Taking Stock of a Difficult Year

Sermon given on Rosh Hashanah Eve, 5763, September 6, 2002, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

As American Jews, we celebrate the new year twice. We say l’shanah tovah tonight, but we will say “Happy New Year” on December 31. Not only our salutations, but also our observances are different on these two occasions. As the moment of sundown approaches, I trust that nobody here will count down – ten, nine, eight – and we shall not hear champagne corks popping, no spillage on our new carpet. Twice a year, though, we actually experience two occasions as entry into a real new year.

We are not the first Jews in history to mark more than one annual new year. In fact, when the ancient Rabbis composed the Mishnah about Rosh Hashanah, they proclaimed four separate new year celebrations. Not long ago, I learned a new lesson from the Mishnah from my teacher, Rabbi David Ellenson, now President of the Hebrew Union College. The Rabbis actually debated which should be the “real” new year, the first of Nisan, in the spring, or the first of Tishri, in the fall. Rabbi Joshua preferred the spring. In springtime, we behold the rebirth of the Earth. Flowers and trees bloom. Crops begin to grow. Surely, Rabbi Joshua taught, the Earth must have been created in springtime. Rosh Hashanah should be observed two weeks before Passover.

Rabbi Eliezer disagreed. Rosh Hashanah is observed in the fall, even at the beginning of the calendar’s seventh month, precisely because the natural world is beginning to whither at this season. As Rabbi Ellenson interprets: “We must believe in [the promise of] rebirth, [celebrated at the new year, purposefully at the] period when the days shorten and when nature is preparing to be dormant.” Yes, believing in the new year’s renewal is more difficult as darkness overcomes the light. And yet, in marking Rosh Hashanah in the fall, our sages made a declaration of faith: Staring into the darkness, the Jewish people see light. In the midst of sadness, we are taught to hope. At times of tragedy, Jews search for faith.

In this last year, in 5762, we have looked into the black of night. In 5762, we were plunged into sadness. In 5762, we tasted tragedy.

5762 began exactly one week after September 11. Last Rosh Hashanah, we were still in shock. We struggled to find solace. We shared our faith. We wished for a better year. And yet, we were so deep in the throes of terror, we were not quite sure what had hit us. The aftermath of September 11 deeply affected our nation, every day of 5762. This year, we lived in a new world, the world of post-911. Signs of this different America are everywhere: enhanced security measures, fear of when and where the terrorists will strike next. Our country had gone to war.

As if our nation were not suffering enough, 9-11 deepened the economy’s problems. Economic indicators may appear as cold statistics, but those numbers disrupt the lives of real men, women and children. Countless families have been impoverished, their breadwinners now out of work. Senior citizens have seen their fixed incomes dwindle, with the decline in the stock market. Anxiety about our economic future touches us all: Whose job will be next to go? How can we afford to retire? When will the stock market recover?

As American Jews, we have been deeply moved by our nation’s troubles. The tragedy of September 11, with its aftermath, affects us all. Meanwhile, our own anguish has been exacerbated by the devastation facing our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel.

In 5762, the terrorists who would destroy the Jewish State sank to new levels of barbarism. Times were already bad a year ago, and yet I doubt that any of us could have imagined the murderous mania unleashed by Israel’s enemies this year. I was personally shaken by my own experience in March, sitting in my Jerusalem hotel room, just a few blocks away from the Café Moment, when the terrorists slaughtered a score of Israel’s best and brightest young people. In 5762, there was no ordinary, daily life in Israel.

Meanwhile, support for Israel dwindled in many capitals around the world. New waves of anti-Semitism crossed Europe and South America. The Jewish State’s absolutely necessary actions of self defense sent Israeli soldiers, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, into places where they never wished to go, with tasks they had no desire to fulfill, with results that were often criticized, sometimes justly, more often unfairly, but even the Prime Minister laments the killing of Palestinians by Israeli soldiers, and occasionally confesses military error. On Wednesday, Toni, Robert and I called our niece Ruth, to wish her a happy nineteenth birthday, celebrated on Kibbutz Ketura, where she is fulfilling a year of national service before entering the military. Next year, at this time, both she and her sister Sarah will be in the Israeli Army. We have an inkling of the fears and frustrations of Israeli mothers and fathers. 5762 was not a good year.

Closer to home, the challenges facing our own congregation seem insignificant. Nevertheless, they are real. Last year at this time, we thought we would be opening this new Religious School year in the Temple. We expected to hold a service each High Holy Day morning in the Barshop Auditorium. Our dreams were dashed. The delay, though, is the least of the problems. When interior walls and floors and ceilings were removed, we learned that our sacred Temple was in danger of collapse, and that water intrusion threatened the health of our building, as well as our personal well-being. Thankfully, the problems were all correctable. Unlike 9-11, and distinct from Israel’s difficulties, the challenges facing our Temple can be fixed with money. And yet, the impact on the long-term financial well being of our Temple is real. In this respect, 5762 was not a good year for our Temple, either.

We Jews are not strangers to bad times. Our history is filled with sadness. We have known persecution. We have tasted poverty. We have lived in exile. We have been subject to genocide. Responding to our history, and even to the troubles of 5762, we have two choices.

The first possibility was originally described by the late Salo Baron, of Columbia University, whom Rabbi David Ellenson calls “the dean of modern Jewish historians.” Dr. Baron pointed to our tendency to view our Jewish past as a stream of tragedy, what he “labeled ‘a lachrymose view of the world.’” Ours can be seen as a history filled with tears. We may be excused, if we never stop weeping over our losses, for perhaps no other people has experienced such repeated devastation, across twenty centuries, and even more. We may understandably resign ourselves to mourning, for the course of our history has indeed brought us grief. Taking stock of 5762, sadness may overcome us.

The true lesson of Jewish history, though, is exactly the opposite.

What is our response to more than 400 years of Egyptian bondage? How do we recall Pharaoh’s attempt to blot out our people, by casting every baby boy into the Nile? Do we drown in a ocean of tears? No. We focus on our liberation from slavery and celebrate our freedom with joy, every year at our Passover tables.

What did our ancestors do, when their Temple was destroyed, and they were carted away, men, women and children, to Babylon? First, they “lay down by the waters of Babylon and wept.” But did they remain on the shores of the Tigris and Euphrates, filling those rivers with tears? They did not. They heeded the prophets’ message of hope for a better future. First, they insisted on leading fulfilling and productive lives, even while in exile. Then, they returned to Jerusalem and built the Second Temple, within a century of the destruction of the First.

And what of the Jews of Spain in 1492, ripped from their homes and stripped of their wealth, in shock, after some six centuries of prosperous life on the Iberian Peninsula? Did they wallow in despair? No. The sixteenth century saw some of the greatest flowering of Jewish life that history has ever known, in Turkey, in Holland, in the Land of Israel, not coincidentally the lands of Spanish Jewry’s destination.

And need I mention the survivors of Hitler’s Holocaust? If ever a generation could be permitted to descend into permanent grief, the survivors surely would have been forgiven. But what did they do? In the Displaced Persons Camps, on the haunted grounds of the very Concentration Camps themselves, after the War, young survivors of the Holocaust married and brought new Jewish life into the world; there was a baby boom! They went to the Promised Land, building the new Jewish State as soldiers and citizens. They came to America, participating fully in the American dream.

As Americans, our national history is mostly one of success and triumphs. American history may poorly prepare us for the year that has just ended. But our Jewish history has armed us well. Like our grief-stricken ancestors in years gone by, we may shed our tears; we have a right to our grief; we would be unwise to go on without adequate mourning. And yet, when our weeping comes to an end, we shall take up the mantle of our forbears and move forward with hope, with determination, and with undying faith in God for a better future.

Since last September 11, America has already shown itself to be a nation of great inner strength. Let us affirm with hope: The current recession, like every economic downturn of the past, will come to an end. Let us state with determination: America is the land of the free and the home of the brave; we shall courageously protect the liberties of our land, even in the face of terrorism. Let us declare our faith: God hears the prayers of our diverse nation of wounded men, women and children, each in our own way. God has grieved with America in the year just ended. Let us rejoice with the Lord in the years ahead, as God turns our mourning into joy.

In its own existential crisis, the State of Israel has demonstrated to the world that the Jewish State is a powerful democracy, prepared to persevere, even through the greatest adversity. Our optimism for Israel’s future was most clearly articulated this summer, when Kelly Levy, a member of last year’s Confirmation Class, was one of only ten teenagers from all of North America to travel to Israel with NFTY, the North American Federation of Temple Youth. Standing with our brothers and sisters in Eretz Yisrael, Kelly represented us all, with courage and commitment. Now, then, let us all join Kelly in affirming our hope: Am Yisrael Chai! The people of Israel lives, even, or perhaps especially, in difficult times. Let us state with determination: The State of Israel will act ethically, even in its hour of peril. As a democracy, Israel will continue to examine its own actions, affirming the humanity of all people living within its borders and its territories, whatever their national identity or religious affiliation. Let us declare our faith: God is Shomer Yisrael, Guardian of the people Israel. No matter how hated, however persecuted, we are never alone.

Needless to say, we here at Temple Beth-El will overcome our own tough times as well. Let us affirm our hope: We shall return to our entire Temple facility in splendor, filling its exquisite walls with ever-increasing levels of holiness. Let us state with determination: The family of Temple Beth-El will respond to our congregation’s need, and our Temple leadership will continue to steward our resources with integrity and responsibility. Let us declare our faith: No synagogue’s bottom line is measured in dollars, and certainly not ours. The strength of Temple Beth-El is in the loyalty of its members, the majesty of its history, and the blessing of our God.

The prophet Zechariah preached to the children of Israel in a day and age much more difficult than 5762. In the wake of the Babylonian dispersion, strife ripped the congregation, as they were attempting to return to Jerusalem and build the Second Temple. After eighty years of exile, our ancestors were ill-equipped to reestablish the glory of the worship of God. Without a living soul who had been an adult in the days when the First Temple had stood, they might not have known where to start. The temptation to give up must have been enormous. The allure of assimilation was attractive. The miracle is that they did not bow down to the Babylonian gods.

No, our ancestors could not give up their hope; they did not lose their determination; they would never abandon their faith. Zechariah called them asirei hatikvah, “the prisoners of hope.” Captured by the spirit of their faith, our forbears were compelled to construct the Second Temple, to build the future of Israel, to reignite the flame of Judaism.

Tonight, as 5762 ends, we, too, may be tempted to despair. Let us instead heed the clarion call of our tradition: As 5763 begins, we are hostages to hope: hope for our congregation, hope for the State of Israel, and hope for America.

After all, God is our Guard, here at this prison of hope.