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Jerusalem Notebook: A New Year in a Broken World

Those who have the healthy habit of working out at a gym several times a week will soon be complaining about the massive – and often annoying – “New Year’s resolution crowd” that throngs every fitness center starting on Jan. 2.

They will be equally relieved, on about Feb. 3, when the entire mass of newcomers are virtually all gone – their New Year’s resolutions broken and forgotten. Instead of working out, their time will soon be consumed with other distractions like Netflix. Or cooking classes. Or social media.

Meanwhile, much has been made – particularly on social media – of 2016 as being a year notable for its tragedies and deaths. It has often been said that 2017 can’t come soon enough. And there is some truth to this – perhaps more than meets the eye.

Of course, the loss of some beloved celebrities – most recently including the sudden deaths of film stars Carrie Fischer and her mother Debbie Reynolds – have grieved millions of fans.

Over the months, cherished music icons such as David Bowie, Leon Russell, Prince and Leonard Cohen were among other celebrities whose passings were observed with sorrow by devoted fans. Such passings seemed to arrive with increasing frequency as 2016 neared its end.

And it wasn’t just rock stars.

For example, the loss of Holocaust memorialist Elie Wiesel brought forth innumerable eulogies and remembrances. This was particularly true in Israel, where so many had been touched by his eloquent recollections and reflections on the Third Reich’s “Final Solution” and how it robbed the world of 6 million Jews.

Although Wiesel was 87 years old when he died, more than one columnist reflected that – like so many late celebrities – he was “gone too soon.”

Other 2016 losses were of a different sort.

In the months leading up to the United States presidential election, there was a nearly unprecedented political polarization that dramatically divided Americans – and not only between rival political parties. There was also radical division between identity groups and conflicting ideologies, even within the ranks of Democrats and Republicans.

The coarseness and enraged tone of some of these debates was notable not only in published commentaries, but even more starkly in a digital flood of profane and demeaning tweets and posts and comments.

These losses were personal, and some seemed to be permanent. Families were divided. Businesses were split along jagged lines of disagreement. Friendships were bruised, if not broken altogether.

Both the run-up to the election and its aftermath continued along the same divisive course, which lingers even now. Friends are no longer friends. Family members are not invited to dinner. Coworkers are avoided, if not altogether estranged.

Other losses were the bitter fruit of jihadi terrorism. A long list of 2016 attacks recounts violence in every corner of the world – the handiwork of religious fanatics. Among so many others, we read of suicide bombings in Istanbul and Baghdad, Nice and Brussels, Lahore and Quetta.

In Israel, every month of the year was marred by Palestinian assaults that involved stabbing, firearms, the stoning of cars and even a bus bombing that injured 21 in Jerusalem.

Then, perhaps eclipsing all the other violence that gripped the world in 2016, was the most horrifying bloodbath of all – the Syrian civil war. Today, estimates of that war’s fatalities are beginning to approach half a million souls. The bloodshed has been unstoppable. Most recently, this has been exposed in Aleppo, where a besieged population has been decimated by radical Sunni militias along with Syrian and Russian airstrikes.

Max Boot wrote in Commentary Magazine [1],

It is painful simply to read about the horrors that Aleppo is currently enduring. In its death throes, it is reminiscent of Stalingrad, Warsaw and Manila in World War II, or Srebrenica during the Yugoslav Wars of Succession – cities that endured suffering beyond human comprehension. Amid reports of razed buildings and dead bodies in the streets, it is numbing to read that some women have committed suicide rather than be raped by regime troops.

The world has been in turmoil since time began, but it isn’t an exaggeration to say that in 2016, the upheaval in the Middle East reached monumental proportions.

And then, just as 2016 seemed to be winding down to its welcome end, the little nation of Israel suffered one of the most vicious blows in its nearly 70-year history. This was not a physical blow, although it will no doubt have violent repercussions.

The assault was done in the supposed peacemaking assembly of the United Nations, in the name of international diplomacy. Just as the presidency of Barack Obama was nearing completion, it appears that he personally inspired United Nations Resolution 2334 – a declaration regarding Israeli settlements and borders. With the encouragement of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, 14 countries voted for the resolution. The U.S. did not veto it. It simply abstained from the vote and allowed it to pass.

Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren summed up the resolution’s dangers [2]:

The hazards for Israel are clear. The resolution means the Western Wall and other places sacred to Jews for 3,000 years are considered as illegally occupied. It labels 600,000 Israelis as “flagrant violators of international law.” As such, Israel could be sued in international criminal courts, boycotted and sanctioned. The goal of the initiators of the resolution was not to achieve a better two-state solution, I believe, but to deny Israel the right to defend itself and, ultimately, the right to exist as sovereign Jewish State.

I have felt the weight of this latest U.N. assault on Israel’s legitimacy bearing down on my Jerusalem friends. In fact, for many Israelis, this is a time of despair and deep weariness after more than half a century of opposition to the Jewish State’s very survival.

Most certainly, in the wake of all this, 2016 couldn’t have come at a better time, not only for America and Israel, but for much of the world. Because, as a poet once proclaimed, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”

And so it is that despite the incomprehensible violence and destruction that infects the globe; despite the bloodthirsty killers who ravage innumerable innocents; despite America’s feckless leaders who have done virtually nothing to change the course of Mideast brutalities (the Book of Common Prayer provides words of confession “for what we have done and for what we have left undone”), yet still the world hopes, envisions and longs for a new beginning.

And so we look forward to 2017: A New Year. A fresh start. A blank slate.

Our western “New Year” is a wonderful occasion on which to pin such hopes. But during the decade in which I have lived in Jerusalem, I have been inspired by the Jewish New Year – Rosh Hashanah – in a different way. Because it involves something more substantial than “New Year’s resolutions.”

The Jewish New Year, which begins 10 solemn “Days of Awe,” requires those who observe it to move beyond their good intentions. One writer explained [3],

Rosh Hashanah is “a holiday that emphasizes teshuvah, turning around, becoming a better person, living a life closer to what God wants from us. How can we experience teshuvah? Teshuvah needs to include empathy, empathetic listening, paying attention, hearing beyond words to the soul and meaning of what is uttered. On Rosh Hashanah we ask God to be empathetic toward us, even though empathy was so often lacking in ourselves.”

As Christian believers, we often resolve to start another year pursuing better physical and spiritual health than the year before. But as we vow to take better care of our bodies, are we really turning our attention heavenward? We need very much to return to God in both our thoughts and our actions.

Perhaps more than ever in 2017, beginning afresh ought to include reflecting more seriously on the troubled and broken world we live in.

Can we find the time to look beyond our own shores, to broaden our horizons and encompass those who have been ravaged by terrorism, war, anti-Christian persecution and anti-Semitism?

Closer to home, can we find the courage to mend our own relationships with friends and family – particularly in the wake of such a divisive political season?

And can we commit ourselves to continue these spiritual exercises beyond a few days in January, carrying on throughout the year to come?