Pandemic reminds us to honour life, protect each other, Winnipeg rabbi says ahead of High Holidays

By | September 6, 2020

Over the last five months of this global pandemic, our lives have been filled with ambiguity and upheaval. 

Many folks are struggling to get through the crisis in which we find ourselves — fraught with having to make difficult choices about issues that used to seem so mundane. 

The fragility of life is very much a present reality for all of us. 

In response to this and with the impending arrival of the High Holidays or the Days of Awe — less than two weeks away — synagogues around the world want to serve the Jewish people (and others who want to join) as a beacon of hope and a source of comfort.

Sacred Holidays

We do so as we prepare for the arrival of the most sacred time on our Jewish calendar — Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) — as well as the Ten Days of Repentance (the Days of Awe) that occur between these two momentous holidays. 

I am currently facilitating an online class which focuses on the spiritual preparation required before the arrival of the High Holidays. 

We are reading and analyzing a powerful book written by Rabbi Alan Lew, of blessed memory, which is aptly titled This is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared. It is a guide for personal introspection through the High Holiday season. 

Rabbi Lew asserts that the Jewish conception of atonement (or, in Hebrew, teshuvah) changed from the ancient propitiatory sacrifice to an internally based, personal transformative offering. 

He reminds us that the work of the Days of Awe cannot simply be contained within a 10-day period. The process works best within the context of the two-month time frame — from Tisha b’Av/the 9th of Av (a major fast day that is considered to be the most sombre day on the Jewish calendar) through to the autumnal holiday of Sukkot (the Feast of Booths). 

We are keenly aware that our own actions will help determine our fate– Rabbi Kliel Rose

But his most poignant idea is that the real work of teshuvah happens over a much longer time frame than that:

“It became clear that this was a process that never ended, that rather it stretched out to the infinite horizon.… It never stopped. The two-month period in question was merely a time when we focused on it, when we gave form to something invisible that lay dormant, yet was possible to awaken at every moment of our lives.”

In this way, the process of teshuvah (atonement) is constant and ongoing. In fact, it is a daily practice.

My congregation has chosen its theme for this year’s High Holidays: “Living consciously in a time of uncertainty.”

This theme is deeply connected to one of the traditional and core tenets of the High Holiday period — Zochreinu l’Chayim — “Remember us for life.” 

Book of Life

This is a refrain where we pray that we will be written into the Book of Life for this coming year. And every moment we are keenly aware that our own actions will help determine our fate. 

This book — the Book of Life — lies on a table before God. It has many pages — as many pages as there are people in the world. Each of us has a page dedicated just to us.

Written on that page, by our own hand, in our own writing, are all the things we have done during the past year.

God considers those things — weighs the good against the bad, and then, as the prayers declare, decides “who shall live and who shall die.”

Live consciously

This year, as Rabbi Gilah Langer suggests, “perhaps we translate ‘zochreinu l’chaim‘ to keep reminding us to choose life! We are choosing to remind ourselves to live consciously — every time we put on a mask, every time we keep physically distant, every ounce of patience we muster as we take precautions — we say to ourselves: ‘zochreinu l’chaim‘ … keep reminding us to choose life, remind us it’s for the sake of life.” 

In this New Year of 5781 — one filled with a plethora of unknowns — may we all be blessed by knowing that we have the choice to “choose life.” 

To be able to make the life we have — for as long as we have — imbued with meaning.



This column is part of  CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.

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