Progressively Speaking: Does Yom Kippur take on new meaning in a pandemic?

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Progressively Speaking: Does Yom Kippur take on new meaning in a pandemic?

Rabbi Deborah Blausten of Finchley Reform looks ahead to the Day of Atonement under Coronavirus restrictions

Prayer shawl - Tallit
Prayer shawl - Tallit

“At this moment we are called to consider our actions and their impact on our lives and the lives of others.” 

In this strange pandemic era, it is hard to know whether those words come from the latest government press briefing or a rabbi preparing their congregation for Yom Kippur. 

Certainly, this year, the questions raised by our High Holy Day liturgy, how much our actions impact our fate, how we take responsibility and mend the harms we have caused, have a whole new framing. 

Reminded of the cruel lottery of life, and the fragility of the things we once took for granted, what does it mean to approach a day that is so focused on personal action? 

The language of our prayers suggests we can change our ways and avert a harsh decree even when the reality of our lives shows that though there is much we can take responsibility for, the situation is beyond our control. 

The process of teshuvah, of returning, is designed to encourage each individual to do their own little bit to repair that which is broken, to take responsibility, and to restore intention and integrity to each of our lives. 

Despite this individual focus, many of the confessional prayers in the Machzor are in the plural.

Bagadnu – we have dealt treacherously. Dibarnu dofi – we have spoken slander. 

This encourages each of us to consider not just how we acted ourselves, but our complicity in enabling the actions of others. 

We are both individuals and part of a system and, this year more than most, the terrible ramifications of this are so apparent. 

We don’t just act or change our ways to earn ourselves more time on this earth. We do so because we are part of a community, a people, and a world, whose fates are intertwined. 

The question of how many days we have left to count on earth is beyond us, but the question of whether we make each of those days count in the grand arc of human history is not. 

  •  Rabbi Deborah Blausten serves Finchley Reform Synagogue


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