Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz

The holidays of Tishrei are there to set in motion the events of the next year. Rosh Hashanah is the grand entrance of greatest joy, Yom Kippur is the solemn day of repentance where we ask for forgiveness for our transgressions, Sukkot gives us the space to reflect on the struggles of our ancestors and Simchat Torah is the chance to begin reading the holy Scriptures anew.

These are celebrations of the soul and powerful moments for self-actualization. Normally, this special time of the calendar is the pinnacle moment of joy in the year. We come together, we laugh, we sing, we cry, we dance. We experience the joy of celebrating our moral heritage and our Jewish spiritual inheritance.

During these sacred weeks, we experience the vast richness of the Jewish experience. But this year, everything is different. It is not safe to come together in large groups. It is not safe to dance and sing together. It is not safe to join together in the sweet, sacred space of the holy sanctuary. It is not safe to embrace the Sefer Torah. It is not safe to unite physically as a community.

So, is all lost?

It doesn’t have to be. As with every challenge that this horrible pandemic brings before us, new opportunities arise out of the depths of deepest despair. COVID-19 has forced us to consider alternatives to choices that we took for granted. Indeed, being forced inside and away from community necessitates a radical break from standard thinking.

The questions that arise in this new reality are many: How can we embrace and celebrate Torah on a deeper level this year? How can we unite around our tradition while socially distancing? How do we celebrate these holidays when we don’t even know what tomorrow looks like?

Thankfully, we have several unique opportunities for spiritual growth. Joining a virtual session can bring in the same sort of interaction with thought leaders as in person. From the comforts of our homes, our community still has the ability to talk and learn together.

Our community has the potential to learn alone and to embrace the spiritual depths of solitude and even the spiritual benefits that can emerge from some types of loneliness. Some solitude can be painful and deeply challenging. Other types of solitude can be spiritually enriching and existentially deepening. 

Consider, for example, as we celebrate the Torah, how Moshe himself was socially isolated, alone with God receiving Torah. In our own ways, we can enter this Divine space as well.

Finally, we yearn to come back together. We seek — indeed, need — interaction with other people. Human beings are, by and large, not designed to live hermetically. This yearning is not passive, but active. We don’t simply wish passively but we actively support our institutions — in whatever ways we can — to ensure we’re fulfilling our public health responsibilities and setting the stage for the best reopenings imaginable. This is Torah: a high level of celebration of Torah, the Jewish People, Divine comfort and human resilience.

During this trying time, we have the ability to add more joy into this year — not through dancing or physical proximity — but through the cognitive realization and affective impact of knowing that Torah, and in turn the Jewish people, will continue to survive.

We as Jews have the profound ability to spiritually attach ourselves to our beautiful heritage and continue to push the light of Torah forward in our community and society at-large. JN

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