Hanging in the Balance
Hashem prepared us for Rosh Hashanah this year with a vengeance.
The Midrash (Bereishis Rabbah 8:5) on the words, “Na’aseh adam — ” Let us make Man,” describes a debate that took place in the Heavenly Court prior to Man’s creation. Truth argued against Man’s creation on the grounds that he would be a constant liar. Tzedek, however, argued that Man should be created, for he would also perform righteous deeds. While the debate was raging, Hashem created man. The Midrash relates that Hashem told those with whom He had been ostensibly consulting, “While you were deliberating, na’asah adam, Man was created.”
The deeper meaning of the Midrash is that Man’s very creation was contingent. No decision was ever reached that he was worthy of creation. It is left to Man to demonstrate that he is worthy of creation through the exercise of his free will, to literally justify his existence. And every Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of Man’s creation, we find ourselves in exactly the same situation — our very claim to existence is hanging in the balance.
The financial meltdown on Wall Street — a meltdown almost sure to spread to all the world’s financial capitals — in the days leading up to Rosh Hashanah emphasized how uncertain is every aspect of the reality that we take for granted. The description of America as the “world’s only superpower” suddenly rings hollow. Talk of a worldwide depression is in the air.
There were no visual images from last week’s financial crisis to match that of 9/11, which took place in the week before the conclusion of the last shmittah cycle. Then every school child in America watched repeatedly as the Twin Towers, the world’s tallest buildings, crumbled like a child’s pile of blocks, with 3,000 men and women crushed inside.
The image of men and women deliberately jumping to their certain deaths from 100 floors above ground, preferring that death to the blazing inferno behind them, reached every corner of the globe. Who could fail to recite the words, “And who by fire,” with increased feeling that Rosh Hashanah?
Last week’s events produced no such iconic images. But the consequences have already affected each of us in profound ways. Much of the great wealth that has supported yeshivos around the world and hundreds of chessed organizations and mosdos haTorah was directly based on the financial services industry.
Rabbi Meir Tzvi Zilberberg pointed out recently that the shmittah year has two aspects: one the renunciation of our dominion over the Land (shmittas karkaos) and the other the renunciation of all monetary claims in the form of loans (shmittas kesafim). Both demonstrate that ultimately all real estate and money belongs to Hashem and our ownership is only provisional.
At the end of the last shmittah cycle, the best known real estate in the world disappeared in a matter of minutes; at the end of this shmittah cycle, several of the largest and ostensibly wealthiest financial institutions in the world crashed almost as quickly. The lesson of the two aspects of shmittah could hardly have been clearer.
The recognition of how illusory is human control over even those aspects of reality that seem most solid is one Hashem must teach us prior to fully revealing Himself. As Rabbi Zilberberg noted, the Gemara (Megillah 17b; Sandhedrin 96a) identifies Motzaei Sheviis as a propitious time for ben David to come.
In a similar vein, Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky explained a difficult Gemara (Sanhedrin 97a), which states that Mashiach will not come until the Jewish people have despaired of redemption. All the commentators ask: How can the loss of belief in one of the cardinal principles of faith hasten Mashiach’s arrival? Reb Yaakov answered that the Gemara is referring to redemption through natural historical processes. Only when we cease to place our faith in any human agency, in any power other than Hashem, will the Redemption come. Loss of our sense of control is part of that process.
WORLD EVENTS focused my Rosh Hashanah davening by emphasizing the contingent nature of our existence. And those two days of davening, two days disconnected from all news of the outside world, left me much better prepared to handle that news after Rosh Hashanah.
The last two weeks’ financial meltdown has dramatically altered the American presidential race. Prior to the crisis, the race was even. Now, Obama is comfortably ahead, for reasons not immediately evident. True, McCain, as his wont, spoke too quickly as the crisis broke. But Obama had nothing more substantive to offer.
Obama advocates greater redistribution of wealth through taxation than any previous major party candidate, and has been closely associated with radical Leftists since he was in college. (His father Barack Obama Sr., once remarked as a senior Kenyan economic figure, that there is no problem with a government taxing 100% of the income, as long as takes care of the citizenry.)
Though I harbor no great enthusiasm for McCain, an Obama presidency terrifies me. Obama, whose base is the pacifist wing of the Democratic Party, would be far less likely to do anything about the Iranian threat to the world. He has said repeatedly that he is pro-Israel, but not pro-Likud. Those are code words for saying that he would press Israel for major territorial concessions to the Palestinians, no matter how incapable the Palestinians show themselves of running a stable state or how likely that the West Bank would become a third Iranian front against an Israel reduced to what Abba Eban once described as its “Auschwitz borders.”
Evangelical Christians, Israel’s strongest defenders in the United States, would have no influence with Obama in the White House and a Democratic Congress. Forget about American Jews. Those that still profess to care about Israel have convinced themselves that the less defensible Israel is the better off she will be. Certainly advocating such a neutered Israel makes life easier for them in relations with their well-heeled gentile neighbors and on elite campuses.
Over the two days of Rosh Hashanah, there was a dramatic shift in the polls towards Obama. Yet I was able to absorb that news after Rosh Hashanah with equanimity. Whether the coming year is a painful one or not for the Jewish people will not be determined by McCain or Obama, but by Hashem’s judgment as to whether we succeeded on Rosh Hashanah in justifying our continued existence.
This article appeared in the Mishpacha on Wednesday, 7 September, 2008.