By Rabbi Boaz D. Heilman
It was this and that much worse when, years later, Abraham once again heard God’s call. This time it had to do with his son, Isaac, and what God was demanding was that Abraham offer Isaac as sacrifice on some far-off mountain. Once again, Abraham obeys, though we can only imagine his grief as the two set out together.
Throughout history, it’s always been hard to be a Jew. Not only because of the number of mitzvot we had to obey (ten would have been dayenu!! Enough! But 613???) But more than that, we saw ourselves as keepers of a special charge, a challenge that became a sacred mission: To pursue knowledge and justice, to seek freedom and equality wherever we saw falsehood, prejudice and discrimination. This was God’s law, and at Sinai we accepted it as our law.
The Law defined us as Israel, chosen to be in a unique relationship and bound by a Covenant—a Covenant with our God, with our Land and with our People. And throughout our history we have been trying to live up to its demands.
In ancient Israel, no one was above the Law. The Prophets of Israel were quick to judge and rebuke anyone—including the king himself—who transgressed against another, who stole from the poor, or otherwise abused his power. In our many countries of exile and Diaspora, we held on to the tenets of the Covenant even when our life was at stake.
Our efforts often met with success. Wherever we were offered hospitality, we and the community around us thrived. No medieval court was ever without a Jewish doctor, accountant or scribe. Our business acumen and connections ensured that we would always have an important role to play in international commerce and trade. Our culture inspired and fostered literature, art and music in places where these did not exist prior to our arrival.
But success often also bred jealousy and hatred. Expelled from one country after another, we were confined to crowded ghettos, our means and livelihood severely restricted. We were heavily taxed, humiliated and often unjustly imprisoned or murdered. Still, we clung to the Covenant.
Through the darkest ages, our faith was our chief source of hope. Our sacred texts provided a safe haven, a home to return to, for the glorious visions they provided of a better and more just world. Our prayers reached deeper into our souls, and soared higher into the heavens. We created even more music, art and literature. We even played a vital role in the Enlightenment that helped bring freedom to all Europe. And throughout it all we never forgot who we were.
Recent times, however, brought with them new developments and greater challenges, in whose wake our faith and commitment to the Covenant found themselves profoundly shaken. First, of course, is the Holocaust. The second, ironically, is the freedom we found in the New World, in America.
The Holocaust saw one-half of our people killed. Two-thirds of the Jews of Europe, a million and a half children—a whole generation—were annihilated. Entire cultures and communities that had existed for hundreds and thousands of years disappeared. The vast scope of the destruction caused an unparalleled crisis of faith. The survivors who emerged from the catastrophe—and I count all of us among them—have been forever changed. Our faith can never again be as firm and unwavering as it was in prior days and ages.
America has brought its own challenge to Jewish continuity. Ironically, here, where Jews are finally able to be free, to mingle without constraints and become integral members of society, the danger we face today is byproduct of our own freedom.
Now our very sense of peoplehood is at risk. Today we don’t need Brotherhoods or Sisterhoods to provide us with opportunities for friendship and camaraderie. Accepted just about anywhere, we don’t need Jewish country clubs or summer resorts such as the Catskills. Ironically, we don’t need other Jews to be Jewish.
Rather than the whole picture, for many of us, our Judaism expresses itself in more specific aspects: Some of us may be more observant in our rituals; but equally valid are those among us who see themselves as secular Jews; or Jews who describe themselves as cultural Jews; Jews by food and tradition; Jews for Israel; or Jews invested in social action and tikkun ‘olam.
In America, for all our freedoms, the danger that we face today is losing sight of the forest for the trees. The bigger picture, the Covenant among ourselves, between us and our God, and between us and our Land, is receding in the blur of modern life and its demands.
And maybe that’s the real purpose of Rosh Ha-Shana, and why it takes place annually, without fail. The Torah does not refer to this day as the beginning of the year. That designation came much later, in the age of the Talmudic Rabbis. In the Torah, it’s called Yom Zikaron—a Day of Remembrance. In the storms and hardship of life, forgetfulness comes too easily. Between one thing and another, it’s too easy to get lost. Rosh Ha-Shana serves to remind us, to call us back, to redirect us onto the right path.
Because here we are, sitting together: rich and poor alike; religious Jews and secular Jews; of Orthodox background, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, or of no Jewish background at all; educated Jews, unschooled Jews; Jews by birth, Jews by choice. Life gets complicated. It pulls us apart, taking each of us on a journey we must make alone. Rosh Ha-Shana brings us home again, not only to reminisce, but also to give us a chance to re-orient ourselves, to see ourselves on a larger canvas. On this day—ba-yom ha-zeh—we gather, just as have our people year after year, to recall, to remember, and to reaffirm the terms of the Covenant we chose to accept at Sinai, three thousand six hundred years ago.
On Rosh Ha-Shana, against the infinite backdrop of the Creation of the world, we examine the meaning and direction of our lives. Measuring our faith against the perfect model set by our first Patriarch, Abraham, each of us considers the role we play in in our people’s sacred mission. And we recall that to be Israel is not only to be rooted in the historic land that bears our name, but also to be God’s partner in the ongoing act of Creation, to be a Holy People, a people dedicated to the ideals of knowledge, freedom, justice and equality.
Being Jewish isn’t simple or easy. Pirkei Avot—the Talmudic Tractate of the Fathers—sternly reminds us that it isn’t a task we may desist from. However, taking a somewhat gentler stance, the verse continues: But neither are we obligated to complete it. When each one of us, in our own way, shape, or manner, does whatever we are capable of, when we contribute whatever we can to the greater whole, then all are the better for it.
And that is what it means to be Israel. We are a people united by an ancient Covenant of love, remembrance and responsibility—towards ourselves and one another; towards our God; towards our country and our homeland, for all eternity.
May this Day of Remembrance bring with it sweet memories of past celebrations. May our prayers and meditations today nourish our souls and strengthen our resolve. May this Rosh Ha-Shana show us the path to even greater involvement with our people and tradition. And may we all be inscribed for a good New Year, a year of health, love, joy and peace.
L’shanah tova tikatevu, Amen.