Is the world coming to an end?

September 7, 2020 by Rabbi Raymond Apple
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Rabbi Raymond Apple

IS THE WORLD COMING TO AN END?

“The world is changing and about to come to an end.”

That was the view in every age of history. With a difference.

Regardless of how we spoke of doom in the past, now it might really be happening.

Think of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev. Every night he said to himself, “Whatever I have done today will not be allowed again!”

Then he rebuked himself: “But you said that yesterday too!”

“True,” he replied to himself, “But today I really mean it!”

Last year before Rosh HaShanah we probably uttered a dire foreboding about the future… but this year we really mean it.

What has happened this year?

All of a sudden everybody has come under threat, no ifs, no buts, no exceptions. No corners to hide in, no certainty that we will come through and survive.

We fear going out into the street, we fear human company, we fear taking the bus, we fear sitting and singing in shule.

What a shock when an innocent phone call to ask how a friend is doing gets the reply, “Didn’t you know?” When we were out of touch something happened in the friend’s family, and it could happen in anyone’s.

I have no answers except faith in God.

Psalm 90 says, “Teach us to count our days.”

God, teach us to count our days, our loved ones, our friends, our blessings, You.

We shall not walk this way again: teach us to value the things on the way, the little things by the sidewalk, the sun in the sky and the grass on the earth, the flowers, the leaves, the fruits.

We are uncertain about tomorrow, but we still have today.

Thank you, God; take our hands in Yours, and be with us wherever we go.

FOUR NEW YEARS

The Mishnah Rosh HaShanah 1:1 tells us that there are four New Years, four times in the year when we turn over a page in the calendar and start a new era:

– 1 Nisan – new year for kings and festivals
–  1 Ellul (some say 1 Tishri) – new year for the tithe of cattle
–  1 Tishri – new year for the reckoning of foreign eras, for the release and jubilee years, and for the planting of trees and for vegetables
–  1 Sh’vat (some say 15 Sh’vat) – new year for the planting of fruit trees.

Only the third of these New Years is known simply as Rosh HaShanah. But altogether, we see that four elements are high priority in Jewish thinking – Jewish historical events, animals, world history and vegetation:

–  Jewish historical events – what happens in Jewish leadership and the people’s observance of the high days and holydays determines the character of the year.

–  Animals – the animal kingdom shares the universe with us and according to the Talmud (Eruvin 100b) exemplifies many ethical qualities: “Had the Torah not been given to us we could have learnt modesty from cats, hard work from ants, chastity from doves and gallantry from cocks”.

–  World history – each year intertwines Jewish and world events; if the world tries to ignore or oppose the Jewish people, the world itself is diminished.

–  Trees, which give fruit, shelter and shade to human beings, come to life as youngsters, they grow, tentatively at first, and as they reach maturity become productive and protective. They rejoice to be part of God’s world. Their swishing in the wind is like a voice that acclaims the Creator. There comes a time when a tree groans under the weight of years and falls apart, but even thereafter it still makes a contribution. Trees, like people, leave their traces. The world is a nicer place because they were there.

FEELING YOUNG AGAIN

The “Akedah” story has a cast of six – Abraham and Isaac, two servant lads, the angel of God who speaks from heaven, and Sarah, who is at home wondering and probably weeping.

Plus a seventh member, the ram that is caught in the bushes and offered up in place of Isaac.

There is a great deal of commentary about the two lads, including a surprising interpretation by the Baal Shem Tov.

Says the text, “Vayyikkach et sh’nei n’arav immo” – “And he took his two lads with him” (Gen. 22:3).

The Baal Shem connects “sh’nei”, “two”, with “shanah”, “a year”, and gives the verse a homiletic twist as if to say, “He took the years of his lads with him” – embarked upon a task given by God, he walked with a youthful spring in his step and became young again.

We know that Abraham and Sarah were elderly parents, and Abraham could have answered God’s call by saying, “Lord, this is a task for a younger person. I have aches and pains and I don’t walk so well any more. How do you expect me to ascend a mountain and carry out a task that requires physical energy?”

But this is not what happened. Abraham set off as instructed – because all of a sudden he had the energy of a young man again: an experience that a senior adult undergoes from time to time when an important assignment is on the agenda. For a moment at least, one is young again.

Remember how many apparently elderly people have made contributions to civilisation that the world thought were beyond them at their age?

Wouldn’t life have been different without the historic deeds of an elderly Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Rabbi Akiva and so many other senior citizens?

The young sometimes denigrate the old, but history proves them wrong.

Rabbi Raymond Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, Australia’s oldest and most prestigious congregation. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem where he answers interesting questions.

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