Giving Thanks – Rosh Hashannah 5781

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The Jewish New Year 5781 is about to begin.

A rabbinic colleague reminded me of a quote in the Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashanah. Rabbi Yitzhak said ‘Any year that is poor and troubled in its beginning, will be made rich at its end.’

Reflecting on the past 6 months, it has indeed been poor, troubled and challenging for us all but we’ve adapted quickly as almost all of our in-person activities migrated to online platforms – like work, school and even grocery shopping. There was an enormous outpouring of support across communities, faiths and ethnicities as we realised our lives are intertwined with people from very different backgrounds than our own.

While the ravaging flames of COVID-19 have died down, their remnants continue to smoulder here and there, preventing a return to anything resembling normalcy. For many of us this period made us more aware of our mortality and raised the internal question, what is truly important in our lives.

Two key lessons learned so far from the pandemic are that we realise surviving requires widening our view of community, and that the new social currency is found in helping others. Both of these have been Mitzvah Day principles since our inception.

In the past, my favourite part of the High Holidays was the music and the awe-inspiring atmosphere. Attending synagogue as a young adult felt like being in the presence of Almighty G-d. The Rabbi and Chazan wore white robes, and when the echoes of choral singing weren’t reverberating off the high ceiling, there was a great hush inside the full sanctuary for the Sermon and the Shofar (I don’t remember lots of idle chatter, perhaps because the ushers in the aisles kept the decorum somewhat like the mute button on Zoom!).

But this year is different. Rosh Hashanah 5781 will be remembered for decades for its exceptionalism. Shorter services with masks, in COVID-secured buildings, outdoor Shofar blowing, government rules for keeping socially distant during Tashlich (and next month, no Sukkah Crawls!).

Looking behind the guidelines and inconveniences, the opportunity to be in the presence of the Almighty hasn’t changed. All we need is an open heart and a quiet space without distractions. And, for many I suspect, our prayers this year will be simply to give thanks, to contemplate the path toward healing and to consider how to rebuild some of what was lost communally these past 6 months.

Rosh Hashanah traditionally marks the birth of humanity during the Creation of the world. When listening to Shofar this year, and later in the month during Yom Kippur, let us give thought to the steps needed to partner with the Almighty, in creating a more inclusive, just and empowering world. Hopefully, some of those ideas may inspire your projects for November’s Mitzvah Day.

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a year of health, peace, happiness and well-being! Following this uncertain and constricted beginning, may we merit Rabbi Yitzhak’s assertion of a year ahead ‘filled with the richness of Divine blessings’!

Shana Tova, May we all have a sweet, happy and most importantly, healthy 5781,

Rabbi Jeff Berger, Interfaith Advisor and the Mitzvah Day team