I know it’s hard to imagine that the Yamim tovim – the High Holidays – are but a few days away. After the tumult of the past few months it is rather difficult to focus on tomorrow as we have not yet had the ability to digest yesterday. The Arab Spring that seemed to dominate the world only a few years ago seems like ancient history. Egypt has been transformed from arch enemy to comrade in arms. Russia, who just a few years ago was seen as our newfound ally, has reverted back to its Cold War agenda and is threatening the independence of the former Soviet bloc. Even Al Qaeda has been replaced by an even greater terrorist villain, ISIS, or the Islamic State, who want total dominion over the civilized world. Their aim is to create a global caliphate guided by the dictates of Sharia law. Saddam and Qaddafi are names that have already faded into oblivion but the world has failed to take heed. As we commemorate thirteen years since the atrocities of 9/11, I am concerned that the lessons of that unimaginable tragedy have yet to sink in. The lives of three thousand innocent civilians recorded for posterity on stone surfaces but failing to penetrate the human consciousness.
One of the blessings incorporated in this week’s parsha is Baruch atah b’voecha Ubaruch atah b’tzeitecha – you should be blessed in your coming and in your departure. Rashi interprets this blessing as referring to the cycle of life. At life’s culmination we should be blessed to be free from sin as we were at life’s inception. Perhaps we could also interpret this to mean that in infancy we are blissfully unaware of the trials and tribulations facing mankind. And even if there may be issues worthy of concern, our nurturing family will shield and protect us. The blessing may be that just as we encountered that bliss in our youth it should remain with us for the duration of our years.
It is interesting to note that the connecting verse tells us that Yiten Hashem et oyivecha – the lord shall cause your enemies that rise against you, to be smitten in front of you. In other words, the blessings may be one continuous blessing. There will always be dilemmas, trials and tribulations; there will always be those who seek our demise and destruction and we can’t be oblivious to the reality of life. Yet as we have miraculously seen in the past few years, our enemies are being destroyed by our enemies. Hundreds of millions of Muslims that are hostile to the State of Israel are spending more and more of their resources fighting each other and therefore undermining regimes that seek the destruction of the State of Israel. It’s not that all of a sudden we have new friends, but rather our enemies are being destroyed by our other enemies leaving us with a brief respite and sigh of relief.
The Torah continues with a rather strange blessing: Unetancha hashem l’rosh v’lo lazanav – And the lord shall make you the head and not the tail. Interestingly, on Rosh Hashanah there is a custom to eat the head of a fish or in certain communities to eat the head of lamb. (Thank God I don’t follow either custom.) Prior to embarking on this gastronomic delight a short prayer is said: may it be God’s will that we be as a head and not a tail. Perhaps the intention of the blessing is to inject in us a measure of self-confidence, to give us the fortitude to persevere regardless of the atrocities that are being performed daily in the name of God. We are being blessed with ability to be leaders and not followers. Our aims are to be at the apex of religion and glance over the horizon with limited obstructions; to value and promote what is right without concern of being ostracized and criticized. It is not that we are above criticism as an objective opinion has much value and benefit. The blessing gives us clarity to weed out those whose criticism is based on a myopic view of the global crisis.
As we prepare for the New Year, may we use our prayers to pray for peace and tranquility for our brothers and sisters in Israel and that global hostilities and violence should cease. But let us also pray for the strength and determination to realize that regardless of the constant degradation of humanity, we continue to focus on being a Rosh – a head. In this coming New Year, let us walk with our “Rosh” held high; and be resolute in our conviction that despite all the global insecurity we will always be assured that “am yisrael chai”.
Rabbi Jack Engel