A man is walking on a tightrope. From below, he looks like a speck of moving dust, or perhaps a bird hovering over the city. He can hardly be seen. But someone is there. A man is walking on a tightrope – and he is a quarter of a mile off the ground. It has become an iconic image. Step by step, smiling, he moves, attentive and graceful, between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre on a wire an inch thick, less than the width of this book in my hand. Back and forward, step by step, with a sensation of limitless freedom. It is 1974.
The French tightrope walker Philippe Petit wrote a book about his art, A Walk In The Clouds. And you may well have seen the wonderful documentary about him, Man On Wire. And when in the film you see this person, alone on the wire, balanced between movement and stillness, defenceless against sudden gusts of wind, one step away from death – strangely, you do not think of death. You think of life – how fragile it is, how precious it is, and how wonderful it might be to walk through life like Philippe Petit on his high-wire, taking hold of his life and living it ‘in all its exhilarating immediacy, in all its joy’, moment by moment. (cf. Paul Auster, The Red Notebook, Faber & Faber, p. 98).
This evening we pause on our journey, our high wire act – though we don’t usually think of it like that as we make our way through the world, striding along confidently , but every step just a heartbeat away from death. Or worse. We think the ground is solid beneath our feet. We like to feel secure, to avoid too many risks, or at least to take what we think of as manageable, insurable risks. We like to feel in control. But this evening as we pause, as the old year dies and the new year comes into being, comes to life; as we pause at the cusp between what’s past and what’s to come, our unknown (and unknowable) future, we can stop for a few moments and ask ourselves: How do we live our lives: fearless – or fearful ? one step at a time, paying attention to the moment, or in a headlong rush?
Rosh Hashanah is known by many names. Yom Ha-Zikkaron, the day of Remembering; Yom Teruah, the Day of waking up; Yom Ha-Din – the Day of Judgement, with the scales balancing our deeds, weighing up our lives, what has substance and what is ephemeral. And although we stride resolutely through these days together, in community, they are still here for each one of us, individually.
And they are called, these ten days, the Yomim Noraim – The Days of Awe, because they are about the most wondrous and poignant realities: what it means to be a human being, fragile, dependent, fallible – Man On Wire, Woman On Wire - so insignificant in the vast scheme of things and yet so significant. For no-one like us, like me or like you, has ever existed before, or ever will. And does this have any meaning, this uniqueness that each of us is with our own special amalgam of doubts and insecurities, our worries, our foibles and guilt, our sadnesses and failures, our frustrations, our loneliness and secret sorrows as well as our great need for connectedness and belonging and security and hope. What does it mean to be a human being, full of astonishing consciousness and creativity, alive on a small precious, precarious planet on the edge of the universe? What does it mean to be suspended over the void, like Philippe Petit, our bare and naked mortal selves, flesh and blood and mind and heart and spirit, and we have to make the best of it we can, moment by moment? On our own, and sometimes with each other. Huddled against the darkness, the abyss. Is this it? Is this all there is? The gravity-defying high wire act we can life?
Or is there something else as well, something we can turn to, turn towards? After all, we began this service with the words ‘In the twilight of the vanishing year we turn to You...We come into Your presence together with all other holy congregations of Your people’ (Machzor p.131). Are we on this dizzying journey through life alone? Or is there some kind of presence, or energy, or awareness that we can become aware of, attune ourselves to, a presence that we can come into, or let come into us? Something that sustains us, nurtures us, keeps us going when all seems lost, when we feel we are going to fall (into a depression or a bad mood, or feelings of hopelessness or resentment or inadequacy) – is there something that holds us up, that keeps us alive and breathing, breathing moment by moment, literally inspires us? Is there something else? Can we feel the wire, as thin as a finger as broad as an ocean? Can we trust it will support us as we inch our way forward? Impossible to believe in and yet we’ve come this evening seeking it – tentatively, maybe reluctantly, quizzically, shyly – we have come here this evening for something that helps us touch the mystery, helps us touch, and be touched by, that which supports us all in this perilous adventure we call life.
We Jews have this extraordinary mythology, story, a way of seeing the world: we have created a period of time to reflect on these questions, questions about our lives that we know are short and fleeting and without significance until we fill them with significance. We’ve created this New Year and along with all the other names we give it, we say that it celebrates ‘the birthday of the world’ – yom harat olam - not the birthday of the Jewish people mind you, nothing so small-scale and ethnocentric as that. No, we take it upon ourselves to celebrate ‘the birthday of the world’ - which means a day, two days, to remember that we live on a planet that has a history, a past, that started in unimaginably powerful explosions of densities of matter and energy, unimaginable heat and chaos and eons of cooling and congealing and forming itself into rock and water, carbon dioxide and nitrogen and hydrogen and oxygen and all the rest in multitudes of combinations and re-combinations, and the slow, slow evolution of a planet, with a special state-of-the-art air-conditioning system that allowed the slow, slow evolution of microscopic life forms and photosynthesis and the slow, slow evolution out of the seas, onto the land, millennia after millennia, primitive life, evolving – Richard Dawkins is of course right to emphasise, over and over again, this is what happened, this is how it happened, the infinitely slow evolution of slime into life, sea creatures, land creatures, apes, creatures that had hands and legs and fingers that could hold objects – what a glory! – and millennia pass and then – and it is like a miracle, we can describe it without understanding what it means - like a miracle there is us, tribes of us with our migraines and our iPods, us, able to reflect on it all, tell stories about it all, create a new year to celebrate it all, wonder about it all, wonder about our part in it all, our role in it all. Our responsibility in it all.
Because we gather here this evening for many reasons – Rosh Hashanah is about many things, it’s about getting the honey cake recipe right, and making sure the kneidlach aren’t like cannonballs, it is about family recipes and family gatherings and remembering those who are no longer with us; and it’s about friendship and community, and tradition. It’s maybe also about duty or habit – but underneath all these there is something else that brings us here, I think, brings us together: a sense of gratitude and feeling of responsibility. If we are here and have what we call life, and everything is not just random, it must have a purpose.
And there must be something that sustains it all, that keeps the whole show going. We have come to call this something God, Adonai, The One who is, That which Is, and this is what we turn to in these days of Awe. ‘We come into Your presence’, we let this presence come into us, the awareness of life, mysterious, unfolding moment by moment, as we breathe, in and out, and sense there is a spirit that animates us and all of being, that keeps us on the wire. This is the daily miracle, that we daily forget. And what it means – and this is the great Jewish contribution to human development – it means that we carry a sense of responsibility: that how we live, with each other and in the world, makes a difference. A difference to this unfolding drama of life on earth. By the way, this doesn’t mean you have to believe in a Creator, or a Designer, and I’m not speaking about ‘intelligent design’, because there is nothing intelligent about nature ‘red in tooth and claw’(Tennyson), or supernovae, or tsunamis or cancer.
But I’m talking about the ways in which we are drawn here this evening, in spite of our doubts and confusion, because we sense and want to sense the sustaining power that underlies and animates the universe and us within it, and this sense (which doesn’t necessarily make rational sense and doesn’t need to) this deeper sense in us blossoms into a sense of responsibility for what happens in this complex, inexplicable turmoil of a life on planet earth.
We sense that we aren’t in charge - but we can make a difference. And we come because, in spite of all our unbelief, we still believe, as Jews, that we have a job to do. That we Jews have a purpose and a destiny. Life can be crushingly unjust but we are capable of acting justly. Life can be unspeakably cruel but we are capable of acting with compassion and generosity. Life can be harsh and meaningless but we are capable of relieving hardship and creating meaning. That’s our purpose, our destiny, what we are doing here.
On Rosh Hashanah we remember – Yom Ha-Zikkaron – that it is all up to us. Remember from this last year, Obama’s presidential words – ‘Yes, we can’. You can’t get more Jewish than that. It is possible to balance on the wire, amidst the storms around us – whether it is illness, or loss, financial uncertainty, environmental uncertainty – and know, in the words of Gregory Solomon in Arthur Miller’s ‘The Price’: ‘Jews been acrobats since the beginning of the world’. We’ve learnt the high wire act of survival, of faith in our ourselves and our responsibilities, and we’ve learnt too – however daunting the task may appear, however unstable we feel in ourselves, or insecure as a people - we’ve learnt with Nachman of Bratslav : “Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tzar mo’ed , the whole world is a very narrow bridge, a very narrow wire, v’haikkar lo lefached klal, but the main thing is not to feel afraid”.
As the New Year comes into life, we treasure our being alive in it. And we look to the future, the next steps on the way, with hope, with confidence, with and even with a spring in our steps.
Sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London: September 18th 2009