Looking Out for One's Community During the Pandemic | Teen Ink

Looking Out for One's Community During the Pandemic

September 8, 2021
By Lily-Comander BRONZE, Newton, Massachusetts
Lily-Comander BRONZE, Newton, Massachusetts
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

In Judaism, the High Holidays or High Holy Days, are a period of time that includes the holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah, literally “head of the year”, is the Jewish New Year, and lasts for two days. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is shortly after, and is a time where an individual reflects on the past year and repents for their sins. Both of these holidays occur during the “Ten Days of Repentance,” or Aseret Yemei Teshuvah. 

This year, when the High Holidays began to approach, I started to reflect on the significance of the holiday given the events of the past year and the COVID-19 pandemic. My Rabbi asked me to think about the significance of the prayer Unetaneh Tokef, which is a prayer that is recited only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The first four words of the prayer, וּנְתַנֶּה תֹּקֶף קְדֻשַּׁת הַיּוֹם, could be translated as “We lend power to the holiness of this day.” The first part of Unetaneh Tokef describes God inscribing signatures in the Book of Life, and how God judges  “who shall live and who shall die” in the coming year. The prayer then lists various ways one could die, such as by water, fire, sword, wild beast, hunger,  and notably “ בַמַּגֵּפָה”, by plague. Currently, we are experiencing a pandemic and we all have worried who might pass away from COVID-19 this year.

At first, it may seem that Unetaneh Tokef says that who lives and who dies is only up to God, but the ending message of the prayer explains otherwise. The final sentence is, “וּתְשׁוּבָה וּתְפִלָּה וּצְדָקָה מַעֲבִירִין אֶת רֹעַ הַגְּזֵרָה.” “But repentance, prayer, and charity avert the severity of the decree.” This informs us how our People have navigated tough times with resilience.

These requirements for repentance, prayer, and charity are particularly meaningful at this time as we still face the ongoing challenges of the pandemic. There is an opportunity for improvement in how we make the right choices for the greater good of our community. In some cases, people decide to go against the safety guidelines, and when they end up getting COVID, it does not affect them significantly if no one in their immediate family becomes seriously ill. These people aren’t realizing that their careless decisions can impact people outside of their family who are at higher risk. Somebody might neglect getting vaccinated since they are at low risk, not taking into account that their actions could kill someone who is old or at higher risk. Getting the vaccine not only helps the person who receives it, but also helps others around them. Some who have elected not to get vaccinated may have their own reasons for this decision. Still, the last word of our response in the Unetaneh Tokef is “Tzedaka” which calls for the kind of attentiveness and generous conduct which cares for the greater good. The golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, is especially fitting in this situation. The people choosing not to look out for the members of their community must listen to the last line of Unetaneh Tokef that “showing charity can avert the severity of the decree.” It’s the right thing to do to help protect the people at risk.

I wish you all a happy and healthy new year! Shana tova!

The author's comments:

My name is Lily, and I am currently a ninth-grader at the Noble and Greenough School in Dedham, MA. This Rosh Hashanah, I spoke to the congregation at my synagogue about my reflections on Unetaneh Tokef and Tzedaka. Diving deeper into this prayer has given me new insights into what it means to be a good community member, and I hope it will for you as well. Shanah Tovah!

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