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Thursday, 27 September 2012

Seasonal Thoughts

As autumn gathers its mists and mellow fruitfulness, my thoughts are still with this extraordinary summer we lived through. And I have - a seasonal Jewish theme - a confession to make. Although I love sport, I was an Olympic sceptic.

I resented the horrendous amount of money it was costing, no expense spared at a time when there are distressing degrees of economic hardship being suffered around the country, reductions in care services and health provision, increasing numbers of kids coming to school hungry – three food banks are opening up every week in the UK, Save the Children campaigning for the first time in this country for what they are calling a ‘humanitarian crisis’ in Britain – and meanwhile all these billions being spent on a few weeks of escapism. It felt, I confess, like a kind of madness, a collective derangement of values. Or like the band playing gaily on, distracting the guests while the Titanic was sinking.

For those interested, the full range of my pre-Olympic scepticism is in my May blog. I intuitively felt then - and still feel now, in spite of what I want to say here – that in years to come historians will look back on the summer of 2012 in the UK and see it as a final outpouring of joyful enthusiasm before the disintegration, an idyll before the storm, like we look back to those golden Edwardian summers of one hundred years ago, 1912, 1913, and a generation basking in the glory of Britain ruling the world - yet standing, unbeknownst to themselves, at the edge of an abyss.

Who of us can know? History never repeats itself, but it can help us deepen our thinking, it can add to our reflectiveness, during this season for reflection. After all as we were revelling in all those golden moments over the summer, 100,000 square kilometres of Arctic ice were disappearing every day, an unprecedented and catastrophic loss, the consequences of which - in flooding, storms, drought, food shortages - we will still have to face in the years ahead. That’s what I mean about the edge of an abyss – but of course news from the Arctic hardly got a mention during our feel-good golden summer.

I do accept that some of my pre-Games scepticism was probably misguided – for what we now know is that something else happened, quite unexpectedly. Once that torch began to weave its way around the country, building an enthusiasm in participants and onlookers alike, and generating stories along the way - torch-bearers with various hardships and disabilities and problems they had overcome, with individual stories of courage and tenacity, or dedication to a cause - as the stories were told, we saw again the capacity of the human spirit to triumph over despair.

One saw lives of integrity and spiritual dignity - and all this flowed into Danny Boyle’s chaotic, wondrous, exuberant polemic of an opening ceremony, all that dazzle of industrial revolution and suffragettes and Trades Unions and Great Ormond Street Hospital, all that multi-media showmanship that he orchestrated : and then the moment when I realised something new was opening up, something unheralded, unprecedented – the Queen’s “Good evening, Mr. Bond...” – pitch-perfect, as one might expect from a consummate performer. But a moment that symbolised – in all its surreal playfulness – that the psyche, the soul, of the nation was being shaken up, stirred in a new direction (or should that be “shaken, not stirred”?).

And so over those weeks we discovered, encountered, the best parts of ourselves as a nation – all those 70,000 and more volunteers, all that generosity of time, and that spirit of helpfulness in the stadia and on the streets, all that spontaneity of human contact – people talking to each other on the tube! – we seemed to discover that enjoying each other in all our diversity rather than fearing others because they are different, all those small moments of human contact, personal connectedness, rather than a habitual avoidance of contact - we discovered this genuinely made us feel better about ourselves, it enlivened our spirits.

And this isn’t saying anything about the soul-stirring activities of the sportsmen and sportswomen, in this extra-ordinary summer for British sport. Whatever else happens in the years to come, those historians in the future will always look back to these weeks we have lived through, and 2012 will be seen through that glow of nostalgia that time adds to triumphs of the past, like 1966 in football, times when the nation’s spirit, psyche, is formed, and re-formed - just as I grew up with people harking back to the Dunkirk spirit and the spirit of the Blitz, experiences that people live through and contribute to, which historians can deconstruct but that become part of a nation’s mythology, the story it tells itself about who and what it is.

And I am using words like the ‘human spirit’ and ‘soul’ not just as a paean of praise to Danny Boyle for his vision and chutzpah, or an expression of gratitude to Jessica Ennis and Mo Farah, and Paraolympians like Ellie Simmonds and David Weir, and all the rest of this golden generation, for thrilling us with their physical endeavours and triumphs. I am using words like ‘soul’ and the ‘human spirit’ because as well as the dedication of all those volunteers for the opening ceremonies and the weeks of the Games, so many of those athletes have their own personal story of sacrifice, and the commitment to overcome hardships and setbacks – particularly the Paraolympians – so we’ve had a summer filled with inspirational stories about what it means to be dedicated to a vision, what it means to have courage and tenacity.

And these manifestations of the human spirit, in the athletes and the volunteers, has been absolutely to the point for us over this last fortnight of the Jewish year, for this has been our season, within our Jewish story, to reflect on our souls and our human spirit. These are the days in the year when we ask these questions of ourselves as individuals and as a community: what is our vision, how dedicated are we prepared to be to work toward it, to live it out? How do we face the hardships of our lives?

How do we face loss and defeats and the struggle to overcome the odds? Where is our courage manifest? Our endurance? What are we committed to? Do we have the willingness to give up time for what we believe in? What sacrifices are we prepared to make – not just to fulfil person ambitions but to dedicate ourselves to others’ well-being? Are we prepared to volunteer our time for a cause, or some greater good? These are Jewish questions, ethical and spiritual Jewish questions – and they arise straight out of this extraordinary summer we have had.

Sportsmen and women came here from all over the world and showed us the best of themselves and we the host nation showed them - and we showed each other - the best of ourselves. And perhaps as a nation we surprised ourselves that we had in us such a lot of goodwill and generosity of spirit. But we did catch a glimpse of a different way of living together; and while the memory of this is still alive in us I have been thinking that in this season of Jewish reflection, we can reflect together on what it means, what we have just lived through, what it means religiously and spiritually.

And I want to say this as simply as possible. When we experience in ourselves, or in others, generosity or compassion or lovingkindness or a sense of fairness or a capacity to transform failure into success – in other words when we discover or encounter in our daily lives the better parts of ourselves, or other people – when this happens, we are encountering an aspect of what Judaism calls Adonai : God. Of course we often think about ‘God’, the divine – if we think about it at all - as somehow ‘out there’. That after all is how the Torah and the liturgy of Jewish tradition often pictures divinity. But there is a strong current of Jewish tradition that puts things the other way round. That all those qualities that we project out there onto the ‘Divine’ – generosity, compassion, lovingkindness, a sense of justice - they are the divine in us, sparks of godliness, and when we live them out, express them, or see them being expressed in others, we feel good, not in a superficial emotional sense, but in a deep, rich inner sense. A spiritual sense.

‘This is how life should be’ we think: where we help strangers, and give our time voluntarily, and can be trusted to keep a secret (as all those thousands of participants in the Opening ceremony were able to do and not put it straight onto Twitter). This generosity and trustworthiness and hopefulness is how life should be, we think, where nine-year old refugees who come to this country from Africa speaking no English can twenty years later achieve every ambition they might have.

When we live out these finer aspects of ourselves, or witness others doing so, we are encountering the divine within the world. Theologians talk about God’s immanence – and what they mean by that is the divine energy that animates all being, being present here and now, within us, between us, holding us, nurturing us, breathing itself through us. The spirit of God animating our human spirit. How different life might be, we sense, if we could live more of the time like this.

But we put up so many barriers to really understanding this; this knowledge is sometimes too much to bear. We harden our hearts to it, we put up barriers to our souls, and in our souls, we get sidetracked by our fears, our hurts, our selfishness, our defensiveness - we may have so much pain inside us we just can’t let go and re-connect with that deeper wellspring of goodness in us: our generosity, our compassion, our passion for justice - it is all in us, but how hard it can be to clear a route to our better selves, so my doubts on the way, so much frustration, or sadness, or despair, so we just can’t experience the divine spirit alive in us, in our souls. And yet it is there. That is the Jewish story we tell at this time of the year. That we are capable of returning to our better selves – and it is not straightforward, it is not easy – that’s why we have had 10 days to do it, those days of awe, of awesome possibilities for self-transformation. That’s not a sprint, it’s more like a marathon.

But we are in this game, in this story, together. And although the Holy One of Israel doesn’t give out medals – for we are not competing against others during these days, on the contrary we are using the support and presence of others to help ourselves - although we don’t get any medals at the end of it, there is a judgement made. It is a judgement about the spirit with which we took part: did we turn up and participate begrudgingly or open-heartedly? Did we listen to everything sceptically and with minds already made up about what’s possible in our lives, or did we take part with all our hearts and all our souls (b’chol le’vavcha u’vchol nafshecha), open to the possibility that we can do better, individually and collectively? To talk about God as Judge means to talk about that godly part of ourselves that knows just where we fail, just how little we care – as well as knowing the good we have done and the good we can do. That inner judge has moments of great clarity, and during these last few days we have made space for that judgement to take place.

A final thought. A story you may well have missed during this summer’s excitements. But it is a story that for me was as inspirational in its way as anything the Games could offer, and will have larger consequences for sure. You’ll remember the human genome project that finally, in 2003, was able to fully map the entire genetic sequence in each of our cells. Well, a consortium of scientists around the world – more than 400 researchers – have spend the last five years exploring why 98% of our genetic makeup, our DNA, seemed to be useless: ‘junk’ (to use the technical term). They could see the role of the 20,000 protein-coding genes, but the long stretches between them didn’t seem to have any value, or use, at all.

But what the Encode consortium announced over the summer is that this previously dismissed junk DNA is packed full of genetic switches that tell each cell in our bodies which genes must be switched on or off to make our muscles, our skin, our nerve cells, and so on. The implications for being able to understand, and then intervene in, cases of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, dementia, even ageing, are huge. And this is happened because that DNA material within us that had previously been dismissed as irrelevant has been re-examined. And what’s been discovered is that nothing is insignificant. It all has a purpose.

Within a decade or so, gene-switch medicines could transform life as we know it. They won’t make us more moral, more ethical – they won’t make us better people in that way, but they could enhance the quality of our lives in ways hard to imagine. Yet also within this coming decade or so, that Arctic ice may have disappeared - and who knows whether any of us, or our children, will be in a position to reap the benefits of those life-altering medicines.

We sense a strange, almost uncanny, race is going on – between human creativity and human destructiveness. And we are poised between the two. For that creativity and that destructiveness is not just out there, it is in here, in us. That’s what Judaism has always taught and it is what these last Ten Days of Awe have been about: which force is going to win out during this next year? - our life-affirming potential for making the world we live in a better place to be, or our equally strong capacity for causing hurt, for spoiling, for ruining other’s lives, our own lives, the life of the planet itself.

Just as there is no part of our DNA that is insignificant, so none of our deeds is insignificant. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we come to appreciate this uncomfortable, inconvenient truth yet again. And with full force. None of our actions is trivial. Everything we do is done – as the traditional phrase has it – ‘in the light of eternity’.

How we act, any of us, every day, brims with significance. There is a drama being played out within us, and within the world, between creativity and destructiveness ; which is why, as Judaism has always understood, what we do matters – that’s why compassion and love and fairness matter. They can tip the scales in favour of life, more life, fuller life. This is a huge responsibility and Jews (amongst others) have been talking about this and working on it and struggling with it - and fighting against it - for millennia, generation after generation. And now it’s our turn.

I hope this forthcoming year is a productive and creative one for us all.

[extracted and adapted from a New Year sermon given at Finchley Reform Synagogue, September 18th, 2012]

Sunday, 16 September 2012

On the cusp of the New Year


As I move this evening into the New Year, 5773 in that ancient poetic tradition of the Jewish people, I think of the names this day of Rosh Hashanah has accrued to itself over the generations.

Yom Ha-Zikkaron – the Day of Remembering, the day we look back at the year now vanishing, moment by moment, along with our lives, and we recall what we have done and what we have failed to do, what has been significant and what has passed away apparently without trace – though do we not intuit that ‘significance’ is subjective, and deeply so, and that we may have no real perspective from which to view what has really mattered in all we have done, for good or ill.

Yom Teruah – the Day of Calling, the day we blow the shofar, eliding time, taking us back to mythic Sinai, taking us forward to the end of time when tradition says the shofar will again be heard - and we will finally be released from the burden and blessing of eternal Jewish hopefulness.

Yom Ha-Din – the Day of Judgement, about which no more need be said than Kafka’s unsurpassable words: ‘Only our concept of Time makes it possible for us to speak of the Day of Judgement by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session.’

May this be a year of peace.