Rosh Hashanah holds lessons for how to respond to crisis. They will be more important than ever for Israeli and American Jews in the year ahead.

Rosh Hashanah, which marks the beginning of a new Jewish year, begins tomorrow at sundown. While Rosh Hashanah is by outward appearances a festive holiday, it is also meant to remind Jews of hardship. It arrives after the Jewish month of Elul, which is set aside as a time of introspection and preparation for the High Holidays. It begins the ten days of repentance, which culminate in the fast day of Yom Kippur, and the holiday liturgy reflects the theme of needing to work to overcome our failings in order to make things right with God and with our fellow human beings. Even the season in which Rosh Hashanah falls reminds us that difficult times lie ahead as the harvest time is pending, the weather begins to change ahead of winter, and the nights become longer than the days.

The Torah portions that we read on Rosh Hashanah go even further, hammering home the idea of hardship but even more so of crisis. On the first day, the portion tells the story of Abraham reluctantly banishing his oldest son, Yishmael, and the boy’s mother at the behest of his wife Sarah, who wants to protect her son Isaac. Abraham is understandably reluctant to do so, and the Torah describes him as being greatly distressed at Sarah’s request. Abraham only goes through with the banishment after God’s direct intervention and a divine promise that Yishmael will be the progenitor of his own nation.

The Torah portion on the second day ups the ante with one of the most famous Biblical stories, recounting the binding of Isaac when Abraham is asked to sacrifice his and Sarah’s sole joint offspring. Akeidat Yitzhak, as it is called in Hebrew, is often cited as the ultimate test of faith and the ultimate example of submission to God, as Abraham was requested to do the most unthinkable act imaginable for any parent with no explanation or rationale provided. There is no conceivable example of a harder task or a more intense personal crisis.

The Negev

These stories are not only about the present, but about what lies ahead. Abraham was being challenged in the moment, and also in ways that would deeply impact his future given that both challenges pertained to his sons, who were meant to protect and carry on his legacy. It does not seem coincidental that these most trying of tests for Abraham are read on Rosh Hashanah. They remind us of the enormity of the challenges that we face.

But these Torah portions are not only about hardship and challenges. They also lay out a model for how to act following crises and how to demonstrate resilience. After Abraham had banished one son and come to the brink of killing another one, one can only imagine his mindset. Aside from being emotionally ruined, his initial impulse must have been to withdraw from the world. His relationship with his children could not have been great, to put it mildly. He had been taken to the psychological brink multiple times. The notion of brushing everything off and returning to his previous life would have appeared an impossible task, no matter what was going on or what needed to be done. Turning his back and leaving the chaos behind him would have been the easy and logical choice.

But that is not what Abraham did, and his actions provide a critical lesson for those who have absorbed the last eight months of crises in Israel, whether Israelis who are dealing with it firsthand or American Jews who are agonizing about it from afar. The Torah tells us that immediately after the aborted sacrifice of Isaac following angelic intervention calling it off, Abraham “returned to his servants, and they departed together for Be’er Sheva, and Abraham stayed in Be’er Sheva.”
(וַיָּ֤שׇׁב אַבְרָהָם֙ אֶל־נְעָרָ֔יו וַיָּקֻ֛מוּ וַיֵּלְכ֥וּ יַחְדָּ֖ו אֶל־בְּאֵ֣ר שָׁ֑בַע וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב אַבְרָהָ֖ם בִּבְאֵ֥ר שָֽׁבַע)
Abraham picked up exactly as he had before, going back to his home where he was a public figure of enormous fame, and continuing his life of engaging with the world and providing hospitality. He did not disappear and he did not move to a place where he could enjoy the cloak of quiet anonymity, but plunged back into the fray. There can be no question that the crises he had undergone left their mark and changed him, but he did not let them throw him completely off course. He was able to compartmentalize them and continue his work, not losing sight of the fact that his own trauma did not prevent the rest of the world from turning. This is also the message embedded in Rosh Hashanah in a larger way: that we have encountered all manner of obstacles over the past year, but that this is a time for new beginnings, for overcoming those hardships, and for finding a new pathway to forge ahead.

The archeological site of Tel Be'er Sheva

The judicial overhaul and the related crisis of democracy in Israel is searing, no matter which side of it you are on. One side views democracy as currently being thwarted by an unelected judiciary, and one side views democracy as currently being thwarted by a government that believes it need not abide by any checks or guardrails. Many have an understandable impulse to leave if their side is not victorious. While the stakes for American Jews are far lower, there is a similar impulse in some quarters to check out and give up on Israel, to view what is taking place under the current government as not being representative of our dreams and values and as not worth the headache. For some Israelis and for some American Jews, withdrawing is the easy and even logical choice.

A Tel Aviv street vendor selling Rosh Hashanah greeting cards, 1955

As we enter this Rosh Hashanah, we should take the lesson of Abraham to heart. No matter how much Israel challenges us, we should not lose sight of the larger picture. However the current crisis is resolved, Israel will still be there, and it will still be the only Jewish state. It will be no less important going forward than it has been to aspire for and work toward a democratic, Jewish, and secure Israel. Even if the pathway is murky or unknowable today, there will indeed be a pathway to ensuring that is what Israel’s future looks like. We can allow our disappointment and our anger to subsume us, or we can return, as Abraham did, to the messiness of what we encounter and continue to try to make things better. My wish for this Rosh Hashanah is that we all, collectively and individually, continue to be resilient and continue to return, no matter how difficult we find it.

Shanah tovah and best wishes for a sweet new year to all those observing.