When I lived in Europe I used to run seminars for Community Leaders. The venue was a beautiful 14th century palazzo in Venice, near the medieval Ghetto, run by the local Jewish Community. Yes, I know, it was a terribly tough life.
I remember that beyond the great conversations at the seminars, I used to relish in the sights and sounds of Venice, the magnificent houses by the Great Canal, the art, the churches and the secluded corners. The memories of Venice came back to me in a bizarre way this month, when a building collapsed in my native Argentina, killing close to 30 people. The building was sound, but hadn’t been designed to sustain the vibrations that brought it down. You may ask, “what’s the relation between these two things, and moreover, what’s the relation between all this and Rosh Hashanah?”
In Venice, I always wondered how these splendid edifices could stand for over 600 years in the silt and mud of the lagoon. How can San Marco Cathedral, with its uncountable tons of marble, not collapse on its shaky foundations. The answer is bewildering: precisely because they are shaky.
Venice’s houses have been standing tall for centuries because they were built to embrace the uncertainty of the soil in which they were built. They perform a magnificent dance of movement and resistance, embracing the permanent changes of their viscose soil. They rest on thousands of wooden poles that move with the tides, one counterbalancing the other. The walls in Venice are crooked, the floors uneven, but the buildings stand.
Rosh Hashana demands that we become like Venice. Yes, we do live on shaky ground. As I write these lines, unrest continues in the Middle East, the economy is uncertain and even weather events are more unpredictable. We are right to feel like those Venetian houses, standing on weak foundations carved on quick sands. And yet, as I learned on the shores of the lagoon, embracing the uncertainty instead of fighting it can produce works of a magnificent and everlasting nature.
Rosh Hashana goes well beyond the architects of Venice. It doesn’t just ask us to embrace uncertainty; it demands that we seek it, that we put ourselves in doubt, that we reject the stability of the known answers to face the insecurity of the open questions.
We are, as Venice, a patchwork of strength and fragility, of power and vulnerability. The Bible calls us “dust”, but it also says that we are “little less than G-d”. Rosh Hashana seems to be about our shakiness. We call it “Yamim Noraim”, the terrible days in which we face our own limitations and shortcomings, in which we stand on a swamp of broken dreams and unfulfilled promises. But the most potent message of Rosh Hashanah is that, despite our precariousness, we have the power to build solidity, to dream of beauty, and to imaginable the unimaginable. It is the time not only to embrace the change around us, but to be deliberate about creating change. It’s about discovering the splendor that we can create, both in the world and in our hearts when we let go of our pretense to control the uncontrollable and dominate the indomitable. It’s about accepting and rebelling, about preserving and demolishing, about dancing a sensual dance with change, one in which we alternatively lead and follow.
It is, above all, facing change with hope and joy, with optimism and faith. For what is Judaism, if not optimism on steroids? What is our history, if not palaces of meaning and joy built over ashes and suffering?
In this Rosh Hashana, may all have the courage to embrace uncertainty; to be flexible to profit, and not to collapse from the ambiguity in which we live. May we all feel the power we have to dream and create works of unending beauty, not in bricks and mortar but in lives changed and hopes restored. May we relish in the gentle power of our generosity, because no shaky ground can topple an act of kindness. May we all be open to those in need, to our communities and to the world. May we be messengers of hope and rightfulness in an unpredictable world.
May our values of love, humanity and courage, inspire us to build palazzos of goodness and cathedrals of kindness that will create awe in generations to come.