Rabbi Sam Bregman: Jewish High Holidays during pandemic will be different, but hold timeless message for all

Let us pray that we will all redouble our commitment to being truly good to one another, and multiply our love for good deeds

For Jews around the world, sundown Friday begins the annual High Holiday season, starting with the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashana, followed by Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) 10 days later.

The COVID-19 pandemic will make this a most unusual season for the observance of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar. It will be the first time in the lives of many Jews that they are unable to attend High Holiday synagogue or temple services, and unable to gather with family and friends.

The Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services are always the most heavily attended of the year — but not this year.

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Just as the restrictions on public worship designed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus were difficult for Christians worldwide during this past Easter, so too this High Holiday season will pose unique pandemic-related challenges for Jewish people.

Aside from the lost opportunity for communal worship, Judaism has a requirement that a minyan — a group of at least 10 Jewish adults — is needed for certain religious obligations, including public prayer.

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Praying at home this year will result in the lost opportunity to recite specific communal prayers, such as Kaddish and Yizkor for loved ones who have passed away; the inability to hear the Torah read publicly; and the inability to fulfill the commandment of hearing the shofar (ram’s horn) blown.

 Of course, the peculiarities attendant to some synagogue worship this year notwithstanding, the messages of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur remain a timeless one for people of all faiths.

 According to Jewish tradition, every holiday contains latent spiritual energies that one is able to profoundly access, corresponding to the essence and historical significance of the day.

 Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, for example, are deeply affiliated with the idea of personal renewal, and the ability for a human being to chart a fresh course in his or her life — particularly with respect to deeds of kindness and selflessness towards others.

 What is the source for this?

 The Torah explains that Rosh Hashana corresponds to the 6th Day of Creation in the Bible — the day that God created Adam and Eve — as well as it being the birthday of the Patriarchs Abraham and Jacob. It thus becomes an annual inflection point to contemplate the lives we have been living in public and private, and to pivot as necessary.

And as we recite in the High Holiday prayer book: “Let the year and its curses conclude, and let the New Year and its blessings begin!”

Similarly, Yom Kippur corresponds to the day that God forgave the Jewish people for the grievous sin of worshipping the Golden Calf on their long journey from slavery in Egypt back to their eternal homeland in Israel. This enabled the Jews to renew their relationship with Him with freshness, forgiveness and a new beginning.

It is axiomatic that there are basically two types of people in this world: those who are self-centered, and those who are other-centered.

Of course, every person needs to take care of himself or herself. But there is also a unique, soulful pleasure that comes from bettering the lives of others around us, and multiplying our own involvement in acts of kindness.

Although these values sound quaint to some and undoubtedly play an attenuated, muted role in our society, we can all avail ourselves of the sweetness that accompanies a life focused on goodness and kindness.

Our behavior and choices really do have consequences in the world, and those who are wise of heart will recognize the preciousness of good deeds in our fleeting lives, and seek to wring the most potential out of each opportunity to help someone else.

If we’ve perhaps been somewhat careless with the golden commodity of good deeds in the past, the High Holidays are a time to work on reordering our lives, infusing them with meaning, and rededicating ourselves to the transcendental power latent in every human being from the beginning of time.

Against the backdrop of this highly divisive time in our nation, let us pray that we will all redouble our commitment to being truly good to one another, and multiply our love for good deeds.

There is more to life than our own self-aggrandizement. 

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From the tenacious and shameless manner by which some seek to divide America and place a culture of emptiness and personal irresponsibility on a pedestal, we can draw a lesson as to how we must boldly redouble our own attachment to fulfilling our divine potentials and attachment to a life of goodness.

Deeds of kindness and selflessness don’t have to be complicated and expensive, and rarely require a GoFundMe campaign.


We can begin by calling someone we suspect is lonely for a five-minute chat, or asking elderly neighbors if we can pick up a few items for them from the supermarket, since we are heading there anyway.   

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With all my heart, I join Jewish leaders worldwide in wishing everyone a happy and sweet New Year, and extend my wish that everyone should be sealed in the Book of Life for a prosperous, healthy and meaningful year.

And as we recite in the High Holiday prayer book: “Let the year and its curses conclude, and let the New Year and its blessings begin!”

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