Minute Before Midnight

A Rosh Hashanah Sermon
by Rabbi Benjamin H. Englander
September 1971

The prophet Isaiah created the metaphor of the watchman. He tells us, "One calleth to me out of Seir. Shomer ma mi-laila, shomer ma mi-leil -- Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?" How is the night spent? How long is the darkness with its frightening uncertainties to last? How near is the dawn of redemption? The response of the watchman is enigmatic: Ata boker v'gam laila -- The morning cometh and also the night. If ye will inquire, inquire ye!" In other words, the rays of promise can be seen but darkness still prevails; a definite answer cannot now be given, but asking again in the future may elicit a more intelligible response.

My friends: For over two decades, I enjoyed the privilege, as spiritual leader of this congregation to stand watch as the storms of the times passed us by. In the darkness of the night and in the midday heat, I did not desert my post in the crows' nest of our congregational ship. It was sometimes a very lonely watch.

I would hear the challenge "Shomer ma mi-laila -- Watchman, what of the night?" How long will these frightening uncertainties last? At times, my response was as enigmatic as Isaiah's watchman. At other occasions, the congregation perhaps did not hear what they wanted to hear or I would not speak that which was expected of me. Let me assure you, however, that I always tried to be honest. In my reporting to you regarding events, trends and direction of the currents, I would always use my best judgment. I was unswerving in my devotion to the integrity and dignity of my calling as rabbi in the people Israel. I made every effort to be loyal to Jewish teachings and ideals as I translated them to present day needs. I tried to cast upon the dark, murky, polluted atmosphere in which we live the cleansing light of our Torah and our hallowed tradition.

Because I will be retiring from the pulpit next March, these sermons will be my final High Holiday messages to this congregation. Through them, I would like to review and explore once again the areas I believe are crucial for our spiritual well-being and survival. If I do not offer solutions, I have an illustrious predecessor, Isaiah, who was also enigmatic when he said "the morning cometh and also the night." I, too, invite you to ask again in the future and you may elicit a firmer reply. An awareness of the problem, however, may prevent us from being swamped by the crest of the wave.

In the twilight weeks of the year just ended, the world hailed the U.S. proposal for a 90-day cease fire in the Middle East. It was understood that no change in military status will be permitted. The cease-fire proved to be as fragile as a broken reed.

A) No sooner was it announced than the baying of the Russian hounds was heard in the background. Contempt for truth is the hallmark of the Russian political and diplomatic action. Russian perfidy and cynicism surpasses understanding. Within hours after the cease-fire went into effect, Russian SAM missiles were moved into the proscribed area of the Suez Canal zone. Twenty-one violations have been reported to date.

B) The skyjacking of the four jets and their passengers and the aborted attempt on the fifth, an El Al plane, shocked the civilized world and cast a dark shadow upon the glow of peace. This piracy was an act of extreme barbarism: subjecting civilians on innocent passage to the horrors of the desert and to the fear of being blown up with their planes. Russian silence during the entire episode was resounding in its eloquence.

C) The Jordanian civil war climaxed an ever-escalating crescendo of lawlessness -- 20,000 dead, numberless thousands wounded, Jordanians starving and falling prey to disease. King Hussein and Yasser Arafat shaking hands, with Nasser in the background beaming, "A job well done!" What a travesty! This proved to be Nasser's final act before the curtain fell and he died.

Rabbi Jacob Kranz, Maggid of Dubnow, was an 18th century preacher who spoke in parables. In one of his sermons, he gives a Jewish flavor to an old Aesop fable. He told his audience the following parable:

Once upon a time, a fox was walking in the forest and chanced to notice a woodcock perched on top of a tree. Licking his chops and envisioning the woodcock as a savory delicacy, the shrewd fox raised his voice and said, "My dear friend woodcock, come down from the tree and let us take a stroll through the forest together!" "Oh, I can't do that," rejoined the woodcock with a loud sound of its own making. "For ever since I can remember, I have never seen a fox and a woodcock walking together!" "But my dear friend," replied the fox, not to be outdone, "have you not heard that the Messiah has already arrived in the world and that from now on, there will be everlasting peace and harmony among all living creatures, as the Prophet Isaiah says, 'And the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a child shall lead them all!' "

Suddenly, in the midst of his passionate plea, the barking of dogs was heard in the distance and, at the sound, the fox fled in panic. Seeing this, the woodcock called out after him, "Why are you running away at the sound of barking dogs? Did you not just say that the Messiah has already arrived and all creatures will live together in peace?" "Yes, but what am I to do," shouted back the fleeing fox, "if these dogs do not believe in the coming of the Messiah?' "

"Kaveh l'shalom v'ein shalom -- We hoped for peace but there is no peace." The anticipated Messiah did not arrive. The Russian dogs do not seem to believe in the coming of the Messiah. The time is not yet arrived for the fox and the woodcock to stroll together in the forest. The situation in the Mideast, in the opinion of many experts, is more volatile than ever before. Egypt is loaded with Russia's most sophisticated weapons. Much of it is manned by Russians. The future appears stark, dark, and dismal.

"Shomer ma mi-leil -- Watchmen, what of this unending night?" You ask. My response in this instance is clear: Our shofar calls us to be strong and courageous in this period of trial and tribulation.

"Ata boker -- The morn will come," though at present it seems so far away. Within the State of Israel, despite the threats and constant danger, there is a mood of tranquillity. Everyone pursues his daily activities -- cinemas, shows, nightclubs, lectures, and art exhibits always draw large attendance as if there was no war on the sidelines. Optimism prevails though there is a spirit of preparedness against all contingencies. In the sounding of the shofar we should hear the urgent message for us to keep them strong.

Furthermore, I have always contended that there is no such thing as neutrality. It is gratifying to note that our U. S. Government has become aware that the State of Israel is the bridge Russia needs to consolidate its conquests. The evenhanded policy pursued by President Nixon has failed to produce the hoped-for reciprocity and Russian arms have been pouring into Egypt. I further submit that the Waterloo for Russian expansions will be on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean.

It is here that Communism must be and will be stopped. I dare say that for the moment, Israel will enjoy tranquillity. "Chil achaz yoshvei p'lashet -- Agony grips the people of Philistia." The Jordan-guerilla confrontation and the sudden demise of Gamal Abdel Nasser has created waves of confusion among the nations. In my judgment it will be some time before this confusion will subside. Nevertheless, the Israel crisis remains: It is always "a minute before midnight" -- action is urgent.

In the trilling notes of the shofar we once again listen to the words of our prophet.

"I have set watchmen upon thy walls, to Jerusalem.
They shall never hold their peace, day or night.
Ye who are the Lord's remembrance,
Take ye no rest, and give Him no rest
Until He establishes Jerusalem
A pride throughout the world."

We are the watchmen. We will not hold our peace until Israel is secure and an equitable peace is won.

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