As I reflect on an extraordinary year, my first thoughts are with those whose lives were tragically cut short by the Coronavirus. May their memories be for a blessing and may their families find comfort in their sad loss.
My heart goes out to the many whose health, whether physical or mental, has been affected and to those who are facing severe financial hardship or crises in their personal relationships. The restrictions on social interaction, abrupt changes to our routine and the grip of deep uncertainty have dramatically impacted the fabric of all of our lives in ways that we could never have imagined.
In the years to come, while many will admiringly recall our resilience and forbearance during these most trying of times, ultimately the success of our response to this Pandemic will be judged not by how we felt, but by how we acted.
The Torah portion of Nitzavim, which is always read immediately prior to Rosh Hashanah, commences with these words: “You are all standing this day before the Lord your God; your heads, your tribes (shivtechem), your elders and your officers”.
In this list of national leaders, ‘tribes’ appears to be out of place. Mindful of the fact that ‘shevet’ also means ‘staff’ or ‘sceptre’, our commentators explain that the leaders of our people are being referred to according to the item that they carried that symbolised their role. In the same way as ‘the Crown’ refers to the monarch and ‘First Violin’ refers to an orchestra’s lead musician, a person who leads is known by the instrument of that leadership.
The message that emerges is extremely powerful. You are defined by what you do. The essence of a person is measured according to what they have achieved.
For this reason, we call community leaders ‘machers’ (makers). ‘Macher’ is a role that conveys respect, because the people who change the world are not the dreamers and thinkers; the people who change the world are the ‘doers’.
On Yom Kippur, we read the book of Jonah, in which the prophet informs the inhabitants of Nineveh of their impending doom.
In response, they fast and repent for their evil ways. The text captures that epic event in just a few words: “God saw their deeds”. Their words of apology and their fasting were merely steps towards a life-changing moment. What concerned God was not their protestations, but their actions.
This year, without any preparation whatsoever, every one of our communities was plunged into a crisis of unprecedented proportions.
Your response has been simply magnificent. With our Shuls closed, our communities redoubled their creativity and their altruism. We have never known such an outpouring of compassion, such acts of selfless care for the vulnerable and such generosity in charitable giving.
I have no doubt that such action will remain at the heart of our Covid-19 response for as long as it takes us to overcome the dangers it presents to all of humankind.
As we commence 5781, may Hashem inscribe and seal each and every one of us in the Book of Life, good health, peace and fulfilment.
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis September 2020 • Ellul 5780