Rabbinic Reflections: Calling the faith-filled

A coronation with no one at court; that will be this year’s Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year. A too-often lesser known or hidden symbol of Rosh HaShanah is the round challah bread as the crown of God as Sovereign of sovereigns, not just round like the year coming full circle and not just sweet for a sweet new year. On Rosh HaShanah, the liturgy is designed to renew God’s kingship. This year, I wonder how many will miss that. I wonder how many of us, this year, need that.

Rosh HaShana this year begins at sunset Friday evening, Sept. 18, and ends at sunset on Sunday, Sept. 20.

Jews will gather in all manner of service: socially-distant, mask-wearing communal prayer; Zoom room or live-stream connections between living rooms and synagogues; private viewings of pre-recorded material or personal contemplation; family meals and celebrations; and lonely consideration of what the day means when we are isolated. I expect many Jews will opt-out. Frankly, without the social pressure of sitting in a room with hundreds of others, I am not sure what will keep me, let alone my children, focused on the meaning of the day. It is too easy to walk away from a screen if one turns it on at all. So, what will our collective efforts (and failures) amount to this year?

I am optimistic that the outcome of this year’s coronation of God will be our emergence as faith-filled courtiers and citizens. You read that right, not faithful but faith-filled. Even the faithful who dutifully attend services in whatever form or function will be asked to do things differently. Rabbis, cantors, Jewish educators and staff have spent considerable time and energy into adapting prayer services into experiences that will either maintain (safely) or parallel what congregants are used to, the success and inevitable glitches of which will remind congregants how different is this year.

Many Jewish leaders are redesigning the High Holy Days to be more interactive for congregants or to empower Jews to do the work on their own; here, too, congregants will be keenly aware of the difference. While the dutiful will expect their prayers, participation, and celebration to inspire, mark time, or even be answered, they will also be asked consciously to help bring about the opportunities. Everyone in varying degrees will be actively involved in trying something (even those who choose to absent themselves). This action amounts to expressing faith, to being faith-filled, in the work of the Holy Days.

Indeed, a coronation made up of people spread throughout the world, each in their own spaces or gathered in small, distantly-spaced groups or connected virtually, is in so many ways a much more emphatic declaration than packing into synagogue spaces.

In the past, we may have congregated faithfully like sheep before the Shepherd or troops before the General. This year, we will be saying to God, to the world, and to ourselves that God is everywhere or needs to be. This year, when the liturgy declares Adonai malakh, Adonai melekh, Adonai yi’mlokh l’olam va’ed (God reigned, God reigns, God will reign forever and ever), we will be faith-filled expressing our sense that the Divine has created Order, that the Divine is capable of creating Order, and that someday God will create Order again.

It is possible that this year of disruption is part of some Order; I do not know. I do know, though, if we focus on the idea that God is Sovereign, not us as we surely are experiencing now, we can move to the idea that we can bring God’s sovereignty into more parts of our lives. This kind of coronation is not passive acceptance of another’s authority. It is the active participation in willing the world into faith-filled recognition that we have work to do to fulfill God’s Creation.

We cannot limit God to a prayerbook or our own habits; we must work to enhance the reflection of the Divine in each human being as an image of God. Then, maybe even this new year of 5781 by the Jewish counting, God will reign, and we will benefit. May the Jewish New Year be good and sweet for all of us.

About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hillel Network, responsible for West Chester University, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and other area colleges. He is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington and was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.



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