Corona, coronation and Yom Kippur

If the coronavirus crisis has taught us anything, it is that the assumptions we make, whether consciously or not, shape much of how we experience the world.

COVID-19 Is akin to the pail, casting a fetid odor over the holidays and disrupting their rhythms (photo credit: NEEDPIX.COM)
COVID-19 Is akin to the pail, casting a fetid odor over the holidays and disrupting their rhythms
(photo credit: NEEDPIX.COM)
In a year quite unlike any other, it is hardly surprising that the High Holy Days have gotten off to an unparalleled start.

All the usual trappings, such as packed synagogues on Rosh Hashanah or large gatherings of family and friends, were markedly and painfully absent.

And even as socializing has devolved into social distancing, and politics into pugilism, Israelis now face the prospect of an increasingly restrictive lockdown in advance of Sukkot.

This is not how it was supposed to be.

Or is it?

If the coronavirus crisis has taught us anything, it is that the assumptions we make, whether consciously or not, shape much of how we experience the world.

Indeed, all of the disappointment that has been expressed, all the sorrow and poignancy surrounding the start of the new year, are a direct function of our expectations, of the way we think that things ought to be.

Our very idea of normalcy has been put to the test, shaking the assumptions that underlie much of how we view the world.

In some quiet moments of reflection on Rosh Hashanah, it occurred to me that one of the most human of yearnings – “Why can’t things just go back to the way they were?” – is also one of our greatest vulnerabilities.

Instead of accepting reality, and grappling with it as best we can, we cling to something that once was or that may never be, inevitably setting ourselves up for disillusionment and discontent. If we could just find a way to “go with the flow” – to accept the fact that as important as we think we are, we are each just specks of dust in the grand scheme of things – so much unnecessary anguish could be avoided.

Perhaps that is precisely one of the key lessons of Rosh Hashanah, a central theme of which is recognizing God’s kingship and supremacy.

By definition, as subjects of a Higher Power, none of us has the right or authority to expect our every wish to be fulfilled, every hope to be realized and every dream to come to fruition.

Nonetheless, we do it anyway, in the process forgetting our place in the world and the fleeting nature of life.

Just look at the extent to which people will go to cling to their own sense of what must be. Each night, it seems, the news brings more reports of yet another mass demonstration, enormous wedding or covert party being held despite the pandemic and soaring rate of infection.

Some people are so wedded to their own insistence on how reality should be that it seems to take precedence over their own personal safety and that of those around them.

As distressing as the overlap of COVID-19 and the High Holy Days has been, we would all do well to utilize this experience to reorient our perceptions and perspective.

Corona, the Spanish word for “crown,” and Rosh Hashanah, the day of God’s coronation, demand that we each take charge of our own fate while embracing the cold, hard fact that no human being is ever truly and fully in control.

Shortly, on the Day of Atonement, we will all have an opportunity to do just that.

After all, will it still be Yom Kippur this year without the packed rows and aisles for Kol Nidre, or the stirring crescendo of voices rising heavenward at the end of Ne’ila, when the entire congregation declares its fidelity to God?

Of course it will.

It may not be similar to last year, or the year before, but it is Yom Kippur nonetheless, even if it does not meet each and every one of our expectations.

THERE IS a hassidic story about two brothers, the famed Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk and Rabbi Zushe of Hanipoli, which conveys this message far more effectively than I can.

Known for their love and concern for all, Rabbi Elimelech and Rabbi Zushe frequently posed as simple beggars, to blend in with the masses in order to be with them, guide and assist them.

On one occasion while with a group of people, they were rounded up by the authorities, who falsely accused them of being thieves and tossed them behind bars.

As the hour of the afternoon Mincha prayer approached, Rabbi Elimelech began to prepare to recite the service, but then his brother pointed out the presence of a pail in the small cell that inmates used to relieve themselves. According to Jewish law, this rendered the place unfit for the recitation of prayers.

Realizing that his brother was correct, Rabbi Elimelech sat down, despondent that he would not be able to pray. He began to weep.

“Why do you cry?” asked Rabbi Zushe. “The same God Who commanded you to pray also commanded you not to do so in a situation such as this. So, by choosing not to pray in the presence of the filthy pail, you are fulfilling His will and thereby connecting with Him, even if it is not in the way you would have liked.” “And that,” said Rabbi Zushe, “is itself a reason to rejoice.”

Moved by his brother’s words, Rabbi Elimelech leapt to his feet, declaring to Rabbi Zushe that he was correct. He then proceeded to dance with him, savoring the opportunity to uphold the Halacha of refraining from worship in an unfit place.

When the guards saw the two dancing, they demanded to know what was going on. Equally mystified, the other cellmates demurred, telling them, “Those two Jews were looking at the pail in the corner and then they suddenly started to laugh and celebrate”.

Upon hearing this, the guards grew angry, unable to tolerate the sight of two Jews filled with joy. So out of spite, they promptly removed the pail from the cell and went back to their stations, leaving Rabbi Elimelech and Rabbi Zushe free to pray after all.

Perhaps there is a lesson in this for us as we prepare to observe Yom Kippur in the shadow of the pandemic.

COVID-19 is akin to the pail, casting a fetid odor over the holidays and disrupting their rhythms. It has impinged upon our usual way of doing things.

We can shout at it, rage about it or dismiss it, wondering why on earth we can’t spend the Day of Atonement as in years past. Or, as Rabbi Zushe and Rabbi Elimelech taught us, we can accept our situation, subsume our will to that of the Creator, and make the most of the situation in which we find ourselves.

In this one respect, we do have control. We have the free will to choose how we each relate to our individual and collective realities. May we all choose well. 
The writer is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and other hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people.