The universalist theme at the heart of our festivals

The High Holy Days ask us to look beyond ourselves


Growing up, I remember the people who called themselves “three-day-a-year Jews”. By the time we lived in Sydney, people were calling themselves “two-day-a-year Jews”. I wondered whether it would be first day Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur that would be the next to drop.
It seems we crave our fasts. I’ve encountered families and kids who take a few days to travel and never hear the shofar in shul (even though they attend Jewish primary and even secondary schools). Bizarrely, Yom Kippur, a day built around solemnity and affliction, will be the last Yom Tov standing; perhaps because it is the more personal, introspective and spiritually self-indulgent.

Of course, the “three-day/two-day Jew” self-designation is flawed. Why on earth should we define or reduce our Judaism to a number of days of turning up in shul?  The three-days-a-year Jew is Jewish all year long and probably affiliates socially and philanthropically, culturally and Zionistically, even on the days when he or she isn’t a “Jew in the pew”. Sadly, I have even had congregants or their extended family describe themselves as “failed Jews” as if they were downgraded for not living up to someone’s greater expectations.  

There’s no escaping the judgmental nature of the High Holy Day season. From our earliest days in cheder/reception class, we have been raised with the image of Hashem sitting behind ledgers of our good deeds and transgressions, pencilling in a sentence on Rosh Hashanah, sealing it with finality on Yom Kippur (the source is the Talmud 16a). I remember as a child wondering at what precise moment Hashem would be turning His attention towards me (“I’d better concentrate on finding my place in the machzor again just in case!”).  

Between that and the Al Chets, the simplistic image reduced observance to 613 compliances and the Yamim Noraim to a penalty for non-compliance. Attending shul was akin to detention for being cheeky to my parents in violation of the fifth commandment; or a class detention where we all stayed behind to right the wrongs of Israel.

When teaching Jewish studies GCSE, I discovered the extent of this misapprehension. Asked “What are the five innuyim (sufferings) of Yom Kippur?”, all too many students would include “spending the day in shul”.

For those who like the melodies, the shul experience is comfortable, familiar and even uplifting. For those who remain in the service, Yizkor has its own nexus of personal reflection and spiritual connection.  Of course, the shofar carries many allusions and perfectly conveys a sense of participation or identification in timeless ritual. However, as the recent National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) survey has highlighted, interest is flagging and belief declining. We need to be reinvigorated with a sense of Jewish meaning, mission and purpose.

A strong universalist theme resonates throughout all the Tishri holidays. Rosh Hashanah challenges us to see ourselves as we look way beyond ourselves. To understand and experience the particular, we must appreciate the wider picture. Designated as the anniversary of creation (of the universe or of humanity), it is a day which celebrates Hashem as Ribbono Shel Olam, the Master and Sovereign of all. The Mishnah establishes it is the world that is judged on Rosh Hashanah, everything that has come into being passes before the Almighty.

The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human - Elie Wiesel

The Rosh Hashanah Torah readings are among the Tanach’s most testing, initially calling on Abraham to banish one son and then to sacrifice his other.  

On the first day, confronted by a domestic identity crisis, Abraham is under pressure from Sarah to expel his wife’s handmaid and their son Ishmael. Hashem admonishes a distressed Abraham to listen to his wife’s voice (perhaps to understand the intensity of her passion and fears rather than engage in polemic). However, Hashem undertakes that these, the Bible’s first refugees, will receive divine care, shelter and blessing.  

In language closely mirroring the blessing to Abraham, Hashem undertakes to Hagar that her son will be the father of a great nation. Moreover, whatever struggles would lie ahead, the young Ishmael should be judged on his present state (Genesis 21:17) rather than with apprehension for the future.

How do we protect our family values? Which relationships should we prioritise? Where does our responsibility end? When God doesn’t instruct us directly,  do we mimic Abraham and Sarah, even to the point where we might sacrifice our own children? Or do we emulate God, who shelters the homeless, provides for the needy and instructs us that destroying our children is ungodly, unconscionable and wrong?

If Rosh Hashanah is the coronation of a universal sovereign, then we must embrace that sovereign’s avowed commitment to all of creation. Not to the detriment of Torah, but as a part of Torah. Not to the risk of Israel, but because it is our role as Israel — a people who wrestle with God. Unique in our mission statement is the co-elevation of “the other”. Jonah must save Nineveh. On Succot our Musaf offerings are on behalf of the nations of the world.  

The late Elie Wiesel wrote, “I remember: as a child, on the other side of oceans and mountains, the Jew in me would anticipate Rosh Hashanah with fear and trembling… On that Day of Awe, I believed then, nations and individuals, Jewish and non-Jewish, are being judged by their common creator. This is still my belief… To be Jewish today is to recognise that every person is created in the image of God and that our purpose in living is to be a reminder of God… A Jew must be sensitive to the pain of all human beings. A Jew cannot remain indifferent to human suffering, whether in other countries or in our own cities and towns. The mission of the Jewish people has never been to make the world more Jewish, but to make it more human.”

I don’t believe these missions are incompatible or mutually exclusive. On the contrary, they combine in a mission to make the world more Godly; to channel the blessings of the Kingdom of Heaven upon God’s Kingdom on Earth. This, we do daily and not thrice yearly.  And in that spirit, may we be judged favourably for health, happiness and peace in the year ahead.

Jeremy Lawrence is senior rabbi of Finchley United Synagogue

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