We approach the new Jewish year at a paradoxical moment. On the one hand, most of us will be able to celebrate the holidays in-person, as our lives are less controlled by the COVID restrictions than they were during the last two High Holiday seasons. It is joyful to be able to connect in ways that we have missed. On the other hand, our country feels more divided than ever and it is hard to know how to bridge the wide rifts that exist between communities. 

The High Holiday liturgy provides wisdom for this time. One of the most haunting prayers is the unetaneh tokef,  which asks “who shall live and who shall die.” The end of the prayer says u-teshuvah, u-tefillah, u-tzedakah ma’avirin et roa ha-gezerah,  that repentance, prayer, and charity can avert the severity of the decree. But we know too well that we cannot avert death and that bad things do happen to good people. We can understand this prayer more metaphorically, that we can lessen the difficulty of whatever decree or reality comes our way in the coming year by living a life infused with the values of striving to change (teshuvah), engaging in spirituality (tefillah), and acts of justice(tzedakah). 

A teaching I read this week by Rabbi Michael Strassfeld  further illuminates this liturgy. He teaches that “the word gezerah/decree comes from the root meaning to cut. It is usually understood to connote a decision or a clear-cut ruling. We seek to see things clearly—innocent or guilty.  The decree”, he says “is not death or suffering. The decree is to live a life where everything is black and white instead of encompassing all the colors of the rainbow. Most of all, the decree is to lead a life cut off from your fellow human beings.” 

We know the suffering that comes from cutting ourselves off or being cut off from others. We know it from the isolation we experienced during the pandemic lockdown, we know it from the estranged relationships we have with family or friends, we know it from spending more time on the screen than with each other, we know it because we live in a hyper-individualized culture. The way we avert the suffering that comes from being cut off is by making changes in our lives to engage more deeply with others through introspection, change and opening our hearts to all human beings. 

JSS’s work is to create avenues of connection for those who are marginalized, impoverished, ill or new to our community. Our work is to lessen the severity of the decree for the clients we serve. I invite you to join us in this project of working against the division, separation and isolation that is so pervasive both in your personal lives and in your engagement with JSS. May 5783 be a year of connection, caring and comfort for all of us.  

Shanah Tovah u’Metukah,  
Rabbi Renée Bauer