There’s an old story about the political science professor who was asked to sum up the situation in Israel in one word. He thought about it for a while, and finally said, “Good.”
Then he was asked, “All right, if you had one more word, if you were asked to sum up the situation in two words, what would you say?
So he thought about it for a while, and then he said, “Not good.”
I believe it’s safe to say that if any of us were asked to summarize this past summer for Israel and the Jewish people, most of us would say “not good.” The truth is, we all know it has been a very difficult summer. Even with the benefit of the Iron Dome, Israel was forced to carry out a difficult operation in Gaza to protect its citizens from rocket fire from above and terror tunnels from below. The Hamas terrorists in Gaza fired their rockets against Israeli civilians while hiding their rocket launchers and weapons amidst their own civilians. Imagine what could have been had Hamas spent years investing in science and technology, hospitals, schools and playgrounds. Instead they spent billions of dollars on rockets and terror tunnels and used schools and hospitals they did have as launch sites for the rockets. The moral clarity is crystal clear. Israel uses rockets to protect its children. Hamas uses children to protect their rockets.
As we take a broader view of the world, the scourge of fundamentalist Islam is spreading like a cancer throughout the Middle East. The brutal terror of Hamas was exported to ISIS and honed into barbarism the likes of which we’ve not seen in modern times. The beheadings of American journalists and a British aide worker have sickened us and galvanized our nation to respond militarily.
So how was this summer? It was not good.
Nevertheless, if we dig beneath the surface, we will find reason not to despair. After Operation Protective Edge in Gaza during July and August, the month of June seems like ancient history. Let’s take a look back at June, though, and recall the prelude to Gaza. Three Israeli teenage boys Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrah and Gilead Shaar, were hitchhiking their way home from yeshiva when they were kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists. Their whereabouts were not known for weeks until their mutilated bodies were found near Hebron. We all felt pain and outrage over this crime. The only thing that could make it worse would be Jews sinking to that level and perpetrating revenge terror attacks against Palestinians. Indeed, such a horror occurred when Jewish terrorists abducted and burned to death a teenager named Muhammed Abu Khdeir, just one day after the three Israeli teenagers were laid to rest. Amidst this charged atmosphere, Hamas ramped up its rocket attacks from Gaza, and Israel launched the operation to protect its citizens.
With our attention on Gaza and the threat to Israeli citizens that Hamas posed, the murders of the four teenagers faded into the background. With the perspective now of a few months, let’s look back to the aftermath of those murders. While the Israeli families were sitting shiva, the Abu Khdeir family was also mourning their son in their tent of mourning. In the midst of observing shiva, Rachel Frankel, the mother of slain Israeli teenager Naftali Frankel, made a courageous emotional statement condemning Abu Khdeir’s murder. “There is no difference between blood and blood. Murder is murder. There is no justification and no atonement for murder,” she said. Her family went a step further and called the Abu Khdeir family to express condolences from one house of mourning to another. Amidst the most wretched violence humans could afflict upon one another, we must take inspiration from this spark of humanity, decency and courage. The Frankel family reminded us who we are as a people and what Israel is all about. Out of the depths of despair, a bold Israeli family in the depths of mourning dared to be decent. Rachel Frankel’s courage and compassion provided a glimmer of hope that Israel will be ok.
Yossi Klein Halevi, a prominent Israeli journalist, wrote a moving piece this month on how Israelis are able to cope in the midst of anxiety and despair. He writes:
“We cope because we have no choice. This is the only corner of the planet where Jews are sovereign. Many of us continue to struggle to preserve a decent Israel. Despite growing mutual suspicion, coexistence efforts between Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews persist. The Israeli Supreme Court and Israeli media are among the most vigorous anywhere. In a seemingly endless conflict, we can’t take those achievements for granted. Other democracies have broken under far less pressure.”
Klein-Halevi continues: “And through it all Jews keep coming home. This year, 1% of France’s 600,000 Jews are moving to Israel. Even as the missiles fell on Israeli cities, planeloads of French immigrants continued to land. They are fleeing growing anti-Jewish violence. But these well-educated immigrants aren’t going to Canada, they’re coming to the Jewish state. The final shore.”
Klein-Halevi adds a personal note driving with his 16-year-old son and fighting traffic in Jerusalem. “Here we are, in a traffic jam in Jerusalem,” Klein-Halevi writes. “But sometimes I think about how the most ordinary details of my daily life were the greatest dream of my ancestors.”
His son replied, “I think about that a lot.”
Klein-Halevi concludes: “That was all he said. But that was enough. I knew he would be able to survive here.
Israel is a symbol to the Jewish people and to the world that from amidst despair we must draw hope. In a world of injustice, tzedek tzedek tirdof, justice justice you shall pursue. Bimkom she’ein ish, hishtadel l’hiyot ish, in a place in which there are no decent people, strive to be a decent person. Amidst all of its internal political strife and external threats, Israel inspires us to the ideal that we can dare to make the world a better place. Od lo avdah tikvateinu–our hope is not lost–we stubbornly declare when we sing Hatikvah. The ethos of Israel, drawing upon the well springs of Jewish tradition, is to look forward, to have hope.
Rosh HaShanah as a holiday bids us to look forward. This is odd. We are starting the Ten Days of Penitence. It would seem that first we should reflect on the past, then resolve to do better in the future. Both steps are essential to teshuvah; however our calendar and our liturgy buck conventional wisdom and the order of actions towards attaining teshuvah. Rosh HaShanah contains no confessions, no penitential prayer. We don’t beat our chests today and say Ashamnu (We have sinned) or Al Het, (“For the sin that we have committed before you…”).We save these for Yom Kippur, ten days into the new year. Why? Teshuvah is driven by two different mindsets: Rosh HaShanah is about the future, Yom Kippur is about the past. Rosh means head, and the default position of the head is to look forward not back. The placement of Rosh HaShanah before Yom Kippur means that our determination to act better in the future takes priority to our feelings of remorse about the past. To which we might add that this is why we blow the shofar on RH. The shofar turns our attention to what lies ahead, not behind.
Rosh HaShanah reminds us that to mend the past, first we must secure the future. This idea is amplified in the three sections of the Musaf Amidah: Malkhiyot, Zikhronot and Shofarot.
Malkhiyot proclaims the majesty of God. We are reminded that no human ruler or government has absolute authority. As we know, among human beings absolute power corrupts absolutely. Our humility before God as a people and as a civilization will fortify us in the face of today’s current evil regimes such as Hamas and ISIS. As we look ahead to a new year with great anticipation, a sense of humility before God tempers us and leads us to act more wisely and with more compassion.
Zikhronot is about memory, but not about our memory. We call upon God to remember the merits of our ancestors and to credit us in turn. In the process we strive to be worthy of our ancestors’ rewards by refining our own actions. We appeal to the past, but for the sake of a better future.
Finally, Shofarot invokes the image of the shofar, the very symbol of a call to the future. The sounds of the shofar penetrate our hearts, evoking God’s cry to us. We know that we are mortal, and this season we reaffirm our mortality. When we hear the wailing sounds of the shofar, we know each one of us will not live forever. Yet, we defeat death by living by values that live forever. The shofar calls upon us to be compassionate, like Rachel Frankel, and create blessings in this world that will live on after us for generations to come.
There is no doubt that we live in challenging times. Yet, we gather today at the dawn of a new year not to cry about what was but to plant the seeds for a more hopeful future. For inspiration, we must turn to our brothers and sisters in Israel who do this day in and day out. Rachel Frankel sitting shiva for her murdered son refused to be consumed by hate. Israelis went about their business working, celebrating weddings, inventing, affirming life, even as rocket attacks disrupted their daily routine. Immigrants made Aliyah because the Jewish people have no other land to call our own. Jerusalem residents were snarled in traffic in their daily commutes. We have great reason for hope. In fact, we have no choice. Let us resolve in this new year to look forward. Let us be vigilant against those who seek us harm and at the same time stay true to our deepest principles and values that have sustained us throughout the generations. Adonai oz l’amo yitein, Adonai yevarech et amo ba-shalom; may God grant His people strength, may God bless His people with peace. Amen.
As we begin Rosh HaShanah tonight, I’d like to share with you a thought experiment. Imagine an American activity that for generations has had millions of practitioners. People would devote significant time and money to this activity every week. Strong traditions developed around how one should dress to these activities and what items one had to bring to participate. The activity involved a high degree of skill, and practitioners were expected to adhere closely to the rules. The traditions of this activity were passed down from generation to generation until one day younger people stopped participating in this activity. It took too much time, cost too much money and was too difficult.
The scenario I just described is true; however, I am not talking about Judaism or even religion. I’m talking about golf. According to a recent New York Times article, golf in America has lost some five million participants over the last decade. Like many Jewish organizations as well as many other religious groups, golf clubs are struggling to attract a new generation of golfers. People under 35 have especially spurned the game, saying it takes too long to play, is too difficult to learn and has too many tiresome rules.
Recently, the PGA and other golf industry leaders are so fearful of losing the next generation of golfers that there are now experiments with alternative forms of golf with new equipment, new rules and radical changes to courses. The goal is to alter the game’s reputation in order to recruit lapsed golfers and a younger demographic. There are now–get this–15-inch holes, the size of pizza pans. There are games based on time, rather than completion of 18-holes, with limits at six or nine holes. There are newly designed balls that don’t slice. Some courses have introduced kicking a soccer ball down a fairway, and, yes, most importantly, players are allowed mulligans on every hole. Of course, golf traditionalists are up in arms over the dumbing down of the game. Industry leaders say they have no choice if they are going to pass the tradition of golf to a new generation. They’ve got to make it less time consuming, more accessible and non-judgmental.
Does any of this sound familiar? Indeed, the American Jewish community faces similar challenges. I could speak at length about the many parallels between the challenges faced by golf and those faced by Jewish institutions in terms of how to be relevant to younger generations. Just as golf attempts to reinvent itself, many Jewish institutions around the country are engaged in creative innovation that preserves Jewish tradition while making it more accessible. I’ll let you consider for yourselves the numerous parallels between Judaism and golf. For now, I wish to offer instead a major difference between Judaism and golf.
Judaism has a secret sauce that golf is only just discovering now: the value of renewal and reinvention. Judaism has renewal built into our DNA.
For golf, traditionalists might consider it a heresy to allow mulligans, or do-overs. In Judaism, we allow mulligans all the time. Pirke Avot teaches hashev yom echad lifnei motcha, repent one day before you die. The understanding is that since we never actually know when our final day will be, we must do teshuvah every day. Every day in the Amidah we say to God Slach lanu…m’hal lanu, forgive us, pardon us for our sins. We say this three times a day, every day of the year. And if that’s not enough, we also have Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the ten days of Penitence that we begin tonight. These ten days are all mulligans all the time. It is a reset button for the entire year. We take stock of our deeds, we make amends, we seek forgiveness from one another and willingly grant it when asked of us.
Among Judaism’s greatest gifts to civilization is the notion that people can change. Nothing is pre-ordained. We find our way through life one mulligan at a time. This notion is not obvious. The ancient Greeks, for instance, believed that we are what we are, and we cannot change. They believed that character is destiny, and the character itself is something we are born with, although it may take great courage to realize our potential. Heroes are born, not made. Before the birth of Oedipus, his fate had already been foretold by the Delphic Oracle, and nothing can avert it.
This is precisely the opposite of the key sentence we say on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: uteshuvah ut’fillah utzedakah maavirin et roa hagezeirah: “Repentance, prayer and righteousness avert the evil decree.” While difficult stuff happens in the world, we have control over our destiny. No fate that is final, No diagnosis without a second opinion – half of Jewish jokes are based on this idea.
As Isaac Bashevis Singer wittily put it, “We have to be free; we have no choice.”
On these High Holy Days, we renew our tradition of renewal itself. While golf widens holes on the putting green, let us widen our hearts. While golf shortens its games, let us make the time we have with one another in our families and in this synagogue community as meaningful as possible. While golf adds mulligans to allow players multiple chances to hit the ball well, let us reengage in our ancient tradition of Teshuvah, so that we may begin this year truly renewed.
It’s time for us now to tee off on a ten-day journey of introspection and renewal. May God grant us the strength to make these days meaningful and transformative so that we may bring positive change into our lives, our relationships and the world.
Sometimes the tie just speaks for itself. May the sound of the shofar arouse each of us to do good for the world in the coming year. A joyous and healthy new year to all. L’Shanah Tovah.
While human beings have acquired the ability to launch rockets and people into space and explore the heavens, Deuteronomy in Parashat Nitzavim tells us that Torah–the totality of our received tradition from God–is “lo bashamayim hi,” “it is not in heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). This phrase has been understood that the Torah is not an esoteric document. It is meant for human beings in this world to explore, interpret and reinterpret. This verse plays a central role in one of the most famous passages in the Talmud, Bava Metzia 59b, in which Rabbi Eliezer is in a dispute with Rabbi Joshua and the majority of sages. Rabbi Eliezer performs miracles and even has a divine voice from the heavens call out that the law is in accordance with him. Rabbi Joshua, however, says “Lo bashamayim hi,” “[The Torah] is not in heaven.” God laughs in response and says, “My children have defeated me.” The Torah is meant to be studied and reinterpreted in each generation.
The Ice Bucket Challenge is so “last year!” Get into the 5775 groove and take the #TTShofar Challenge!