Spiritual Stock-Taking

On Rosh Hashana, let’s not rule out the possibility that we can spiritually navigate ourselves out of internal and external difficulties. 

Published in Israel Hayom, Eve of Rosh Hashana 5775, September 24, 2014. 

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An old joke goes like this: How does a Jew do “cheshbon nefesh” (spiritual stock-taking)? Does he beat his breast and repent for his sins? No. He reaches over to the person sitting nearby and hits this other guy on the chest.

Finding fault with others is something that politicians, journalists, columnists and others do all year long. Self-criticism, of course, is harder, requiring humility and honesty. Spiritual stock-taking, one level yet higher, is almost non-existent. It’s a challenge our society has elected to neglect.

“It is a positive commandment to petition the heavens and to blow trumpets following any misfortune that may befall the public”, writes Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Fast Days, 1:1). “This is the way of repentance….to recognize that adversity results from our wicked ways……It is brutish to discount tragedies as natural or random events”, warns the Jewish philosophical giant. So, it’s incumbent on us to seek deeper meaning for all that happens around us, to improve ourselves and beseech G-d for relief.

After a year of national tragedies and challenges galore what is our conclusion? Consider the kidnapping and murder of the three boys in Gush Etzion, the war with Hamas, anti-Semitic attacks on Jews in Brussels and Kansas City, the weak-kneed P5+1 “interim” deal with Iran, the failed Kerry-led peace talks, the rise of knife-wielding and beheading-happy radical Islamic armies, etc.

Did all this happen only as a result of nefarious or poor policy (Haniye’s, Obama’s or Netanyahu’s)? Is the sum total of our analysis merely military or diplomatic — fight Hamas, crush ISIS, confront Iran? Is there no level of meaning beyond the prosaic political calculus?

Throughout our history, Jews have always thought there was. G-d keeps a moral scorecard. What we do individually, how we speak and how we act – to our neighbors, co-workers, fellow immigrants, kids, the poor and weak, strangers and the deviant among us, Jews of different religious stripes, even our political rivals – effects what happens to us on the national level.

Unfortunately, our capacity for such ethereal reflection, and willingness as a people to contemplate G-d’s hand in history, has been dulled. Perhaps technological society is to blame. There’s too much sensory noise, too much media and information, not enough time or mental space to think. Perhaps we simply don’t believe in much anymore, aside from personal fulfillment. Perhaps we lack spiritual leadership.

In the Rosh Hashana prayers we repent for the sin of “timhon laivav” (confusion of the heart). This is confusion that stems from inadequate perspective; from not making the effort to reach beyond the commonplace and consider the macro in an ethical-religious context.

Let’s not rule out the possibility that we can spiritually navigate ourselves out the current national troubles. More refined use of language in public discourse, just a little less hacking at each other politically, a touch more tolerance in education, less public promiscuity, more honesty in business and increased philanthropy, a crackdown on crime, fairer distribution of the national burden, more concern for the widow, orphan and unemployed, some reverence for heritage – all this might go a long way in ameliorating any misery that Heaven might decree upon us.

Unlike some arrogant clerics and idiotic soothsayers, we cannot decisively ascertain why things happen or for what purpose. We can only seek respite by refining ourselves, in the hope that G-d will take notice and reward our catharsis.

Engagement is the key. The process of self-improvement and searching for G-d itself constitutes recognition that there is a Divine guiding hand in our lives, and the appeal for His guidance is intrinsically beneficial. At the least, we can ethically improve our communities and society.

We have a good basis to build on. The unity and solidarity all Israelis powerfully felt and expressed this summer – from the three week period of agony surrounding the kidnapping of Gilad Shaer, Naftali Fraenkel and Eyal Yifrach to the seven week war with Hamas – is a national treasure; a wellspring of goodness that can and must be intensified.

May we all merit mitigation of hardships, and victories over our enemies. Shana tova.

David M. Weinberg is a think tank director, columnist and lobbyist who is a sharp critic of Israel’s detractors and of post-Zionist trends in Israel. Read more »
A passionate speaker, David M. Weinberg lectures widely in Israel, the U.S. and Canada to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. He speaks on international politics and Middle East strategic affairs, Israeli diplomacy and defense strategy, intelligence matters and more. Click here to book David Weinberg as a speaker

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