High Holy DaysSermon

Living Beyond the Rectangular Screen

Rosh Hashanah 5781 Sermon by Rabbi Richard Jacobi

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner abbreviates the first two of the Ten Commandments to four words. Instead of a paragraph-long first commandment “I am the Eternal one your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery,” he used two words. Instead of the couple of paragraphs that warn us not to have or make for ourselves any other gods, Rabbi Kushner again used two words. His summary, the divine message in those two mitzvot is, “I’m God, you’re not.”

In my lifetime, we have never gathered for Rosh Hashanah with this message ringing as powerfully in our ears as tonight. Those who lived through the darkest times of the Second World War and the Holocaust might make some meaningful comparisons, but I think we have a unique combination of strong factors affecting us at the present time.

The front-page headlines are all about Coronavirus and its many-tentacled affects on health, wellbeing, living habits, our financial situation, education and so on. Last Yom Kippur, when we considered the metaphorical Book of Life and the other Book, of who would die in 5780, none of us could have anticipated that we’d be in the midst of a modern-day plague. Like all of you, I’m sure, I worry about what further twists and turns the virus will being upon us.

Elsewhere on the front page, there might be coverage of the wildfires affecting the western United States or the dissolving of another Greenland glacier into the sea. Climate change and our role as humanity in causing its many impacts is a longer-term crisis that threatens to kill many more than the Coronavirus if we don’t accept the inconvenient truth that we are not gods, but merely one species of this planet’s fauna. Like you, I’m sure, I worry about whether we can yet prevent climate change catastrophe.

Somewhere in the comment pages of my sermon’s newspaper would be an article alerting us to the crisis in the UK and elsewhere of what some people are terming late-stage liberal democracy. The democratic systems of our nation states are also showing flashing red warning lights. Like many of you, I’m sure, I worry about the future of our democracy and whether we will hold to the progressive ideals of liberal democracy, including to bring the poorest out of poverty and the weakest from being down-trodden.

You and I could add to this list all too easily. There are so many things to worry about and so many things in the face of which we feel powerless. Yet, actually, maybe the solution that this season offers us does not involve us somehow gaining the sorts of superpowers that my not-yet-five-year-old grandson tells me he can give me. Maybe the solution begins with me, with us all, remembering the message of these first two commandments and Lawrence Kushner’s precis of them – “God’s God, I’m not.”

Whether or not we believe that God is in total control – and let me tell you that I don’t believe this – the purpose of this pair of commandments is really to teach us that we are NOT in control. One of humanity’s most damaging arrogances is to be convinced that we are the most advanced species on earth, that we can treat the world around us with contemptful disrespect, and that we will never have to face any consequence for so doing. One of the promises of teshuvah we can make this Rosh Hashanah is to replace this arrogance with humility.

A first step in being humble is to accept that we’re not God. The second important step is to make our humility loud, assertive, and contagious. We need to make it known that our community will be part of the solution – we will eliminate our carbon footprint as a synagogue and we, as individuals and families, will reverse our impact on this earth. Further we will expect our government, both local and national, to do better, faster. We will expect the companies from whom we buy anything to do better, faster.

We will support the bolstering of democracy against those who seek to undermine it; we will hold those we elect and appoint accountable.

We will not succumb to temptations towards division and hatred. We will help and support each other, especially the weakest and most disadvantaged in our community and wider society. We will critique those who forget that every human being was created equal – male, female, non-binary; of any and every skin colour; all ages; all abilities and disabilities; all religions and none. Our Anti-racism working group will begin its work next month – please let me know if you’d like to input or help. Our Chesed – care – committee will come into being during the autumn to co-ordinate and embed everything we started in March and April, as the covid-19 crisis first swept upon us. And, mentioning this, I want to state once more how grateful I was and am to the many people who played a part in providing support through the crisis. Further, I want to appreciate those who have been volunteering for longer and who need breaks to refresh themselves – this is a Shabbat, and we all recognise each week the value of refreshing – shavat vayinafash – rest and re-soul.

This season demands from us one thing more than any other, which is the acceptance that we are human. We are not Divine. We err, we make mistakes, we go wrong. But, as Rabbi Israel Mattuck, of blessed memory, wrote in 1954, “It is not only human to be weak but it is also human to have ‘a touch of the Divine’. It is not only human to feel temptation but it is also human to resist… It is human to be weak, it is also human to be strong.” (in S.o.t.H, p.356).

This season of Tishri festivals that begins tonight begins with teshuvah – return towards better ways – and it concludes with Simchat Torah, beginning again, three weeks from today. Let us gather ourselves over these three weeks, support each other, renew our kindness to self and others, remind ourselves that we are not God, but are wonderfully human, and begin once more doing our bit to make this world, whose birthday we celebrate each Rosh Hashanah, just a little better for our presence in it.

I wish you all a year of health and wellbeing, a year of assertive humility, a year of kindness and compassion. All I ask is your help, in whatever way you can, in turning this wish into a reality. Ani v’atah n’shaneh et ha-olam – you and I will change the world. Amen

Rabbi Richard Jacobi



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