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A Virtual Rosh Hashanah? #636

07/17/2020 06:00:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

A Virtual Rosh Hashanah?


There is a Midrash — a rabbinical legend — about the day God learned a lesson from Moses.

Moses approaches God and asks for clarification of a line in the Torah, which reads: “God punishes the children…for the sin of their parents to the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:6-7)

On the surface, the sentence makes some sense.

Indeed, many people carry the scars — or suffer the effects — of acts or decisions made by their elders. Yet, this also presents a problem. 

Mentioned twice in the Torah, does this biblical line mean we can blame others for our misfortunes and compulsions? Shouldn’t each person be responsible for their own destiny?

So, Moses questions God: “Are you sure, that’s what you meant when you said the sins of parents will be visited upon children?”

And God replies, ”Yes, I wrote it, so it must be true.”

"Then tell me something," responds Moses. "Do you remember Abraham?"

“Well of course,” replies God. “Abraham was my first servant. He accepted the idea of one God.”

“Well,” says Moses. “His father, Terach, not only worshiped idols, but also sold them in the market. So why didn’t you place that burden on Abraham?

"Doesn’t this demonstrate that each of us has the potential to rise up and embrace our own destiny?"

The Midrash then describes something amazing.

God reflects for a moment, and in one of the most remarkable insights of our tradition, says, "Well, Moses, thank you. I think you are right. I guess I learned something from you today."

Later, clearly articulated in the Book of Jeremiah, the original biblical statement is amended, indicating that each of us is responsible for our own lives and the consequences of our actions.

This clearly demonstrates that Jewish law and practice can evolve and that God is part of the process.

This week, as we complete our reading of the fourth book of the Torah, Numbers, we revisit five women, who demonstrate that the Torah and Jewish law can change. 

And God approves of this message.

The five daughters of the late Zelophehad — Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah — in a previous parashah ask God why land ownership needs to be restricted to men. 

God considers their case and changes the law according to their request. This week, however, the approval is tempered with an asterisk, signifying that their land must remain within their tribe.

Still, the the message is clear: Jewish law and practice are not cast in stone.

Last December, I attended a workshop in Boston regarding the streaming of religious services. At the time, our congregation didn’t think it was ready.

Now, it is a way of life.

Our Friday night Zoom and Facebook service, now condensed to one hour, is attracting three times as many participants as before the pandemic. People are casually dressed; some drop and in and out.

What do you think God has to say about that?

Two weeks ago, a number of our Hebrew school parents, during our Shabbat Zoom services, publicly read the Torah from their backyards, dens and living rooms. Their children beamed with pride.

What do you think God has to say about that?

And now, our congregation and many others, are considering the previously unthinkable — a completely virtual Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

The cameras have been ordered, and we are considering which parts to adapt, shorten or cut. Perhaps our services will be 90 minutes shorter than those of previous years, with minimal repetition.

What do you think about that?

It begins with a basic Jewish value: Pikuach Nefresh — saving life. 

Can we, as a congregation, withstand to have parts of our service prerecorded: in particular our traditional blessing of the children — or the Kol Nidre Torah procession?

What would God say? What do you say?

It is our hope that conditions will improve to enable some to attend real-time services — with masks, safe seating distances, temperature taking, washing of prayer books and constant restroom cleaning. But that may not be possible.

Earlier in the my life, I was reviewing the effects of a devastating forest fire with the chief of a First Nation.

“We naturally hate when the forest burns down,” he said. “But nature has a way of forcing change. New saplings grow, life goes on.”

And so it is with us.

The current pandemic has caused untold stress, anxiety and suffering, but we have been spiritually elevated. In many ways, some of our religious premises and structures, have toppled like trees in a forest.

But something new has taken place as we have accepted the challenge. We are currently evolving a new Judaism that does not require us to dress up, travel, commit two or three hours of our time and ultimately, in many ways, is more spiritual and organic.

We’re approaching the two-month mark before the High Holidays. Let us have the courage to consider Pikuach Nefesh — placing the lives of families, friends and neighbors first.

As we complete our reading of the Book of Numbers, we realize that each of us is more than a number, and sometimes law and tradition need to be flexible.

This is how Judaism has been for more than 3,000 years: We embrace our sacred tradition within a God-given framework that enables us to bend with change. Perhaps God is learning with us.

This year, High Holiday services may look different from those of the past, but let us ask whether God would prefer us to risk crowding together, or staying safe — embracing God’s gift of technology with thought, respect and sacred intention.

Our tradition teaches that Pikuach Nefesh comes first.

Faced with these options, what do you think God would want us to do?

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv.

Rabbi Irwin Huberman


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