Rosh Hashana this year 5781
Rosh Hashana next Year 5782
© Judah Lifschitz 2020
Tonight we will usher in the Jewish New Year of 5781. Ours is not a “celebration” in the classic sense of joyful partying and merry making. Rather, Rosh Hashanah represents the beginning of a ten day period of personal and communal introspection and repentance. It is when the Almighty judges every individual and mankind as a whole. As we say in our liturgy, “On Rosh Hannah judgment will be recorded and on Yom Kippur it will be sealed. Who will live? And who will die?…Who by storm and who by plague?”
These words are always chilling and even more so in this year of the pandemic. But our prayers also convey hope; hope for a brighter future; for a year in which we are “inscribed in the book of life, blessing, peace and prosperity”.
May it be the will of the Almighty that we are inscribed in the Book of Life and that we are blessed with a year of good health, happiness and prosperity. Amen.
Next week Jews around the globe will observe Rosh Hashanah and inaugurate 5781 on the Jewish calendar. This year, as in every year, Rosh Hashana, the Ten Days of Repentance which culminate with Yom Kippur will be a period of reflection, introspection, repentance, and prayer. We will pray for ourselves, our families, our communities, the Jewish People, and for all of mankind. We will beseech the Almighty for a year of health, happiness, prosperity, and peace. And we will surely pray for an end to the Covid-19 pandemic.
But this year there will be one major difference from years past. Thousands of people will be unable to attend services in their synagogues because of that invisible, deadly enemy haunting the four corners of the globe – the Corona virus. It is difficult to imagine the enormous sense of loss which will be felt by those who cannot go to shul (the synagogue) to daven (pray) – especially this year.
Ever sine I was six years old I have participated in services on the High Holidays. As a child, I was fortunate to be selected as a choir boy in a cantor’s choir. There I learned the nusach, the liturgy, through which the holiday prayers have been transmitted for ages. As an adult, I have been privileged, though unworthy, for many years to serve as a Baal Tefilah (a non-professional cantor) and in this role lead the services on behalf of my community and advocate on their behalf before the Almighty.
This year I will again serve in this role, but under pandemic restrictions – an outdoor venue, a limited number of masked, socially distanced congregants, and a truncated and shortened service. I am lucky. I will be there. I will be in the synagogue praying with my fellow congregants. But many others will not be as fortunate. They will not be in shul. How upsetting and depressing that will surely be for them.
Several weeks ago the rabbi of my synagogue approached me and asked if I would “make a tape” of the yom tov davening, selections from the prayer services, so that those who can not attend will at least be able before the start of the holidays to have a taste of the traditional melodies and prayer service. Though I am far from a professional cantor or singer, I agreed to try in the hopes of brightening the spirits of those who cannot attend services.
The result of my modest efforts is a recording which I have named Tefilah Mehalev – Prayer from the Heart. It can be found at www.yomtovnusach.com
It is my fervent hope and prayer that all who may listen to this humble recording will be inspired and moved and their spirits uplifted.
May we all be blessed with a Shana Tova Umetuka – a Sweet New Year.
It was just a few weeks ago that we regularly awoke to news reports of Corona virus “hot spots” across the country. Such daily reports have greatly diminished in number and frequency. Perhaps it is because because the news media has lost interest or the United States is doing a better job of containing the spread of the virus. Whichever it may be, the opening of colleges and schools in many locales, the transition from outdoor activities to indoor, the annual flu season, and the public’s understandable weariness of living under Covid-19 restrictions and stresses are a potent formula for a second wave in the coming weeks and months. Recent infection rate upticks in a limited number of communities, for example in certain parts of the New York City metropolitan area, should be a warning sign of what the fall and winter could bring if we do not remain vigilant in practicing social distancing and observing other necessary precautions.
Over the Labor Day weekend I had occasion to travel to the metropolitan New York City area to attend to a personal matter. It was an absolutely beautiful, sunny, cool day. I had heard through the grapevine that in many New York neighborhoods the “pandemic was over”. Thus, I was not terribly surprised when I observed sidewalk restaurants filled to capacity with little social distancing, lines of unmasked customers waiting for tables, and unmasked pedestrians strolling by indeed as if Covid-19 had been eradicated. The only problem is that the virus is very much still with us.
If in the coming months and before a vaccine is available, we are to keep as many people as possible healthy and sustain an economic recovery we must remain vigilant We owe it to each other not to act as if “the pandemic is over”. It is not – no matter how badly we want it to be.
I was on a conference call with a Federal Magistrate Judge last Thursday discussing the status of a major case when one of the lawyers started explaining why a revision of the case schedule was necessary in her view. In addressing the impact of the Covid 19 pandemic on the progress of the case she said, “In March we thought this would be over in a few months”. Whether people really believed that to be the case or simply hoped that would prove to be true, we all know, now, that the reality is far different. We will very likely be living with this pandemic for at least another six months and recovering from its impacts for even longer than that.
The extended duration of the pandemic means that we will need to continue to respond to all its dangers, stresses ,and challenges for many more months. Are we up to the challenge? On Saturday a friend was telling me that one of his married children and family were coming over for a visit. “We do not social distance any more with family”, he told me. Perhaps there is no problem with this change in his practice. I do not know. But what it signifies is a natural tiring of the pandemic required restrictions and practices. The fierce debates over if, when, and how to open schools, while rightfully raising a number of important issues, also results to some extent from a tiring with pandemic imposed conditions.
While the ultimate answer the world is waiting for to end the pandemic is a vaccine, until one is developed we need to maintain our diligence and keep our personal and collective guard up.
Time will tell if we have the required self discipline and endurance. Time will tell if are up to that challenge.
Towards the end of her life my mother was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia. Fortunately, a year before her diagnosis a new genetic drug, Gleevec, was approved which literally saves patients suffering from this disease from certain death. Unfortunately, Gleevec is extremely expensive. The average patient simply can not afford the drug and insurance coverage is also difficult. My mother was able to qualify for a financial assistance program that made the drug available to her. Gleevec saved her life and enabled her to live into her nineties.
In my synagogue community, before the pandemic a regular flow of individuals would come to the neighborhood to solicit charitable donations for worthy institutions and people in need. Before being permitted to solicit they are screened and if approved issued a certificate allowing them to solicit among community members. The certificate provides basic information including the need or purpose for which the individual is soliciting.
Several years after my mother passed away, a solicitor knocked on our door. I opened the door, welcomed him in, and reviewed his certificate. One word jumped off of the page – Gleevec! I asked the gentlemen about his circumstance and he explained that as a result of his illness and the exorbitant cost of Gleevec he could not afford the medication and thus, was left to soliciting charity donations to help pay for the medication. Of course, we immediately responded to his request for funds knowing how absolutely critical – life saving – Gleevec was for this gentleman. Since that first visit this lovely sickly man has made an annual visit to our home for financial assistance.
Since mid-March of this year solicitors stopped coming to our home. The world -wide pandemic has made it virtually impossible for them to travel and raise funds by face to face solicitation. That is until until this past Sunday when there was knock on our door and a thin, sickly man in a Covid-19 mask, leaning on a metal cane smiled at me, and said hello. It was the gentleman who needs assistance to pay for his Gleevec. While the Covid-19 pandemic presents serious risks to his health, without Gleevec he would die. And so he has no choice but to take his annual trip and solicit from city to city, community to community, to raise the fund he needs to pay for this life saving medication.
How absurd! The world has virtually shut itself down because there is no vaccine for Covid-19. Money is no object when it comes to that vaccine, if only money alone would solve that problem. Yet, at the same time, there are life savings medications like Gleevec access to which are denied to those who can not afford them .
There is something very wrong with this picture. Chronic Myeloid Leukemia Chronic Myeloid Leukemia Chronic Myeloid Leukemia
Merriam Webster defines the noun “normal” as “a form or state regarded as the norm; STANDARD”. Today, it is common to hear people speak of “the new normal” when referring to our “pandemically” changed lives, suggesting that our way of life has been forever transformed into a new “state regarded as the norm”. I reject this notion. The term “the new normal” when invoked to describe the impact of the Carona virus on our daily lives suggests that it has affected a permanent change to our lives; that our lives will never return to what they once were. I am unwilling to concede such a “defeat”. Rather, I prefer to view the pandemic as causing temporary changes to my daily routine which the dictionary defines as “a regular course of procedure”.
So why is this important? What difference does it make if it is a new normal or a new routine? To me, it is the difference between hope and despair; between confronting the pandemic’s challenges and buckling under them; between making wise short term decisions that protect the future and making decisions that consider only the present and ignore future consequences. It is the difference between looking beyond today’s trying times to a brighter day and being mired in the current stresses and difficulties.
I prefer to look to the day when my life returns to normal. In the meantime, I will just have to continue to adjust my routine to accommodate the pandemic.
Hard to believe but we are in our sixth month of the Corona virus pandemic and we have a long way to go. While I was home during under the shelter in place directive I would often take a brisk morning walk in a beautiful park and botanical garden near where I live. Frequently, I took a camera with me to capture spring images. One image in particular from that period has become for me a source of inspiration. It is an image of a section of the park with a brilliant morning blue sky punctuated by white upward streaks across the sky. The image reminds me to keep looking upward and to focus on the positive and the bright future that awaits us all.
© Judah Lifschitz 2020
As the pandemic rages on the negative financial and operational effects on important community institutions grows more acute with every day that passes. Our schools and synagogues have been especially hard hit by the operational limitations required in a Covid-19 world. They are struggling to service their constituencies in a relevant and effective manner. Additionally, their regular sources of income have been undermined and compromised The impending new school year and High Holidays represent challenges to the very survival of these critically important institutions.
Two examples are sufficient to underscore the threats facing our (and many other) communities. First, governmental directives prohibiting private schools from conducting in person classes in the fall has sent shock waves through our educational institutions many of which were planning to begin with in school programs. Second, the restrictions on public gatherings and and particularly religious services means that a large segment of the community will not only continue to be unable to attend regular services but even more significantly, will be unable to attend High Holiday services. Each of these challenges represent not only short term operational and financial obstacles but more importantly threaten the continued relevance of and very existence of our schools and synagogues.
These challenges are real and will not disappear any time soon. The question is how will we respond? Will we take a short term personal view and make individual decisions accordingly? Or will we take a long term broader view and act boldly to preserve the long term future of our institutions? In considering our response we must acknowledge that the pandemic does not allow for easy answers or simple solutions. To the contrary, every decision is met with contradictions and opposing interests. To over simplify – what is good for public health is bad for the economy. Limiting the health risks in a school environment creates material educational challenges. Observing the limits on the number of worshipers at a service necessarily excludes the majority of synagogue members. There are no perfect answers in a pandemic.
But I submit there is a clear choice. We can and must act boldly, courageously, and unselfishly to preserve our institutions. We must join forces as a community, keep our children enrolled in our schools, pay tuition, and support our educators to make the remote educational platform as successful as possible. We must help those households in financial distress and those which require devices or bandwidth. Synagogue members should continue to purchase High Holiday seats and make annual contributions as they would normally do even though they may be unable to attend services.
In short, we need to quickly come together and protect and sustain our community institutions for the day after the pandemic.
© Judah Lifschitz 2020
The news media has been reporting for several weeks what seem like constant reports of rising rates of infection, governmental inability/refusal to devise an effective strategy to control the spread of the virus, increased economic hardship across large swaths of the population, congressional deadlock in enacting a further economic stimulus plan, anger among citizens, civil unrest, and even violent protests. At a time in human history when unity of purpose and action is needed most, citizens and their government are at odds. There is a highly acerbic tone to the discourse; one that is not only often disrespectful but strident, one that in some quarters conveys hatred.
This week Jews the world over will observe Tisha Baav, a national day of mourning over the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem in 587 BCE and 70 CE. A fundamental lesson of this sacred day is most appropriate for our time. The Talmud teaches that the first Temple was destroyed because the Jewish People violated the three cardinal sins: idol worship, promiscuity, and bloodshed. The second Temple, however, explains this Talmudic passage, was destroyed not because of a violation of a religious practice but rather because of sinat chinom, wanton hatred, among the Jewish People. The Talmud concludes, “This comes to teach you that the sin of wanton hatred is equivalent to the three cardinal sins.”
In another passage the Talmud relates a troubling story of a Jew who hated another Jew by the name of Kamtza. This same man was friends with another gentleman by the name of Bar Kamtza. The Talmud tells of a large party which the man threw to which he invited many guests and rabbis. Lo and behold, and much to his chagrin, when he arrived at his party he found his enemy Kamtza had been invited by mistake and was sitting among the invited guests. The host, overcome by his hatred for Kamtza, refused to allow him to remain. In front of all the assembled guests he demanded that Kamtza leave immediately. He refused Kamtza’s pleas that he not be disgraced in such a cruel fashion, but his pleas were dismissed. Kamtza was banished from the party as the rabbis watched silently and without objection. This painful incident, explains the Talmud, was the cause for the Almighty’s destruction of the Temple.
This Tisha Baav I will not be able to attend services in my own synagogue. I will commemorate Tisha Baav at home by myself. Thus, during this year of the pandemic Tisha Baav will be very personal. Tisha Baav’s lessons should also be highly relevant this year for all of us.
We are living in a moment in time when all of mankind, literally, is confronted with a common enemy, when people of all types need to unite, to help one another cope, to care for those in need, to protect each other from infection, to provide support to those in need of financial assistance, and to show an extra measure of compassion and understanding. Tisha Baav during the pandemic, however, is coming at a time of increasing conflict and discord. Conflicts over masks, conflicts over pandemic restrictions, conflicts over economic stimulus programs, over politics, over discrimination, conflicts and more conflicts. Everywhere you turn, whether Chicago or Portland, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, sinat chinom, wanton hatred, reigns.
We all should know better. We should know that such discord brings destruction. We should know that unity brings redemption. We know better. We should act better, as well.
© Judah Lifschitz 2020