An Edah Editorial
By Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz
Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz is the spiritual leader of Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem
in Montreal, Quebec, and is a member of Edah's editorial board.
What I'm Praying for This Rosh Hashanah
May the year, and its curses, come to an end. This terse Talmudic
statement 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.
It seems one of the curses of the past year is homelessness.
In addition to Hurricane Katrinas 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 years 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. Exile is a large part of Jewish history.
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
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.
Indeed, 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
this: the New Year is not merely a fresh beginning, a time to forget the past
years 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,
R. Yehudah Leib Alter of Gur 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.
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.
These emotional scenes, mixed together with nasty political
debates are potentially disastrous. Indeed, Israel has a homeless crisis of
its own, for the aftermath of the Gaza evacuations has left 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?
One of the great lessons of exile is the importance of Jewish
unity. In exile, Jews recognized that we were best off when we pulled together
despite differences. Countries, or people, without a sense of unity are bound
to fall apart.
This Rosh Hashanah, Im praying that we will be able to move
past last years curses and crises. In particular, I am praying that we, the
Jewish people, will remember the importance of unity. And with Gods help, all
of us, orange and blue, left and right, religious and secular, will find a way
to renew our bonds.