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Rosh Hashanah 5770: A message from Rabbi Bayfield


Head of the Movement for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Dr. Tony Bayfield shares his reflections on Rosh Hashanah 5770.

It bothers me a lot that we still teach childish notions of faith whilst missing the genuine article.

I never cease to be appalled by how much I read and forget. But some things at least do stay with me. An example comes from a book of short stories called 'In the Reign of Peace' by the American author Hugh Nissenson published forty years ago. When I took it down from the shelf recently, I was reminded that the word shalom is wrongly spelled in Hebrew on the dustcover!

What I had remembered, however, was one of the short stories called 'Charity'. It’s about an impoverished Jewish tailor on the lower East Side of Manhattan who always has a guest to Friday night dinner, someone "even poorer than us" and "with no place to go".

In the winter, the guests are invited to stay the night and the son of the family complains bitterly – about their smelliness and snoring. Papa replies by quoting the verse from Proverbs: "Tsedakah tatsil mi’mavet, Charity saves from death".

Mama dies when the boy is only twelve but Papa continues the tradition. The next Friday night he invites a wretched old man called Rifkin. 

The son challenges the father: "You said that charity saves from death."
"What’s that got to do with Mama?" Papa replied.
"Everything," said the son.
Papa suddenly raised his voice: "Is that what you think a mitzvah is?  A bribe offered the Almighty?"
"But you said so. You said that charity saves from death", the son insisted. 
Rifkin, half awakened, turned over and groaned.
"No, not Mama", the father said in a hoarse voice. "Him" [pointing to the guest].

I love that story.  It really speaks to me. It also seems particularly relevant to Rosh Hashanah. Our traditional greeting is l’shanah tovah, which most people clearly understand as meaning, ‘I hope you have a good=happy new year’ – which is sweet and innocuous. But, if you’re a theological pedant like me, it’s also highly questionable. We have relatively little control over whether the coming year will prove to be conventionally good to us, still less filled with happiness.  Neither – directly – does God.

The one thing that we can control is whether or not we contribute as much good to the year ahead as we can.  So, in saying l’shanah tovah, it’s the good you and I will be doing that I’m referring to.  Naturally I hope that you’ll all enjoy a prosperous and happy new year as well.

L’Shanah Tovah.

Tony Bayfield

Rabbi Tony Bayfield

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