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Fear has its uses. It concentrates the mind. Old soldiers inevitably remember their days in combat as the most intense time of their lives.
The blasts of the shofar are also meant to scare us and awaken us from our spiritual slumber. The teru'a blasts replicate the sound of something shattering. What is being broken are all the ingrained patterns of our lives.
Not every Jew, however, hears the shofar, and even those who do are not necessarily aroused to reflect more deeply on their lives. Sometimes it seems as if God sends other blasts to make us tremble if the shofar (sounded from the beginning of Elul) does not.
In 2000, two days before Rosh Hashana, we found ourselves once more at war with the Palestinians. A year later the Twin Towers came crashing down the week before Rosh Hashana.
This year the month-long war in Lebanon has triggered a degree of national soul-searching not seen since the Yom Kippur war. The war is being portrayed not just as a failure of the political and military echelons, but of Israeli society as a whole.
A DECADENT society, we keep hearing, is ill-equipped to confront major threats to its existence. The single-minded pursuit of money and pleasure among adults, the desire to be a "celebrity" that has enchanted our youth, and the pervasive corruption and venality of our politicians, busy pursuing private ambition at the expense of the public good, all reflect that decadence.
For Ari Shavit in Haaretz, the most scathing of the proliferating critics, our prime minister-cum-real-estate speculator's campaign promise to make Israel a "fun" place to live embodies much of what is wrong. And his speech to a group of American Jewish leaders in which he declared, "We are tired of fighting, tired of winning; we are tired of defeating our enemies," serves as the Ur-text of what ails us.
The alternative to fighting and winning, however, turns out to be, not peace, but death and exile.
In Shavit's telling, Israel's elites endlessly proclaimed that Israel is insanely powerful, the better to justify their own naked pursuit of the good life. They stopped doing reserve duty or sending their sons to combat units; they undermined every element of the old Zionist narrative, leading to a widespread loss of belief in the justness in Israel's cause; they mocked the former communitarian values and decried Israel's excessive militarism; and they dreamed that Tel Aviv was Manhattan, and that a Jewish state could escape the burdens of Jewish history and achieve normalcy amidst a sea of Arabs. The result was to "corrode the tree trunk of Israeli existence from within and cause it to lose its vitality."
Now our Cincinnatus, former chief of staff Moshe Ya'alon, has made the most serious charge ever leveled at an Israeli government. The final two days of the war, in which 33 Israeli soldiers lost their lives, was, according to Ya'alon, a "spin" operation, undertaken for no other purpose other than to stave off the wrath of a public demanding decisive action.
ISRAELIS HAVE been forced to acknowledge the spiritual dimension of their struggle for existence, and the national will counts as much in that struggle as does superior firepower and a stronger economy.
But national will is not a commodity which can be ordered up on a platter, or reduced to a line in the budget. It must grow out of a rich soil of shared beliefs and values. In societies in which the national will is strong it need not be discussed, for it develops organically from the totality of life.
Ultimately, only a strong sense of being rooted in the continuum of Jewish history and the belief that the Jewish people have been chosen for a particular mission can provide the necessary resolve. Those who imagine that God has preserved our people for over 3,000 years in order that Tel Aviv can claim its place among the world's fun spots will eventually move to places where life is not quite so pressured and the day-to-day dangers are not so great.
The war has provoked some of the most thoughtful Israelis to ask powerful questions about the kind of society we have become. That national self-scrutiny - like the one taking place on the individual level as Rosh Hashana approaches - is at once frightening and liberating. For only such scorching self-scrutiny can point the way to a better future.
In addition to provoking the right questions, the war in Lebanon revealed some important sources of national strength. Whatever the failures in the conduct of the war, Israel showed that it is not quite the cobweb waiting to be swept away, as portrayed by Hassan Nasrallah. Not once in over a month of fighting was the government subjected to any popular pressure to bring matters to a speedy conclusion. To the very end Israelis remained confident that the IDF would somehow snatch a dramatic victory.
Of equal note was the response to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who fled the North in the course of the fighting, and for whom the government abdicated responsibility. Private individuals and organizations mobilized to provide housing, food and activities for the children on a massive scale.
SUCH ACTS of hesed, of lovingkindness, are the best preparations for Rosh Hashana. The Alter of Kelm taught that we crown God as King on Rosh Hashana through acts of love of others and deeds of hesed. Such acts require us to overcome the innate self-centeredness that constitutes the greatest block to accepting God's sovereignty and living in harmony with our fellow man.
May the travails of the end of the old year point us toward a new year filled with spiritual and material blessings.