Thursday, September 17, 2009

At the Dawn of a New Year

I rarely give much thought to gematriya, the art of discerning hidden "truths" lurking within the words of the Hebrew language by interpreting words and phrases not in terms of their real meanings but in terms of numerical values derived by taking their constituent letters as numbers and then adding them together. But as the new year dawns, I find myself recalling some gematriya-based comment I learned about years ago that I hadn’t even realized had stayed with me all this time.

Years ago, while I was in the final stages of preparing my dissertation at JTS, I worked as assistant to Dr. Menahem Schmelzer, now professor emeritus of medieval Jewish literature but then Seminary’s librarian, and I recall him telling me about an incident he recalled from Rosh Hashanah in 1941 when he was still a young man living in Budapest. Things were not going well. France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, Denmark, Norway, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania had already fallen to the Germans, as, of course, also had Poland. America had yet to enter the war. Even England had been unable to prevent the Germans from occupying the Channel Islands and from building on the island of Alderney the only concentration camps that would exist on British soil. And yet in Budapest these events were considered—at least by some—as distant details unrelated to the future of the Jews of Hungary.

Indeed, as the year 5702 dawned, the rabbi in Dr. Schmelzer’s shul seized on the fact that letters denoting the year 5702, tav-shin-bet, can be creatively rearranged to spell out the Hebrew word shabbat, the Hebrew original of which the English word “Sabbath” is a kind of transliterated approximation. And so, demonstrating a level of naiveté beyond painful to contemplate in retrospect, the rabbi announced hopefully that the coming year would be a year of sabbatical rest from the travails of the world, from the political uncertainty that surely must have been terrifying the more savvy members of the Hungarian public, from the dread of the Nazis that surely hung over the country during the first years of the Second World War as a impenetrable blanket of lethal smog only not yet descended to smother the freedom of the nations over which it ominously hovered. The fact that almost 34,000 Jews would be murdered at Babi Yar almost before the week was out was, of course, unknown to all but the murderers themselves.

It’s a detail. It’s hardly even a story, just a remark by an anonymous rabbi made almost seventy years ago. But it stuck in Dr. Schmelzer’s mind and, since he told me of it, it’s stuck too in mine. The fantasy—my fantasy—is being able somehow to go back in time and magically to appear in that rabbi’s study on the day before Rosh Hashanah as he was preparing the comments he would make in synagogue in the course of the coming holidays and tell him the truth. That the most unimaginable horrors were just around the corner. That tranquil, restorative Shabbos rest was precisely the opposite of what was awaiting the Jews of Hungary within the next few years. That there was still time to run, to escape, maybe slightly to alter the course of what has long since acquired the aura of inevitability in most of our minds….but which may not have been unavoidably unalterable then.

So much for fantasy. But there is also a paradox to consider: that the rabbi’s comments, for all they were completely wrong in terms of what was to come, still have a profound message to offer us today. And that message is the one I wish to offer my readers as we approach the holiday season this year.

About to begin is the year 5770 according to the traditional Jewish reckoning. And, just like 5702, 5770 has its own gematriya value. Only it is not a soothing one, not something in the contemplation of which to find solace. Just the opposite: the year that dawns suggests a level of challenge to which we would all do well to rise. The letters are tav-shin-ayin. In that order, they spell out teisha, the Hebrew word for the numeral nine. In a different order, they spell out eshet, a word that appears in the Song of Songs to denote, of all things, the exquisite smoothness of the youthful King Solomon’s muscular loins of living ivory. But spelled in a third way, they spell out the beckoning, but indecisive, shaat, a word that by itself hangs in the air and demands a response.

The word shaat means “hour of…” or “time of…” something. You may recognize it from Avinu Malkeinu, the most famous of all holiday prayers, when we prayer as a community that the hours we spend in prayer this year constitute an auspicious hour of divine compassion for us all. But the word shaat itself is without real content: shaat rachamim is an hour of compassion, but just shaat is a word that needs to be followed by…something.

And so here we are on the edge of a new year, on the threshold of a new year that by its very number suggests uncertainty…and the possibility of speaking a single word that changes everything, that finishes the phrase, that seals the deal. But what will that word be? That, I submit, is the question that should be haunting us as we gather in shul this weekend to begin the most sacred season of the year by ushering in a year the very name of which, so to speak, denotes uncertainty.

What kind of year will soon be upon us? It’s a good question—in some ways, it’s the only question—but perhaps I would do better to ask it instead by filtering it through Dr. Schmelzer’s recollection of the remarks that rabbi from Budapest made all those many years ago. In sixty-eight years, as the year 5838 dawns in the fall of 2077 and some rabbi somewhere—perhaps one of the toddlers in our Nursery School then to be on the verge of retirement—as some rabbi in some congregation somewhere sits down to write to a congregation of people just like ourselves and chooses to express himself just as I have today by wishing he had a time machine—this is supposing they don’t actually have time machines available for purchase in the 2070’s—by wishing that he could travel back to the study in which I am seated at this very moment as I write these words to you and reveal details akin to the ones I fantasize about somehow being able to share with that rabbi in Budapest seventy years ago, what exactly would he say to us?

Would he shake us by the shoulders and tell us that Little Hitler in Teheran wasn’t kidding, that his oft-proclaimed wish to destroy Israel had everything to do with his country’s apparently unstoppable quest for nuclear weaponry, not nothing at all to do with it (as so many wish were the case, just so many wished to find sabbatical greetings sent to them by heaven as the year 5702 dawned in the fall of 1941)? Would he tell us to take seriously the ways in which the special relationship between our great country and the State of Israel appear to be fraying at the edges, to take that not as an example of the normal wear-and-tear any friendship must occasionally weather but as something ominously portentous, something for us to address forcefully rather than ignore? Would he ask how we could possibly have failed to connect the dots as the tide of anti-Semitic incidents in major Jewish centers like France, the U.K., Russia, and Argentina continues to rise? Or would he say none of the above…and focus instead on issues that none of us has even identified, let alone effectively responded to?

I wish I knew! In the unlikely event that these letters I write weekly survive long enough for anyone to read them in seven decades, I suppose those readers will know, and all too well. But we, who must exist without crystal balls into which to peer and see the future, can only embrace the year almost upon us with humility born of self-admitted ignorance…and with a renewed sense of passionate resolve to act, as we always should, in our own best interests. But knowing where precisely those interests live and what they are exactly...that is the challenge we all face on the threshold of a new year.

I have the sense that 5770 will be a momentous year in many different ways. May God grant that it bring security and safety to Jewish people everywhere, and especially peace to Israel and its neighbors. May we all look back on this new year one day and recall it as one of personal transformation too…and also one suffused with the twin blessings of creativity and productivity. I wish you all a very happy and healthy New Year, a shanah tovah umetukah.

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