It is easy to feel pessimistic, if not despair, about conditions in the world, as we prepare to celebrate Judaism’s welcome to the start of a New Year for our world.
Wherever you look, and whatever you consider, there is so much going on, or not going on, that can pull you down. We may think of the Pandemic as being behind us, yet, even so, we are told Covid is still a thing. New mutations require new vaccines, with hopes that comprehensive masking and isolation will remain a memory instead of an ongoing reality.
The climate is relentlessly changing for the worse, even as, at least in California, wildfires were fewer and less devastating. Yet, smoke poured into the middle of the U.S. as vast regions of Canada burned this summer. Rising temperatures, throughout our country and the world, remind us that denial of climate change bodes poorly for a future requiring active human intervention to minimize our footprint contributing to worsening conditions in nature. As the country and the world face increasing pollution from so many sources, including microscopic toxic particles spreading with the smoke covering vast areas, even distant from the fires, indications are that this growing condition will increase serious health problems for people far away from the active burns. Flooding from worsening storms generate increasing conditions of illness and ruin in areas struggling to recover.
Attacks on reason and truth, in how the world is governed, continue to threaten democratic institutions around the world, even extending to concerns for Israel’s future as a vibrant democracy: such irony, in that the Torah, and rabbinic teachings are grounded in assuring the rights and wellbeing of the most vulnerable people in our societies.
With the extended plague of authoritarianism taking hold in so many pockets of the world, with a significant portion of the population in our country seemingly going along with such assaults on human rights, including unabated racism, and a Supreme Court that has removed the right for a woman to choose control of her body (in violation of Jewish law as to when life begins!), one of the consequences affecting Jews directly is the extended and deepening expression of anti-Semitism, obligating us to beef up security throughout Jewish community infrastructures.
As we prepare to welcome the Rosh Hashanah celebration of the New Year for the world, the details of our observance address 3 areas of focus that in less blatantly dangerous times reflect a sense of spiritual focus for enhancing our lives. In these times, they reflect strategies and attitudes for tackling the dangerous conditions that we face: Three themes identify areas to address, not just in a ritual process of observance, but in more of a logistical and tactical approach to finding ways to move forward with greater hope and commitment for helping move us in a more positive direction, generating hopes for a truly better year than what we have been dealing with the past number of years.
The first theme is leadership and governance. Those who would lead by fear and manipulation are mired in what our tradition calls decision-making that is “lo l’shem Shamayim” not in alignment with what our Creator would have us do. The theme of Leadership, i.e. Rulership, is premised on “l’shem Shamayim”, living and decision-making that reveals alignment with our Creator and the mandate given us from the Source of our existence. That means, in reality, choosing leaders who are not self-centered, are not promoting lies and deception and are not ruling with the intent of benefiting themselves and the few privileged to be in their orbit. “Malchuyot” refers to the rulership of God, reflected in human leaders who are other-centered, not self-centered, who are we-centered, not I-centered. As the year 5784 emerges, it is one in which, with elections looming, we must be mindful and dedicated to choosing leaders that accept the Moses model of partnership with God, manifested as proposing values and governance that are not self-serving, nor proposing conditions that diminish values of truthfulness, integrity and compassion, especially for the most vulnerable in society.
The second theme of Remembering, Zichronot, accentuates the power and necessity of memory. It means facing the realities of bad decisions and resulting terrible conditions from which we must learn to move forward differently from the past. It means learning lessons from mistakes made in years past. Students of the catastrophe that destroyed the town of Lahaina, so many of us enjoyed visiting in Maui, realize that colonizing Maui with sugar and pineapple plantations, displacing native conditions, allowed grasses not originally in place to burn, without control, only to destroy this historic former Hawaiian capital, with hurricane conditions exacerbated by climate conditions that have worsened due to such human intervention. The Rosh Hashanah focus on remembering past mistakes is in contrast to the human inclination to neglect lessons of the past, symbolized by secular New Years on January 1 and its theme of “out with the old” i.e. forget the negatives with the past, and “in with the new”, starting over without regard to previous lessons to apply.
The third theme, heeding the sound of the Shofar, (which is why it’s especially important to plan on attending on the 2nd day of Rosh Hashanah, Sunday, since the Shofar is not sounded on Shabbat!) indicates shaking ourselves up with the reality that we cannot just hope things get better. We cannot allow ourselves to continue to be like frogs in a pot of water, slowly heating up, until too late to escape boiling, as the world literally continues to heat us all up. As alarming as it is, with scientists suggesting it may already be too late to turn things around for the planet, we must add to the equation the lesson of the first theme, that God is part of the equation, and that Yom Kippur still holds out the hope of Teshuvah, a change in direction that moves us back to a positive and dynamic relationship with God. That translates as people sharing commitment to partnership to join forces in addressing all the imbalances and dedicating ourselves in such partnership to work diligently on electing people who will give full focus and harness us all in endeavors to save the planet.
The focus must be on seeking out and aligning with people of all backgrounds that can understand these principles asserted on Rosh Hashanah: electing leaders committed to choosing blessing and life and are assertive in learning from mistakes of the past and helping one another wake up before the water is fully boiling, thereby leaving no positive future for our children, grandchildren and generations to come.
Emerging out of the Days of Awe is the ultimate festival of Thanksgiving and Gratitude that defines the Sukkot holiday: understanding that the one lasting harvest, the one that can still provide hope for a positive future, is reprioritizing what really matters for future life on this planet; the Sukkot harvest does not consist of all the stuff we gather and own, with each focused on their own needs, with little concern for others. Rather, it consists of the ultimate harvest which is the blessings of community and relationships composed of people who share these values of caring: kindness, compassion, sharing resources and doing all we can to create Shalom in this world, wholeness and wellness in which everyone matters, and everyone belongs.
With all the despair that can cause loss of all hope and confidence in a positive future, we enter and celebrate these holidays with gratitude and relief, that as long as we make the choices to move from bad to good, from negative to positive, God will be with us as we change direction and return to the valuing of life. With God’s help, even if the scientists themselves despair of hope for the future, we shall not lose hope, thanks to our partnership with the Creator, in dedication to change for the better.
I look forward to our community celebration of these holidays and the positivity they engender in moving forward with hope and confidence to restore blessing and wellbeing to this world.
Shana Tova Tikatevu!
May we all be written in the Book of Life as we dedicate ourselves to making that wish a reality!