Tuesday, Feb 20, 2024

The Rod of Asclepius

I had the occasion this year to address a gathering in Lido Beach, offering some words of chizuk to an eclectic group a week before Rosh Hashanah. As the event took place the day before September 11th, the 22nd anniversary of the horrific attacks on America, it amalgamated both words of chizuk and a call to teshuvah with an expression of gratitude to the first responders who were represented by firefighters and paramedics from both Long Beach and Lido Beach.

In deference to the spirt of American loyalty, the program began with an informal singing of the national anthem by members of the audience.

Rabbi Elly Krimsky, the rabbi of the Lido Beach Jewish Center, presented the rescue workers with a certificate of appreciation that had the Rod of Asclepius, the famous medical symbol in which there is a snake intertwined around a staff. The rabbi explained its origins: Moshe Rabbeinu created a snake, which was used to heal the people from the bites of the very creature it depicted. Of course, he quoted the Mishnah in Rosh Hashanah which states that it was not the snake that healed, but rather the turning to Hashem through repentance. The very creature that was sent to destroy us became the symbol of healing.

I thought about the antithesis of healing, the symbol of illness, pain and death – the snake becoming the symbol of healing, and immediately hearkened to the anthem that I had just murmured (not for lack of patriotism; I just don’t have a wonderful singing voice) moments earlier.

Francis Scott Key, the author of the ballad, writes that the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air actually “gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” Once again, the very rockets that were meant to destroy us were the ones that not only lit up the night, but gave proof that the flag of the newly-founded United States of America was still there. Once again, the very item meant to destroy us became a vehicle for our strength.

Of course, it was great fodder for a 9/11 speech and how adversity breeds strength, etc. But it led me to think about so many aspects of teshuvah. Indeed, it is so fascinating how from our aveiros, we have the opportunity to grow in remorse. Not only can we be forgiven, but the actual sins turn to merit, as they are both the impetus and the vehicle for us to transform into the antithesis of the sinners we once were.

Sometimes, it is the severity of the crime itself that spurs the teshuvah. So often revisited is the famous Medrash about Yosef Meshisa. He was a bad guy. He was, in fact, a traitorous Jew who was rewarded for his loyalty to the Romans by being offered to loot the Bais Hamikdosh. When, in a gross desecration, he plundered the menorah, the Romans refused to allow him to keep it. But when they told him to go back in again, he suddenly refused. He would not defile the Holy of Holies again. The very sin he committed shook him to the core, and neither offers of great reward nor actual torture got him to change his mind. Yosef Meshisa was tortured to death, giving his life for the sake of Heaven while lamenting his prior behavior. He was divinely ordained and is eternally remembered as a holy martyr.

Is there really pure evil? Is everything not formulated by the Hand of Hashem?

The descendants of Sancheirev learned Torah in Yerushalayim. “And who are they?” ask Chazal. “Shmaya and Avtalyon.”

All we have left from the fear, the havoc, and the pain wrought by Sancheirev is the Torah of Shmaya and Avtalyon, and the massive amounts of Torah from Hillel and Shamai, who were next in the chain of their mesorah.

I thought about the sound of the shofar. “Shall the shofar blow in a city and the nation not tremble?” cries the novi Amos.

The shofar seems to be the symbol of awe-inspiring fear – an alarm that shakes us to our very core. Yet, the Rambam seems to spin the shofar a bit differently: “Even though the sounding of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah is a gezeiras hakosuv, it contains an allusion. It is as if the shofar’s call is saying: “Wake up, you sleeping ones! And those who slumber, arise from your stupor.”

When I was a youngster, I lived near the train tracks of the Long Island Railroad. I grew up in the echo of the train whistle that would blow every time it entered the Cedarhurst station.  Having moved about a mile east from where I was born, I hear it often when it comes to either Woodmere or Hewlett. Even as a teenager, I heard the whistle. In yeshiva, in the early 1970s, my dorm room was 50 feet from the Amtrak train tracks and the locomotives carrying freight down the eastern corridor would never hold their silence, even after we would return to our dorms after a post-midnight mishmar.

The roar of the train and the blast of its whistle shouted to the streets of the city, “We are carrying America’s supplies. You cannot sleep. You cannot even talk to each other. We are in charge.”

So the whistle of the train was always an alarm for me, screaming its metallic superiority to the men and their cars who would wait in deferential fear behind the wooden candy-striped arms that separated them from the monster.

But there was always another imaginary thought that ran through my mind. The shofar-like sound of the train horn did not evoke the trepidation of war. In fact, quite the opposite. Very often, I thought it was Eliyohu Hanovi! Moshiach was coming. Sadly, I was wrong too often, but I thought about the very same shofar meant to invoke fear and trepidation being the sound of jubilation and redemption.

Indeed, a great mindset, infused with hope and positivity and much faith in the Ribono Shel Olam, can transform anything. There is no fear if You are with me. Indeed, we have to be on that level, and until that time, the shofar may make us tremble. To others, it may be an alarm, waking us up and reinvigorating the potential we all have within us.  And to others, it may be – in fact it will be – the sounds of Moshiach Tzidkeinu.

The very snake, the very sound of fear, will indeed be the sound of geulah.

Kesivah vachasimah tovah.

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