Posted on December 30, 2022 by Rabbi Arnie Gluck
There is a human tendency to look to the future through the rear-view mirror — to assume that what was is what will be, and that what is happening now will inevitably continue.
The Torah does not share this view. It sees every moment as filled with possibility and potential for change. This attitude, this faith in the future, is reflected in a saying traditionally quoted each year upon the arrival of Rosh Hashanah:
״תכלה שנה וקללותיה, תחל שנה וברכותיה״
“May this year and its curses depart and may the new year and its blessings begin.”
The Torah conveys this view not in a pithy aphorism but through its stories, including the story of Joseph and his brothers, which continues in this week’s parashah.
As the parashah opens it’s like watching a train wreck unfolding before our eyes. Joseph is about to take revenge on his brothers for having sold him into slavery so many years ago. But this doesn’t happen. Instead, Judah draws near and begs for mercy, and Joseph breaks down in tears and relents. The brothers reconcile and the old wounds are healed.
As improbable as the moment seems, this is not the first time the Torah tells of such a transformation. A similar scene is played out in the previous generation, between Jacob and Esau.
Jacob and Esau were fraternal twins and bitter rivals, whose differences proved nearly fatal. In Parashat Vayishlach, as Esau is approaching Jacob, about to take his revenge with an army of 400 men, something unexpected happens. Jacob sends gifts to appease his brother, prays for God’s grace, and wrestles with an angel. When the fateful moment of encounter arrives, the brothers embrace and make peace. Who would have imagined!
What made these dramatic reversals of fortune possible? What do they have in common? In both cases the would-be victim wasn’t passive or fatalistic. Instead of submitting to the seemingly inevitable, each took bold action to direct the course of events.
Jewish history is replete with such stories. Consider the beloved festivals of Purim and Chanukah. We speak of both as examples of God’s miraculous saving power, but in both stories the tide was turned by decisive human action. It was Esther’s courageous entreaty to the king, at the risk of her very life, that saved our people from Haman’s plot to annihilate us. Similarly, when the Syrian Greeks forbade us to practice our faith, it was the brave and defiant deeds of the Maccabees that delivered us from the hands of our oppressors.
We are the descendants of Yochanan Ben Zakkai, who escaped the Roman siege of Jerusalem to rebuild Jewish life after the destruction of the Temple. And we are the children of the Zionist pioneers who built the modern State of Israel. From generation to generation, we Jews have put our faith into action and charted a path forward to new possibilities.
The future is not determined. No trend is inevitable or inexorable. The path before us is ripe with potential and filled with possibility for the good that is yet to come.
״תחל שנה וברכותיה!״
May the New Year and its blessings begin!
As Theodor Herzl said, “If we will it, it is no dream.”
Shabbat shalom and Happy New Year,
Rabbi Arnie Gluck