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.