My grandfather, David Stavsky, was the rabbi of the synagogue where I grew up in. He was a real rabbi’s rabbi. A powerful, larger than life personality whose booming voice would always captivate the entire Beth Jacob Congregation, especially on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
The only time I remember my grandfather’s voice faltering, the only time I remember him crying was when we would recite the prayer before the blowing of the Shofar.
Lamnatzeyach Livnei Koroach Mizmor…
For the leader. Of the Korachites. A psalm. (Psalm 47)
Min Hametzar Karati Ka, Anani b’merchav Ka…
In distress I called on the LORD; the Lord answered me and brought me relief. (Psalm 118:5)
Koli Shamata Al Talem Aznecha, liravchati l’shavati…
Hear my plea; Do not shut Your ear To my groan, to my cry! (Lamentations 3:56)
My grandfather was completely solemn and fearful when it came to this part of the service: the blasting of the Shofar, the Mussaf prayers, U’netane Tokef. Through his voice and his tears you could sense that he internalized the words, the meaning and the spirit of all the Rosh Hashana prayers in the authentic way of all the previous generations of God-fearing Jews.
My grandfather looked around the beautiful synagogue that he built, and looked at each one of his precious congregants. He looked at the families whose sons he performed their Brit Milah (circumcision), and then their Bar Mitzvah and then their wedding. He looked with pain at the empty seats of his dear congregants, those who passed away in the previous year and would cry to Hashem and pray his heart out for his congregation that they be granted another year.
On Rosh Hashana, in most Synagogues it is common for grandfathers to sit next to their sons and grandsons, and for grandmothers to sit next to their daughters and granddaughters.
Our community here in Israel is different.
Our synagogue is primarily made up of many young families who have left their parents and grandparents behind. Our Kehilla is made up of people who, like our forefather Abraham, have left their “birthplace, their father’s house to go to the Land I will show you”.
None of us have attended this particular synagogue long enough to go through a life cycle together. Some of us are experiencing our first Rosh Hashana as new immigrants in Israel. Many of us are sitting here far away from our families, but close to new friends who we are traversing life’s ups and downs together, and are coming close as a holy congregation.
We are sitting here together during the most powerful moments of the entire Jewish year.
We are not combining our voices with our own mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers. Here, in this congregation, we can recognize more than others perhaps that Hashem is our Father and we are His children.
As we said today in the special Haftara reading for the second day of Rosh Hashana, “Hayiti Lyisrael l’av v’efrayim bechori hu – For I am ever a Father to Israel, Ephraim is My first-born.” (Jeremiah 31:9)
And so while we are connected with all the previous generations of our God fearing ancestors throughout our history in the exile, who quaked in fear during these moments before the sounding of the Shofar, we are also entirely unique.
We are the first generation of Jews who have had the privilege to return to our promised land. We are amongst the first generations of Jews in history that are irrevocable proof of the promises that Hashem will remember His children and His land, which we will say in the Rosh Hashana prayers: Then will I remember My covenant with Jacob; I will remember also My covenant with Isaac, and also My covenant with Abraham; and I will remember the land.” (Leviticus 26:42)
We are amongst the first to blow the great Shofar and to cry out in prayer on Rosh Hashana in the same place where our matriarch Rachel cried for her children. We can say, as the first descendants in our families in two thousand years, to our mother Rachel:
“Restrain your voice from weeping, Your eyes from shedding tears; For there is a reward for your labor —declares the LORD: They shall return from the enemy’s land. And there is hope for your future —declares the LORD: Your children shall return to their country.” (Jeremiah 31:15-17)
We can turn to our Father in Heaven from the land that He gave to us and we have the special ability to reach the highest levels of prayer and repentance on account of the special blessings of the Land of Israel – and that is what we must do today.
We must use these moments before the Shofar blowing to pierce the heavens with our prayers for our families, for the sick members of our community, for the leadership of this country, for the IDF soldiers who are guarding us, for the safety and wellbeing of the entire world, for those recovering from earthquakes and hurricanes, and for the One True God of Israel to finally be coronated as the King over the entire universe who will bring the Moshiach (Messiah) and grant peace to Israel and the entire world.