Rabbi Shalom Lewis’ 2021 Rosh Hashanah Message
Read community insights, perspectives and opportunities seen as we enter into the 5782/ 2021 New Year.
A Happy New Year to you and your family.
As a nostalgic intro to my thoughts, I share this venerable, dusty cartoon that appeared many years ago in a Jewish publication during the High Holy Days. It is an oft-repeated classic that some might recall. A rabbi is standing in a reception line following Rosh Hashanah services, wishing Shana Tova to his congregants as they file out of the sanctuary. One gentleman approaches the rabbi and asks, “Do you know who I am?” Replies the rabbi: “Of course I do. You were here last year.” With a broad smile the man turns to his wife and proudly says, “See honey, I told you he knew who we were.”
I eagerly, but admittedly with some trepidation, anticipate the upcoming Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. In a typical year they serve as a happy reunion for both the weekly regulars and for the three-day-a-year worshippers. In these few hours in the synagogue, folks reconnect with the clergy. A smile. A handshake. A wave. It is the annual spiritual booster shot that energizes and replenishes the soul. But this year, with an invitation for all to return, my concern is: will I recognize those who are masked? I fear brushing past an unidentifiable veteran member with whom I have shared laughter and tears for decades. I would find such a faux pas an uncomfortable consequence of veiled anonymity. And so, as a suggestion to colleagues and to myself, I have borrowed a January custom from the secular world and have made a New Year’s resolution: I plan to be engaging, chatty, and pleasant to everyone at shul, especially those whose visage is hidden behind a mask.
Unless body language indicates otherwise, I plan to embrace all daveners with equal affection. A hug and a kiss. Hopefully, with this strategy, no one will go home feeling snubbed or ignored by the rabbi. To the contrary. They will start the new year off knowing that they are indeed cherished and appreciated. Though my plan is an accommodation to COVID-19, facial cloths and N95s, my gesture echoes back to rabbinic times, when we were taught that Shammai admonished his followers, “hevei mekabel et kol adam besever panim yafote.” That is, “Greet all people with a cheerful countenance.” Though Shammai had a reputation for not being a friendly sage, let us follow the words that are a happy exception to his usually severe demeanor. Mask. No mask. Pandemic. No pandemic. Let us greet all whom we encounter with a kind word and a friendly salutation. It is a nice way to live one’s life, not only during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but throughout the year. A healthy Shana Tova to all.
Rabbi Shalom Lewis is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Etz Chaim.