One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons depicts a writer at his editor’s desk. The caption reads, “Well Mr. Dickens. Was it the best of times, or was it the worst of times? It certainly couldn’t have been both.”
I’ve come to believe that we Jews are no strangers to living simultaneously in the best of times as well as in the worst. Israel continues to battle neighbors bent on her annhilation. Across Europe today, Jewish cemeteries are being desecrated. While this is not the worst of times, surely, the drumbeats of the years leading up to the Shoah echo disconcertingly.
And yet this is also one of the best times to be a Jew. Israel exists as a sovereign nation. The return to Zion, a flowering Galilee, praying in Jerusalem are realities , not merely the hopes and dreams or the text of petitionary prayers. Those of us and our children who have been to Israel, even once, are anomalies in Jewish history.
I imagine us Jews as cross country skiers, schussing our way forward on one ski while bringing up the second ski, a ski of history, right along side the first. In this 21st century, we continue to study lessons gleaned from the lives of the patriarchs and matriarchs. The wisdom of Maimonides and Hillel guide us even as we learn from today’s sages: such as Rabbis Lawrence Kushner; Joseph Telushkin, and Debra Orenstein. In these United States, a Jew ran for Vice President. Imagine! And yet we know from history how quickly a tide can turn.
As the world situation fluctuates from yellow to orange and back again, as Israel faces more dilemmas than Medusa had snakes, I don’t take lightly the good fortune of living at this point in Jewish history. One Shabbat this summer our candles burned in the dining room window. As I watched them dying down, I was struck by our family’s good fortune. The candles burned in their holders in full view of any dog walkers and passers by. The meat on the table was kosher, bought easily at one of several grocers in the community that carry kosher meat. I had no qualms about going to synagogue the next morning to chant Torah. Going to synagogue in confidence was a dayenu; chanting Torah was a double dayenu.
One Rabbi in town ask congregants to stand on Rosh Hashanah and commit publicly to ten hours of volunteer service to the community. This morning I’ll ask you to rise, not in public but in your heart, and consider incorporating a Jewish ritual of your choosing in the new year. Perhaps it’s setting aside Friday night for a Shabbat meal and celebration. Or learning the alef-bet so that by next Rosh Hashanah, the letters of the prayers reveal themselves to you. Or maybe this year you’ll begin blessing your children as part of your Shabbat evening.
It might feel odd the first time or two. When my husband and I started out, who knew from sukkah building or blessing children? But there’s a Jewish saying that after the third time it’s tradition. I would add that after the third time you look forward to the fourth.
This morning is Shabbat Shuvah. Rosh HaShanah has come and gone but we still bask in its light even as we turn our faces to the arduous tasks of Yom Kippur.
We Jews live in both circular and linear time. This is what enables us to ski over terrain at once smooth and rocky. In the coming year, as you enter a new year while returning to the past, consider adding a new Jewish ritual or celebration to your life. Not because you are commanded to. Not even because you should. But perhaps simply because, at this wonderful time in Jewish history, you can.