When I tried to think of the most appropriate saying I could offer you this Rosh Hashanah, I kept coming back to those famous Yiddish words from The Partisans Song: mir zaynen do – “we are here.” It somehow feels right to invoke words of resistance at this particular moment, doesn’t it? It’s been a hard and painful battle for us all this past year, but we are here. Tragically, too many of our comrades are no longer with us, but, nevertheless, mir zaynen do. We are here.
In an age of pandemic, just surviving itself can feel like a victory. So here we are: to date, COVID has claimed 640,000 lives in the US and over 4.5 million worldwide. And though it felt as if we’d finally turned a corner last spring, the arrival of the Delta variant was a brutal reminder that the pandemic is not at all behind us. The number of deaths is climbing again. Hospitals around the country are filling up, in some states to over-capacity. And though Trump is no longer our President, the Republican party continues to politicize the pandemic with ever-astonishing cynicism.
Despite a slight rebound last spring, things are still economically dire in our country. The percentages of those who are unemployed and uninsured are still shamefully high. Just this last August, the Supreme Court struck down eviction protections for most of the US, putting as many as 3.5 million households at risk of losing their homes, including hundreds of thousands of tenants this year alone.
Last Rosh Hashanah, I suggested that, in a very real way, we’re all in a state of grief over the world we’ve lost. If we were to continue with this metaphor – and I still believe it’s an apt one – we’ve now gone through one full year of mourning. In Jewish tradition, the year following a loss is a spiritually intense time for mourners, traditionally marked by the regular recitation of Kaddish. When the first year is up, the intensive part of our observance is lifted and we begin our reemergence back into the world. We know, however, that we won’t be reentering the world as it was. That world has been forever changed.
And so, even though the year of formal mourning is over, we’ll continue to say Kaddish regularly for the rest of our lives. We will never stop grieving what we’ve lost. The pain may come and go, but it never goes away entirely. Indeed, sometimes it will grip us when we least expect it. At the same time, however, we know that things can get better. If we work at it. If we affirm the truth of our healing and actively participate in the healing process.
So all of this to say yes, it is one year later and yes, we are still experiencing the pain of the loss of the world we once knew. But while the reality of what was lost is still brutally painful for us, it is also true that there has been healing. We are not, in fact, in the same place that we were last year.
Most obviously – and most importantly – last Rosh Hashanah, I don’t think any of us would dare to imagine that we would see a COVID vaccine any time soon. Then just a few months later, the first fully-tested immunization was approved. Let’s pause now and just try to grasp the enormity of this. It is actually unprecedented in scientific history to go from the onset of a deadly new virus to the creation of a tested vaccine in less than a year. There is really no other word for it: the vaccine is a blessing. It is saving scores of lives as we speak and it remains our greatest hope to finally reach the end of this pandemic.
It has often occurred to me, when we gather for the High Holidays and pray to be written in the Book of Life for the coming year, we’re essentially coming to grips with the terrifying truth of our mortality. Every Rosh Hashanah we say the unsayable out loud: this time next year, some of us will still be alive and some of us will not. The Book of Life is a stark liturgical metaphor of this immensely painful truth.
But it also occurs to me that maybe it’s not quite that simple. Maybe the book is a work in progress. Maybe, just maybe, there are a myriad of ways that we take the radical, audacious step to write ourselves into the Book of Life. If we ever needed a reminder of this, just think: last year, after the holidays were over and the gates were supposedly closed, so many people from around the world: doctors and scientists and researchers and immunologists and donors and vaccine developers and caregivers heroically took it upon themselves to write scores of human souls into the Book of Life.
So before I continue any further, I’d like us to pause and honor the blessing of this moment – to offer a blessing of gratitude for having been kept alive long enough to reach this New Year. Please join together with me:
Blessed are you, spirit of the universe, you have given us life, you kept us alive and you have brought us all to arrive at this season together.
Now of course, while the arrival of a vaccine has been a game changer, it has decidedly not brought about the end of the pandemic. And in some ways I think this kind of magical thinking has contributed to the pain and confusion of our current moment. Last spring, when the shelter orders ended and the re-openings began, we all experienced a collective euphoria and elation that the world was finally getting back to normal. That’s why the mutations of the virus and the arrival of variants has been so brutal. That’s why we’re asking the questions now: will this ever end? Will it ever get any better?
Again, these are the very same questions we ask when we go through the experience of grief: will things ever get back to normal? Will it ever get any better? Yes, the questions are the same – and the answers are the same as well. No, things will not get back to “normal.” But yes, it can get better. If we work at it.
We know that this coronavirus will never be eradicated completely. The key is to suppress it to the point that it no longer poses a significant threat to us. When enough people have gained some immunity through either vaccination or infection – preferably vaccination – the coronavirus will transition from pandemic to “endemic.” It won’t be eliminated, but it won’t upend our lives anymore. It won’t cause our ICUs to overflow, force us to shelter at home and wreak havoc with our economy. We can learn to live with it.
So therein lies both the blessing and the challenge for us this Rosh Hashanah. The arrival of the vaccine last year was an undeniable blessing. And this year, it seems to me, our challenge is to not squander that blessing. Our challenge is to advocate in no uncertain terms for the blessing of this vaccine to be spread as widely as is humanly possible in this country and throughout the world.
I would go as far as to say that vaccine advocacy is, in fact, nothing short of a sacred obligation. In Jewish tradition, the mitzvah of pikuach nefesh – saving a life – is our most sacred religious value, the one that supersedes all others. That means fighting misinformation is pikuach nefesh. Advocating for vaccine mandates is pikuach nefesh. Making vaccines available to underserved populations that lack access to health care is pikuach nefesh.
And there is every reason to believe we can succeed in these efforts. Strategically speaking, I don’t think it makes much sense to try to convince people who utterly refuse to get vaccinated to change their minds. I think the more effective strategy is to make the vaccine as widely available as possible to anyone and everyone. According to a recent poll, nearly four out of five adults in this country say they are ready and willing to get vaccinated. As well, the number of parents who report they are planning to vaccinate their children are increasing – more than at any other time during the pandemic. This is particularly critical, given that vaccines for children five years old and up will likely be authorized soon – and clinical trials are currently underway for children as young as six months old.
I also want to stress that this sacred obligation is not merely local but global. Truly, one of the most shameful aspects of 2020 – and this was a year that had no shortage of shameful moments – is the phenomenon known as “vaccine apartheid.” The development of vaccines was indeed the result of the unprecedented cooperation between researchers, governments, and businesses throughout the world. But when it came time to roll them out, wealthy countries hoarded enough to vaccinate their citizens several times over. Now these countries are already administering booster shots – while fewer than 1% of people in low-income countries have received any vaccinations at all.
But ironically enough, it is actually in our self-interest to ensure global vaccine distribution. Because the longer the world goes unvaccinated, the greater the risk for new variants to emerge that are even more dangerous than Delta – and the longer it will take for those of us in wealthy countries to achieve endemic status. This is one of the many tragic realities of the current moment: in this age of rising nativism and hyper-nationalism, we’re discovering that viruses don’t respect national borders. Economically powerful countries might find safety for their citizens in the short term, but as ever, our well-being is ultimately tied to the well-being of all who dwell on earth.
Here are some links that will give you more information about how you can participate in advocacy for global vaccine distribution. I encourage you to get involved in this sacred effort, whether in your own home country or abroad, to ensure that this life-saving blessing is made as widely available as possible.
On Rosh Hashanah, we undertake a cheshbon nefesh – a soul accounting – of ourselves and of the greater community. We examine deeply and unsparingly the ways we as individuals are accountable to the collective. In our 21st century world, I believe it’s imperative that we define the collective as nothing less than the global community. I can’t think of a better kavanah – spiritual intention – for the New Year than that: to affirm that our well-being is irrevocably tied to the well-being of all who dwell on earth.
So this Rosh Hashanah, let us joyously say to one another, Mir Zaynen Do – We are here. Let us grieve those we’ve lost and celebrate the lives we’ve saved. Let’s continue to show up for one another. Let us fight every moment of this New Year to write ourselves and our neighbors into the Book of Life.
May it be a Shanah Tovah – a good year, a Shanah Bri’ah – a year of health, a Shanah Shel Hayyim – a year of life – for us all.