Though the book hasn’t been sealed yet, it’s not hard to write that this past year — 5780 in the Hebrew calendar — has been one of the hardest for so many of us. The year included a significant rise in anti-Semitism, an increase in bigotry in the public sphere, violence in the streets and noxious political toxicity.

And all of that was before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged as the year’s greatest foe. Since COVID-19 has come to overshadow every aspect of our life and society, we’ve been plagued with rampant death, sickness, fear, economic insecurity, public frenzy and a mental health crisis second to none. 

While some people benefited greatly during this challenging period — the stock market is booming, for example — for most of us, there has only been a loss and the sense that tomorrow is out of our control. COVID-19 disrupted the balance of our lives and the response to it exacerbated all of the challenges we experience in our homes and in our community. 

But now, the stitches that gingerly held the social fabric together have become loose. Political and social comity have unraveled at an accelerated pace. Many of us are scared. Many of us don’t know what the future brings. 

And in this most destructive time, we must hold each other in the negative emotions of fear, anxiety and depression. It has become even more difficult to hold empathy with our social isolation. 

Now, with that empathy in our minds and hearts, we are invited to dream about the potential of 5781. In this coming year, we hold the hope that we will have a vaccine. We maintain the dream that we can come together again. We pray for more peaceful and less divisive times.  

As we approach the High Holidays this year, let us pray that we can heal, that we can seek a time for vision and a time for dreaming. The upcoming year provides us the ability to imagine a new world beyond a “return to normal.” But even more so, the new year will be about going inward and reimagining our own potential, our own dreams and our own capacity for meaningful change. 

Fundamental to Jewish belief is that all humans are created with infinite dignity — tzelem Elokim — and, thus, have inherent value — kavod ha’briot. This complex system of communal and societal obligations is tied to the unalienable rights of every person to live to the fullest. Within all of this is the fundamental belief in human freedom and that we can correct ourselves, realign ourselves and grow to the next level: teshuvah. 

We can’t dismiss the negative emotions we’re immersed in now. But we can hold them rather than have them hold us. And during our High Holiday experiences, we can explore those negative emotions but also place them aside as we return to our positive emotions: desire for growth, a search for happiness, spiritual yearning our craving to love and be loved. 

There is so much we won’t control about 5781. And if 5780 taught us anything, it’s the humility of uncertainty and our lack of control. But it also taught us something we do have control over: our choices. 

When we welcome 5781, let us choose positivity over divisiveness. Truth over mendacity! Virtue over vice! May we choose life together! And may we choose hope together! JN

Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the president and dean of Valley Beit Midrash.

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