Photo taken by Beverly Copen from computer during recorded service
Rabbi Alicia Magal’s Drashot for
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur 2020 5781
because of the isolation and distancing necessitated by the Covid 19 pandemic I
had to ask myself what the essence of the High Holy Days are and how to
“translate” them through Zoom, Livestreaming, or pre-recorded services.
I wrote out a few of the essential elements of the High Holy Days and the
soul work of the Days of Awe. My task was how to express them in new ways
through virtual technology … not just at the services but throughout the month
of Elul leading up to the Ten Days of Awe.
Community and Connection
Sense of renewal, new beginnings
And so… I decided to coordinate a
series of experiences, including a Honey Cake Bake on Zoom; individual Tashlich
guide; a 3-congregation Zoom session on Kindness, Self-care, and Mitzvot; a
Second Day Rosh Hashanah study discussion on Jeremiah and prophecy; afternoon
discussion on Zoom to share past Yom Kippur memories and aspirations for the
coming year, etc. and called it:
A Journey through the High Holy Day Season.
Theme: Breaking down and remaking: overcoming
at beginning of Erev Rosh Hashanah service
Shalom to every person joining us to begin our celebration of Rosh
Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. I stand here in our sanctuary, and it is empty.
No bustle of greetings and hugs or reunions after people would be returning
from summer vacations, trips, or
cruises. And yet, I feel your presence,
and reach out to you in your homes which are now an extension of this
sanctuary. Each person‘s home is
considered a mikdash me’at. A
smaller model of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert, the glorious Temple
that stood in Jerusalem. I invited
everyone to create consciously a mikdash me’at in preparation for these
High Holy Day virtual services… Perhaps you draped your chair or table with a
pretty cloth, or took out a Kiddush cup, candle sticks, or other Judaic
ceremonial objects to make this space not a workspace but a prayer space for
the duration of these Ten Days of Awe.
We are actually lucky. There are
some of my colleagues who cannot even get to their sanctuary or their Torahs
which are now in storage. They will be reading from the printed Tanakh, Bible,
rather than from their Torah scrolls. Let’s be grateful for
what we can do to pray together under these extraordinary circumstances. We are using the
technology we have mastered and have developed new ways to connect with our
This year for our services, we have sent everyone a pdf file of a Machzor,
an edited prayer book for the High Holy Days.
But we will also be sharing many of the pages on the screen so that you
don’t have to refer to that file on another device or print out so many pages. Let’s
find value and comfort and delight and gratitude for what we ARE able to do
during these Ten Days of Awe, a time of honest reflection, and hopeful
1. Erev Rosh Hashanah
each of our holy days and festivals we look back at our history because we are
re-enacting the journey and lessons of our ancestors. At Passover it is as if we ourselves are
being released from slavery and entering the wilderness on the way to the
Promised Land. At Shavuot we stand at the foot of Mt. Sinai and receive Torah
all over again. At the pilgrimage
festivals we take time to consider our personal harvest and, though we cannot
walk miles to the Temple in Jerusalem to make an offering, we can do the
contemporary equivalent, which is to feel gratitude for our bounty, and make
donations to support the needy in our community, and to ensure the continuity
of our synagogue and Jewish institutions. At the High Holy Days, we reconnect
with how Jews throughout history took stock of themselves personally and as a
community, reviewed their actions over the past year, made amends with people
they may have hurt, even inadvertently, and prayed sincerely for forgiveness
for their failings and mistakes.
we too each year come to the New Year and set aside our pride and our certainty
that we are “good people” and truly ask ourselves, “Where have we missed the
mark, or failed to help where assistance was needed, or caused pain to someone
by our words or deeds? The shofar
signals us to wake up and hear the sometimes uncomfortable truth about
ourselves. So I ask you to turn a true
soul mirror to yourself and ask “What do I regret doing or failing to do in
this past year?” No one else has to hear your words, but you must have the
courage to say them!
as your rabbi, have caused you pain by my words or failed to be present at your
time of need, I truly apologize and wish to clear up any misunderstandings or
hurts. We often do not realize the
impact of our words, or tone, as others hear us. During the month of Elul was the perfect time
to call up people and have the conversation asking for forgiveness, and if we
can, finding it in our hearts to forgive others. There is still time to do
doesn’t ever mean to condone grave sins or abusive actions, but it does let us
move past these incidents and be free to enjoy the next chapters of our life
without the heavy anchor of hurt feelings or depression dragging us down.
shofar breaks open the heavens and, some say, reveals the Book of Life. Ah, how we hope and pray to be written in
that book for the coming year. I don’t
take it so very literally… but rather see the Book of Life as the true record
that follows our words and actions throughout the year. Those pages have been
written on actually by us. What
our fate is no one can tell, as we say in the Unetaneh Tokef prayer, “Who
shall live and who shall die….” but the Book of Living Fully, using our talents
and experiences, and qualities……. THAT is up to us to inscribe.
particular past year tested us in completely new ways. Not like a hurricane or
flood or earthquake that was a crisis of short duration from which we could
recover fairly quickly, but rather a months-long and still continuing change in
our social fabric, habits, and freedom.
I will speak more about both the huge costs and losses as well as the surprising
blessings, opportunities, and gifts we are finding during this unique time.
2. Rosh Hashanah morning
This morning as we
connect through the magic of recordings and internet, we are also connecting
back through history to our most ancient roots.
Actually we are reading about Creation, the very beginnings of our world. If we trace our history, we see so many times
when life didn’t go smoothly, when there was The Flood, and mankind began
again, when our people were enslaved and needed Moses to break free and head
toward the Promised Land. There were also
times of building up, settling, creating systems of judges, living under an
ethical system with the Temple in Jerusalem as the central holy place for
bringing offerings at appointed times.
And then there were
times of brokenness, none so great as the Destruction of the First and later
the Second Temple, with the city of Jerusalem in ruins. By 70 CE this was a moment of brokenness and
could have signaled the very end of our people’s history. But Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai got himself
smuggled out of Jerusalem by his students in a coffin, made his way to Yavne on
the coast, and went to the Roman general Vespasian, hailed him as Emperor
(which title actually came to pass) and only asked “Give me Yavne and its
scholars,” a request that was granted.
From that modest
beginning came a huge transformation of Judaism from Temple-centered to
decentralized synagogues; from ceremonies performed by an inherited dynasty of
Cohanim, the priests and Levites, to rabbis who, from any level of society, by
study and moral learning, could be granted leadership roles; and instead of the
sacrifice of animals, grain, and fruits, Jews brought the offerings of their
heart in prayer and Tzedakah, righteous giving to support the poor, the orphan,
the widow, and the ones without protection or voice.
is a Yavne moment for us. We must do as they
did, and instead of dwelling on what we can no longer do as we did before, must
look up with faith and resilience, and say, “How can we remain true to our
tradition and the essence of its teachings but in a whole new way? It is easy
to list all the ways we cannot perform our services and communal gatherings as
we did last year, but let’s look at how, in so many ways, we have
honored and fulfilled the essence of what these High Holy Days ask of us and
what we yearn to accomplish through them:
We have prepared our
homes and our hearts for this time of Teshuvah, of returning to our best values
and teachings, we have found ways to connect through Zoom and livestreaming
technology even for funerals and shiva minyanim, we have sought ways to pray
together, keeping our morning minyan going without a break, reaching out across
the miles through our computers, ipads, and phones. We have learned together bringing
in speakers and people from other congregations and communities and have kept
in touch with members who have moved away through technology that never would
have been possible just a few years ago. We have found ways to keep our
community connection strong, to celebrate Seders and simchas, Friday nights and
Havdalah, and created new avenues of expressing our need to be together for
joyous and sad times, and we succeeded.
I’m sure that some of
these avenues will remain open and appealing even when we once again can safely
congregate. We will have added to our repertoire as Jews, we will have brought
new layers of meaning and mastery to our tradition. We will have learned from our difficult and
inspiring history and will claim this Yavne moment as another turning
point. We, as a people, survived the
Holocaust, established the modern and miraculous State of Israel, and are
committed to proclaiming all the positive reasons we are proud of our identity
as Jews. We can overcome every obstacle if we continue to look in every age at how
we can improve, heal, and repair what is broken.
We are in the midst
of those 40 days when Moses was back up on Mt. Sinai receiving the second set
of tablets after he had broken the first set in anger when he came down the
first time and saw the Children of Israel worshipping the Golden Calf. According to tradition, he ascended on the
first of Elul, and came back down on Yom Kippur, a sign that we were forgiven,
and our greatest gift from God was restored.
Do you know that we kept the broken tablets in the ark along with the
complete second set and carried both the broken and whole in the ark through
the wilderness! It is a lesson that we
too carry our brokenness with us and honor the lessons we learned from our
failings and mistakes and even sins, since they form a part of us. If we
embrace all of who we are and all that we have done, then we can move forward
in our own search for forgiveness and wholeness.
3. Kol Nidre
This service is the Eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, but we
usually call it by the important music we heard at the beginning of the
service, Kol Nidre, which means All our vows. One can imagine that during the Crusades and
the Inquisition and other times of horrendous oppression and danger that our
people were forced to make vows they did not mean and would not keep. In our day it has come to mean that we look
at the promises we made or might make and though we may try our very best, we
may find it impossible to keep, sometimes through no fault of our own. How many plans were changed, canceled, and
impossible to fulfill this past year because of the pandemic. That is why it is traditional to say I’ll see
you on Thursday, b’ezrat Hashem….
with the help of God, because who knows what might prevent me carrying
out that promise from now to then? We
say, “Bli Neder,” without making a vow. Any of our plans, schedules,
promises, are only intentions, and we can never be sure they will come to
fruition. So, this release of vows even
now when we all live in freedom is still so compelling. The music is haunting and brings us to
The message is a softening of our self-image. We are not perfect.
We will mess up. We are human. And we will keep on trying, but we should be
very, very careful not to assume that we are totally in control. We have free will, and yet, things will
happen to upset our plans. There will be
storms, illness, loss, unexpected reverses of fortune, a pandemic like this
year which upended most of our plans and for the most part kept us from seeing
loved ones and friends. So this is a
time when we let go of our mask, our Facebook selfie image we usually project
to the world, and we contemplate what really really really
matters in our life. We need to be a little broken tonight, a little
vulnerable, a little open to seeing our cracks, without explaining… or
defending… or excusing.
As Leonard Cohen sings in
Anthem about cracks…
Forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything,
that’s how the light gets in. That’s where
the light gets in. Let’s let in that light through our prayers, our asking for
forgiveness, our admission that we can yet improve and that we raise each other
up as a community no matter what the obstacles are.
Our brothers and sisters in Israel face huge obstacles and constant
attacks but yet show creativity –in the arts, inventiveness in technology and
agriculture, and a willingness to help even those nations which don’t recognize
Israel’s legitimacy. Rather they make
constant attempts to make peace with neighbors in the region. With all their
complexity, they deserve our support and honor.
We join with Jews all around the world to stand up proudly for our
heritage and mission.
Let’s keep on promising and planning, and making our lives a
blessing, even as we realize we may not complete our tasks. The important thing is to know we have a soul
mission and keep on trying again.
May we be written in the book of Living Fully for this coming year.
4. Yom Kippur morning
Looking forward, what we gained, learned,
decided, how we grew…changing our perspective. What did we regret most, and how
did we show our resilience.
This whole day
until sundown tonight is a continuation of the Day of Atonement that began last
night. We sincerely ask for forgiveness
with an open heart, and with the faith that we will be granted
forgiveness. By the end of the day we
will be able to look forward, filled with a sense that we did our soul work, we
gained understanding, we have grown, we have changed our perspective. That’s
not easy to do -- to overcome habit and routine, and our own unconscious bias
and blindness. Our people have suffered
throughout history, and have also had some periods of relative freedom and
success, and always emphasized learning and study, both through the good times
and the bad. We have offered our hands
to help the needy and the oppressed, and continue to do that in our own day. Going
through an alphabetical list of a range of sins, of ways we failed to act from
our very highest values, is humbling, but allows us to admit what we
most regret, and now how we resolve to do better, to make real and positive
changes, and show resilience. God does not expect us to be perfect, only
Perhaps you are
fasting. That is harder when you are
home and not at synagogue all day, but even if you just reduce the amount of
food, and even if you are not allowed to fast for medical reasons, you should still
feel elevated and more spiritual, not concerned with regular physical
tasks. We wear white, no leather shoes, and we fast so that we are more like the angels –
we are closer to our spiritual selves, more like the biblical patriarch Israel
- his spiritual name - rather than Jacob, his earthly name. Perhaps if you have
a Hebrew name, use it today. My Hebrew name is Amalia, which translates as “worker
of God.” It was my mother’s mother’s name, and I carry that lineage of my
namesake who perished in the Holocaust.
This afternoon at
Yizkor we will remember ALL those whose names and memories we carry.
I invite you to
take out pictures of loved ones who have passed away, and put them near the
memorial candle that you lit last night… and which will continue to burn all
Our job is to allow
ourselves to be broken, yes, broken, like those shattered tablets, and to feel
sorrow, and remorse, and then to do the healing and repair
necessary to reawaken our sense of aliveness and joy. This is time-out-of-time set aside for each
one of us but with the loving support of the whole community.
We take that
Let this truly
be a day of at-one-ment.