Rosh Hashanah, 5781
Rabbi Barry L. Schwartz
Friends, I began my Rosh Hashanah prayer last night:
Eloheinu, velohei avotenu,
Our God, God of all generations:
Help us to thoughtfully reflect on the year just past and to courageously embrace this year just born.
Let us begin by remembering the overwhelming without despairing.
This past year will be forever etched in our memory as the year of the pandemic and the year of the protests.
We mourn the 948,000 souls who have perished in this pandemic worldwide; the 198,000 here in our own country; the 16,000 here in our small state of New Jersey.
Open the gates of healing for the bereaved and the bereft. There are so many mourners.
This Rosh Hashanah morning I ask: How can we begin the New Year of 5781 without first pausing in memoriam?
If our tradition teaches that “he who saves a life saves an entire world,” how can we comprehend the enormity of our loss in such a brief time?
After 9-11 the New York Times published the names and photos of all who were lost. It took many pages to include the 3,000 lives lost. Behind each photo was indeed an entire world—the world of a mother, father, daughter, son, sister, brother, husband, wife, friend, colleague. Even at that number we struggled to comprehend the loss we had endured.
Multiply that loss by 50 for our country and by 150 for our world and the magnitude of our loss is unfathomable. No newspaper can print all the names and photos of the dead; it would take volumes for that. No list can be complete; the final number will never be known.
When we say the kaddish on this Rosh Hashanah we cannot comprehend with the mind but we can empathize with the heart.
When we recite yizkor on this Yom Kippur we cannot name all the names but we can we can ask for mercy upon every soul.
After bowing in acknowledgment to the enormity of our loss, what else is there to say about the pandemic that has gripped our nation now more than six months—a half year ordeal with no immediate end in sight?
My Rosh Hashanah prayer continued:
We bemoan the loss of lives and the loss of livelihoods—families shattered, businesses shuttered; jobs lost, dreams dashed.
Open the gates of our compassion for the hungry and the homeless, for the dispersed and the displaced—for all those suffering economically and emotionally.
Yet in this time of darkness let us also recall the points of light that illuminated our way—the heroic healthcare workers, the valiant front-line workers, the bus drivers and the grocery clerks who went to work to save lives and to sustain lives.
Open the gates of our gratitude for all the essential people in our families and communities.
Let me tell you about one essential worker in NYC. She is a speech pathologist at Columbia Presbyterian right across the river, involved in acute trauma care. During the height of the pandemic when most of us were sequestered at home, she rode the subways and buses every day. She did not miss a day of work. She donned protective gear every morning, wearing mask, gown and face-shield for hours at a time. At first she was treating her usual list of sufferers of head, neck and throat cancers. Then the Covid patients started coming off the respirators. They were so weak they couldn’t swallow, couldn’t eat, and couldn’t talk. They were in desperate need of help. The number of Covid patients she treated grew and grew. For a stretch of several weeks in the spring her caseload was 95% Covid. Who is this unassuming hero? My daughter Talia Schwartz.
Think about all the healthcare workers like Talia. Think about the bus drivers and the truck drivers. The clerks and cashiers. The policemen and firemen. And the teachers who did not stop teaching our children.
I am appreciative to our mayors and our governors. They didn’t get it all right, but they tried, and they communicated, day after day. I am less kindly disposed to our president and federal government. We should decry our nation’s shortcomings during this crisis, even as we should hold our national leaders accountable. But this is not the time or place to go into that. We can applaud the thousands upon thousands of our fellow Americans who have helped get us through this ordeal.
Which brings me to our own community of Adas Emuno, and the gratitude I feel for your support—now, listening to this High Holiday service from afar, and throughout these last six months? Your response to my pre-recorded messages, to Zoom Shabbat, to Zoom Torah study, to Zoom Book Club, to Zoom Confirmation, to Zoom Family service, to Zoom B’nai mitzvah lessons, to Zoom religious school, has been phenomenal.
How we miss everything we took for granted—sitting next to each other in the sanctuary, joining hands for the healing prayer, touching the Torah during the procession, shaking hands to greet each other with a Shabbat Shalom, and Shana Tovah, enjoying the oneg in the social hall… the list goes on. I am confident all this will resume, but it will take time, a long time. I know I am speaking for the leadership of our synagogue when I say that we are grateful for your support and for your patience.
I think about how past generations of this synagogue survived the great pandemic of 1918. The Great Depression. The First and Second World Wars. I know they would smile to know that next year we will reach our milestone 150th anniversary. I indeed hope we can have a no-holds-barred in-person gala celebration. But even if we can’t, we will still rejoice.
This High Holiday marks my tenth year at Adas Emuno. I did not expect to complete the decade in this fashion. I do confess that looking out at an empty sanctuary is sad and unsettling. I miss you. But it is not hard for me, after all these years, to picture all of you right in front of me.
Life goes on, with its sorrows and joys. The absence of my father is still keenly felt. But any day now, with God’s help, Debby and I will be grandparents. Just think of all the stories we will be able to tell our grandson about the year he was born!
One point I hope to remind our youth who are too young to remember is that this pandemic, like all crises, brought out the best and the worst in us. The worst is grim: it led to tens of thousands of deaths that could have been averted. We pray that at the very least our government has learned enough to be better planned with a coordinated national plan to face a future disaster. It led to a national failure of resolve. It led to national loss of basic human empathy, as in “It is what it is.” We pray to never again become that callous
But we will also tell our children that millions of Americans sacrificed for the sake of others; that countless citizens embraced the timeless ethic of our tradition to “love your neighbor as yourself” and to protect the most vulnerable in our society. Even now we are called to rise to that challenge.
During the height of the pandemic I wrote these words to you and with them I conclude:
A Time to Every Purpose
To everything there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven
The ancient words of Ecclesiastes reach across time to our lives in a pandemic.
A time to be born and a time to die
As the rebirth of spring unfolds around us we mourn those taken from us.
A time to weep and a time to laugh
Even in our sorrow we reconnected to family and friends in new ways.
A time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing
“Social distancing” entered our vocabulary unwanted, but we found ways to hug from afar.
A time to rend and a time to sow
Many have lost livelihoods and more, yet we will rise up and rebuild.
A time to keep silent and a time to speak
We stand speechless at the dedication of our first-responders,
And are grateful for our leaders who inspired by word and deed.
A time for war and a time for peace
Our battle continues yet we do not lose hope that the storm will abate.