Rosh Hashana 5775
By Joel Grossman
Wednesday night, yesterday at lunch and again last night, each of us dipped a slice of apple of a piece of challah into some honey and made a bracha asking for a sweet new year. We have all come into shul, both yesterday and today, wishing each other a good year, feeling happy, even festive as we greet the New Year. And yet, according to one story which came out of the recent Gaza War, a story which I must tell you is probably not true, this could have been the worst, most agonizing and depressing Rosh Hashono any of us can remember. According to a story printed by the Israeli newspaper Maariv in late July, as a result of the Gaza War Israeli intelligence uncovered a plot whereby hundreds of Hamas terrorists would mount a massive terrorist attack, using the tunnels they had built which led from Gaza to various places in Southern Israel. They would simultaneously emerge from all these tunnels and kill or capture as many Israelis as possible. The report said that this attack was planned for Rosh Hashono.
As it happens, I know someone who knows someone who knows someone who works in Israeli intelligence, who told the person I know that this story is probably not true. It is not clear how Maariv got this information or where it came from, as Maariv only cited anonymous Israeli intelligence sources. But the same person who told someone who knew someone who knew someone I know –while stating that the Rosh Hashono story is probably not true—hastened to add that the basic idea of Hamas terrorists using many tunnels for a simultaneous attack on kibbutzim, moshavim and towns in Southern Israel was in fact not a myth but highly likely. So even if this planned attack was not set for Rosh Hashono, had the IDF not destroyed these tunnels during the war, it is quite possible that such a coordinated attack could have been planned, and the consequences of such an attack would have been horrific.
Thank God, those tunnels have now been destroyed. And it is ironic that it was Hamas –who forced Israel into this war by ceaseless missile attacks– ended up with no tunnels with which to carry out such a raid. As we have all read about and heard on the news, Israel did not know the extent of these tunnels, and was extremely vulnerable. If this war had not happened, and if Israel had not found all the tunnels and destroyed them, a terrorist attack unlike any we have seen before could well have taken place, God forbid. Maybe if the war had not happened that attack would have been yesterday or today, though I again must add that is probably not the case. But it probably is the case that such an attack could have been planned and could have been carried out if this war had not happened.
So let’s review briefly. Hamas forces Israel to war by sending rocket after rocket into Israel, with the hope that the rockets would kill or injure civilians. Israel defends itself by air attacks and then a ground war. In the course of the war, Israel learns how extensive the tunnel network was, and how many tunnels—50 or 60 perhaps—led to Israel itself. Whether or not this attack would have occurred on this Rosh Hashono is not important. What is important is that on this Rosh Hashono we pause and think about how close we might have come to a disaster. If there had not been a war, if these tunnels had not been discovered and destroyed, the consequences are unthinkable. Yet, we must think about them, and must focus on the fact that this nightmare scenario could have happened, and through luck and skill we barely averted a calamity.
The idea of narrowly averting a calamity is not a new one for Rosh Hashono. In fact, it is the essence of the Torah reading for today. We all know the story so I will give only a very general summary. God decides to test Avraham and orders him to sacrifice Yitzchak. Avraham and Yitzchak travel together to Har Hamoriah, the place God has chosen for the sacrifice to take place. Yitzchak seems puzzled that they have brought wood and fire but no animal to sacrifice, but he still walks with his father to the appointed place. More, he apparently allows himself to be tied to the altar—we can only assume that he could have overpowered his elderly father if he had wanted to—and Avraham takes hold of the knife to kill Yitzchak. You can follow along in the Machzor on p. 104. Verse 10 reads: “Vayishlach Avraham et yado, vayikach et ha’maachelet lishchot et bno; And Avraham picked up the knife to slay his son.”
And of course we all know what happened next, in verses 11 and 12: at the last second, a malach –a messenger of God calls to Avraham and instructs him not to harm the boy. Instead, he sacrifices a ram whose horns are caught in a thicket. At the last second disaster is averted. If we step back from the story a little bit, we get a greater sense of the disaster that nearly happened. Avraham and Sarah, of course, were the only two Jewish people in the world until Yitzchak was born, making 3 Jews. One way to look at this story—and there a thousand ways to look at this story– is that this could have been the end of the Jewish people. Avraham and Sarah were not likely to have more children, and if Yitzchak was killed, the future of their family and the future of the entire Jewish people could also have been cut off. So Rosh Hashono, which marks the beginning of a new year, a time of hope and joy and plans for great things in the new year is the time we tell the story of what might have been—Yitzchak’s death, and the end of the Jewish people.
I connect the Hamas tunnels and the Gaza war to the Akedah for two reasons. First, as I mentioned, there was at least one unconfirmed report of a massive terrorist attack to take place on Rosh Hashono, and the real chance that the tunnels from Gaza to Israel could have led to a disaster, a disaster only avoided because Hamas was foolish enough and brazen enough to start the war, just like the tragedy of Yitzchak’s death was averted at the last second when the messenger told Avraham to stop.
But there is another connection. The story of the Akedah has many meanings and interpretations, all of which merit close attention. One interpretation is that Judaism was created in order to be an or lagoyim, a light to the nations. At the time when Avraham and Yitzchak climbed that mountain together, child sacrifice was a part of some pagan religions. Having Avraham appear to be practicing this same custom, and then dramatically having God’s messenger stop him at the last moment, can be seen as a dramatic renunciation of child sacrifice. Not only Yitzchak, but no child should be sacrificed, and the Jewish people are instructed in the most dramatic way possible to reject child sacrifice for themselves, and to influence the other religions to do so as well. And when Israeli soldiers discovered the terror tunnels, the tunnels which were to be used to slaughter Jewish children, they destroyed the tunnels, and perhaps tens or hundreds of Yitzchaks were spared.
The real question is this: what does this image of near disaster, of a knife at Yitzchak’s throat, have to do with us and with our lives as we assemble on this Rosh Hashono? We Jews are always metaphorically living with a knife at our throat, hoping that at the last minute we can avoid disaster. As we say on Pesach, in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us. As for our generation, the dangers are all too apparent. Besides Hamas, who may be restocking missiles and digging new tunnels even as we speak, there is of course ISIS, the new terrorist in town, who wishes to establish a Muslim caliphate and has already announced its plans to conquer Jerusalem. And speaking of a knife to the throat, what a chilling reminder we have with the recent ISIS beheadings of American journalists, one of whom was Jewish. And of course, Iran, whose work on a nuclear bomb continues. It is now very unclear how successful the negotiations will be, and we must of course be ready for any eventuality. We have a lot to be worried about on this Rosh Hashono, a number of people who want to put the knife to our throats, with no guarantee that a messenger of God will stop them at the last moment.
This all seems very remote, perhaps, to those of us living in Los Angeles, worrying about our own lives—how we will earn a living, whom will we love and who will love us back, and the myriad of concerns of daily life from getting the oil changed in our car to managing our stock portfolio or our fantasy football team or studying for exams. We have pressures, sure, every day, but a knife at our throat? Are we on the verge of disaster, hoping for a last-minute reprieve?
Perhaps this is one more meaning of the Akedah story. The knife was at the throat of one boy, and surely if he had died it would have been a family tragedy. But given that he was the embodiment of the Jewish people, and his death could have meant the entire people’s death, we need to pay attention. We need to pay attention to Hamas, to Iran, to ISIS, we need to do what we can to support Israel, by the power of our voices, with our money and with our own personal devotion. We may not all make aliyah, but we can visit Israel, and do so as frequently as we possibly can. We can join and support organizations that work for Israel’s safety. We can inform ourselves as to which members of Congress support Israel and do our best to support and encourage them.
Perhaps this is how to read the Akedah. We are not Avraham. We are not Yitzchak. We are not the poor ram stuck in the thicket. But each of us is or can be malach Hashem, a messenger of God. Each of us can and must try to find a way to scream out at the last moment “NO! STOP! DO NOT HARM THE CHILD!” We can be messengers of God and work to take the knife out of Hamas’ hands, work to take the knife out of ISIS’ hands and out of Iran’s hands and off of our people’s throat.
I want to conclude by reading a beautiful passage in our Machzor, from the same page of the Machzor that contains the Akedah. It is a passage by Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel who tells the story of when he was a seven year old boy and studied the Akedah in school:
“Yitzchak lay on the altar, waiting to be sacrificed. My heart began to beat even faster; it actually sobbed with pity for Yitzchak. Behold, Avraham now lifted the knife. And now my heart froze within me with fright. Suddenly the voice of the angel was heard: Avraham lay not your hand upon the lad, for now I know that you fear God. And here I broke out in tears and wept aloud. Why are you crying, asked the rabbi, you know that Yitzchak was not killed. And I said to him, still weeping, But Rabbi, supposing the angel had come a second too late? The Rabbi comforted me and calmed me by telling me that an angel cannot come late.
An angel cannot be late, but man, made of flesh and flood, may be.”
That is us, We are the messenger. We cannot be late.