I saw a different kind of shadow yesterday evening. It wasn’t the kind of shadow the kabbalists tell us to look for in a moon-lit field on the holy night of Hoshana Rabba, the final night of the festival of Succot. If your shadow is full, it will be a year of blessings, they say, no doubt basing themselves on the 121st Psalm, ‘God is your shadow’, and its mystical interpretation, ‘God shadows you: as you behave towards others, so does God behave towards you.’
We showed a film at the synagogue yesterday evening about destitute asylum seekers. Everyone in the room was shaken. The life of a refugee is harsh enough: terror for one’s life, fear for one’s family, total uncertainty about the future, loss of the entire familiar past. But what shocked us was the further misery placed on those already harsh lives; slavery (literally), massive bills from the National Health Service; endless delays in the processing of applications, during which time it is not allowed to work. ‘How do you feed your family?’ ‘What do you do with yourself?’ ‘How do you pay for anything?’ One of the women featured in the film, who’d come to answer questions, simply put her hands over her face and wept.
The world should see that film. I would like to sit the government (and not just of this country) down in front of that screen. But it isn’t possible; vulnerable lives are exposed.
The shadow of that film follows me, as the shadows of many kinds of inequality, injustice and suffering follow us all, if we turn and look.
Jewish tradition holds that on this day of Hoshana Rabba we revert from the festival salutation Chag Sameach, ‘Happy Holyday’, to the greeting for the Day of Atonement, Gmar Chatimah Tovah, ‘May you be sealed for good in the book of life’. After today, the books of destiny are closed for the coming year. The Talmud itself doesn’t take the idea literally, nor must we. But it is a forceful enjoinder to write ourselves into the kind of life we wish and intend to lead. How much room will it have for pity and compassion? Who among those around us will we see, and whom will we fail to notice? What will we care about, and about what will we not be troubled to care? What will be the compass of our moral imagination, our heart’s concern?
The prayers for this morning are a powerful litany punctuated by the constantly repeated injunction Hoshana, ‘Save!’ and embracing the entirety of life:
Save those who cry out to you, those who rise early to pray to you at dawn;
Save humankind and the animals, body, soul and spirit;
Save those formed and woven in your image;
Save life-giving trees, shrubs and plants and flowers.
There is much we cannot accomplish and for which we can only pray. But it has never been the religious way to mistake entrusting the world to God’s care for abandoning our own responsibilities.
What and who can we help write in the book of good life?