Thoughts About Our Country on the Jewish New Year

Jews throughout the world begin celebrating the onset of another year on Monday night, when Rosh Hoshannah begins. Jewish tradition has it that the beginning of a new year is a time to take stock of our personal lives and try to do better in the coming twelve months.

I take a different tack here, offering two diametrically opposite thoughts about the state of our country (probably the world as well). To say the least, the last twelve months have been beyond tough, and for too many a nightmare: a continuing pandemic that has now projected to kill at least 700,000 Americans (millions around the world); natural disasters that crashed the electricity grid in Texas in February and more recently in Louisiana, wreaking havoc for tens of millions of people, while torrential flooding and wind due to Hurricane Ida’s added much more misery felt through much of the eastern half of the US; and the political and culture wars that continue to tear at the thin fabric that seems barely to hold this country together. Not to mention the pullout from Afghanistan, which polling shows most Americans wanted, but not the way it was done – and who knows what ramifications of those traumatic weeks lie ahead (for us, millions of Afghanis, and citizens and governments of other countries worried about the reliability of the US).  

The word that summarizes one thought about all this is fragility. One day your life can be fine, and the next day some unseen virus can infect you (highly more likely if you’re unvaccinated than vaccinated, a subject that should be non-political and on which I hope to weigh in on in an upcoming post) and potentially kill you. Or the weather may be fine today, but tomorrow you’re lucky to be alive amidst Hurricane-force winds and rain, and the days after miserable beyond belief without electric power. Then there’s the fragile state of our politics, and even of our democracy (blues and reds fear the loss of it if the other side has or takes control).

Fortunately, another word about the events of the past year is equally appropriate: resilience. I find it remarkable that despite the cascade of bad events and poisonous state of our politics that our country still hangs together. Life does go on. To a large extent, all this a testament to the power of inertia. It’s also a testament to the power of markets, which harnesses self-interest to the public good. Your buying things generates income for others, while employers that pay for your services benefit from your work. At least for the vast majority of us, all of this enables us to get through each day.

Resilience goes far beyond economics. We see it in the remarkable health care workers who have been saving lives of COVID victims for the past 18 months, and who continue do so even though virtually all those hospitalized for the virus could have avoided their fate (and the crowding out of ICU beds for emergency non-COVID patients) by one simple act (or two, depending the vaccine). We see it in first responders all over the country who are attending to hurricane and wildfire victims. And we see it in victims of these catastrophes themselves who, despite the sweltering heat, are helping other victims, all amidst a raging pandemic. Remarkable just doesn’t capture all this. Nor does amazing. There just aren’t any words, except thank you!

But there is a third word – complacency ­– which should serve as warning to us all. Just because our country seems to have survived all the punches thrown at it doesn’t mean that we can safely assume that we all be all right in the future. I can’t count the books and articles I’ve read over the past several years that try to remind us that we’ve been through worse before, and we’ll get through this, too, somehow. I don’t know about you, but I don’t take much comfort from that proclamation. History has thrown too many bad things in the way of innocent people in the past.  

And yet I end with this. A fundamental precept of Judaism is the charge to each of us, whatever our religion or whether we believe in God or not, is to undertake acts of Tikkun Olam, or acts to “repair the world.” It is vast understatement that the events of the past year remind us that the world is broken and in need of repair. It is up to all of us to do our parts to repair our families, our cities, our states, and our country, and yes, the world. That, my friends should be the message of this Rosh Hoshannah for everyone. A resilient new year to you all.