Hope and Action: Weathering This Summer's Storms©

Hope and Action:  Weathering This Summer's Storms©
By Rabbi David Baum
Congregation Shaarei Kodesh, First Day of Rosh Hashanah 5775

Let me set the scene for you.  It was Labor Day, just a couple of weeks ago.  My wife had to work, so I had the kids alone.

Like many over the holiday, we decided to go to the beach.  The beach we went to in Boca was interesting in the following way – you have to walk a great distance to get to the ocean.  The weather was absolutely beautiful – sunny, hot but with a nice breeze, and not a cloud in the sky.  We built sand castles together, went swimming together, played and laughed. 

Suddenly, out of nowhere, a dark cloud developed right over us, and it started pouring rain.  Everyone around us fled to the street, some collecting their belongings, and some leaving them. 

There we were, the three of us, alone on the beach, and I had a decision to make. 

Here’s my question – if you were in my ‘sandals’, standing there with your children, unprepared for the onslaught of dark clouds and rain, what would you do? 

In those short moments during that storm, I felt what we all felt over the summer. 

This summer, we all experienced this dark cloud that over came us.  Everything was sunny in the world for the Jews.  We were building our sand castles, living life as usual, and the summer came – a time for vacations and fun, a time to take a break. 

Suddenly, we were pelted with tragedy after another. 

The first cloud developed –
-The kidnapping of the three Jewish teens, Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Frankel, and 19 days later, the worst news came to fruition – the three boys were murdered almost immediately after they were taken captive by Hamas terrorists. 

-Days later, a Palestinian teen, Muhammed Al Kheder, was kidnapped and viciously killed by Jewish terrorists. 

We looked at ourselves in the mirror asking, is this what we have come to?  To animals who would kill indiscriminately?

-Then the rockets fired from Gaza.  For 5 long weeks, our Israeli brothers and sisters hid in bomb shelters, not just in the south, where this was common, but in the north, in Tel Aviv, in Haifa, and even in Jerusalem.  Had it not been for the Iron Dome – there would have been many more casualties and damage. 

Israel had no choice but to attack Hamas in Gaza. 
Thousands of Israeli civilians were called up from reserves, along with thousands of young Israeli men and women already serving in the IDF. 

In Gaza, they found a vast and complex tunnel system which was used by Hamas to shoot rockets, but also attack cities in Israel. 

We don’t know how many Israelis would have been killed had we not destroyed the vast tunnel network. 

At the same time in France, synagogues were fire bombed, and Jews attacked all across Europe. 

Anti-Semitic rallies sprang up across Europe with chants – Jews to the gas chambers, Death to Israel.  

Even here in South Florida, synagogues were defaced with Swastikas and other hate language.

We saw hatred of Jews and Israel spread on the internet coming into our living rooms, our phones, everywhere we went through our Faceboook and Twitter Feeds. 

Things seemed absolutely hopeless, we were stuck on the beach, under the dark clouds, being pelted, and I thought to myself during the summer, will the dark clouds ever pass?  Is this the new normal?

Israelis were wondering, will we ever leave our bomb shelters? 
Will we ever have peace? 

Jews around the world thought, do we have to be scared to wear a kippah, or a chai necklace, or go to synagogue? 

We feel what I felt on the beach, something that we Jews have not felt for a long time– true vulnerability.

My question is:  what do we do moving forward under these dark clouds?   

Today is Rosh Hashanah, and there are many names for this holiday, but of the names is Yom HaDin – Judgment Day. 

When thinking about judgment, I thought of a passage from the Talmud where a famous Rabbi named Rava envisioned how we are judged after we die, when we transition to Olam Habah.  As we stand before the Kadosh Baruch Hu, we will be asked a series of questions – but I want to focus on just one of them.

Tzipita L’Yeshuah – did we expect salvation? 
Yeshuah, salvation, is one of the core concepts of Judaism, something we sometimes overlook. 

There’s an old saying – how does a Jewish telegram start?  Start worrying, details to follow.  Worrying and fear seems to be part of our DNA, but so is salvation.  I think Yeshuah can also mean something else – hope. 

We literally begin every week with this idea through the Havdallah service, which mentions the word salvation, yeshua, over and over again. 

It’s during this short prayer service that we recite the following words from the book of Esther, La Yehudim Ha’yetah orah vesimcha vesason vikar, kehn tihei lanu – The Jews had light, joy, and honor; may we have the same.  
Kos Yeshuot Esa u’veshem Adonai Yikrah
I will raise my cup of deliverance and call out in the name of God. 

Our gift to the world is not to be the worrywarts – our gift to the world is that despite all odds, we hope – we have light, joy and honor, and we share this with the world. 

The Jews teach the world how to hope. 

This holiday has another name – Yom Teruah – the Day of the Blowing of the Shofar, the symbol of hope. 

Today is the day of hope. 

But hope alone is not enough– it must be coupled with action. 

The modern state of Israel was built with this formula – hope and action.  The early Zionists refused to wait for the coming of the Messiah in order to see their dream of a Jewish state in the land of Israel realized.  They kept their hope alive, but they knew that they had to take action in order to achieve their dream. 

When the Jews of Eastern Europe were hit with pogroms, and the Jews of Western Europe were dealing with the realities of the Dreyfus affair – they turned their gaze to Zion as their best hope for a Jewish future.  The first settlers of the land were looking for names for their first foot hold in the land – so they went to the book of Hosea where God promised to turn the valley of trouble into a gateway of hope – so they called the first settlement- Petach Tikvah, the gateway or opening of hope. 

It is this hope that led Yishae Fraenkel the uncle of the slain Israeli teenager Naftali Fraenkel and Rachaeli Frankel, Naftali’s mother, to offer their condolences in a phone call to Hussein Abu Khdeir, whose 16-year-old son was murdered by Jewish extremists.  Fraenkel added that “there is no difference between those who murdered Muhammed, and those who murdered our children, no difference when it comes to blood. Those are murderers, and these are murderers.  There is no justification, forgiveness or atonement for any murder.”

It wasn’t just the Fraenkel’s, but thousands of Israelis who came to Muhamed’s family’s home for a shiva call, organized by the group called Tag Meir, a tag of light, a play on the Hebrew tag mechir, price tag, which is used by Jewish extremists to attack Palestinians. 

It was a heterogeneous collection of religious and secular, native Israelis and Anglo immigrants, lefties but lots of centrists, too and even those from the right. As one of the participants Rabbi Daniel Gordis, described:  “This was not about politics, we knew; this was about being human.”

Even now – despite it all – Israelis hope that they can one day have normal relations with her neighbors. 

The Shofar is an instrument of both tears and hope, each sound represents a cry, but the tekiah gedolah is the sound of hope.  But blowing the shofar isn’t enough, we must also engage in three actions to accompany the shofar:  Tesuvah, Tefillah, and Tzedakah. 

We can employ these three acts to combat the trauma of this summer:

Tesuvah – we can return to Israel – literally return.  We are organizing a mission to Israel – it’s not just to visit, but a return to our ancestral homeland.  Our purpose is to journey together, as a congregation, to reconnect with the land, and our people.  Journeying to Israel is not cheap – but it’s worth it, not just for us, but for Israel.  The Israeli economy took a hit this summer, but more than economic, they were hit spiritually.  By visiting Israel, we not only help ourselves, but we help our brothers and sisters in Israel.  When a loved one is sick or in trouble, we can call, we can email, but seeing that person face to face makes all the difference in the world.  Journey with us as we see Israel face to face. 

Tefillah – we can literally pray, but L’Hitpallel is also a reflexive term – it means to judge or assess oneself.  Loving Israel in the coming year doesn’t mean not having an opinion about what goes on in Israel.  Israel is an imperfect place, like every other country in the world.  Israel has problems with Jewish pluralism, with their treatment, at times, of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, of Bedouins, they have problems with the Haredim (the Ultra Orthodox), with poverty, but it is a country that is striving for perfection.  We can criticize, but there are lines, in my opinion, that must be drawn – any criticisms must be in the spirit love and understanding – for every criticism, one must couple it with a statement of love We can never support attacks that are veiled as criticisms, for example, holding Israel to a higher standard than any country in the world, and the B.D.S. – the movement that seeks to boycott, divest, and sanction Israel, in my opinion, an attempt to destroy Israel.  And apathy, not caring about Israel at all, is not an option either. 

Israel is leading the world in innovation in technology, and I believe that even though the things in this world that we take for granted, our cell phones, tablets, computers, and more came from Israel, and I believe the solution to many of our worlds’ problems, like climate change and the cure for diseases like ALS and cancer, will come from Israel.   

Tzedakah – this one is easy, outside, we have numerous opportunities to help the state of Israel. On Saturday evening, I want each one of you to download an app to your phone called Am Yisrael BUY which was created by Rabbi Daniel M Cohen of Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange, NJ.  The app will not only give you a number of great causes in Israel to support, but also gives you a list of Israeli companies that sell food, cosmetics, women’s clothing, and books.  It’s an opportunity to touch Israel everyday from your smart phone. 

I don’t know what the future holds for Israel – but I’m hopeful for the future, if we take action – we can avert the severity of the decree.

Let’s return to the beach this Labor Day, as I sat with my two boys, and the rain started coming down.  Everyone around us grabbed their stuff, or left it at the beach, and ran away.  We were utterly alone, so what should we do?  It was at that moment that I remembered a story my grandfather told me when he was with his little brother, and his father in the final days of World War II in a concentration camp. 

In 1943, before Pesach, my grandfather Frank was with his mother, Rosalie, and father, Alexander, his two brothers, Emery and Bondy, and his sister, Magda and even though the world was at war, they were ok, because at least they were together.  

(Last Family Picture taken immediately before Passover 1943)

Then, before the Seder, he was taken away by the Nazis.  Let’s think about this timing – the day before the Seder, which represents freedom and hope, my grandfather began his slavery.  For years he toiled in various labor camps, not knowing what had happened to his family.  Toward the end of the war, he was imprisoned in Mauthausen, a notorious concentration and death camp known for its policy of extermination through labor along with its gas chambers and crematoriums.  This was the worst camp that he had experienced, and it literally almost killed him.  Daily he would see people throw themselves on the electric wire, or give up and send themselves to the crematorium, and he would see their ashes, a dark cloud that hovered over the camp at all times. 

I asked my grandfather – what kept you from ending your own life? 

He thought for a bit, and answered – “my father taught us always to hope, despite the pain and the tears, and to keep going, to survive.” 

So he kept hoping he would see his family again.  He would go around asking if anyone had seen his family.  And one day, a miracle occurred, he found some of them – his father, Alexander, and his younger brother, Bondy.

My Grandpa Frank was at the lowest point, he didn’t know how much longer he could hold on – but seeing his father and what he represented helped him carry on.  Alexander brought his two sons together, and told them that they would stick together and help each other survive.  He told them that they would be liberated; that the war will end, and they will return and get everything back that they had lost.  There were many set backs along the way; the storm didn’t dissipate, it grew worse.  Sensing the end, the Nazis started killing Jews faster and faster, forcing them to march for days to wear them down. 

Weakened, Frank came down with Typhus, and they were starving.  Still, his father told them to hope – that the storm will pass, but they must act to survive.  In early May of 1945, the Americans liberated Mauthausen, and his brother and father were there beside him.  My grandfather was so ill that he couldn’t move, so his brother and father placed him on a hospital cart.  Had they not done this, my Grandpa Frank would have surely died.  They said goodbye to each other, and even as he said goodbye, his father told him that things would be better.  Little did Frank know that this would be the last time he would see his father. 

A few days after liberation, my great grandfather Alexander succumbed to Typhus in the same hospital where his son Frank was recuperating.  

Before the war, their small town of Komarno, Czechoslovakia, was home to 3,000 Jews.  After the war, only 16 Jews survived, and only three of sixteen were from the same family, my grandfather Frank, my great uncle Bondy, and my great aunt Magda who survived Auschwitz. 

They survived, and because of them, I was on the beach with my sons on Labor Day, and speaking with you today. 

So what did we do on the beach on Labor Day under those dark clouds?

The rain was painful and stinging.  My oldest son looked at me and said Abba, it hurts! I was tested – do we run away, do we give up?  Instead, I felt the heart of my great-grandfather, and I gathered my sons close to me, and held them.  I shielded them as best I could through the rain.  The rain went on, for longer than even I expected, but I told them to hang on. 

Finally, the sun came out – and there we were standing, alone, the beach to ourselves.  Our things may have been wet, and we may have been a licking our wounds, but we were alive and stronger than we were before. 

Rava says that God will ask us – did you expect salvation – did you hope?  I did hope – because it’s what my great grandfather taught me to do. 

Is there any wonder that the Israeli National Anthem is called HaTikvah – the hope? 

כֹּל עוֹד בַּלֵּבָב פְּנִימָה
As long as in the heart, within,
נֶפֶשׁ יְהוּדִי הוֹמִיָּה
A Jewish soul still yearns,
וּלְפַאֲתֵי מִזְרָח, קָדִימָה,
And onward, towards the ends of the east,
עַיִן לְצִיּוֹן צוֹפִיָּה,
An eye still gazes toward Zion;
עוֹד לֹא אָבְדָה תִּקְוָתֵנוּ,
Our hope is not yet lost,
הַתִּקְוָה בַּת שְׁנוֹת אַלְפַּיִם
The hope of two thousand years,
לִהְיוֹת עַם חָפְשִׁי בְּאַרְצֵנוּ,
To be a free people in our land,
אֶרֶץ צִיּוֹן וִירוּשָׁלַיִם.The land of Zion and Jerusalem.

Hope is what we Jews do best.  We weather the storm, and although many of us do not make it; we stick together to ensure that others will carry on our legacy. 

We hope for the future – and we journey onward. 

Frederick the Great, the ruler of one of the states that eventually came together and formed Germany, liked to dabble in Philosophy. One day he asked one of his Philosophy Advisors: “Give me a proof of the existence of God. But I am busy, and I have no time to waste. So give me a proof of the existence of God, and give it to me in no more than two words.”

The advisor said to him: “Your majesty-----the Jews”.

Our very existence is a miracle that testifies to the power of hope and action – we are the voice of the shofar in this world. 

La Yehudim Ha’yetah orah vesimcha vesason vikar – The Jews have light, joy, and honor – and we hold all these things in our together hearts. 

When we stood at Sinai, under the dark clouds, ready to accept Torah, the famous Medieval commentator Rashi writes that we were k'ish echad, b'lev echad– Like one person, with one heart. 

We have passed this heart of hope on for generations – our bodies may not be there, but our hearts and spirit are passed on – within you is the heart of Bnai Israel who were taken from slavery to freedom and to Torah; within you is the heart of the great prophets and kings of Israel; within you is the heart of Rava who ordered us to expect hope, and within you is the heart of my great – grandfather who made his children hope for a brighter future and gave them the strength to survive.   

Here we stand, the beginning of a New Year.  We have made it to the Promised Land – we have a Jewish state of Israel – and we must work to ensure that it is there for our children and their children.
And despite the storms we face, we must always live with hope in our hearts. 


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