I guess you didn’t know that everything we need for the High Holy Days – spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, maybe even intellectually – everything we might need to guide us through these days, is on the opening page of Alice in Wonderland. Who would have imagined it?
As the story begins Alice is sitting on a river bank next to her sister who is reading a book ‘but it had no pictures or conversations in it’, writes Lewis Carroll, ‘ ”and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”’. Like the Anglican deacon Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who knew a lot about having to engage with books without pictures and conversations – books of hymns, and the Anglican Book of Common Prayer – Jews know what it means to be stuck with a book like that: the liturgy of the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement is thin on pictures and devoid of conversations - the very stuff that might make it come alive imaginatively. Who over these High Holy Days hasn’t unknowingly echoed Alice’s disappointed complaint?
Of course the Jewish liturgy does have pictures of a different kind – word pictures. There’s some vivid imagery: a Book of Life, a Court of Law, a Judge and King waiting and reaching out to a chastened community, a searching community seeking forgiveness, atonement, wholeness; the closing of the gates as the souls rush to be included in the gathering of life as the final Neilah service draws to a close: these are the word pictures we play and wrestle with each year. But as for the conversation, it is a bit...let’s say, one-sided. We do a lot of talking, praying, singing, beseeching, repeating, rehearsing the familiar stories and themes and motifs - but it’s basically a monologue, not a dialogue. It’s not really, hand on heart, a conversation.
To have HaKadosh Baruch Hu as a dialogue partner, the 'Holy One of Israel', is always going to be a daunting task. It’s not conversation as we know it, the kind of conversation that enlivens us, or stretches us, or provokes us, or nurtures us, or inspires us, or consoles us. Or am I being too harsh? Could we make it that? What would that look like? What would that feel like? If our machzor (prayer book) was a place, a space, for that kind of conversation? If our word-pictures helped us into that kind of conversation, the kind that we cherish? If our machzor opened up for us an imaginative space where we experienced something alive, a presence animating the space and the words? This is something to think about for these forthcoming days – how do we engage with the liturgy as if it’s part of a dynamic conversation? Is that possible?
Alice gives up with the book her sister is reading. She turns aside, ‘considering [things] in her own mind’ as Carroll puts it. She turns aside, turns inwards and – like Moses at the burning bush – when she turns aside and turns inwards, she suddenly sees something: ...suddenly a White Rabbit with pink eyes ran close by her. High Holy Days is the time we turn aside, turn inwards, and try to see what’s there. We look around us and into ourselves and ask: What’s going on that we haven’t seen up till now? What’s the story that we are in? What’s the story our lives are part of? And who’s writing the story?
At this time of the year we are always encouraged to remember: “Days are scrolls, write on what you want to be remembered” (Bachya ibn Pakuda, 1050-1120). But there’s a partial illusion in this: I don’t think we should get too carried away with thinking that we are the authors of our own lives. First of all it’s a statement that – like all the traditional liturgy itself – comes from an era that didn’t realise we have an unconscious, we have a part of ourselves that is out of conscious sight and control and can subvert our best intentions. Having an unconscious means that all this Jewish religious talk about free will and consciously changing ourselves through teshuvah needs to be treated with caution. Days may be scrolls - but a lot of the time the best we can do is write a few footnotes to the text that unfolds in front of us – I do love footnotes, mind you, they are sometimes the most creative part of a text.
The reality of our lives is that most of the time we are responding to stuff that comes at us. Stuff happens – to us or to the ones we love and care about - and often it’s painful stuff. The things that appear in our lives are not always the things we want: ill-health, loss of a job, loss of a parent, or a partner, or a child, loss of a relationship. We might write our response, but we are always being reminded that we are part of a bigger picture of events that happen to us without our asking for them. This is the time of the year when we reflect on all this, and how we respond to what life throws at us. Sometimes of course there are wonderful things that happen to us, unexpectedly, and we feel grateful, we feel blessed. We do know when it feels good to be alive. Sometimes we glimpse how the world is tinged with the miraculous. We have our White Rabbit moments.
But don’t we also recognise, deep inside us, what Alice hears the Rabbit say to itself? : “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”
I don’t think it is only a question of how old we are, that this question can be so powerful, so oppressive: the question of ‘too late’. I don’t think you have to be in your 60s, 70s, 80s to feel the force of this, I think you can feel it in your 20s and 30s, any age : ‘it’s too late’ – too late to find that special relationship, too late to have the family I want, or the friends, too late to have job satisfaction, too late to fulfil my ambitions, my hopes, too late to rid myself of my anxieties and fears, too late to learn a new language, a new skill, too late to exorcise the malign influence of my past, too late to heal that relationship, heal that old wound... “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” – we feel it as ‘it is too late’.
But what this period of the Jewish year that we are entering into says to us, promises us, is : it’s not too late. Not yet. That’s what the Talmud intuits when It tells us the story of Rabbi Eliezer, who says to his disciples ‘Repent one day before your death’ and they naturally respond to him: ‘Does that mean one is supposed to know when one will die?’ And Eliezer replies, in effect, ‘I think you get it: you don’t know how long you have in this world so you need to be attending to teshuvah – returning, changing - every day of your life.’ In other words: It’s never too late. It’s never too late for something to change – in us, to us.
Of course none of us lives each day as if it were our last – that would be sort of unbearable - but we have been gifted a period each year (these Yamim Noraim, Days of Awe) when we can focus on teshuvah, change: our capacity to change before it is too late. We may feel it’s too late – “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!”, but we are entering a period when we are reminded: it’s not too late. It’s never ‘too late’.
I am focusing on the personal here, because that is at the heart of these days: ourselves as individuals and our capacity to change in such a way that our better selves are allowed to emerge, or have more room to grow. We as individuals are at the heart of this collective call for change, for return; but the High Holy Days remind us that this call to change – and this question of ‘too lateness’ – is also collective.
We know that our lives, fragile and vulnerable as they are, are held in a web of connections to community, and nation, and the community of nations that exist on this fragile and vulnerable planet: concentric circles of interconnection that bind us in to the fabric of life on this planet. And this dilemma of ‘too lateness’ haunts the imagination. It echoes through each of these concentric circles.
Think of the issues we face as a Jewish community. Is it too late to save our Jewish community from being overwhelmed by the toxic spillage that has seeped into so much of the discourse in the public domain around Israel and the Palestinians? We are coming up this year to 50 years of occupation and it has had an effect, for two generations now, on how Jews are seen throughout the world. This isn’t fair but it is a reality we are aware of, even if we hate it being the case. Is it too late to change the flow of history in the Middle East? It laps onto our shores we just see as natural – synagogues with heavy security, CCTV cameras, shut away behind high walls... “when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural...” But it’s not natural. And we need to wonder at this. Occupation is not natural. Injustice is not natural. Security guards checking us in and out is not natural. But is it all too late?
And what about our country? Is it too late for the United Kingdom? This year we have had to face the possibility that it is. That act of national self-harm that was Brexit has happened. Too late to change it. We have to live with the consequences. And find out nationally what it is not too late for, what can still change for the better.
And is it too late for the larger issues to be addressed in ways that are on the side of life, rather than death? Is it too late to solve creatively and compassionately the European humanitarian crisis over refugees and displaced families and children? Is it too late to stop the poisonous xenophobia and racism that is stalking every country in Europe from gradually taking over? Is it too late, now that the Arctic ice (as we heard this week) has shrunk to its smallest ever size, is it too late to change the rising of tides, the flooding of cities, the droughts and the floods and the food shortages that will overtake the planet this century as the temperatures keep on rising?
All these questions are in play as we enter our New Year. “Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!” Who knew that Alice in Wonderland was a prophetic text?
But lets’ come back to our little lives, our own hugely significant and insignificant lives. I have been asking: what should we be wondering at, that’s in front of our eyes in these concentric circles – but don’t wonder at, just grow accustomed to, just treat as natural, the way things are, even though they aren’t natural. I want to end though by turning this marvellous sentence by Lewis Carroll in the other direction, closer to his intention perhaps: “when she thought it over afterwards, it occurred to her that she ought to have wondered at this, but at the time it all seemed quite natural...” What should we be reflecting on that we take for granted - but should in fact be a source of wonder?
What do we fail to see in front of our eyes – Alice saw her White Rabbit, Moses saw his burning bush – but what do we fail to see that is an intimation of something exceptional, something made present that can inspire, can enlighten, can illumine, can transform, can enliven and stir us in our lives? These High Holy Days are a special opportunity for opening our eyes – to see something we have never seen before.
What is our White Rabbit going to be? Which direction will it come from? Who will bring it? What shape will it be? Who will be it? What will this new insight look like? This new understanding? What is going to be revealed to us, in us? The promise of these days, these weeks in front of us, is that something will occur, something will appear – only we as individuals will see it, only we will notice it, each one of us - because it is only for us. If, like Alice, we turn aside, turn inwards, it will happened: something new will be given to us, something that stirs our imagination, our hopefulness, our resolve, something that counters our deep fear “I shall be too late” – no wonder the rabbis called this period the ‘Days of Awe’.
[based on a Selichot sermon given on the evning of September 24th 2016 at the Finchley Reform Synagogue, London]