Local rabbis share messages for the Days of Awe.
Jewish Vulnerability, Jewish Power
We Jews prepare to enter this new year significantly vulnerable. A nuclear Iran. Growing antisemitism. BDS. The rise of Christian nationalism and the crumbling of the wall between church and state. Add to these vulnerabilities the threats against Jews that invariably come from political polarization, from false accusations of electoral fraud, and from the physical and verbal attacks on democratic institutions, as well as the inherent dangers of the mental health crisis and gun violence. Truly, Jews around the world are increasingly vulnerable in the coming year.
We know the antidotes to Jewish vulnerability. There is strength in faith and fellowship. There is sanctuary in synagogues. There is joy in Jewish living. There is safety in Jewish soldiers defending the Jewish State using Jewish brains and high-tech weapons, and there is hope in the potential of the Abraham Accords as well as Israeli success as the Start-Up Nation. Since our days in Egypt, we Jews are experienced in living with vulnerability.
While we are vulnerable, we Jews are incredibly powerful, too. In the U.S. we are
overrepresented in the highest echelons of society, successful in every aspect of life. In Israel, thanks to Iron Dome and the security fence, the Palestinians are no longer an existential threat, and in so many ways the Promised Land is thriving. In the coming year, Jews can celebrate the fact that we are stronger than we have been in thousands of years.
Yet the Hebrew Bible instructs us that our greatest vulnerability comes from the possession of power. We are cautioned against acting like the Egyptians who oppressed us out of excessive and wrongly placed fears. We are counseled against using our insecurities to justify indifference and heartlessness. We are warned, too, against growing overly arrogant in claiming our successes as our own, rather than acknowledging God’s role in our abundance. The punishment for the above sins is loss of our land and the multiplication of our vulnerabilities. If we become like Egypt, abusing our power and deifying human beings, we will once again return to Egypt.
Aware of our strengths and vulnerabilities, the High Holidays arrive to demand from us humility and to offer us hope; to ask of us faith and to offer us family and friendship, community and continuity. This year, in particular, we must remember to practice abundant kindness toward our fellow Jews, even if they sit across the political aisle or disagree with us religiously. We must exercise forgiveness toward those who have wronged us — especially if they are our family. And this year, in particular, while still protecting ourselves, we must practice unwarranted kindness even to those who oppose us.
Indeed, as my teacher Dr. Micah Goodman explains, a significant part of the Jewish mission is “neither to return to Egypt nor to become like Egypt.” In this New Year, may we be wise enough to stand with each other as Jews to lessen or even overcome our vulnerabilities. In this New Year, too, may we transcend our fears to realize our fullest potential as Jews and as the Jewish People.
Rabbi Aaron Starr is a spiritual leader at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield.
God is Holding Our Hand
The name of the final month of the Jewish year — Elul, the month of repentance — is commonly associated with a verse in Shir Hashirim, “Ani ledodi vedodi li” — “I am for my Beloved, and my Beloved is for me,” the first letters of which spell Elul.
While intuitively we might have regarded this period as a time of fear and dread, tradition teaches that quite to the contrary, this is a time of immense love between God and the Jewish People.
Developing this point further, the word for “beloved” in this verse is dod, which relates to the word yedid — “close friend.” Rabbi Nachum Eisenstein observed that this word is, essentially, twice the word yad — “hand.” He explained that deep friendship is two hands clasped together, two people giving each other support and encouragement. When two people have a relationship of yedidus — friendship — they hold each other’s hands. They hold hands and dance during times of joyous celebration, and they hold hands to offer support during times of grief and bereavement.
G-d is called our yedid, our friend, because He holds our hands, as it were. No matter what we’re going through, he’s holding our hands. Whether we are celebrating, crying, succeeding or failing, whether we’re alone or with other people, He is holding our hands.
Rabbi Eisenstein explained on this basis why the word yedid features so prominently in the hymns traditionally sung at the Shabbos table — because Shabbos is a time of special bonding and closeness between us and G-d.
Over the course of the upcoming holiday period, during Sukkos, we will read the Book of Koheles, in which King Shlomo enumerates all the various kinds of life experiences: “There is a time to give birth, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time uproot the planted…” These verses contain 14 couplets, summarizing the “ups and downs” of life. Rav Nachman of Breslav noted that the number 14 is the gematria (numerical value) of the word yad, such that the 28 phrases in these 14 couplets represent two hands — God’s hand, as it were, holding ours. In every stage of life, through the ups and the downs, God is with us.
Perhaps we can apply this insight to what is likely the most chilling and somber section of the High Holiday prayer service — Unesaneh Tokef, which describes the awesome judgment that takes place on these days. “On Rosh Hashanah it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed; how many will pass, and how many will be created; who will live, and who will die…”
This section consists of 14 couplets (“On Rosh Hashanah … and on Yom Kippur; how many will pass, and how many will be created, etc.). Even during the awesome judgment of Rosh Hashanah, God is lovingly holding our hands, and does not let go. He is not an impartial judge. He is our yedid, who is holding our hands and supporting us throughout this process.
“Ani ledodi vedodi li.” As we struggle to correct our flaws, to improve our conduct, to be better people and better Jews, God holds our hands and supports us at every step of the way. The prospect of being judged can be frightening, but we are assured that God, our beloved “friend,” is with us, holding our hands and helping us along the road of teshuva (repentance) as we seek to become worthy of a happy, healthy, blessed year for ourselves, our families and the entire Jewish Nation.
Rabbi Dov Loketch is rabbi of Congregation Agudas Yisrael Mogen Avraham in Southfield.
A Sweet New Year
We prepare to welcome 5783, in Jewish tradition, yom harat olam — the birthday of the world — with hope mixed with sadness. Actually, we know that the world is far older than 5783 years, but there are many, myself included, who consider Rosh Hashanah the anniversary of the creation of humanity.
This year brings with it profound challenges to the assumptions we have made about the safety and security of our world. Climate change, violence and extreme political unrest are just a few of the factors that make this a year of uneasiness.
For me, personally, the time of Rosh Hashanah also brings back memories of tragedy and resolve, for it was at precisely this time in 1975, on the eve of selichot, that my baby brother Michael died by suicide at the age of 21. Since that night, for almost 50 years now, it has been part of my life’s mission to save young people and adults from suicide.
How remarkable it is that this September is Suicide Prevention Month in America. Thus, Rosh Hashanah is joined with efforts to ease the pain and despair of those who live without hope.
I am grateful that in our Detroit community, as never before in my memory, programs are now in place to reach out to parents and children who need us badly. I am especially proud of the work undertaken by Jewish Family Service in suicide prevention. JFS has given me the opportunity to join with others in saving young lives, and the suicide prevention trainings of JFS will resume post-COVID later this fall.
I am grateful to Jackie Headapohl, editorial director of the Jewish News, for the paper’s unswerving support of these lifesaving efforts, and wish her and her family good health and much love in the years to come.
I know that this piece is a bit unusual for the Jewish News, but we live in unusual times. This Rosh Hashanah gives us the opportunity to join with our loved ones in common resolve to make 5783 a true birthday of hope and family, of kindness and joy and life.
As we light the holiday candles, illuminating the darkness, and as we dip apples into honey, wishing one another a sweet new year, may we do so with the confidence that we can indeed make our world better as a result of our actions and aspirations.
Rabbi Daniel B. Syme is rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township.