COVID has led us all into sin

As Jews approach the High Holidays, we need to avoid the sins of perfectionism, envy — and becoming couch potatoes.

Shofars, or rams’ horns, on display for sale at a workshop in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Sept. 22, 2014. A shofar is traditionally blown during several Jewish holidays. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

(RNS) — As we rapidly approach the Jewish Days of Awe — those solemn days of repentance, return and renewal — let all of us in the Jewish world (and beyond) admit it.

We have sinned.

Let me list those sins that I have seen in the American synagogue, among my colleagues, my congregants and, most of all, in myself.

The sin of pursuing perfection. Many synagogues are presenting worship services online, through Zoom, Facebook and their websites. Many synagogues are prerecording at least some of their services.

Because of that, many of my colleagues in synagogue life — rabbis, cantors, educators, executive directors — are lying awake at night, in a collective cold sweat. 

“OMG,” they are saying. “What if there is a sudden Zoom outage (a real and present danger)? What if the internet goes out? What if the prerecorded service has a certain lack of inner continuity to it? What if there are errors, glitches, mistakes?” 

To which I would say (and I say this to myself as well): Lighten up.

What is the source of this idea of pseudo-Levitical purity? Are we like the ancient high priest in the Temple, preparing to enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur, ready to utter the unpronounceable Four Letter Name of God and scared out of our wits that we might make a mistake?

The cosmos would come crashing in on us.

No. It won’t.

Most people will not notice.

God will be smiling — impressed by how seriously we are all taking it.

The sin of coveting. Let’s call it what it is — COVIDing. I addressed this last week in my satire of over-the-top synagogue programs, each one designed to attract as many Jews as possible.

Rabbi Shlomo Segal, right, holds his laptop so participants see his daughter Rayna, 8, left, dressed in a white robe and wig as the prophet “Elijah” during a virtual Passover Seder on April 8, 2020, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Like Jewish Marco Polos who have been exploring the internet terrain, we all have stories about the spectacular production values at Temple A; the incredible cantor at Synagogue B. Many of us wish our institutions had an extra $25,000 to drop on this.

Because here is the deal about coveting what your professional neighbor is doing.

As with material things, there will always be someone who has more and does more.


Here is your mantra.

No one is doing it better than I am. I am doing enough for my people. This year, I am a good enough rabbi/cantor/educator/executive director.

The sin of despair. If I am not worrying about technical glitches, and about the synagogue across town that is surely doing more and better, I am worrying that a lot of Jews might leave their synagogues this year.

As Jackson Browne once said: Take it easy.

Why? Because people are going to leave synagogues anyway. Haven’t you been paying attention to the last, oh, three decades of American Jewish life?

I once thought that people would leave synagogues.

Now, I am not so sure — though, certainly, COVID has created massive financial challenges for institutions. 

In several places in the liturgy, we read that God has great emunah, faith, in our people — individually, as well as collectively.

So do I. I actually think that most American Jews are going to act responsibly and stay connected to their synagogues.

Please let me be right.

The sin of convenience. I aimed those first three sins at my colleagues and partners — synagogue professionals and leaders. 

Now, here is one for the Jews in the pews.

Ever since March, we have all gotten our Jewish “stuff”  online.

Yes, we are oysgezoomt (I do not have to translate this), but on a certain level, hey: We got to take wonderful classes — from wherever, and watched whenever. We got to watch services. It was entertaining.

On a certain level, Jewish life got easier. It’s not only that I cannot go to synagogue; I don’t have to go to synagogue.

And, as such, we have allowed the pandemic to transform us into Jewish couch potatoes.

“I am now a member of Bnai Iphone. Or, Temple iPad.” It will make us Jewishly lazy. It might even deprive us of a certain sense of the “placeness” of Jewish life — that Jewish life happens somewhere, not anywhere and everywhere.

Jewish life was not supposed to be convenient. It was supposed to energize us, not serve as anesthesia.

Finally, you will ask me: What gives me strength and inspiration in these days?

I have been reading the stories of rabbis, like Leo Baeck and Regina Jonas, who taught in Theresienstadt — the so-called model ghetto. The sainted Rabbi Baeck was chained to a garbage wagon during the day; at night, he taught philosophy, secretly. Rabbi Jonas counseled and consoled Jews, not only in the ghetto, but in Auschwitz, where she perished.

We come from good, strong stock.

We can do this.

Shanah tovah u’metukah — a good, sweet year.

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