Towards Yom Kippur 2

We want to; we can; we must: these three ideals, hopes - and requirements – underlie the very notion of return or repentance.

Yesterday, inexplicably (!) someone sent me a You-Tube of ‘I want to be the kind of man my dog thinks I am’. Much as I love my dog, and would never want to let him down, that is not my most important life-aim. I want to be the kind of person to whom Rebbe Zusya of Anipoli was referring when he famously said: ‘When I leave this world, God won’t ask me “Why weren’t you like Moses?” God will ask me, “Why weren’t you Zusya?” I believe our deepest aspiration is always to be the truest and most faithful person each of us is capable of being.

In this sense Teshuvah, return, is not simply or chiefly about regret over our sins. Rather, it encompasses the whole human journey, our process of growth and transition through all the phases of our life. The mystics express this as the longing to return to God, to the sacred within us, to the goodness and purity with which we were created and with which, however lost or distant from our better selves we may feel, our heart and soul long to be ever more deeply connected.

Thus we want to return, and we can. In Chapter Five of his Laws of Repentance Maimonides asserts the unconditional nature of human freedom. We can choose to be as righteous as the best of people, or as wicked as the worst. No one can stop us; no external cause can impede us. I have often thought of his words as somewhat cruel. After all, is it really true that we all possess equal and absolute freedom? Don’t some people have considerably more difficult circumstances and more severe limitations with which to contend than others? We fight hard for whatever inner freedoms we attain. Yet in a recent discussion I was justly over-ruled: ‘Set limitations over our capacity for choice, over our moral and spiritual freedoms, and you clip the wings of hope. That has to be wrong!’ We may have to struggle hard for it, but nothing should be allowed to dull our aspirations to be the best people we can or the belief that throughout our lives we can continue to grow and develop.

But what’s the point? It isn’t to become a saint, a hermit or a scholar. I believe the purpose is to be faithful to the task and vision God gave to Adam and Eve when they were placed in the Garden of Eden to ‘work it and protect it’. It may be ‘only a story’, but a higher ideal of service and dedication would be hard to imagine. There are so many things of which we are custodians: each other’s lives and safety; one another’s feelings and hearts; the gifts and insights which each person uniquely brings to the world; creation itself, with all the animals, birds, fishes and plants. I read today that half the world’s animals have been lost since 1970. What a terrible, painful and frightening betrayal! In whatever ways lie within our capacities, each of us individually and all of us collectively, must return to our responsibilities ‘to work and protect’ this earth, this garden before God.

Towards Yom Kippur 1

The days from Rosh Hashanah up to and including Yom Kippur are known as the Aseret Yemei Teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, on which ‘Everyone should search and carefully examine their deeds’ (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 603:1). They are also days devoted to kindness and charity and to showing generosity of spirit and appreciation towards those with whom we share our lives. It’s as least as important to appreciate our blessings as it is to consider our faults.
 
Each day I hope to write briefly about one aspect of the challenging process of repentance or return. I want to begin with the question of motivation, since the very word ‘Repentance’ is liable to sound negative, bound up with sin and failure, and coloured by associations with being told off and punished.
 
The Talmud (Yoma, 86b) distinguishes between two kinds of motivation for Teshuvah, repentance or return. There is Teshuvah mi’yirah, repentance from fear, and Teshuvah me’ahavah, repentance from love.
 
Repentance from love is more powerful. I think of it as if I’d carelessly said something sharp to someone I love. I look up, see their face and feel immediate sorrow. No one has to remind me to apologise; it’s the first thing I want to do. The difficulty is that we often forget how important those close to us really are to us, not to mention how precious all people are because, although we may scarcely know them, they too have a heart, sensitivities, and those for whom they deeply care. What motivates us to repent out of love is the re-awakening of our awareness that life is full of wonder, joy, tenderness and love itself. How could we want to hurt it? When we learn that we have given pain, as we inevitably sometimes do, remorse wells up from within us and the desire to make good.
 
Negative as it may sound, repentance from fear is also important. Very few people have never been tormented by the thought, ‘What have I gone and done!’ and anguish over the consequences to which it will give rise. One wishes one could wipe the act out of the record of all existence, that it should have no karma, produce no effects. But the damage, or at least some damage, is done. What if anything can we now do to alter the course of events? How can we learn never to do anything like it again? Probably none of us has managed to avoid spending time in that anxious territory. If humanity did so more, there would be fewer wars and less arrogance towards our environment. Acknowledgment of our responsibility and fear over the consequences can also lead us to change the way we behave.
 
Either way, the very idea of repentance is based on a positive understanding of human nature. We instinctively want to do right; we are pained when we realise we’ve caused harm. We are not powerless over our character, but have the capacity to change our conduct and a heart which longs to do so. All we need is strength of purpose. There is a beautiful rabbinic saying that God helps the person who takes one step in repentance with at least the next nine. I believe it. I believe that this God is present within us all.

Like a bird alone on the roof

Life can be extraordinary lonely and cruel. I remember asking a man from the Congo who was a guest in our community about his family. He didn’t reply, but simply turned away from me towards the wall.
 
The Talmud has an image for great loneliness: ‘like a bird alone on the roof’. Where have all the others gone? Have they already flown to seek the warmer lands? To whom shall I sing? Which way should I go? To the mystics the lonely bird on the roof became an image for God, forsaken in the world. Few people, too, escape moments, or days, or sometimes months and years, of such forsakenness, especially refugees and victims of destitution and war. It is unimaginable to most of us how our world must feel for many millions today.
 
At the heart of Rosh Hashanah, the New Year, is a call to partnership. God, we are told, ‘remembers the covenant’. That covenant embraces the Jewish People in our long and challenging relationship with destiny, defining our essential aspirations of justice, compassion and peace. At an earlier level, the covenant includes all humankind, all the descendants of Noah, every family and nation of the earth, from those facing flooding in Bangladesh to those fleeing drought when the rain fails. Prior to that, it is a covenant with creation itself made over the sign of the rainbow, requiring us to be attentive to the animals and plants with whom we share our world and which, if we destroy, we annihilate ourselves. Earlier even than that, the covenant embraces the very earth which, in this Sabbatical year, ‘rests before the Lord’.
 
We are thus linked in mutual interdependence and bound together in inescapable responsibility with all that lives, whose animating spirit the Bible and the mystics call the breath of God.
 
On Rosh Hashanah the Shofar, the call of the ram’s horn, summons us home to this partnership. The wild ram feeds on grasses nurtured by sun, rain and earth. Its horns grow slowly of keratin; after the animal’s death they are hollowed out by human hand so that the breath can flow through and cause the horn to sound. That cry, with no words, no melody, no fixed pitch or volume, is nevertheless strangely and penetratingly articulate, the voice of some invisible presence calling us back to faithfulness.
 
Our world is torn apart. With the possible exception of 2001 and the days after 9/11, I can remember no New Year quite so frightening. Unrestrained violence is vaunted without shame. Beheadings, bombing, rockets, secret tunnels, assassinations, threats of terror dominate the headlines. At the same time, other voices cry out to be heard, voices of forests and seas, birds and fishes, of the planet and the atmosphere themselves, as in the great Climate Change marches last Sunday.
 
Rosh Hashanah calls us home to our faith and asks us to conduct ourselevs in good faith, with each other in our families and communities, with the Jewish People and all Israel, with other faiths and nations, and with the earth itself. In the words of Martin Luther King, ‘We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny’.
 
May God guide us to behave in all our dealings in the coming year with respect, compassion, courage and faith.   Leshanah Tovah – A good, worthwhile, happy and peaceful New Year.

The Three Great Themes of Rosh Hashanah: 2 - The Book of Memories

One of the most daunting themes of the High Holydays is the idea that God has a book in heaven in which all our deeds are recorded.

The metaphor has its origins in the Bible when Moses declares that if God refuses to forgive the people for the sin of making a golden calf he wants to be personally ‘wiped out from your book’. The image is expanded in the Talmud which describes how God has three books, one for the perfectly righteous (a thin ledger), one for the totally wicked (presumably also a slim volume) and one for those in between (further volumes still in the process of publication). God opens them all on Rosh Hashanah, inscribes our destiny according to our deeds, and seals the decree on Yom Kippur.

A more disturbing idea would be hard to grasp. I don’t take one word literally. I don’t believe in a god who physically writes; I don’t believe in books in heaven; I don’t believe that people receive their just deserts in life; I don’t believe that everything which happens to us is a precise reward or punishment for our deeds.

And yet I do believe in those books in which our actions are remembered. Only they’re not in heaven. Our behaviours, words are moods are recorded in the hearts and minds of everyone with whom we interact. Think of how children tell each other, ‘Don’t go into the kitchen now because daddy / mummy is in a bad temper’, or how pupils comment, ‘I don’t think our maths teacher had a good evening last night’.

Nothing we do has no consequences. I believe even the animals and trees somehow know us; the dog is often better at sniffing out my mood, the very quality of my consciousness, than I am myself.

I believe that in this way God knows us too, because God is present in all living being and therefore the totality of the effect we have on everything that lives somehow impacts on God and so, in some tiny but not completely immeasurable or irrelevant manner, affects the very world.

But I don’t think it’s just God who reads that book of our deeds. The most important reader is we ourselves. What have I done to those I profess to love and care for? What have I not done to those for whom I might have cared? What do I seem like to all those with whom I interact? It’s not about assessing our image, but our essence: who are we what are we doing with our lives?

We can assess ourselves cruelly, or with kindness. We should always opt for the latter, which isn’t the same as making excuses for everything we do. Rather, it’s about remembering that life is resilient and offers much love. It shares with us its wonder in spite of our faults. That’s humbling, and guides us to be equally generous with ourselves.

The Three Great Themes of Rosh Hashanah: 1 - God as Sovereign and the Birthday of the World

All of us think of Rosh Hashanah as one of the great festivals of the Jewish year: the apple and honey, the rich melodies, the raw call of the shofar. Yet the Torah says virtually nothing about its themes, calling it simply ‘a day of teruah, sounding the horn’, before moving on to describe all the other major festivals in considerable detail.
 
It was the rabbis of the Mishnah and Talmud who determined that this was to be the festival of ‘the birthday of the world’, though even that ‘fact’ was left in debate: was the world actually made in the autumn or the spring? The Talmud couldn’t decide. But our prayers, as the commentators note, follow the former view, no doubt in quiet agreement with Keats in his Ode to Autumn: ‘Where are the songs of spring? Aye, where are they? / Thou has thy beauties too.’ Thus we celebrate the world’s birthday amidst the falling leaves, the chestnuts and the apple harvest.
 
The essence of celebrating creation is ‘to proclaim God sovereign’, as the Talmud declares: ‘Say before me on the New Year prayers of sovereignty so that you make me your king.’
 
But what does ‘declaring God sovereign actually mean? The works of the great theologians help me to think about this question. But my real response comes from closer at hand, the engagement of my senses and intuitions with the world before me, with its sights, fragrances and sounds. That God fills the infinite spaces of the ever-expanding universe is not a notion I can fathom; but that there is something special, stirring, even sacred, in the call of the owl I hear when I go running at night; that the flowing waters of a stream sing of the inexplicable and inexhaustible life which nourishes the grass, the animals and the human soul alike, so that I can be transformed within moments of hearing them from feeling depleted and dispirited to experiencing silent, grateful joy, - these matters I know with all my heart. Here is where I intuit that there is life which fills all life, that ‘One motion and one spirit rolls through all things’, that the invisible, indivisible energy and vitality to which, by way of shorthand, I give the name ‘God’ truly is, and is in all things. As I absorb, and am absorbed, into this reality, intuitively, without words and affirmations, my inner being proclaims God sovereign over my life.    

What does this entail? It’s not just a sentimental moment, a pleasant spiritual aside from the true business of seizing life’s opportunities. Rather it is relationship, commitment, responsibility. It is relationship, because I seek this presence of God, not for any extrinsic benefits it may bring, but rather because, as a gardener loves the dew and rain which keeps the plants from dying, so I need to feel connected with the life force which feeds my heart and prevents my soul from drying out.
 
It is commitment, because the intuitive experience of connection with and love for life brings with it a responsibility to care for life. At times the love of life can be such that the thought of hurting life even in so small a manifestation as a bird or dragonfly, let alone in so great a concern as the feelings and wellbeing of other human beings, appears as a great sin, leaving  a sense of individual and collective unworthiness and the desire to make good.   

What does it mean to ‘proclaim God sovereign’? The issue isn’t whether God in heaven knows we’ve performed with adequate ceremony on the New Year, but how we hear God in our own hearts, through the many and varied voices of life, and how that awareness inspires us, chastens us and directs our deeds.