In just under two months, we will mark the conclusion of Hebrew year 5780 and step into the year 5781. We will dip our apples in the sweetness of honey, we’ll cast away what we want to leave behind into the water, and we will re-commit to becoming better versions of ourselves. On Rosh Hashanah itself, we will encounter the ever troubling and powerful story of the akedah, the binding of Yitzchak. God commands Avraham, “Take your son, your favored one, whom you have loved, Yitzchak, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as an offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you” (Genesis 22:2). I cannot imagine the fear and devastation that Avraham felt in that moment as he heard this divine request. In reading this verse, commentators wonder about why God’s words are so drawn on--why not just say, “Sacrifice Yitzchak!” One teaching that comes from the choice to use all these many words, “your son, your favored one, whom you have loved…” is that when we share hard news with people, we take our time in getting there so that people are more prepared to hear it.
For the past few months, members of the congregation and I have been visioning what the High Holidays could look like this year. The newly created High Holiday Task Force, chaired by Kim Bodemer, includes Molly Jacobs, Barbara Shays, Janet Encarnacion, Ken Freeman, Jerry Cohen, Gabi Struss, and Myra Paull, collaborated with the also newly created Re-Opening Committee, and have been in conversation with each other and with the broader community. They sought feedback both through the annual meeting and through one on one conversations to learn about what is medically safe, logistically possible, and spiritually nourishing. They considered enrichment opportunities for this HHD season that aligned with the elements and values that members held most dear.
After much conversation, research, and deliberation, we have ultimately decided that the best way forward is to have the vast majority of our High Holiday experiences take place on a virtual platform. We will not be having in-person services. Foremost in our exploration of what is possible has been the Jewish concept of pikuach nefesh/saving a life. We learn early in Torah (Genesis 1:27) that humans are made in the image of God. Safeguarding the life of every human being is central to who we are as Jews--we uphold humanity and we uphold the Divine image in each of us. This concept is so important that our ancient rabbis declared that one not only can violate Shabbat to save a life, but one must violate Shabbat if there is a chance to save a life. So, we humbly say to you: Take your holidays, your favored parts, that you have loved, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and sacrifice the experience of being physically together on the holidays for the sake of pikuach nefesh.
This is our sacred task this year. We will be holding virtual services and other online gatherings for learning and reflection, with a few in-person events that will be outdoors, socially distant, and kept to a small number of people at a time. We know that for many people, the experience of gathering in the sanctuary, the music of the choir, the schmoozing in the lobby--so many of our sources of nourishment will not be available this year, and this is heartbreaking. We will do our best as a community to find meaning digitally, and we know it will not be the same. There will likely be disappointments. There will hopefully be some meaningful innovations and points of connection. Enclosed in this mailing is a schedule of our plan for the holidays.
However this year unfolds, I’m grateful to be entering it with you all. Our liturgical calendar brings us now into seven weeks of consolation, beginning with a haftarah from Isaiah, which begins with the words “Nachamu nachamu/Be comforted! Be comforted!” We pray that the weeks ahead bring us comfort as we continue this spiritual journey together.
Rabbi Alex Weissman
Rabbi Alex Weissman
Rabbi Alex was ordained by the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 2017, where we fell in love with Talmud study and served a range of communities including Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in NYC, Temple Shalom of Newton, Avodah, and Jewish Family & Children's Services as a hospice chaplain. He completed a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Hebrew SeniorLife. During his time at RRC, he received a Tikkun Olam award, the Ann W. Pinkenson Prize in Rabbinic Literature and Civilization, and the Lillian Fern Award for service to the community for his work as the President of the Reconstructionist Student Association.