Today is January 23, 2021 -
If you are like me, the older we get, the faster time generally seems to go by.
The past year, 2020, however, unlike most years in my adult life was a year that belied this phenomenon and did not
seem to go by rapidly enough. Why? Because it was a year that will be remembered by many of us for the incredible
loss and pain experienced both in our country and by billions of others across the world, primarily because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which, while not discriminating on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation or gender identity, preyed the most on the poor and vulnerable in our society.
In our nation, alone, by the end of this calendar year, close to 20 million in our country will have contracted Covid-19—this is more than one out of every 20 Americans—and the death toll from the virus, in just 10 months, is fast approaching 350,000—which number is significantly greater than the combined number of United States War dead, in every war in which our country has been involved since its founding, except for the Civil War and World War 2.
In addition to the resulting tragic PHYSICAL toll that it has taken on the lives of so many of us, the pandemic has
also caused immeasurable emotional, financial, and psychological pain and loss to tens of millions of people in our
nation, ranging from the families and friends of those, who sustained permanent physical harm and/or died from the
virus; to those young people, whose education and job opportunities have been adversely impacted; to those, who have lost their family businesses and who have lost their jobs, resulting in their having to worry, during this Holiday Season, not about getting their Christmas shopping done, but about far weightier matters, like being able to provide food for their families and to have a roof over their heads this winter.
As our Tradition teaches us, as we see with the Jewish mourning practices, it is essential for our healing that we first acknowledge and grieve our pain and our losses, individually and as a community. At the same time, Judaism makes equally clear that we should never despair and lose hope. Instead, we are called upon to be a “light unto the nations,” and to do our best to transform the pain and loss we are experiencing into an opportunity to serve both God and our fellow human beings.
To help us do this, let’s look back for a minute, over the past year, and take note of the millions of our fellow human beings, who brought light to others and served as “profiles in courage,” literally risking their lives to protect and take care of the needs of the rest of us. I know, from countless conversations that I have had, how greatly moved and inspired many of us were by those on the front lines, such as those working in nursing homes and hospitals exposing themselves to the virus and caring for and treating Covid patients; the first responders, such as medics and ambulance drivers and those serving in police and fire departments; those serving food to the hungry and providing shelter for the homeless; and those driving buses, serving as cashiers and stockers in stores, etc., so that tens of millions of Americans would be able to buy food and other necessities and to get to work.
I happen to be writing this article on Christmas day. With the pandemic continuing to rage pretty much out of
control, hundreds of thousands of our non-Jewish brothers and sisters are working hard today in their capacities as
physicians, nurses, technicians, social workers, chaplains, and custodians in hospitals; as medics and ambulance drivers; as fire and police personnel, the list goes on, serving God and the community instead of being able to celebrate and be with their loved ones.
Writing this article has been a gift for me, enabling me to balance, and to even begin to transform, the feelings of loss and pain and personal inconvenience, which I may have been feeling, when I started preparing this article, with feelings of deep gratitude and appreciation to all those, who have served as beacons of light during this dark time in our nation’s history, putting service to God and community first.
All of us also owe a debt of gratitude to the scientists, to those, who volunteered to participate in the clinical trials, to all those, who have been working tirelessly over the past 10 months to develop a vaccine to protect us from this deadly virus. As a result of their dedication and commitment, we now have, in record breaking time, two different, safe, and effective vaccines, being administered to the most vulnerable and deserving in our society, with one or more additional life-saving vaccines likely to be approved in the coming months.
For this reason, we have every reason to utter a sigh of relief and to be hopeful that the coming year, 2021, will be a far better one than the past year, enabling us to return to some semblance of normalcy, for most Americans and for our brothers and sisters throughout the world.
Yet, if all we do is utter a sigh of relief, say a prayer expressing gratitude, and prepare to return to the way that life was before, we will be missing a wonderful opportunity to grow and to benefit from the pandemic, for the pandemic brought to the surface, in undeniable ways, such pre-existing flaws and shortcomings in our society as systemic racism, income inequality, and prejudice toward those, who may be different from ourselves and those in power, etc.
Recognizing that “gratitude,” like love, is a mere emotion, the rabbis and sages of old were concerned far more with “how we give life to and actualize these feelings, transforming them into concrete actions.”
“The question is thus, how are we Jews called upon by our Tradition to show our gratitude to God, to the people,
whom I have described above, who put the well-being of others over perhaps what was in their own best or selfish
Two time-tested ways, of which I believe we are all aware, are to give tzedakah and/or to volunteer our time,
whether it be to a homeless shelter, a food pantry, or to another non-profit organization serving the poor and needy; to the State of Israel; to an organization that brings beauty and joy to the world; etc.
One organization that plays a unique role in the Jewish community, that serves God, the Jewish community, and the
greater non-Jewish community all at the same time, and is in great need of your tzedakah and your time and talents is our synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel.
The special role played by a synagogue in the life of a Jewish person and in the Jewish community is poignantly
described in this teaching by Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first chief rabbi of Palestine:
“[T]he synagogue reflects the holiness in the life of the community. While fostering a safe and supportive community is an important function carried out by a synagogue, one who sees the synagogue solely as a place for people to meet fails to grasp the intrinsic sanctity of the Jewish People, for we are more than just a collection of individuals, who pool together our resources for social and utilitarian purposes, for mutual support and protection. The true value of the Jewish People is in the communal Divine soul that resides within them, a force of collective holiness that transcends the holiness of any of its individual members.
The quality of the Jewish community is especially revealed in the synagogue, a place that alone focuses on and
combines communal prayer, Torah study, and the doing of acts of lovingkindness. It is our communal holiness that
transforms the synagogue into a House of God and a mikdash me’at, “a miniature Temple.”
Stated somewhat differently, while there are many wonderful Jewish and non-Jewish organizations needing and
deserving of our time and support, the synagogue, as did the Holy Temple, which it replaced, serves as the heart and soul of the Jewish People, seeking to transform us individuals, in the words of Rav Kook, into a truly “holy
On behalf of all of us, I pray that the new year, 2021, will bring an end to the Covid pandemic, and in the
process, will allow for the reopening of businesses, schools, colleges, and houses of worship; for the return to gainful employment for millions of Americans; for our again being able to socialize with family and friends, to eat at restaurants, to attend, in person, plays, athletic performances, and musical performances, to travel on vacation and to see family, and last, but certainly not least, to again be able to give old fashioned hugs, etc.
At the same time, I hope that we will learn, as a society, from the pandemic, the changes that need to begin to be
made to ensure that all Americans will be given opportunity to participate in the “American Dream” and to enjoy the
benefits guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution.
Lastly, as life continue to improve for us, individually and as a community, may we remember the importance of
the synagogue in the life of the Jewish People, in general, and the importance of CBI in our own community.
Wishing your loved ones and each of you a safe, joyous, and meaningful secular new year!
Rabbi Howard Mandell