The concept of ‘we’ and repairing the world gets clouded by being so separated from what we want to make better.

Photo by Sole D’Alessandro G. on Unsplash

One of the things that makes the Yom Kippur Eve service, known as Kol Nidre, so powerful is knowing that so many Jews worldwide are collectively standing together to greet and welcome the holiest day of the year.

I don’t attend religious services as much as I used to, going, at this point, no more than a few times a year.

But I have never not attended a Kol Nidre service in person. Not until this year, of course, when so many of the traditions and rituals I and the rest of the world have followed and depended upon for meaning, for connection, for orienting ourselves in time and space, have crumbled out of respect for nothing less than the value of human life and keeping us and our neighbors safe.

Synagogue and spiritual leaders have spent months conjuring ways, both religious and technological, to imbue our digitized and distanced observance of Yom Kippur and other religious services with the meaning, community and spirit that normally comes naturally by just walking through the doors of the sanctuary.

The prayers are important, as are the melodies they’re chanted to, and so too are the other rituals, such as not working, not eating and spending the day in reflection of how we, both as individuals and as society, fell short this past year in our goals for equality, righteousness, charity, gratitude and the betterment of mankind. You can’t help but wonder if one day of Yom Kippur is enough.

But, as has been so common over the past six months, ultimately what we miss most is the people, both loved ones and acquaintances, close friends and strangers. It really is the power of the people. If Kol Nidre services were held at a synagogue and no one came, the day would be bereft of its meaning.

It’s we the people that give the day its power and significance. For now we’ll replicate it as best we can through live streams and digital square boxes, but we appreciate now more than ever that when we list the communal sins of the past year, all the ways that we as a people have fallen short of our expectations and values, it’s more powerful and moving to do so in front of and together with that community.

Photo from Shutterstock

There probably will be people at the Western Wall in Jerusalem during Yom Kippur, hopefully socially distanced. Israel has, like so many other places, seen a recent uptick in coronavirus cases as it tries to return to normal.

Other images of empty religious sites have stirred similar feelings of hollowness and sadness. The Pope spoke to an empty cathedral on Easter. The Kabaa in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, normally ringed with thousands of people, stands alone, a square monument, still majestic, yet weakened from the absence of the masses whose presence makes the spot the holiest in Islam.

The idea and beliefs of our religions have gone nowhere. But we have, retreated to the sanctuaries of our homes. And that is what makes them seem to have changed.

That’s why the protests over the last few months have conveyed so much power, beyond just the intent of the protesters. It’s a reminder of the power of the collective, of gatherings, of our ability to create sensibilities, new and old, that can only achieved by being together, the more the better.

The latest episode of the podcast Radiolab featured an “insomnia line.” Listeners were provided a phone number to call in during the middle of the night.

Some of the callers were working night-shifts. One was a college student who couldn’t sleep because of stress over exams. Another was grieving the recent death of her mother.

So here we are, so many of us, together in our loneliness. Whether we are stuck at home with kids and significant others, or stuck at home by ourselves, the absence of public gatherings is exacting a toll on our psyches. Perhaps that’s why so many are attending sporting events where they can, eating inside restaurants where allowed, regardless of virus fears. Or maybe many of us are adjusting our individual tolerances of risk for the benefits of being around other people.

But things are heavy. The noise — and consequences — of the election is everywhere. The coronavirus ebbs and flows like waves from an ocean — and we are all stuck on the beach, afraid to go in.

We lie awake at night, wishing for sleep, for comfort, for ease. For things not to be this way.

That’s not dissimilar from what we usually pray for on Yom Kippur, when we want things to be better. To be different, both for ourselves and for others.

Those desires are magnified this year, just as is our hopelessness in being able to bring to fruition the many changes we want. We think and hope — so much that it keeps us up at night. Or awakes us from our sleep, at all hours. We go through our days somewhat numb.

Yom Kippur is supposed to help us snap out of it, so that we no longer experience and act and spend our days blindly, without considering all that must be done to improve our communities, our health, our sense of justice, the state of our air and water and climate.

This year it’s harder. We can’t return to our homes after services because we’ll have never left them in the first place. All the action is taking place out there, but we are stuck and stranded in here.

Still, we must remind ourselves that while we may feel alone, that while we may feel, because we are, physically alone, we are not, in the broader sense, alone. We are instead all in this together.

Maybe that provides solace, perhaps it doesn’t. We can know it, but it’s tougher to feel it.

It’s easier, though, to understand other people’s struggles when you are struggling, too. We see that much more now than we did before the pandemic.

Is it even fair to impose expectations on ourselves for the coming year? Yes, because there is no choice. There is no looking away. Because we will be here, hopefully, next Yom Kippur, questioning again how we spent our precious time.

So let us tend and be kind to ourselves. And in doing so remember that in the house next door, or the one down the street, or in the city across the country, someone just like you, or maybe not like you at all, is just as much in need.

We are all in this together, even if we aren’t together at all.

Have any feedback? I can be reached at scottmgilman @

Thinking and writing about my place in the world, and making myself (and the world) a little bit better.

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