"Ole Man Time"
A Rosh Hashanah Sermon
Once again we witness the advent of a new year: 5726 becomes 5727 -- one more year is added to the number allotted to us in our earthly span. Although the years move in upon us swiftly and quickly, in our age of mounting tension and recurring crisis -- escalating war and interracial strife punctuated by riots -- every day seems like an eternity. We are inclined to echo the ancient author when he says, "Would that the morn would already be evening, and at night we hope for the coming of the dawn."
Time is more than a record of passing hours, more than the circle of the hands around the clock, or the orbital movements around the sun. Time becomes meaningful as it is related to human events and experiences that stand as milestones in our life. Beginning with ourselves and reaching outward to all mankind, we want the following in this year: personal contentment, family solidarity, joy, and reward in our work. We also want tranquility in our society, and peace among the peoples of the earth.
One of the more powerful compulsions of human nature has always been to build islands of safety. Since the beginning of time, man has sought refuge from the ravages of nature as well as from his own instinctive destructiveness. He has learned to build protective houses and manufacture better raiment. Never has man enjoyed such comforts as we do today! He has found ways of overcoming disease (old age has become a factor of our society because we have made it possible for so many people to live longer). Yet, he hasn't found the way to curb the cruelest scourge of mankind -- war! Year in and year out we pray for peace, day in and day out we search for the road leading to it, but still it eludes us.
In Hebrew literature we find a beautiful parable telling of two Yeshiva students who had concentrated on their studies for many hours and were taking a break by talking about the coming of the Messiah. "If someone would only find the cave where David is sleeping [the Bible tells us that David did not die, but only fell into an eternal sleep], if someone would find the cave wherein David was asleep and awaken him, he would cause the Messiah to come who would bring peace and serenity to mankind, and restore Israel to its ancient glory. If 'someone'," they mused, "why not they?" The decision made, they closed their books and set out in search of King David's tomb.
Long and treacherous was their journey. They climbed mountains and crossed valleys. They searched every cave in their path, but none was David's sepulcher. They saw a dove. Because it flies over long distances, they asked her for directions to the cave, but the dove was distraught with anguish and cried out, "An eagle has just swooped down upon my nest and took off with my young and you ask me questions!"
They came to a river. Winding its way through hill and vale they thought, perhaps it had come across King David's cave. The gurgling waters could only protest, "An eagle has just washed its claws of the innocent young pigeons' blood in my pure waters, befouling and polluting them. How can I think of the direction to King David's tomb?"
They saw a very old man sitting by the road. "Do you know where King David's tomb may be?" they asked him. "Surely," he said and pointed out the way. But he continued, "When you enter the cave, King David will raise himself and stretch forth his hands, over which you will pour the waters from the pitcher on the side of his bed. Then he will rise and will bring the Mashiach."
The Yeshiva students quickly finished their climb, and found the cave and entered. They were dazzled by the bright light reflected from the jeweled wall, about which the old man had failed to tell them. They finally saw King David resting on a gold couch. King David raised himself and stretched forth his hands, but too overwhelmed by the wealth and beauty they beheld, they were paralyzed and failed to pour the water from the pitcher over his hands. David's head fell back upon the pillow and he fell asleep again.
Long and hard has been the journey of man in search of peace. He asks the dove (religion), "How can we gain peace?" but it cannot give him direction. Religion is distraught; its nest has been raided time and again the young are whisked away to far-flung battlefields. We had hoped to find the answer in the progressive growth of civilization. As it trickled down through the centuries and broadened the human horizon we hoped that the greater knowledge of one another would make for better relationships. But, its waters were defiled by the eagles of war that constantly wash their bloody claws in its pure waters as they seek to justify the killing, pillaging, and maiming in the name of progress.
Finally, we turn to Father Time. But, like "Ole Man River," time just keeps rollin' along.
Surely past experience points the way. Our story ends with a missed opportunity: They failed to pour the water over King David's hands. That has always been the tragic epic of our search for peace: missed opportunities. Within one generation we envisioned the League of Nations and the United Nations as instruments to prevent further bloodshed. The League of Nations went out of business with World War II. The United Nations is admittedly hamstrung and powerless in our present day dilemma.
The prophet's words warning against the false prophets take on special poignancy for those of us who are puzzled by current events. The false prophets would exclaim, "Shalom, shalom. There is peace, there is peace," but the true prophet witnessing the disturbing events of their day would add "v'ein shalom. And there is no peace." Thus too, in our day there are those who would lull our fears of the escalating wars getting out of control by seeking to reassure us with illusions of peace. "Overpowering the enemy with numbers, increasing aerial bombings, destroying their supply sources will bring a quick peace. ..."
But there is no surrender. Clayton Fritchey wrote in the editorial column "State of Affairs" in the Newark News, "Americans are soon going to learn that the air attacks on the Hanoi-Haiphong area are not producing results as predicted. They are not materially slowing the enemy. On the contrary he is fighting harder than ever as our own brave Marines can testify."
From the days of Alexander the Great who had conquered the world, to Attila the Hun who brought about the downfall of the Roman Empire, to our very own day, we have gone to war to prevent war, to relieve the oppressed from tyranny and to bring blessings of progress to so-called backward nations. Aren't these the avowed purposes in Vietnam? Ask President Johnson or inquire from Secretary of State Dean Rusk or of Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. But can we accomplish peace through war? By sowing seeds of war, aren't we making peace an impossibility?
Writing in "Commentary" magazine, Professor John Galbraith, former Ambassador to India, said, "We must first of all escape from the entrapment of our own propaganda. Vietnam is not important to us. Nor is it a bastion of freedom. Nor is it a testing place for democracy. ... Far too many of our officials have been persuaded because, much in the manner of a man shouting down a well, they have heard their own voices...
"We must abandon the notion -- as I am sure most sensible people have in Washington -- that we are going to roll back the Viet Cong from vast areas they have controlled now for up to 10 years. We must not invest lives, even those of other people, in an enterprise of such dubious and temporary value for the Vietnamese who might survive. ..."
"We should now permanently suspend air attacks [not merely for humanitarian reasons, although they are important, Dr. Galbraith writes, but] we should stop because these attacks and the temptation to extend them involve the one major and intolerable risk, which is war with China or conceivably Russia.
"It will be no comfort if we find ourselves involved in a war on the Asian mainland. We must all remember that the phrase 'calculated risk' is a military euphemism for total ignorance as to the outcome of a particular action."
Rosh Hashanah is the time when we gather together in a humble mood of meditation and contemplation. We take a solemn account, a heshbon ha'nefesh, in order to examine the condition of our souls as individuals and as nations. We look back upon 5726, the year just ended. We wonder what new trials or joys are ahead in the year to come. On this Rosh Hashanah we realize, more than ever before, the need for peace of mind and peace on earth. Because our lives are so fractured by tensions and turmoil, we seek on these High Holy Days the harmony of the spirit that will bring us a bit of quiet serenity.
Humbly and from the depths of our hearts with full comprehension, we confess that we have failed. We pray to God. "T'kah b'shofar gadol. Do Thou Lord cause the Great Trumpet to be sounded" that will herald the Messianic Era of peace for all mankind.