The “Days of Awe” and COVID-19

[Published in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, September 18, 2020, p. 7.]


Reflections on the Jewish New Year 5781

by Abraham Skorka

Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia


Ritual prayers in Judaism, with a few rare exceptions, are composed in the plural. The individual brings his or her own feelings to the prayer, but the act of offering them to God is done as a member of the community. That is why the Jewish tradition so highly values ​​communal prayer (Berachot 8,a); only when the people are gathered together are prayers offered in their fullness.

This year, unlike others, the assembling of the Jewish people in synagogues to mark the start of a new year will be constrained because of the social distancing demanded by the COVID-19 pandemic. Gathering with others, joining together in singing, echoing the same prayers, and sharing common feelings at this time of year will all be curtailed. The companionship we find in each other will need to be found more in the mind and heart since physical closeness will be lacking.

According to ancient Jewish tradition, the “Days of Awe” (Yamim Noraim), which include Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), is the time when God judges all humanity, both individually and as peoples. It is the time for the critical self-analysis of our lives and existence. This self-review is called Cheshbon HaNefesh, a reckoning of one’s being, which is similar to what Catholics call an “examination of conscience”. This self-examination, of course, greatly concerns our relationship with others. The distancing compelled by the virus will require us to conduct a deeper inward search as we examine our behaviors toward others. Prayers that cannot be offered in community could lead the individual Jew to spend more time in introspective reflection. Perhaps this is actually a positive side-effect of the pandemic, enabling each of us to draw closer to how God sees us in these days of divine judgment.

In our prayers, we cry out to the Creator to help us to be unified in knowing how to act with a full heart according to God’s will. One of the most eloquent prayers begins with the cry: “Hear our voices, Lord our God, have mercy and compassion on us!” Then follow words from Psalms 51:13 and 71:9, which in the Bible are presented as personal pleas of King David, but are rephrased in the plural in the prayer book: “Do not cast us out of Your presence, or take Your Holy Spirit away from us. … Do not cast us off in old age; when our strength fails, do not forsake us!” In the book of Psalms, these are utterances that express a person’s most particular and intimate desires. However, in the synagogue the individual prayer acquires a superlative significance when, starting from an individual, it extends to embrace others in the whole community, and, ultimately, all of humanity.

The current pandemic afflicts all humanity in fear, pain, and anguish. It has joined individuals and nations in common concerns. Will there be discerning people who will see this development as a sign of the need for a united humanity that values differences and does not make them into insurmountable barriers? Will this perception contribute to that universal unity that God intends so that all humanity will do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with its Creator (Micah 6: 8)?  Will widespread and sincere dialogue be achieved in which each maintains their particular identity but is ennobled by experiencing the other in all their distinctiveness?

At the beginning of the New Year we Jews ask God to judge humanity with mercy and benevolence, feeling the presence of all even in a time of social distancing. This year, COVID-19 is obviously only one of the many increasingly complex threats that challenge a humanity that is rapidly growing in both numbers and needs. Like the prayers of the Days of Awe, it impels us to understand that we all share the same travails in this earthly reality and that the destiny of each one of us is inextricably linked to that of everyone else.