A focus on failing to live up to expectations combined with reciting confessions of sins, leaves people with a lot to feel bad about during the High Holiday season.
But Rabbi Alicia Magal, spiritual leader of the Jewish Community of Sedona and the Verde Valley, said this year, unlike in years past, she feels she must point to all the good out there, too.
People changed their lifestyles to live as safely as they could during the COVID-19 pandemic, sacrificing social gatherings, outings and trips, despite the toll on their mental health, she said. The synagogue formed several small groups to call other congregants to check in and provide some semblance of community.
“We’ve reached out to people in a good and positive and helpful way; people have been very generous, kind and patient for a really long time,” Magal said. “It doesn’t go with what I usually talk about, but I think I have to address the good things we have done this year.”
Rabbis across Greater Phoenix are once again navigating a High Holiday season under difficult circumstances. The world faces a slew of new and ongoing challenges while COVID continues. Some rabbis don’t yet know what messages they will offer congregants in their sermons, but many say they will focus on community, self-care and resilience.
Rabbi Nitzan Stein Kokin of Beth El Congregation will focus on community and relationship building. “I started planning what I was going to talk about in June, when things were all coming back and restarting,” she said. But her message is even more relevant now, she said, with the delta variant causing health precautions to revert to peak-COVID times.
She usually encourages congregants to take time to reflect, but people have been apart for so long that she felt it more important to focus on ways to move forward together.
“How can we engage with each other? What kind of teshuva do we need to do? How do we speak to each other when we’re tired and weary from all the stresses of our life?” she asked.
Sun Lakes Jewish Congregation Rabbi Irwin Wiener said the questions he was asked this past year informed his sermons. During visits with COVID patients or their family members, he “invariably’’ got the question: “Where is God in this?”
The message he hopes transcends all of his sermons is that everybody has a part to play.
“There is a partnership here,” he said of God and man. “We have certain responsibilities, and we have certain expectations of God,” he said. “But we have to discern the difference between our responsibilities and our expectations.”
His Rosh Hashanah sermon will urge people to rekindle a passion for relationships. “God doesn’t need another poem or a song,” he said. “What God needs is for us to realize that we do not speak empty words or break promises or break hearts. What God does need is for us to not hate or destroy, but continue to build a community.”
On Yom Kippur he will talk about the meaning of faith and the complementary relationship between science and religion.
He hopes to offer comfort to those seeking a way to make sense of all that is happening in the world. “There are no magic words,” he said. “But one of the things I’ve learned over the years is that connectivity has the power to heal.”
Chabad of Arizona Rabbi Zalman Levertov is focusing on 5782 being a shmita — the seventh year of the agricultural cycle mandated by the Torah for the land of Israel.
“It is a sabbatical year for us to recognize everything we have is from God, and his blessings are what gives us livelihood,” he said. “This should be more of a spiritual year compared to other years.”
With the ongoing pandemic, hurricanes and flooding on the East coast, wildfires and turmoil happening all over the world, many are worried and don’t know what the next day will bring, he said.
“Here is a message to strengthen our faith,” Levertov said. “We must dedicate ourselves more to God and, hopefully, it will merit the coming of the messiah.”
Chabad of Mesa Rabbi Laibel Blotner intends to remind those who attend services that God doesn’t demand more from people than they can handle.
“It’s easy for a person to throw their hands up in the air or to spiritually and mentally give up. But the fact that we have these challenges, also means that we have the capacity to deal with it,” he said.
Temple Beth Emeth of Scottsdale Rabbi Zari Sussman will focus on resilience and self-care.
“Self-care is more than manicures and massages,” she said. “Proper self-care involves setting limits and boundaries.”
She will talk about the skills Judaism offers to keep past traumas from becoming future difficulties.
Last year’s High Holidays were full of grief, she said, but she is “much more hopeful” about the year ahead.
Over the past year, people have had time to adjust and to accept our changed way of life, she said. The vaccine is a light at the end of the tunnel.
“As more and more people are vaccinated, that light becomes brighter,” she said. “Life isn’t normal yet, but it is getting there.”
Temple Beth Shalom Rabbi Dana Evan Kaplan will talk about character development in his High Holiday sermons. It is not easy to grow since that requires some form of change, and “we are all creatures of habit,” he wrote in one. But “God wants us to use every ounce of our energy to find a way to make a positive change.” He believes that individuals want to live meaningful and fulfilling lives, but in order to do that “we need to cultivate what is best within ourselves.”
Or Adam Congregation for Humanistic Judaism Rabbi Jeffrey Schesnol plans to offer messages of acceptance and perseverance. “We will not give up on ourselves in the middle of our struggles,” he said. He also hopes to remind people to understand the difference between vengeance and repentance. “We have the power to forgive — others and ourselves,” he said.
Temple Kol Ami Rabbi Jeremy Schneider said it is difficult to find the right words that everyone needs to hear. “To be inspirational to each and every person when so many have suffered in so many different ways is difficult and overwhelming,” he said. He is hoping to offer messages of hope, a sense of community, emotional and spiritual strength and resilience.
As part of High Holiday programming, Kol Ami is offering a healing service. “I want our families and members to experience Jewish music and texts that help us to heal and cope,” he said. “We know challenges are part of being human, and music can be a cathartic, emotionally honest tool for expressing and validating our feelings.”
Temple Solel Senior Rabbi John A. Linder is tackling “the theological quicksand of reward and punishment.” It’s bad enough that people suffer — the past 18 months of a worldwide pandemic included, he said. “Biblical theology that says we are to blame, adds insult to injury. How can we look at our tsuris through a different, healthier lens?”
On Yom Kippur, he’ll address antisemitism and the Jewish community’s own challenges within.
Associate Rabbi Debbie Stiel will address climate change and what people can do to better take care of the planet.
Temple Emanuel of Tempe Rabbi Cookie Lea Olshein is also focusing on the shmita — and hopes the upcoming year will be one of “re-Jew-venation.”
She doesn’t think anybody would have predicted where society is now given where it was in March 2020. Needless to say, it’s been a challenging year.
“I always tell people the sermons I deliver are the ones I need to hear,” she said. She is focusing on self-care and resilience — just as the upcoming COVID booster shot will provide resilience, she said. JN