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Jewish Journal

For Rosh Hashanah: Make your own joy

by Rabbi Perry Netter

September 21, 2006 | 8:00 pm

The best part about Y2K, in my judgment, was that it signaled the end of the 20th century.
 
Who among us would want to relive the last 100 years? Tens of millions of people died during the previous century in the most violent and brutal ways.
 
World War I, at the start of the century, was supposed to be the war to end all wars; it turned out to be merely the beginning. Fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, Maoism and many other iterations of -isms, resulted in the bloodiest century in human history. Auschwitz and Hiroshima were two cataclysmic events that demonstrated the unbridled power and willingness of human beings to destroy life.
 
I, for one, was delighted to see the century end. Because how could the next one be worse?
 
Now that we are halfway through the first decade of the 21st century we are beginning to see how it could be worse. The penchant for genocide and murder on a massive scale as a result of secular orthodoxies apparently has not abated. But now, as we begin this new century, it has been supplemented by a penchant for genocide and murder on a massive scale by religious orthodoxies.
 
The definition of a fanatic used to be someone who believed in something so strongly he was willing to give up your life for it. Today's religious fanatic is not only willing to give up your life to reach their goals, but also their own lives and the lives of their children, as well. Martyrdom, what you and I call suicide with maximum collateral damage, is a religious ideal. This brand of religious fanaticism seeks to re-establish the glory of the Islamic caliphate.
 
In effect, these fanatics want to return us to the seventh century, when Islam first conquered the world and spread its message by word and by sword. It is not paranoid to express fear over what could possibly happen if these groups trade the sword for something nuclear. They will then have the power to return much of the world to the seventh century -- if, indeed, there would still be a world.
 
Kind of hard to wish each other Happy New Year after that.
 
Fear turns to anxiety and then to despair if we allow ourselves to feel helpless in the face of the threat of cataclysmic destruction. But despair is just not the Jewish way. We are simply not allowed, the sages of the Talmud tell us (Shabbat 30b), to allow sadness to dominate our mood: "The Shechina, the Divine Presence, cannot dwell in the midst of sadness."
 
To live in sadness is to block the presence of God from entering the world. To despair of a peaceful future is to give a victory to the forces of darkness. That is why Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, the grandson of the Baal Shem Tov, who himself struggled with depression, is famous among Chasidim for his great teaching: "Mitzvah gedolah lihiyot b'simcha tamid" -- it is a great mitzvah to be in joy perpetually.
 
How do we turn despair to joy? By exercising control over our environment. By utilizing the personal and collective power we have yet to tap. By responding to this homicidal religious fanaticism with a religious determination of our own. By endowing certain economic, political and technological policies with the holiness of a religious imperative.
 
The transition from an economy based on oil to something that doesn't enrich Muslim theocracies is a mitzvah. We condemn Iran for having funded Hezbollah, but the reality is they did so with our petrodollars. Reducing their income from the exportation of oil removes a powerful tool for Iranian mischief.
 
Conservation -- buying a hybrid, flipping off unused lights and unwatched TVs, recycling and more -- is a mitzvah of the highest order. Establishing the greening of Jewish institutions -- including synagogues, schools and communal buildings -- is not just good for the environment, which should be motivation enough, but it will help save lives. And it goes without saying that actively opposing nuclear proliferation is also a mitzvah.
 
These are mitzvot that have taken on great urgency and will change the world. If each of us finds the determination and the strength to begin this now, this will indeed be a happy New Year. And a much safer one as well.
 


Perry Netter is rabbi of Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles and author of "Divorce Is a Mitzvah: A Practical Guide to Finding Wholeness and Holiness When Your Marriage Dies" (Jewish Lights, 2002). He can be reached at pnetter@tbala.org.

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