Someone mentioned in shul that this Rosh Hashanah is one you’ll be able to tell your children or grandchildren about. It has been a unique experience sitting and davening with a mask on while social distancing. Some people had minyanim in tents or in community drives. I’d never heard so many shofars being blown in the afternoon for people who were unable to attend services due to health risks. However, the circumstances that caused it, namely COVID-19, is something I wish had never happened, and hopefully will never happen again.
I have never had the good fortune to argue a case before the Supreme Court of the United States. However, I did meet Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. In the spring of 1996, I went to Washington, DC with my wife and daughter, Yael Rebecca, who was less than a year old, to be part of a group swearing in. I joined fellow Cardozo Law School alumni who were also being admitted to practice before the Supreme Court. In addition to the swearing in, we had a gathering with Justice Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg held Yael; we have the pictures to prove it. Justice Ginsburg looked more like a Jewish grandmother than a Supreme Court justice. She was humble and reserved. She is an example of a person who does not have to boast how smart they are or put on airs of importance. Her life story and accomplishments overcoming anti-Semitism and sexism speaks for itself.
The one thing she wanted was to remain in the Court long enough for the next president to choose her successor. She wanted VP Biden to win. Her request to her granddaughter right before she died was, “My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.” It is unclear whether her request will be fulfilled, since the president is planning to nominate a candidate as soon as Friday or Saturday, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is planning on holding hearing and voting on the candidacy on or before Election Day. The hypocrisy of such a move is a discussion for another time.
Justice Ginsburg’s death right before Rosh Hashanah is a reminder that a person may think they have control over their own life, but one thing they ultimately cannot control is the date of their death. Justice Ginsburg wanted to live until January 2021, but G-d had other plans.
Another milestone has been reached in the United States of 200,000 deaths caused by COVID-19. I believe that it is not mere coincidence that this happened right after Rosh Hashanah during the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah (Ten Days of Repentance). There are common themes.
It is universally accepted that short of a vaccine, the best way to limit the spread of the coronavirus is though social distancing, wearing a face mask, and handwashing. Yet, many people do not follow these simple rules. I believe that even many of those who do not abide by the rules deep down know what they should do. However, they convince themselves or let others convince them to act otherwise. For example, younger adults have a lower rate of wearing masks and social distancing. Their justification is that even if they get the virus, the chances of serious injury or death is relatively small. Some feel that everyone should get it so we would all be immune. Others say that they want to socialize or go places where social distancing is impossible and do not want to be hamstrung by these rules. Someone told me that they do not wear a mask because they do not like how it feels. My response was that people are not wearing masks because they like to do it but because they must do it.
This same attitude is found in our failure to change negative behavior. The blueprint is clear. As the words in Rabbi Amnon’s famous prayer said on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur state: Repentance, Prayer, and Charity will change the negative decree. But many engage in self-delusion. Depending on one’s circumstances, excuses include: I am young; healthy; doing well financially; otherwise feel happy in how I act; I have lived my life a certain way and I do not want to change.
We do not realize that just like the young person who is not worried about getting the virus, what we do affects others. Just like coronavirus can spread from a person who appears healthy, our conduct in other areas in our lives may not have any effect on us but will hurt others - for example, people who consider themselves religious Jews but engage in conduct that does not purport to standards of the religious community and the community at large. The frum Jew may not outwardly suffer from the conduct, but it will affect others who will either turn away from religion or otherwise look down on religious Jews.
This is the time of year to spend time on self-reflection. We all need to do better. It is not easy and may call for some lifestyle changes. It is the time to protect our physical health by abiding by the requirements of COVID-19, and our spiritual health as well. In this way, we will be sealed in the Book of Life for another year.