Early Bird COVID-19 Sermon for the Jewish New Year

Fans of my blog know that I never preach here, but given the pandemic, readers and colleagues may be curious how I am taking on the challenge of dealing with this topic–with no platitudes I promise– on one of the holiest days of the Jewish liturgical calendar. And as far as a sermon goes, it is not all that preachy:

There is a prayer we say only during the High Holy Days that for me is one of our most chilling prayers of all. The most famous part of it is,

“On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall pass away and how many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die, who in good time and who in an untimely death. Who shall have rest and who shall wander. Who shall become rich and who impoverished.”

And so we are talking about fate, most basically, about life and death, and more broadly, about mental states such as calm versus anxiety and restlessness, and social states such as high and low classes. Then at the end of this prayer it proclaims,

“But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.” Somehow, for me, this is scant consolation. Look what has happened since the last time we said that prayer a year ago. The plagues of climate change, social turmoil, and of course COVID-19, with its offspring plagues of job loss, economic ruin, depression, loneliness and anxiety. Breathing room has been threatened globally and individually. Breathing itself has been put into question.

Last March, our congregation started having our Friday night Sabbath services on Zoom as soon as we could no longer meet in person. We did not miss even one service. At our first or second such service, fear and disorientation ran high. Someone said, “we are in exile yet again.” And even I, hospice chaplain that I am, was taken aback when someone asked me point blank, “How do we prepare to die?” “On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed, how many shall pass away and many shall be born, who shall live and who shall die.”

As our services continued, and we saw that we were still alive, even after some of us had suffered from COVId-19, we relaxed some and looked forward to Friday nights. We were sustaining our community and even enlarging it to include people who could not leave home or who lived too far away to have come to our services in person, such as former members in south Jersey. True, the squares on the Zoom screen that looked so cute at first, became obnoxious reminders of how cut off from each other we were in certain ways. The squares became reminiscent of prison bars. And we could not share the earthly delights of a Sabbath dinner or feel the energy and comfort of sitting next to other members.

But we became more and more absorbed in the Torah discussion and felt the comfort of our voices and of the prayers and songs that we included. Which is what we are doing right now. Judaism has thrived through the centuries due to our resilience, our flexibility., and our creativity. We are masters at adapting to even the most dire of circumstances. We all have heard stories about secret seders during the Holocaust with the strangest of substitutes standing in for the ritual foods.

A very long time ago, we shifted to a religion based on the sacredness within, rather than to the sacredness of a particular external place called Israel. Here we are again expanding the idea of location, from a physical one to a virtual one. In fact, we are not tied to a specific location anywhere at all. It’s as if we are praying together here in another dimension…well who knows, maybe that will be the next change in a million years or so. Services by then might just be vibrations and emanations anyway. We have survived centuries of exile from the Land of Israel. We are surviving exile of another sort—,God grant it not be permanent,—- from physical connection, the connection of place.

What we still have, however, is a connection through time. We can now say, there is a time, but not necessarily, a place for everything. In writing about Shabbat, the modern sage Abraham Joshua Heschel says, Shabbat is “a palace in time; it is in a spiritual wonderland.” I think what he says about the Sabbath is also true for this precious time of year.

We have to make do, now, with less material connections and more spiritual ones. Ironically, the virtual reality we are now in, is just what the themes of the High Holy Days have to do with. This year, Yom Kippur, with its fasting and constant prayer and saying confession and not making love and now, no friendly hugs and no sensation of warmth from those seated next to us, will be even more like the rehearsal for death that tradition says it is supposed to be. As a New York Times writer said, “Yom Kippur asks us to look at our mortality in the face. Can we sustain the glare?” Here we are, for good measure, for Rosh Hashanah as well as Yom Kippur ,on the phone or on the Internet, de-materialized and disembodied.

We don’t want to be in this situation. We don’t want to live in fear. And those darn masks, that hide our smiles and looks of concern and interest and amusement and pleasure. Of course they also hide our frowns and looks of displeasure. Fully acknowledging all the negatives of a COVID world, what does it teach us, what opportunities exist, how can we be resilient?

You know as a chaplain, when people ask me questions point blank, like how to prepare to die, there is no way to directly answer; not really. They and I muddle through together and try to come to a new understanding or perspective, and it various depending on who is interacting with me and what my own circumstances and knowledge are at the point our paths are crossing. The fact that this congregation is having a service and to say the least, that we are sharing it under strange conditions can jolt us into spiritual growth. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to ask each other during the intermediate days of awe what we experienced, learned, disliked, focused on and grew from? Since I will have to wait until AFTER this sermon to find out, I’d like to offer at least a conversation starter. I came across an alternate kinder and gentler version of the Unetanah Tokef, which goes like this:

On Rosh HaShanah it is written, on Yom Kippur it is sealed:

That this year people will live and die,
some more gently than others
and nothing lives forever.
But amidst overwhelming forces
of nature and humankind,
we still write our own Book of Life,
and our actions are the words in it,
and the stages of our lives are the chapters,
and nothing goes unrecorded, ever.
Every deed counts.
Everything you do matters.
And we never know what act or word
will leave an impression or tip the scale.
So, if not now, then when?
For the things that we can change, there is t’shuvah, realignment,
For the things we cannot change, there is t’filah, prayer,
For the help we can give, there is tzedakah, justice.
Together, let us write a beautiful Book of Life
for the Holy One to read. -Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler

Some Jews might think this is a wimpy version of the more terrifying traditional prayer. But you know: we’ve been through a Gehenna (hell) of a lot, and we all could use God’s more compassionate side right now. This IS the time for compassion: FROM God, directed TO God, and freely given to each other. Every deed each of us does, even if it affects just one person, counts. Even if you contribute one extra word, one extra syllable, even one extra letter, to the Book of Life, you will have crafted a holier edition for God to read.

(Note to colleagues: Feel free to use this sermon all or in part, but please refer to my name and my blog. And if you really want to avert the severe decree, mention my book Encountering The Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died.)