Photo taken by Beverly Copen from computer during recorded service
Rabbi Alicia Magal’s Drashot for
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur 2020 5781
This year 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 challenges
First welcome 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 renewal.
1. Erev Rosh Hashanah
At 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.
So 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!
If I, 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 that.
That 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.
The 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.
This 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.
Tomorrow 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.
This 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 tears.
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 better.
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 day.
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 journey together.
Let this truly be a day of at-one-ment.