We thought when we stood in shul last year on Rosh Hashana saying the words of U’nesane Tokef that we understood the full meaning of the prayer penned by Rabbi Amnon on his deathbed in Mainz centuries ago.
How wrong we were.
Of course, we were able to understand the concept that while the vast majority of our nation would be inscribed for a year of life, others were, sadly, destined to meet their end in the coming months in a variety of ways including sickness, violence, hunger, or fire. But while we have uttered the phrase “who by plague” practically our entire lives on Rosh Hashana, it is fair to say that almost none of us have ever truly understood the meaning of those words until this year when COVID-19 turned our lives upside down. Even today, as Rosh Hashana ticks ever closer, the pandemic still looms menacingly in the air, leaving a trail of chaos, tears, and devastating loss worldwide.
We often view the phrasing in our siddurim and machzorim as euphemisms or messages, but I can’t think of a time when a prayer has so clearly reflected our actual circumstances. With its vivid details of the many circumstances of life and death, U’Nesane Tokef played out before our very eyes over the past six months, Rabbi Nachman’s words “Who shall have rest and who shall wander? Who shall be at peace and who will be pursued? Who shall be at rest and who shall be tormented?” eerily echoing the mental health component of the pandemic.
Baruch Hashem, I am grateful to see that certain aspects of life are slowly being restored as infection rates have trended downward, but it is all too clear that from a mental health perspective, the mental health shockwaves of COVID-19 are as strong as ever, and in many instances, intensifying as the days go by. We have seen this all too well at Amudim, where we have witnessed the pain and suffering of those who quarantined in abusive or violent environments as well as an uptick in addiction-related relapses and calls from individuals having suicidal thoughts.
While my usual Rosh Hashana message is one of hope and compassion to those who are struggling, this year I think we all fall into that category in one way or another. The circumstances of the past six months should have all of us being able to internalize the messages of U’nesane Tokef like never before and appreciate the pain and suffering that exists in our communities. As a people, I believe that there is no other demographic that is stronger than we are when it comes to helping those in need, but when it comes to mental health, domestic violence, abuse, and addiction, our community has yet to realize its full potential. With all of us living through a life-altering crisis this year, perhaps our community is now better attuned to the needs of those for whom uncertainty and fear are an everyday reality.
Rabbi Amnon teaches us that repentance, prayer, and charity have the power to eradicate a harsh decree and it is important to remember that while we often think of charity as a financial term, giving can come from the heart as well as the wallet. My hope and my prayer for this Rosh Hashana is that as we say the timeless words of U’nesane Tokef, we pray not only for our nearest and dearest but for all those in Klal Yisroel who are having difficulty coping and that we reach deep into ourselves to do all that we can for those whose suffering has long been overlooked. And in the merit of our renewed commitment to helping each other and make this world a better place, may we be blessed with continued good health and true happiness and merit the long-awaited ultimate the redemption that will finally bring us home.
Zvi Gluck is the CEO of Amudim, an organization dedicated to helping abuse victims and those suffering with addiction within the Jewish community and has been heavily involved in crisis intervention and management for the past 20 years.