What I’m Praying for This Rosh Hashanah
“May the year, and its curses, come to an end.” This terse Talmudic statement (meant to explain why the Torah readings of rebuke are read before Rosh Hashanah), represents a sentiment we all feel about the coming New Year. We hope to put last year’s calamities behind us, and look forward to a better future.
One of the curses of the past year was homelessness. In addition to Hurricane Katrina’s terrible death toll, there is also a continuing crisis of nearly a million people who are homeless. In Darfur, hundreds of thousand of refugees have fled an ongoing genocide. And, in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, perhaps as many as 5 million people were left homeless. These horrific events require serious action from each and every one of us. We must figure out how to remedy last year’s curses.
In particular, homelessness is a curse Jews are familiar with. We call it exile. Exile is not an archaic historical occurrence; it is part of our current events. In the last half century alone Jews have had to take flight multiple times. Along with hundreds of thousands of other Holocaust survivors, my mother left Europe to a start a new life in a safe place, the United States. More recently, Jews have fled the Soviet Union, Syria, and Ethiopia as well as other locales. (I recently met a Jew who had to leave Venezuela to flee the Chavez regime). Exile is a large part of Jewish history.
There is a debate among theologians and historians about meaning of exile. To some, exile is a black hole in history: it is an unwholesome state, and the years spent in exile are historically meaningless. Redemption is the only part of Jewish history that really matters.
Others thinkers take a different view. To them, exile is the iron furnace in which Jewish identity has been forged. They understand that exile is a crisis; but they recognize that the challenges of exile have helped Jews cultivate a gritty resilience as well as a profound sense of social justice. Their understanding of exile is based on the belief that every crisis contains the potential for renewal and transformation.
The connection between crisis and renewal is one of the messages of the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading. Immediately after the Akeidah, the binding of Isaac, we are told about the birth of Rebecca, Isaac’s future wife. The Midrash explains that this reference indicates that the Akeidah crisis provoked a serious personal transformation. Isaac had nearly died at the Akeidah. While Isaac stood under the knife, he became aware that he was a thirty seven year old man who had neglected marriage and family. He resolved to immediately find a bride, who later turns out to be Rebecca. The crisis of the Akeidah reminds Isaac that he must grab a hold of life, and that he can no longer be the diffident bachelor, slowly awaiting the right woman.
The message of these last few verses of the Rosh Hashanah Torah reading is this: the New Year is not merely a fresh beginning, a time to forget the past year’s curses and crises. Rather, it is a time to reflect on how to use past crises to teach us the lessons of future renewal. Indeed, the Chassidic Rebbe Sefat Emet compares all suffering to birthpangs; within the very suffering, there is the possibility of rebirth and renewal.
While an awareness of the productive side of crisis is extremely useful, my message is not directed at the people of Asia or Darfur or New Orleans. For these victims, right now is the time for action, not reflection; and what they need are homes, not sermons. Rather, my message is directed at another homeless crisis, one that specifically affects the Jewish people: the disengagement from Gaza.
Politics aside, the disengagement was traumatic. The withdrawal included negative images most frequently associated with exile; families were forced out of their homes, and the synagogues left behind were defaced and destroyed. It is impossible not to feel a profound sense of sadness for the 9,000 newly homeless people.
These emotional scenes, mixed together with nasty political debates and the ever increasing divide between secular and religious, is potentially disastrous. This is Israel's “homeless” crisis, for in the aftermath of the Gaza evacuations, we now have a country divided between orange and blue, religious and secular.
The question the Jewish world has to ask itself is this: Will we use the Gaza crisis as a springboard to renewal? Or is Gaza the first stage of a Jewish civil war?
One of the great lessons of exile is the importance of Jewish unity. In exile, Jews recognized that were best off pulling together despite their differences. What the Gaza crisis has taught us is that this lesson becomes even more important now, when we are back home in Israel. A country without a sense of unity is bound to fall apart.
This Rosh Hashanah, I’m praying that we will be able to move past last year’ s curses and crises. In particular, I am praying that we, the Jewish people, will remember the importance of unity. And after the traumas of the past year, all of us, orange and blue, left and right, religious and secular, will find a way to renew our bonds.