We are at the height of Sukkot at the moment and I would love to write about the special prayers and celebrations that are taking place in Jerusalem and around the Jewish world, but with coronavirus still ravaging our population, we are in lockdown, synagogues are closed and prayer are being held in small outdoor gatherings instead. Even the kotel has been subdivided into “capsules” with only small groups of worshippers inside each capsule to contain the spread of the coronavirus.
But I’ve been doing quite a lot of thinking about the implications of the lockdown on our Jewish way of life.
On the one hand our synagogues are closed and the great yeshivot and even the Kotel and other holy places are practically empty.
And yet… what a wonderful feeling it is to walk in the street on a Friday night or Shabbat morning towards my brother’s “carpark minyan”. How many other minyanim (prayer gatherings) can I hear along my route (which is all of a 5 minute walk). Here a courtyard, there a balcony or public park, I hear prayers and gentle singing among the swings and slides and parked cars.
On Rosh Hashana the prayers and then Shofar resonated throughout the neigbourhoods, each minyan slightly ahead of the next one. The non-religious neighbours paused in their walks or looked out of the balconies to listen to the blast of the Shofar as well.
On Yom Kippur the holiness of the day was felt not only in the actual prayer gatherings, but all along the streets where again, I could hear the tefilot being murmured or sung every few yards.
I felt inspired as I met people dressed in white, coming and going, all making a special effort to attend at least part of the prayers in the sizzling heat.
And I thought – Hashem! Can you hear Your people? Can you hear their prayers? Can You see? Look how they strive to fulfill the mitzvot of the day despite the hardship of praying outdoors in 35°C heat! See how Your holy people will not abandon the ancient prayers and their devoted connection to you? As long as people were physically able, they joined minyanim – the vast majority of which complied with the strict rules of no more than 20 people per “capsule”, with masks and 2m distancing, and yet we, they, did it.
And then came Sukkot, with the lockdown still holding strong (or strongish. I won’t address the violations here). Suddenly Israelis who were used to going to their children (like we used to do) or went to hotels or flew abroad, or children who used to go their parents, were forced to build their own Sukkot.
And now like mushrooms after the rain, Sukkot have appeared everywhere! In places where I have never seen sukkot build before. On balconies, in gardens, on roofs, hundreds of them, thousands even. Sitting in our sukkah on Friday night, we could hear Shabbat songs being sung from sukkot in neighbouring buildings which added to our feelings of unity and festive celebration.
On Friday night, Sukkot ends and Simchat Torah begins. Usually this is an extremely joyous occasion, with hakafot – circuits of the synagogues – carrying the Torah scrolls, with exuberant dancing and sweets being thrown at the children. It is the absolute high-point of the Jewish calendar, where we end the cycle of reading the weekly parsha (portion) of the Torah, and start all over again with Bereishit (Genesis).
Again, this year it is going it look completely different. There won’t be the circuits of the synagogues or exuberant dancing. But people will still sing and dance in place, the Torah will still be read (outdoors), completed and restarted.
And the prayer for rain will be recited and we shall hope for another year of abundant rain like we had in the previous year where so much rain fell that the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee) filled up to the brim and beyond.
And when this virus is behind us, will we miss these outdoor minyanim? Will we miss the special efforts we all made to pull together, pooling resources to enable the prayer services to be held in such odd places? Will we miss hearing tefilot being sung all along the street? Will we miss hearing the Shofar resound throughout the neighbourhood? Will we miss the celebrants sitting in their Sukkot all over the city?
I know I will, even though I look forward to being able to sit with my family and friends in our synagogue once more.
May Hashem grant a refuah shlema to all those afflicted and affected by this terrible plague, and may He also grant us the strength and unity to survive this together in one piece. May we be able to look back on this terrible time without regrets besides some bittersweet memories of the times we had to pray and celebrate outdoors.
Chag same’ach and moadim le’simcha!