Bruchim Haba’im, welcome everyone.
Julie and I are delighted to celebrate the eve of the Jewish New Year, 5775, with so many friends. Rosh Hashanah is a time for gathering with family and friends and taking stock of the eventful year that’s passed and setting our sights expectantly on the promising year ahead.
The past year has drawn the United States and Israel even closer together through even more security cooperation and political consultation and through tremendous trade and information exchanges that help our countries innovate and remain leaders in science and technology and founts of creativity in academia, arts and culture. Our shared values account for the strong affinity between our peoples and our common determination to lead our governments to even greater political, economic, intelligence, and security cooperation.
I am especially pleased to see with us tonight guests who have come from the south and from parts of Israel that endured a deeply distressing summer under the onslaught of rockets that Hamas and other terrorist organizations in Gaza fired indiscriminately at Israeli men, women, and children – purely civilian targets. You showed admirable resilience in the face of terrifying circumstances that ordinary civilians should never have to face. No nation can accept premeditated violence against its citizens, not from rockets and not from underground tunnels. The United States strongly supports Israel’s right to defend its citizens and we strengthen Israel’s hand in doing so.
The Iron Dome missile defense system, an Israeli technology that the United States has been privileged to help develop and support, is one of the most celebrated examples of the close cooperation between Israel and the United States. During the recent conflict, Iron Dome intercepted more than 700 rockets fired from Gaza at civilian areas in Israel, thus saving lives, reducing casualties and protecting property. If there is a more meaningful contribution by the United States to Israel’s security than the life-saving Iron Dome system, then I don’t know what it is.
I am grateful that tonight we toast the New Year together under more tranquil conditions. As we hope that the calm in the south endures, the United States is are working with the international community to ensure that any plans for reconstruction in Gaza are put into action with adequate controls to ensure that they will not enable Hamas and other terrorists there to rearm.
I’d like to share two brief stories – one from American history and one from the Tanach, the Bible – that teach us something meaningful about Rosh Hashanah. Here’s the first story:
Two hundred years ago, in 1814, the United States experienced a very difficult summer too, replete with bombardments and destruction of some of our major cities. In August of 1814, in one of the darker chapters of the War of 1812, British troops invaded Washington, our capital city. They burned the White House, the Capitol and the U.S. Treasury. President James Madison had to escape the city by boat and first lady Dolly Madison fled on foot. News didn’t travel as fast then as it does now – we had noTzeva Adom app – but it was a demoralizing setback.
President Madison didn’t have an Iron Dome system to deploy back then; if he did, he might have been able to stay in the capital; but he did have the indomitable spirit of the American people to rely upon, much as Israelis today have demonstrated an unquenchable spirit, resolve and resilience in the face of the threats of terrorism.
The British tried to conquer Baltimore but the Americans troops held the line. On September 13, 1814, throughout the night the British bombarded Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor. A young Washington lawyer, Francis Scott Key, watched the battle and at the break of dawn, when he saw that the American flag was still flying he penned the words to the “Star Spangled Banner,” which would become America’s national anthem.
That day, September 14, 1814, when Francis Scott Key saw the American flag by the dawn’s early light, was Erev Rosh Hashanah, 5,575. We don’t know whether anyone at Ft. McHenry was observing the start of the Jewish New Year back then, but we can say for certain that 200 years ago in America, Erev Rosh Hashanah was shrouded in hope for peace and freedom that emerged from a pitched battle and “bombs bursting in air”. The Battle of Ft. McHenry presents an inspiring allegory about how a resolute people can emerge from conflict stronger and more committed, and then stride confidently toward a future of prosperity, progress and peace.
Perhaps today, Rosh Hashanah can be the dawn’s early light that follows the darkness of the most recent conflict in Gaza. It can be a time when we lift our eyes for signs of hope and a time to decide to step up to the task of bringing about a better future for ourselves and our posterity.
Here’s the second story:
The parasha, or Torah portion, that is read in synagogue on the first day of Rosh Hashanah includes a short tale of an agreement reached between Abraham (Avraham Avinu) and the local king, Avimelech, over the ownership of a well that Avraham had dug.
This agreement put an end to the disputes between them, and allowed Avraham to settle and raise his family in peace around this well, the well of the seven, or the well of the oath, otherwise known as Beersheva. The Torah continues:
ויטע אשל בבאר שבע ויקרא שם בשם יהוה אל עולם.
Va’yita eshel b’veer sheva, va’yikra sham bashem Adonai el olam.
“Avraham then planted a tree, a tamarisk, or Eshel, and called out to God.”
I’ll continue in Hebrew, and then repeat it in English.
אותה באר שבע היום היא בירת הנגב, ויחד עם הערים והקיבוצים והמושבים האחרים בדרום ישראל, היא סבלה אלפי רקטות ששוגרו מעזה במהלך עשור, ובמיחד במהלך הקיץ הקשה שבדיוק עבר.
כפי שבאר שבע היתה האתר של אחד מהסכמי השלום הראשונים בתורה, כך גם שתביא השנה החדשה איתה פתיחת עת של שלום וביטחון לתושבי באר שבע, לתושבי כל הדרום, לתושבים האזרחיים ברצועת עזה, לאזרחי ישראל בכל רחבי הארץ, ולשכניה. זאת תקותינו ותפילתינו, וכמו אברהם אבינו, אנחנו קוראים לקדוש-ברוך-הוא לעזור לנו.
אבל בשביל אברהם, זה לא היה מספיק לקוות ולהתפלל ולקרוא לקדוש-ברוך-הוא. אברהם היה איש מעשים. החלטתו לנטוע עץ, אשל, שמשגשגת בתנאיים הקשים של המדבר, שמשתרשת בשורשים עמוקים, שנותנת צל מקרר, היה מעשה שפירושו היה להעניק שלום וביטחון לדורות עתידיים, כי האשל תשרוד שנים ארוכות אחרי מותו.
אברהם אבינו קרא לאלוהים, כן, והביע את התקוה. אבל הוא ידע שגם נדרשים היו מעשי ידיו כדי להביא שלום וביטחון למשפחתו ולעמו.
כך גם איתנו. בואו נקוה ונתפלל שתהיה השנה הדשה עלינו שנה טובה, שנה מתוקה, שנה של שלום, שנה של ביטחון, שנה של תקוה. אבל ביחד, ארצות הברית וישראל, בואו גם נפעול, כדי שמעשי ידינו יכולים להביא את השלום והביטחון שאנחנו מבקשים.
Back to English:
Today, the same Beersheva is the leading city of the Negev, and has, along with the other towns and kibbutzim and moshavim of southern Israel, endured the thousands of rockets fired from Gaza over the last decade, and especially, over the summer just past.
Just as Beersheva was the site of one of the first peace pacts of the Torah, may the new year bring with it the dawning of an era of peace and security for the residents of Beersheva, the residents of the entire south, the civilian residents of Gaza, the citizens of the entire state of Israel, and of its neighbors. This is our hope and our prayer, and like Avraham, we call upon God to help us.
But for Avraham, it was not enough to hope and pray and call on God. Avraham was a man of deeds. His planting of a tree, an eshel, that thrives in harsh desert conditions, sets down deep roots, and provides cooling shade, was an act meant to provide peace, security, and shelter to future generations, as the tree would long outlive him.
Avraham called to God, yes, and expressed the hope. But he knew that it also took the work of his own hands to bring peace and security to his family and his people.
So it is with us. Let us hope and pray that the new year will be a good year, a sweet year, a year of peace, a year of security, a year of hope. But let us together, the United States and Israel, also take action, so that the work of our hands can bring the peace and security we seek.
Shana Tovah u’Metukah Tikatevu!