Every so often I come across a “message in a bottle.” These are situations where a person leaves a note, and someone across time and space, finds it and is inspired and empowered. This year, the “message in a bottle”, was an email from a father to his daughter. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-53263220 The beauty of the story is that the email in question did not get to the daughter, Natasha, until 2 months after her father’s death. Salman Waheed had set up an email reminder years before, and it was sent to an email his daughter rarely used. Bored one day, Natasha checked the overflowing email box and found the message her father had sent before his death. It was a powerful experience of connection that she desperately needed. Natasha directed her sisters to look and find similar emails that they had from their father.
If that was the end of the story, I would add it to my collection of “message in a bottle” stories and keep going. However, Natasha was so moved by the experience she posted it to social media.
“My dad passed away 2 months ago and today was my first birthday without him. Turns out he set up a reminder so that every year on my birthday, I would get an email saying ‘happy birthday Dr Natasha, baba loves you, always.”
She received 373,000 likes and 1100 comments with people reaching out to share their own stories of grief and comfort. This moment of personal connection for Natasha, became a viral sharing on social media that Natasha turned into an even bigger experience of connection. She replied to the messages and comments, offering support and fellowship to others who had suffered losses and were missing important people in their lives. This story is an incredible illustration of how one can take memory, turn it into an action. This journey of saying goodbye to someone who has died generated connections that were vital and transcendent.
This might seem like a topic for the Memorial Book or Yizkor, yet these High Holy Days, which will be virtual in this time of physical distancing, are also an incredible experience of loss. These will not be the Days of Awe as any of us have experienced. We will not be able to gather as a families or community. We won’t have Rosh HaShanah Dinners or Break the Fasts. We won’t see our friends and neighbors at services or go out to a restaurant for Rosh HaShanah afternoon. We won’t sit in the sanctuary and be shaken by the sound of the Shofar or moved by the chanting of Kol Nidre. We know we will try our best Virtually, but it won’t be the same, and some of the most awesome moments of the High Holy Days are going to be dearly and painfully missed.
As I start to articulate and calculate what will be lost, feeling the weight of disappointment and frustration, I keep finding myself back in my “message in a bottle” story. In the midst of her sadness and loss, Natasha had her moment of feeling connected to her dad. She opened herself up as she publicly shared that experience, and in doing so, drew a wide circle of people who were also feeling loss and suffering pain, into much needed caring relationships and community.
We have the opportunity to do the very same for our High Holy Days. We know that this year will not be the same, not our regular rhythm or setting. It will be a tremendous loss of normal, but we must focus on the highest values, rituals and emotions of these days. This year we are going to be challenged to look inward and draw forward the image and memory of our ideal High Holy Days. Then we must turn outward and join with family, friends, and community with courage, creativity and mazel. We might not be able to replicate the precise experience that was our highest and sweetest moment when we touched the awesome and transcendent. However, in this different atmosphere and situation, if we open ourselves up, reaching out to others in our community and any who are also on this journey, we will create new experiences that will be full of that meaningful and vital energy and connection to lift these days into something that is High and Holy.
Rabbi Michael Birnholz