At the risk of adding to the long list of unqualified assertions and apocalyptic phrases, “the most terrible”s and “the never before”s used to describe the economic events of the past fortnight, I’d like to make one more claim about the financial meltdown: never has a disaster affecting so many been understood by so few. Over the past two weeks, thousands of analysts, investors, politicians, and Wall Street moguls have all been scrambling to make sense of the meltdown, pinpointing the moment when things started going wrong, and explaining why a crisis – while so predictable – was not prevented.
There is one thing, however, that is glaringly evident – even to us simple folk who are lost in the sea of economic acronyms, cryptic charts and ominous figures. If the meltdown has proved anything, it’s the precariousness of the human condition. When properties, pension plans and insurance policies lose their value overnight, and even money in the bank is not as secure as in its proverbial past, one realizes how tenuous the things of this world are, how fragile and fleeting.
This, precisely, is the theme of the upcoming Days of Awe. “Who will live and who will die / who by water, who by fire, who by sword, who by beast… Who will rest and who will wander / who will grow poor and who will grow rich,” we say in our prayers. On Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur everything, all that we own and all that we are, hangs in the balance. Here today, gone tomorrow.
Reflecting upon the recent events, so hauntingly close to the High Holidays, I was struck by one of David Hartman’s
teachings. Judaism, Rabbi Hartman argues, combines a relentless insistence upon realism with an irrepressible note of optimism. This optimism is based, not on messianic fantasies, but on the tools our tradition gives us to get through times of uncertainty. Our laws and literature are grounded in a sober, levelheaded view of reality, guiding us through the most difficult of dilemmas and predicaments. At the same time, they are sensitive to the great joy and promise of human life. Judaism, as Soren Kierkegaard once said, is “divinely sanctioned optimism,” a tradition where fast days and holidays, the laws of mourning and the rites of festivals, the sorrows of Job and the jubilation of Psalms rest side by side.
This is particularly true of the Days of Awe
. Standing before God, we constantly waver between a profound fear of divine judgment and a quiet sense of hope. The Jerusalem Talmud describes how on Rosh Hashana Jews would eat and drink and dress with a general attitude of serenity, confident in the favorable outcome of their trial (R.H. 1:3).
This combination, so hard to scale, is exactly what we need to bring into a world that of late seems so fragile. We need a strong dose of realism and self-reflection. We need to be reminded of the vulnerability of life, taking nothing for granted, assuming nothing. At the same time, we must not forget the generations who stood by their faith, who clung fiercely to hope, who even in the darkest hours never lost their sense of optimism. “Those that hope in God renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31). This is not about naïve sentimental hope; this is a hope that emerges from those who stay true and stay close – to each other, to God, to parents and grandparents.
As 5769 dawns upon us, let us greet the new year with a spirit both earnest and excited, solemn and sanguine, aware of the challenges that lie ahead and confident in our ability to meet them. “May the old year and its curses end; may the new year and its blessings begin.”