Rosh Hashana is a time we declare God King of the Universe. Yet it is not His dominion of the universe that matters nearly as much as His kingdom on earth. It is here on earth, where we proclaim God as king. Hassidic masters teach: “there is no king, without constituents.” Yes, God is King of the Universe, but having one nation dedicated to Him and His Torah brings heaven and earth together. “And He was King in Jeshurun, when the people’s representatives got together” (Deuteronomy 32). The Jewish people’s story is implausible without one another or with every one of us. Once we do come together, God’s glory shines brightest.
And yet, this Rosh Hashana, rabbis would be remiss if we spoke only of the importance of Jewish unity, the splendor of Shabbat, and the imperative we stand united loving each other with kindness and grace at all times.
The past two or three years will go down in history as a turning point for American Jews. In Steven’s Spielberg’s film, An American Tail, the song famously states, “there are no cats in America,” referring to anti-Semites. These years will be remembered as the first years in American history; Jews started feeling things are getting worse—not better—for them here in the United States.
Sure, there have been tough times. A little know fact is that the American German Bund—a pro-Nazi organization that counted millions of Americans among its members— used to be located at 178 E 85th Street, between Lexington and Third Ave. Right there in the heart of the Upper East Side of Manhattan, close to too many synagogues, Y’s, and Jewish institutions. Imagine going to synagogue in the late 1930s, in that area; it probably was not the most settling experience. Sure, there were bad times in the history of American Jewry. And yet, things seemed to always head in the direction of improvement.
Over the past two or three years, with Pittsburgh’s horrors, Poway, almost daily violent attacks on Jews in Brooklyn, California, and elsewhere, American Jews are starting to wonder. Perhaps we were wrong. What if our life in America does follow the pattern of Jewish history. The script is all too familiar; feeling comfortable in a country, things deteriorate, and once again, we find ourselves unsafe in the country we trusted and loved.
Bari Weiss, who grew up in the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, down the block from my grandfather’s synagogue in Squill Hill and author of “How to Fight Anti-Semitism”, writes:
“History always presented Jews with a dilemma: Does safety come from contorting ourselves to look more like everyone else? Or does it come from drilling down into the wellspring of what made us special, to begin with?”
Weiss goes on to describe the person who lived out the different ways of thinking through this dilemma: Theodore Hertzel.
“In 1893, just three years before he proposed the idea of the Jewish state in “Der Judenstaat,” his groundbreaking pamphlet laying out the precepts of Zionism, he argued that the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian empire should instead become Christians. Herzl imagined “a procession in broad daylight to St. Stephen’s Cathedral,”…Only such an unequivocal act would finally render them acceptable to their neighbors”.
This dichotomy was all too familiar to me. My great-great-grandfather Gustav Diestel made the ultimate sacrifice; he died from his wounds after fighting in WWI as a German soldier. Like so many other Jews, he thought his safety depended on being devoutly German. His reward? His son, my great grandfather Hans Diestel, fled the country in 1929 after hearing several speeches by a charismatically hateful young politician named Adolf Hitler, someone who had later gone to every extreme to let Germany’s Jews know their devotion was not appreciated.
Antisemitism was not cured by many German Jews relinquishing their Judaism in favor of being German. So what can we do to confront the woes of antisemitism? Is it simply by ignoring it as some do? Is it by making our combat of antisemitism our first priority and primary occupation? Should we be spending our days and nights strategizing our efforts to confront this corrosive hate?
“Jews did not sustain their magnificent civilization because they were anti-anti-Semites. Our tradition was always renewed by people who made the choice in the face of tragedy that theirs would not be the end of the Jewish story, but the catalyst for writing a new chapter. The long arc of Jewish history makes it clear that the only way to fight is by waging an affirmative battle for who we are. By entering the fray for our values, for our ideas, for our ancestors, for our families, and for the generations that will come after us.”
Facing the greatest challenges, Jews focus on building and inspiring. That is our most powerful tool. As Jews, our mission has always been to take challenging situations and make them meaningful. After Jacob survives the attack from Esau’s angel, one would think he would immediately try to steer out of harm’s way. Jacob does not do that. Jacob stops the angel and says I will not let you go until you bless me. Jacob made sure he did not only survive that attack but turn that attack into a blessing. That has been our story. It is not enough for us to survive. Flourishing should be our mindset today. We should not be thinking about surviving this challenge or that difficulty; we should be thinking about how to emerge victorious while turning the challenge into a blessing.
The dichotomy of survival vs. a positive agenda is best embodied in the Shofar. On the one hand, the Shofar is a wake-up call, an alarm. The sense of urgency and immediacy remind us to wake up:
“Even though the instruction to blow Shofar on Rosh HaShana is a Divine commandment with no obvious rationale offered by Scripture, there is nonetheless a clear underlying message inherent within the sounds of the Shofar – awaken O sleeping ones from your sleep, and those who slumber from your dozing.” (Rambam, the laws of Teshuva 3:4):
Clearly, the Shofar is meant to sound the alarm on our spiritual life. Yet there is another side to the Shofar; the Shofar also resembles some very nostalgic moments. It reminds us of the Shofar we heard at Mt. Sinai, the Shofar of the gathering of the exiles, Coronation of a King, the merits of Abraham who brought the ram on Mount Moriah, and other life monumental events. The Shofar even echoes voices from the future. As indicated in the Shofarot section of the Mussaf, the Shofar also reminds us of the Shofar of the Messiah, the gathering of the exiles, and the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem.
While the Shofar’s alarmist perspective is understandable, why do we need to remind ourselves on Rosh Hashana of all these events of the past, or for that matter, the events of the future?
The American writer Bruce Feiler recently published a best-selling book entitled The Secrets of Happy Families. It’s an engaging work that uses research drawn mainly from fields like team building, problem-solving, and conflict resolution, showing how management techniques can be used at home also to help make families cohesive units that make space for personal growth. One of the most potent points he makes in his book is that: “The single most important thing you can do for your family may be the simplest of all: develop a strong family narrative.” He quotes a study from Emory University that the more children know about their family’s story, “the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, the more successfully they believe their family functions.”
That is what we do on Rosh Hashanah. We remind ourselves of our family story. Not because now is the time for nostalgia, but because now is the time to think of what is ahead of us. The Shofar is a wake-up call, but there is no waking up without remembering who we are.
As we face waves of antisemitism, the devastating impact of the coronavirus, and other challenges from within, let us remember that the Shofar is not just a wake-up call. As Bari Weiss pointed out so poignantly, we cannot survive by focusing on who we are not; we must remember who we are. Even as we face the vast challenges of antisemitism, a global pandemic, and so much more, let us remember that we best fight those by knowing who we are, not who we are not. Let us face those inspired by the Shofar echoing our rich history, and promising future. Let us be proud of who we are and make sure we know what our family story is and thrive for a much better future. May we be blessed with a healthy, happy, and sweet new year. Shana Tova.