On Shabbat Shuva, the Sabbath between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the following verse from Parashat Haazinu (Deuteronomy 32.7) will be recited:
זְכֹר יְמוֹת עוֹלָם בִּינוּ שְׁנוֹת דֹּר וָדֹר שְׁאַל אָבִיךָ וְיַגֵּדְךָ זְקֵנֶיךָ וְיֹאמְרוּ לָךְ:
Remember the days of old, consider the years of the generations; ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you.
How should we understand the expression: consider the years of the generations?
The founder of the Ger Hasidic dynasty Rabbi Isaac Meir Alter Rothenburg, interpreted this phrase to mean that every generation brings with it a new aspect of Torah to be learned:
Every year a new interpretation of Torah is created… in every generation and in every age a new understanding of Torah relevant to that generation is granted from heaven, and the great sages understand Torah according to that which it is necessary to teach to their generation… (Hiddushei HaRiM. Ha’azinu)
The usual order of interpretation is inverted here. Instead of asking how the Judaism of old can help me understand our current situation, the question posed here is: how can our current situation add a new dimension of understanding to our Torah? Actuality is not to be seen as an interference to the timeless Torah, but rather as a way to go ever deeper into Torah, a new aspect of which is revealed every year. That’s the meaning of the years of the generations – the new insight that this year offers to the wisdom of the generations.
What is to be learned from the year that has just ended? How can we draw insight from a year that will likely be remembered as a year of plague, a year of sickness, a year of fires, a year of the weakening of democracy, a year of demagoguery, a year of unemployment, a year of erosion and irresponsibility – can a year such as this bring us its special insight?
I am not a fan of a religious approach according to which all challenges are sent to try us and will ultimately yield a positive outcome. Not every crisis empowers. We are well advised to face up to the fact that the situation is bad, and it’s likely to get worse. But I do believe that there is no period of history devoid of the potential for learning and growth. And indeed, trying to understand what this year adds to the wisdom of the generations is an important way of dealing with the challenges of these paralyzing times.
So here is one attempt to find such a reading. It focuses on an expression found in Isaiah 61: shnat ratzon. The prophet describes his mission to include:
To bind up the wounded of heart, to proclaim release to the captives, liberation to the imprisoned
To proclaim a shnat ratzon, a year of the Lord’s favor, and a day of vindication for God, and to comfort those who mourn.
There is no Isaiah today, nor any King David or Moses. Since this is the case it is incumbent upon each of us to take on the prophet’s role, to bind up wounds, to proclaim and to comfort.
The broken-hearted are all around us during these challenging days. It is our responsibility to identify them and to provide them with as much healing balm as possible. And often we ourselves are in the ranks of the broken hearted.
Isaiah is called to offer a message of enlightenment for those cast into darkness and solitude, and to call for a year of ratzon, a year of favor. The word ratzon encompasses notions of accommodation, compromise, will, intention, and favor. Immediately following this comes mention of the day of vindication or revenge. Many traditional interpreters have understood this as referring to a time of messianic redemption, in which the people of Israel will experience Divine favor and Israel’s enemies will be punished. This year offers a different reading of Isaiah’s words. This year I read the words as saying: this year may we have the ratzon, the will, to deal with all that is going on around us, and may we be able to acknowledge that in some sense the vengeance is against humanity in general. We are living in a time described by James Lovelock as The Revenge of Gaia. After long decades of exploiting and neglecting the natural resources of the natural world, nature is striking back. Isaiah’s words read this year as saying: offer comfort and support to those who need it, and speak honestly about the challenges we face.
The phrase shnat ratzon from Isaiah found its way into the liturgy of the High Holidays, for example in a poem penned by Moses ibn Ezra in Spain over nine hundred years ago:
Exalted and holy, hear the prayers of prisoners from their dwelling places
Strengthen them and inscribe them with the faithful
And call a year of ratzon to protect the poor and the defenceless
This year we are all prisoners calling out from our dwelling places – enclosed by medical exigencies, by emotions and by preconceptions. The prophet’s voice resonates through the ages: to bind up, to proclaim and to comfort – ourselves, our loved ones, our people, our world.
As I mentioned above, it’s easy to describe the year just passed in negative terms. In traditions preserved in the Talmud of the Land of Israel and in various midrashim, every year the High Priest would end the ritual on the Day of Atonement by expressing the very finest wishes for the year to come. Here is the version from Leviticus Rabbah:
What was the prayer of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement as he left the holiest place? He would say: may it be Your will that this year be a year of rain and plenty and dew, a year of ratzon [the phrase from Isaiah we have been discussing], a year of blessing, a year of affordability, and year of negotiation. And may your people Israel not have to be dependent one on the other, and may they not yield inappropriate authority over each other.
The blessings are divided into two sections: blessings from nature, and those which are dependent on interpersonal behavior. Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg, known as Rav Shagar, has suggested that the two points at which the Jewish year begins, Nisan and Tishrei, symbolize two kinds of renewal. Nisan stands for the cyclical renewal of nature, whereas Tishrei stands for the possibility of radical renewal, of human innovation. The High Priest’s blessing asks for both kinds of renewal – that nature will bestow its largesse upon us, and that we will know how to behave to each other in new ways.
This year we are learning that the distinction between the natural and the human domains is being blurred. Species are approaching distinction at alarming rates. The planet is heating much faster than it would be doing if it were simply a question of natural cyclical change. We have interfered with the natural order, and now ‘the revenge of Gaia’ is underway. I am not suggesting that Planet Earth is punishing us for this sin or that. I am suggesting that the fantasy according to which we can use the resources of the world as if they are inexhaustible is not plausible. So if most commentators think that the day of vengeance described by Isaiah relates to some other people, I learn this year that the vengeance is being exacted on us, on all of us. We will need to find new ways of bringing peoples and religions together in response to this existential earth crisis. The current epidemic is only one example of what is likely to transpire in years to come, and in order to be equal to the task we will need much ratzon – will and motivation.
If I were the High Priest I would change one part of the blessing for the new year. He prays that we will not need to depend on each other, and it is clearer than ever that we will need to lean on each other for moral, financial and spiritual support. As for the next part of his prayer, there is no need to change a word. This year has seen many examples of inappropriate and corrupt use of power. The basis of our shared society is under threat, and we will all need much ratzon to stand up against these alarming tendencies.
This year offers a new understanding of a teaching from the prophet Isaiah. On this Shabbat Shuva, this Sabbath of Return, we return to the words with new insights. May we know how to bind up, to proclaim and to comfort. And may this be a year not only in which God favors us, but one in which we discover the will and the diligence necessary to face our challenges. May we have the will to face up to the reality of our ecological and political crises. May we find ways of strengthening our interdependence, and of resisting populism and exploitative practices.
What to wish for this coming year? That it be a year of rain and plenty and dew, a year in which we do something about our collapsing environment before it is too late; a year of favor, and blessing, and affordability; a year in which all are provided for; a year of negotiations rather than hostilities; a year in which we do learn how to support each other, and one in which attempts to apply inappropriate power on each other and on the other are resisted. My this be a year of health. A year in which we really see and hear each other. May we learn how to bind up wounds, to proclaim our truths loudly, and to comfort those who grieve.
Perhaps in this way even this hard year can add new layers of understanding to our Torah, as it is passed on to the generations yet to come.
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