I have a magnet on my refrigerator door that “speaks” to me quite often. “Let go or be dragged,” it shouts.
And I get it.
If you must be angry or upset, don’t hold on to those feelings for very long. Don’t allow another person’s negativity to pull you down. Don’t stand still waiting for something to happen when you can just move on and be pleasantly surprised if it does happen. And in the unusual, never-imagined mix of Rosh Hashanah and covid-19, let go of the memory of all your previous Rosh Hashanahs in the synagogue and prepare yourself for the unexpected.
Among the seven organized services arranged by my synagogue — three indoors and four outside — we opted to sit indoors in the main sanctuary. I was excited at the thought of actually being in the synagogue for the first time in six months. My mask comfortably in place, I admit I gasped a little as I walked through the doors and was somewhat stunned by the countless red sheets of paper emblazoned with thick black Xs on so many seats that screamed out: DO NOT SIT HERE! Lowering my gaze, I found my seat, settled myself, and looked beyond those jarring signs.
The synagogue, of course, was still the beautiful house of worship that I loved. How I had missed the warm comfort of its modern, unique design, the Holy Ark that houses the Torah scrolls, the comfort of the Eternal Flame, or the simple act of watching the treasured Torah scrolls being carried and then read out loud on the raised platform in the middle of the room. And if the walls could speak, I imagined that they, too, were happy and appreciative of those 25 or so men and the similar number of women sitting in their midst and praying. For surely the walls — like so many of us — wondered a few weeks ago if such a scenario would actually come to be. Recognizing that reality and thankful for the day, I let go of any expectations based on holiday services before 2020. And as I prayed, I was struck with a powerful sense of joy in simply being there. That old expression about quality, not quantity, fit the situation to a tee.
It didn’t matter how few congregants we were. Certainly I missed the melodic impact and power of hundreds of voices singing together. But our small group sang and prayed with uplifted voices, with clarity, and most certainly with devotion. The men who either led us in prayer or who read the Torah or who shared thoughtful ideas in brief sermons each day fulfilled their tasks with excellence and caring. It was all about quality; I let go of thinking even for a moment that this wasn’t amazing.
And doesn’t the clarion sound of the shofar also “speak” to us on so many levels? Yes, it speaks to us of God’s kingship, it calls to us to examine our actions, to follow the commandments, to deal properly with our fellow man, and so much more. But on this Rosh Hashanah it said something I had never heard before.
The gentleman about to blow the shofar first walked to the back of the room and opened the door that leads out to the open hallway. While he and the shofar were inside the sanctuary, the opening of the shofar faced out into the hall. Intellectually, I know it was the gentleman blowing the shofar who was looking out for everyone’s well-being. But my imagination felt that the shofar was his partner in that process.
“My message, as always, is loud and clear,” called the shofar. “But I never want to chance hurting anyone in the synagogue with any sprays coming out of my mouth, so I will face the opposite direction in order to keep you safe.”
The speaker on the second day of the holiday reflected on the significance of not blowing shofar when the first day of Rosh Hashanah falls on Shabbat and then blowing shofar on the second day. The sounds of the shofar remind us to follow God’s commandments. Comparing God to a valuable and wise leader in the army, we follow God’s commands. When your leader commands you to do something, you follow him. But sometimes that leader tells you to stand down. “Do not move forward; stay where you are until I tell you it is safe to move forward.” In this time of covid-19, perhaps not blowing shofar on the first day can be compared to God reminding all of us that there are times in life when it is critical to stand down.
Don’t move forward when it is not safe. Keep to your location. Listen to instructions. No matter what, God wants us safe.
And then the second day of Rosh Hashanah arrived, and the sound of the shofar reverberated through our souls. “Stand tall,” the shofar called. “Be brave; listen to God; be the best you can be; move forward, but only when it is safe to do so.” And most of all, “Have faith; the battle will be won!”
The New Jersey weather on both days of the holiday was cool and clear. As I slowly walked home the second day, enjoying the delightful temperature and beautiful clear blue sky, the prayers and the sounds of the shofar literally seemed to be accompanying me. With so many backyard services on my homeward path, each one moving at its own pace, I literally heard singing and the sounds of the shofar all the way home. “It’s not all about being in the synagogue,” I suddenly realized. “It’s also about the magic and power of the united sounds emanating from the people and the shofar, no matter where we are.” That ongoing symphony reflected for me the inherent beauty of this unusual Rosh Hashanah and how mindful I must always be of my life’s blessings.
Letting go of what I was missing because of Covid, I felt inspired and uplifted. And nothing, not even this pandemic, will drag me down.
Tzivia Bieler and her late husband, Bruno, moved to Teaneck in January 1974. She retired two years ago as the executive office director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Retirement brings her pleasure, and more time to spend with children and grandchildren in United States and Israel.