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Saturday, 3 October 2009

When the Wind Blows

As I write the winds are blowing and there are gales sweeping in from the Atlantic. It is the first day of the festival of Sukkot, the festival of impermanence, the autumn festival where the desert wanderings of the Israelites, the arrhythmic rhythm of encampment and journeying, following the peripatetic divine Cloud-by-day-Fire-by-night, are remembered and mythologized.

The makeshift sukkah constructed next to one’s home is a reminder of fragility in the midst of what we fondly think of as the solidity of our lives and achievements. Franz Rosenzweig captured the essence of Sukkot’s symbolism when he writes about the sukkah that it ‘serves to remind the people that no matter how solid the house of today may seem, no matter how temptingly it beckons to rest and unimperilled living, it is but a tent which permits only a pause in the long wanderings through the wilderness of centuries’.

In a week that has seen a devastating earthquake in Indonesia and a tsunami hit Samoa, this festival brings with it – in spite of its other title, ‘the Festival of our Rejoicing’ – a harsh undertow of fear and awe. The extent to which we are at the mercy of the power of elemental forces is sobering. And the ways in which ‘nature’ is effected by human actions and choices is of course now a preoccupying concern. Our futures are blowing in the wind.

Yom Kippur has come and gone. The annual calling-to-accounts is over, and as in years gone by I found myself wanting to talk about both the futility and the possibilities encoded within it. My sermon at Finchley Reform ( was born out of magpie-like reading (particularly texts by the young American novelist and essayist David Foster Wallace, who committed suicide earlier this year) and my own view that we need simultaneously on this day to take serious stock of ourselves yet not be too harsh on ourselves – a complex psychological task. We are capable of both massive denial about our blind-spots and failures to live well and honourably - and burdened by self-persecutory guilt about our perceived failures and inadequacies. How do we achieve anything like atonement (at-one-ment) when this is how we are?

Erev Yom Kippur 2009 - sermon

We are in trouble. Big and serious trouble. It might not feel like that at this moment, as you sit here, having left the comfort of your homes , maybe quite full after your pre-Yomtov meal, perhaps in a smart new outfit, and now you are here. And maybe you’re a bit less comfortable here, but it’s nevertheless not the worst of experiences you could imagine (I hope). You might be struggling a bit with the words of the book, you might even be thinking you’ll be glad when the whole thing is over and you can get back to what we undoubtedly think of as our ‘real’ lives come Tuesday morning. So the journey through these 24 hours might be meaningful or meaningless, it might be more an endurance test than a true soul-searching, but we can imagine that either way we’ll get through it, and over it, pretty much unscathed. And things will go on for us much as they were before this strange interruption in our busy lives.

We need to be honest this day, our tradition says, and so we should be honest and say, Yes, this is how it will probably be for us. By Tuesday morning the pious words will have dulled into a blur, and our pious (though possibly heart-felt) intentions will have dissolved like a dream that fades away.

And yet we will still be in trouble. Big and serious trouble. Because we know, in our hearts, that this life of ours, and this ’life-style’ – horrible phrase if you think about it, as if our lives are an extension of the fashion industry – we know in our more clear-sighted moments not only that our own individual lives are finite, and we will one day cease to be here (this is not news, though Yom Kippur perhaps brings it into focus; but we also know that our whole way of life – and this is the newer news – this way of life that we know and cling to and desperately want to see continue into the lives of our children and our children’s children, ‘to the third and fourth generation’, this way of life may also be coming to an end, towards an end.

In this last 12 months or so we have had a wake-up call. It’s been a shock to see the flimsiness of our economic well-being – turbo-capitalism in all its vast and energised magnificence quaking, collapsing in parts, like rows of dominoes, free-market fundamentalism falling in on itself, businesses going bankrupt, banks going bankrupt, jobs lost, work impossible to find, not just here but throughout what we fondly and maybe naively call the ‘developed’ world.

And yes we are hearing about recovery, and all the media are scanning the horizon for signs that life might be getting back to so-called ‘normal’; but it reminds me, this scanning the horizon, of those sailors in centuries gone by who crossed the perilous seas for weeks on end, months on end, and the provisions are running low, and fresh water is almost gone and they are desperate to see the shores of the new world, and they are anxiously scanning the horizon for landfall – and then, blessed relief! : ‘Land Ahoy’ – but when they finally touch shore it’s not the new world they have reached but some uncharted territory and they have been blown off course – thousands of miles off course and they are strangers in a strange land. And who will ever make it back? And it’s sickening, heart-sinking, after all that waiting and hoping. And so we await our return – to prosperity and consumption and these golden days of old, just a year or so ago. And maybe that’ll happen. Business as usual, with a few cuts here and there. But nothing you’d really notice. And if you believe that, or want to believe that, then I wish you well.

Because something in us knows (though we might resist this knowledge) that this mayhem we’ve witnessed is not just about the greed and irresponsibility of financiers or bankers – it is about a malaise in a basic philosophy of life in which we are all implicated. It is about a system of values that has come to place individual desires above the common good. It’s about a system of values that puts the private domain – what I want, what I think I need, what I feel I have a ‘right’ to – above the collective well-being.

In this country cheap credit and the housing boom made possible the private pursuit of self-expression and self-gratification as the content of a good life. Just think of the number of make-over programmes that you’ve been able to see on TV – you can transform your house, your garden, your career, your social skills, your intimate relationships, your body and physical looks... We’ve come to think of this kind of modern freedom of choice as liberating and empowering. We want to be authors of our own lives – and of course there are ways in which this kind of personal autonomy can be transformative and needs to be nurtured and supported.

But maybe we are discovering that unbridled individualism – disconnected from our sense of ourselves as part of a wider community to which we are responsible – such unchecked concentration on our own needs (or what we think are our needs) is actually isolating and disempowering and ends up being destructive. As the economic system that has sustained this model of individualism begins to totter, we see how brittle this way of life that we’ve bought into, literally and figuratively, how fragile and soulless it actually is. That it’s devoid of any real and substantial meaning.

We’ve caught a glimpse this last year of a truth that we probably can’t bear to look at for more than a moment. That what we consume will eat us alive. Consumption is now what we believe in – it’s where we put our faith. But whether it’s shopping our way to happiness, or investing in property, or the consumption of the earth’s resources, consumerism is not only a form of addiction, it is a form of idolatry, to use an old-fashioned word. (But on Yom Kippur we have a lot of old-fashioned words on display, so I might as well slip this one in as well).

Judaism has always maintained – and it’s a hard and demanding faith in this respect – but it is based on an idea that if you are putting your basic trust in what you own, what you can possess, what you can grab with your own two hands – if you put your faith in the material world, you’ve missed the point. That this way of thinking about our purpose here in the world is fundamentally askew. Yes, you can enjoy the material world, you can own and possess things of this world, you can and even should celebrate what you have, what you make, what you possess, be grateful for it – but don’t imagine it’s where your security comes from. Don’t believe in it.

That’s what that great Biblical line means - ‘You shall have no other gods before Me’ (Exodus 20:3) – it was a recognition very early on in our history, our faith, that the temptations of idolatry are always here and around us. But we never think it is idolatry. We just think it’s the way things are. Just how life is. ‘We aren’t idol worshippers’ we tell ourselves indignantly . ‘We are Jews – we don’t believe in idols’, that’s for primitive people, and we are sophisticated. We don’t worship new fashions, new looks, new cars, new technological gadgets, new holiday destinations, all the ‘just-haves’ that are dreamed up just for us ( and a million others) – this isn’t idolatry, it’s not cannibalism – it’s just personal choices, how our hunger gets satisfied. It’s how we want to live. ‘There’s no sin in it’, we say, colloquially, anxiously. Our anxiety betraying some deeper awareness in us.

It was the great Jewish teacher Franz Rosenzweig who described our modern dilemma – nearly a century ago now: ‘Names change, but polytheism continues. Culture and civilisation, people and state, nation and race, art and science, economy and class, ethos and religion – here you have what is certainly an incomplete list of the pantheon of our contemporary gods. Who will deny the reality of these powers?’ - and I think now we can add technology and the media – ‘No ‘idolater’ has ever worshipped his idols with greater devotion and faith’, he continues, ‘than that displayed by modern man towards his gods...a continual battle has been going on to this very day in the mind of man between the worship of the One and the many. Its outcome is never certain.’ (cf N. Glatzer, Franz Rosenzweig, p.277; also Sense of Belonging, p.207)

Eloquent words from a master teaching and thinker. But he’s got us in one paragraph.

You know, maybe we’re going to get lucky. Maybe this financial mayhem will prove manageable, maybe as the world leaders meet and deliberate in their G20 meetings and in Copenhagen in December they are going to be able to steer the huge super tanker we are on, steer it around divergent national interests and find ways of addressing climate change, and chronic poverty and disease, and ineffective global governance. Maybe they will overcome narrow agendas and populist temptations. Maybe.

Or maybe this wake-up call will be followed by falling deeper asleep. Maybe what we have glimpsed this past year will prove too frightening to face full on. Because we have seen how we collectively came to the brink of catastrophe - and found our way through this time. But has this been a warning? That when a tipping point is reached, and the dominoes begin to fall, the change is rapid and while it is going on, unstoppable. That things can get out of control very fast. And what if this last year’s collapse in the financial world is a pre-figuration of that other great drama of our times and our lives, the environmental and ecological problems we face?

Have we maybe had a picture of the way in which fissures and fractures that are in the system but undetected – perhaps know about by a few prescient souls (and there were some economists who clearly saw the dangers) but whose words were drowned out by the prevailing wisdom, the prevailing faith in the system, which was a pseudo-faith – have we had a warning picture of how climate change will one day tip over from slow and incremental into sudden and dramatic?

Those dust storms in Australia last week are an almost too convenient metaphor for a hellish vision of a society at the mercy of a sudden irruption of choking chaos into daily lives. And if we reach that point, no amount of ‘quantative easing’ is going to push back the rising tides or get us out of the mess. There will be no second chance to get it right.

And this is where we switch off. This is where we feel the need to fall asleep. We know all this, we say. Climate change, blah blah blah. The politicians will sort it out. Technology will sort it out. Well Barack Obama is only human (in spite of rumours to the contrary). Nor am I sure that faith in the great god ‘technology’ will sort this one for us.

So where does that lead us, today on Yom Kippur? This is a day that strips away our pretensions. Where can we hide? We are naked before the truth of things (‘Truth’ is one of the names of God in our tradition). If we worship money and possessions – if this is where we put our faith and what we think give our life real meaning and value - we will never feel we have enough. If we worship our body and looks – we will always feel ugly. If we worship power, like to dominate and be in charge – we will always secretly feel weak and afraid. If we worship our intellects, like to feel smart, be seen as clever – we will end up feeling stupid and fraudulent, always waiting to be found out and exposed. These are the kinds of worship, idolatry, that we just slip into, they become default settings in the psyche. And change is really, really difficult.

I do think though that Yom Kippur can easily make us feel more guilty, by heaping on us expectations beyond our human capabilities. Perhaps we have to start by acknowledging how little we can do, and sometimes how little we care about how little we can do. Perhaps what is needed of us today is a little honesty: about our smallness of vision, our limited compassion, our threadbare belief that any of these pious words we say today will make any difference to how we think and live, let alone how the world is. Perhaps the best we can do is struggle to expose lies when we hear them, and then strive for the preservation of some human values, if only in ourselves.

It’s so easy to hide. We have busy lives, lots of responsibilities – for family, colleagues; to friends or the community – how much time can we give to the great moral demands of our times? And yet maybe it is here, in the midst of our busy lives, that we have to begin. Perhaps we have to be quite modest in our expectations. Take the pressure off us so that we do not live so freighted by guilt, so burdened by all we fail to do. If we aren’t going to live completely swamped by the dominant, bullying ethos of our time, the ethos of individualism and personal autonomy, maybe we have to come back to our daily lives, and work at our attention and awareness , with discipline and effort, and find ways to truly care for other people, to make sacrifices, to have less so that we can be more. More compassionate, more altruistic, more self-limiting in what we consume and imagine we ‘must-have’.

In a myriad petty little unsexy ways every day there are small choices to make – and maybe that doesn’t sound grandly inspirational. Look after the people around you: in your family, at work, neighbours, our own community here. Look after yourself by giving more and taking less. Perhaps it sounds pretty humble stuff, small scale rather than grand gestures and noble ideals. Perhaps it is rather down-to-earth and humbling. No headlines in it. No 15 minutes of fame. But perhaps it’s where we start, today, tomorrow, and Tuesday morning. Perhaps. Samuel Beckett once said that his favourite word was ‘perhaps’.

Perhaps our salvation begins by recognising our smallness and our limitations. But better honest doubt and small gestures (of love and care, when we can) than grandiose schemes and crazed self-assuring noises about how things ‘have’ to be and ‘must’ be done...

We want to live in a world with simple answers and predictable consequences, a rule-bound universe where we are clear about cause and effect, right and wrong, ‘good’ and ‘evil’. We want pills to solve complex problems – personal or societal. We want magic and over-the-rainbow happy endings. (The decline of traditional religious belief has seen our human need for stories replaced with devotion to J.R.R.Tolkein and J.K.Rowling). We want to live in a re-enchanted world not a disenchanted world.

Jewish tradition – from the Bible through to the liturgy we read today – sometimes seems to offer simple narratives and clear and stark choices – ‘See, today, I offer you life and good, death and evil...I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse... Choose life! ’(Deuteronomy 30: 15/19) . We read this text on Yom Kippur morning. Yet only when we read these texts and listen to these stories with impoverished imaginations do we believe these words are simple, their meanings straightforward. Words are never transparent. They are like signposts, pointing the way forwards.

Our tradition does give us clues about how to live, clues but not solutions. The clue is ‘Choose life’ – but the solution, that’s to be found only in your heart. Today, Yom Kippur, we have the time and space to listen in to our hearts. We know the trouble we are in – and we know what we need to do. We know, we know. There is no magic – there is just mystery, and the adventure of doing what we know to be true.

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