Covid-19: One Big Fat Yom Kippur
I recently gave my first Zoom class. I was apprehensive. I am familiar with speaking in front of live people but not to little boxes of people a la The Brady Bunch opening theme. When you speak in front of a live audience you can feed off of them. If they get into what you are saying, it gives the speaker more energy which in turn brings the listener even further into the ideas and presentation. How was this going to fly when speaking to a tiny camera atop my son’s laptop? And speaking of laptops, what if I mess something up and disconnect everyone with one little gaffe? To alleviate the latter issue, my son, Matty stuck around for the whole class.
At any rate, it went kinda well. I had no idea how I came off but our friend, Joelle who arranged the class in memory of her nephew, told me that she got very good feedback and others texted me to let them know when the next one is. So I guess I have joined the pantheon of rabbis, educators, bloggers and every other Tom, Dick and Harry who has now gone virtual.
Here is a summary of the main idea I spoke about:
This whole time period has been like one big fat Yom Kippur. Not in terms of fasting because word on the street is that people are gaining weight. And not in terms of drinking because when the bar in the dining room is open 24/7, well then… No, by Yom Kippur I mean specifically Kol Nidrei.
The declaration we make on Kol Nidrei night is a strange one where we state that, “All vows, prohibitions, oaths, consecrations … that we may vow, swear, consecrate, or prohibit upon ourselves… regarding them all, we regret them henceforth. They all will be permitted, abandoned, cancelled, null and void, without power and without standing. Our vows shall not be valid vows; our prohibitions shall not be valid prohibitions; and our oaths shall not be valid oaths.”
I have written before about the oddity of this particular prayer. It is curious that we kick off the most holy day of the year by renouncing vows, oaths and promises. My commitments are pretty serious stuff and define who I am. If I just abandon them, then how much integrity do I really have? Furthermore, all of Judaism is based on a vow. Namely, the one we took when we entered into a covenant with God at Mount Sinai. So what is this business about blowing it all off right as we begin the holiday of Yom Kippur?
There are two types of people who are exempt from vows. They are excused from all obligations and have no commitments to anybody else. The Infant and the Dead. A newborn child is obligated to no one. He or she totally receives without any expectation of return. There are no promises he has to fulfill, no places she needs to be, no people who are counting on him. She does not owe anything to anyone and we all know this is so. The same can be said for the Dead. They too are completely and finally exempt from any promise or obligation or expectation. They are done and gone and no longer owe anything.
And so the question remains – of what purpose is the Kol Nidrei declaration? Is it to have me view myself as irresponsible as an infant? Or is it perhaps that I should see myself as so far beyond caring for anything in this world; so completely disconnected from it to the same degree that the dead are from life?
And perhaps this indeed is the point of Yom Kippur and by extension of what we have been experiencing the last seven weeks. Covid-19 and the ensuing social distancing has forced us to reassess what is important in life and what isn’t. So many things have become off limits and this has given us a chance to see how important they really are to our lives. It has allowed us to disavow ourselves from so much. We have taken so many “oaths” and commitments to so many things just because. We spend so much time doing things simply because it is what is done in our society and we have passively gone along with it. But now there are no sports, no concerts, no travel, no restaurants and so many other things that have just stopped. And it is forcing us to re-examine how important all this stuff really is.
Covid-19 in some ways is a gift like Yom Kippur. It gives us a chance to rethink every obligation, every promise, every vow we have made – actively, or passively through habit – and to rid ourselves of the useless ones that consume our time and our lives. It is giving us the opportunity to sum up the courage to cut ourselves away from any and all futile obligations that do not provide us with the meaningful life we seek.
Just as Yom Kippur is a unique opportunity to reassess everything, and we declare as such with the Kol Nidrei prayer, so too Covid-19 is doing the same. It is making us reconsider everything and forcing us to determine how important certain things really are to us. And to perhaps come to the conclusion that some of those things need to be left behind; to disavow ourselves of them.
This plague will not be with us forever. And hopefully we will be rid of it soon enough. But just like Yom Kippur is but one day in the calendar and yet it cleanses us for the rest of the year, so too let’s allow this experience to wash over us to remove all the unnecessary dross that fills our lives. And just as we come away from Yom Kippur cleansed and purified, so too we will reemerge from this, reborn with a new awareness of the things that are truly good and meaningful to our lives.
And sometimes I get nervous
When I see an open door
Close your eyes, clear your heart
Cut the cord…
And so long to Devotion
You taught me everything I know
Wish me well
You’ve gotta let me go