Both of the High Holidays take place against the backdrop of Biblical stories of a father’s grief. The Akedah is the theme of the day for Rosh Hashanah. As Avraham tries to carry out God’s command to sacrifice Yitzchak, he is stopped at the last moment, and a ram is offered in his son’s place. The tradition of using a ram’s horn for our shofar is tied to that story. Avraham’s and Yitzchak’s willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice to carry out the Divine will is held up for us as the exemplary act of piety, and we use it to beg God’s mercy for us in the name of those ancestors’ devotion. Avraham has no opportunity to either grieve the near-death of his son, or to celebrate its being averted, or to grieve the break in his relationship with Yitzchak. Instead, the shock of the news of the Akedah kills Sarah, and Avraham must tend to her burial.

Aharon is the other grieving father. The rituals of Yom Kippur are described in the Torah in parashat Acharei Mot, which begins with the words “And the Eternal spoke to Moshe after the deaths of the two sons of Aharon, when they came near to the Eternal and they died.” When Moshe tried to comfort Aharon in the immediate wake of the deaths of his two elder sons, Nadav and Avihu, Aharon’s response was silence. He was not allowed to go through the rituals of mourning. He was commanded to take on his heaviest responsibility of the year, to perform the sacrifices of Yom Kippur, and expiate the sins of the entire Israelite people.  

There is too much to grieve this year. A new and highly contagious virus is spreading throughout the world, and to protect ourselves and each other, we must temporarily give up on visiting friends and family normally and freely, and even coming together in shul on Yom Kippur. The entire West Coast is in flames, and it will be next year again, and the following year again. The same is true of the brutal storms that pound the Gulf Coast. Peace, basic respect and human decency are waning as we hear about incident after incident of violence towards unarmed black Americans, and of peaceful protests being marred and besmirched by looting and destruction of property. Anti-Semitism is on the rise in all corners of society. In the midst of all this was the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a Jewish woman considered a hero by millions.

Millions of us look in fear at the state of the world. Will we stay healthy? Will we live? Will freedom and democracy persist in the world? What will happen to the Jewish people? Ironically, the prayer that expresses this fear most eloquently requires the minyan that we cannot safely convene this year: Unetaneh Tokef, sung as part of the reader’s repetition of Musaf on both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. “Who will live and who will die?” “Who by fire, and who by water?” “Who by plague?” The prayer reaches its climax with the powerful and simple words: “And repentance and prayer and charity shall overturn the severity of the decree.”

It is not up to any individual what kind of an era we may live in, unless that individual reaches a very particular position of influence. It is only up to us how we respond to our time, and how we live. Unetaneh Tokef brings our knowledge of how we must live in response to this world into sharp focus. Our sense of the powerful, thundering echo of the Divine in every atom of this world, and the still, thin voice behind the eyes of every person we encounter command our care, respect, and love. We know our obligations to make teshuvah, and to fix whatever harmful habits we may have. We know our need to renew our devotion and sense of the sacred on a daily basis. We know our need to act and give in ways that help others rise from the low places from which they may not be able to rise by themselves. Reflect. Revere. Respond. That is all that there will ever be for us to do.

May you be inscribed and sealed in the Book of Life.

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