How can I talk about repentance, and false consciousness, about the need for personal change, transformation, when there are hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war and persecution and deprivation, when we see these images of trains packed with men and women and children, in stifling heat, setting off towards the West, anywhere in the West, then taken off trains by men with guns for processing in camps? No Jew can see this without a shiver of recognition. Of knowing: ‘they’ are us. So how can we have these images in our minds and at the same time talk about the journey of the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, and the role of prayer and inner change? How can we talk about ‘journey’ as a metaphor, when these families are journeying in rickety boats, and locked trucks, and now on foot, into Europe, across Europe? How can I do this?
Samuel Beckett comes to mind. The end of The Unnameable, and the last words of the novel: “where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.” Beckett – the indispensible guide to our human condition now, in all its fragility and vulnerability: “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
So at this fraught time in European history, I’ll go on. At this time when the real moral voice in Europe is offered by Germany, who have already taken in 300,000 refugees and will be taking in a million refugees, maybe more, I will go on. For here we see how change is possible, collectively, nationally - when you see how Germany has transformed its collective ethos, has over many decades worked through its guilt and its shame, has engaged in heart-searching, soul-searching teshuvah so its leadership can, when history calls again, speak the voice of humanitarian empathy with the stranger, the outsider – and in doing so put our nation’s leaders to shame – when you see that change is possible, we glimpse something profoundly hopeful.
Change is possible, empathy is possible, the vision of the sacredness of life is possible to articulate - and enact, practically. This is what Germany is teaching us – along with all those local initiatives that have sprung up this week in the UK to offer practical help. That gives us hope, should give us hope, individually and as a community as we approach this time in our calendar when we focus on what needs to change in us, individually and as a society.
In Judaism action and reflection go hand in hand. And there is much practically we can do in response to this crisis (please visit www.wjr.org.uk ).
But none of this is easy. Our emotional lives are finely balanced. Beckett’s see-sawing reflection says it, the competing voices in us are always in motion: “you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.”
In these difficult times – in the midst of this crisis which, in all honesty, we know has been going on now for some years, but has reached a tipping point over the summer, maybe even in this last week – ‘going on’ with some kind of hopefulness isn’t easy. False hopefulness is easy. Pious words are easy. Pseudo-empathy is easy. But facing up to where we are in a world where 60 million people have been displaced by war, conflict or persecution, this can make talking about the High Holy Days and personal teshuvah just sound crass. It risks making all ‘spiritual’ /’religious’ talk sound crass, or maddeningly beside the point.
I am reminded of the German poet Bertolt Brecht’s 1938 poem, ‘To Posterity’ – Brecht was a refugee of course, from Germany. His poem begins:
Truly, the age I live in is bleak.
The guileless world is foolish. A smooth brow
Denotes insensitiveness. The laughing man
Has only not yet received
The dreadful news.
What times are these when a conversation
About trees is almost a crime.
Because it includes a silence about so many misdeeds!
That one there calmly crossing the street,
Hasn’t he ceased to be at home to
His friends in need?
So, to speak with too much hopefulness in times like these feels ‘almost a crime’. But maybe it is a crime only if it colludes with our silence about ‘so many misdeeds’? This is the time of the year when we do focus, allow ourselves to focus, on our silence, and on our misdeeds: on when we remained silent when we should have spoken out, on when our deeds, our actions, did not come from the better parts of ourselves; or when we failed to act, when we ceased to be at home to ‘friends in need’. When we failed to live up to the generosity and compassion and sense of justice that is grafted into us but which is hard sometimes (maybe often) to live out and express.
At this time of the year we return to our awareness that we have these deep moral impulses within us: our generosity of spirit and of action, our compassion to those who have less than us, our inner sense that tzedakah - right action, righteousness - is something we can enact, that these divine qualities are grafted into our humanity. But it’s the time of the year in our calendar when we recognise too that we are often blocked from releasing these capacities within us: feeling them, living them. That they get atrophied, shrivelled up. And we are reminded that in the language of our tradition we call this blocked-upness 'sin' : this failure to live up to our vision, the failure to let the innate moral voice in us express itself - this is what Judaism calls ‘sin’.
Personal reflection and the hard psychological work of examining the state of our souls is something Judaism calls on us to do in these days ahead. We do it alone, but for some of us we also do it in community. That adds a dimension: we recognise that we not alone in having difficult stuff inside us that stops us expressing our better selves. We are all in this together, the drama of being human. We each have our own stuff to work on; but while we do this alone, we do it while also being held by something larger than ourselves. We do it in solidarity with others.
Can the personal spiritual work we do at this season make a difference? A last thought in response to this. After Beckett and Brecht, a third B - a Jewish one this time, Joseph Brodsky, a Russian-Jewish Nobel-prize winning poet and essayist who lived through dark times, and huge hardships: born in 1940, he was forced out of the Soviet Union in 1972 (- another refugee -) because his poems were considered by the authorities to be too dangerous. This is the power of the word. The power of writing. The power of putting thoughts down on paper. Thankfully his words are still with us. And there’s one sentence of his that I think is relevant to our current situation: “The comprehension of the metaphysics of personal drama betters one’s chances of weathering the drama of history.” This is a sentence to chew over, to savour: it’s a hope, it’s a kind of a prayer.
What’s he saying? Comprehending, understanding, the dynamics of our personal drama – all that unique complexity of how we think and feel, all that personal stuff we struggle with, and glorify in, or feel degraded by - focusing on that, understanding that, ‘betters our chances of weathering the drama of history’. The dramas of history can sweep us away in the twinkling of an eye. Jews know that better than most. The dramas of history are the big events in which our little lives are held: the waves can crash over our heads at any time, we can drown at any moment; and yet, Brodsky intuits, paying attention to the dynamics of our personal, individual dramas, can make a difference, can make all the difference.
Note though that it only ‘betters our chances’: there are no guarantees. Reflection, prayer, introspection ‘betters our chances’ of weathering what’s thrown at us. It’s a hope, a modest hope - that is, nevertheless, a real prayer for our beleaguered times.
[extracted from a sermon given at the ‘Selichot’ service at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, on the night of September 5th 2015]