Well, we’ve made it through a Rosh Hashanah for the ages (we hope!) and now we approach a Yom Kippur that will surely be unlike Days of Atonement past. In many ways, Yom Kippur is the most challenging of this series of COVID chagim; the prayers are longer, the heat seems hotter and we are fasting 25 hours to boot. Already, the prayer-planners are slicing and dicing the Machzor to streamline the coming prayer services – particularly those that will be held outside, where it is safer, yet warmer – and the rabbinic sermons have been shelved until next year (please hold your complaints to a minimum).
More than one congregant has wondered aloud why these abbreviated services can’t be permanently institutionalized. It reminds me of the Seinfeld routine where he questions the pilot’s announcement after a delayed departure: “Sorry we took off late, folks, we’ll try to make it up in the air.” Wonders Jerry: “If you can go faster now, then why don’t you always go that speed?!” We certainly have plenty of added motivation for our prayers this year. The virus has hit hard throughout the planet; striking indiscriminately, without warning, still defying a full knowledge of its long-term effects and lacking an antidote. This silent but deadly invader, invisible to the naked eye, ought to spur us to appeal in greater numbers and intensity to the God who also cannot be seen but – I hope that most of us would agree – is no less real than corona. In the “clash of the crowns,” we pray the King of Kings will prevail.
We might all add an extra Al Chet to the traditional list, “For the sin we have committed by not coming together as a nation to confront this crisis.” And to the sound of a breast being beaten, let us all recite: “We have blamed everyone else for our situation; we have cheated on the rules, we have led others astray, we have criticized without being constructive, we have bent Halacha to our own selfish desires, we have placed hafganot before health, we have played politics with people’s lives and livelihoods.” Plenty to go around, folks – something for everyone.
BUT THERE is also extraordinary blessing to be mined from our plight. The many heroes we’ve encountered, particularly in the medical sector; exceptional acts of chesed; admirable courage in the face of the loss of a loved one; unflinching faith in a future that cannot be predicted or planned. And the opportunity to contemplate our existence.
Two mighty figures stand out in the liturgy of Yom Kippur. One is Aaron the High Priest. He would enter the Holy of Holies but this one time each year, in order to pray for the nation’s forgiveness and Divine blessing. It was a moment fraught with drama and danger, for were his supplications to prove insufficient, his entire people might suffer the gravest of consequences. So how did Aaron prepare for this climactic confrontation with the Almighty? The Torah records that he prayed diligently for the atonement of himself, his family and the country at large.
The lesson here is clear: saving the world first begins by saving oneself. Looking outwards at others – particularly their faults and foibles – is not the key to redemption. No, that can only happen when we take a long, often painful look inwards, at both our own achievements and our failures, and resolve to correct the mistakes. Healing civilization and society is a tall order; only the very few can succeed at it. But, if we work hard, perhaps we can heal ourselves.
The other outstanding personality we encounter is Jonah. Like Aaron, he, too, is given a formidable task – to convince Nineveh, Assyria’s capital, to mend their ways and cease their immoral lifestyle. But unlike Aaron, Jonah – whose name means “dove” - shrinks from his responsibility and seeks to fly as far away as he can. His response to his Divine calling is Extreme Escapism; he boards a ship to remove himself from Israel’s holy environment; he goes to sleep in the hold, blissfully ignoring the storm raging above; and finally, he insists that he be thrown into the churning waters to his demise in the deep. He flees God at every turn.
But God will not be denied; he finds Jonah, even at the bottom of the sea, even hidden in a fish, and restores the prophet back to solid ground and his sacred mission. Ironically, despite Jonah’s elusive behavior, his plight will cause the idolatrous sailors to cast their idols overboard and recognize the One God, and both the king and citizens of Nineveh will later undergo their own “sea change” and reverse their evil course.
Aaron and Jonah are surely very different in their attitude and approach, yet each is a messenger of the Almighty, playing their part in an ongoing story of which we all are a part. There are many paths we can choose in this world; we can deny or affirm, grow or stagnate, we can shrug our shoulders or put them to the grind. An existential threat such as corona calls upon us, in the silence of our isolation and confinement, to think hard about our fate and our fortune.
As part of the Day of Atonement ritual, we will read about two goats; each has its own very different destiny and assignment. One will become a holy offering to God; the other will be sent to the wilderness to die a lonely death. When all is said and done, all the paths opening before us inevitably lead to God; that is perhaps the soul and the essence of Yom Kippur’s eternal message. Which one of these goats will we be? Which path will we take? That, dear reader, is left for each and every one of us to choose for ourselves. The writer is director of the Jewish Outreach Center of Ra’anana. email@example.com