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Rosh HaShana Address 5781

By: Rav David Milston

Where to start when looking back over the last year?

We have been blessed with a year of plenty with regards to rain. Remarkably the Kinneret was almost full by the start of the summer, a reality that we could not have imagined this time last year. We have also seen the State of Israel progress further with Peace agreements signed with both the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

These are two massive developments of the past year that cannot and should not be ignored.

Yet everything seems to have been overshadowed by this terrible never-ending pandemic called Corona. Many have died, many are sick, businesses have closed, and so many people are suffering financially. For the first time in 26 years the Midrasha closed its doors, though Baruch Hashem we have been able to restart over the last two months.

Of all the developments that one could have predicted at the end of last year Corona was not one of them.

At the start to Sefer Vayikra Netivot Shalom writes beautifully of the many ways that the Almighty "speaks" to man. The Rebbe explains that God is always speaking to us through the episodes that we experience. Everything that happens has a reason and has a message. In days gone by that message was perhaps clearer in that its meaning was often explained by an authentic prophet, even though there were plenty of false-prophets around to confuse the masses.

As a believing Jew it seems obvious to me that Hashem is talking to us, but what is He saying? Nobody knows for certain, and it would be both arrogant and presumptuous to suggest a definitive interpretation.

Nonetheless I would like to share a few thoughts that have crossed my mind over the past half year:

We have, to all intents and purposes, been banished from shul, from our מקדש מעט. There are technical ways to somehow keep a presence in the Shul, but the overall message triggers thoughts reflected in the first Chapter of Yeshayahu where the Almighty tells the masses to stay home. He rejects their superficial Judaism. Coming to Shul and putting on a show is hypocritical, and rejected by the Ribono Shel Olam. Who is to say that we have succeeded in emulating the lows of that time, but one thing is for sure - the vast majority of Jews, religious and irreligious, will not attend Batei Knesset during this year's Yamim Noraim. We have seen courageous and unbelievable attempts to adapt to the quick and ever-changing situation, and hundreds of street minyanim have evolved. We have seen an inspiring attitude toward trying to at the least do what is halachikally necessary, but when push comes to shove the bottom line is a sad one. I cannot help but contemplate that we need to intensify our efforts not just in order to technically solve the logistical problems that each new directive entails, but to try and understand how we can get back into shul. I don't mean how to beat the Government limitations, but rather how to regain favor in God's eyes so that He will rescind this terrible unending decree. Please don't misunderstand - the efforts that people are making are inspiring - but we need to simultaneously go to the root of the problem, if only we can identify it.

Perhaps we have to revisit our concept of Bet Knesset? Perhaps we need to appreciate Tefila BeMinyan more, Kriyat HaTorah?

I had a surreal experience a few weeks after Pesach. Our backyard Minyan was able to procure a sefer Torah; we had not heard kriyat HaTorah for three or four weeks. We actually hadn't seen a sefer Torah during that time at all. It was such an emotional moment. A sudden and immediate appreciation of something so dear that we had taken for granted for so long.

We have been forced to cover our mouths and banished from real social behavior. What can that mean? Perhaps we are simply not speaking the way we should be, not socializing in the correct manner. Halachot of Tumaa and Tehara come to mind with the limitations of touch and embrace, It seems, at least to me, that we have all been sent 'out of the camp' to sit alone and contemplate our dire predicament. I am reminded of those many occasions in high school when, after misbehaving, I was told to stand in the corner with my face to the wall with my hands on my head, and not to dare say a word.

The Western World has had seven months to find a cure or a vaccination for Corona, and though serious progress has been made to this day, the world that brought us, air flights, Iphones and Instagram, is at a loss. This most modern world of כוחי ועוצם ידי, has failed in every attempt to date in controlling this pandemic. It is, for those who care to pay attention, a most humbling phenomenon, and it would serve us well to arrive at the obvious conclusion – והיה ה' למלך על כל הארץ.

I am sure that you, my dear students have thought hard and long over the last few months. I think that that is the most important thing. None of us are prophets, none of us know anything for sure, but we are thinking people and we must apply ourselves to the developing situation and learn whatever we can, individually and as a nation.

Perhaps the cure is not just a vaccine; for us, perhaps the cure is purer Tefilot, is Kavod Bet HaKnesset. Perhaps we need to metaphorically cover our mouths in order to remove the physical mask. Perhaps we need to revisit our social norms so that we can once again be allowed to socialize and embrace.

In conclusion, it has been an extremely challenging year. Together with my younger sister and my dear father, and without my older sister (who to this day has still not been to our Mother's grave – over half a year since her passing), we watched our beloved Mother die in hospital at the beginning of Corona (not from Corona). These are days that I will never forget. A vibrant and beautiful Mother left us for the World to Come. But she left us through suffering and pain, and that experience has changed me and my life. Watching my beloved father over the last half year struggle and cry has taught me the greatness of the love of a successful marriage, and underlined that verse that I have said so many times without understanding to the full: אל תשליכיני לעת זקנה. This will be the first Rosh HaShana without Mum, and it will come with its challenges.

So as we say goodbye to 5780, we try to analyze and internalize everything that has happened. We try desperately to use the present to learn from the past in order to insure a better future.

I wish you all a happy and healthy New year – let us be sure not to just carrying on doing the same things.

Let us write ourselves in the ספר החיים.

I pray and hope that sooner rather than later we will be able to meet again and move forward to better pastures.

And let this be a year of more Peace agreements with our Arab Neighbors.

עושה שלום במרומיו הוא יעשה שלום עלינו ועל כל ישראל ואמרו אמן

באהבה רבה

כתיבה וחתימה טובה

שנה טובה ומתוקה


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