The 10-day period on the Jewish calendar encompassing the High Holy Days, which began Monday at sunset, is traditionally a time of individual and community introspection, with a particular focus on repentance and self-improvement.
The year just ended, replete with virus, natural disasters, inequality, and polarization, provides a challenging backdrop for this transition point.
The Citizen asked a varied sampling of Jewish residents to share their thoughts and aspirations at the dawn of a new year.
Rabbi Susan Abramson of Bedford has been the spiritual leader of Temple Shalom Emeth in Burlington for 37 years, making her the senior female rabbi in New England. She offered excerpts from the sermon she delivered to her congregation at a service Monday night:
“We are told that today we wipe the slate clean and begin with a fresh start,” Rabbi Abramson said. “But we are feeling all the angst, the anger, the disappointment, the anxiety that we were feeling last year at this time. As we celebrate this new year of 5782, nothing seems OK.”
“But our Jewish faith, traditions, liturgy and history, all remind us that life is never the way it is supposed to be. It is irrelevant to dwell on our disappointments, to wallow in despair when life doesn’t live up to our expectations or our standards,” she continued. “The existential question our faith asks of us on this day is what can we do, considering our current circumstances, to promote physical, mental, spiritual health for ourselves and others?”
Abramson reminded her congregation that, according to Jewish tradition, the High Holy Days are a time when God evaluates “how well we have lived up to our moral standards in this past year.”
But introspection is a key component as well. “We look within and ask ourselves what we need to do to improve ourselves and help the world be a better place in the year ahead. We ask ourselves what work we need to do within ourselves to find renewal, to be more resilient, to regain a sense of optimism.”
“Our job today is to put life in perspective and realize that since the creation of the world, life has been unpredictable.” And she pointed out that “everything about our tradition is meant to help us cope with life’s exigencies.”
She emphasized, “Community is our antidote for all the troubles which befall us. We need each other to lean on and give us strength. I have personally experienced the sense of salvation, the spiritual uplift, the relief, the sense of wellbeing which I can get only with praying and celebrating with others.”
“Our forced isolation this past year brought out a loneliness and a craving for human contact that we didn’t know was so strong,” she told the congregants. “Now that we’ve had to pull back again, socially distance and cover our faces from one another after just having felt the joy of normal human interactions, it is like rubbing salt in a wound that was just beginning to heal. If we have learned nothing from this past year, it is how much we need each other.”
The rabbi said that action is “perhaps the biggest weapon in our Jewish arsenal to fight despair. “Helping to make the world a better place, is the most powerful antidote we have to fight depression and anxiety over the state of the world and our current situation.”
“I know for myself that the one sure way to fight the feeling of despondency is to find a way to help another person. The whole premise of our holy days is to look within ourselves and renew our determination to help ourselves and others.”
School Committee member Dan Brosgol quoted an 11th-century liturgical poem recited in almost all synagogues that he said is timeless, but has particular resonance this year. It reads, in part:
On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
Who shall live and who shall die, who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire, who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst, who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented, who shall be exalted and who shall be brought low,
But repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the severe decree.
“Some of that hits a little too close to home after a year when just about all of that happened,” Brosgol observed. “Perhaps this will indeed be a year when we will be uplifted and exalted, rested and peaceful. And while I don’t particularly agree that ‘repentance, prayer, and righteousness’ are the ticket to better days, if there was ever a year to try that strategy, perhaps this is the one.”
Despite the difficulties of the past year, he said, there was still an upside. “On a macro level, vaccines got in arms, kids returned to school, and Bedford did an incredible job working together to get through the pandemic year,” he said. “Our family had a full and happy spring and summer of baseball and softball, a joyful high school graduation, and a bittersweet send-off of our oldest to college. We hiked and biked and ran together, our kids got to see and hug their grandparents again, and we had our first full year with our dog.”
“I think it’s a really good time to look ahead, closing out the year that was so horrible,” commented Bedford Housing Authority member Kim Lovy. “Next year will have challenges, but we are better equipped to deal with them.”
She noted that the period of the High Holy Days is “my favorite time of the year. It’s about renewal and a fresh start. And I love how it coincides with the start of school.” That should remind people how difficult these times are on children, she said.
Lovy, a member of Temple Emunah in Lexington, added that “I think it will be extremely meaningful to me to be connecting with people for apologies,” which is another theme of the season. “I haven’t seen a lot of people in person but there are ways I could have served them better.”
“Now — thank goodness — it’s the new year, 5782, a fresh opportunity to make things better,” wrote Jackie Cutrona, a Bedford High School sophomore active at Kerem Shalom congregation in Concord.
The past year was “certainly unforgettable,” she acknowledged. “For me, it was defined by the challenges of remote learning, adding online Hebrew school classes, Zoom birthday parties and book clubs, friends and family I couldn’t see, and bad news headings on the daily.”
What a contrast. “In-person school is not only engaging but a gigantic relief. I can talk to my friends, get to know my teachers, and learn much more effectively than last year,” Cutrona wrote. “I hope things will continue going in a positive direction and that everybody stays safe and healthy.”
Long-time resident Joe Siegel ushed in a new year with a pre-Rosh Hashanah milestone: a granddaughter’s bat mitzvah, Although attendance was limited, that did not “diminish the significance of the event.”
“We hope that the joy of this celebration will continue into the new year 5782 and that this new year will finally allow us to return to our normal activities without concern and to engage with each other respectfully and constructively to promote the common good,” Siegel wrote. “We sincerely wish everyone a coming year of good health, happiness, and peace!”
Siegel, who is part of the Chabad of Lexington community, said he looks back on 5781 “with bittersweet feelings. We feel fortunate that we have made it through another year and are now in good health. My wife had to deal with a serious heart issue last fall, but she has recovered well.”
“We have felt somewhat cut off from our community of Jewish synagogue friends, as we have not felt comfortable attending weekly services,” Siegel said. “We have been grateful to have a close group of friends whom we see on a regular basis during the summer months at the Wedgewood Swim and Tennis Club, and this regular contact has helped us keep our sanity through this difficult period.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at email@example.com, or 781-983-1763