On the Edge of Catastrophe (non-fiction)

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As we come into Rosh Hashana, it is easy to be complacent as a nation. Our economy is strong, our military is strong, we are world leaders in science, and our Yeshivot are filled with students.

Even as our region is filled with violence and destruction, even as millions have been driven from their homes, we can feel fundamentally safe from the violent forces that surround us. We can pray, lightly it seems, worried only about the everyday struggles faced by those blessed with peace.

But perhaps we should not be so complacent. We read in this week’s Torah reading:

thy heaven shall be copper and the earth below you shall be iron. And Hashem will make the rain of your land dust and smoke. From heaven it will come down upon you, until you are destroyed. (Dev 28: 23-24)

Remarkably, in Bechukotai, there is a mirror curse:

And I will break the pride of your power and I will give you a heaven like iron and earth like copper. (Vayikra 26:19)

These two curses speak of a heaven and earth which are iron and copper.

In Chumash, iron is connected with war. Copper, on the other hand, serves utilitarian purposes. The snake, which shares the root of Nachash with copper, is a tool of G-d (both in the garden and when the people must look at the copper snake to escape plague). It is a tool meant to educate us.

In these curses, the earth and sky are filled with war; war meant to teach us painful lessons. Today, we cheer on the Kipat Barzel, the iron dome – but it represents the fulfillment of a curse. Our skies are filled with iron and war. And our enemies dig tunnels, filling the earth below with much the same thing.

The reality that surrounds us is meant to teach us; but we are learning no lessons.

And so, we have had six years of drought. Our rain is dust and smoke. In 2015, we had the worst sand storm in our modern nation’s history. Another massive sandstorm struck in 2017. Internationally, increasing numbers mobilize for boycotts against our people. They threaten to rob us of our livelihoods and the work of our hands. And this is only the beginning. As we read on we see we are to be slaves to a people unknown to our fathers. Not much imagination is required to fill in the dots.

Not much imagination is required to see we are living in a time of Biblical curse. At the same time, we live in a time of unprecedented blessing. We are at a crossroads – both blessing and curse hang over us. Our strength is underwritten by heaven, but all it takes is one entirely reasonable failure for an Iranian missile to strike us or an Iranian EMP to eliminate our capacity for defensive war. In an instant, our much-vaunted blessings could disappear.

We believe we are strong, but we cannot be fortified against heaven.

Facing this, what can we do? We can strengthen our military and our economy – and we do. But they are no guarantee of our safety. All our efforts will come to naught without the blessing of Hashem.

Thankfully, the time to secure that blessing is upon us.

On the first day of Rosh Hashana, we read a Torah reading that features Sarah, Yishmael and Avimelech. Each of them illustrates a path towards redemption.

  • Sarah is rewarded because she is deserving. This redemption is called Pakad.
  • Yishmael is rescued because G-d promised Avraham he would protect him. This redemption is called Zocher. It is not based on merit, but on a divine contract.
  • And Avimelech recognizes the presence of G-d and seeks to correct his past errors. This is Teshuvah, or repentance.

Each of these forms of redemption is reflected in the offerings associated with the day.

  • We offer one calf because that is the animal Avraham offers to the men who bring Sarah the good news.
  • We offer one ram because that is connected to the rescue of Yitzchak from the Akeidah – which is also a case of Zocher.
  • And we offer seven lambs because that is the offering Avraham and Avimelech seal their treaty with.

And, again, those paths are seen in the Musaf davening.

  • Malchiut represents our acknowledgement of G-d as King. A king isn’t just powerful, a King is somebody it is an honor to serve. If it is an honor for us to serve G-d, then we deserve blessing. This is the path of pakad. Hashem can trust we will use our blessings well.
  • Zocher obviously represents the path of Zocher – redemption because of a contract, not because we are deserving.
  • Shaya Cohen explains that Hashem gives us divine breath and we emit it through the shofar. I would go further and say that what we emit is our divine breath, mixed with our natural breath. The Shofar is critical – it is a filter, representing the fear of G-d. What emerges from the shofar is a shadow of the voice of G-d. Through the fear of G-d, the Baal Tokeah’s natural breath is removed and those who listen hear only the breath of the divine. Recognizing this is the first step to Teshuvah.

Of course, Rosh Hashana is the day of the Shofar and we blow it with each part of Musaf.

  • If we find joy and honor in hearing the shadow of the voice of Hashem, then we can take the path of Pakad. He is our King.
  • If we grasp for the hope those notes offer then we follow the path of Zocher.
  • And if we simply recognize the presence of G-d and are brought to repentance then we follow the path of Teshuva.

All three are paths that flow throughout this holy day. All three paths offer us an opportunity for redemption. The question is which path is the path our nation must take in these troubling times.

The path of Malchut seems beyond us as a people. Some find joy in the service of G-d, but many resent the values of Torah. As a nation, we engage in the cycle of creation and rest with the divine – but we don’t do it with intent. Instead, some resent creation and cherish holiness while others resent holiness and cherish creation. Few bring together or acknowledge the whole package and many actively resist the create-to-connect Hashkafah of the Chumash. To achieve national Pakad, we must weave these paths together.

The path of Teshuvah is likewise a great challenge. Too many of us imagine ourselves as responsible for our modern redemption from the darkness of Europe and the Arab world. But our success was not a natural conclusion of our journey. How can the weakest of people rescue themselves from the greatest of oppressions? Many of us argue, just as we argued with the Sin of Calf, that we are responsible for our own salvation. Others, albeit a smaller number, argue that we have experienced no salvation whatsoever. In either case, significant numbers of our people actively refute the role of G-d in our lives and our story. Perhaps we are unable to open the door to national Teshuvah, which Avimelech shows starts with recognizing the presence of Hashem.

I fear that if Malchiut and Teshuvah are in fact undermined (and the curses suggest it) then Zocher is the best option open to us.

Ask yourself: If our enemies succeed, if our land fails us, can we survive another Shoah? If we are driven from our land, if we are massacred – will we continue to exist as a people?

Sadly, I fear the answer is no.

But such a horrific possibility is perfectly realistic. The Torah even makes allowances for it. Next week’s reading speaks of gathering us from the ends of heaven. We were brought to Israel, this time, from the ends of the earth. None reside, even today, in the heavens. Another expulsion is possible.

Another expulsion is possible, but we try not to imagine it. We comfort ourselves with our missile defenses and our air force and our tunnel detection system and our desalinization and our half-baked responses to BDS. Nonetheless, the fear of our expulsion rests deep within all our hearts. Certainly our enemies believe in it. But this fear need not destroy us. It can, instead, serve as the vehicle of our salvation.

Hashem must Zocher us, because otherwise His contract with us is at risk.

So as you daven on Rosh Hashana, by all means recognize the voice of Hashem and find honor in that voice. Perhaps we can be rewarded as Sarah was; or perhaps we can be saved through our Teshuvah. After all, the curses are in the Chumash so that we can recognize them and thus recognize the presence of G-d.

But do not stop there. Allow yourself to feel the fear of another Shoah. Allow yourself to feel the enmity of those who surround us. Allow yourself to feel the reality of the tunnels and the nuclear missiles and the skies of dust and smoke.

Allow yourself to feel all of this and then cry out in your soul.

Cry out and grasp for hope in the voice of the Shofar.

Cry out because, ultimately, our redemption lays in the voice of Hashem.

Cry out in existential fear. Cry out so that Hashem must remember us in order to fulfill His covenant

The existential prayers of Hagar, Avraham, Yitzchak and the slaves in Egypt were wordless cries. So cry out, wordless, and rescue us from the curses that threaten – and warn – our people.

And may we experience another year in which we can give thanks for our tremendous successes – for our science and our learning and our economy and our strength. And may we experience a year in which all of of our curses are lifted and we are blessed with peace, with rain and with the confounding of the plans of our enemies.

Shana Tova

Image: Chad Rosenthal, Flickr

Joseph Cox Author

Joseph Cox is the author of City on the Heights (www.CityontheHeights.com), a thriller about creating hope from war.

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