Second Day of Rosh Hashana

Last summer one of our members – together with members of his family in Israel and elsewhere – decided to study Mishna in memory of the three boys who were brutally kidnapped and murdered.  They learned the books of (masechtos) Shevi’is and Eruchin.  Then the war started, and they wanted to do something in memory of the soldiers who had fallen, so again they undertook to study Mishna, this time in memory of Oron Shaul – a soldier whose remains continue to be in the hands of Hamas – and in memory of Barkai Shore.  They study each Mishna twice, once in memory of each young man.  It developed into a family project, with his father, brothers and nephews, and they do it on a conference call every day for ten minutes, never more.  All told, they have studied the books of (masechtos) Shevi’is, Eruchin, Rosh Hashanah, Yoma, Succah, Beitzah, Taanis, Megillah, Kiddushin, and now Zevachim.  This summer, he spent a few days in Israel with his son, and he went – on a smoldering day – to visit the grave of Barkai Shore at the military cemetery at Har Herzl.

I can stop here.  I find this so inspiring – a sustained commitment to give back to someone who had given the Jewish People everything; not just while the headlines are fresh, but for more than a year afterwards.  And then to go and to visit him, to introduce themselves to him, so to speak.

But when they came there on that smoldering day, while they stood there praying alone, another person appeared.  A woman who came with familiarity and purpose, to another grave in the same section, the grave of the now famous “lone soldier,” Max Steinberg.  She came, she whispered, “Max, sorry I am late,” and proceeded to tidy things up around the grave, which was a bit of a shrine.

He approached the woman and asked her if, “Max was hers.”  She smiled and said yes.  She had never met Max, but when he died in battle she joined the thirty thousand at the funeral, and then she approached his mother, said she was also originally from California, and she should not worry.  She would take care of him here.  So every Rosh Chodesh she comes to tidy up and tend to his grave.  It was the second of Elul; she had not been able to come the previous day.  Hence:  “Max, sorry I am late.”

Max’s family had never even been to Israel.  They came for the first time for their son’s funeral.  They thought they would bring him back to L.A.  They thought that when they had let him join the army, they were indulging their child’s meshugas, with terrible consequences.  But then they saw what he meant to the Jewish People, what he had become a part of.  They saw thirty thousand people come to wish this lone soldier farewell.  They saw he was still alive, because he was part of a people that preceded him and survived him and therefore perpetuated him.  And they kept him there, and they said they did not regret it, that he had lived his life for something they had not known but were now so connected to.  He had given up his life, but he had gained eternity.

I remember sitting with Natan Scharansky last summer, a few weeks after Max’s death, and him telling me – with his eyes glistening – that Max’s sister had just been in touch with the Jewish Agency, saying she wanted to come to Israel to study.

Max died a kid, twenty years old.  But his parents realized that they had not lost their child.  Oh, if he had died in an accident in California they would have mourned very differently.  A small life made even smaller.  But they had watched him become part of something huge, something that they themselves did not really realize existed.  They realized he had become part of an eternal people, bound strongly together.

Around twenty years ago, we organized a shul trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington on a fast day, I believe it was the 17th of Tammuz.  Whenever I go to Washington I admire the magnificent buildings, and this trip the building that caught my eye was the huge and impressive National Archives Building on Independence Avenue.  Inscribed atop the building are these words:

“This building holds in trust the records of our national life and symbolizes our faith in the permanence of our national institutions.“

“Permanence of our national institutions.”  It was a strange phrase to read on one of those days in our calendar when we mourn the destruction of our greatest national institution, the Bais Hamikdash.  And the Temple was even more impressive a structure than the National Archives building.  What I felt then, and remind myself of every time I see the building, is that a Jew would never, ever write something like that.  A Jew with Jewish historical memory, who knows how many times our national institutions were destroyed, who has seen empires come and go, he knows that destruction is the punctuation mark of history; that empires rise and fall, and national institutions crumble.  We almost expect destruction.

The past few months have been an experience for the Jews of our country.  We have watched, we have read, we have acted, and we have prayed to try to stop the empowerment of this generation’s most vociferous enemy of our people, who proudly and consistently pledges its commitment to our destruction, ר”ל, and does all it can to fulfill that commitment.  We are fearful of where the world’s naiveté will leave us.  And we have reason to be fearful.

Rosh Hashanah is not a time to talk politics.  I never have and I hope I never will.  Rosh Hashanah is a time to consider who we are and where we are headed.  G-d does that, in a process called judgment, and we do that, in a process called Teshuva.

But there is the judgment of the individual – ובריות בו יפקדו להזכירם לחיים ולמות – and there is the judgment of the nation – ועל המדינות בו ייאמר.  And even more than that, much of our Rosh Hashanah revolves around our being part of our people.  Our sages teach us that the Jewish People approach this Day of Judgment with a unique confidence, שבטוחים שיעשה להם נס, we are confident in G-d performing a miracle for us in judgment.  But why?  On what is our confidence based?  We cannot be confident as individuals, as individuals do not always make it through the Day of Judgment unscathed.  Alas, many who were with us last Rosh Hashanah are not with us today.  No, our confidence in the miraculous outcome is for us as a People.  The Jewish People are eternal.  נצח ישראל לא ישקר.  Am Yisrael Chai.

This is what I want to speak to you about today.  A different Shehecheyanu blessing: the Shehecheyanu of the Eternal Jewish People.  We stand here grateful that we are part of this people that remains alive, committed and strong, despite the many and repeated tragic challenges to our existence.

And this too is something derived and expressed in the Shofar we will sound in a few moments.  The Akeidah – the Binding of Isaac – is all set up.  Avraham is ready to sacrifice his son, his only son, Yitzchak.  But G-d stops him.  He stops him because that cannot happen.  The Jewish future will never stop.  Avraham’s future cannot be slaughtered.  Buildings – national institutions – may crumble, but the Jewish people remain.  As sure as anything.

At Sinai there were two sounds – the voice of G-d, described as strong and steady, קול גדול ולא יסף.  And the sound of the Shofar, a sound that grew in strength as it continued, הולך וחזק (see Ramban to Devarim, 5:18).  G-d’s voice is the voice of eternal truths and unchanging values, a tone that never changes, that remains strong and steady.  The sound of the Shofar, on the other hand, represents the survival of Yitzchak, the continuity of the Jewish People, the eternity of the Jewish People.  That is a sound that grows and grows, as each generation builds and adds to the remarkable edifice of our nation.

This does not mean that we only grow.  We certainly have our setbacks, times when we do not grow but shrink and almost disappear.  But then we awaken, we are revived and resurrected.  Our Sages teach us that G-d keeps the ashes of Yitzchak before him.  Ashes?  Yitzchak was never actually burnt?!  Evidently our Sages saw Yitzchak’s survival not as an escape intact.  Yes, sometimes we survive because we avoid the threat, or because it passes us by.  But other times we do not survive.  We are turned to ashes.  But then those ashes come together again and we come back to life.  The Shofar, the ram that represented Yitzchak’s survival, actually represented his rebirth from the ashes.

Rebirth from the ashes is not a hollow term for us.  In our time, when one third of our people were reduced to ashes, those ashes were brought back together to rebuild the Jewish people, bigger and better.

The Ponevhezer Rav was one of the great heroes of Jewish life in the latter half of the twentieth century.  The Rav lost his wife, several children, and his community in the Holocaust and dedicated his life to rebuilding some of what was lost.  He would cite the story in the Talmud, of the martyrdom of Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon, who was killed by the Romans – burned alive while wrapped in a Torah scroll – for publicly teaching Torah.  As he was dying, Rabbi Chanina told his students that he saw the letters of the scroll taking flight as the scroll was being reduced to ashes.  The Rav explained that it is this image that will always remain for our People.  The letters will fly away as the parchment burns.  So many times we have run with the land burning beneath our feet.  But the letters survive and will land somewhere else, and it is our task to spread out a new parchment to catch them.  That is the nature of the eternity of our people.

And if we want to taste eternity we too need to be part of something beyond ourselves.  We need to see ourselves as part of that eternal people, as part of a sounding of the Shofar that keeps on going and that continues to get stronger.

ברוך שהחיינו וקימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה

We say that as individuals.  But today I ask you to say it as a Jew with a long and a broad view.  Thank you G-d for granting this nation eternity; for ensuring that despite all those who rise against us, we are still here.

Rabbi Yaakov Emden – who died in 1776, long before the upheavals of recent Jewish history – in the introduction to his Siddur Bais Yaakov wrote as follows:

מי שיעיין ביחוד עניננו ומעמדנו בעולם, אנחנו האומה הגולה שה פזורה. אחר כל מה שעבר עלינו מהצרות והתמורות אלפים מהשנים, ואין אומה בעולם נרדפת כמונו . מה רבים היו צרינו, מה עצמו! נשאו ראש הקמים עלינו מנעורינו, להשמידנו לעוקרינו לשרשנו, מפני השנאה שסיבתה הקנאה, רבת צררונו . גם לא יכלו לנו, לאבדנו ולכלותינו . כל האומות הקדומות העצומות, אבד זכרם . ואנו הדבקים בה’ כולנו חיים היום . לא נפקד ממנו בכל תוקף אריכות גלותנו אפילו אות וניקוד אחד מתורה שבכתב, וכל דברי חכמים [תורה שבעל פה] קיימים . מה יענה הפילוסוף? היד המקרה עשתה כל אלה? חי נפשי [נשבע ר”י עמדין] כי בהתבונני בנפלאות אלה, גדלו אצלי יותר מכל הנסים ונפלאות שעשה השי”ת לאבותינו במצרים ובמדבר ובארץ ישראל . וכל מה שארך הגלות יותר, נתאמת הנס יותר ונודע מעשה תקפו וגבורתו .

“One who considers the uniqueness of our situation and position in the world, we the exiled nation, the lost sheep, after all the difficulties and the transformations that we experienced over the millennia, there is no nation in the world as persecuted as us.  How many and how strong were our enemies!  Those who have stood up against us from the beginning, to destroy us and uproot us, because of a hatred borne of jealousy; how they have tortured us!  But they have been unable to prevail, to destroy us and finish us off.  All those great nations of the past are gone without leaving a trace, but we who are attached to G-d, we are all alive today.  With all the force of the prolonged exile we have not lost even a letter or a vowel of the written Torah, and the words of the Sages – the Oral Torah – remain intact.  What will the philosopher say to explain this?  Is this simply chance?  By my life I declare that when I consider these wonders, they are more impactful to me than all the miracles and wonders that G-d performed on behalf of our forefathers in Egypt, in the desert, and in Israel.  And the longer the exile continues, this miracle is further demonstrated, and G-d’s strength and might are even more manifest.”

We need to see ourselves as part of that.  An eternal people. נצח ישראל.  Could anyone have possibly guessed?  Could anyone have anticipated that the six million victims of the Holocaust would become the six million residents of Eretz Yisrael?  That today, decades after the destruction of the major Torah centers, the Torah would be studied, analyzed and published at unprecedented levels?  The sound of the Shofar keeps growing.

So please, do not stand here by yourself.  And don’t just pray for yourself.  Feel a part of your people.  As the Shofar sounds, hear in it the sound of the continuity of the Jewish People.  Feel a part of it.  Be a part of it.

ברוך שחיינו וקימנו והגיענו לזמן הזה

And ask Hashem to sound that great, growing Shofar for our final redemption.