A Rosh Hashanah Sermon
Among all the expressions of Ghetto Jewry, none went deeper or reached higher, was more creative of new insights and the values of folk art, folk music, and folk tales than Chassidism, that 18th century outpouring of Jewish spirituality, cult of the joy-of-piety and piety-of-joy.
Among the great figures of Chassidism, none was wiser, saintlier, humbler than Levi Yitzchak, the Rebbe of Berditchev who died in 1802. In his naive wisdom and simple profundity, he became a veritable fixture in the heavenly court. His conversations with the Almighty took on an intimate, personal familiarity: Rabbi Yitzchak did not hesitate to chastise God; on the other hand, his reverence knew no bounds. He has become a legend, not only among the Chassidim but among all Jews. A lovable, saintly individual, his anecdotes abound in verse and in song.
Before I cite my text, let me repeat a few sayings of this man, irrelevant to our message today, but interesting; and I believe you will find them entertaining.
It is told that the Rebbe of Berditchev saw a man hurrying along the street, looking neither to the right nor to the left. "Why are you rushing so?" Rebbe Yitzchak asked him. "Ich zuch parnosse -- I'm after my livelihood," the man replied. "And how do you know," continued the Rebbe, "that your livelihood is running on before you so that you have to rush after it? Perhaps it's behind you, and all you need to encounter it is to stand still! Rushing as you are, you might be running away from it!"
Very homey wisdom to which some of us might give heed!
Many of us have heard at one time or another that intriguing song of Rebbe Levi Yitzchak, called "Du -- You," a serenade to the Almighty. The Berditchever was wont to sing almost to himself:
Where I wander -- You!
Sky is You, earth is You,
When Rosh Hashanah occurred on the Sabbath, the Berditchever once brazenly exclaimed, "Oh Lord, Thou didst forbid us to profane the Sabbath by writing except in order to save a life! Therefore write us down for life, as otherwise even You may not profane the Sabbath by writing!"
It is the custom among Chassidim for the Rebbe to lead his congregation in prayer. They do not employ professional cantors. One Rosh Hashanah, as Rebbe Yitzchak approached the amud he prefaced the liturgy in this manner: "Gut morgen, Ribono shel olam -- Good morning, Master of the Universe! I, Rebbe Levi Yitzchak ben Sara, have come before you with a Din Torah (a litigation) on behalf of Your people Israel." Rebbe Yitzchak then proceeded to spell out the special relationship between Israel and God. He argued, "Does not God constantly order Moses, 'Command the Children of Israel,' 'Say to the Children of Israel,' 'Speak to the Children of Israel'?" Rabbi Yitzchak challenged God. "Therefore what do you have against them that you subject them to suffering and tribulation?"
Then he continued to set forth his bill of particulars: "The Russians say that Fonye is king; the British say that their emperor is king, and the Italians say their ruler is king; But I, Rebbe Yitzchak of Berditchev, maintain that 'Melech yoshev al kissei rom v'nisah -- Only He is king Who sits on the Heavenly Throne.' " And Rebbe Yitzchok ends in a spirit of extreme ecstasy, "Yitgadal v'yitkadash -- Glorified and sanctified be the Great Name!"
Friends, these stories are amusing. But they also have deep connotations, and the last one I believe sets the theme for this season of the year as we usher in the New Year 5723.
We are living in an age of great technical advance. Despite them, or even because of them, we live in great anxiety. Man never reached such heights, literally speaking; nor such depths of despair. A spacecraft has landed on the moon, and another at this moment is rushing toward the planet Venus. Man explores the voids of outer space and girdles the globe in moments. Yet, in our hearts and minds, is "tohu va'vohu -- confusion and emptiness." We live in fear of the nuclear warhead borne on the swift wings of a rocket. The race for deterrents only leads to the creation of greater instruments of death and destruction. We are overwhelmed by the flood inundating the world -- a flood not of blood, but one like in the days of Noah that will wipe out all creation.
To cry out, "Shalom, shalom -- There is peace, there is peace!", would be speaking as a false prophet, misleading and treacherous. The rabbi must rather be the Jeremiah of our day, calling to the attention of his flock the mounting perils. In answer to the question, "Ma ata ro'eh -- What do you see?" The Rabbi must answer as Jeremiah did: "Makel shaked -- I see an almond branch." And playing upon the Hebrew shaked, which also means "hurry," the prophet warns that the threatened hazards will not be long in coming; the menace is imminent!
There is no doubt that we cannot long fend off the forces of destruction threatening us. None of us wants war. We want peace. But it is imperative that we realize that we must arm. To protest against nuclear tests as some do -- for example Bernard Russell in England and some of my own colleagues here in America -- is to be of disservice to the country and mankind.
Judaism does not deny man's right to fight, if necessary, for what he believes is right. Turning the other cheek is not a Jewish ideal, nor is "peace at any price" desirable. On the contrary, it protests against injustice, and commands, "U'viarta hara mikirbecha -- Root out the evil from your midst." However, to the arsenal of explosives, religion would add the protectiveness of God as a shield. It seems to me that even more threatening than the fear of physical destruction is the blackout of faith under which we live. Ultimately, though, we are the agents. God makes the decision.
"I have been to outer space," Yuri Gagarin, the Russian cosmonaut, is reported to have said, "and I saw no evidence of God."
Ink spilled from a bottle will never form a perfect symmetrical design. Whenever there is a pattern, someone must have designed it. Immanuel Kant, the great philosopher of modern times, said, "the argument that God exists, which stems from the order of the universe, must be respected."
Having experienced the orderly operation of the laws of nature, having ventured forth on a dangerous mission and returned safely, having experienced all that, Gagarin did not feel presence of God! Who created the Heavens and who brings order into this infinite universe?
How different is the reaction of the psalmist when he looks at the Heavens with the naked eye and exclaims, "Hashamayim m'saprim k'vod kel -- The Heavens bespeak the glory of God!"
The Jew never spoke of the heavens as the Olympus of God. On the contrary, he maintains that "M'lo kol ha'aretz k'vodo -- The entire earth is filled with his Glory." We do not look for God in the Heavens above or in the depth of the sea, but in the hearts and minds of men. He fills the universe with His presence, and whenever man calls in his name. He could even be found within the Gagarin capsule.
When Jews gather in the synagogues on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, or at any other time for that matter, they reaffirm that only "He who sits on the throne above, only God, is king." This firm faith in the good and in the ultimate promise of salvation is essential in our day in order to face up to the evil.
Our age has attained "spacemanship." What we need is "Godmanship." Our lives must be lived so as to mirror the Divine after Whose image we are created. Not only must we hallow His great name by repeating the deathless words "Yitgadal v'yitkadash" at times of bereavement, but to ennoble these words through our daily deeds. Some may declare nuclear energy "king," the power, the key for the future. Others may glorify their economic systems. Still others may call the conquest of space the ruler. But the Jew on these awesome days proclaims to the world his faith in Melech malchei ha-m'lachim hakadosh baruch hu -- The King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He"!
"Blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, the Lord will be his protector; trust in the lord for ever and ever, the Lord God is an unfailing stronghold."