Why is this Year Different from All Other Years?  (Is it Really?) (September 2021 KOL)

I know it’s the High Holy Day season and not Pesach.  But as we come to this sacred time of year, the modified question from our Passover Seder recurs in my head.  How are Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur this year different from any other year?  Does a year of a pandemic change how we mark these holy days?

On the one hand, of course COVID changes how we approach the High Holy Days.  Most obvious are the physical and logistical alterations we have made.  We are offering two services, each with limited seating in the Sanctuary.  Some of us will attend in person, masked and physically distanced, while others will attend online.  We will come to these prayers after a year filled with fear, loneliness, anger, and a panoply of other emotions.  Our pandemic experiences this past year will color how we experience our liturgy, our community, and our start of the new year.

On the other hand, the key elements of the High Holy Days will remain the same.  We will gather as a community (digitally or in-person).  We will join in prayer.  And, most importantly, each of us will be called upon to do the soul-searching introspection that is the hallmark of this season.  We will ask for forgiveness; we will pledge to do better.  Teshuvah, repentance and return, is still our ultimate goal.

Maybe, of course, it’s both.  On the one hand, we will do the self-reflection that we are always asked to do.  But, on the other hand, maybe this year, the usual questions we ask ourselves can be enhanced by others, ones with an emphasis that reflects the events of this past year.

We ask ourselves, to whom do I need to say I’m sorry?  And, for what do I need to say I’m sorry?  Maybe not just that, but also, what from the pandemic made me feel sorry or sad?  What am I sorry I missed?

We can ask ourselves not just, “What have been my actions this past year, for better or for worse, and how do I feel about them?” but also, “What have been my experiences this past year for better or for worse, and how do I feel about them?”

We can ask ourselves not just, “What do I pledge to do better?” or “Where in my life can I improve?” but also, “What do I think I have learned this past year?”

These types of questions can be part of our High Holy Day introspection this year.

What did I lose this past year?

What did I love this past year?

What did I learn this past year?

It has certainly been unusual year.  But we can take comfort in the familiar rituals of the High Holy Days, even as we reflect on these unique times.  Whether we attend online or in-person, we seek the same things we always seek from this season of the year:  the opportunity for renewal, the chance for self-reflection, and the ability to start fresh in the new year ahead.

May 5782 be a year of great happiness, great health, and great goodness for us all.

L’shanah tovah,

Rabbi David S. Widzer