That the coming Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) will be different than any we have previously experienced is a given. But does it not have the potential to be exceptional, perhaps even better than any other? It is saying a lot but let us explore how that is possible.
The year of Corona has upended our lives in numerous ways. It became a mitzvah not to go to shul. The Talmud’s stark choice that extols the virtues of socializing – “either companionship or death” (Taanit 23a) – became a mockery of itself, when seeking companionship became a cause of death and isolation became the norm, a desideratum. Healthy people suddenly fell ill; communities suffered horrible losses. The world economy crashed. A robust economy in America and Israel became anemic, and many millions lost their jobs. Entire industries shut down, and some will not recover for years, if ever.
Faith in government, already feeble, collapsed, and trust in the “rule of the experts,” a staple of liberal thinking since the Wilson administration, dissipated in the wake of contradictory and error-filled decisions. The same experts who were adamant about not wearing a mask became equally adamant about wearing one; ditto with the certainty (then lack of certainty) for surface transmission, for airborne transmission at 6 feet, 7 feet (or is it 27 feet?), for lockdowns versus herd immunity, for the efficacy of one drug over another.
Indeed, “all the powerful men are like nothing before You… the wise men without knowledge, the scholars without intelligence.” Mankind, after a year like this one, should feel humbled, very small, vulnerable, and awestruck before the Creator whom we, evidently, do not control, and whose inscrutable will is beyond our ken. With all the obeisance paid to science – and all the fawning deference some want to show to “science,” however inconsistent and conflicting are its conclusions, and however limited its scope when measured against other vital global factors – it is abundantly clear that science does not have all the answers. It is risible to “follow the science,” when the science is confused, uncertain, too often wrong, and inconclusive. Here in Israel, the authorities are flailing about trying to find some way to halt or reverse the spread of Corona, this to the distress of many citizens who have little confidence that anything will change in three weeks after another lockdown – and that if it does change, that these Draconian lockdowns will have had anything to do with it.
On Rosh Hashana, as we hail the melech elyon, the Supreme King, we also underscore the fragility of the melech evyon, the impecunious king – man – whose ego is as boundless as his ultimate capacities are feeble. The authorities, the experts, mean well and I presume that most are sincere. Man’s talents were enlisted to combat this deadly disease and many devoted people are making a difference, bringing relief to the ailing. But no one really saw this coming, knew with any certainty how to deal with it once it arrived, and thus are still struggling to arrest and overcome. It is most humbling. And it should remain humbling, even if a cure or vaccine is found.
Those who pay careful attention to the davening remember all the phrases from the moving liturgical poem “u’netaneh tokef” that took on new meaning this year, and not just “Who will live and who will die.” “Who by fire” – and the conflagrations that bedevil the entire west coast of the United States. “Who by water” – and the floods that ravage various parts of the world suddenly and without warning. “Who by earthquake” – and the horrible toll that takes on human life. But all that is ordinary, part of the natural order, and even sadly familiar to us.
But is this? “Who by magefa, plague?” Who thought a year ago that a plague would sweep across the globe, transforming the lives of every nation? “And who by chanika, stragulation?” Too many people, healthy people, within just a few minutes, found themselves unable to breathe for reasons that were not immediately discernible. Certainly those phrases should resonate with us this year, as we contemplate the greatness of G-d and the frailties of man, the pinnacle of His creation. Afflictions that we thought were relics of a bygone era are now part of our daily lives. If that does not cause us to take stock and look to the heavens, then nothing will.
If so, then we are blessed – if that is the right word – to be able to “cast our eyes to the heavens and perceive who created all of this” (Yeshayahu 40:26). Many Jews will be davening outdoors, under the skies, braving the heat in some places and weathering the chill in others. Being in nature is a different experience than sitting in an edifice constructed by human beings. Shuls evoke awe – the House of G-d – but nature evokes a sense of majesty, a universe created by His word and wisdom and according to His will. It is the classic feeling of “Yir’at Hashem” (the awe of G-d’s transcendence), when man reflects on the wonders of nature and “is immediately taken aback, stricken with awe, and realizes that he is a small, insignificant creature, dark, standing with a paucity of knowledge in the presence of One with perfect knowledge” (Rambam, Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 2:2).
That experience does not just fulfill the mitzvah of “Yir’at Hashem.” That experience is at the heart of Rosh Hashana, the coronation day of the King of Kings on which we sound the shofar to acknowledge and celebrate His kingship.
This past year – año de la corona – was the year of the crown in one sense, and not just because of the virus that bears its name. It should have forced us to take the imaginary crowns off our heads and realize how exposed we are, and how flimsy can be our lives, our grandiose plans and our aspirations.
May the New Year be another año de la Corona – a year of the true Crown – when we anoint G-d as King over the entire world and include ourselves as well (in R. Yisrael Salanter’s sardonic phrase), as among His servants. And may He hear our prayers, heal our wounds, end the scourges that distress His creatures, bless us all with life, good health, prosperity, peace and redemption.
Shana Tova to all!