Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur in Pandemic Times

I had a surprisingly spiritual Yom Kippur.

I’m currently in Jerusalem; you might think the default should be it would be spiritual, but this year in the days and weeks leading up to the holiday, I wasn’t feeling it.

As I wrote in blog post on August 31, this year I felt like I didn’t have the energy to do the traditional cheshbon hanefesh, taking stock, examining my deeds. It’s been a rough year, for all of us.

Rosh Hashanah I still wasn’t really feeling it. I think all the judgment stuff just was not where my head was at this year. Services were nice enough, we had a nice holiday meal, but I still didn’t really feel connected and into it.

So it came as a pleasant surprise that Yom Kippur was very different. I did feel very spiritually connected. Sitting outside for Kol Nidre, saying those solemn prayers with the setting sun and the darkening sky suited me well. The more urgent pleas we make on Yom Kippur, “Come on God, give us another chance…yes we screwed up, and here’s a laundry list of all the ways we’ve screwed up, and we’ll repeat it until we’re sick of it, but please God, give us another year…” really resonated. I’m so done with this last year. In the Unataneh Tokef prayer when we ask, “who will live and who will die,” the line mi b’magefah, who by plague, had a completely different meaning and feeling than in years past, as the world now has a million people who’ve died from this horrible virus.

Yom Kippur morning was also lovely. I went to a 7:30am minyan. I’m an early riser anyway, and while on Shabbat I like to lounge in bed with coffee, breakfast, and the newspaper, that wasn’t happening on Yom Kippur so I figured I might as well go to the early minyan and beat the heat. Again, it was lovely sitting outside in a shady spot with a bit of breeze, praying in a small group of probably 16 or 17 people.  The service was much shorter than usual, we finished by about 10:30. Three hours for Yom Kippur is short. Four to five hours is more usual.

One of my daughters invited to come and teach something to her friends, and I really enjoyed digging into the meaning of the book of Jonah with a group of engaged and knowledgeable young people with a lot of interesting ideas. We sat on the grass near the tayelet, where we could look out and see the exact place where the Cohen Gadol did his elaborate ritual for the last time 1,951 years ago. So of course that was spiritually uplifting, and fun.

And for Neilah, the closing service, I was back with another minyan in the street, praying with another one of my daughters and a few friends.

I’m so glad I was here, and had these wonderful outdoor minyans, instead of in the US, either leading a service on Zoom, or participating in a service on Zoom. I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of Zoom services; if I wasn’t leading services, I probably would have just prayed on my own.

I think Yom Kippur worked much better for me this year than Rosh Hashanah because the idea of a fresh start, of putting the pain of the past year behind me, was so attractive. Most of the time I think I’m coping with the coronavirus restrictions and changes pretty well, most of the time I feel like it hasn’t impacted my mental health that much, but then sometimes I get hit by it, and it’s like “wow…this IS getting to me…”

Most post-holiday communications from synagogues are saying things like, “next year may we be back together as usual,” but I actually had a much better experience this year, being outdoors with a small group, than the usual experience of being indoors with a big group.

My prayer is that next year we’ll have the option – able to gather in a large group indoors as “normal,” but also able to pray with a small group outdoors if that’s what you find more spiritually uplifting.

Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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