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Monday, October 21, 2019

We often cluster Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur into one large experience: the days of solemnity and gravitas. Though the two days share much in common, they also exhibit significant differences. Chief among them is the character of our encounter with God. On Yom Kippur we plead with a compassionate and forgiving God for the mercy we don’t deserve and for the rehabilitation of a relationship that we have compromised. On Rosh Hashanah, in addition to praying to a forbearing God, we primarily highlight God as Creator and King. On the anniversary of the world’s creation we yearn for a future world in which His authority is unquestioned and unchallenged. On this day of longing for a world of Divine authority it is important to review the past year and gauge the “God Index.” Over the past year has God become more apparent and more visible in our world or less visible? Which events and trends advanced His presence and which, sadly, are still obscuring Him? During the passionate tefillah of “U’netaneh tokef” we agonize: “mi yishafel u’mi yarum,” who will rise and who will fall. If we care about God we should also consider which events cause His presence to rise and which cause that presence to decrease.

1. Israel

As Israel is ground zero for the Divine presence, events in this land deeply impact the “state of God” in our world. The continuing emergence, baruch Hashem, of the State of Israel on the world stage magnifies the presence of God and is a kiddush Hashem. We have developed into a world leader economically, technologically and militarily. Sharing our medical technology, agricultural advances, security measures and, in the near future, our energy, contributes to our national mission of improving humanity, both spiritually and otherwise. Our ability to sustain a robust democracy—even under significant security conditions—is itself a kiddush Hashem. The two stalled Israeli elections over the past year shouldn’t be taken as a sign of a weak democracy. On a day-to-day basis freedom is upheld and national unity is tangible. Elections always polarize our dormant differences, but daily life in Israel remains harmonious and united by common causes that supersede our differences.

The recent softening of Israel’s diplomatic isolation perhaps foreshadows a growing acceptance of the state of the Jews in certain international arenas. So much of the Rosh Hashanah imagery about the end of days surrounds the international acclaim afforded the Jews and their God. Even partial international acceptance of the Jewish state—and even if this acceptance is based primarily upon pragmatic reasons—is a welcome augmentation of the presence of Hashem in our world. Unfortunately, we still remain isolated in many circles, and various movements defaming our nation seek to intensify that isolation.

Israel still faces continuous threats from Iran and her proxies of terror, but we trust God to defend His people and His land as well as protecting peace-loving citizens across the world from the continuing horror of terror. There are many cultures and streams of religion that choose only the Book of Death, but we continue to author chapters in the Book of Life.

2. Anti-Semitism

Unfortunately, the past year has witnessed a dramatic global upsurge in anti-Semitism punctuated in the USA by the tragedies in Pittsburgh and San Diego. In part, this surge reflects a general spread of hate-related crimes and hateful bigotry toward minorities. The world has become increasingly hostile toward the “other,” and discrimination and exploitation of the “other” is incongruous with the ethical society the Torah envisions. The world still teeters dangerously between the clashing ideals of national identity and inclusion of the other, remaining unable to strike a healthy moral and political balance between these two important values. Periodically, this instability flashes into violence inflicted upon defenseless victims. We daven that this violence—both verbal and physical—should abate.

However, anti-Semitism constitutes its own independent narrative and shouldn’t be collapsed into a more general narrative of racism and bigotry. The story of anti-Semitism is ancient and perennial and, as our Chazal remind us, is woven into the fabric of human history. We are chosen by God to challenge the world to higher ground—morally and theologically. We are despised precisely because we represent the world’s conscience. Any attack upon a Jew is an attack upon God and, as these attacks have increased, the Divine presence in this world is less visible.

It may be uncomfortable for some to interpret anti-Semitism historically, since it implies that humanity hasn’t fully advanced beyond primitive modes of cruelty and perhaps the world isn’t as enlightened as our impressive progress suggests. Furthermore, this view implies that, though anti-Semitism can be curbed and maintained, it cannot fully be resolved until history itself is resolved.

3. Idealization of Power

The 19th-century philosopher Nietzsche spoke of the “will to power” as stronger than the “will to life.” His philosophy idealized “power” as an inherent human drive and an important social currency. Over the past 40 years, societal trends have vested extraordinary power within exceptionally affluent individuals as well as within outsized or cultural celebrities. Both the extremely wealthy and the culturally iconic wield disproportionate power within popular culture. Sadly and tragically, horrific crimes of exploitation and abuse have showcased the dangers of unbridled social “power.” Beyond these terrible cases, within society in general, the idealization of power has wormed its way into our consciousness. Phrases such as a “power nap” or a “power lunch” as well as the debate surrounding power within relationships all reflect the unhealthy contemporary lust for power.

As Jews, we live commanded lives summoned to duty by a Divine call. We don’t obsesses over power but rather embrace our identity as an “oved Hashem” called to service and mission. Rabbi Avraham Sofer, a 19th-century Hungarian rabbi (known as the Ketav Sofer and son of the Chatam Sofer), once encouraged his community to pray the sentence of “Ana” with great fervor to ensure a financially successful year. That year during the holidays the community complied and prayed the sentence “Ana Hashem hoshia na” (Please, God, assist us) with great dedication; unfortunately, they absorbed an additional year of financial struggle. Facing the community’s complaints, the rabbi clarified that he had intended the phrase “Ana avda d’kudsha brich hu” (we are servants of God). Mistakenly, the people assumed he referred to “Ana Hashem hoshia na,” a phrase asking God for support rather than one accepting His authority. A Jew exists to serve God, not the inverse, and our culture’s obsession with power ignores the built-in hierarchy between man and God.

4. A World of Untruth

The internet has dramatically democratized the flow of information. We are no longer dependent upon conventional media syndicates such as newspapers and television stations. However, the proliferation of information has produced “information overload” and has blurred the differences between accurate information and fake news. As my rebbe Rav Lichtenstein zt”l wrote, “falsehood has many tentacles,” and once it penetrates one aspect of our lives it can spread to many others. We are quickly forgetting the differences between truth and fiction. Eric Hoffer, an American educator, once remarked, “We lie loudest when we lie to ourselves”; the external confusion surrounding us affects our internal honesty both in our relationships as well as in our self-assessment and introspection. During these Great Days we refer to Hashem as the God of truth or “Elokim Emet” and we acknowledge that only a person of “honest heart” (bar leivav) can ascend the Divine mountain. As our world shifts away from truth and toward falsehood and fabrication it turns further away from God.

These are just four events and trends that impact our agenda of drawing God into our world. This is a yearlong agenda that crests on Rosh Hashanah when we recall the bookends of history: the day the world was created and God’s authority was unquestioned, and the Messianic era during which His presence will be unmistakable. Still locked in history, we both await that moment and strive to advance its arrival.

Ketiva vachatima tova.


Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rebbe at Yeshivat Har Etzion, located in Gush Etzion, where he resides.