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The Days of Awe: Not for the Faint of Heart
by Rabbi Pamela Wax
WJCS Spiritual Care Coordinator
It is several months now that we have been living in the shadow of a serious pandemic that has threatened the familiarity, predictability, and security of our lives on so many fronts. Even those of us who may be fortunate enough to have escaped the worst of the physical and economic repercussions of coronavirus are not immune to its spiritual aftershocks. We are all living with fears and anxieties in the face of enormous grief and suffering the world over, and some of us are being called to transform ourselves anew or to recalibrate our priorities in light of heightened consciousness about mortality and finitude, and about issues of justice and inequity.
The High Holy Day period has always been a time of re-assessment and taking stock, of fac-ing our mortality, and making those necessary steps and turns of teshuvah towards a more meaningful and authentic life. I have a sense that many of us will enter these upcoming holy days with a renewed sense of urgency to do so. To protect ourselves and others, we will also likely be entering these upcoming holy days without the familiarity of our synagogue buildings or even our extended families and friends around our tables with whom to make kiddush or to break bread.
What will remain familiar are things that are both intangible and portable: the essential themes as well as the liturgy of these holy days. These themes have never been for the faint of heart, and this year, they seem more urgent and more essential than ever. As I begin to contemplate the High Holy Days, three quintessential prayers keep reverberating loudly in my mind, reminding me how utterly contemporary and eternally relevant our tradition is. These prayers are the Unatane Tokef, the Sh’ma Koleinu, and the Avinu Malkeinu. I’d like to offer some thoughts as to how contemplation of these prayers may enrich your ob-servance of the Holy Days, whether you attend synagogue prayer services or not.
The Unatane Tokef invites us to face the reality of our own mortality with great specificity as to our possible demise — will we be tormented, will we be impoverished, will we die by hunger or by fire or by drowning? On some level, conscious or not, I suspect that we are all considering the possibility of death by coronavirus, or death by police brutality, or death by an overwhelmed health system. I invite you to consider the following: How can you use this contemplation of death to bring you into greater alignment with the fullness of the possibility that life presents to you in this moment? How might a direct look into the eyes of the Angel of Death transform your life?
Secondly, there is one line in the Sh’ma Koleinu that never ceases to pull at my heart-strings: Do not cast me away when I am old. During these days when those of us who are aged 60 and older must be extra-vigilant to protect ourselves from contracting the virus, this verse from Psalms 71:9 rings ever more loudly. Consider: How does your current age affect your relationship to this historic moment in time? How do you think your age and your accumulated life experience affects the balance you hold between hope and fear?
Lastly, the Avinu Malkeinu, of course, is the cry of the soul, begging for mercy and healing and to be written into the Book of Life. This year, give yourself an opportunity to write your own Avinu Malkeinu prayer to G-d — what’s on your list of pleas? What do you im-plore of G-d?
May we meet this grave moment in our personal and communal lives with as much resili-ence, equanimity, hope, and compassion as we possibly can. With blessings to you as we approach the new year of 5781.
Programming for the WJCS Jewish Spiritual Healing Center begins on September 9. For a full listing of programs, including programming to prepare spiritually for the Days of Awe visit www.wjcs.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.