We are not in the mood. A new year is coming, but many do not feel like it. Gloominess abounds. The rising death count from coronavirus makes the “who by plague?” line in the liturgy chillingly real and horrifyingly bleak. Too many have died. Too many will die. Millions have been sickened, and some will suffer long term implications. For those who have not been afflicted by illness, there has been job loss and economic deprivation. Everybody has been impacted adversely: for six months, our lives have been narrowed, curtailed, distanced. We are down.
And that’s not all. There is discontent on the streets. Race. Politics. Seemingly unbridgeable divisions. Borders. Climate.
Tensions abound. Anxiety is elevated. All is not well.
A sweet Shanah Tovah? Most doubt it.
We are deflated. Hope is in short supply.
It is all understandable. It is all justified. In ways big and small, we are all going through a truly trying period. Given the ongoing separations from family and friends and the significant life disruptions, looking forward to tomorrow is a struggle.
And yet. And yet, this season of the Jewish year asks us to try to lift our heads and look at the bigger picture. After all, Rosh HaShanah is also known as Yom HaZikaron, the day of remembering, as we think about our current lives in the context of what has gone before.
So let’s think back. Let’s think back 75 years to 1945. What must it have been like to be a Jew approaching Rosh HaShanah in 1945? The camps had been liberated, but the fact that one third of the Jewish people had been murdered was just beginning to be comprehended. Europe was a wasteland of destruction. Beyond the Jewish dead, there were also countless who were sick, wounded, refugees, and displaced persons. The British controlled Palestine and they made getting there exceptionally difficult. Arab hostility to any Jewish presence was relentless. A large percentage of the world’s Jews were frightened, broken, powerless, and homeless.
As Rosh HaShanah came into view in 1945, the first nuclear bombs had been dropped just weeks before; hostilities had ceased, but Hiroshima and Nagasaki were leveled. It was not at all clear how the world could be put together again after the horrendous global conflagration of the Second World War.
Had you told a Jew in 1945 what the Jewish world would be like at Rosh HaShanah 2020 – even with all our fears and troubles – that Jew would have thought that you were conjuring up an unbelievable fantasy.
Here’s our current reality: By Rosh HaShanah 2020, there will be close to 15,000,000 Jews in the world. Almost 85% of us live in freedom in either Israel or the United States. Compared to all historic measures, antisemitism – though still a significant problem – is relatively controlled. The largest community of Jews in the world lives in the independent state of Israel, now approaching seven million Jews, comprising 74% of the population.
In 2020, US News and World Report ranked the tiny state of Israel as the eighth most powerful country in the world. Also this year, in the days leading up to Rosh HaShanah, two prosperous Arab countries, the UAE and Bahrain, are signing deals initiating peaceful diplomatic relations with Israel. More Arab countries are expected to follow in a series of moves that likely represents a critical turning point in the region, one that will make Israel more secure for decades to come.
And what about the Diaspora? Just a few days ago, Marina Yudborovsky, CEO of the Genesis Philanthropy Group, was asked her view on the current state of world Jewry. “These are challenging and uncertain times,” she said, “but Jewish communities around the world have already shown an encouraging level of resilience. While many challenges still lie ahead, we will come out of this…”
Indeed we will. Seventy-five years after the Shoah, we are undoubtedly in a period of significant upheaval and turbulence and loss. But not only have we weathered storms far worse, but today we are in better shape to manage our destiny than at almost any point in the past.
In January 1945, Chaskel Tydor, an Auschwitz prisoner, and thousands of other Jews, were forced by the Nazis to set out on the infamous “Death March.” As he was about to leave, Tydor was approached by an emaciated prisoner, who handed him an object wrapped in a rag. “Take it,” the prisoner told him, “I’m too sick to survive. Maybe you will make it. Take this shofar. Show them that we had a shofar in Auschwitz.”
Tydor survived the march through the snow to the town of Gleiwitz. From there, the shofar went with him to Buchenwald. It remained with him until he was liberated on April 11, 1945 by the American army. On Rosh Hashanah 1945, while on the boat to Mandate-era Palestine, he blew the shofar for a group of young survivors – many, like him, from Auschwitz – in view of the Carmel mountain range. They were about to reach the Promised Land.
If Jews could blow the shofar with hope for the year ahead on Rosh HaShanah 1945, then so can we. Let us begin the new year with their determination – that tomorrow will indeed be better, because we will make it so. Shanah Tovah.