What we have done in the last year, in the world we went home to that night, the world of the pandemic, has been extraordinary – an astonishing up-springing of creativity, loyalty, supportiveness, sacrifice, commitment. What we could do within the constraints we are subject to we have done, and maybe more even than we imagined we could do. We made our observance of the High Holidays radiant. We found on the second day of Rosh Hashanah a way of multiplying and diversifying our non-liturgical musaf service, and the outdoor blasts of the shofar were heard across much of Somerville. We developed our technical skills to allow us a hybrid ne’ilah service on Yom Kippur, with Ruth Abrams leading from the back porch for those in the back yard and also for those at home. We developed new forms, new activities: anti-racism discussions, women’s midrash discussions, Talmud study, even an evening for studying Yiddish poems about fruit, with a learned poet Zooming in from Baltimore. Our business meetings have never been better attended. We have new leyners and new davening leaders, new givers of divrei torah, with people stepping up as need and inward prompting called. Our services draw in members, associate members and alums from across the country, and curious visitors from across the Atlantic. (I list only what I have experienced or been told about, and no doubt have forgotten some manifestations of our persistence and creativity, for which I ask forgiveness.) It has been – I’ll end where I began – extraordinary.
But it has also been, for me at any rate, a privation. Zoom allows us to speak together, to see one another (and not to be seen if we so choose), to deliberate together, to study together. What it does not allow us to do is to sing together. In another congregation, where singing together mattered less, that might be a smaller privation. In ours, where singing together is der iker, as they say in Yiddish, the heart of the matter, it is a larger one. We can sing as individuals, we can harmonize with the leader if we choose, we can say the sh’ma together in all its wonderful non-simultaneity, but we cannot sing together, and that is – for me - a constantly felt, never diminishing privation.
The voices that we hear through the speakers are not quite the voices we hear face-to-face, ponem-el-ponem, some of their resonances and complexities cut off by the admittedly amazing technology. We cannot leyn from the scroll, we are not in physical contact with the Torah, we are neither face-to-face nor shoulder-to-shoulder, we cannot bless one another with our hands on the shoulders of our neighbors, we cannot feel, or at any rate I cannot feel, the real presence of others as forcefully as we did, as I did, that night of Purim last year.
The pandemic has brought out the best in us, and all honor to all who’ve contributed to what we’ve accomplished. But the pandemic has also been a privation, a set of privations. “My soul waits for God more than they that watch for the morning,” says psalm 130. I hope it won’t seem impious if I say that my own waiting for our return to our house, and for a diminishing of our privations, has some of that intensity.