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Rabbi Howard Cooper

Rosh Hashana Day 2

You can listen to Rabbi Howard's sermon or read it below:

So here we are. With our ‘new normal’ – and our ‘new caution’ – in our New Year. 

You know what I mean by the ‘new caution’. That we’ve come to the end of something we were used to, and new questions and doubts have infiltrated our thinking: where do we feel comfortable going, out the house? who do we meet? do we use public transport?  how close can we get to other people - even here in this room, how close we sit, is there enough space, enough ventilation, what is safe, indeed what does ‘safety’ really mean now – all this adds up to our ‘new caution’. Something has been lost, we feel it. It’s as if our carefree days are behind us, they’re over; a sense of easygoingness in everyday life (if we ever had it), well, it belongs to a different era: B.C., as it were. 

All those Rosh Hashanahs in the past, up to 2019, that old B.C. era, Before Covid, we started the year with hopefulness, anxieties too sometimes, but a sense of new beginnings where we could look forward with confidence, eagerness, not too much apprehension. But my sense is that has changed, that some deep, precious sense of the possibilities of carefreeness, has gone. And the new caution has taken over. (If you are tuning in from your homes on Zoom, you must be feeling it, but I think it’s also the case for us here live in the room). 

Over this last year my mind has often turned to how, a century ago, in the 1920s, people looked back across the abyss of the Great War and started portraying the so-called  Edwardian period, pre-1914, as a golden age of long summer afternoons and garden parties, and they summoned up romantic, nostalgia-tinged memories (real and constructed) of basking in a carefree world (well, carefree if you had money), a world of Empire and national prestige and self-satisfaction – you’ve read the books, seen the films, Merchant-Ivory and the rest, things that evoke this period with its lives of hopefulness, excitement about the future, and optimism that although the world was changing rapidly, particularly technologically, it was obviously changing for the better.  

Living through those sun-drenched years, people just didn’t know they were coming to the end of something - they were at the end of something - they could not imagine the devastation and the losses that 1914 and war inflicted on a whole generation, young and old alike.  Let alone imagine the horrors that were to come as the century unfolded. Carefree days indeed. 

And here we are, a century later, not yet post-Covid (if we will ever be), taking these tentative steps into our New Year, but far, perhaps very far, from relaxed and care free. And the question is, where can we find what we need to help us navigate through these fraught and complex times? Emotionally complex, politically and socially complex, globally complex times. Where can we look for inspiration? For hope?  

There have been times during this pandemic when you will have heard it said – I’ve probably been seduced into saying it on occasion – that this worldwide event, in which there has been, and continues to be, so much distress and so many losses, could also be an opportunity. Not exactly a heaven-sent opportunity – that requires a faith, a theology, that’s a bridge too far for most of us - but an opportunity nevertheless. That although we need to acknowledge the suffering many, many people have gone through - and that isn’t over, the hardship – it’s also presented us with a chance, a welcome chance, to reconsider the status quo, to re-evaluate priorities – personal, communal, national, global – it’s cracked open the carapace, the hard, shiny, dense complacency about how things have to be - economically, and how our societies are ordered, and the priorities we allow governments to choose for us - this last 18 months has opened us up to imagine a different kind of life, and different ways of promoting human well-being and human flourishing in society. Yes, the pandemic has revealed the scandals about existing inequalities and deprivations but it has - particularly in its early stages when so much previous thinking was turned upside down (imagine paying people not to work!) - it has, intermittently, created some space to think about other ways of living. Or so this upbeat narrative might suggest.   

And yes, so much has already changed - where you work from, how often you get on a plane, how you shop, how you hold a meeting, how religious services happen, how much you cycle or walk, even where you live, see a doctor - there’s an endless list of  everyday stuff that has been impacted by the pandemic and is in the process of changing, or where at least there’s been a glimpse of a different way of doing things, where perhaps a better quality of life might be possible. That’s not to deny the losses we have experienced, but to acknowledge some of the more hopeful developments and possibilities that have been opened up. Even if the opening up has only been in our thinking, our capacity to imagine a different future, this pandemic has catalysed some deep shifts in our consciousness.   

But a lot of these possibilities we’ve glimpsed, or have been spoken about, or have begun to be enacted, are linked to something much more difficult to think about, let alone accept. To put it as simply as possible: we are being forced by the circumstances in which this pandemic is occurring to think about something maybe we’d much rather not have to think about, something quite painful. 

If changes are coming to how we live and how we organize things, and if a sense of carefreeness is to return, whatever transformations happen would need to be such that we don’t have to continue to fear devastating floods and famine-inducing droughts and unbearable heatwaves and out-of-control wildfires, when we wouldn’t have to worry that our children and grandchildren are being brain damaged from the womb onwards by chemical pollution from plastics or from the very air they breathe – if change is going to happen in the directions we all pray for – or if not pray for, then at least wish for – if we are collectively going to turn things round and shape a better world then we have to start thinking about the hard question, the fundamental question: whether we really need all the things we think we do. And this is the hard part about what any positive changes this pandemic is catalysing has revealed. How much do we need? How much do we tell ourselves we need? It can pain our hearts to look inside and consider these things, but during these 10 Days it is, whether we like it or not, part of the spiritual challenge of these days to reflect on some of these difficult questions. 

There may not be any shortcuts here, or easy answers, or in the end any effective ways of avoiding the painful choices that are going to need to be made. To repeat the question again – the question this pandemic has brought out into the open, the question for our times: Do we really need all the things we think we do: the objects we buy, the experiences we buy, the holidays we buy, the kind of food we buy (all that meat with its environmentally destructive consequences), do we really need it all, and more of it, and different, and the new, and the latest, and what others have, do we really need it all? And remember ‘need’ is different from ‘want’. ‘Want’ is easy to feel, sure. Of course we want stuff. But do we need what we ‘want’? ‘Want’ is an emotion, a feeling. And our emotions are powerful forces within us and can often rule us, to our own detriment. But ‘need’ is something else. ‘Do I need this?’ is a different question from “Do I want this?” . “Do I want this?” is a subjective question about our feeling life. But “Do I need this?” is, I’d suggest, a different kind of question. At root it’s an ethical question. 

And as we know, however reluctantly we might want to know it, being Jewish just happens to mean having a commitment to ethical questions. Otherwise what’s the point. Without the ethical questions we are just another tribe in the human family, just another club to belong to. I’m not knocking the fringe benefits of tribalism or club membership: ask any fan who comes along here about the sense of belonging tied up as a supporter, ask any member of a gym or a golf-club and they’ll tell you of the health benefits or the social contact membership offers. These are all good things but they aren’t at the heart of the Jewish endeavour in the world – which is ask the hard questions, and not just ask them but respond to them in action: and the question for our times, I think, is  Do we really need all the things we think we do? or feel we do? 

In a world running out of resources, at the edge of catastrophe, where glimpses of devastation are becoming unignorable and a helplessness can easily set it, or a pessimism, or a cynicism, or fearfulness, or just an angry indifference, the most important ethical and political and environmental and spiritual idea can be summed up in one word: enough. Dayenu – wrong festival but it fits here today as well, during our 10 Days of Self-judgment. Dayenu. Enough. When is what we have, what we already have, enough? 

Can we stop the unrelenting urge to have more long enough to feel we have enough. To appreciate what we have. We already have enough. We in this room – or listening in today - already have enough. There are many millions who don’t have enough and that’s a huge national and international challenge - but I’m not talking about them, right now. I’m talking about us. How do we feel we have enough? How do we get to the point where we say to ourselves: stop, dayenu? The problem is that if we are empty inside we will always want more. Nothing will ever feel enough. Which is why the question about limiting our consumption – whether it is of holidays in the sun, or meat, or anything else – is at root a spiritual problem. 

Appetites are endless, but if there’s an emptiness inside us – and we may or may not be aware of it – we will never be able to say: enough. We won’t be able to say stop, we won’t be able to clear a space to consider how those who genuinely do need more can be helped, what changes do need to be made, economically and socially. What sacrifices need to be made.

What is this emptiness? The word is shocking, easy to deny. But what I’m talking about by ‘emptiness’ is how painful it can be to feel some lack inside ourselves: whether it is friendships, or love, or self-esteem, the right body shape, educational success, financial reward, health, meaning, purpose – we can feel a lack, an emptiness about any of this.
Sometimes we are living from a place inside us where we know, or have a sense about, what our deprivation is about; sometimes we can’t even identify what that is; but either way, if we sense some inner emptiness – or even worse if the emptiness is there and we don’t sense it, just drive ourselves crazy trying to fill ourselves up anyway – if this is how we live in the world, if this is what is going on inside of us – and what I am saying is a reality for countless, countless people - if this is what is going on, we can never say enough, we can never say stop, we can never say, because we can never feel, “I have enough”, I am blessed. We can never think: “I am enough”, I am blessed, and grateful. This is a psychological issue, but it’s also a spiritual issue.  

Our spirits might be restless, our souls might feel ill-nourished, our inner selves may feel aching and unsatisfied, but what these 10 Days in our calendar offer us is an opportunity to look at this – and to do something about it. Even to look at it, to think about it, is the beginning of doing something about it. Because what our tradition has created – what the Jewish people have created – is a framework for hopefulness. We can change, we are not pre-programmed, or not pre-programmed in ways that can’t evolve and change and grow. Teshuvah means we can turn to the questions that matter.  Teshuvah means we can return to what we truly need, not what we think we need. And what we truly need, is to be able to be in contact, in living contact, with the spirit of all being that is in us, and in others around us - that’s the great value of community, that the divine can be experienced through the person you are sitting beside - even if it’s not too close. What we yearn for, what gives our lives real meaning and a sense of purpose, is to be in contact with the spirit of all life, which is inside us and in each other, and that flows through all creation. Feeling it, knowing it, experiencing it, communing with it, singing it, praying it, speaking it, holding it in silence within us. We yearn for it. To experience the fulness of life in us and around us and between us.  

We can have all the material goods and possessions in the world, we can have all the exotic adventures that life offers, but in the end it is something intangible that we really need, something that is elusive and uncapturable and sometimes fleeting, something that our millennia-old tradition circles round and plays with and hints at - and reveals in sacred moments in our lives. Moments when we discover that we are a part of the sacred, that a spark of the divine is in the depths of our being - and I know that means nothing and yet I  also know that it means everything. Our hope, personally and collectively, our hope, renewed in every generation, is that this spirit of being can live in us, can be expressed through us. It’s a gift and a mystery and a destiny. That source of all life that the tradition has named Adonai can heal our emptiness, it whispers its blessing : “You have enough, you are enough, you are blessed, this is my gift, this is the mystery, this is your destiny”. 

Sun, 26 June 2022 27 Sivan 5782