Erev Rosh Hashanah Sermon
Written by Rabbi Howard Cooper Tuesday, 11 October 2005
Sermon given on Erev Rosh Hashanah 5766/2005 by Rabbi Howard Cooper at Finchley Reform Synagogue.
So here we are, again, on the threshold. The threshold of a New Year, and of this 10 day journey with which we start - cheerfully, hesitantly - our New Year. A time to reflect and look back; a time to pause and assess where we are, before we step forward - confidently, gingerly - into that great, fraught unknown we call the future.
I don’t know what you think about as you sit here this evening and think back over the past year - what private thoughts go through your head - but certain images will probably come to mind. Some of the images and memories may bring a glow to the heart: it might be some of your achievements and successes, at home or at work, or family events, accomplishments, celebrations, or a holiday enjoyed, or friendships made or renewed; or it may be images of a different kind, of how Jerusalem was finally built on England’s green and pleasant land. Then again - from Ashes to ashes, as it were - what comes to mind about this past year may be much sadder events: deaths, losses, failures, illnesses, disappointments. We all have our own personal anthology of memories of this year that is now ending. Highs and lows. And of course for us Londoners, some of our memories from this year, the pictures in our heads, will be about the bombs, in July, and what may have changed since then. And our thoughts may even stretch back to December, and the tsunami; and as we sit tonight and reflect on what we have lived through - and what we’ve been exposed to - this past year those memories will mix with others, maybe from Iraq or Darfur or Gaza, or how we watched Hurricane Katrina expose the dark heart of the American dream.
And this collage of intermingling memories and thoughts may include too experiences here in the community, where we have seen the end of one rabbinic experiment and there is, inevitably, some uncertainty about what’s going to happen next. As we think about the year that’s ended, we start to wonder what the New Year might bring. (One of the things we know it will bring is Miriam’s presence here with us over these next 9 months or so - and we’re delighted to welcome her into our midst, as our student rabbi this year). But her presence here - as part of a new, younger, fresh generation - highlights the question of who will be doing this (some might say) impossible job here at FRS of being a principal rabbi - teacher, pastor, guide and guardian; which brave soul (or souls) will take the community on into these darkening years of this new century? Who will be able to find the words we need to help us through these next years of our lives, and our children’s lives?
It’s a huge task, religious leadership, a huge and privileged responsibility, and who will have the strength, the courage, the vision, the chutzpah, to say they want to undertake this crazy work? This year we’ll find out.
So we have all these concentric circles - personal, family, community, nationally, globally (and we exist in all of them) - so much life, so many feelings and impressions and thoughts, and another year gone. And for me, and maybe this is a sign of middle age, a sense on an evening like this of time speeding up.
I recently heard a Dutch professor talking about his research on how people experience time; and his experiments showed clearly that the sense of time speeding up as you get older is not just anecdotal, it’s not just something that older people wryly muse about or rabbit on about, but a phenomenon that can be confirmed objectively. If you ask people to gauge a period of time, say 60 seconds, you can plot on a graph how our sense of time, our own measuring of it, does change according to age: younger people consistently overestimate it - they might go up to 70, 80, seconds; but the older you are the more likely you are to underestimate it. You’ll judge the minute to be over in 45, 50 seconds, and so on. [Some of you might feel relieved at this - it means you won’t find that my sermons last as long as they used to]. Our experience of time is deeply subjective, and as I stand here now I’m finding that it’s hard to believe it’s 12 months - 12 months and two weeks - since I stood here last Rosh Hashanah and said this in a sermon :
And what about this endless Orwellian war on terror - based on the bizarre belief (part Dr Strangelove, part Dr Billy Graham) that evil can be eradicated, defeated - what of the tears that have been shed and will be shed before this war can ever cease? Where the enemy is invisible or metamorphoses before our eyes, where distrust and hatred seeps like toxic waste beneath the ground of our streets and cities, and our liberties become eroded, and people tell me they feel they cannot even travel on the tube without fears for their lives.
A year ago - and it seems like no time at all. And yet so much has happened in between. I want to read you something now, because this is the time of the year when we try to gain some perspective on what’s happened to us, what’s happening to us, what our lives are about - and I hope this text, these couple of paragraphs, can take us a bit deeper.
It’s from Ian McEwan’s flawed yet extraordinary novel Saturday , published at the beginning of the year. You may know the plot: the story is set on February 15th 2003, the Saturday of the march through London of hundreds of thousands of anti-war protestors. And it describes the day through the eyes of a neurosurgeon, Henry Perowne, the proud father of two grown-up children Theo and Daisy, who awakes with a sense of unease, not just about Iraq but the gathering pessimism since 9/11 and a fear that his city, its openness and diversity, and his happy, contented family life and social life are under threat. This is from near the beginning of the book:
The September attacks were Theo’s induction into international affairs, the moment he accepted that events beyond friends, home and the music scene had bearing on his existence. At sixteen, which was what he was at the time, this seemed rather late. Perowne, born the year before the Suez crisis, too young for the Cuban missiles, or the construction of the Berlin Wall, or Kennedy’s assassination, remembers being tearful over Aberfan in ‘sixty-six — one hundred and sixteen schoolchildren just like himself, fresh from prayers in school assembly, the day before half-term, buried under a sea of mud. This was when he first suspected that the kindly child-loving God extolled by his headmistress might not exist. As it turned out, most major world events suggested the same. But for Theo’s sincerely godless generation, the question hasn’t come up. No one in his bright, plate-glass, forward-looking school ever asked him to pray, or sing an impenetrable cheery hymn. There’s no entity for him to doubt. His initiation, in front of the TV, before the dissolving towers, was intense but he adapted quickly. These days he scans the papers for fresh developments the way he might a listings magazine. As long as there’s nothing new, his mind is free. International terror, security cordons, preparations for war — these represent the steady state, the weather. Emerging into adult consciousness, this is the world he finds.
It can’t trouble him the way it does his father, who reads the same papers with morbid fixation. Despite the troops mustering in the Gulf, or the tanks out at Heathrow…the storming of the Finsbury Park mosque, the reports of terror cells around the country, and Bin Laden’s promise on tape of ‘martyrdom attacks’ on London, Perowne held for a while to the idea that it was all an aberration, that the world would surely calm down and soon be otherwise, that solutions were possible, that reason, being a powerful tool, was irresistible, the only way out; or that lie any other crisis, this one would fade soon, and make way for the next, going the way of the Falklands and Bosnia, Biafra and Chernoybl. But lately, this is looking optimistic. Against his own inclination, he’s adapting, the way patients eventually do to the sudden loss of sight or use of their limbs. No going back. The nineties are looking like an innocent decade, and who would have thought that aa the time? Now we breathe a different air. He bought Fred Halliday’s book and read in the opening pages what looked like a conclusion and a curse: the New York attacks precipitated a global crisis that would, if we were lucky, take a hundred years to resolve. If we were lucky. Henry’s lifetime, and all of Theo’s and Daisy’s. And their children’s lifetimes too. A Hundred Years’ War. (p.31-32)
Well, these two paragraphs contain all the themes I want to speak about over these next 10 days - it’s my set text for this year, as it were: it speaks about terrorism and what it is doing to us; it speaks about the changing and differing perspectives of the generations; it talks about technology and the role of the media; it talks about the existence - or rather non-existence - of God; and it asks about hope, and where hope can possibly come from in our frightened and frightening world. Just a few small topics of interest to enliven these days ahead.
Well, it’s now 4 years since I stood here on Rosh Hashanah and spoke about 9/11 - which had just happened the week before - and McEwan is right: ‘Now we breathe a different air’. Where has the time gone? Where have our lives gone? What has changed? Because something has changed. I don’t know if we are any more committed to celebrating life than 4 years ago, or speaking out against injustice, or wrestling with Jewish texts, or nurturing our souls on the journey through life: but something has changed which effects all of these activities. We gather tonight to usher in a New Year and we realise that we blink - and not just a year but a decade goes by, two decades. It’s 17 years - half my adult life - since Jeff invited me to become part of his rabbinic team at FRS and I gave my first Rosh Hashanah sermon here which was a story called the Last Temptation of Noah, about the environmental catastrophe that was clearly looming and the flooding that would happen, and some of you may remember how, eerily, with sad and symbolic accuracy, the rain started to come in through the ceiling as I spoke. !988.
And if I’m talking about time and the passing of time it’s because in our speeded-up world I think something fundamentally new is happening in our consciousness, to our sense of ourselves in the world. And the events of 9/11 and the destruction of those ‘dissolving towers’ can in retrospect be seen to symbolise part of what is changing, because it was an event that depended upon technology for its execution, and for our witnessing of it and participation in it.
For the first time in human history, we know intimately in our minds and through our bodies how we can be instantly connected with people and events across the planet - communication technology cancels out time and space - and information technology transforms our capacity to be present to the world’s richness of experience. Information that might have taken laborious months to find in the past, is there in a moment at the click of a button.. And yes, this is awesome, this modern technology is miraculous, it’s a constant wonder that we can Google our way through life [7 years old this week!] - and everything is there for us like a child in a vast sweetshop, an Aladdin’s cave of riches. I love that experience that all this stuff is available now; just as I love getting a text message from some Aztec village in the Andes where Rafi is asking me if Flintoff has got his 100 yet, because he’s been following it in some Internet cafe halfway up a mountain on the other side of the planet. All this is brilliant and it was literally unimaginable back in 1988. And yet it is also deeply disturbing because it is creating a dissonance in what it means to be a human being. It’s creating a disconnection between our fragility and our omnipotence, between our limited earth-bound mortality and our fantasy that we can control what happens to us.
And perhaps one of the things that has changed, or is changing, is that maybe we wonder, when we wake up in the dead of night, maybe we wonder: is it not all a bit too late ? Do we live now in a world that is not only post-modern, but post-hope?
You see, there is a paradox here. On the one hand, this sense of the profusion of experience that is now available in the present moment, and at each moment, through technology, used to be part of the vision of mystics: that all is always now, that heaven and hell are not locations in space but are aspects of time, aspects of human experience in the present, that paradise - though always getting lost - is always potentially present, that everything your soul needs is available in each moment thanks to the energy that animates the universe and connects all things, a force, an energy that our tradition called Adonai : ‘the One, who is’, ‘that which is’, ‘that which connects and unifies all’.
And our increasing capacity for inter-connectivity gives us a glimpse into this mystical experience. And yet — on the other hand — we know, though we can forget, that it’s all a simulacrum, a deceptive representation of this unbounded intensity of nowness. And the consequences of this can be profoundly disquieting, because if everything is felt to exist in the great now of the present then the past is truly another country, and memory and history - well what relevance do they have? As a culture we live increasingly inside, or in thrall to, even dependent upon, this illusionary cyberworld where time and space can be erased - and yet we mortal, fallible, fragile human beings only exist and breathe and procreate and celebrate and suffer in time and space.
No wonder there is this huge industry in computer-generated virtual reality games - I don’t know if you’ve heard about them, though you may be participating in one of them - where you can assume new identities and be whoever you want and own assets that you can buy and sell with real money, a whole alternative reality that more and more people around the world are signed into and spending huge chunks of their life in, a cyberlife that is far more enthralling and creative than so called real life. In response to mortality and the complex questions about meaning and purpose, the move is into fantasy. Who needs historical memory or social responsibility or a commitment to justice, let alone the ups and downs of family life, let alone the despair of loneliness - who needs any of that when you can live enhanced lives in these games, and relate to other players in the safety of cyberspace and from the security of your own room.
Of course increasingly religions do this too, particularly on the fundamentalist wings of religion, creating fantasy worlds for believers, worlds where the rules of the game are clear and the complexities and uncertainties of life are ironed out, or rationalised away, where good and evil and God and the devil are like characters in a vast game run by some universal computer company, where if you play the game the right way evil can be zapped out of existence and you can become a winner in the game of life because you’ve stacked up enough God-points and as long as you remain in credit your own death is merely Game Over because you’ll start again tomorrow someplace else, somewhere better.
If I parody this brave new world of literalist religion, it is not by much. But it would be wrong to imagine that we non-fundamentalists are safe from illusionary thinking, or freed from the destabilising consequences of the illusionary realities generated by technology. Because as Ian McEwan intimates, we are all involved, whether we like it or not, in something that is fundamentally changing in our psyches.
For what does it mean that you can be on a plane and watching TV on the mini-screen in front of you and see your plane on the TV news circling the airport in imminent danger, and hear experts discussing your likely chances of survival; and then see on screen in front of you the view inside your plane of passengers watching the live TV coverage of the event playing on their back-of-seat TV screens - this being live mobile-phone video-footage being taken by one of your fellow-passengers which the network is broadcasting. We are in a hall of mirrors here, and you can’t get your mind round it, as we find ourselves placed in this extraordinary situation of being able to watch, and record, our potential impending deaths. And this was a real event from a couple of weeks ago and I offer it as a symbol, a visual metaphor, for our human condition five years into this new century of ours: here we are, less and less in control of our destiny, but with more and more control of the knowledge of our plight. Particularly our ecological plight, though not only that. We sit, as passengers in the life of the world, actively involved in its dramas, participating in life as it unfolds. And at the same time we are passively recording it, noting it, watching it as it happens - often on TV - as if we’re not involved, as if we’re just spectators and it’s happening to someone else.
Today is Yom HaZikkaron , the day of remembering, the day we look back into the past so that we can see the present more clearly, so that we can edge backwards into the future with more awareness of time’s rich possibilities along with the hazards of erasing time and history and memory itself. There are days when it feels as if we’ve become a kind of Alzheimer culture where reality is what’s happening now: what’s on the screen, or in the headlines, until the screensaver comes up or the next headlines take over. And there is no depth and no perspective and no vision beyond the horizon of today. And we Jews, we who have eyes thousands of years old, and have lived our festive seasons by the waxing and waning of the moon, and have counted our days by the drawing in of the evening twilight and the counting of the stars in the skies at night, we are, we have been, connoisseurs of time, we have been the repositories of memory and the wisdom of generations gone by, the inspiration of the Biblical storytellers, the vision of the prophets, the hymns of the poets, the learning of the rabbis, the intuitions of the mystics, and we have held and savoured this knowledge through time and always let it intersect with the present, so that we never become overwhelmed by the now, but could see what is happening in the present from an angle as it were, with that added dimension of time and memory. Are we losing this capacity? I wonder, I fear, that it may be slipping away with every passing year.
(It’s one of the reasons I’m offering a new strand this year in the Exploring Spirituality programme: a monthly group where we’ll be looking each month at one of the psalms to see if we can make connections to it from our own lives and see if it can offer us a different perspective on those lives, so we are not just trapped as helpless passengers on this journey through life).
And this is the purpose of these 10 Days too, that open up before us from this evening. They’re a counterweight to the sometimes unbearable lightness of being that comes from living only in a long eternal now. They’re Judaism’s attempt to jolt us from habit into reflection, to shift our perspective from the ephemeral into something more substantial. This liturgy is rich and dense: it’s not easy, we need to live with it, work with it, give it a chance to speak to us. A lot of it won’t, but some of it will. The promise of the New Year is that something in this material offers us, in Isaiah’s words with which we opened the service ‘a path through the wasteland, and streams in a barren place’. The prophetic voice speaks from the standpoint of eternity, of God, and offers enlightenment: ‘something new, now it comes to light ’ Atah timzach - Now, it comes to light . This ‘now’ is not the eternal now of the erasure of memory, but the divine now when something new is revealed. What will come to light for each of us, remains to be seen.
So, now, we are across the threshold, the time is moving on - how fleeting it is! - we are on the journey, the New Year has begun. May it bring us a good life, a life of health and well-being - and some moments of security amidst the unpredictability of our world.
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