Looking for a head start on making New Year’s resolutions that will work? Watching Jews do it on Rosh Hashanah will give you four months of lead time. It might also give you some insight on which world problems can be solved in the near future, and which ones won’t.
There is nothing essentially Jewish about Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Its theme is not even Jewish. Traditionally, it marks the day on which Adam (who was not a member of the Tribe) was created, became conscious of G-d’s existence, disobeyed Him, and then repented and was forgiven. Marking that day each year, G-d judges all people and all things, assessing how good a job they have done in the tasks that He has allocated to each of them.
On that basis, they are hopefully inscribed in the Book of Life—or not! Observant Jews spend a month before Rosh Hashanah taking painful inventory of their lives, how they have treated others, G-d, and themselves, and how seriously they have taken their commitment to their Creator in the past year.
On the Day of Judgment, we would expect that the exceptionally long prayer service includes self-examination, confession, and pleas for Divine forgiveness. Surprisingly, those elements are just not there. (They surface in abundance ten days later, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.) The ancient prayers substitute page after page of medieval poetry which has the effect of a pep rally for the G-d Team. Assuming, as Jewish thought does, that you just can’t butter up a Divine Being, what’s the point?
The point is simple and powerful. All of us spend far too much time on details, and not enough time on major principle. We negotiate differences between husbands and wives, parents and children, employers and employees by paying attention to the grievances presented by two parties. This is sometimes the best we can do, but often doomed to failure.
If the commitment between the two parties is strong—and you can get both sides to declare it—anything is possible. When it is not, you are looking at a hudna, but not a solution. If a parent can declare her love for her child, and he can verbalize his appreciation of his mother, any problem between them can be addressed. If they have no common vocabulary—the reciprocal love between parent and child—working on the details of their relationship will be shallow and unsatisfying.
Calvin Coolidge, perhaps our most taciturn President, returned from church on a Sunday morning. His wife asked him what the preacher spoke about. “Sin,” he replied, in his typical laconic manner. She pressed him to tell her more. “What did he have to say about it? “He was against it,” replied Silent Cal.
On Rosh Hashanah, committed Jews follow ancient wisdom in announcing that they, too, are against sin. They declare—they shout, and shout again—their understanding of G-d as King, as the One they are responsible to without reservation. Details are not important. They can be filled in later, like a paint-by-number canvas. The important thing is to understand the basic principle. Any successful New Year’s resolution, for Jew or non-Jew, will be cut from this same cloth.
Human beings will solve the difficulties among themselves in the same way that Man can be reconciled with G-d. Solutions come from understanding commonality, not erasing difference. For most Jews this year, the Day of Judgment (as it is called in the Jewish prayer book) will be a day of multiple judgments.
For most Jews, the seriousness of the day (how can a day not be serious, when you see your life, and the lives of your loved ones hanging in the balance?) will be intensified this year as it coincides with the first round of direct talks in a long while between Israelis and Palestinians. The United States wants to see progress towards peace in the Middle East. It has far more clout with Israel, its close ally, than with the Palestinians, themselves divided between the different visions of the Palestinian Authority and the rejectionist Hamas.
Will Israel be forced to make concessions that compromise her security—as has happened so often in the past? Or will a new President and changed times succeed in nudging reluctant parties closer to a solution they have not been able to produce on their own? The future of the Jewish State also hangs in the balance.
Jews would like to believe that it is an auspicious time. Rosh Hashanah affirms the commonality of humanity, born of a common ancestor, all created in the image of G-d. It is one of the most powerful religious motifs available and shared by Christians, Muslims and Jews. There are ominous signs, however, that the optimism is misplaced.
Just days before the talks resumed, Hamas terrorists took advantage of the removal of roadblocks that subjected Arabs in Israel to security checks. They waited in ambush, and sprayed a car with bullets, killing four civilians, two men and two women, one of them in her ninth month of pregnancy. To be certain they had done their job well, they then approached the car and fired round after round into their bodies for good measure before fleeing.
Horrible as it is, this episode is a detail. The principle behind it is worse. In Gaza, Hamas distributed candy, and a crowd of thousands cheered at the success of the mission. Ali Abunimah is a frequently-quoted “moderate,” writing often in places like The Guardian, Huffington Post, and the New York Times. Abunimah rejects Israel’s right to exist, and had this to say about the massacre: “Civilian deaths are always tragic. Israel must stop using civilian settlers as human shields for the land it is stealing.”
Propelling the term “human shield” to new depths of misuse and immorality, Abunimah in one fell swoop undoes the Geneva Convention, and ends all distinction between combatants and civilians. Just who are the “settlers,” now that we have declared open season on them? This is what Archbishop Theodosios Atallah Hanna has said: “From the river to the sea, that is Palestine.” Omar Barghouti, the founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, and voice of the international Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel says this about negotiating: “I am completely and categorically against binationalism because it assumes that there are two nations with equal moral claims to the land.”
In brief, Israelis/Jews are not quite human, there is no distinction between combatants and non-combatants, Israelis are not even stakeholders in the region, except by usurpation, and all of Israel—every last inch—is illegally occupied. These are not details. Can there be peace with people who think this way? Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made reference after reference to the need for two peoples, each with a stake and claim in the region, to live side by side. Can there be peace with those who simply do not believe this and see the blood of their enemy as entirely worthless?
We will dip our apples in the honey at our tables this week, looking towards a sweet new year, but the words of a woman in Efrat will haunt us. Her six-year-old son is mentally disabled and was very attached to his teacher, one of the women who was slain. Speaking to the Palestinians, she said, “When you can look at this act with same gut wrenching horror as a six year old who just lost his teacher, you will be ready to make a real peace.”
The rest is just detail.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper is associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is Director of Interfaith Affairs at the Simon Wiesenthal Center.