We meet in grief; but let us also meet in renewed dedication and renewed vigor. Let us meet in action, in tolerance and in mutual understanding … The time has come for Americans of all races and creeds and political beliefs to understand and to respect one another. So let us put an end to the teaching and the preaching of hate and evil and violence. Let us turn away from the fanatics of the far left and the far right, from the apostles of bitterness and bigotry, from those defiant of law, and those who pour venom into our nation’s bloodstream. I profoundly hope that the tragedy and the torment of these terrible days will bind us together in new fellowship, making us one people in our hour of sorrow.”
Let us continue. Let us begin.
David M. Shribman is executive editor emeritus of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He led the newspaper’s coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting that won the Pulitzer Prize.