Dear Rabbi Fried,
I am 80 years old, and, as long as I can remember, I have never missed a Rosh Hashanah service in synagogue. This year my wife, bless her heart, absolutely will not let me go because she’s worried about the coronavirus. I simply cannot fathom what Rosh Hashanah will mean without a synagogue. I’m not an educated man so I don’t know how to sing the service myself or blow the shofar, so what am I to do? How can I celebrate Rosh Hashanah this year? Or, perhaps, with many temples and synagogues closed, Rosh Hashanah is canceled this year?
Sadly, you are far from being the only one who will not be attending services in 2020 out of concern for your safety. Many, many Jews share your sadness and your question.
The first thing we need to clarify is — that Rosh Hashanah is not canceled this year! Or any year!
Truth be told, the synagogue service is a very crucial part of the Rosh Hashanah celebration. The shul is not, however, the end-all, and Rosh Hashanah is very much present with or without a synagogue. There were many times in our long and often bitter diaspora history when shuls were shut down by the authorities and our ancestors were forced to pray in private. The stories abound of how, even in the concentration camps, Jews found ways to pray and even risk their lives to blow the shofar.
Rosh Hashanah is both a day of judgment and a day of joy. We are joyous to have the opportunity of living another year to be a servant of our Creator. We are judged for that very thing: Are we a servant of our Creator; are we “on His team” or on some other team? Part of being on “God’s team” is accepting His decrees with joy, with the knowledge that whatever situation he puts us in is, ultimately, for the good.
We need to look at even the more difficult situations as an opportunity to show our submission to God’s will and accept it with joy. This year we are presented with the opportunity to show Him that we are still His servants even when we cannot serve Him as we are accustomed to.
You are invited to say the prayer service the best you can, even without singing it, in English, and God understands English very well. Try to focus upon the meaning of the words, the focus on coronating the King. Celebrate the day of His coronation by having festive meals on Rosh Hashanah eve and during the day. Prepare and partake of the “simanim,” the apple dipped in honey and other fruits and vegetables which go together with a short prayer, asking God for a sweet New Year, one which will be successful, joyous and healthy.
More important than eating sweet foods is to actually be sweet, joyous and content. How we are on Rosh Hashanah affects the entire year.
It’s especially important to recap, in your mind, your good deeds and perhaps deeds that could have been better, and to resolve on Rosh Hashanah to do better this coming year. That is the process of teshuvah or repentance, which begins on Rosh Hashanah and the 10 days up until — and including — Yom Kippur.
There will be numerous locations throughout the Jewish community where there will be outdoor shofar blowing with the practice of social distancing. I will be doing it outside once or twice at my house. That might be a safe way to hear the shofar on the second day of Rosh Hashanah this year (the first day, shofar is not blown this year as it falls out on Shabbos).
May you and all the readers be blessed with a New Year where you will be inscribed in the Book of Life of the righteous, and with good health, prosperity, nachas and growth in your Jewish pride and connection.