The New Year, Twenty Years Later
I was in Rabbi Weiss’ Talmud class when I learned that the Jewish New Year has four names: Rosh Hashanah (Head of the [new] year), Yom Teruah (Day of sounding the Shofar), Yom HaDin (Day of Judgement), and Yom HaZikaron (Day of Remembrance). Having celebrated the new year just days before the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, Yom HaZikaron seems fitting.
Memory plays a big role in Rosh Hashanah tradition. Memory is alive, influencing how we live and how we feel. This also holds true for honoring the tragedy of September 11, 2001. Though the entire student body was born after 9/11/2001, all of us were born into the generation for whom this is not a mere story from some time ago but a living memory that still shapes us as young Americans. Memories continue to guide us and to perhaps recreate feelings of unity that existed in the days following the attacks. Across the country, people quickly gathered to firmly proclaim “United We Stand.”
Nearly twenty years ago, Americans were brought to face some fundamental questions in our “Days of Awe”: Who shall live, and who shall die? What can I do to insure that G-d hears me? What can I do for my people? One Tuesday morning, three thousand people boarded planes or left home for work and moments later, lay buried under a mountain of steel, concrete, and glass. Since then, America has been praying to the tune of a central Rosh Hashanah theme: Remember us for life; inscribe us for life.
Nearly all Jewish holidays feature an enemy: Purim has Haman, Chanukah has Antiochus, Passover has Pharaoh, etc. On Rosh Hashanah, the enemy we face is none other than Fear: “If an army shall encamp against me, my heart will not be afraid. If a war rises against me, still will I trust.” On September 11, 2001, a new fear was released upon America and spiraled throughout our nation. Fear is the enemy of free will; Fear enslaves us. Nonetheless, the Rambam explains that an essential pillar of Jewish belief is at the core of the Rosh Hashanah. Perhaps even more basic than belief in G-d is the belief in free will. Judaism is premised entirely upon freedom, and the holy season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is entirely about making the free choice to change our lives.
It is now officially the New Year. To live it right, let’s take a lesson from Osama bin Laden. Through maintaining the discipline to wait years amid planning and premeditation, the deadliest attack on the United States can be carried out. By waiting for the right moment one can change history. The Torah teaches this same lesson over and over. After a lifetime of waiting, Abraham and Sarah bore a miracle child, Isaac. In addition, Jacob worked endlessly for his wife, Rachel. Our ancestors waited forty years before entering the Land of Canaan, and our people waited two thousand years in the diaspora before returning to our land. The Jews have survived because we knew how to wait.
However, modern Americans seem to be incapable of patience. Our point-and-click culture is based upon an ethic of instant gratification. Though at this time of year, we are to strive toward perfection. We can only return to Rosh Hashanah, year after year, century after century, if we are patient with ourselves, with each other, with the world, and with G-d.
For those who were paying attention to the shofar this past week, as you may remember, there is one long blast, followed by multiple blasts, and a final long blast... .the t’kiah g’dolah. The first blast, the t’kiyah, serves as a siren, signaling to us that our world is under attack. Your parents were probably listening to this too, this past Rosh Hashanah and twenty years ago. This siren was blared across the country. The multiple short blasts, the shvarim t’ruah, are the short gaspings for breath, the cries for help, the calls for revenge. Those cries were heard twenty years ago and continue to be heard today. Finally, the Rabbi ends with the t’kiyah g’dolah, the blast that goes on and on. Let it be slow, patient, and powerful as the nation restores herself in a “transition to greatness.” I promise it’s worth the wait.