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.
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.
At the heart of the Rosh Hashanah service is a cry with no words. It isn’t even a human cry, but the strangely evocative sound made by directing the breath through the hollowed out horn of a ram. Scripture provides no reason for blowing the shofar on the New Year; it doesn’t even name it as the instrument to be used on what it tersely describes as Yom Terua’h, ‘a day of sounding the horn’. Blowing the shofar is, as Maimonides says, simply gezerat hakatuv, a decree of Scripture. Yet the call of the shofar is deeply and insistently resonant, as if we were hearing the cry of creation itself. It contains both exaltation, and the pain of something crushed and broken, pleading for our attention.
The Talmud teaches that the prayers on Rosh Hashanah have three themes: ‘Say before me prayers about kingship, remembrance and the shofar; about kingship so that you proclaim me your king and about remembrance so that your memory ascends before me. By what means? With the shofar?’ (Talmud: Rosh Hashanah 16a) The shofar is the voice through which God and we make ourselves known to each other.
It is a core belief of Judaism that God is sovereign over creation. The notion of a God in heaven who made the world and who, ever since, has controlled its destiny from above does not speak to me. But the experience of God’s sacred presence within all life, God as the vital energy in all creation, summons and commands me.
The prayers about kingship are really a call to such a sense of wonder: ‘God, place your awe upon all you have created’. Wonder is essential spiritual nourishment. Sometimes the natural world inspires us. Walking along the forest path, I suddenly saw a young deer. It raised its head, gazed at my disturbing presence, then sprung back to the safety of the trees. That momentary encounter awoke in me anew the awareness of the beauty and vitality of our world. Sometimes human contact stirs our spirit, as when conversation yields to silence because words would only rupture the quiet solidarity of companionship.
At these times one is scarcely aware of the separateness of one’s own consciousness but feels part of a greater whole, as if some indivisible energy flowed through us and all that is, as if the prayer, ‘God, let every created being know that you created them’ were momentarily realised in our thoughts. Such experiences imbue in us a deepening sensitivity to the sacred. They make not just a spiritual but a penetrating moral impact. They humble us, fill us with a chastening respect for all life, and leave us determined to try not to hurt or harm any living being.
Remembrance, the second theme of the Rosh Hashanah prayers, is deeply connected to such awareness. Unlike on Pesach, we are not instructed to recall any particular event, such as the exodus from Egypt. Nor is there a specific act we are enjoined not to forget. What we are required to remember is nothing less than who we are and to what we belong.
The liturgy approaches the subject of memory not from our perspective but from the imagined point of view of God. God remembers Noah and the animals in the flood. God cares about the fate of the earth. God recalls our ancestors, doesn’t forget us when we are slaves and recalls our youthful faithfulness. God, we conclude, is zocher habrit, mindful of the covenant. That covenant refers here not only to the relationship between God and the Jewish people, but to the all-embracing partnership with life itself.
This has challenging implications. Because God, we are told, knows and cares about everything, ‘no creature can hide away’ and no-one can deny the record of their deeds. Such relentless accountability requires us in turn to be mindful of whom we are, of the bond of life to which we belong, and of the God of life who knows us from within as closely as our own heart or conscience knows itself. There’s no getting away with anything.
With part of my mind, I neither can, nor want to believe this. I don’t see God’s justice self-evidently around me. I don’t credit the notion of a God in heaven with x-ray eyes. Yet I sense that I am known and I do believe in God who is present within all life and who therefore, through all life, knows us to every depth and detail. This perception is captured beautifully in Steven Duncan’s poem Grandma’s Philosophy:
She even said be nice to the trees,
because even the breeze is your companion,
and the sun sees every hand that moves wrongly.
In the great ecology of deeds, all interactions have consequences. We do not behave, or even think, in moral and spiritual isolation. We are part of the brit, the sacred covenant of being, in which every part of life affects the whole. The God who knows me experiences me through the hearts of those around me, by way of the animals and trees.
Furthermore, in my deeper self I don’t want to hide. I want to be known, even judged, though with love and understanding. I don’t want a life of ‘getting away with it’, but of true relationships with people and nature. I respect and love this great life of which I’m an infinitesimal part and I don’t want it to shun me or exclude me from its embrace me.
The third subject of the Rosh Hashanah prayers, and the mouth-piece of the others, is the shofar itself. Through it life itself, God within all living being, cries out to us, piercing us to the very core of our accountability.
Hans Jonas, famous for his lecture The Concept of God after Auschwitz, spoke days before he died in 1993 of a danger outweighing even the horrors of racial hatred: ‘The latest revelation – from no Mount Sinai, Sermon on the Mount or Bo tree – is the outcry of mute things themselves that we must heed by curbing our powers over creation, lest we perish together on a wasteland of what that creation once was’.
I think of the shofar as that outcry. I’m frightened by the hurts we have engendered in the earth, not only to our fellow human beings through injustice and cruelty, but to our fellow species, whose lives are part of the essential vitality of the meadows, forests, mountains and seas. I hear in the shofar, alongside the tekiah of exultation at life’s wonder and abundance, the broken shevarim and weeping teruah of a profoundly injured world.
After explaining that Scripture offers no reason for blowing the shofar, Maimonides continues: ‘There is nevertheless a hint in its call: Wake up, sleepers, from your sleep!’ ‘We are like sleep-walkers,’ the Zen sage Thich Nhat Hanh wrote recently in similar vein. Yet, he noted, ‘the bells of mindfulness are sounding’ and warning us urgently that we are destroying the very earth and vital source from which we are nourished. Like the shofar, they summon us back to the consciousness that life is a sacred partnership to which we belong and before which we are answerable.
The shofar arraigns us on the New Year, the Day of Remembrance and responsibility; it cries out from the great hurts we have engendered. What are we going to do? Shall we simply continue to commit them, or endeavor to become healers?
I walked back a few paces and watched. We’d just completed the service for the stone-setting of a much loved member of our community; two hundred people were gathered there out of love for her and her family. Greetings followed; hugs, affectionate words. Then, rather than going home, several of the crowd separated out to look for family graves, a friend, a brother, a parent, a spouse, a baby who scarcely knew the sounds of this world. I watched, and tried to greet people as they returned: Were they alright? What was happening with the sores in their hearts?
This scene has stayed with me all week despite the many concerns of the last days: fear for John Cantlie and all the hostages of IS; relief over the Scottish referendum (so long as there’ll now be a time of listening and healing): worry, as ever, over what the future holds for Israel and all the people of the Middle East. Through all these matters I still see before me that group, of different heights and ages, wearing variously coloured clothes, parting between the off-grey stones, here a single figure, there two persons together, to visit those for whom death has not diminished their love; that gradual dispersal of the living into the quiet among the dead, and their slow, humbled return.
I thought of the verses which every year open our Torah reading on the Shabbat before the New Year, speaking of ‘all those here standing with us today before God, and all those not here with us on this day’. We tend to think of our community as the people we bump into, in the street, shops or synagogue. But that’s only one part of it. In fact we belong to a far greater community across time, comprising those who were once living, those yet to be born to our children and children’s children, and us, the generations currently alive, moving slowly, dressed in our various colours, between the dead and the unborn.
I find nothing morbid in these thoughts. On the contrary, they inspire in me a sense of love, and responsibility. That’s partly because the dead aren’t entirely dead and gone. They live in our hearts, words and mannerisms, both in those qualities we liked so much we hoped to make them our own, and in precisely those quirks and habits we swore we’d never inflict on our own children when the time came – and yet, of course, we do. From the dead we have our greatest nourishment of spirit; our memories and our prayer-books are filled with their music, the very melodies with which we too now measure out our lives.
This must have been what moved me as I watched so many people I care about go out among the gravestones to listen to the remembered voices of those they love.
It’s not just about the past; it’s even more about the future. One has only to think of the queue of buggies outside the synagogue, the most precious treasure of any community. Whether or not we have children of our own, we are all transmitters into the future, creators of memory, generators of impact on the minds and feelings of other people and on the world itself. Therefore we need to be mindful of what it is we give them, as the past with all its loves, and faults and failures, flows through us into the future.
As we came back down the cemetery paths to re-encounter our friends, our cars, our future, I felt not so much sad as humbled at having observed something precious and important, even, in an unusual way, beautiful. For this is what it means to be human: to carry the love the dead have given us and place it tenderly, respectfully, thankfully in the hearts of the future, blessed with the gleanings of our own sojourning, the frightening mystery of an owl’s call, the even respiration of the sea, the beauty of a bowl of apples and the melodies of prayers interwoven with whispered conversations.
This is as much as we can achieve, faithfully, before God.
Early childhood memories have cast Scotland in a green and lovely light. I remember going to school down the Milngavie Road on a route which eventually arrives at Loch Lomond. Hills, streams and ‘the kiss of sweet Scottish rain’ have a central place in my sense of how the world should be.
I was born in Scotland for reasons loosely connected with Hitler. When my mother was eighteen, my grandparents sent her out of Germany to study in Zurich. At least one of their children would be safe from the immediate Nazi threat. When the whole family finally received permission to enter Britain, on temporary visas with a promise that they would continue on to the States, my mother was in the middle of her degree. Apparently, the only university to accept students from the Continent and credit them for courses already completed, was Glasgow. That’s why she and a group of other German-Jewish girls found themselves together on Kelvinside. Years later, after she’d obtained her PhD, made Aliyah to help establish the German Department at the Hebrew University, met my father, had my brother, and they were making plans to come back to Britain, she recommended Glasgow as ‘a place where she had friends’. Two years later I was born in Bearsden.
Once or twice each year the call of the hills still overcomes me, a longing easily transmitted to the rest of my family, and we board the train to cross the border. (‘Will we need our passports next time?’ the children ask.) Even the dog recognises those happy moments when we walk alongside the carriages at Euston and empties his bladder against every lamppost, knowing it’ll be many hours before we descend amidst fresher air and the prospect of incomparably longer walks.
On those treks it’s not rare to see in the midst of the heather and ferns the ruins of old stone walls. There are whole villages, abandoned. It’s all that remains as witness to the Highland Clearances in which thousands of people were driven from the land they’d crofted for generations in favour of the more profitable (and ecologically disastrous) sheep-farming. The history of the Clearances is complex as well as cruel. It’s often (mis?)connected with the brutal conduct of the Duke of Cumberland after his victory over Bonnie Prince Charlie at the battle of Culloden in 1746, the last real struggle for Scottish independence from England. Whatever the details, the broken byres and crofts testify to what the financial aspirations of the distant rich can do to the lives of the poor. It’s not surprising that in the far north we saw many signs this summer bearing the one word, ‘Yes’.
Does the Torah have anything to teach about the Scottish Referendum? (On my children’s advice I resisted the temptation to tweet: ‘Vote ‘No’ and oppose the two-state solution’. ‘It’ll only be misunderstood’, they said, wisely). The only reference I can find in the prayer-book is the High Holyday plea asking God to direct our hearts so that ‘we all form agudah achat,one union, to do your will with a perfect heart’. That notwithstanding, there’s no evidence that Judaism would define either voting ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ as a mitzvah or a transgression. The blessing for the Torah which describes God as asher bachar banu, ‘who chose for us’ can thus be claimed by neither side.
Nevertheless the whole affair makes me sad. There’s always tension between our need for commonality and our desire to be different. The renewed engagement with roots and tradition is a positive response to the levelling and dulling effects of globalisation. We don’t want to be stripped of our right to be different and to live as who we are, not as part of someone else’s empire, commercial, religious or territorial. But is the creation of new borders the only way this can be achieved?
A leading question facing not just Scotland but humanity is whether we have the creativity, sensitivity and imagination to foster both our commonalities and our differences and allow them both to deepen our humanity?
During these weeks of Elul, the month of preparation before the New Year, it’s the custom to say Psalm 27 every morning and evening. I feel attached to this Psalm and I sometimes find myself saying its words on long lonely walks, or, like last night, when the dog barks at a fox at two in the morning and I can’t get back to sleep.
It begins: ‘God is my light and my salvation, of whom shall I be afraid?’ (Verse 1) Light and salvation sound like weak protection against the terrors of the world. Yet what would we wish for a hostage, like the British aid worker David Haines held by IS? What do we ask from God on his behalf? Of course, we pray that the best and swiftest way is found to gain his release, that his captors should not treat him, or any other hostages, with cruelty in the meantime and that he should be enabled to re-join his anxious family in safety and good health. But we would also wish that God should be with him in his heart, as his light and his salvation, to bring him inner strength and peace. Whatever troubles we ourselves may have to pass through, however minor in comparison, or however serious, I believe we would say the same prayer for ourselves, that something steadfast should dwell within our heart, a presence which, without promising anything other than itself, so that it cannot disappoint us, is sustaining, irremovable and silently luminous.
Later in the Psalm the heart speaks in response. ‘On your behalf my heart has said: “Seek my presence”; that presence, God, I shall indeed seek. Don’t hide it from me…’ (Verses 8 and 9) Judaism generally takes an unromantic view of the human heart*. The heart is conflicted; it is the place where desire and willpower, passion and reason, meet. Will it prompt us to act rightly, or drive us into wrongdoing? Jeremiah records a moment of despair: ‘The heart is deceitful and weak; who can know it?’ he asks. Only God, he responds, in words which have made their way into the confessional prayers for the Day of Atonement: ‘I am the Lord, who searches the heart and tests the conscience’. (17:9-10)
But this Psalm offers a gentler and more generous account of the encounter between God and heart. God may search the heart, but the heart also searches for God. The heart is inwardly attuned to the resonance of God’s presence and, despite all the noise of the world around it, hears God’s words within its chambers as if it, the heart itself, were the speaker: ‘Seek my face’.
This is not a moment of transcendent revelation in which God addresses us from heaven. It’s more a moment of togetherness and recognition, a moment of awareness of the presence of God within all life, in the vitality of trees, the vibrancy of music, the stillness of thought itself.
To hear this voice is the heart’s deepest passion; it longs for connection with the life which animates all vital being, as the pool in the rocks below the waterfall needs the stream which feeds it living waters. The heart seeks God as the source and essence of its vitality and, in that longing, knows that it must be pure and honest and closed off by no wrongdoing. ‘Your presence, God, shall I seek’.