There are some years that you can't wait to come to an end, that you want to lock in a drawer and throw away the key. The Jewish year 5769 could easily qualify as one of those.
From the financial collapse that began last Rosh Hashanah to the Bernie Madoff swindle, from Israel's painful war against Hamas in Gaza to anti-Jewish terrorist attacks in India and Washington, this year will go down as one of the more tumultuous in recent history.
But throwing away the key is not the Jewish way. Instead, as we enter the most sacred period of the calendar — the Days of Awe — we are given the precious opportunity to reflect, repent and learn from the past in order to unlock a better future.
While we focus most of our spiritual energy during the High Holidays on personal teshuvah, it is also incumbent upon us to think collectively about how we as a community might change.
The economic morass that spread across the globe reverberated throughout Jewish life in numerous and painful ways. Jewish organizations and foundations lost millions in the philanthropic fallout of the declining stock market. The effect was compounded by Madoff's Ponzi scheme, which had a disproportionate impact on Jewish groups and individuals who were unknowingly taken in by his wide-ranging scam. The economic fallout hit Jewish social services locally and abroad at the very same time as the needs grew and resources shrank.
Yet as difficult as it was, 5769 may ultimately be seen as a transformative period. The year that wreaked such havoc might become the catalyst for new beginnings. Downturn and despair sometimes inspire more creative thinking. Groups are being forced to crystallize and justify their missions. Waste and excessive bureaucracies have been trimmed. New partnerships and collaborations once unheard of are springing up everywhere.
From the wake-up call of the shofar to the casting away of our sins during the Tashlich service, Rosh Hashanah is rich in the promise of renewal. Just as we stand before God in personal judgment, let us remember, too, the promise of renewal for our community. The pain and hardship of the year gone by can serve as a powerful reminder that much work needs to be done. We need to focus on who we are, what our mission is and where our priorities lie.
Unexpected crises — both personal and communal — remind us of the unpredictability and vulnerability of our lives. They can also jar us, like the sounds of the shofar, to move forward.
Before the throwing of bread crumbs into fresh water, we read: Min hameitzar, karati yah, anani bamerchav yah — "From the narrow straits of distress I called upon you, and you answered me with expansiveness (Psalm 118:5)."
We are all in a tight place right now. May we emerge from the narrows and be inscribed for a good year.