June 17, 2024
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Rosh Hashanah 5782: The ‘State’ of God in Our World

“All of humanity pass before You as sheep.” On Rosh Hashanah every human stands before God in judgment. He reviews our behavior, scrutinizes our hearts and determines our fate for the coming year. On this solemn Day of Judgment we also celebrate Divine sovereignty. Our shofar blast recalls watershed moments in history: creation, the binding of Isaac, Jewish selection, Sinai and, of course, the Messianic vision. Rosh Hashanah is both a day of solemn judgment but also one of Divine majesty and religious splendor.

God is infinite and omnipresent, spanning the entire universe independent of human detection. His “status” on our planet, however, is an entirely different matter. By vesting humans with free will, God abdicated control of His presence in this world. Humans are free to bolster God’s presence in this world or to undermine it. Our Jewish mission is to draw God into our world, speak in His name and hoist humanity to higher ground. Rosh Hashanah is the great day of Divine authority, human free will and Jewish destiny.

On this day of gravitas, with both trepidation and anticipation, we look toward the future—praying for prosperity and success. We dream of augmenting God, religion and moral spirit in this world. This year, especially, we yearn for a healed world and a repaired society. But on Rosh Hashanah we also look back upon the previous year: Which events over the past year have enhanced the presence of God in our world, and which events have diminished His presence?

 

COVID-19

We have been overwhelmed by a once-in-a-lifetime crisis that has altered every nook and cranny of our lives and every sphere of human endeavor. Our once-cheerful and upbeat world has been cloaked with the darkness of death and suffering. Periods during which the presence of God is veiled are referred to as “hester panim,” literally “concealed presence.” Unfortunately, for many, over the past year God’s presence has been masked. How could a God of mercy allow such seemingly random death and suffering? For some the pandemic has provoked a crisis of faith. For others, the pandemic has actually amplified the voice of God in their souls. My teacher, Rav Yehuda Amital, was once asked where God was during the Holocaust and he replied, “That God was with him in the concentration camp.” In the face of adversity and even catastrophe, oftentimes God becomes more accessible. During this year of “retreat” we have withdrawn from the busyness of our world into a quieter and smaller space. So many layers—from our social lives to our professional occupation to our educational ambitions—have been shed. When these external layers are cast aside we more deeply sense our core self. For some, this existential moment actually brings the presence of God into greater focus.

Additionally, the epidemic has underscored the limits of human achievement. We had become intoxicated with human prowess, technological innovation and the limitlessness of science. Soaring above our world, we presumed ourselves invincible. We flew too close to the sun and our wings have melted. COVID-19 has lessoned us about the limits of human convention. Science has revolutionized our world, but it hasn’t prevented this calamity. Medicine has extended life, but hasn’t been able to fully overcome this virus. Democracy is a powerful tool and empowers people with individual choice. Sometimes, though, that freedom of choice can endanger lives. Those who decide not to vaccinate are exercising their freedom of choice but imperiling others. The epidemic has reminded us of the inherent limits of human achievement. Everything of human construction is flawed and vulnerable. Perfection lies in Heaven and can only be delivered by God. Until we receive His perfection we try our utmost, despite our limits, to advance our condition with the impressive tools He endowed to us. This year we stand before God, determined to utilize His tools, but humbled by our overall inadequacy.

 

Islamic Fundamentalism and the Hijacking of God

This past year, the radical Islamic fundamentalist movement has made significant advances. After a 20-year failed experiment with democracy, Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Sanctions upon Iran have been removed, freeing this hub of violent Islamic fundamentalism to disseminate its vitriol and sow terror and instability across the world. The attacks in the airport in Kabul may signal the return of widespread ISIS terror. Our battle with Islamic fundamentalism isn’t merely political or military. It is theological. Radical Islamic fundamentalism murders in the name of God, preaches a culture that celebrates death and depicts God as elated by human suffering. By doing so, these religious terrorists deface the image of God in our world. God isn’t angry, nor is He militant. He doesn’t crave revenge or suffering, but desires human welfare and prosperity. Denying the true traits of God is tantamount to denying His presence. Those who wrongfully describe God as angry and ireful are effectively no better than atheists.

This theological vandalism is misrepresenting God in the modern discourse. Sadly, many people associate religion and God with death and anger. As the protectors of God’s image in our world we must speak a different voice and must remind humanity of God’s true “colors”: compassion, mercy and the dignity of the human condition.

 

Surging Antisemitism

Antisemitism has been on the rise for the past few years, but this past year it has exploded. The BDS movement has been emboldened and economically weaponized, as evidenced by the recent Ben and Jerry’s boycott. The war in Gaza provided ample fodder for Israel’s enemies eliciting absurdly simplistic accusations devoid of any context or nuance. Fringe-left politicians across the world allied with anti-Israel movements, have normalized virulent antisemitic statements.

Rising interest in social justice and in racial and gender equality is heartening. We all pray on Rosh Hashanah for a kinder world of compassion, equal opportunity and less exploitation. However, often these “equality” movements are wedded to broader agendas such as the politics of intersectionality or the culture of “woke.” These eccentric alliances incite more people into open hostility against the state of the Jews.

Finally, months of being locked in and quarantined has taken its toll, both upon our social fabric as well as upon our emotional welfare. Stress, frustration and social tensions have historically been vented at history’s scapegoat—the Jewish nation. Sadly, this epidemic hasn’t been much different from previous disasters.

On a more positive note, the Abraham Accords have entrenched peace between former adversaries. Based on common strategic interests, these alliances have outlasted shifting tensions in the region as well as the war in Gaza. Settling our homeland while establishing harmonious relations with our neighbors delivers harmony and welfare to our region while advancing the Jewish historical trajectory.

We represent God in our world and any attack against the Jewish people reduces the presence of God in this world. Alternatively, recognition of our distinct historical role and of our right to Israel solidifies the Divine presence. We pray for more coalitions and less antisemitism.

 

Politicalization of Religion in Israel

Unfortunately, religious life in Israel has become highly political. A mix of politics and religion never ends well for religion. In particular, the role of the Chief Rabbinate has become more controversial and more politically charged. The core of the problem lies in the Chief Rabbinate being tasked with two contradictory functions. On the one hand it is assigned as caretaker of basic religious services and standards. As custodians of kashrut, conversion and marriage, the Rabbinate must uphold exacting standards that aren’t always popular or even properly understood by the broader public. The average Israeli citizen can’t be expected to fully understand the intricate laws of kashrut or the complicated process of conversion.

On the other hand, the Chief Rabbinate should serve an honorary function, functioning as a national religious icon for the State, its citizens and Jews across the globe. This second function is not unlike the Office of the Israeli President: a non-political figurehead and office representing the entire population and symbolizing our joint national aspirations.

Sadly, we haven’t yet discovered the winning combination. We haven’t succeeded at juggling these two opposing agendas and, for many, the Chief Rabbinate has unfortunately become a polarizing issue. As it officially represents religion in the Jewish state, its loss of popularity diminishes the public prestige of religion. It is of yet unclear how proper balances can be restored to enable the Chief Rabbinate to inspire broad interest in religion while upholding rigorous religious standards. Restoring the luster of this office would lend greater national status to religion.

These are just some of the events and trends that have impacted our agenda of drawing God into our world. On Rosh Hashanah we ponder the bookends of history: the day the world was created, when God’s authority was uncontested and the end of history when His presence will be unmistakable. Rosh Hashanah is the day to ponder this great journey and to assess the state of God in our world.

Ketiva Vachatima Tova


The writer is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva. He has semicha and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University as well as a master’s degree in English literature from the City University of New York.

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