(JTA) — This year, you can quiet a congregation of Jews with a press of your mute button. It’s hard to believe.
During a normal High Holiday season, synagogues are packed, and services are accompanied by a cacophony of on- and off-key singing, random coughs, babies crying and an impatient chorus of “Is it over yet?” from both children and bubbes.
Just as the Beatles’ managers hired “screamers” to amplify the excitement at their concerts, I have been imagining rabbis bringing in a soundtrack of “sighers” and “yasher koachers” to make online services feel a little more normal.
Things are not normal, though — and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing.
During the month of Elul and the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we take account of our lives and resolve to make changes. This year, we have been forced to create entirely new rituals and patterns of life.
I, for one, really didn’t want to spend the High Holidays glued to a Zoom screen. So in this extraordinary year when the periods have turned into ellipses, with time blurring as screens take over every aspect of our lives, I’m prioritizing unplugging and finding my own way to mark the occasion.
So many of the Jewish holidays fall on Shabbat this year. I’ve always thought the brilliance of Shabbat is that it gives the run-on sentence of time a period, a chance to pause and catch your breath, reflect and reset. The universe is clearly telling us we need to take a break.
For the past decade, Shabbat means 25 screen-free hours for our family, what we call our Technology Shabbat. We felt the screen overload before the pandemic, and now we feel it 10 times more. Our Tech Shabbats have instilled clear boundaries and allowed us a weekly recharge.
If Shabbat is the end of a sentence, the High Holidays are the end of a chapter in your Book of Life. Who wishes their chapter featured more screen time? As my 11-year-old daughter Blooma once said to me, “No one at the end of their life is going to think, ‘I wish I spent more time scrolling.’”
One of my favorite memories growing up was a rogue gathering organized by my parents and their friends, a gaggle of Detroit Jews who had moved to Northern California, in 1974. It was called Temple Without Walls.
For the High Holidays, these rebel Jews of Marin decided to leave their Jewish cathedrals in the city made from Jerusalem limestone and bring the services out to the redwoods, to the top of Mount Tamalpais in a dramatic 4,000 seat amphitheater, 2,000 feet above sea level, complete with fog and sweeping views of the Bay. In the 1960s, that same amphitheater hosted the very first outdoor music festival, paving the way for Woodstock, Lollapalooza and Coachella (a fantastic name for a law firm, by the way).
I was 4, sweating under my black velvet dress, but I was happy. It was epic and beautiful, an indelible spiritual experience I will never forget. I felt an awe and humility inspired by nature’s vast vistas.
Thinking back to that moment, and moments in Muir Woods, river rafting down the Grand Canyon, taking a walk near the ocean, I can see clearly that nature is what connects me to something larger than myself, a big enough space for the perspective you need on your life and the world for High Holidays. The last part of our fall holiday cycle, in fact, honors the value of being in nature: On Sukkot, we are encouraged to spend as much time outside as possible, even if it’s just in our backyards looking at the stars and the vastness of the sky. Nature is what connects us to something larger than ourselves, a big enough space for the perspective you need on your life and the world.
Research backs this up. In one study, after participants were sent to a grove of enormous eucalyptus trees, they exhibited more prosocial behavior like empathy and generosity. The researchers theorized that the awe induced by the towering trees reminded the subjects of their role in the larger world.
It’s been a year of questioning and rethinking everything. What rituals will we bring forward from this time? More time in nature, more time with family, more home-cooked meals, more connecting with people we really feel close to, more thinking about what really matters to us?
We’ve spent so much of the past six months sheltered in place. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel called Shabbat a sanctuary in time. Spending Shabbat and the holidays in the sanctuary of nature feels like the spiritual practice we need.
So this year, in addition to some temple Zooms, my family is heading outside to create our own Temple Without Walls.
This is a time to get our priorities in order. Perhaps that involves more wind, birds and vistas — more trees and fewer screens.