What I'm praying for this Rosh Hashana

In exile Jews recognized that we were best off when we pulled together despite differences. That still holds true.

May the year, and its curses, come to an end. This terse talmudic statement represents a sentiment we all feel about the coming New Year. We hope to put last year's calamities behind us and look forward to a better future. It seems one of the curses of the past year has been homelessness. In addition to Hurricane Katrina's terrible death toll there is also a continuing crisis of nearly a million people who are homeless. In Darfur, hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled an ongoing genocide. And, in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami, perhaps as many as five million people were left homeless. These horrific events require serious action from each and every one of us. We must figure out how to remedy last year's curses. Homelessness in particular is a curse Jews are familiar with. We call it exile. Exile is not an archaic historical occurrence; it is part of our current events. In the last half-century alone Jews have had to take flight multiple times. Exile is a large part of Jewish history. Along with hundreds of thousands of other Holocaust survivors my mother left Europe to start a new life in a safe place, the United States. More recently Jews have fled the Soviet Union, Syria and Ethiopia, as well as other locales. I recently met a Jew who had to leave Venezuela to flee the Chavez regime. THERE IS a debate among theologians and historians about the meaning of exile. To some, exile is a black hole in history: It is an unwholesome state, and the years spent in exile are historically meaningless. Redemption is the only part of Jewish history that really matters. Other thinkers take a different view. To them, exile is the furnace in which Jewish identity has been forged. They understand that exile is a crisis but they recognize that the challenges of exile have helped Jews cultivate a gritty resilience and profound sense of social justice. Their understanding of exile is based on the belief that every crisis contains the potential for renewal and transformation. Indeed, the connection between crisis and renewal is one of the messages of the Rosh Hashana Torah reading. Immediately after the Akeda, the binding of Isaac, we are told about the birth of Rebecca, Isaac's future wife. The Midrash explains that this reference indicates that the Akeda crisis provoked a serious personal transformation. Isaac had nearly died. While he was under the knife he became aware that he was a 37-year-old man who had neglected marriage and family. He resolved to immediately find a bride, who later turned out to be Rebecca. The crisis he underwent reminded Isaac that he must grab hold of life, and that he could no longer be the diffident bachelor, slowly awaiting the right woman. The message of these last few verses of the Rosh Hashana Torah reading is this: The New Year is not merely a fresh beginning, a time to forget the past year's curses and crises. Rather, it is a time to reflect on how to use past crises to teach us the lessons of future renewal. Rabbi Yehuda Leib Alter of Gur compares all suffering to birth pangs; within the very suffering lies the possibility of rebirth and renewal. While an awareness of the productive side of crisis is extremely useful, my message is not directed at the people of Asia or Darfur or New Orleans. For these victims, right now is the time for action, not reflection. What they need are homes, not sermons. MY MESSAGE is directed at another homeless crisis, one that specifically affects the Jewish people: disengagement from the Gaza Strip. Politics aside, disengagement was traumatic. The withdrawal included the negative images most frequently associated with exile: families were forced out of their homes, and the synagogues left behind were defaced and destroyed. These emotional scenes, mixed together with nasty political debates, are potentially disastrous. Israel has a homeless crisis of its own, for the aftermath of the Gaza evacuations has left a country divided between orange and blue, religious and secular. The question the Jewish world has to ask itself is this: Will we use the Gaza crisis as a springboard to renewal? One of the great lessons of exile is the importance of Jewish unity. In exile Jews recognized that we were best off when we pulled together, despite differences. Countries, and people, without a sense of unity are bound to fall apart. This Rosh Hashana I'm praying that we will be able to move past last year's curses and crises. In particular, I am praying that we, the Jewish people, will remember the importance of unity. And that, with God's help, all of us orange and blue, Left and Right, religious and secular will find a way to renew our bonds. The writer is the spiritual leader of Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem in Montreal and a member of Edah, which gives voice to the ideology and values of modern Orthodoxy.