This Dvar Torah was adapted from my friend, David Abramowitz, Executive Director of the Jewish Leadership Institute.
There are many words and phrases that have entered our daily lexicon because of the coronavirus. One phrase can show us how to get the most out of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur:
We’ve all been there. We’re on a video conference, and someone will be trying to make some point, but we can’t hear him or her. Or we’re talking but no one is hearing is us… So all the participants on the conference yell – in unison – “unmute yourself!”
“Unmute yourself” may be the best advice for how to approach the High Holidays. On a video conference, what keeps us from being heard is technical. We have to find the unmute button and click on it. That’s easy (except for those of us of a certain age.)
For Jews starting a New Year, it’s not so easy. The problem isn’t technical, it’s personal. We have to unmute the voice that we rarely use. That’s the voice that speaks to what is transcendent. It’s our spiritual voice.
Unlike Zoom, where muting is the exact opposite of unmuting, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the two are intimately related.
In order for us to find our spiritual voice, we have to seek out the reservoir of meaning that resides deep within us. But that can’t be done unless we mute the noise that clutters our thoughts and consciousness. That noise is a mixture of what is required for day-to-day living and, well, junk. I could write a list of what that junk is, but you already know… Think too much Instagram and Facebook, among other things.
Whether required or frivolous, we have to mute what is normally on our minds and screens. If we don’t, we end up just as we do on a video conference when someone isn’t muted. Barking dogs, ringing phones and every other type of background noise make it impossible to focus on the main topic.
On the High Holidays, we have to work hard to mute the background noise because the main topic is incredibly important. It starts with a simple question: Who am I? Then the questions get harder.
What does it mean to be a good person? How do I become a better person? What is my purpose in life? For what things would I sacrifice something important to me? What would I sacrifice my life for? Why do I feel so distant from my soul? Do I live a life that is guided by duty and honor? How do I fix that? What is my destiny? Am I doing enough to ensure that Judaism and the Jewish People survive? Does God have a plan for me?
These are the questions that rarely break though the cultural static of modern life. But they are crucial, life-affirming questions.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur give us the opportunity to mute the noise and address these questions in our unmuted spiritual voice.
In traditional services on Yom Kippur, there is a beautiful prayer that reflects the mute/unmute connection. It’s Ochilah La’el, and in it we thank God for the gift of speech. The second line is a verse from Proverbs, which says: It is for man to arrange his thoughts, but the power of speech comes from God.
The first step is to prioritize our thoughts, which can only be done by muting the irrelevant. Then we can unmute our spiritual voice. As the prayer notes, that voice is a gift from the Eternal. And with that voice we find ourselves entering the eternal, conversing with God, the Jewish People, and our innermost selves.