Rosh Hashanah night 2012
The first time I visited Europe was back in 1970 when our family toured Spain. It was still in the days of that long lived dictator Francisco Franco. In the city of Madrid we made our way to the lone remaining synagogue located in an alleyway. As a thirteen year old I remembered the uncomfortable feeling of having to be quiet and careful while entering the synagogue and listening to a brief explanation. Why would one have the feeling of concealment about being a Jew? I had precious little knowledge about our history but I learned fast about the Spanish Inquisition of the Jewish People. The Jewish community in Madrid at that time lived in total concealment and little did I realize then how we would become experts at hiding our private lives from a hostile world.
In the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw the Nazis forbade the practice of Judaism. Yet there was a resistance in that concealment of Jewish spirituality that chills my bones to this very day. Survivor Chaim Kaplan wrote about the eve of Rosh Hashana in 1940:
“Everything is forbidden to us. The wonder is that we are still alive and that we do everything. And this is true of public prayer too. Secret minyanim by the hundreds throughout Warsaw organize services and do not skip over even the most difficult hymns in the liturgy. There is not even a shortage of sermons. Everything is in accordance with the ancient customs of Israel. The enemy does not know what is going on, and we can assume that no Jewish man, even if he is a Jew born in Poland, would inform on Jews standing before their Maker in prayer.”
And then I read a passage from the Psalms, one of our sacred texts that said that the first day of Rosh Hashanah is known as the day of concealment. For it is written in Psalms, “Sound the Shofar to mark the new month, the time of concealment of our festival” (Ps. 81:4). Even the Talmud (Beitza) echoes this theme of concealment on Rosh Hashana, “Sound the Shofar to mark the new month.” The rabbis ask; “Which festival falls when the new month is concealed? They say that Israel is compared to the moon for it is radiant on the Festivals. On Rosh Hashana, however, Israel diminishes herself and conceals her greatness in trepidation of the Day of Judgment. Some of the Rabbis say that we conceal the holy day of Rosh Hashanah so as to confuse Satan and not enable him to prosecute Israel for its sins.
Jewish history teaches one kind of meaning about concealment, while our theology teaches us another, but both are relevant to what it means to be Jewish in our time. For example, we are living in a world where Jews are -- in most places -- free to pray whenever and wherever we want to. This is particularly true for Jews living in the U.S., where our freedoms are guaranteed by law and protected by social custom. Yet, there are events, troubling ones, that remind us of a time when we lived in fear of what our adversaries might do to us. That feeling of vulnerability is still present today. And what shall be our response on a spiritual level to the situations that threatens Israel, world Jewry and especially America?
At the same time history teaches not to lose hope, but, instead to remain resolute in protecting our way of life. The Talmudic maxim still applies; “Pray as if everything depends on God. Act as if everything depends on human will.” In a way we still have to conceal ourselves to confuse the Satans of today that threaten us. At the same time we do not give in to the threats of radical Islam. We operate from a position of strength. Concealment reveals a paradox between survival and transcending hatred from others. Have we not used concealment to our advantage in order to keep Satan which is a metaphor applying to Iran, the Arabs and others still guessing about Israel’s strength and determination?
The best example of how we have used concealment against our adversary is Iran. Israel has been so effective in the art of surprise. Even with what we know about Israel’s nuclear weaponry, we will not know just how Israel will respond. And that in and of itself is part of Israel’s campaign to make concealment a strategy of psychological warfare.
History has taught us to take madmen seriously at their word. Ahimenijhad is one of them and he belongs to a long line of aggressors against the Jewish state. He would like us to believe that he has constructed a political kind of Warsaw ghetto around us today. He would like us to believe that this burgeoning nuclear capability will hold us hostage at the very least let alone destroy Israel’s way of life. We watch with frustration what the President, the UN and other international bodies debate about how to deter Iran.
We read the Un’tane Tokef prayer proclaiming; “Who shall live and Who shall die.” The prayer does not include words such as “by nuclear attack? But we are thinking about this scenario nevertheless. We get increasingly uneasy as we listen to Defense Minister Ehud Barak refer to Israel missing the moment of inevitability of Iranian nuclear strength and technology.
No one can say for sure what Israel and Iran will do, let alone the United States. Israel’s most effective strategy is to conceal what it will do and not do. Yes, collaborative efforts between America and Israel on the use of effective computer worms and viruses to upset the Iranian system have supposedly been effective. But the public knows precious little about what goes on behind the scenes.
We see how concealment of Israel ‘s fears regarding the long term repercussions of the Arab spring on Israel is another area where Israel conceals its opinions and its strategy should the new political leadership of Egypt, for example, back Hamas and abrogate the Camp David treaty.
In Europe Jews must still contend with anti-Semitism from the right and the left. Whether it is in France where terrorism against Jews continues from Arab radicals or in Britain where the universities carry on efforts to ban Israeli academics and declare Israel as a pariah or a modern day apartheid South Africa, the Jewish communities still live in a sort of precarious situation of enjoying full citizenship but also living as a protected population in case of the next terrorist attack.
Even in our own country and temple we are wary of our vulnerability. Jews live freely but as a community we still conceal ourselves. We have, for example, police protection and not for traffic control at the high holy days. Our temple has installed effective security devices. Despite our freedoms we still depend upon the practice of concealment so as to intimidate and prevent the modern day Satans from attacking us.
What we should never forget is that behind the concealment of our vulnerability we have prevailed because we are the most adaptable people to adversity. Our strength lies in our ability to conquer our fears and to carry on despite the backdrop that we are targets to an enemy that will spring up at any time and at any place. Our dedication to study and building Jewish community wins us more friends in the long term even if it attracts detractors.
One great sage Rabbi Pinchas of a town Koretz in Europe once about two hundred years ago said; “At New Year’s God is in that concealment which is called the “sitting on the throne,” and everyone can see him, everyone according to his own nature; one in weeping, one in prayer and one in the song of praise.” We do not know the answer to what anyone will do let alone what we might do in a given moment. It is another matter to imagine what the Israelis or the United States will do to stop Iran from proclaiming that they have a nuclear weapon. We too bring all our emotions including our fears, tears and our hopes that this will not happen. Just the thought of Iran boasting of their nuclear bomb would evoke all these emotions.
In America we are accustomed to joining with vulnerable religious minorities and ethnic groups who share common enemies with us, and that is why we need to be even more active and supportive of other groups who attack our friends and stand up for them in real and substantive ways. Groups like the Sikhs, for example, as well as other religious minorities, need our support and if we want their support in our time of need then we need to be there for them. That is the kind of strength we cannot conceal but we must be out in front on issues of human rights abuses. If the Holocaust taught anything about the silence of the world, we must not be afraid to act on behalf of our friends.
Our greatest act of concealment is the ability of our people to come together in facing our adversaries. It is an internal and spiritual strength that enables the state of Israel to overcome the challenges of its diversity. It is the concealment of our faith whether it is in God or ourselves or something called history that has sustained us through the darkness and carried us into the light. We never want to go backward into history only to learn from it. We live in a new era of military, political, cultural and spiritual vitality. That is what we conceal as our greatest arsenal against our adversaries. And on this Rosh Hashanah while we see the dangers in the world to Jewish survival in regimes like Iran, we still pray and fight for our right to exist and for our children’s right to have a future and live proudly as Jews.
In the book of Isaiah, it is written “Fear not O Jacob” (44:2). The rabbis tell of the moment that God showed our patriarch Jacob the prince of Babylon going up and down Jacob’s ladder. Then it was the prince of Media or ancient Persia also going up and down the ladder. Afterwards God showed Jacob the vision of the prince of Greece going up and down the ladder of Jacob as well as the prince of Edom or Rome going up and down the ladder of Jacob. Then God tells Jacob, ‘You too may now ascend this sacred ladder I have provided for you.’ Jacob, according the ancient tale, grew afraid saying, “If all of these empires went up and eventually descended in destruction maybe I too will have the same fate for the Jewish people.” God replied, “Do not be afraid, you shall ascend this ladder but you shall never descend” (Leviticus Rabbah 29:3).
On this holy night of Rosh Hashanah we are bound together once again as a unified people all over the world. We ascend the ladder of our destiny and we have never descended. We have concealed our faith and we have drawn upon it in darkness and in light. May we sound the shofar tomorrow morning knowing that faith, dedication and commitment to the tradition and to the history we all share will see us through and that the Satans of our time will fall into obscurity. We are the Jewish people and we shall prevail. Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech haolam shechiyanu v’keyimanu ihegeyan lazman hazeh.