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The fire of faith

Thursday, 14 September, 2023 - 9:12 pm

I want to take this opportunity to wish you and your family a “shana tova,” a sweet and healthy new year.

On the holiest moments of the year, the prelude to the sounding of the shofar, the spiritual highlight of the Rosh Hashanah services, and the sound that stays with us throughout the year is a song by the sons of Korah. The mere mention of the name Korah evokes division, rebellion, selfishness, deceit, and disunity. There are so many other inspiring Psalms that could have been selected; why this one, with this pedigree?

The answer is this: We are about to blow the shofar and ask G-d for a year of good health and blessing. An individual listening to the blast might think, “I am unworthy. After all the things I have done, I’m embarrassed to ask G-d for blessing. I’m a prisoner of my past. I cannot change.  There is no hope for me.”

Understanding these feelings, the authors of the prayer book selected a prayer composed by the sons of Korah to remind us that even the most rebellious and sinful can repent and be forgiven! Despite participating in their father’s rebellion, at the very last moment, Korah’s sons repented. And not only did they repent, but they and their descendants reached such spiritual heights that they were able to compose psalms!

Yes, we may stumble in the face of temptation, but that fallen person is not our true self.  Within everyone is a nucleus of G-dliness, a wellspring of spirituality and love.

In 1970, Shlomo Riskin, the Rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York, traveled to Riga, Latvia to help open underground Jewish schools. One Saturday, around two o’clock in the morning, he heard a loud banging on his door. When he opened it, he saw the gabbai of the local synagogue and another man. The gabbai explained that the man had a son who was about to become a bar mitzvah, and a two-week-old baby, neither of whom had been circumcised. Since the ruling Soviet government persecuted Jews who participated in religious rituals, it was not easy to arrange.

They had found a Jewish doctor who was ready to perform the circumcision, but he didn’t know the blessings and he wanted rabbinical supervision to ensure that he did it correctly. There was a cemetery outside of Riga called Rombula, and the gabbai asked if Riskin would be willing to oversee the circumcision at four o’clock in the morning at the cemetery, believing that this obscure location, in the middle of the night, would protect them from unfriendly eyes. A car was waiting downstairs. The only witnesses were ghosts.

Rabbi Riskin felt he could not refuse. It was for this very purpose that he had left the Upper West Side for the Eastern Bloc. This is why he had come.

And so, they set out, arriving at the cemetery before dawn. The doctor was skilled, and both circumcisions took place quickly, without a hitch — until the end. Riskin said the last prayer, “Just as this child entered into the covenant of Abraham, so shall he become a bar mitzvah, get married, and live a life of Torah and good deeds.”

Suddenly the father screamed out, “No, no!” shattering the hushed, nervous silence. “No! I don't want it to be ‘just as.’ I don’t know why I’m doing this. I’m not even an observant Jew. I only know that I want my children to be Jewish and that without being circumcised, I feel that they would be missing something integral to their Jewishness. But I don’t want them to be bar-mitzvahed and married ‘just like this, hiding in a cemetery, afraid of the KGB. I want future occasions to be in the open, with pride, in our Jewish homeland, in Israel, without fear, and with great joy!”

And so it was: many years later, the circumcision of the man’s grandson took place in Israel, and Rabbi Riskin proudly attended. The father’s wishes were manifest, and his descendants celebrated their Judaism in the open, joyously.

Fifty years of persecution and oppression could not smother that father’s divine spark. Yet he is not unique in his strength of spirit. Each of us carries such a spark inside of us, smoldering. In a moment, if we let it, that fire of faith can ignite and erupt, illuminating us and the world around us.

Shana Tova a sweet and happy New Year,

Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

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