Кosh HaShanah is upon us. It is a time to pause. To reflect. To change. Although Rosh HaShanah is really the time that we proclaim Hashem’s kingdom over the universe, we also must take stock of where we fit in as a nation and as individuals.
As you go through the magnificent liturgy for the holiday, you will find that women play a central role. For the haftarah (I Shmuel 1) of the first day, we find ourselves mesmerized by the fate of Chanah as she endured childlessness plus added derision by her husband’s other wife, Peninah, who had been blessed with children.
Chanah pours her heart out to Hashem in excruciating supplication to beg for a child. Ultimately, she exults in gratitude for the birth of one our greatest prophets, Samuel. The Gemara (Brachos 31a) tells us that from the manner in which Chanah prayed, we can learn many fundamental laws of prayer.
The haftarah for the second day of Rosh HaShanah includes the haunting words of Jeremiah (31) as he proclaims: “A voice was heard on high – wailing, bitter weeping – Rachel weeps for her children… (yet) There is hope for you ultimately...and your children will return to their border.”
Who in my generation or older does not recall June 1967, the scene of Israeli soldiers jumping off their jeeps as they cross into Bethlehem and stop to daven at Rachel’s Tomb? Her children have come back!
Motherhood has always been a central theme in Jewish family life and in its character as a people.
Yet one of the most stirring parts of the machzor is the “Avinu Malkeinu…our Father our King,” said responsively following the repetition of the Sh’moneh Esrei by the chazan and the congregation. Why the masculine? Why not cry out to our mother? Why is there no prayer reaching out to “Our Mother the Queen?”
It seems to me that while a mother is our nurturer, our caregiver, our lover, and our worrier, the father is the image of authority that remains with us. Our father is our role model. Or should be. On Rosh HaShanah, we are appealing to that father figure. Inspiration we get from our mothers. Fortitude we get from our fathers.
My father, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld zt”l, was a figure of rock solidity for me as he was for countless others. The past year was bitter for all those in my family and beyond who keenly feel his loss with his passing on the third day of Chanukah 5781. A well-known Orthodox magazine called me recently to let me know they are doing a feature of sons who succeeded their prominent fathers in different spheres of life. They would like to write about my own experience of succeeding my father, and they asked me if anything stands out in where I differ from my father.
I told them that my father and I share the element of passion. We get deeply involved – sometimes too deeply – in the causes we believe in. We also do not hold back on criticizing those individuals or organizations that we feel went astray. I told them that the difference is that my father remained revered and extremely respected, even by the numerous recipients of his criticism. I am considered a pain in the neck by my targets. For my father, to retain that level of respect, was an indication of a very special person indeed. I still look to him for guidance as a role model in that and so many other areas.
I will also never forget my father’s basic faith, which manifested in so many ways. I recall that the months following my mother Lottie’s death, in 1959, as we were approaching Yom Kippur, my father said to me, “We just lost Mommy. You must daven on Yom Kippur with extra kavanah so that we have a better year.”
I remember pounding away at my chest with extra vigor at every Al Cheit. The problem was that there was a safety pin left by the cleaners in my jacket lining that somehow opened. So, at every “klop” on my chest, I felt a stinging pain. But I was so intense in my Yom Kippur davening that I did not let it disturb me. After Yom Kippur, I saw a bright red pinhole on my chest that had to be treated with an antibiotic.
But that was my father. His stated wish was my command. He was that impactful. By word and by deed.
May our Father of the universe who is in heaven lead us to a much happier year. A year in which we can spring back to life. Dig out of our rut. A year in which the Kohen Gadol’s special t’filah upon exiting the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur – in which he prayed that Jewish homes should not become their graves – is fully granted by our Father. A year in which calamities of collapses and shootings become just a painful memory lingering in the past. May our Father become our role model once again. Amen!
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.