שנה טובה! لله أكبر
It is Rosh Hashanah, the first day of the seventh month, when Jews celebrate the new year and creation of the world. Don’t ask me how or why the world was created in the seventh month. I have no idea.
I’d like to wish a happy new year (שנה טובה, shana tova) to all my readers: it was a beautiful fall morning in Washington, one that belies the horrors of the repression in Syria, the murderous attack in Benghazi, the violence against American embassies, consulates and bases in Tunis, Cairo, Khartoum and elsewhere. We are fortunate indeed to enjoy a peaceful capital, one that approaches the November election with some anxiety but no real fear. I can write what I like, say what I like, publish what I like, worrying only about who might sue me rather than who might kill or arrest me. This is not my privilege, but my right.
I talked yesterday with a Venezuelan who left her country because of a well-founded fear of persecution and found asylum in the United States. She anticipates Chavez will win again in her country’s elections next month. I’ve seen her look of pain and longing for home in the eyes of Bosnians, Kosovars, Palestinians, Iraqis, Libyans, Syrians and I don’t know how many other nationalities. My immigrant grandparents never had it though: they were glad to leave places that are now in eastern Poland and Belarus for a better life, as they had previously left Russia, and likely Spain before that. My grandmother refused to tell me where she was born. When I came back and asked what her native language was, she told me (in heavily accented New Yorkese), “Don’t be smart. I told you I did not want to talk about that!”
I feel reasonably safe in predicting that the year ahead will see many more people displaced and unable to return home. Some will be fortunate enough to find asylum in the U.S. or some other decent place. Some may even adopt my grandmother’s attitude: I’m better off now, why should I look back? But all too many will not. They will suffer violence, brutality, poverty, hunger, thirst, dislocation, discrimination, abuse. They will fight for their rights, rebel against oppression, flee for their lives. If you believe the statistics, the world is a good deal more peaceful and a good deal more democratic than it was in the last century. But there are a lot more people and a lot of bad things are still happening to a substantial percentage of them.
Jews devote most of the new year to worship of the deity. The basic message is the same as the Muslim one:
Allahu akhbar. God is great.
But it is not a god who creates the problems that lead to mistreatment of people, or a god who will solve them. Sometimes nature contributes with a drought, a storm, an earthquake or something of that sort. But most of the problems that still plague large parts of the world are man-made. Even worse, they are often made with good intentions. All the people I know who have committed war crimes can give you decent rational explanations of why the did what they did: to protect their own people, to prevent massacres in the future, to respond to provocations. Their reasoning often hides greed for money or power. It almost always requires that they not be judged by the standards they use to judge others.
So the part of this morning’s synagogue service I liked the best was not the praise of our common, much-praised deity, but this part:
When will redemption come?
When we master the violence that fills our world.
When we look upon others as we would have them look upon us.
When we grant to every person the rights we claim for ourselves.
שנה טובה الله أكبر
Happy new year. God is great.