We live in frightening times. Despite everything, may this be a year of peace, a year in which we understand more deeply how essential it is to prevent violence, eschew hatred, foster understanding, and care with shared responsibility for each other and this beautiful earth.
The word I want to write about today is simply ‘us’, ‘we’. It comes in many forms in the liturgy, as anachnu, anu, or just nu at the end of a noun or verb.
The first anachnu is the plural within the singular, the ‘us’ inside the ‘me’. We all have different parts to our personality, many inner voices. On Yom Kippur we need to allow the light of conscience to shine upon them all. We mustn’t avoid the memories of which we are ashamed: how otherwise can we learn from them? Nor should we forget the good deeds we’ve done and witnessed: they are our motivation and guide. We want to leave Ne’ilah strengthened from our weaknesses and inspired in our strengths.
Around us is the anachnu, the we, of our family and friends. Most of us live by an ‘I take you for granted’ norm. Our colleagues, neighbours, people we see every day, even (perhaps especially) our own partner and children: it’s chastening to think how much we can fail to listen to them or notice. They are the core of our human solidarity, our strength and wellbeing. The eve of Yom Kippur is a time of recognition, of apology for the hurts we’ve given and appreciation for the kindness and love we’ve received. We may have more, or less, to say sorry about; but we certainly have a great deal for which to say thank you. It must not go unspoken.
Surrounding us are the congregations with whom we stand together in prayer: va’anachnu core’im, – we bow down together. On Yom Kippur we are especially aware that we are a community across time and generations. To the soul, the division between living and dead is less clear. They stand behind us and beside us in spirit, – our parents, grand- and great-grandparents, singing the same melodies, blessing us, fortifying us to bear faithfully the trust and hope, values and culture which unite us beyond the boundaries of time. As Rabbi Leo Baeck wrote to all the congregations across Germany in 1935, ‘In this hour all Israel stands before God, the judge and the forgiver’.
We stand also together with all those with and for whom we share responsibility. Al chet shechatanu, we say, ‘For the sin we have sinned’. Wherever we are, London, Jerusalem, New York, a small village, we affirm that we are answerable all together for each other, and for the homeless, the lonely, the refugees, the vulnerable and the sick. As Sadiq Kahn declared after the terror killings in Westminster and again after London Bridge, we will not allow hatred to destroy the bonds of solidarity which unite us.
Finally, we stand together as all life. Kol ba’ei olam – ‘all who enter the world’ come before God’, taught the Mishnah two thousand years ago. We know that for us to be ‘written in the book of life’, the seas, forests, rivers and fields must also be inscribed there, together with all the fishes, birds and animals they shelter and feed. We are bound together in a mutuality and interdependence deeper than we understand. When we ask ‘Zochrenu lechayyim, Remember us for life’, we ask together with all life.
Just as the wind makes every tree bend, all living being is bowed in prayer for our shared existence. May God hear us. May we hear each other. May we ourselves be helped to listen to the words we say.
Leshanah Tovah and Gmar Chatimah Tovah; may this be a year of good decrees.