Personal Post-Storm Rosh Hashanah Reflections
The recent storms in Houston and the Southeast have dominated our thoughts, emotions and efforts. They have also introduced new and renewed relationships for me and my colleagues at the Orthodox Union. We have received an extraordinary number of calls and emails, sharing information and sharing feelings. In this spirit, I share with you some of my thoughts in anticipation of Rosh Hashanah.
I typically stumble into selichos, and then Rosh Hashanah, lamenting my inexcusable failure to prepare with the necessary effort and attention. I had hoped that this year would be different since, after decades of being occupied with my legal practice, I had shifted my focus to Jewish community concerns. Then came Harvey, and then came Irma. And the likelihood of entertaining a mussar seder, or a pre-holiday review of the machzor, became even more remote than it would have been, in any case. Upon reflection, however, the recent storms may have been a most effective introduction to the coming days.
Prominent among the themes of the High Holidays is malchios, G-d’s Kingship. A focus on G-d’s Kingship requires not only recognition and exploration of the presence of G-d, but also an awareness of the nature of mankind.
We remind ourselves that G-d is the Creator, is Eternal, is Omnipotent, and loves and cares for each of us. Simultaneously, during the Ten Days of Repentance we also remind ourselves that while we are extraordinarily gifted and empowered by G-d, we remain wholly dependent upon G-d for every breath we take, every item we possess, and every talent and blessing we enjoy. This focus on Kingship permeates Rosh Hashanah, and is continued by the numerous additions to our prayers through and including the crescendo of the Neela service concluding Yom Kippur.
Yet, for many of us, and certainly for me, malchios is an idea easier to intellectualize than to internalize. First of all, the very concept of a king is unfamiliar. We do not experience a biblical-like monarchy and contemporary Western governments may enjoy many powers, but they uniformly fail to inspire the awe and reverence suggested by the concept of malchios. Moreover, we tend to take ourselves really seriously, acting (or least pretending) as if we are pretty much in control. We frequently do not leave much room for G-d once we have taken our portion of the credit. And, in any event, it requires a lot of focus to remind ourselves of our human limitations and G-d’s omnipresence since G-d has adopted the elusive state of hester panim (hidden behind a veil). G-d surely hears our pleas to return to a relationship of gilui Shechinah (overt revelation), under which G-d’s Kingship would be so much easier to understand. And so the annual High Holiday focus on malchios is somewhat of a challenge.
Now however, recognition of malchios may be a little more accessible. Mankind’s vulnerability has been put on display, and (notwithstanding whatever subconscious message is intended by the assignment of human names) the storms reawakened us to the awe and power of the Creator. And though the vivid images we observed and the profound insight we achieved may fade with time, so far they remain in our hearts. They can, therefore, be harnessed on Rosh Hashanah to aid in our declaring absolute subservience and allegiance to the Kingship of the Al-mighty.
The events of the past few weeks have also provided a second reason that recognizing malchios will be easier this year. As popularly framed by Rabbeinu Bachya, we are taught that “ain melech belo am,” a kingship is naught absent a nation. Intrinsic to our recognition of G-d’s Kingship is identifying ourselves as being members of His nation, the Jewish people.
Occasionally, we forget that our relationship to G-d is tied to our connection with each other, and sometimes we are lax in our commitment to those beyond our family and close friends. Over the last few weeks, however, the volunteerism, generosity and concern for others whom we’ve never met cannot be understood as anything but an expression of our profound connection with each other. Our community has come together. We have declared our peoplehood, and now we are primed and ready to declare G-d’s Kingship.
May we all, as individuals, families and communities, be blessed by the Al-mighty with a New Year filled with good health, Jewish nachas, and religious growth.
President, Orthodox Union