September 29, 2020
Yom Kippur this year was like none we have ever experienced. Beneath the angst of dealing with all the restrictions and health considerations is a beautiful lesson that makes it all worth it.
When Yom Kippur started I had no idea which tefillos, if any, I would daven with a minyan. Attempts to make an outdoor minyan near my home were unsuccessful.
The closest option was a Sephardic shul. The pros of this option were proximity and that it was indoors with air conditioning. The cons were that the nusach was completely foreign to me, and it would have 125 people divided among various “capsules”.
Another option was a shul that had an outdoor minyan in a large space. The pros were that the nusach was familiar and it would be relatively safe in terms of coronavirus. The cons were that it was a straight uphill walk – the most direct way was climbing nearly two hundred stairs – and it was going to be very hot. They asked me to layn. I told them not to count on me, but if I showed up and they needed me, I would be happy to do it.
For the first time in my life, davening at home was also an option. The pros were that it would be air-conditioned, safe, and comfortable. I would not jeopardize my ability to fast (the most important requirement) or risk dehydration. I would also have the strength to learn and make the most of the rest of the day. The con, of course, was that I would be davening without a minyan on Yom Kippur, which was previously unthinkable.
I obsessed over the various options and considerations. Generally I fast well, thank God, and therefore I felt a responsibility to push myself to daven with a minyan as much as possible. I had neighbors who planned on making long walks in the heat multiple times to attend a minyan. I was younger and seemingly in better shape. How could I excuse myself?
On the other hand, I knew that going up the nearly two hundred stairs was a bit of a workout on an ordinary day. If I did that multiple times during a fast and then stood outside in the heat, it could become miserable very quickly, if not dangerous.
I finally decided that everything would be a game-time decision. I would put no pressure on myself to be a hero at risk of my health or suffering too much for the day to have any meaning. Wherever I davened, and however long I stayed, I would make the most of the day, and I wouldn't feel guilty for not going to the absolute physical limits. Whatever other people did was their business.
Along the way I realized something that blew me away. Everyone was in the same predicament. Everyone had to balance their desire to have the “full tzibbur experience” with considerations of health, safety, and prudence to make it through the day. Some people were making every minyan, even if that meant long walks and hours outside in the heat. Some people were staying at home from start to finish. Some people were figuring it out along the way as I was.
Here's the thing: as far as I could tell, no one was judging anyone else. We all understood that people would attend minyanim on a best-efforts basis if they had a reasonable option and felt safe doing so. If someone stayed home because of concerns about the virus or the heat, no one was going to criticize him. If someone felt able to push himself in the heat, that didn't mean anyone else should feel pressure to do the same. Everyone had to decide for themselves how to best navigate the situation, and we all respected each other's decisions.
In a normal year, if someone in good health didn't go to shul on Yom Kippur, our natural reflex would be to second-guess him. Doesn't he appreciate the magnitude of the day? Couldn't he push himself a little? He wasn't going to die.
This year, we had no such instinct. It wouldn't even enter our minds to judge someone who stayed home – no questions asked, and no explanations required. Just do whatever works best for you.
Isn't that the way it should always be?
Mind you, I'm as far as can be from the “make up your own Judaism, it's all the same” mentality. But when it comes to one's personal style within the framework of halacha and tradition, when there is no objective right and wrong, it really is a personal decision.
Imagine if we didn't look at someone's yarmulka or wardrobe and immediately make a host of assumptions about their level of religiosity, their beliefs, and so much more. Imagine if we didn't judge people based on what shul, yeshiva, or seminary they attended. Imagine if our shidduch world didn't operate based on this superficial, judgmental mentality, or our neighborhoods, or our politics.
Imagine if we just let people...be. Like we did this Yom Kippur.
If Moshiach didn't come for that alone, we'd still be way ahead of the game.
That's a lesson we should glean from this weird Yom Kippur in these weird times. It will take time to change our natural reflexes, but Yom Kippur proved that it's eminently possible and we already know how to do it. Let's worry less about how other people are serving Hashem. Let's stop comparing ourselves and feeling either worthless or superior to the people next to us.
As Chazal say, whether one does a little or a lot, the main thing is that his heart is turned to his Father in Heaven.
This Yom Kippur we understood this. Can we make this the new normal?