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Rosh HaShana 5777

By: Rav David Milston


למענך אלוקינו עשה ולא לנו ראה עמידתינו דלים ורקים, הנשמה לך והגוף פעלך חוסה על עמלך

For your own sake act, our G-d, and not for ours.
Behold our position, impoverished and empty.
The soul is yours, and the body is your work:
 Have compassion on your labor.


Rosh HaShanah 5777 and I have been thinking about what to share with you for a number of days now. When one is living at a time of such fundamental importance, every year leaves its impression on you. In our Homeland, a day does not pass without something of significance occurring, and of course, the same can be said of the entire world, specifically in the last few years.

We enter our new year, weeks before a historical election in the United States of America, the results of which could change the face of the Western World substantially, let alone the Midde-East. Europe is once again in the throngs of self-definition, which over the last century has never led to positive conclusions; whilst Islamic fundamentalism refuses to bow its head and continues to spread terror around the globe. We stand more than ever unknowing of what the future holds and very much aware of the fragility of our predicament, both as nations and individuals.

But before I can consider the next year, I find myself caught in the throngs of this year, the present which is about to become the past – "the year that was". Once again, 5776 provided me with formidable challenges – indeed my conclusions whatever they may be concerning the present and past will undoubtedly have a direct influence on the future.

When we return from our wonderful tefillot of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the inevitable question is asked: How were the tefilot? And the regular retort is we will have to wait and see.

But this past year (and arguably there is no real difference excepting the personal element therein) we didn't have to wait too long to find out.

Last Simchat Torah, Rabbi Yaakov Don (both friend and neighbor) celebrated in every way. After years of tireless work in our yishuv, Alon Shvut, and the wider community of Gush Etzion, he was justly honored with Chatan Bereishit. The simcha in the shul was almost tangible; Yaakov was a man of warmth and happiness, and whenever in his presence it was contagious. We never really heard him complain, he was happy with his portion and extremely active in his life. On that day he danced with his father like a child. Indeed the contagion of the joy penetrated from his house to mine (there are two houses between us), and after seudat chag I felt the need to share my Glenmorangie with him. We went over and made a leChaim and continued the celebration. He was happy, and it made us happy to see him happy. He was one of these rare people that one merits to meet, who simply lived life without creating complications.

Alas it was not to be "Le Chaim"; on the contrary. Just weeks later on an early Thursday evening in November Yaakov was killed in a terrorist attack just outside Alon Shvut (the same attack that took the life of Ezra Schwartz, a young yeshiva student from Boston). To watch Yaakov pray during Yamim Noraim was an experience in itself, and even contemplating this Rosh HaShanah without the boom of his voice is close to unbearable.

Life for us went on; in the Midrasha we tried our best to console and support the close friends of Ezra whilst simultaneously trying to move forward. Baruch Hashem we managed to make it through the year. We had a wonderful student body and a successful year, despite the "real difficulties" that events in Israel had brought to the surface.

Yet whenever one becomes complacent, whenever we feel that we are ready to move forward, something happens to send us back to reality ((רש"י בראשית פרק לז - ביקש יעקב לישב בשלוה. And so as the summer began, and we prepared to travel to Poland with our Southern Hemisphere. On an innocent erev Shabbat, having just returned from a recruitment trip in South Africa, fresh off a red-eye, I was urgently awoken from my sleep by my daughter Shira with the terrible news of the murder of our cousin and good friend Rabbi Mickey Mark. His wife Chavi (Chava Rachel Bat Ayelet HaShachar) is still recuperating from that devastating moment when a terrorist opened fire on the car near their home Otniel.

Mickey was a wonderful man. He loved learning and he loved doing, but yet again one moment he was there the next he was gone. These events put the fear of Heaven into me; two phenomenal people who did not make it to fifty.

Yet this year I did make it to fifty, thank God. When Yaakov was killed so near the Yishuv, my wife said "it could have been one of us", to which I replied "it was one of us". I suppose a bit of me died with Yaakov and Mickey, but the vast majority of me is baruch Hashem alive and ticking. We stand firm in our conviction and our resolve, but we never get used to these tragedies, they are larger than life, and with no element of exaggeration, I believe that they remain with us for the rest of our lives.

As I approach Rosh HaShanah I will be more aware than ever of the fundamental importance of the moment of Yom HaDin. When we read the words מי יחיה ומי ימות – who will live and who will die - I will think of everything that happened, I will think of the past, the present, but most importantly of the future. Only now do we understand what was being decided this time last year, the ramifications of this day – and as such we tremble in anticipation. We cannot know what will be, but we have an opportunity to try to ensure that it will be good. The future is definitively not in our hands, but our approach towards it is.

What can I conclude from the events of the immediate past? I will not change where I live or what I believe in; we will not be terrorized away from that which is rightly ours. Yet on the other hand the urgency of life has been underlined once again. The need to go-get; to retain the hunger; the aspirations. I believe that the first option on Rosh HaShanah is ours, we must write ourselves in the book of life ובחרת בחיים – and you should choose life. It is only our complacency that coerces the Almighty to write in our stead. When we stand together in a few days' time, we must do so with intent, with determination to use every minute that we have. We have simply no idea what the future holds - as a famous song writer once wrote "yesterday came suddenly".

ובחרת החיים  explains Rabbi Hirsch emphatically puts the ball in our court – we have the choice and life can only be lived to the full if we choose to pick up the gauntlet and rise to the challenge. There is no time to waste on "Candy Crunch", "Temple Run" or ridiculously looking for "virtual Pokemon's" – the events of the last year have again reminded us that you only live once and that time is not on our side. 

My other conclusion is that we must appreciate those around us more than ever before. A deep sadness embodies me when I try to imagine how our friend Sarah Don will celebrate Rosh HaShanah. What will Kiddush be like? How will she respond to כתיבה וחתימה טובה? As well, when I try to imagine my wife's first cousin Chavi Mark without Mickey. But together with that real sadness comes an appreciation of what I have - an eternal gratefulness to the Almighty, and a hunger to be sure that I know to appreciate the family that I have, for every moment of my life.

That is the meager offering that I have for myself as I carefully approach Rosh HaShanah - urgency and appreciation, ambition and direction. I must write myself in the book of life.

But what type of life am I asking for?

Life is a means not an ends, albeit a crucial means, למענך אלוקים חיים. When I write myself in the book of life it is for the sake of God, it is with an aim to realize more of my religious aspirations, to discover more of myself, and apply more of what I am learning to my life. There is little point in living longer if my goals are the next iPhone or Harry Potter sequel.

The tefilot of these crucial days are there to help us focus in on our objectives. So my attention from now on in preparation for the year start is one of prayer. Last year my wife informed me of a custom to recite each day the psalm equivalent to the year of your life. So my psalm this year is psalm 51:

Tehillim 51: (I have omitted some verses)
Be gracious unto me, O God, according to Your mercy;

according to the multitude of Your compassions blot out my transgressions.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions; and my sin is ever before me.
Against You, You alone, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in Your sight;
that you may be justified when you speak, and be in the right when You judge.
Behold, Thou desire truth in the inward parts;

make me, therefore, to know wisdom in my innermost heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;

wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Make me to hear joy and gladness;

that the bones which You have crushed may rejoice.
Hide Your face from my sins, and blot out all of my iniquities.
Create me a clean heart, O God; and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Cast me not away from Your presence; and take not Your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of Your salvation; and let a willing spirit uphold me.
O Lord, open my lips; and my mouth shall declare Your praise.
For Thou delight not in sacrifice, else would I give it;

You have no pleasure in burnt-offering.
The (truest) sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.
Do good in Your favor unto Zion; build the walls of Jerusalem.

As I prime myself for Yom HaDin, my focus is on truth, inner truth, to know wisdom in my innermost heart, to realize that my deeds amount to nothing if they are not accompanied by a clean heart. I need to start again, to do things differently I need a renewed spirit.

I hope and pray that this will be a wonderful year for all of us, and want to take this opportunity to wish all of you a כתיבה וחתימה טובה  - may this be a year of health and happiness, a year of תבנה חומות ירושלים!


"תכלה שנה וקללותיה,

תחל שנה וברכותיה"


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