By Larry Gordon
After a year like this, with so many twists and turns and so much up in the air, when a rav stands up before his congregation on Shabbos Shuvah, the Shabbos before Yom Kippur, what does he say?
This is a propitious time of year for shul-goers like us. There are many high points in our spiritual lives, and if you had to single out two of them, one would be Shabbos Shuvah and the other Shabbos HaGadol, just before Pesach.
I began writing these words before I spoke to any of the rabbis, but let me say right here and right now that a major focus of many of the derashos will be on COVID—not necessarily from a medical point of view, but rather all the lessons we should be able to internalize from what has become the even greater fragility of life.
A collection of Five Towns and Far Rockaway rabbis issued a video presentation last week urging viewers not to delay and to go ahead and get vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus. So widely circulated was the video that it was even referenced by Mayor Bill de Blasio in his daily news conference where he lavished great praise on the rabbinical leaders for taking a definitive and an authoritative stand on the vaccine and urging those who are reluctant or hesitant to just go ahead and do it because it is the right thing to do.
One of the presenters stated: “Unvaccinated people die.” Some of the rabbanim who were not on the video said they were asked to participate but refused, because, as one said, “Rabbis should not be giving medical advice.”
While the vaccine is still shrouded in some controversy, it has also changed the course of the spread of the virus and has prevented many people from becoming seriously ill or dying and many from even contracting the virus. According to medical authorities, for the most part, those who are seriously ill in hospitals today are those who are not vaccinated. Israel’s Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz and Coronavirus Czar Salman Zarka have said that we have to learn to live with corona just like we live with influenza and other illnesses that occur from time to time. Many countries, including the U.S., are looking to Israel and its aggressive drives to vaccinate the population as a test to anticipate how the virus will react to extensive and widespread inoculations.
Zarka, who is Druze, traveled to Uman with tens of thousands of Jews, but not as part of the annual religious pilgrimage. He was there over yom tov to work with the Ukrainian government to make sure that protocols to keep people safe are followed. Magen David Adom teams are also in the Ukraine this week to administer corona tests to Israelis prior to their flights returning to Israel. Upon their return they will all have to quarantine for seven days.
Before completing this article, I spoke with several rabbis about their thought process as they head in the direction of delivering one of their main addresses of the year. As we once again enter the holiday season following a year of upheaval, some of the rabbis say that there is a great deal to learn from this ordeal beyond masking and social distancing.
Rabbi Pinchas Chatzinoff, an attorney and the popular rav of Congregation Tifereth Zvi in Cedarhurst, says that while keeping safe is job number one, there is also more that we can learn from these recent experiences.
The rabbi says he plans to communicate to his kehillah that just like the vaccine can leave us vulnerable to other strains of the coronavirus, even teshuvah leaves us potentially exposed to whatever spiritual infections come next.
He says that he will also be speaking about the need for people to take personal responsibility by utilizing authentic Torah values in the face of external pressures from society at large.
Down south where you will find many ex-New Yorkers these days, the focal point of Jewish life is the Boca Raton Synagogue (BRS) led by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, an outstanding rabbinical personality whose voice is attracting national attention.
One of Rabbi Goldberg’s yom tov themes will be, he says, that “it is important these days to realize that it is OK not to be OK,” and contained within that realization is the opportunity for self-awareness and self-control that can redirect one’s life.
Along those same lines, over Rosh Hashanah Rabbi Goldberg planned to strike a similar theme about what is involved when one blows a shofar that has a hole in it. The rabbi explains that if one uses that kind of shofar, the sounds of the tekios that emanate from it are valid and kosher. An issue arises when one seeks to plug or repair the hole by utilizing a foreign substance of some sort. In that case, the rabbi adds, the sounds emanating from the shofar are not kosher and the listener is not yotzei the mitzvah to hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah.
Rabbi Goldberg expounds further, saying that today many of us are dealing with what feels like a hole in our psyches and souls. But that means that we have the ability to take on whatever it is that is troubling us and to move on in a good and productive direction in the New Year.
Rabbi Simcha Lefkowitz of Congregation Anshei Chesed in Hewlett says he will be discussing the destructiveness that the Divine has brought upon the world this year and the unique opportunity it presents to us as Am Yisrael to rebuild at a uniquely auspicious time like this. The rabbi says that this past year we saw destruction that runs the gamut—whether the coronavirus or the tragedy over Lag B’Omer in Meron, among other difficulties visited upon the world this year.
Rabbi Aryeh Zev Ginzberg at the Chofetz Chaim Torah Center in Cedarhurst planned to deliver part of the derashah, with his son-in-law, Rabbi Yudi Jeger, the shul’s official rabbi, delivering the second half of the derashah.
Rabbi Ginzberg said that we have seen in real life what is described in the U’Nesaneh Tokef prayer that we recite on both holidays. We saw it all and somewhat too vividly, with so many succumbing to and suffering from corona on top of the tragedy in Meron that claimed 45 lives, as well as the catastrophe in Surfside, Florida, where the Champlain Towers collapsed, killing over 100 people.
Rabbi Ginzberg says that he thought we had covered most of what the tefillah says, but that was until last week’s cataclysmic flooding from Hurricane Ida that caused dozens of people to lose their lives by drowning in cars, on roads, and in basements here on the East Coast.
At a time like this, when the reality of daily life offers so much that is difficult to fathom psychologically, the only way that we can view these earth-shattering events is as an opportunity to look inside ourselves and see all these situations and the pain they have delivered as a chance to start from the beginning all over again, and do our best to place one foot in front of the next and move forward, building and growing despite the obstacles.
G’mar chasimah tovah to all.
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.