It was magical,” said my mother-in-law as she got off the small boat which had taken her to the island of Staffa and Fingal’s cave on a calm, sunlit afternoon. “Wonderful”, my wife added; “the dolphins were diving just yards away.”
I climbed the nearby hills and looked west into the brilliant light across the Scottish islands. At such moments, it’s easy to believe there’s a God in the universe.
That’s scarcely the case at numerous other times. In the past few years the world has rapidly become more frightening. We all know now that Islamist and other kinds of terror can draw their knives or plough their vans into innocent crowds anywhere, any moment.
Across much of Europe and the States, xenophobia has become more widespread, vocal, self-confident and violent. At the same time, the leaders of highly armed countries across the globe are not united by what should bring them together, the struggles against global warming, poverty, injustice and disease. Instead, they seem to share a politics of posturing, with frequent contempt for integrity and a perilous disregard for the most essential issues, the safety and dignity of every life and the future of our planet.
New Year, the birthday of the world, is a time to celebrate creation. Yet I find myself afraid for the future. What will become of this beautiful earth, so rich in wonder?
I take the Rosh Hashanah prayer book in my hands; is there anything here which can help me? I’m seeking a God I can believe in; I seek faith, hope and guidance towards just and responsible living; I seek solidarity and fellow- feeling with kol ba’ei olam, “all who enter the world”, with life itself.
“God is, was and shall be King”; “God holds the scales of justice”; “God numbers, writes and seals the destiny of every creature”. God as Sovereign: this is the pre-eminent theme of the New Year prayers. I don’t believe it. And I do believe it, truly and deeply.
I don’t believe it’s God’s deliberate plan when someone dies of hunger’
I don’t believe in an all-powerful, all-knowing God, up there and out there, plotting the destiny of every human being. I don’t believe it’s God’s deliberate plan when someone dies of hunger, gets run over or loses a beloved child. I don’t believe what happens to people is always just or deserved. Life is often self-evidently, unjustifiably and incomprehensibly unfair. I don’t believe, though I wish I could, in a God who has a secret, infallible masterplan to save the world.
Yet I do believe in God; and I find that God addressed in the pages of the Rosh Hashanah prayer book. This God is present in all life and wordlessly calls out to us through all living being. God’s voice vibrates within the human consciousness, the cry of the birds and the sap-flow of the trees. It is a ceaseless appeal for profound respect for all that is, for compassion towards humanity, all feeling creatures and all creation.
It is a teaching without end, accessible anywhere, any time. As Rebbe Yehudah Aryeh Leib of Ger noted, interpreting the opening words of the second paragraph of the Shema: “If you listen, you will hear”. That listening, and its chastening lessons, may constitute life’s deepest challenges.
From ancient days, the Rosh Hashanah liturgy has been structured according to three key themes: Malchuyot, Zichronot and Shofarot, meditations on sovereignty, remembrance and the shofar.
The culmination of the Malchuyot is the hope that “every created being will know that You created it”. The seat of such knowledge, taught Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, known later as the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, is the heart. He refers to the Zohar, the 13th- century Book of Splendour, which understands such biblical phrases as “the rock of my heart” to refer to the presence of God within the human being. For the heart is God’s temple, the place where God speaks.
Awareness of this presence, he explains, is not acquired through the evidence of the senses or by intellectual speculation. It is a different kind of knowing, gained by patient and persistent listening, as a bird-watcher stills herself to listen for the song of a particular finch or warbler, to watch for the unfolding of its wings. It is acquired by attuning our own spirit to the energy and spirit which flows through all life. It is, perhaps, what Wordsworth meant by
“A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things”.
When we become aware of it, it quietens us with the power of awe and instils a deep determination to try to cause no hurt to any living thing.
The Zichronot meditations are named after the Torah’s reference to the first of Tishri as Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance. We are not, however, asked to recall any specific historical event, such as the Exodus from Egypt, or the destruction of the Temple. Rather, it is creation, the value and purpose of life itself, on which we are called to reflect: Who are we? Why are we here? “Happy the person who does not forget You; who strives to be close to You, God,” the prayers observe in answer.
Closeness to God is a spiritual yearning fulfilled, not solely, but significantly, through compassionate closeness to life. It is experienced and expressed through solidarity, both in spirit and conduct, with the living beings by whom we are surrounded, people, animals, nature. The same vital energy flows through us all, filling every being, including our own consciousness, with sacred vitality, each according to its capacity and form. In the words of the mystics, leit attar panui minei, “there is no place in which God is not”.
My life, each and every life, belongs to that greater life to which we are bound by ties of kinship and responsibility. How then can we really want to hurt each other or any sentient being? In my innermost self, I regret the wrongs I’ve done. I turn back to truth and God and asked to be cleansed, purified and filled again with the desire to do what is just and good. This is what zikaron, remembrance, means on Rosh Hashanah. The struggle to live in this way is the essence of Judaism, and of all faith, with its love, longing, challenges, failures and repentance.
“With what?” the Talmud asks simply: what is the instrument which calls us to remember? “With the shofar”, it answers. The shofar sounded ever louder at the revelation on Mount Sinai. The shofar was blown to assemble the people and to call out to God in trouble and war. Yet, in a central moment, the liturgy refers not to the power of the shofar’s blast but to the stillness behind its cry: “The great shofar is sounded and the voice of fine silence is heard”.
That vibrant silence is the articulation of the divine presence in all life, the sacred vitality which resonates in all being, which nourishes our consciousness and heart. It is the quiet, unceasing call of God in all that is. “Listen”, it says, “hear Me in your heart; heed Me in all you do.”
Jonathan Wittenberg is senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism