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Asking for a Good Year

Remarks by Eugen Schoenfeld, PhD
Rosh Hashanah 5765/2004
Shema Yisrael - The Open Synagogue

A few days ago I called my cousin in New York. She is one of the two cousins who survived the Holocaust. I try to stay in touch with her because she is an important link to my past. In the end of our conversation I wished her Shanah Tovah. But because of our connection to the past I ended my New Years wish in Yiddish, and as I did in the past I wished her "Byt aych oss a gutt juhr", meaning "may your petition for a new year be successful."

Rosh Hashanah and the whole ten days of awe is a period of petition. Of course we all ask God on Rosh Hashanah and on Yom Kippur that he grant us -meaning all Jews- a whole list of desires which we assume will give us a "good year." For hundreds of years we recited the same petitions. After the "amidah" today, as we did for centuries, we recited the Avinoo Malkeynoo in which we ask God to grant us 42 requests. In different parts of the service we ask that the Holy one grant us, that is. to Kílal Yisrael , the Jewish collective sustenance, health and protection from those who seek our destruction.

Jewish history, unfortunately, is filled with the events that have martyred many of our people that led us to the conclusion that in every generation someone comes along who seeks our destruction. The world, in spite, of the holocaust experiences continues to witness the death of many Jews in Israel.

But after my phone call I asked myself: Is it time that we re-consider our Rosh Hashanah petitions? More specifically, I was thinking that perhaps it is time that we face the following two questions. First, should we become more inclusive when we petition for a good year? Second are there perhaps more important goals that the ones contained in the Avinoo Malkeynoo that we should seek?

Let me start with the first. I am sure that we all know Rabbi Hillelís adage stated in the Pirkey Avoth. He said: "If I am not for myself, then who is for me? But, if I am only for myself than what am I?" In short Rabbi Hillel would suggest that first and foremost we should pray for ourselves and our familyís well being and, then, we should pray for others. Historically we Jews have disregarded Rabbi Hillelís first statement and have always prayed for Kílal Yisrael for the Jewish collective.

In all our prayers, with the exception of one, (the concluding prayer in the amidah) we petition God on behalf of the worldís Jewry. This reflects our belief that all Jews are responsible for each other. Of course it is wonderful that we feel responsible for each other, that we feel each othersí pain, and that we seek to alleviate all of our tzaroth. We have always been collective oriented because the world has forced us to perceive that historically it always was the world against us.

I believe that there are two assumptions why we stressed collective Jewry before the individual. First, if God helps all Jews, of course, we are included among them. So if he gives a good "parnassah" to all, I and my family will surely be included among them. Yet, we know that there are problems that are unique to each of us.

There are personal problems and issues that we wish to ask God. Of course, we must take time and deviate from the proscribed text and, like Hannah, the mother of Samuel each of us must speak with God stressing that which is in our heart. Next, we must always have a personal discourse with God not only about ourself and our family, but also about the world at large.

We Jews have always believed in universalism. Our forefathers were always concerned not only with their well being, but also with the well being of others. Abraham, for instance, has vigorously argued for the well being of Sodom and Gomorrah. Jonah, although reluctantly, but upon the insistence of God, went to warn the city of Nineveh, which, by the way, was at war with Israel, of their impending doom. Both Isaiah and Micah have been concerned with world peace. Universalism and our concern for the whole world is our heritage. The concept Tikkun Olam seeks the improvement of the world and not only the Jewish world.

People may rightly ask me "wait just a minute. You say that we should seek the well being of our enemies? How about the Al Quieda who have killed thousands of innocent people?" I asked myself this question when I was lucky to survive the Holocaust. But the fact of the matter is if we wish to have future peace, if we wish to have in the future a secure life, we must become concerned with the well being of others, even when they may be hateful and destructive.

The world today is quite different from what it was centuries ago. It is a smaller world where each part is highly interdependent with others. Our Rabbis gave us an analogy, namely, they said that the Jewish people can be equated to a hand. If one finger of the hand hurts does not the whole hand suffer? Similarly, the whole world can be considered as one entity and if any part of the world is in trouble it has reverberations on the whole world. More than ever the world is highly interdependent. For instance, we need oil and those who have it may need food and so on. Terrorism, for instance, is never confined to one country alone and it can never be fought by one country. We must realize that the word echod now applies to the whole world. The problem of one country eventually becomes the problem of other countries and finally of the whole world. Hence the problem of the world Jewry-- its tzaroth-- and that of Israel, can only be solved by solving universal problems.

But what shall we ask for? Can we discern from our past experiences what kind of requests God favors and is more likely to grant? I believe that we are given the answer in Solomonís dream. After he was anointed as King, God appears to Solomon in his dream and tells him: "Ask what I shall give thee?" Mind you Solomon is in the midst of great turmoil. His father just died and he a young boy seeks to bring order into a country full of strife. His brothers are against him and are actively in rebellion. Does he ask God to help him destroy his enemies? No. Solomon instead asks God: "Give thy servant an understanding heart to judge thy people, that, I may discern between good and evil so that I may judge your people with truths." To which God then responds: "Because you have asked this thing and have not asked for a long life, neither have you asked riches for yourself, nor have you asked the life of your enemies: but you have asked for understanding ... I will grant your request. I will give you a wise and understanding heart and I will also give you what you have not asked for: riches and honor." And Solomon woke up and it was a dream.

Solomonís tale teaches us that God favors us when we become concerned with what we can do for others. I wonder if JFK borrowed this idea when he said in his inauguration: "Ask not what your country can do for you but ask what you can do for your country." Similarly we need to ask God not necessarily what He can do for me alone but ask God to become concerned with the whole world.

I have often asked myself: what are the things that we should we ask God that would benefit us and the whole world. The answer is of course world peace- a world that is synonymous with the world during the Messianic period. Peace is not granted automatically. There are preconditions that must be fulfilled if we ever will achieve universal peace.

It is interesting that these preconditions are to be found in a favorite childrenís story - The Wizard of Oz. Most, of us I am sure, remember the characters who traveled to see the wizard with their requests. The scarecrow asked for knowledge, the tin man asked for a heart, the lion asked for courage, and Dorothy asked for home. Indeed these are wonderful requests and, if granted, it may bring peace to the world.

We need to ask God that on this day, the birthday of the world, He grants us knowledge. But we need more than knowledge. For knowledge, if not tempered with wisdom, is quite often dangerous. The knowledge of how to split the atom led to the creation of the atom bomb. Hence knowledge must be combined wisdom and understanding. Like Adam and Eve, after having eaten from the fruit of the tree they were able to combine knowledge with wisdom and only then their eyes were opened and were able to differentiate the good from evil. More than ever the world needs to gain both knowledge and wisdom so that we can tell the difference between right and wrong, between that which is desirable and undesirable, between moral and immoral. We need wisdom, insight combined with knowledge so that the world could abolish evil from our midst.

We also need to gain a good heart so that we can emphasize with each other. Lev Tov, a good heart, our Rabbis comment in the Talmud, is a sine qua non quality to have a peaceful human relationship. For without a good heart how can we fulfill the commandment: Thou shall love your neighbor as yourself - a commandment that Rabbi Hillel considered to be the infrastructure of the whole Torah.

One of the reasons for the rule of evil is human acquiescence. I have learned this from my experience in the Holocaust when no one dared to stand up for what was right. The world needs courage to stand against evil and wrong, for opposing evil can be very threatening. We must ask God to grant us, and the world, courage to do that which is right. On this day we must ask God that he grants us and the people of whole world the courage to oppose wrong, the courage to fight for justice, the courage to oppose menís inhumanity to men. It is my ardent prayer that God may grant us the wisdom, the love and the courage to establish a world governed by the most fundamental principle of the Torah - the principle of Tzedek - of justice.

When this is granted than we too, like Dorothy in the story, will find the world to be a true home, a home in which each people will not teach others war, when each person can sit under his vine and not be afraid. May this be His will.

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