Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev was asked: "What is the right spiritual path, that of sorrow or that of joy?"
He replied: "There are two kinds of sorrow and two kinds of joy. When a man broods over the misfortunes that have come upon him, that is a bad kind of sorrow. But the grief that comes when a man knows what he has lost is honest and good. The same is true of joy. One who chases empty pleasures is a fool. But one who is truly joyful is like a man who is rebuilding his house after a fire. He feels his need deep in his soul, and with each stone that is laid, his heart rejoices."
On Sept. 11, we will mark the yahrzeit of thousands of Americans who perished in senseless acts of terror. Each month of this coming year, yahrzeit candles will be lit in the homes of hundreds of Israeli families who lost loved ones to the bombs and bullets of terrorists.
But while this past year was a time of sorrow, it was not a time of despair. As Americans, we came together in public ways to affirm our commitment to freedom and our resolute strength in the face of those who threaten our security. National unity and civic pride moved to the forefront, with a display of patriotism not seen in many years.
During the last two years, Jewish unity was its strongest since the Yom Kippur War. Rabbis and other Jewish leaders put aside long-standing divisions to respond to the crisis at hand. Thousands of us came together to support Israel and provide for the basic needs of our extended family.
We'll need to retain this sense of unity, both as Jews and as Americans, to meet some of the tough challenges that lie ahead. In Israel, there are serious concerns about military strategy, fences, settlements, leadership, human rights, democracy, religious diversity, economics and the environment. In America, we face many questions about trust in government, civil liberties, security and shifting political alliances. With such a diversity of opinion on all of these issues, there is both potential for undermining the profound unity that we have forged and the potential to form creative ways of imagining the future.
If, according to the parable, true joy is like rebuilding after a fire, then it is in the process of rebuilding that we will find this New Year's blessing. In America, we are envisioning physically what rebuilding the site of the attack in downtown Manhattan will look like. In Israel, many are working to provide medical care for the sick and injured, and security to enable children to go safely to and from their schools. While much has been broken, and the work is far from complete, in fixing the world our faith in the future is restored.
With acts of rebuilding in mind, my colleagues and I at CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership developed a simple ritual for your festival meal. This Rosh Hashana, before you dip your apples in honey, take a moment to ask a friend or family member: "How have you dealt with the sorrows of the past year?" "What steps have you taken to enjoy life a little more?" As you enjoy your apples and honey, ask: "What are your hopes for both America and Israel in the coming year?" "What is one act to which you can commit yourself that will help achieve those hopes?"
As the parable wisely teaches us, "With each stone laid, our heart rejoices." The questions we ask, and the discussions we have around the holiday table, can begin to create a strong foundation for the year to come. May the New Year bring you and your family blessings, peace and good fortune.