We approached last Rosh Hashana with a trembling that we had never before experienced. Last year the shofar that was ringing in our ears was the wail of sirens and emergency vehicles; it was the screams of thousands being burnt and crushed. Last year the shofar was ringing in our ears days before we would come together in shul and hear the cry of the ram's horn.
Maimonides tells us that the shofar is meant to wake us up from the triviality of the time. It is a call to change, to stop sleepwalking through life, to open our eyes to the wonder of existence.
After 9-11 we woke up. We looked at life in its truest form. Rosh Hashana is the day of creation ― a new world. We looked at this new world with horror and at the same time with wonder. We saw the face of evil in those that took the airplanes and killed thousands, and we heard the clarion call of magnificent goodness as Todd Beamer shouted, "Lets roll!" and joined with other heroes to stop another plane from being used as a weapon of terror.
After 9-11 we awakened from the triviality of life to the priorities of life, and we made promises. We looked into the deepest recesses of our hearts and, with the confidence born from the awareness of what is truly important, we promised to be better. We promised not to let ourselves fall into the habits that destroy the beauty of life. We would no longer take our physical health and our spiritual growth for granted; we would no longer take our spouses for granted, our families, our friends, our Jewishness.
After 9-11 we promised that we would not let evil defeat us. We would not give in to terrorism; we would life the way we want to, the way it is meant to be lived.
After 9-11, the shofar continued to wail throughout the year.
For the Jewish people, 9/11 wasn't one day in September. The shofar continued to wail throughout the year. 9/11 woke us up to being alive, to being human. And we all promised to change, to be something better than we were. The Jewish year 5762 woke us up to being a Jew. And we promised to change, to love our fellow Jew, to learn what it means to be a Jew, to be a better Jew than we were. But how hard it is to stay awake. How many times can the shofar blow until we don't hear it anymore? How many deaths until they are blurred into mere statistics?
A year, a shana, has passed. Has there been a genuine shinui, a genuine change?
The Torah reading on Rosh Hashana is about the sacrifice of Yitzchak. Yitzchak is 37 years old. He certainly knew what was happening when his father, Avraham, brought him to the altar. Yitzchak willingly laid himself down on that altar because he knew what he was willing to die for.
Yitzchak is the central figure of Rosh Hashana. The mystical texts tell us that Yitzchak embodies the reality of judgment ― the discipline to stay focused on doing the right thing no matter what.
Rosh Hashana is the day where each of us steps into Yitzchak's shoes and asks with the strength that is Yitzchak, "What am I willing to die for?"
Rosh Hashana is the day we celebrate the creation of life, yet on this day we paradoxically ask, "What am I willing to die for?" It is precisely on the day of creation that we ask this question because answering it is what it means to be truly alive, to feel life with every fiber of our being. When we know what we are willing to die for, we know what makes life worth living.
Rosh Hashana is the birthday of humanity; every human being is supposed to ask the question, "What am I willing to die for?" Last year on September 11th, the heroes who rushed into the inferno to do the right thing didn't have to ask the question; they knew the answer. This past year, Jewish soldiers and our holy brothers and sisters who live in Israel have answered the question.
This past year has been one long wail of the shofar, crying to us "Wake up, wake up!"
Listen to this letter from an Israeli soldier who was wide awake:
My dear Galit,
If this letter reaches you, it is a sign that something happened. This morning we received the notification that the operation will take place.
My love, I am torn. On one hand there is nothing in the world that I want more than to be with you, to love you, to build a family with you, to build our home together. On the other hand, however I want nothing more than to go on this operation and hit them so hard that they never entertain the idea of another suicide bomb, another murder. They will know that we will hit them where it hurts the most, and that we are ready to pay a serious price.
I am prepared to be that price.
Don't' be angry with me, my love, but in these dire times you must allow your private, individual emotions to be eclipsed by your feelings of nationality, and of Zionism. It is as if one has no individual life at all!
My beautiful, I love you so much, and the only pain I feel is that fact that you will be so sad, and that I will not be there to make you feel better. You deserve nothing less than all the happiness in the world. Therefore I ask of you, try to be happy.
Be joyous, love, blossom, you are worthy of it. I will always watch you from wherever I will be. I will concern myself with you finding another guy, someone who will make you even happier than you were with me.
My love, don't forget, everything is for the right reason, and if this is the will of God than that is what has to be. Our job is only to accept this decision of God with love.
I love you, I will always love you. Know that the one picture in my mind at all times is you. Even in these trying times, and I am convinced that at that moment, that something might happen, you will be the last thing on my mind. With the image of you in my mind, my soul will depart from this world, I will leave with the knowledge that I was the luckiest and happiest man I could have been in my life, and that was all because of you.
"Everything that God does is for good" ― all is for good even this. I promise you that where I am right now is the most wonderful place in existence, I am not suffering, I am not sad, the only pain for me is knowing what I have left behind, you , my family, my friends.
Spread this idea my dear, "never despair, always be filled with joy," that is what I ask from you, as hard as it may seem. I know that from you I can ask this because I know of the inherent joy and happiness that emanate from you at all times, that sparkle is what I fell in love with, what drew me to you the first time I laid my eyes on you.
My dear, my love, I love you forever, just promise me you will go on, promise me you will not give in to the evil ones who wish to destroy us physically and mentally. You are victorious, you are triumphant, that is how it should be, and that is how it will be.
Love you forever and always, I will always be with you. Gadi.
This was written by Gad Yitzchak Ezra. His own name speaks to us of Rosh Hashana. He wrote this letter to his fiancée in case something should happen to him. He died sanctifying God's name in Jenin.
Gadi was so alive because he knew what he was willing to die for.
Gadi knew what he was willing to die for; "I will be that price." But in reading this letter we hear clearly how alive he was. How he loved life, how he loved the Jewish people, Israel, his wife to be. He was so very much alive because he knew what he would give his all for.
Gad left his legacy in this letter; he knew what he was willing to die for. Listen to what he says, how he so eloquently focuses us on the meaning of life:
"In these dire times you must allow your private, individual emotions, to be eclipsed by your feelings of nationality..." The Jewish people and Israel's existence is of absolute importance, no matter what the sacrifice.
"The only pain I feel is that fact that you will be so sad, and that I will not be there to make you feel better." The pain we feel should be because someone else hurts.
"I will concern myself with you finding another guy, someone who will make you even happier than you were with me." We should first and foremost be concerned with another's happiness, particularly those closest to us.
"Everything is for the right reason, and if this is the will of God than that is what has to be. Our job is only to accept this decision of God with love." We should live with the trust that the Almighty has a plan, and that everything that happens is ultimately for the good.
"Spread this idea my dear, 'never despair, always be filled with joy.'" We are created for pleasure; despair robs us of our purpose.
He was wide awake with the meaning of life. He did the right thing no matter what, no matter that it could cost him his life.
After 9-11 we woke up, we opened our eyes to what's right. For the Jewish people, every terrorist attack woke us up to what's right. To be a giver, to love my family, to learn about who I am and what it means to be a Jew. To commit myself to doing the right thing, to my obligations between others and myself and between my Creator and me.
But then our eyes get heavy, and we think to ourselves, "I just need a little nap, just a break, a rest."
It is a new year, another shana, and we pray that the only shofar wail we will hear is the ram's horn on Rosh Hashana. We pray that we will wake up and truly change.
Yitzchak teaches us how. Yitzchak didn't die on the altar; just a small ram. Yitzchak walked down the mountain with his father as a changed man because he knew in the depths of his being what he was willing to die for. Whatever we are willing to die for, that is what we must live for.
In the end, a ram was sacrificed in place of Yitzchak. The shofar that we blow not only reminds us of the lesson that Yitzchak teaches us, whether it is Yitzchak our forefather or Gad Yitzchak, the Israeli soldier, the shofar also teaches us that the Almighty doesn't want the ultimate sacrifice. He only wants the ram ― the shofar. He just wants us to wake up and to stay awake.
This Rosh Hashana, as a member of the human race and as a Jew, we must ask ourselves, "What am I willing to die for?" My family, my people, my God. We must answer the question and start living it. Let us change and make those commitments ― to be more meaningful people by learning and working on our character, to learn what love is and what the best relationship is and do it, to understand the greatness of our people, of our heritage, of Israel, and to live with that understanding.
This is a new year, a new shana. Let us make it a shana of shinui ― a year of real and lasting change.