Erev Tov and Bruchim HaBa’im, everyone.
Julie and I are pleased to celebrate the Jewish New Year, 5774, with so many friends here tonight. Friends who, like us, will be celebrating the Hagim with the joy of being with family. Friends who, like us, look forward to the evocative symbols of our Jewish heritage – the sounds of the shofar calling us to serve, and pray, and atone; the honey and the apples, promising us sweetness in the year to come. And friends who, like us, value the unique and special relationship between the United States and Israel.
I am happy to see so many people here tonight who share our commitment to our close ties, to an Israel that is secure, Jewish, democratic and prosperous, and to an Israel that continues to be the United States’ close partner based on the interests and values that we share.
In the past year, we have experienced many moments that reinforced our close partnership and friendship: our largest-ever joint military exercise; our work together to enable Israel to defend itself in Operation Pillar of Defense and achieve a ceasefire that brought more quiet to southern Israel than it had enjoyed in a decade; the celebration of democracy represented by elections in both our countries; the deepening of our already extensive economic and trade relationship, with breakthroughs in hi-tech, energy, and cyber; numerous people-to-people exchanges – the alumni of some of these are present tonight – and the historic visit of President Obama last March, which reaffirmed our deep and enduring bonds.
But in the Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of the creation of the world, so it is time to look forward, not backward. It is a time of new beginnings, of striving for self-improvement, of repairing relationships that need mending, and of offering forgiveness to others. It is a time to look toward the future with optimism about the opportunities and new horizons that stretch out before us and our ability to achieve our highest aspirations.
This year, reflecting on new beginnings and great opportunities of course brings to mind the resumption of direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, a breakthrough to which the United States, under the leadership of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, has been proud contribute. The resumption of direct talks between Israeli and Palestinians, made possible by the brave and tough decisions of Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas, rekindles hope for a peaceful resolution that ends the conflict in a two-state solution, which is a vital goal that the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority share, and which we believe is crucial for Israel’s long-term security and existence as a Jewish and democratic state.
So as we celebrate the new year, we also hope that the spirit of reconciliation and renewal that we associate with the High Holidays carries over to the negotiations and brings with it a “shnat shalom,” a Year of Peace.
In the month of Elul, in which we now find ourselves, and through the Hagim, it is incumbent on all of us to conduct a Heshbon Nefesh, an honest accounting of ourselves, our strengths and our weaknesses, where we have succeeded and where we have missed the mark, our merits and our failings. But the purpose of this exercise, this Heshbon Nefesh, is not merely to identify our faults and sins, and seek forgiveness for them from God and from our fellow human beings, although that we must do.
The true purpose of the Heshbon Nefesh is to look forward, challenging ourselves to do better than we did in the year just past. As individuals, and indeed, as societies, we must ask ourselves: How can we do more to advance the goals of peace and security? How can we listen more attentively to the views, hopes, fears, and narratives of others? How can we communicate our own stories more effectively? How can we do more to stand up for ourselves, more to protect victims of violence, and more to accept those who are different from us?
In Akeidat Yitzhak, the story of the binding of Yitzhak that we read in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, Avraham Avinu answers the call of God with one word: Hineni, here I am. Hineni. When we are all called to do more, to perform better, to be brave and steadfast in the face of danger, to protect the vulnerable, to make sacrifices for our security, to show generosity of spirit to others, to try to achieve what has been tried before and seems impossible, let us all answer: Hineni. We have answered the call over and over in the past year, but we will be called yet again in the year to come. We need be ready to answer again when the shofar blows and calls us to service: Hineni.
This week, we also celebrate a defining moment in American history. Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Multitudes of people from different backgrounds crowded the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1963, gathering with a common purpose: Hineni. Their courage and perseverance in answering the call to secure civil rights for all Americans reminds us that the futures of all people are linked. It reminds us that change begins with a Heshbon Nefesh about our own attitudes, and that past setbacks should never stop us in striving toward our goal of a better future for all. Reflecting on their example of courage and perseverance can also light our path forward – toward a stronger, closer U.S.-Israel alliance, toward security for both our peoples, and toward the elusive, but essential, goal of peace.
With best wishes for the year ahead to be filled with the sweetness of peace, security, and prosperity for all you and your families, let us raise our glasses with the traditional blessing “L’shana tova u’metuka,” – may it be a good and sweet year!