The Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) are quickly upon us. In years past, we may have felt as individuals that we are unprepared for the introspection this season demands. This year especially, the demands of our world have made the endeavor of preparing for this season even more pressing and important. Like last year, navigating the High Holidays through a pandemic demands that Jewish institutions navigate the dangers to our community and still provide creative and meaningful opportunities for our community. This year continues to be a time of uncertainty and danger to us, collectively and individually, due to the pandemic raging on with the delta variant of the coronavirus. But we needn’t feel as though there aren’t principles and wisdom to guide is in these challenging times.
The themes of the Yamim Noraim are timeless.We return to them each year, bringing new meaning and light. This year is no different. One such theme is the focus on the principle of communal atonement. We know the principle, ‘Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh (all Israel is responsible for one another), and this principle manifests in the Vidui (confessionary prayer) where each Chet (sin) is written in plural form. We speak out loud, while thumping our chests, “we have sinned.” Not, “I have sinned.” It is the corporate identity that is paramount, for it is with Israel that God established the Covenant and therefore we, together, are responsible for our wellbeing and future. We need each other and we need each other to do what is right.
At Congregation Shalom, we have agonized this year over what is right for our community. We have looked at what our tradition teaches us about health and safety. We have relied upon the advice of experts; people who in their fields of study can guide our community to make reasonable and informed decisions about what is right for our congregation, our greater community, our nation and our world. I know the same has been done by most of the synagogues across our state. The best advice of our community experts matches what is being shared by our national experts and that advice is being shared by experts worldwide: vaccinations are essential for the health and wellbeing of our community. To be vaccinated is to show not only care and compassion for yourself, but even more so, it is a righteous act that can protect your family and your community. Every credible Jewish religious leader and every credible movement of Judaism has shared their support for becoming vaccinated.
Responsible institutions listen to those who have comprehensive and authoritative knowledge in their fields. Responsible institutions feel a moral commitment to the overriding religious principle of Safek Pikuach Nefesh (the probable preservation of life) consistent with the words God brought forth by our great teacher Moses, “You shall keep My statutes and My laws, which a person shall do and shall live by them. I am the Eternal.” (Lev 18:5) And the words that emanate forth on Yom Kippur morning in my congregation, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse: therefore, choose life” (Deut. 30:19).
I am asking each of you, in addition to the spiritual preparations you are making for the Yamim Noraim to include becoming vaccinated as a highly moral and ethical act to save life within our community. I am asking each of you to listen to and observe the safety precautions that are being made by synagogues and Jewish institutions. To those of you who have chosen not to listen to the experts on this matter, I am asking you, regardless of your personal fears about vaccinations, to be compassionate and understanding of the challenging decisions Jewish institutions are making in order to preserve the health and wellbeing of the community, with the information provided to them by responsible authorities.
The timeless wisdom of the ages holds true. We are indeed responsible for one another. This pandemic has been clarifying in that regard. Let us enter into this season of communal assembly, whether in person, if possible, or over alternative means, with the words of God echoing in our hearts and minds, “choose life.”
Rabbi Noah Chertkoff is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shalom in Fox Point.