We observe this Rosh HaShanah in a festive mood, as befits a yom-tov: yet the festive mood is chastened by the thought of deep-rooted serious problems which confront our people at this significant juncture in Jewish history.
It has always been hard to be Jew, but this is one of the times when it is a little harder than usual.
There is an uncannily accurate statement in the Talmud: “The Holy One, blessed be He, gave Israel three precious gifts, but all were given through suffering. They are: Torah, the land of Israel, and the World to Come” (Ber. 5a).
It is largely because of these three precious gifts that we are having to struggle at this moment.
To acquire Torah is a struggle. We no longer live in the old-time tightly closed, self-sufficient Jewish society where the only schools were Torah schools and the only patterns of living were Torah patterns.
For good or ill we live in an open society which presents us with distractions, challenges and temptations which none of our ancestors had to face.
It is hard to acquire Torah. If a Jew today wants to learn and live Torah, they have to make a conscious effort, and devote time, energy, thought, and even material resources to the task.
But without Torah the Jew does not know who and what they are. Without Torah they are unsure of themselves, they are not certain why they are different; their Jewishness is ambiguous, and they are confused and uptight.
The Jew cannot manage without Torah. Without it they would not thrill at being one of an ancient, interesting, colourful, tenacious people, whose rich heritage is intellectually, spiritually and emotionally exciting and challenging.
Without Torah they would lack the ethical and spiritual discipline of a way of life passionately dedicated to truth, justice, mercy and peace. They would lack the means of making a Jewish contribution towards making the world worthy of the Creator.
The Jew cannot do without Torah. And how does one acquire Torah?
First, one learns Torah. One says: “I do not know enough as a Jew. I need to learn more.” Each of us has a discovery to make: the more we study, the more we realise we do not know. We can all read, study and think more about the faith and way of Judaism. There are untold riches in that treasure-house of the Jewish spirit.
Acquiring Torah also means living Torah. It means rising early, opening the day with prayer, and closing the day with prayer. It means dedicating the Sabbath day to God. It means a Jewish marriage, a Jewish home, a Jewish kitchen.
It means bringing up children with the sound of the shofar, the fragrance of the sukkah, the sight of the Chanukah light, the taste of the matzah. It means bringing up children to run to synagogue and to Hebrew lessons, to love a Jewish book and a Jewish melody, to sing and dance because they are so much at home with their Judaism.
There is a strange thing about all of this. The more you begin to learn and live as a Jew, the easier it becomes. The more you engage in the struggle, the less of a struggle it becomes. The effort is wonderful and invigorating.
The second precious gift for which a Jew must strive and even struggle is the land of Israel. The last few years, if not the last 65+ years or the last 2000 years, have shown us that you neither get nor keep a state so easily. To create the state was hard. Now we are learning what it means to maintain it.
Creating a state is exciting and heroic. Maintaining one is a matter of slow, uphill struggle to build up a population, to sustain an economy, an educational, social welfare and health system, to find ways of running a modern state loyal to tradition, to defend house by house and stone by stone, to know what it is to go forward exhilaratingly and to have to go back sadly and uncertainly.
To maintain a state also involves living in an unfeeling world, which says, “Have your state if you want, but don’t expect anyone else to love you, to help you, to protect you, to speak up for you, to stand with you, but only to regard you as expendable and unimportant if this happens to be more expedient or convenient for them…”.
It is hard to have a state. But can the Jew manage without the Land of Israel, not merely as a sustaining hope and visionary dream, but as a practical reality to be strengthened and supported in a hundred often taxing and demanding ways?
No; without Israel the Jew again runs the likely risk of being a ready scapegoat and sacrificial victim, of being hounded from pillar to post without sure haven or refuge, of lacking respect in the eyes of others and self-esteem in their own eyes.
But more: without Israel the Jew loses the freshness and vigour and personality which has enriched Jewish life everywhere since 1948, the wondrous feeling of Biblical prophecy come true, of Messianic fulfilment having commenced to dawn, of the miraculous manifestation of God’s Providence in our time.
The Jew must have the Land of Israel. And to have Israel means having a love affair with Israel – knowing Israel, visiting Israel, working for Israel, understanding Israel, giving to Israel.
It means standing up to be among a united Jewish people who are desperately anxious for Israel’s survival and security. It means strengthening the Jewish identity of Israel as a state built on the holy foundations of God’s word. It means constructing bridges between Israel and the Jewish people wherever they may be. It means spreading understanding of Israel’s case among the nations of the world.
Here too the effort is hard, but the more you immerse yourself in it the more it inspires and invigorates you, and the less of a struggle it seems to be.
The third struggle is for Olam Haba. Olam Haba means heaven, but it can also mean heaven on earth.
We live in a world that is far from heavenly. Our world is heavy with pain and suffering. There in so many lands are the broken bodies of the victims of war and hatred and callousness. There in so many lands are the broken hearts and minds of victims of injustice, discrimination and the denial of human rights.
Our Jewish tradition cannot live at peace with such a world. It must wage an ongoing war for truth and justice and mercy and peace. It must speak out, and it dare not shrink even from standing alone for righteousness if others are too morally indolent or too scared to share in the struggle.
It is hard to have this kind of moral courage; no wonder some would prefer not to “mix in”. But the Jew dare not opt out, or else they can not live with themselves as a Jew.
All that is human and all that is Jewish within us impels us to get involved. We have to care, we have to struggle, we have to persist. To attain the kingdom of God on earth means struggle. And none is exempt from the struggle.
President Lyndon B Johnson once related a story which he heard from a rabbi in Washington:
Once upon a time, birds had no wings. They could not fly. They walked in the dust, earth-bound. Then one day God threw wings at their feet and commanded them to carry the wings.
At first this seemed very difficult. The burden was heavy. But, in obedience to God’s will, they held the wings closely to their sides – and the wings soon grew to their bodies. At last, what they once thought were hampering weights lifted them up to the heights and enabled them to soar unto the very gates of heaven.
Anything worthwhile demands struggle, faith, and courage. As the birds sought to reach the heights, we yearn for the heights of Torah, of the land of Israel, of heaven on earth. The recipe is the same: struggle, faith and courage.