“Today, the world is born.”
This refrain, recited during the repetition of the Musaf amidah during Rosh Hashanah after each time we blow shofar, has been interpreted in a myriad of ways over the centuries. It contains the promise of new beginnings, reminding us that whatever happened in the past year, we are lucky to have the opportunity to start again. Rosh Hashanah, I used to say when I was little, is the world’s birthday. Instead of blowing out candles, we would blow the shofar, and welcome in a new stage of life.
Last Rosh Hashanah, I heard these words differently for the first time. Two days earlier, I had had my second consecutive miscarriage, a fleeting moment of the possibility of new life that was quickly snuffed out. In my grief, “Today the world is born” wasn’t only about the promises of what could come in this new beginning. Instead, the words rung with the vulnerability that comes with the possibility of each new life, each rebirth. Just as my husband and I imagined the possibilities of what that tiny ball of cells could become, we imagine what the world could become. Sometimes, of course, those dreams come true. The fact that we are all here, engaging with the world and each other, is a sign of that promise fulfilled. However, our wishes are not always enough to make something so. Sometimes those cells cannot become a baby. Sometimes the world is too fragile to meet the promises that can come with a birth, or a rebirth.
Perhaps there is no better proof of this than the events of 5780, the year that will be concluding tomorrow night. When we said “Who by plague” in Unetane Tokef last year, I cannot imagine that many of us took that threat literally. And yet, here in America, there are at least 200,000 people dead because of Covid-19. The words, “Who will wander” have new meaning for the people who have been evicted because of the pandemic’s economic effects, or because they had to flee their home countries because remaining home was unsafe. “Who will die before their time?” Perhaps the Black people who are overwhelmingly more likely to be victims of police violence. And of course, “Who by fire and who by water” has particular resonance as the West Coast burns and the gulf states brace themselves for hurricane after hurricane. With the world like this, perhaps we have never felt so vulnerable. “Today the world is born.” Yes, there is the promise of rebirth. But it is so precarious. It is like my tiny ball of cells. We are afraid it will not survive.
This Rosh Hashanah will look different from any other in my life. For the first time ever, I will not be in shul. I will not sit at my parents’ table for dinner with 20 other people, watching my dad tear up as he recites the Shehechiyanu. The rousing feeling that comes from hundreds of people singing the words of the machzor will be replaced with a still, small voice, one that exists only inside of me, in my home with just my husband. I imagine, when I think about the words “Today the world is born,” I will feel fear that this promise will not be fulfilled. I will feel the loss and vulnerability that seems to grow stronger every day.
I wish I had an answer to these fears. I wish I could wrap up this newsletter with reassurance that 5781 will be better than 5780, as I desperately hope it will be, but it’s not a promise I can make. But that’s the thing about “Today the world is born.” With every new life, every new beginning, every moment of transition, infinite possibilities lay out ahead of us. Some are gorgeous, some are horrifying. Some bring peace and certainty, others bring instability and rupture. Perhaps, then, in this moment, the best thing we can do is learn to sit with this vulnerability, and acknowledge that we are afraid, but also, that we want things to be different. And then, as the world is reborn, we can help shape it into something closer to what we still believe it can become.
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In the past few weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time mourning what Yamim Noraim will not be this year, when I am (physically) removed from my beloved community, while trying to figure out how to make these next days and weeks as meaningful as possible. Below, I am offering a few of the things that have helped me, and if you’re struggling, I hope you can find some comfort in it too.
For me, Yamim Noraim have often been about song as prayer. There are few things as powerful as hearing hundred of voices echo through a room, unselfconsciously crying out in prayer. Since I will not have that on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this year, I’ve been trying to build that sensation at home, in advance, by singing along to some of those melodies. Here are some of the songs I’ve been listening to to get into the spirit of the Yamim Noraim:
I never let myself listen to this niggun until the month of Elul, which precedes the Yamim Noraim, begins. Simply called the Elul Niggun, by Eitan Katz, it immediately shifts my mindset and reminds me that the new year is coming.
This version of the piyyut Ya’aleh, traditionally sung during Kol Nidrei, was composed by Rabbi Julia Andelman and is sung here by my friends Rabbi Sarit Horwitz and Rabbi Abe Schacter-Gampel.
The song Seder HaAvodah, by Israeli singer Ishay Ribo, was a huge sensation before last year’s Yamim Noraim. It’s incredibly beautiful and evocative in both its music and its lyrics. This year, Ribo also released a recording of a live version, which brings tears to my eyes every time I hear him stop singing and instead gives the refrain over to the audience.
Although the poem Lecha Dodi is part of Shabbat liturgy, this version, also known as Lincoln’s Niggun, has become a staple in our shul’s Yom Kippur davening in the past couple of years. Composed by Joey Weisenberg, it is performed by the Hadar ensemble.
One of the things I’ll miss most this year is the atmosphere in the room when we sing Mareh Kohen. Traditionally sung at the end of the Avodah service, which reenacts the journey of the Kohen Gadol into the Holy of Holies, Mareh Kohen imagines the relief and joy he and the community must have felt when he exits safely. This spirited version by Nativ does a good job of capturing at least some of that spirit.
During Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur musaf, my shul, along with many others, have taken on the practice of singing the piyyut Veye’etayu in popcorn form, where each stanza is sung by a different member of the community, and then everyone joins in the refrain. The Washington Square Minyan in Brookline, MA, has created a socially distanced version for this year.
Two years ago, my husband and I sang this version of Chamol Al Ma’asecha when we co-led musaf on Rosh Hashanah. People were mad because it’s not the traditional version, but for listening, it’s really gorgeous. This one is performed by Noey Jacobson.
For those of you who are in Manhattan like me, at 4:00 PM on Sunday, shofar will be blown on every block of Broadway from 65th street to 110th street. I imagine this will be an extraordinary moment (hopefully once in a lifetime!), and encourage you to walk over if you can. There are also a number of outdoor shofar blowings happening across the city throughout the day, and I assume that will be the case in other cities as well.
The Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly has put out a guide to a Rosh Hashanah seder, which you can find here. I confess that I have not had a chance to read the whole thing yet, but it’s put together by a number of my friends and former students, so I feel confident that it will greatly enrich the Rosh Hashanah experience for those of us who are at home. Additionally, some very smart teenagers at my shul, lead by the brilliant Rabba Wendy Amsellem, wrote this Yamim Noraim companion, which can be printed out and read over these holidays.
Finally, this week’s episode of the podcast Identity/Crisis, put out by the Shalom Hartman Institute (where I’m a fellow) highlighted many of the feelings that I, and many others are feeling in this moment, of loneliness, and considers the ways that that loneliness could be an important thing for us to sit with, rather than ignore.
Shana tovah to all of you. May 5781 be a sweet year, filled with fewer vulnerabilities, more healing, and abundant blessings for all of us.