Rosh Hashanah silenced, but music plays on in our mind
Love them or loathe them, shul choirs are to Rosh Hashanah what matzah is to Pesach. Raising their voices from either the bimah or the choir loft, the choir has defined the yom tov memories of South African Jews, young and old, for decades.
For the first time in living memory, however, choral performances won’t be held around the country this year, having been silenced by COVID-19.
While some of us may still be attending a minyan of some kind, we won’t be hearing any of the traditional tunes which define the festival experience.
What exactly does this loss mean to us, and is there any way we could possibly experience the musical components of Rosh Hashanah this year?
“Music connects many of us to the chaggim,” says Adam Golding, accomplished musician and the conductor at Great Park Shul. “Without it, there’s no chag for me. It creates the feeling of the day, whether celebrative or serious. Music creates moments, and connects us with what the chag is about.”
The silencing of choirs this year is unprecedented, Golding says.
“I don’t think that once during the 20th century, South African shuls were ever without choirs over this time,” he says. “This is the first time in the past 120 years. Great Park had an established choir by the end of the 19th century, making it an unprecedented first that there’s no choir this year.
“For a majority of the big, traditional shuls, many congregants come for services on these days only. In a large shul, 100 people is a big crowd for a Friday night. The fact is, they can typically accommodate hundreds more, and you really see this only over the high holy days when people are exposed to choral music.”
It makes choirs a defining part of chag for most people, says Golding.
“The music allows them to relate to the service they come to once a year. The tunes they hear are usually traditional and novel, blending their memories with the anticipation of something new to look forward to. While some people will still be going to a shul this year, they won’t be taking part in the way they usually do. It’s going to be strange and difficult in some cases.”
For Joel Sacher, the choirmaster at Waverley Shul, music represents a powerful personal connection with Hashem.
“It’s a central part of our shul experience,” he says. “I’m deeply invested in writing and arranging it. When the prospect of high holidays without shul services – or with compromised services as things stand – first dawned on me a few months ago, it seemed unthinkable.
“It’s still difficult to digest, but six months of shabbos and chaggim under COVID-19 restrictions have forced us to experience these days differently.”
Sacher and Golding have devised ways to ensure that the congregants at their shuls can continue to connect with the musicality of the chag.
Sacher says that a number of shul choirs (including Waverley Shul) are producing music videos featuring yom tov tunes to nourish us in the days leading up to chag. Golding has endeavoured to do the same.
“We’ve tried to find ways to help people find that musical connection,” says Golding. “At Great Park, we’ve embarked on a project to record key pieces from the services for upload to YouTube. People are sharing recordings made at home. We’re hoping they give them a way to connect.”
In addition, Great Park will host two pre-chag services online, the first of which is due to air next Thursday. The service will include music, shofar blowing, inspirational ideas, and other elements of the chag aimed at setting the tone for yamim noraim.
“It won’t be in the traditional service format, nor is it intended to replicate it,” Golding says. “We’re hoping to give people something they can take into yom tov with them in terms of music and the shul experience.
“In any situation, it’s our job to find the positives for ourselves. It’s personal, and there isn’t a universal silver lining. I’m hoping that the recordings we’ve shared can help people find their own connection with the chag that they can enjoy in their own way.”
Integral though choirs may be, Sacher stresses that we can’t forget they are a means to an end, namely connecting us with the divine.
“We’re speaking to, praising, beseeching the creator of the universe,” he says. “Music in davening gives added meaning to the text, stirs our emotions, and allows us to feel things in a different way, a deeper way than we otherwise would, and it’s integral for us.
“This year, though, I believe that Hashem has challenged each of us to explore new avenues and find our connection on yom tov itself – without music. Maybe this is an opportunity to imbue our future chaggim with greater depth and appreciation once we do return to shul.”
Sacher believes that this year we can possibly go beyond our standard yom tovexperience, enhancing it with added dimensions of significance we possibly overlook. This could involve something as simple as reading insights into the text of the yom tovdavening, filling this year’s void by gaining a better understanding of the prayers we hear sung yearly.
“We love the joyful melodies that celebrate Hashem’s Kingship and the heart-rending, solemn melodies which capture the introspective elements,” says Sacher. “Those themes are still there. If we can’t sing about them, why not spend some time reading up on them and experience them like that? In the week of yom tov, this publication always carries excellent articles by our inspiring rabbis. These, too, could go some way to filling the void.”
“There are definitely ways for us to make yom tov special and meaningful without the usual trimmings. So, let’s be positive, plan our chag, and devise ways to fill the void. It’s up to each one of us.”
In the race against COVID-19, vaccination just the first lap
About 200 years ago, the Torah giant, the Tiferet Yisrael (Rabbi Israel Lifshitz – 1782 to 1860) exhorted his followers to be vaccinated against smallpox. The sage was meticulous in fulfilling the mitzvah aseh (positive commandment) of the obligation to avoid the much greater threat to life posed by the disease even if the vaccine itself was far from harmless. In those years, smallpox vaccination was a rather hazardous procedure coming with a mortality of close to 1:1000.
It has been ascribed to the Tiferet Yisrael that he drew up a list of non-Jews who ought to be credited with olam habah (a future in the world to come). Top of his list he put the chosid, Yenner, (Edward Jenner) who developed the first human vaccine against smallpox at the close of the 18th century which saved millions of lives down the years. About 200 years later, that virus was eradicated from the planet by global vaccination.
So, where are we now with our present pandemic – the COVID-19 pandemic? What could the future light at the end of the tunnel look like?
Our current travails with the COVID-19 pandemic are due to a new virus, SARS-Cov-2, introduced into the human population just less than a couple of years back. This is a new pandemic, against which new vaccines were developed at an unprecedented breakneck speed to prevent the resulting new disease. It was a triumph of advanced modern science to develop new vaccines within a year of discovering the causative virus in order to address this formidable new pandemic with urgency. Technologies were employed which had never previously been used for human vaccines. To add to this bewildering mix came the internet and pervasive social media – valuable tools for disseminating important public-health messages, but an equally sinister vehicle for spewing misinformation, conspiracies, and mistrust and, in no small measure, contributing to confusion, anxiety, and, unfortunately, vaccine hesitancy.
So, where do we stand on the eve of Rosh Hashanah 5782 (2021) in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic? As of 24 August (by the time you read this these figures will be quite a bit higher) more than eleven million doses of vaccine have been administered in South Africa with more than 21% of the adult population being vaccinated. Even now, the effectiveness of the vaccination programme is starting to be felt with a small, yet significant, reduction in serious COVID-19 disease and hospitalisation in the country.
What is our expectation for controlling the pandemic with vaccination? It’s interesting that when we look back at the earlier days of the pandemic last year, the scientific community thought that the SARS-Cov-2 virus was as menacing as any new pandemic was feared to be, but that it would turn out to be no more complicated than measles or polio to combat and conquer. We hoped, as with measles and polio, that it wouldn’t take long to develop an effective vaccine to conquer this newcomer.
But that was before the virus uncannily demonstrated its ability to mutate and generate new variants which could escape the protection afforded by vaccination. In turn, the Beta variant arrived, which was relatively resistant to vaccines, and after that, the highly contagious Delta variant, which is now also flexing its muscles for vaccine escape.
Common wisdom dictates that infectious diseases can be combatted in four phases. Phase one is the phase of containment. In this phase, the main damage caused by the offending infectious agent is brought under control. In the case of COVID-19, this is the phase reached by Western developed countries. High vaccine coverage has drastically reduced severe disease which, in the pre-vaccination era, resulted in wealthy countries being brought to their knees and unable to cope with the overwhelming number of critically ill patients, and mortuaries unable to keep pace with burying the dead. But, in spite of extensive vaccination campaigns, infection and illness still persist to a worrying degree. Fortunately, in the majority of cases, illness is mild. Where preventive measures are relaxed, as prematurely occurred in many countries such as Israel, the United States, and several European countries, there have been significant flare-ups. Most public-health authorities would accept this to be an interim phase, as restrictive measures still need to be in place to prevent epidemic waves of illness flaring up.
Only in a future phase two, the phase of control, may we contemplate returning to a pre-COVID-19 life. To enter into this phase, a second generation of advanced vaccines would have to be developed. They would need to provide more effective and durable immunity, be able to be effective against any new variants, and also be able to reduce transmission markedly from infected vaccinated persons. For the latter, the new vaccines will need to effect good immunity in the upper respiratory tract – mucosal immunity. There is, indeed, intensive research into developing this next generation of vaccines. In this phase, restrictions may be relaxed to the point of returning to our pre-2020 lifestyle. Infection and illness won’t totally disappear, but it will be at a tolerable level – perhaps much like the common cold or flu we all accept every winter season.
Phase three, the elimination phase, has been reached with a number of vaccine-preventable diseases. In this phase, infection and illness no longer occur in many parts of the world because of successful vaccination campaigns, although it remains present in other regions of the globe. Examples are polio, measles, and a number of other childhood infections. This phase cannot yet be contemplated for COVID-19. Our best expectation would be to enter into phase two, the control phase.
The ultimate phase four, the eradication phase, has been achieved only with one infectious disease – smallpox. About two centuries after the chosid, Jenner, invented the smallpox vaccine, and following unprecedented vaccination campaigns in every corner of the world, the disease and the virus were finally eradicated in 1980, and the virus formally declared to have been purged from the planet.
Meanwhile, let’s try make the present phase, phase one of COVID-19, as successful as possible. Get vaccinated, and continue to maintain all infection-prevention measures religiously so that we can safely look forward to phase two – maybe some time next year?
- Barry Schoub is the chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on COVID-19 Vaccines. He is professor emeritus of virology at the University of the Witwatersrand, and was the founding director of the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. He writes in his personal capacity.
This year, be the change your shul needs
COVID-19 has drastically accelerated change in the way the world works – from a social, work, health, and travel point of view. Politics, economics, and social behaviour has shifted dramatically. And it has had a deep impact on our shuls.
As a community, we are at a watershed moment and have a unique, historic opportunity to rebuild our shuls – creatively and with renewed focus on purpose and meaning.
And we need to do it together.
Many have become comfortable davening at home, and have even begun to question the necessity of returning to shul. I would like to suggest why it’s not just important, but vital.
Praying in isolation can easily become a self-centred experience. Alone with our thoughts, we have only our own hopes and concerns to focus on. But when we pray with a minyan – when we are able to see each other and feel real empathy – we have the opportunity to pray for each other. We see the pain on a person’s face who is struggling financially. Or another person struggling with health complications. Or someone else struggling with a family issue. We are able to truly open our hearts to those around us, and pray for them in their moment of need. The Talmud tells us there is also tremendous personal merit in praying for others’ needs before our own.
And there is the undeniable spiritual power of davening in a minyan. Our sages explain that when we pray together, we come before Hashem not just on our own merit, but with the collective merit of the community – and, in fact, all of klal Yisrael. A minyan represents not just its members but links us spiritually to Jews around the world and across the generations. Our prayers are therefore exponentially more powerful. This is particularly important on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, when we come before our Creator in judgement, and need every merit we can get.
By praying in a minyan, we become part of something greater than ourselves. When we come to shul, we are contributing to the community. Just by being there, we create a newfound energy and vibrancy.
Particularly now. The pandemic has put great pressure on our shuls, and there is an enormous challenge – but also a great opportunity – to rebuild them to positions of strength, equalling and then exceeding what they were before the pandemic. To build a new, rich sense of community that inspires existing congregants and draws new people in.
And to do that we need to get involved, to be proactive in building the sense of community within our shuls. This means starting or joining shiurim; attending services both on Shabbos and during the week; participating in chesed activities – whether it’s making meals, visiting the sick, or reaching out to fellow congregants with messages of love and support; or contributing to the everyday running of the shul, sponsoring a brocha, or championing a new programme ourselves.
There’s a paradigm shift here. We need to start viewing ourselves not as clients of our shul, but as partners, active participants – not spectators, but players. Our relationship with our shuls shouldn’t be as a consumer weighing whether the product or service is of sufficient benefit to us; the decision to return to shul or daven at home shouldn’t be a cold cost-benefit analysis about what suits us better. We need our shuls. And our shuls need us.
Ultimately, it’s for our own good. Hashem has hardwired us to derive the greatest satisfaction, paradoxically, from moving beyond self-interest. Transcending the self – acting for the sake of the collective, contributing to a greater cause – is deeply fulfilling and deeply pleasurable. Coming back to shul and driving these changes is its own reward.
Among the great challenges society is going through during this pandemic is widespread depression and isolation, each reinforcing the other. And the greatest antidote to these twin challenges is to leave our isolation – to get out there and make a contribution. To get involved in the community. This is absolutely vital for both our own mental health and spiritual vitality, and our communal vibrancy.
Now, as we prepare to welcome in the year 5782, is the time to renew our shuls as active players, not spectators, and partners, not consumers. Ready to make a difference. Together.
The day of judgement is a day of love
I recently argued with a good friend. She always tries to be strictly objective in her assessment of her children. I objected. I feel strongly that my job as a mother isn’t to be objective about my children but always to see the good in them, to judge them favourably, and love them unconditionally.
This positivity bias toward my children is obvious and natural, but at the same time, I truly believe that life experience will teach them to be realistic and humble, that I don’t have to. All the encouragement, support, and love I can give them can only build them up and make them great.
This unconditional positive regard and acceptance can swallow up so many of their problems, so much of their self-doubt and negativity. It can charge my children with all the confidence and strength they need to face life’s challenges and make a success of their lives. I believe in them, and they know it. You’re entitled to your own parenting style, but this is mine, and I stand by it.
It occurs to me that this is also a model to understand our relationship with Hashem, who is like a parent to us. Too often, we approach Elul, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur with trepidation and fear. We become discouraged and demoralised, too mindful of our failings, too oblivious to our potential. This approach is valid if we believe that Hashem’s judgement of us is impartial – “objective” and unbiased. We could justifiably be afraid if we imagine that Hashem is coldly examining our thoughts and deeds and dispassionately attributing credit and blame.
But instead, I offer you the idea that the prevailing atmosphere of Elul is love. We are Hashem’s children, and He is not objective about us at all. At this time of year, when we are in Hashem’s presence, we can allow ourselves to feel loved, encouraged, and supported. We can believe that He sees so much more good in us than bad.
This attitude can inspire us to overcome our faults and weaknesses. Knowing that Hashem believes in us and wants us to succeed can enable us to conquer self-doubt and negativity. We’re not in a power struggle with Hashem, we aren’t His adversaries. He’s always helping us and supporting us. And in this light, on Yom HaDin, our day of judgement, we have little to fear.
We can feel safe in the knowledge that we all have the unfair advantage of being judged by our Loving Father in heaven, who believes in us. He regards each of us as a hero. He knows that our strengths can overwhelm our weaknesses. He wants only to reward us and help us succeed. Like the perfect parent, He judges us favourably, waits for us patiently, loves us unconditionally, allows us to grow up slowly, watches our choices, and gets much nachas from our growth!
Shana tovah uMetuka! May we all be written and sealed for goodness!
- Rebbetzin Gina Goldstein has been speaking, teaching, writing, and volunteering in the South African Jewish community for more than 25 years. Together with her husband Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein, she co-founded The Shabbos Project, Sinai Indaba, and Generation Sinai.
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