Last Erev Shabbat I flew to Adelaide to share words of encouragement with the congregation I serve as fly-in-fly-out rabbi and to participate in a heart-warming ninetieth-birthday celebration kiddush.
Last Shabbat was also the eve of Rosh Chodesh. As I was about to intone the blessing for the new month of Cheshvan, my sentiments bore shocking resemblance to the ones I had articulated a month before. Let the old and its tribulations end! Let the new and its blessings begin!
Tribulations? Hadn’t I together with other Jews just experienced a wonderful Tishri season of Yamim Tovim? A majestic Rosh HaShana where the small but fervent Adass Sydney community elected me to lead them in tefila. A soulful, prayer-filled Yom Kippur in Adelaide where we climaxed with a fever-pitch sevenfold HaShem Hu HaElokim and a spontaneous, joyful burst of singing (le-shana ha-ba’a biYerushalyim) in both of which everybody joined. A beautiful Succot when my wife and I gratefully returned to the home we had exited fourteen weeks earlier due to restoration work – the house was still technically a “building site” (and would be for a further two weeks) but thanks to our son and his friend, the co-operation of our builders and of course HaKadosh Baruch Hu, our Succa became as liveable and as lovely as ever before. And then came Simchat Torah, and even as we continued our joyous hakafot as the mitsva demands, the increasingly horrific news continued to filter through ……
And now, sadly, tragically, when contemplating the month about to pass, I remembered only the horror.
The prayers for Israel, for the captives, for the soldiers, for the wounded, for the slain which had preceded the Shabbat Mevarchim prayer had given the shul an unwanted but inevitable Yizkor feel. The Israeli congregant who stepped up to say the prayer for Medinat Yisrael broke down emotionally as soon as he had begun. When later I asked him if he personally knew anyone who had been murdered, his immediate reply was “no, but they are all my brothers and sisters for whom I grieve!”
Mi k’amcha Yisrael! I attempted to elevate the mood as befits Shabbat by relating the uplifting account of how, less than 45 minutes after a message went out requesting volunteers in the centre and north of Israel to host 6,000+ families that were being evacuated from the south, someone rang up and was told “you’re too late, they’ve all been taken good care of already!”
Adversity brings out the best in Am Yisrael. It has ironically served to bring about the elusive national unity and harmony we have been so sorely and savagely lacking these past several months!
In my Shabbat Bereshit sermon I spoke about new beginnings, commencing by expressing a fervent prayer that we would be soon experiencing a Hamas-free new beginning in our homeland.
Our ninety-year old celebrant, a stalwart of the Adelaide Hebrew Congregation, weaved for himself several new beginnings: as a “ten-pound Pom” crossing the globe with wife and young boys; as a newcomer to active shul participation who taught himself how to lein Haftarah; as a budding Bar Mitsva teacher, shaliach tsibur, shul administrator and funeral-service leader. I took poetic license with the saying in Pirkei Avot “at ninety, a person becomes stooped over” because that doesn’t apply to this gentleman at all – he holds himself erect like a young man – but since the Mishna has no vowels the word la-shu’ach (stooped) can also be read la-su’ach (contemplative, meditative, prayerful like Isaac in the field – see Gen 24:63) which befits him a lot better!
But I was handed a sermonic gift in the form of the Psalm of which (according to Chasidic custom) our nonagenarian now takes ownership, commencing as he does the 91st year of his life. Psalm 91, Yoshev be-sesiter (attributed, like its predecessor, to Moses not David) is a psalm of reassurance and promise of protection. It climaxes in the declaration imo anochi be-tsara “I (G-D) am with him [even] in distress!” Befitting a nonagenarian couple who have experienced health challenges of late, the phrase also speaks to us all at this unique juncture in the odyssey of our nation.
R’ David ibn Zimri, the Radvaz (16th century) offers the breathtaking insight that the verses in the Torah (Deut 28:15-68) proclaiming the direst prognostications of doom are, at the same time, suffused with the greatest consolation and balm imaginable – the repeated, constant evocation of the four-letter Ineffable Name of G-D (Y-H-V-H) bespeaking infinite compassion.
Indeed G-D is with us in our suffering; and that is the reassurance to every believer in Him that the suffering will give way eventually to relief and ultimately to joy.
Job expresses it a little differently. “Though (or while) He wounds, His hands heal!” Or as the Talmud declares (Megila 13b) “even before He sends the affliction, He plans the cure!
We cannot see or know it now. If we knew Him we would be Him!
But we are very much aware of the mercurial pattern of Jewish history – the tragedies and. blessedly, the triumphs. Destruction and renaissance! Death and renewed life! The apparent demise of hope and the unexpected promise of another new beginning.
Therefore we may affirm the stirring words of Job and daven that our ascent as a nation from the abyss of our present suffering will be rapid, complete and wondrous to behold!