On Rosh Hashanah, there is a saying that appears in one of the liturgical poems, a piyyut, recited in some traditions that states, “Tichleh shanah v’kilioteha v’tachel shanah uvirchoteha,” May the old year end with its curses and may the new year begin with its blessings. That sentiment seems particularly appropriate for us as we come to the end of 2023 and look forward to 2024. In the Jewish tradition, the rabbis have designated multiple dates for observing new year for different purposes, so we are always open to including one more new year, another new beginning, another opportunity for renewed hope, for rebirth, and reconciliation.
There is no need to detail all of the “curses” of the old year. We still are in the midst of various crises around the world, most notably for the Jewish community, the ongoing war in Israel with Hamas and its allies. Beyond the trauma of October 7th, the bereaved, the displaced, the kidnapped, and the ongoing casualties of war, are the repercussions around the world and, particularly here in the United States. We have seen an exponential rise in anti-semitism throughout the country including a rash of fake bomb threats to synagogues and other Jewish institutions, actual attacks on individuals, boycotts of Jewish businesses, harassment of students on college campuses, and the inability of some administrators to distinguish between the right to free speech and calls for genocide. We have a long historical memory and we’ve seen this story before and it calls up unpleasant memories and stirs up fears of what may follow, particularly in the unsettled and divisive political atmosphere in which we live. Yet, in our tradition, there is always hope for the future. It is no surprise that Israel’s national anthem is called “The Hope, HaTikvah.”
This week, we conclude the book of Genesis in our annual cycle of Torah readings and with it, we read the last chapters of the stories of our patriarchs, the last days of Jacob/Israel in Egypt, laying the groundwork for the oppression that we will see in the Book of Exodus, beginning next week. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yitzchak cites Rabbi Yochanan, a leading sage of the 3rd century, who comments rather provocatively, “Yakov Avinu lo meit,” Our father Jacob did not die.” No doubt, he is picking up on the language that depicts the patriarch’s demise where the word for “die” does not actually appear. In the Talmud, Rav Nachman, his dinner partner, responds to Rabbi Yitzchak” If so, why did they go to the trouble of eulogizing him, embalming his body, and burying him?” Rabbi Yitzchak responds, “[Don’t you see] I’m interpreting a verse? It says in the book of Jeremiah, ‘But you, have no fear, my servant Jacob – declares the Lord – be not dismayed, Israel! I will deliver you from far away, your folk from their land of captivity.’ Jacob, says Rabbi Yitzchak, is linked with his descendants. Just as they remain alive, he too, lives on.”
That entire chapter, chapter 30 of Jeremiah, speaks words of hope and renewal to the suffering people of his day, in the Babylonian Exile, and assures them of redemption soon to come. Jacob, known as Israel, is linked to the people of Israel. He lives on and we too will continue to find hope and renewal in the days ahead. “Our father Jacob did not die” nor does Israel, the Jewish people. “Am Yisrael Chai,” we too live on, more than 2500 years after Jeremiah. We have faced many crises and tragedies in the past, but we have ultimately overcome them all as we look to the future.
Professor Simon Rawidowicz wrote a famous essay about “Israel: The Ever-dying People” and of predictions of our demise in every generation going back to the first recorded reference to Israel in 1205 BCE on the Mernepteh Stele: “Israel is crushed, it has no more seed.” We continue to defy the predications, as Mark Twain is said to have remarked, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” (That’s not the exact quote, but it’s the way people tell it.) We feel the same way and look forward to the new year with renewed hope for blessing and life.
Many modern Israeli songs are filled with hopes and prayers for future peace and prosperity. One thinks, in particular, of the well-known song by Naomi Shemer that appeared in 1967, that speaks of “Machar” “Tomorrow.” Among other images, the poet/songwriter imagines military destroyers re-deployed to carry oranges to ports in Africa as well as the image, from the prophet Isaiah, of a lion leading a flock of sheep. In her final verse, Shemer sings, “Machar, tomorrow, when the army sheds its uniforms, our hearts will stand at attention. Afterwards every person will build with their two hands that which they dreamed today”. She concludes with the chorus: “All of this is not a parable or a dream. It is as right as the light at noon. Kol zeh yavo machar im lo hayom, All of this will come about tomorrow, if not today, v’im lo machar az mocharatayim, and if not tomorrow, then the day after.” Boundless optimism is our distinguishing characteristic.
May the new year be one filled with blessings of peace and harmony, good health and prosperity with each of us sitting “under his vine and his fig tree,” so to speak, with none to make us afraid.
Happy New Year to all!