By Rabbi Danny Wolfe
This year, more than any other year in recent memory, the reading of the tochacha,the fateful curses upon the Jewish People comes with a certain dread. Reading how “Hashem will cause you to be struck down before your enemies” and, “your carcass will be food for every bird of the sky and animal of the earth,” just isn’t sitting so well. Reading about how “Hashem will carry against you a nation from afar, from the end of the earth as an eagle will swoop, a nation whose language you will not understand that will cause you to perish, and besiege you in all your cities, until the collapse of your high and fortified walls in which you trusted throughout your land” cause me to tremble. These verses, which we read every year, remind me of the state in which we currently find ourselves. They remind me of how our government is preparing to give a hateful regime whose sworn to destroy us the green light to develop a nuclear infrastructure. I am no historian, but one thing I have learned as a young man whose great grandparents marched valiantly to the gas chambers, is that when a tyrannical hateful dictator pledges to murder you, we ought to believe him.
As we read the tochacha, we are reminded how difficult life can sometimes be. We see this on a national level; we are seeing this on a communal level, and after a ten day stay in the hospital for my precious child, I have seen this on a personal level.
I believe that it is also of no coincidence that we read of these terrifying curses on the eve of reciting selichos, as we prepare ourselves to stand before G-d in judgment. I have read about how Elul looked in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries; how there was a dread of aimas hadin in the month preceding Rosh Hashana. The fact that people’s lives were in balance was very real to those who lived in Europe; the feeling was palpable. It wasn’t until this year that I ever came close to experiencing that fear, that pachad nora. But as I sat earlier this week saying Psalms while my baby was under anesthesia getting her third MRI in a month, I got a glimpse of this fear. I sat there, terrified of what the doctors might find. A feeling of total helplessness overtook me. There was simply nothing I could do to affect the result.
An MRI is a Magnetic Resonance imaging machine which is a medical imaging technique used in radiology to investigate the anatomy and physiology of the body in both health and disease. And it occurred to me that is exactly what every single one of us experiences on Rosh Hashana. The machzor quotes a Mishnah in Rosh Hashana which portrays a very clear image of what happens on Rosh Hashana: All of humanity stands before Hashem like sheep pass in front of a shepherd who counts and analyzes each sheep.” There is no hiding anything from an MRI. On Rosh Hashana G-d analyzes us, and there is nothing that goes unnoticed. This is terrifying.
Furthermore, the Torah itself gives us a very specific description of why the terrible curses will be unleashed upon the Jewish People. It’s not because of our previous propensity towards idol worship. It’s not because we neglected Torah Study or were lax in our Shabbos observance. Rather, the Torah says, this fate will fall upon us, “because you did not serve Hashem, your G-d amid gladness and goodness of heart…” The penetrating question that comes to mind, is for one, how can we even function, how can we move on when we are living amid such fear? And even if we are able to cope, how exactly are we supposed to serve Hashem with joy, given the current state of affairs nationally, communally, and personally? How can we be expected to excitedly live our lives as ovdei Hashem given the depressing, downright scary situation we find ourselves in?
The truth is, I think there are a number of answers to this. One answer is even written explicitly at the beginning of the parsha: “v’samachta b’chol HaTov Asher Nasan Lecha Hashem Elokecha Ul’veysecha… – You shall rejoice with all the good that Hashem has given to you and your household…” I believe this means you shouldfocus on the amazing things Hashem has blessed you with. No matter how bad you have it, you are still endowed with many special gifts. If you can’t hear from one ear, but can hear from another ear, that is a fantastic blessing. If you cannot walk, but can hear and see, that is a priceless gift from G-d. No matter how bad things are, as long as your heart is beating you have what to be enormously grateful for. As we say in Tehillim, and the Talmud in Shabbos brings, “Lo Hameisim Yehallelu Kah…V’anachnu nevareich Ka m’atah v’ad olam…”
But what I wanted to focus on today was a different way that we can serve G-d with joy, even amid the trepidation we feel in our daily lives. This reason is reflected repeatedly in the Rosh Hashana Liturgy. Through the gorgeous Avinu Malkeinu prayer, we say every single day except Shabbos from Rosh Hashana until Yom Kippur that the One deciding our future, and analyzing us is not only the King of the Universe, but He is also our Father. Our Father, who loves His children more than it is even possible to fathom. It is not some distant, cold judge who is passing judgment upon us, it is our loving Father who only wants what is best for us.
In a similar vein, we read the piyut (poem) by R’ Shlomo ibn Gabriol “Mimcha, Elecha, Evrach; from you, to you, I escape.” This cryptic piyut might very well allude to the fact that as a result of our fear of judgment, we seek to run away from Hakadosh Baruch Hu. But then when we realize that it is our loving and merciful Father Who is deciding our fate, we turn around, and escape, find refuge, in His loving embrace. When we understand, and are real with the fact that our Judge is the Almighty, who has a plan for us and the world, and who is only good, we realize that the fear begins to dissipate.
On the morning of July 15th, after hearing the terrifying news that my 6 month old daughter Tzippora Bracha had been sent by ambulance to another hospital to treat her severe meningitus, as I drove towards the hospital, with tears flowing down my cheeks, the song that ‘randomly’ began playing from a list of several thousand songs, was a song by Shlomo Katz called Min Hameitzar. As helpless and utterly alone I felt, as I heard the magical words composed by Dovid Hamelech, “Hashem Li Lo Ira, Hashem is with me, I will not fear.” I realized, as Rebbe Nachman said “V’afilu b’hastara, Sh’betoch Hastara B’vadai Gam Sham Nimtza Hasheim yisborach; Even in a concealment within a concealment, Hashem, may He be blessed, is certainly there.”
During this frightening time let us not forget that Hashem is with us every step of the way. And let it also not be lost upon us the fact that the MRI comparison is absolutely flawed. Because unlike when a person gets an MRI, in which the person has zero control over the outcome, as we pass before Hashem, we have every opportunity to alter the outcome through heartfelt teshuva.
I would like to conclude with a prayer taken straight from this week’s beautiful Parsha: “Gaze down, from Your holy abode, from the heavens, and bless Your people, Israel, and the ground that you gave us, as You swore to our forefather, a land flowing with milk and honey.”
May we all have a beautiful kesiva v’chasima Tova.
Rabbi Wolfe is the Director of the Young Adults Division (AKA “JewPro”) at The Jewish Experience.