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Rabbi Howard Cooper

Erev Rosh Hashana 5781

I’ve been thinking a lot this last few days about Spike Milligan – who else would you think about at Rosh Hashanah? –  and the epitaph he chose for his tombstone “I told you I was ill”. Maybe this is just how my mind works, making this connection, but it feels like every High Holy Days, for I don’t know how long, there’s one theme I would return to, a touchstone for what’s at the heart of this seasonal pilgrimage, this voyage of reflection and return and hopefulness for new beginnings.

And that touchstone of mine doesn’t read “I told you I was ill” but “I told you life is uncertain” – because what we learn each day of our lives, but the HHDs give us the opportunity to think about in a concentrated way, is just how much uncertainty is built into the fabric of life: we have so little control over our futures, which rarely unfold as we would like them to – ill-health arrives, relationships fail, we suffer job losses, financial worries, our children don’t do what we want them to, or our parents, or our partners, those we love die on us, our bodies are vulnerable, our minds too, our emotions can feel roller-coasterish. The transience of life can feel unbearable. “Like a cup so easily broken, like grass that withers, like flowers that fade… like a dream that fades away”. We say it each year and we believe it as we say it and then we forget it; we embrace it and then we shut it away until next year. We human beings are fragile creatures. Everything can change, or end, in the twinkling of an eye.

So: “I told you life is uncertain.” And that’s all before reflecting on what it means to be bound up in a larger world in which the dramas of history, and societal discontents and environmental crises and, yes, pandemics, force us to recognise how little we are in control of our destinies, our fate – and how desperately we want to be in control. How much we wish we could stem the tide of uncertainty – which is life. And yet our only certainty is uncertainty – and what kind of consolation is that?

So as I thought about what I might want to say this evening – and what you might want to hear (which is not always the same thing by any means) – I thought about all this and realised that as the old year ends and a new year begins there’s both so much to say about where we find ourselves right now and what these last 6 months have been like – but also how little there might be to say; because although we are going through this ending and new beginning and this is our New Year – we know we aren’t leaving the old behind and starting something fresh because  everything is overshadowed by the ongoing drama we are living through. And because we are in the midst of it, we really have no perspective to look at what is happening, what transformations are under way, what the shape of our society, our community,  our family, our own lives, will look like in a year’s time.

We’ve had to struggle this past 6 months, and the struggle is not over. We know this: the struggle is emotional, mental,  psychological, spiritual – maybe financial and practical too – and it’s an ongoing struggle with what Philip Roth once described as the “relentless unforeseen”. And it’s the reality of how that ‘relentless unforeseen’ – otherwise know as ‘life’ – has played out this past year that leaves us holding so much inside ourselves and with so much to talk about – and yet maybe with nothing to say. I do find myself – maybe you do too – tongue-tied and hesitant, struggling to make sense of what is going on. There’s so much we don’t know, and can’t know, about what our futures – personal, communal, for the country – are going to look like.

Maybe all we know is what our questions are – our tongue-tied and hesitant questions – as this new year begins: How do we keep going? How do we maintain continuity in our lives? How do we keep connected with people? How do we make plans? How do we stay optimistic? How do we keep our sense of humour? How do we keep hope alive? How do we keep our dreams alive of a better future?

We are being tested, perhaps, for many of us, as never before. So how do we face this new year, with its limitations (how will we manage another year of glass life? how will we face another year of masks, of constraints, of fears?). But also how do face this new year with its possibilities? How might new avenues, new opportunities, open up for us from out of the chaos? What new paths through the wasteland will open up? What streams will bubble up amidst the barrenness of life? How should we prepare for this new year and its tests?

Well, for once,  I’m going to tell you how. I’m not just going to pose the questions – although I do think that questions can be more useful sometimes than answers. Because questions open things out for us, let our imaginations breathe, while so often answers can shut things down, can blunt the spirit and dull the mind. But tonight, this erev RH, having given voice to the questions I’m going to tell you, as best I can, as simply as I can, how we are going to do it this year –  as a community, as family groups, as individuals. How we are going to get through this next period, how we are going to survive, maybe even thrive, how we’re going to keep our hopefulness alive as this New year opens before us.

We are going to do it, I would suggest, by sticking to the 3 Rs. Don’t look baffled – obviously not ‘Reading, Riting and rithmatic’ – they have their place , but that’s not what I’m talking about. My 3 Rs, our 3 Rs, are something else.

First is Resourcefulness: we are going to be, individually and communally, resourceful. And you just have to look at what’s happened during this last 6 months to see that we are already, as a community, A* students in that. The amount of programmes and schemes and ideas – and yes Zoom has been crucial to a lot of this, and what would I have given to have bought shares in the company back in January – but this community – its lay leadership and professional staff and yes, sometimes even the clergy, have demonstrated extraordinary creativity and imagination and Resourcefulness, as have so many of you already who are part of FRS: new ideas have emerged, new ways of connecting, new possibilities for helping each other and supporting each other. This is Resourcefulness and we have seen it writ large and it’s the first R we need, and we have it already within us, and it will see us through this crisis, this communal and national trauma we are living through. The human spirit, your spirits, are adaptable and inventive – what a Resource they are, what a Resource you are. And I’m naming it.

And that takes me to my second R, from Resourcefulness to Resilience. Yes, we are fragile, yes we are vulnerable, yes we can sometimes feel anxious or troubled or even defeated – but I have witnessed also your Resilience, which is an inner quality which Jews have possessed for millennia, and have needed for millennia, resilience to persevere when life is difficult, when the odds seem stacked against us, and dear God the odds have so often been stacked against us as a people, but our collective resilience has carried us through.

We are the great survivors, defiant in our resilience, and it’s a mental quality, an imaginative quality, a spiritual quality, and it is rooted not just in our history and the deep knowledge that we have survived far worse that this pandemic, but that through our tradition, through our liturgy and our poetry, through Torah and storytelling, through our music, and humour…through our staying attuned to our Jewish vision, in spite of adversity, we have Resilience built into our psyches – Resilience is in our psychic DNA.  I have seen – and been in awe of – how this community has drawn on that resilience, collectively and individually, drawing  from the living wells of that life-giving resilience that is deep within us, personally and collectively. And that resilience can be nurtured in countless way – though appreciating our gardens, through nurturing our friendships and connectedness, (even remotely); through art and music and literature, through engaging with the texts of our tradition, through appreciating the natural world around us, and the sun on our faces – through all these ways, and countless more (and you will each have your own anthology of what nurtures you) we have nurtured our resilience and it will help us through this next period, with all the uncertainties. Our personal resilience is an unquenchable spirit  within and  we will work on it and support each other with it as this year goes on, into the winter darkness and out the other end into spring again. What a Resource we have, this Resilience, incarnated within us, within our souls. So , that’s the second R.

And the third R? What’s going to see us through this destabilising period alongside Resourcefulness and Resilience is – wait for it, what’s he going to say, I don’t think you’ll guess – it’s Righteousness. I know: it’s a disappointingly old-fashioned word. It’s almost quaint, it’s not cutting edge, it’s not new, it’s what we already know, that to be a Jew means to be engaged in a life containing acts of Righteousness. A difficult word to talk about because it’s often confused with self-righteousness, the smugness of thinking we are good people without having to actually back it up in relation to any other human being. Maybe I should use the Hebrew word – chesed – “acts of kindness motivated by love”. (Maybe that sounds better. But it doesn’t begin with R).

But to say that Righteousness is the 3rd R that we need, and that we have, to see us through this next year, may be more radical than it at first sounds. Maybe I should double down on this 3rd R – or double up – and call it Radical Righteousness: gratuitous acts of kindness, generosity, compassion, caring, love, what you do anyway; but a year is opening up in which you consciously choose to stick with your innate knowledge that Righteousness enacted in everyday life is transformative: it matters more than we know, to others who are recipients of what we give and do; and it matters to us, our souls are enriched and enlivened  by the Righteousness we share.

I am not talking about being grandiose about this. When all around us in the culture there are endless examples of scepticism, cynicism, selfishness, bombast, contempt, fearfulness, injustice, discrimination – our commitment individually and communally to the path of righteousness – which means being accountable for our moral and ethical choices, large and small, as best we can – this gives us hope because we know that this makes the world a better place, that we are creating step by step, a day at a time, we are building an interpersonal world that is worth living in. As Jews it doesn’t matter what your theology is, it never has, we don’t burn heretics, we progressive Jews stick them in our prayer books, the iconoclasts and atheists and doubters, if they have something to say that helps us live well, and stay true to our vision that, in the end, it is chesed, righteous living that matters. It’s not through belief, but through action, through the good we do – that’s how we bring a blessing to each other and our communities and our society. Radical Righteousness.

OK, that’s it. Our 3 Rs, our basic rubric for the year: Resourcefulness, Resilience, Righteousness. We are already doing it. Let this be a year when we keep on doing the basics – because when we do them with heart and soul they won’t just help us survive, they’ll help us thrive. Because when we bring them together  – Resourcefulness, Resilience, Righteousness – they aren’t any longer just basic, mundane, ordinary, they aren’t just perpetuating the status quo. When we bring them together in ourselves and enact them, they are not only transformative, they are actually Revolutionary.

In a previous, more confident, era I might finish here with a rousing ‘Viva La Revolucion’ – but in an era when some of us have learnt not to put too much faith in ideological conviction, I’ll just stick with a more down-to-earth: Shana Tova.

Sun, 26 September 2021 20 Tishrei 5782