If ever a country needed a dose of optimism, Israel is it. In the aftermath of disengagement, with the rockets still falling and the population divided, pessimism hangs in the air as heavy as the approaching winter clouds. Perhaps more than at any time since the Yom Kippur War three decades ago, Israelis are wary of the future and increasingly skeptical of our mission and mettle.
Enter Rosh Hashana. Among its myriad messages the theme of optimism and hope stands out like a beacon to illuminate the year ahead. Every aspect of the holiday strikes an upbeat tone.
We read about Abraham and Sarah, whose persistent prayers for a child are finally answered against all odds in the affirmative, even as they enter old age. And while their son Isaac is brought to the point of sacrifice and feels the knife at his throat, he is eventually spared and continues the ongoing lineage of the Jewish people.
We also recite the heartfelt plea of Hannah, who, like Sarah, is aged and childless. Her dramatic prayer, too, meets with success and results in the birth of Samuel, who will lead the nation as one of our greatest prophets.
Later, on Yom Kippur, the positive theme continues as Jonah is safely rescued from the watery jaws of despair and presides over the unlikely rehabilitation of Nineveh, one of Israel's great enemies.
The operative dynamic of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is that of teshuva, reconciliation and return, which is deeply optimistic. Teshuva, if performed diligently and deliberately, has the power to free humanity from the guilt of past misdeeds and regret, allowing us to rise above our former failures and face the future with confidence and a clean slate. The wearing of the white kittel at once recalls the solemnity of the day the dead, after all, wear a similar garment but also cheers us with the promise that our sins will become "white as snow."
Indeed, the very structure of the entire period of the 10 Days of Repentance carries a message of optimism within it. The fact that we begin with the celebration of Rosh Hashana, replete with song and feasting, and only later conclude with the fast of Yom Kippur implies to us that our initial impulse must be to look on the bright side and be hopeful about our fate and future.
All together, Rosh Hashana bids us to carefully and honestly examine who we are and how we have conducted ourselves, but to never lose sight of our promise as a nation of destiny often beleaguered, yet never beaten.
JUST A few days ago the Jewish people and the world at large lost a great hero when Simon Wiesenthal died at 96. Here was a man who was surrounded day and night by the specter of the Shoah, who lost no less than 86 members of his own family during the Holocaust. And yet he refused to be consumed by negativity or pessimism, always framing his work in positive terms.
He viewed the pursuit of Nazi murderers as justice, not vengeance, often remarking that he had traded his career as an architect of buildings for that of "an architect of the truth." He maintained a wonderful sense of humor throughout his life. He married and raised a family. And he believed that the strong State of Israel was the surest sign that the Jewish people would triumph over even the greatest evil.
I FIRST met Simon Wiesenthal at my rabbinic ordination ceremony, where he gave the charge to our graduating class. He told us the following story:
Just after the war he was working in liaison with the Allied forces when a group of Jews decided to hold prayers. He was asked to join the minyan, but refused. When the chaplain asked why, Wiesenthal answered: "Once, in the camp where I was interred, a Jew managed to smuggle in a small siddur. When other Jews asked for a few minutes to pray with that siddur, he would charge them a quarter of their meager daily ration of potatoes. I was so sickened by his behavior that I swore I would never pick up a siddur and pray.
"'What happened to that man?' asked the chaplain.
"'He ate so many potatoes that his stomach literally exploded, and he died. But I still cannot forget or forgive what he did to his fellow Jews because of that siddur.'
"The chaplain looked me in the eyes. 'Why do you focus on that one selfish man who abused the trust of others? Why don't you instead focus on all the many Jews who were so devoted to God, so desirous of maintaining their heritage that they would trade their precious food and risk death in order to pray from that siddur? Why don't you look at the positive, and not the negative?'"
Wiesenthal then turned to us budding rabbis and said: "I went with the chaplain that day, and I prayed in that minyan, and I always remembered his message of optimism. And that is the message I, Simon Wiesenthal, Nazi hunter, give to all of you today: Focus on the positive."
That is the message Rosh Hashana sends to every Jew: The eternity of Israel will never be denied.
The writer is the director of the Ohel Ari Jewish Outreach Center in Ra'anana . [email protected]