In our house, the BBC’s general knowledge quiz University Challenge is a family must-do. We’ve an unwritten rule that if not everyone can make it when it’s actually shown, we wait until we can watch it together on i-Player. I wouldn’t deny that there’s a bit of a competitive edge.
This week, one of the questions was: ‘What words complete this line from a 20th century poem: O what made fatuous sunbeams toil…
It’s from Wilfred Owen’s ‘Futility’ and the answer is
To break earth’s sleep at all.
I quoted this bleak World War One poem on Rosh Hashanah many years ago, the day Judaism celebrates the birthday of the world, because it puts the issue bluntly: since humanity is so destructive and life so cruel, is there any point in it at all?
The question can scarcely be considered new. The Talmud wryly records that for three-and-a-half years the rabbis debated whether or not it was better that humans were created. I’ll return to their conclusion later.
Although I have bleak days and know frightening hours of sinking down and down into inner spaces of no hope, I’m lucky to have been endowed with a tenacious, re-assertive love of life. But yesterday I listened to a transatlantic colleague relating some of the feelings of despair which she’s received: climate crisis, racism, Afghanistan, refugees, global terror, food insecurity, pandemic, floods, fires. People are in bleak places, she said; it’s a litany of fear and anguish and we’re not entitled to put our hands over our ears.
I believe the Jewish – and the universally human – response, the reaction which life itself impels, is to live all the more deeply and determinedly for the good. We shall fight back. But not, hopefully, with the materiel of war. Rather we respond with an armamentarium more vulnerable, yet, over the long course of time, more enduring than the accoutrements of mere power: we answer back against life’s cruelties with passion for justice and compassion for suffering; with insight, with courage and with the wisdom of endurance taught by faith and principle; with excitement about the world, with a heart open to beauty, with a spirit which, though often close to exhaustion, is replenished once again by wonder; with care for even the littlest things of life and, when we can, with gratitude and appreciation.
This is all summed up for me, in ways I can’t fully explain, through the memory of a brief scene in a hut in the Hula Valley years ago. A tall, strong man took into his hands with consummate skill a tiny bird weighing scarcely an ounce and carefully put a ring round its leg ‘So that we can understand it better and protect the environment it needs.’ He then gave it to my daughter to release.
To ‘What can we do?’ and ‘What difference can we make?’ the answer can only be: ‘Everything, every kindness, matters.’ This is the strength bestowed on us with which to combat the errors, destructiveness, folly and anger of our own species, and the random, unjust cruelties of life itself.
So, to what conclusion did the rabbis arrive after all their lengthy discussions?
Since humans have already been created, let them search their deeds.
In other words, ‘Should God have made us in the first place?’ is not the right question. Since we’re already here, what matters is what we do with our lives.
Therefore on Rosh Hashanah, the birthday of creation, the issue is: How can I cherish life? What can I contribute? In the classic rabbinic phrase, ‘How can I be a partner with God in protecting and honouring creation?’