Taking responsibility on Yom Kippur

The coronavirus may compel people to look at the world and their place in it this year in a very different way.

THE MOOD will be significantly different, far less numinous. But the lack of the traditional Yom Kippur synagogue experience may actually lead to a better ability to concentrate on the substance of the day (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
THE MOOD will be significantly different, far less numinous. But the lack of the traditional Yom Kippur synagogue experience may actually lead to a better ability to concentrate on the substance of the day
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Had the novel coronavirus swept the world in 1913, it is likely that modern Jewish philosophy would have been bereft of one of its most significant and original thinkers: Franz Rosenzweig.

Rosenzweig, a very assimilated Jewish-German intellectual, was on the way to conversion to Christianity that year when he decided that he had to convert as “a Jew, not as a ‘pagan.’” As a result, he decided that his last act as Jew would be to attend Yom Kippur services in a small shtiebel (informal local synagogue) in Berlin.

The awe of that experience touched something deep inside Rosenzweig, and he gave up his plans to convert, instead becoming a penitent (ba’al teshuva) and authoring The Star of Redemption, one of the seminal works of modern Jewish philosophy.

But, had 1913 been the year of the coronavirus and had social distancing been in effect in Berlin, it is likely that this particular synagogue service on Yom Kippur would not have taken place, or at least not with the same number of people or with the same fervor and awe that so moved Rosenzweig. He may very well have left the Jewish fold forever.

YOM KIPPUR – a day of highly personal reflection – has always been commemorated, paradoxically, in a communal setting: first in the Temple, and then in the synagogue.

During the Temple periods, multitudes of Jews would descend on Jerusalem to catch sight of the High Priest performing the day’s sacred atonement ceremonies spelled out in the Torah. Once the Temple was destroyed, the service – sans the performance of the priestly acts – moved to the synagogue.

As the Seder is to Passover, the synagogue is to Yom Kippur. For many, it is impossible to imagine Yom Kippur without sitting nearly the entire day in shul. That, along with the fast, is Yom Kippur.

Stories are legend and mentioned by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in the introduction to his Yom Kippur machzor, of the crypto-Spanish Jews (the Bnei Anusim), who on Kol Nidre would sneak into a synagogue to reaffirm their Judaism.

Today, well into the 21st century, the concept of three-times-a-year Jews still has currency, referring to Jews who – though with little daily connection to Judaism – make it a point to go to synagogue on the two days of Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur.

But now, with synagogues around the world either closed or functioning on a scaled-down basis, corona has taken away even that.

WHEN COVID-19 first became a significant issue in Israel just before Purim, putting a serious crimp on that holiday, few thought it would last through Passover. Then, when the pandemic forced millions of Jews in Israel and around the world to forgo large family Seders, few imagined it would last through the heat of the summer until Tisha Be’av, and then on into the High Holy Days of the Jewish month of Tishrei.

Yet here we are, with no let-up in sight, certainly not before Hanukkah; maybe – if we’re lucky – by next Passover... more likely, next Rosh Hashanah.

Yet Jews will readjust, rejigger and cope on this Yom Kippur, just as they did with the Passover Seder and with Rosh Hashanah.

Some will join prayer services via Zoom, others – especially in Israel – will participate in makeshift minyanim on the street. Although it will be a fundamentally different experience, especially for those tens of thousands of people in quarantine and unable to physically attend any type of service, some will surely emerge from the Ne’ila service (closing prayer on Yom Kippur) at the end of the day professing that this was the best Yom Kippur of their lives.

This phenomenon was widespread after the Passover Seder. Many who conducted a Seder for the first time by themselves – or only with their nuclear family living under the same roof –  said it was a positive experience, and that they discovered things about the evening and the Haggadah they never noticed when celebrating in a much larger setting.

The same is sure to happen with Yom Kippur. Some people will find the glass half-full in being forced to do things a bit differently, moving away from the known and the all-too-familiar –  which can often prove tiring and numbing – and discovering new dimensions to the day.

Others, who will not be able to observe Yom Kippur as they always have, will come to realize the truth in that axiom about only appreciating what you have when it’s gone.

Let’s start with those.

Who doesn’t kvetch about going to shul on Yom Kippur? Who hasn’t griped that the davening is too long, that the cantor needlessly schleps the prayers out forever or that his voice is no good, that the temperature is never right, or that the row you’re sitting in is too crowded? But now with corona upon us, it is as if the Almighty is saying to all who have complained about Yom Kippur services for all those years, “You want something to complain about, I’ll give you something to complain about.” You complained about the temperature in an air-conditioned shul; go ahead and fast and pray on the street under Israel’s sweltering sun.

You kvetched about the cantor all those years? At least you had one who knew what he was doing, who had a passable voice and knew all the tunes. Now you’ll get some guy without much of a voice who is unfamiliar with leading the services, but who has kindly stepped up after all those who are actually proficient at leading the demanding Yom Kippur services have been gobbled up by one of the many other minyanim on the streets.

And you complained about your row being too crowded and the seat not sufficiently padded – have fun now sitting for hours on one of those white Keter plastic chairs.

THERE is something to the synagogue setting on Yom Kippur – the gravity of the moment, the familiar tunes, the power of hundreds of voices coming together – that creates a certain awe that will simply be absent with 20 people praying on a sidewalk, moving their chairs with the steadily rising sun to seek shelter under scattered trees. The mood will be significantly different, far less numinous.

But the lack of the traditional Yom Kippur synagogue experience may actually lead to a better ability to concentrate on the substance of the day. The coronavirus may compel people to look at the world and their place in it this year in a very different way.

Certainly, individual prayers will take on added meaning, such as the line in the Untaneh Tokef prayer: “But Repentance, Prayer and Charity avert the evil decree.”

The verse in the Avinu Malkeinu prayer, “Our Father, Our King, withhold the plague from Your heritage,” will resonate in a way it has not for over a century. Who thought that a pandemic would upend our lives when they recited this verse last year?

And another verse in that stirring prayer will have greater meaning this year than in the past: “Our Father, our King, send a complete healing to the sick of Your people.”

Holidays become special because of their atmosphere, and the synagogue has traditionally set the tone for that august Yom Kippur atmosphere.

In a congregation of hundreds, if you don’t sing, it doesn’t matter, there are more than enough people whose voices will join together. If you don’t participate, there are others who will take part and compensate for your silence. But in a small minyan on the street, everyone counts. If you read instead of sing during the prayers, the atmosphere will be flat.

In non-corona years, one could count on the synagogue and others – the rabbi, the cantor, the other congregants – to make it feel like Yom Kippur. This year that responsibility will fall on every individual. And that, however, might not necessarily be a bad thing.