There’s a well-known story about a rabbi who taught his students that every person should go through life with two sayings written on pieces of paper. On one piece, to be kept in one pocket, is written “I am dust and ashes,” and on the other, to be kept in another pocket, is the line from Psalms: “And [man] has been made just slightly less than the angels.”
The challenge that we face is to know when to look to each note for inspiration regarding how to live our lives.
Sometimes, circumstance calls upon us to lower our head and proceed with humility, to recognize that we are only small specks of dust in a greater world. That we don’t deserve anything more than we have.
But on other occasions, as people with an inborn desire to feel special and wanted, we deserve to think that our actions matter and to think that without us, the world couldn’t function.
Perhaps this year, more than ever before, as we prepare to usher in the holiest of days, both these lessons can be internalized as one.
The past several months have shown us in ways more dramatic than ever just how insignificant we are in dictating what goes on around us. Each of us has seen how Hashem was able to oversee a world brought to its knees in a matter of days and silenced in ways difficult to comprehend.
We had thought that we were in control. We launch rockets into space and develop healthcare technologies that save millions.
And then along came a minuscule virus that brought international travel to a halt, kept us closed off in our homes and which we still don’t have real solutions for. In many ways, this was a modern manifestation of the makkot (the plagues of Egypt), with disease silencing and completely paralyzing so much of what we take for granted.
We were forced to recognize that as powerful as we are, if God wants to neutralize humanity, He can.
As much as we might protest, there is little we can do.
All of a sudden the words that we will say on Rosh Hashanah; “Avinu Malkeinu,” our Father and King, prevent a plague from reaching our midst, and “who by chaos and who by plague?” from the Mussaf Prayer of Unetana Tokef, come to be appreciated as very real and very relevant.
At the same time, we are entering into these days of awe at a time when the majority of synagogues around the world are still not functioning as they were prior to the pandemic. This time of year is typically defined by waves of people coming to shul—for many of whom this is the only time of year when they do so—and now the sounds of song and prayer won’t be heard in so many communities. This is the reality we are forced to accept, despite it being deeply painful.
But it also introduces new possibilities. While most years, the experience of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is in large part a communal one, this year the responsibility falls on each and every one of us to make these moments special.
The ability to be inspired by the voices of hundreds praying together has been taken from us, so if we don’t rise up and harness those memories into action then all could be lost. We can’t just let the hours of the holiest days of the year pass and just sit there speaking idly or reading.
We can’t rely on the community rabbi, because many of us won’t hear him. So if we don’t bring Torah into our homes, these days will grow empty of meaning.
There will be no one else to rely on. It’s up to us, or up to our parents, spouses or children to find the power to make these days what they are meant to be. This can be accomplished not just through song and prayer, but also through the time that we will spend together, even over food and games.
What is traditionally a communal responsibility has become a personal, or familial, one.
Undoubtedly, we didn’t ask for this to be forced on us, and we pray for the day very soon we will once again be together. Certainly, we all wanted to be able to go to shul—maybe even criticize the cantor’s tune choices or find creative ways to daydream and pass the time.
It won’t be easy to make this shift and will require that we invest more time and emotion in ensuring that the Holy Days are defined by meaning and sanctity. But it is at times like this that we deserve to remember that Hashem also created us “as just less than angels.”
For our sake and for the sake of our children, we have been given the power to change worlds. We must harness that power this year and pray that in so doing we, and the entire world, will be blessed with a new year defined by happiness, and most importantly, health.
Rabbi David Stav is the chief rabbi of the city of Shoham, and founder and chairman of the Tzohar Rabbinical Organization in Israel.