As I write these words, I am sitting on our HUC-JIR campus in Jerusalem and gazing upon the walls of the Old City. There is so much beauty and goodness in the world, and this site itself remains a source of endless optimism and hope. Yet, at the same time I reflect upon the past year and focus for a moment upon the seemingly endless tragedy and fear that mars our world. It is difficult at such moments of contemplation not to surrender to despair.
In the midst of these contradictory and disturbing thoughts, my mind recalls a specific rabbinic argument recorded in tractate Rosh Hashanah of the Babylonian Talmud. I share it with you now for the instruction and inspiration this passage affords. In these pages of our Tradition, Rabbi Joshua and Rabbi Eliezer debate the question as to when the world was created. Rabbi Joshua holds that the world was fashioned during Nisan as Spring burst forth. He reasons that Spring is a time of birth - the season when the trees blossom and when the earth awakens from its winter slumber and begins to yield its produce. It is a time of confidence where one can effortlessly recite a blessing that praises God for supplying the world with
all its needs. It is easy to believe in rebirth during the Spring.
Nevertheless, Rabbi Eliezer disagrees with his colleague and asserts that it is with the advent of Tishri in the Fall that the world was formed. Rabbi Eliezer maintains that we must believe in rebirth even during a period when the days shorten and when nature is preparing to be dormant. How difficult it is to believe in renewal when the harshness of winter is on the horizon.
Yet, this is precisely what Judaism prescribes. Jewish law follows the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer, and Jewish tradition from time immemorial has celebrated yom harat ha-olam - the birth of the world - during the autumn festival of Rosh Hashanah. In taking this stance, Jewish tradition teaches that hope and confidence for the promise the future holds must never be abandoned. A realistic assessment of the present must never yield to desolation and hopelessness - a sober yet joyful optimism is always required.
These words of Rabbi Eliezer and the decision made by Jewish tradition to observe the birthday of the world in the Fall embody a crucial message that must be heeded by us all as the New Year approaches. Jews and other persons of good faith must acknowledge and confront the horrors of terrorist activity as well as the other evils that tarnish our world. We must not turn away from them.
At the same time, it would be too easy in light of so many sad chapters that stain our lives both past and present to submit to what the late Salo Baron of Columbia University once perceptively labeled "a lachrymose view of the world." This dean of modern Jewish historians - speaking in the same voice that marked Rabbi Eliezer - asserted that such submission would be inappropriate, for Judaism promotes a positive ethos that demands that Jews and non-Jews alike affirm life. Each of us is called upon by God to renew our efforts to improve the human condition - even in an era such as our own when it would be so easy to mire ourselves in despair.
These pages of the HUC-JIR Chronicle provide a message of hope in keeping with the sensibility expressed by Rabbi Eliezer as well as Professor Baron. In these articles, we rejoice with a Los Angeles campus that has expanded its rabbinical program and a New York campus that has developed its education offerings so as to better serve the entire Jewish community. We also take great pride in the tales and testimony offered by our second career students as they devote themselves to Jewish study and prepare for lives in Jewish professional fields. HUC-JIR is also grateful that speakers such as Anita Diamant and Thomas Friedman have graced our platforms in Cincinnati during this past year, and we are happy to share their insight and wisdom with you.
As we face the New Year, let us then do so in a spirit of optimism. Let us remember that the world remains a good place, and let us not forget that it is our human responsibility - as the ancient rabbis in their commentary on Creation put it - to make the world "very good."
Burt and Brenda Lehman, my wife, Jackie and I - along with our children Ruth and Robert, Micah, Hannah, Naomi, and Rafi - pray in the spirit of Ashkenazic tradition that all of you be "written and inscribed for a good and sweet New Year." And in the words of Sephardic tradition, we ask, "She'tizku l'shanim rabot - that you and your loved ones merit many happy and healthy years."
Rabbi David Ellenson