We cannot do spiritual growth all on our own

Western individualism encourages us to think we can search for meaning on our own terms but Rosh Hashanah reminds us we need God to help us find our way


In 2021 the Guardian reported that over 50 per cent of Britons claimed to belong to no particular religion. While this does not necessarily mean that they espouse atheism, it does suggest that organised religion has, in some sense, lost favour with a majority of the population.

Yet, the decline of formal worship has not quite given way to a society that shuns all things to which religion has laid claim. People still wish to commune with the numinous and in it find meaning.

What is notable about the modern search for meaning, like so many aspects of the modern world, is that, increasingly, people seek to have it in their own way and on their own terms. Why? Because they believe this makes whatever it is more accessible to them, more personable, more relevant and therefore easier to accept and live with.

Increasingly, questions like “what is good for me?”, “how do I want to live?”, “what are my truths?”, hold centre stage. While questions like “what is needed from me?”, “how might my life be of service?” and “what are the great eternal truths of the world?” are falling into the backdrop. The cultural pendulum of the West continues to swing far to the side of individualism.

Religion, like so much else, is under pressure to respond to the shift towards individual preference. Just as in entertainment, banking, travel, accommodation or the workplace, religious organisations, including some within Judaism, have tried to make religious engagement more amenable to the individual. Yet, in doing so, one can only go so far without meeting some hard stops. And, of these, perhaps the most significant is God.

It is relatively easy to keep the focus on ourselves in almost all Jewish rituals and practices. To deeply consider why, as Moses himself proclaims in the book of Deuteronomy, that the commandments are for our good (10:13). And, in an age when people seek spiritual growth which is more bespoke than biblical, it may be a tempting route to follow. But it is a slippery slope.

Without realising and without intent, the attempts towards spirituality without God leave a perilous vacancy that we are naturally tempted to fill ourselves. We become our own gods. This is obviously problematic vis-a-vis idolatry, but even more so because of the heavy and unsustainable weight it puts upon the human being. It is a position we cannot bear without losing our sanity and righteousness.

Perhaps the most challenging of Jewish festivals to make solely about our own spiritual growth are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This imminent, auspicious time in the Jewish calendar signals a healthy stepping away from what is my world, my vision, my tasks and my opinions, and moves us towards a collective mindset that looks to God as both loving and demanding.

His love seeks to embrace us and His demands seek to bring out the best in us. Not on our terms, not on His terms, but as a joint endeavour.

There are both mental and emotional benefits in accepting that we cannot do it all, hold it all and control it all. Likewise, there is spiritual growth to be had in acknowledging — as our ancestors did for centuries before us — that our God is a personal God. And that He walks with us in life.

We can ask Him for help and we can give to Him what we cannot hold. We can seek his favour in overwhelming times that feel to be beyond our own abilities.

Rosh Hashanah is particularly meaningful in this regard if viewed correctly. Too frequently we relate to the Day of Judgement as with severe foreboding of God’s reckoning. But that is the wrong tenor for the day.

Rather, we should approach the day with great faith in God’s concern for our thriving and success. We do not passively bear His judgement but actively call for it with the sounding of the shofar because we know that the alternative — no judgement at all — can only mean His indifference.

Rosh Hashanah is a day of God’s care and thus a day on which we consider the meaning of our lives both to Him and to us. Rosh Hashanah is a day of mutual judgement.

The Jewish God is, and has always been, a demanding one. And while the contemporary trend is to carve out our own space and our own way, on Rosh Hashanah, we remember that we cannot do it all alone. We bravely recognise that there are things in life we cannot control, and in acknowledging that, we let go and turn to the One who can.

Deep in the Jewish soul is an almost primal knowledge that from Abraham and Sarah, for all of our generations, He and we are in this together.

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