A Rosh Hashana Sermon

Elul 5765

By Rabbi Dr. Zalman Kossowsky

Zurich, Switzerland

 Dear friends and landsleit from Zelva, Dereczin, Volkovysk, and the world over,

We gather to celebrate together the start of a new year, and experience together the Days of Judgment and Awe. As part of this celebration the customary greeting to family and friends is also a prayer and a blessing. We bless each other that we may be inscribed for the coming year in the Book of Life. We have been doing this for years, and for many it has become a formula that we use that does not necessarily make us aware of the reality that our grip on Life is actually very fragile.

Some of us, on the other hand, have had personal experiences which have burned such an awareness into our consciousness, but most of us, thank G-d, have been spared. We all, however, have been witness in recent times to the awesome and destructive power of storms and floods.

The pictures and the news from the Caribbean Sea, or from closer home, Thun and Engelberg, as well as those that we can still recall from the killer Tsunami last December, should give us pause, and push us to reflect on the question of how we would react were we in such a situation.

Rabbi Barry Gelman, the Rabbi of the United Orthodox Synagogue in southern Houston, said the following as he escorted some of his congregants fleeing the threatening Hurricane Rita:

"In the blink of an eye we've gone from being the comforting community, that embraced tens of thousands of homeless evacuees, to being the homeless evacuees – at least for the weekend. It's jarring that within a few days you go from being – in a humble way – the heroic community that stepped up and opened its arms and wallets and hearts, and now we may well be in the same situation. It's certainly a disturbing situation to be in."

When I read these words I truly sympathized with his pain and discomfort. Baruch Hashem the Jewish community of south Houston was spared the damage, pain and suffering that had befallen their brethren in New Orleans. But his words brought this awareness of the frailty of life again into sharp focus for me.

Sometimes the crisis can erupt within minutes. Other times there is some warning, but there is not the ability to change the unfolding course of events.

So my question tonight is: "How do we respond when the storm comes upon us?"

The storms, my friends, come in many and varied forms. But they come to all of us. And in part, these ten days should give us the incentive to think about that.

How should we respond? How could we respond?

Obviously each one of us could have a different possible answer. For me personally, as a believing Jew, I turn first to my Tradition and search there for some hints. And indeed in this context I find a significant development in the custom that we currently follow. In the Talmud itself - seeing lighting or hearing thunder or witnessing storm winds - were all considered as one class of events and two possible blessings where suggested. Over the centuries, however, the custom has emerged to distinguish between lighting and thunder and to make one specific blessing on lightning and the other on thunder and storms.

Some of you might be familiar with these blessings. In the Siddur we can usually find them, along with the other so-called occasional blessings, near the blessings on foodstuffs and the "bentching".

Today the blessing when we see lightning is:

Baruch ata Hashem … oseh ma’asei Breishit – who has made the Creation

On Thunder, severe storms and earthquakes, however, the blessing is different:

Baruch ata Hashem … shekocho u’gevurato maleh olam - whose strength and might fill the world

What can we learn from the present custom, which in fact does not follow the proscriptions of the Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch.

The first lesson is that there is no such thing as a "random act of nature". Everything draws its strength from G-d and when we are witness to such events, we should also turn our attention to our relationship with G-d. And that idea underlies both blessings. In fact, all blessings are an attempt to focus on G-d and His relationship with us, and our relationship with Him.

Lightning, however, takes us a step further. Lightning is different from thunder. Thunder, even the loudest, can be just noise. Lightning, even the smallest, brings fire onto the earth. And that fire always destroys. Invoking G-d as the Creator can therefore be seen as an attempt to remind us that things that have been destroyed by the lightning, can also be rebuilt. And that is the lesson that I believe our Tradition is imparting to us here. That which has been destroyed by the storm need not be left in ruins. In fact, I would suggest to you that the Jewish perspective, which sees our prime mission in life as being a "partner with G-d in tikkun ha’olam – completing the Creation" would encourage us at this time to exercise major effort in helping with the process of rebuilding from the storms and the floods.

The other part of my answer to the question of how should we respond can best be answered with a story. In this case, a true story.

I quote:

On Nov. 18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, came on stage to give a concert at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center in New York City. If you have ever been to a Perlman concert, you know that getting on stage is no small achievement for him. He was stricken with polio as a child, and so he has braces on both legs and walks with the aid of two crutches. To see him walk across the stage one step at a time, painfully and slowly, is an awesome sight.

He walks painfully, yet majestically, until he reaches his chair. Then he sits down, slowly, puts his crutches on the floor, undoes the clamps on his legs, tucks one foot back and extends the other foot forward. Then he bends down and picks up the violin, puts it under his chin, nods to the conductor and proceeds to play. By now, the audience is used to this ritual. They sit quietly while he makes his way across the stage to his chair. They remain reverently silent while he undoes the clamps on his legs. They wait until he is ready to play.

But this time, something went wrong. Just as he finished the first few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke. You could hear it snap - it went off like gunfire across the room. There was no mistaking what that sound meant. There was no mistaking what he had to do. We figured that he would have to get up, put on the clamps again, pick up the crutches and limp his way off stage - to either find another violin or else find another string for this one. But he didn't. Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes and then signaled the conductor to begin again.

The orchestra began, and he played from where he had left off. And he played with such passion and such power and such purity as they had never heard before.

Of course, anyone knows that it is impossible to play a symphonic work with just three strings. I know that, and you know that, but that night Itzhak Perlman refused to know that.

You could see him modulating, changing, re-composing the piece in his head. At one point, it sounded like he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from them that they had never made before. When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room. And then people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinary outburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium. We were all on our feet, screaming and cheering, doing everything we could to show how much we appreciated what he had done.

He smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, raised his bow to quiet us, and then he said - not boastfully, but in a quiet, pensive, reverent tone - "You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left."

End of story.

My friends, these words have stayed with me. Obviously we are not all artists like Perlman but maybe this is the definition of life - not just for artists but for all of us. Here is a man who has prepared all his life to make music on a violin of four strings, who, all of a sudden, in the middle of a concert, finds himself with only three strings; so he makes music with three strings, and the music he made that night with just three strings was more beautiful and more memorable than any that he had ever made before, when he had four strings.

So, tonight my friends, I would like to end with another quote from my colleague who said:-

". . .perhaps our task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world in which we live is to make music, at first with all that we have, and then, when that is no longer possible, to make music with what we have left."

I wish you much success. I wish you all, and your families, a k’tiva v’chatima tova may we all be inscribed and then sealed in the Book of Gefen – gesund, parnoseh and nachas.

Shana tova.