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  • Jay Schwartz

"Reishis" The Secret of Jewish Resilience, a Message for Rosh Hashana 5755


The Sfas Emes (the Gerrer Rebbe) asked why the mitzvah of remembering the crimes of Amalek (זכור אשר עשה לך עמלק )at the end of Parshas Ki Teizai is juxtaposed to the mitzvah of bikurim which appears at the beginning of Parshas Ki Tavo (הבאת ביכורים)?

His answer is that the Jewish people in general בשביל ישראל שנקרא ראשית רש"י בראשית א:א)), and the mitzvah of bikurim in particular, represent the principle of Reishis. That is, the ability to constantly renew, refresh and invigorate oneself in their essence and in their service of Hashem and mankind.

He explains that the Jewish people find their resilience by seeking return and connection to Hashem, who is the first, who is ראשון שאין לו סוף ותכלית"” For Hashem is the force that constantly renews the world each and everyday as it says המחדש בכל יום בטובו מעשה בראשית"”

This contrasts to Amalek who are also called Reishis- “Reishis Goyim Amalek” , but about whom it is said

(במדבר כד:כ) “ "ואחריתו עדי אובדwhich means that their end is utter destruction. The Sfas Emes further explains that Amalek, who seeks to deny the Jewish people’s eternal connection to Hashem, uproot themselves from Hashem Himself, and therefore whatever life and success they achieve is temporary, and ultimately terminates. This is because their source of life is from the Side of unholiness which derives its existence only from the sins of the Jewish people and the errors of mankind. Once confronted by the righteous of Israel and the nations, Amalek will be uprooted in its entirety. Only those who cleave to the Jewish people and to Hashem will gain redemption and a share of eternity.

This also explains why Yaakov’s escape from Lavan is specifically mentioned in the mitzvah of bringing the first fruits, which is a centerpiece of every Haggadah recital on Seder night (ארמי עובד אבי וכו') . Lavan represents the same principle as Amalek- the denial of the sanctity of Israel. Lavan as well as Amalek asserts that they can behave like a despot who controls and owns his family, his environment and the entire world, and can do with it as he wills, in defiance of ethical principles and the will of Hashem.

This year for Jews around the world, and particularly here in Israel, has been an incredibly difficult one. One in which encountered threats of war and destruction, from enemies that surround us both in Israel and in communities across the diaspora, particularly in Europe. To observers, the world seems to becoming engulfed in violence, the likes of which have not been seen or experienced in our generation. The nations of the world have entered a cycle of confrontation that seems to have no resolution. And we in Israel we feel the same way about our own predicament. However the true resilient essence of the Jewish people has risen to the fore in this last troublesome period. The war in Gaza united Jews in prayer and unprecedented acts of kindness across all spectrums of the society and extending even to the victims of other nations that found care and treatment within our boundaries.

This is a time of renewal, not only for us but for the entire world. The principles of our Reishis, finding our essential goodness, middos tovos, faith, acts of kindness and loving optimistic view of life are the essence of what the Jewish people are and model for the world. As we enter a sabbatical year, we see signs everywhere of the land of Israel itself, despite all the turmoil, continuing to flourish in its accomplishments, achievements and contributions to the world, as well as in the sheer volume of Torah study, scholarship and increased faith and observance. As the Sfas Emes taught , the Jewish people always have the capacity to overcome all challenges, to regenerate and grow stronger at all times.

On a personal level, our family spent the last part of this year celebrating the marriage of our son Mendy to Chana Gila Honikman of Woodmere, New York, which took place on Rosh Chodesh Elul. This incredible young couple and the extended families, rejuvenated, all of us, with simcha and ahava. We look forward to welcoming the young couple to our home in Israel this coming Succos.

With best wishes for a vibrant resilient simcha filled year ahead, filled with accomplishment and growth.

Best wishes for a Shana Tova U’Metuka,

Yaacov, Chani and family

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