“What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!... and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me – nor woman neither...”
Over the last few years I have been utilising some literary texts - King Lear, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – as a way of approaching some of the themes of the New Year. This year Hamlet is my jumping off point - though I mused on opting, topically, for ‘the Scottish play’, Macbeth – ‘Present fears/are less than horrible imaginings...what’s done cannot be undone...’ But wherever we start, I feel we need all the help we can get. And this year more than ever.
Because we’ve taken a battering over the year. Not only the personal stuff that afflicts us year in year out: illnesses, deaths, losses of various kinds, failures and frustrations and disappointments – all the stuff of daily life that we have to contend with, that cast shadows over our sense of well-being, that dent our optimism, that threaten to diminish our pleasure in life. That cause us to ‘lose all our mirth’. Stuff that reminds us of our fragility, our vulnerability, our mortality. And how our sense of meaning and purpose and the goodness of life is easily shaken. We are all at risk in the world. And at this time of the year Judaism cajoles us into returning to this densely-textured stuff of daily life and reflecting on it.
But this year, in addition, we’ve had to contend with some larger themes: about Israel and the anguish of war, again; and deaths again, deaths of ‘us’ and deaths of ‘them’; and all that wondering about the need for it, the needlessness of it, our helplessness in it, struggling to find a response to the threats and the suffering that isn’t a cry of anguish – or struggling to find a worthwhile response along with a cry of anguish.
And then realising that it’s not just about a struggle ‘over there’, but that it spills over into here - our streets, our homes - with questions that we feel stirring within us, as we wonder about our security, people feeling threatened as Jews – though in truth there’s little real evidence for it, but a spurious Jewish Chronicle scare-mongering survey taps precisely into the Jewish nervous system, historical and atavistic, that many Jews carry deep within them.
We are actually living through a golden age of Jewish life in the UK – its vitality is amazing, there seems to be a Limmud every other week somewhere up and down the country, Jewish cultural life like we’ve not seen before, Jewish schools and restaurants opening and filled up, many synagogues are booming (OK, maybe not so much in the provinces), but charities and grassroots Jewish organisations, secular and religious, are flourishing, there’s music and books and arts and film festivals – what a time to be Jewish here in the UK.
But that visceral old anxiety creeps in, has crept in, over this last year, to various degrees: ‘I have of late...lost all my mirth’; and these gnawing anxieties, personal or communal, become part of what we suffer from, part of what goes into this picture of where we are now, part of what diminishes our capacity to enjoy the daily blessings of life, which are manifold.
So this is where we are, as we return to our tradition, and a time in our calendar (Selichot) that asks us once more to reflect back on where we have been this last year, what we have done, and not done, what we have felt, and not felt, what we have achieved and what we have failed to achieve. It brings us back to ourselves: “What a piece of work is man” – yes, it is awesome (awe-inspiring and sometimes awful) to reflect on our humanity, our complexity.
We are ‘pieces of work’ – Shakespeare’s text is a kind of secular midrash on Psalm 8, which talks of human beings as aspects of God’s ‘handiwork’. What an extraordinary idea! What would it mean to live, to really live, fully alive to, alert to, being part of God’s handiwork in the world? Perhaps it’s too painful to keep ourselves aware that we are woven into the divine filigree of all creation? Each one of us. Each saint and sinner amongst us. Each frightened Israeli teenage soldier; each terrified Palestinian child. ‘What a piece of work is man.’
“How noble in reason” – part of our nobility is that we have minds that can think, that can reason, that can discriminate between good and evil (at least theoretically), that can acknowledge that we are not only a prey to emotionality and knee-jerk reactions, that we – unlike all other parts of God’s handiwork – can reflect on our experiences, can reflect on our place in the scheme of things, can dream of better worlds, can build better worlds. ‘What a piece of work is man; how noble in reason’.
“How infinite in faculties”: yes, we are capable of love and compassion and generosity and self-sacrifice – these are our faculties of heart and soul. This is also what it means to be part of God’s handiwork – to have a ever-renewable wellspring of moral instincts within us. And at this time of the year we are called to return to them, to stir them up again within us, to find the courage to live them, these divine faculties grafted to our souls.
“How infinite in faculties...in action how like an angel” – well, this Bard knows how to flatter us, comparing us to angels. Just like the Psalmist does, back in Psalm 8: ‘You have made humankind just a little less than the angels’. Here is poetry to seduce us into thinking the best of ourselves, and our potential: that we are created with an ability to join our thinking, our reasoning, our mental capacities, with our moral imagination, and our ethical faculties, so that they flow, we flow, into action : ‘in action how like an angel’. Like the Psalmist’s religious vision, Shakespeare’s humanism sees us, reminds us, that we are the messengers of the Divine on earth.
“In apprehension how like a god” – ‘apprehension’ as in ‘powers of understanding’. It’s an amazingly elevated view of humanity from Hamlet’s creator, allowing himself the freedom, as does the Psalmist, to celebrate our special status in God’s creation, as the pinnacle of creation. We are god-like in our powers of perception, in the depth with which we can understand things, in the heights to which we can aspire, in the breadth of what we can achieve. It’s good to be reminded of this. It underlies the whole of the High Holy Days, which remind us over and over again, what we are capable of as human beings – even if we fail at it, over and again, this task of living true to our better selves.
And then, just when our minds and hearts are bursting with these glimpses of who we are and what our potential is, Shakespeare turns Hamlet’s paean of praise for humanity on its head: ‘and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me – nor woman neither...’ The bubble of human glory and potential is burst. Like a kick in the teeth. Because the other side of the story - and it goes back to the mythic opening of Genesis - is that ‘Man’, Adam, Humanity is dust. Adam, ‘The Human’, from Adamah, the ground, the earth: in Hebrew our generic name is always reminding us of how lowly we are. We might be ‘little lower than the angels’, but we are still creatures of flesh and blood who are as fragile as dust, as fleeting as the flowers of the morning that wither in the evening, as transient as shadows, as dreams that fade and die, a cup so easily broken – all the images of this New Year period flood back to remind us of our mortality, and the tentative, tentative hold we have on our earthly lives.
Here’s Shakespeare’s genius. Hamlet’s low mood, his melancholy, comes not because of his awareness of the double-sidedness of life – our god-like nobility in tension with our dust-like transience and insignificance. This is wisdom - to appreciate this double-sidedness. But his mood comes from his inability, his failure, to find in himself any delight in the people around him. ‘And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me – nor woman neither...’ Me, me, me – this is Hamlet, a thoroughly contemporary sensibility. Cut off from his capacity to take pleasure from the world, and to enjoy other people. He’s lost in his own narrow world of feelings. He’s stuck in the gap between his head and his heart. Even though he knows that the people around him are wondrous – he can’t relate to them. There’s no delight to be had in the company of others, men or women, no emotional or physical contact will do it, nothing can breathe life into his relationships.
It is a terrible thing to be stuck in that place. It can happen to any of us. It does happen to all of us, from time to time. We just hope and pray we don’t get too stuck in that place personally. It’s terrible when it happens individually - but more terrible perhaps (and we have seen it over and over in this last 12 months) is when this happens collectively, politically, when there’s a radical failure in one group of people to see the living, breathing humanity and vitality of another group: it’s in the Middle East, all over; in Ukraine and Russia, in Africa, in the ugly recesses of racism here, or in the rest of Europe. The curse of Hamlet – being cut off from a vibrant, living, life-affirming connection to those amongst whom we live.
The High Holy Days give us the time to re-connect: with others, with our better selves, with our deepest values, with our tradition of reflection and hope and its vision of change, that we can change. Time to remember that – in ways we only glimpse out of the corner of an eye, if at all – the world depends on our changing, our teshuvah, our turning and returning. What’s always stressed at this time of the year is that it is a personal journey we make through these days. And that’s true. But for those of us who choose to do so, they are also days we share with others, with community. And we can take pleasure in that. We are not alone. We have our own unique experience of these days, of course - but we are not alone.
For those who engage in the mythic narrative of Judaism, we share something over these days, over these weeks. There is great solidarity in this, to journey as a people. If we are feeling we have ‘lost our mirth’, lost our capacity for delight, then we can look around us, look at what a piece of work our neighbour is: filled with hope, like us, and anxiety, like us, filled with nobility, like us, with doubts, like us. We are in this together. I hope it is a good New Year for all of us, Jew and non-Jew alike.
[based on a sermon at the Selichot service Finchley Reform Synagogue, September 13th 2014]