17 September 2021
Every year during Kol Nidre services on erev Yom Kippur, I am struck by how we begin with this collective prayer. We stand together as a community, confessing our guilt and asking for forgiveness. Even though we typically think of transgressions as individual acts, at this critical moment, the ask is communal. Perhaps it is the moment, perhaps the anticipation of beginning a fast, but every year I feel the power of this collective request of each other and of God.
This High Holiday season in particular, I’ve also been considering my understanding of a very familiar—perhaps even cliché—aphorism from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers). Rabbi Tarfon writes, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” Working for a Jewish organization, I hear the quote so often that I must admit that it usually makes little impression. But this year, it hit me in a different way. As the pandemic continues, I am a bit exhausted. The optimism I and perhaps you felt earlier in the summer has dissipated. Are we, am I, really ready for another round of this? When will it all end? Do I have the energy to keep moving forward with no end in sight? Rabbi Tarfon’s teaching seems to be especially applicable in this moment.
I recognize that our work will never be done. We will always bear responsibility, perhaps increasingly so, for the broader community. There will always be vulnerable members of the Jewish community who need help. There will always be another person and another generation searching for connection and meaning—desiring to be part of a larger purpose. Our relationship with Israel will constantly evolve, and we must continue to engage in immersive Israel experiences and dialogue. And a strong, vibrant Jewish community can and must play a central role in all of this. But over the past year-and-a-half, COVID-19 reduced our sense of community in building the world in which we desire to live. It has isolated us and made our circles smaller. It has, perhaps, made us feel less capable of tackling these issues, even as the challenges seem to grow.
That is why the lesson from Pirkei Avot feels so powerful as a statement not addressed to the individual, but rather to the collective. No one of us is obligated to complete the work. That is not possible. Even as a community our work will never be done. The fact that so many people, in individual ways, are engaging and not desisting, is what gives us the capacity to make a difference. It is standing together as a community, at times to ask for forgiveness and at times to repair the world in which we live, that will make this all possible. Just as our pursuit of atonement is collective, so too is our ability to build our future.
As we turn towards the harvest festival, Sukkot, many of us will spend time this coming week in temporary structures that help us recall our ancestors’ time in the desert, facing incredible challenges and significant unknowns. It’s a timely opportunity to reflect on and recognize the fragility of the world in which we live. At the same time, I recognize that, collectively, we are so much stronger. The challenges we face may never be completely resolved. Nevertheless, standing together, I have every confidence we can tackle whatever may come our way.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,