I’m sure hoping for a sweeter year this year.
Rosh Hashanah approaches and we struggle to make sense of the past year – the trials and tribulations; the insanity of our nation’s politics; the sicknesses, financial difficulties, pain and suffering that have afflicted so many; the weather-related disasters in Texas and Florida; the danger that is North Korea; the ugliness on display in Charlottesville – where does one begin in preparing for the Day of Judgment?
I personally had a rough year. Of course, when I think of so many others who lost close relatives or agonized over children with debilitating illnesses (physical or spiritual) or suffered financial calamity, I should gratefully count my blessings. Nevertheless, for me this was a tougher year than usual, with some special challenges.
There are lessons I draw on from my experiences, and I write this with the hope that some of those lessons may resonate with readers as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah.
I had resigned my position last summer as rabbi of the Young Israel of Forest Hills, intending to make aliyah within a few months. But we are still living in Brooklyn, due primarily to two occurrences I did not anticipate last Rosh Hashanah.
First, my dear father-in-law, Rabbi Monni Weisberger, had a serious fall that left him with a terrible injury from which he has not (so far) recovered. (Please daven for Moshe ben Yehudis, among all cholei Yisrael).
Second, I received a jarring diagnosis: I had contracted prostate cancer – the very illness that was the final undoing of my father, a”h. Dealing with the issue took many months and much energy. Baruch Hashem, I underwent successful surgery and am well on the road to recovery. I have been declared (with a 99 percent probability) cancer free.
Even a cursory glance at what has happened in Texas and Florida suffices to make one realize how fragile our lives are. A thought offered by many of our sages is that sometimes Hashem sends us overwhelming events to (a) humble us and disabuse us of our arrogance in thinking we are in control of the world and our lives, and (b) as a reminder that we ought not take our “normal” pleasant lives for granted.
This was brought home even more deeply with the tragic passing of Assemblyman Michael Simanowitz, a”h, son of my very dear friends yibodlu l’chaim Shalom and Sheila Simanowitz. I don’t have the words to express the pain I feel for them and the extended family on this terrible loss.
Serious illness is not something that only happens to other people; it might be a lot closer than one realizes. None of the amazing systems in our bodies should be taken for granted. The Asher Yatzar blessing we say upon going to the bathroom is so sublime and real, expressing the vital lesson that we literally could not last for even one moment if not for God, who makes it all work seamlessly – until it doesn’t.
We pray zochreinu l’chaim – for life itself – but also that we might live in good health and that our bodies continue to properly function. We assume we’ll be healthy, that rivers will not overflow, that the winds will not pummel us: On Rosh Hashanah it becomes so dramatically obvious to us just how dependent on Him we are at every moment and for every moment.
During my medical ordeal I came to appreciate the wonderful people in my life who love and care for me and without whom I really could not go on. Where would I be without the love and concern of my wonderful wife and children and sisters? How amazing to hear the soothing voice of my mother and mother-in-law encouraging me. How incredibly special to get chizuk from my rebbe and rebbetzin, Rav Michel and Faige Twerski, who made me feel loved and worthy of recovery.
How fortunate I am to have the care of wonderful physicians and nurses who went above and beyond in advising me, helping me, and making sure I got far better care than I deserved. And how heartwarming it was to hear from my friends and extended family sincere wishes that I recuperate and to know how many prayers and chapters of Tehillim were said on my behalf.
Certainly, on Rosh Hashanah I will try to reciprocate, in the small way I can, by pouring my heart out to Hashem and wishing that each of those wonderful people – along with all of Klal Yisrael and good people everywhere – be inscribed for Life and for Health and not have to face the very difficult challenges that, but for the Grace of God, can happen easily and unexpectedly.
As we are reminded constantly during this time of year, it is so critical to consider the importance of bitachon – trust in Hashem. Dovid HaMelech in Psalm 27, which we say twice daily, proclaims, “Hashem is my light and my salvation; who shall I fear?… In Him and Him alone I place my trust…. Hope in Hashem, be strong and take heart…”
A central tenet of Rosh Hashanah is the importance of bolstering bitachon. We all go through times when we are surrounded by clouds and everything seems dark and gloomy. We wonder why Hashem has placed those clouds there, why He makes it difficult for us to see the way forward in His service.
With bitachon we know that wherever God places us is for the best, that if we trust in Him and only Him, our lives will have joy, contentment, meaning, and purpose.
I’m not sure what life still has in store for me. We hope to finally move to Eretz Yisrael after Sukkos, and I am confident that this year helped prepare me for some yet-to-be-accomplished worthy things.
May we all merit to have a sweet and good year, filled with health, meaning, and a contented sense of living in His presence.