Creating a Joyful and Sacred Space for the High Holy Days

By Dina Yoshimi

Pomegranate Open

If the hot, humid days of August and September are upon us, then the High Holy Days must be just around the corner. Observing the High Holy Days in Hawaiʻi brings its own special challenges. Be it explaining to your children’s teachers why they have to miss a day of school for a “holiday” with no celebration, or driving home through traffic just before Erev Yom Kippur with enough time to eat a festive meal before turning around and driving back to shul through traffic (it’s *still* rush hour!) in time to hear Kol Nidre, the Yamim Noraim have always required us to be at the top of our game. Each year we rise to the occasion because we know we must – for our bubbe and zeyde, for our parents, for ourselves, for our children, and for all those whose memories we honor during the Yom Kippur Yizkor service. We bring our A-game, because these sacred days bring an opportunity for atonement for ourselves, and ‘at-one-ment’ with our kehillah.

This year, we will face an unprecedented challenge. This year, we will need to bring our A++ game. This year, we will observe the High Holy Days in socially-distanced spaces…and not just the 6-feet variety.  This year, we will need to draw on our lifelong commitment to observances that are so beloved and so familiar that the prayers and melodies that we hear only once a year come readily to our lips. This year, we will need to create a space in our homes and in our hearts, a space of kavannah, where we can, even in physical isolation from each other, experience the power of those prayers and melodies to fill our souls with a sense of urgency, to tear down our stiff-necked defenses, and to provide for us a fulfillment of our prayer to be written and sealed for a good year in the Sefer haChaim.  This year, we will pray as a kehillah, joined in the hope that our separation from each other will end soon, and joined in the awareness that the faces on the screen before us are expressing the same love, and joy, and support, and consolation, and camaraderie that has kept us together as Congregation Sof Ma’arav for nearly half a century.

Some thoughts on creating a joyful, and sacred space, in your home for the observance of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur for the coming year (5781):

Set up a sacred space – there should be no distractions to catch your eye, and no reminders of things you “need to do.” When you enter your sacred space, treat it as you would the space we use for our sanctuary at Sof. Turn off your phone, put your machzor, tallit, and kippah in easy reach, create an east-facing blank wall for your davening and reflective moments.

Keep all food, gadgets, and other distractions outside of your sacred space for the duration of the holiday observance. If you have small children, explain to them what this space means for the family during the High Holy Days so that they understand that “something special” is happening there. Excluding animals, other than service animals, from this space is also consistent with the intent to create this “satellite sanctuary” in your home. Finally, keep in mind that the simple sanctity of your space will be visible on screen to others. This means that you can make a meaningful contribution to our communal creation of a shared sacred space, so that each of is presented with a screen that is free from both visual and auditory distractions.

Dress for the occasion – Jewish traditions vary as to whether you should wear something new or not on Rosh HaShanah, but there is no question that the clothing we wear can be a meaningful expression of our best intentions when we are accounting for our thoughts and actions, and petitioning for favorable judgment. Dressing for shul, and then entering your sacred space to see a screen of smiling Sofers offering their greetings is a once a year experience that we can all recreate with just a little planning and forethought.

Prepare for the festival Kiddush on Rosh HaShanah – at our weekly Shabbat services on Zoom, we have a tradition where we all participate in making Kiddush for Shabbat, just as we do in the Oneg Room at Sof. There’s very little involved: Before you enter your sacred space, pour a Kiddush cup of grape juice or Manischewitz and place a cover over it; then cover your festival challot (or whatever special bread you might use in their place) with a challah cover. If there is space off to the side, bring these items into your space; if not, leave them just outside the door, as none of us have too far to go to get to the Oneg Room from the sanctuary!

Don’t forget to prepare food, family and friends for the oneg – why let the joy end with the Kiddush!  Having a lovely meal or a simple spread to look forward to adds tam to our observance of Rosh HaShanah, and “inviting” family and friends to join you at your oneg (by Zoom, Facetime, or whatever your favorite way to connect might be) increases our joy. Plan ahead, and make it a real celebration! And finally, make preparations for tashlich — if the parks are open again for socially-distanced, small-group gatherings, tashlich is a beautiful and meaningful addition to the day. If you don’t already have this custom, this year is a great time to start; the few brief readings for tashlich, as well as suggestions for additional readings that add meaning to the observance, can be found on the web and in some machzorim.

This year, the High Holy Days offer an opportunity to step up to the challenge we have been presented with and to confirm our commitment to the observances in our ritual calendar that call on us to draw closer to our Creator. In this month of Elul, we undertake to prepare ourselves through prayer, through shofar blowing, and through reflection. This year, we must also undertake additional preparations to ensure that when the sun goes down on Erev Rosh HaShanah we will be ready and well-prepared to observe the Days of Awe with kavannah and with each other.

A note on practical concerns: If you have never used Zoom or attended a service on Zoom, there is still time to join a Sof Shabbat service on Zoom to familiarize yourself with joining a Zoom meeting as well as to check the functionality of your device, including the quality of your sound and video. You might also want to identify the best place in your home for your Zoom connection and determine whether you need to upgrade your bandwidth to receive the service without interruption. In the event of a technical challenge, stay calm, be patient, and contact the designated support person who will help you join the service.

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Upcoming Events
  1. Yom Kippur: Kol Nidre at Sof via Zoom

    September 27 @ 6:30 pm - 8:30 pm
  2. Yom Kippur Morning at Sof via Zoom

    September 28 @ 9:00 am - 12:30 pm
  3. Yom Kippur Afternoon at Sof via Zoom

    September 28 @ 4:00 pm - 6:45 pm
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