Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi – Erev Rosh Hashanah 2018/5779
As the sun sets, we begin another Jewish year, gathered in our Synagogue to pray. It is a very different feeling from waiting up till midnight to bring in the secular new year with bubbly and party poppers. There is something special about being able to watch the new day begin as the sun sets and the stars come out. This way of marking the days can be traced back to the very beginning of our Torah, the story of creation, which tells us ‘Vay’hi erev vay’hi boker, yom echad – there was evening and there was morning, one day.’ The Jewish day begins in the evening, with the transition into darkness, and then comes the morning and the light.
Even now, with electric lights in our homes and streets in the city, the transition to the dark can be frightening. It is not for nothing that children often need a night light because of their fear of the dark. How much more would it have been fearful before the discovery of electricity, when people might have had a single candle or oil lamp in their homes and if they were out on the road at night there would have been no light to protect them from danger? Even safe at home, the dark brought a sense of anxiety, expressed beautifully by the Adon Olam, ‘Beyado afkid ruchi, b’eyt ishan v’a-eera – into your hands I entrust my spirit when I sleep and when I wake’. Who knew what the night would bring or whether we would wake again in the morning? To go to sleep was to entrust our souls to God.
At this time, our world, too, feels dark. Across the world, there has been an increase in extreme nationalism and a closing of borders and isolationism. In the USA, Donald Trump threatens to put up walls and treats all Muslims, and much of the rest of the world, as enemies. In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s far right party has criminalised help for asylum seekers and launched a vicious anti-semitic campaign against George Soros. In Germany, the city of Chemnitz hosted a demonstration by the far-right just two weeks ago, although it must be said that 50,000 people turned out to demonstrate against them a few days later. In Israel, the Nation State Bill served to marginalise minority communities in Israel. In our country, there has not been such a time of anxiety since the Second World War. As we approach Brexit, with all the uncertainty it brings, and there is an urgent need for leadership, both political parties feel unstable and divided. In our society there is increasing inequality and poverty and, as so often happens in such circumstances, increasing intolerance, racism and violence, leading to the rise of the far right. And for us as Jews there is an added dimension of anxiety with anti-semitism, particularly in the Labour party, which has for many Jews been a home until now. The controversy about the International Holocaust Remembrance Association definition of anti-semitism has brought the issue to the fore over the summer but it is only one aspect of anti-semitism in the party, which is often virulent. According to the Jewish Labour Movement, the recognised Jewish affiliate to the Labour Party, anti-semitism in the party is now institutionalised.
I do not feel the situation is so bad that I must pack my bags, but it is deeply worrying. It is worrying, too, that whilst Labour is embroiled in a debate about anti-semitism, other pressing issues in our country are not addressed. Unless we address the issues which are dividing our country, the far right will continue to thrive.
Yet darkness brings time for reflection and dreams and a time to gather our strength. In times of darkness, we can and must reflect on the sort of world we would like to see. Only if we envisage it and keep our vision alive can we bring it about. So at this time of darkness, we must reflect on the changes that we need to make and gather our strength. What are our hopes for the coming year? How might we play our part in bringing about the changes we wish to see? At times of darkness and fear, it is easy to give up and despair, but we need to keep our dreams alive. For the morning will come, and with it renewed hope.
Ann Frank wrote, in far darker times: ‘That is the difficulty in these times: ideals, dreams and cherished hopes rise within us, only to meet the horrible truth and be shattered. It’s really a wonder that I haven’t dropped all my ideals because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out… yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think that it will all come right… in the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.’ If Ann Frank could hold onto her ideals in the darkest imaginable circumstances, how much more should we keep to our ideals through the darkness.
If we are looking for signs of hope, we could look at Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’ programmes on Morality last week. Each programme featured discussions with teenagers from different backgrounds. They were thoughtful, articulate and intelligent and spoke with great clarity about their understandings of morality. They took for granted being from different religions and traditions and spoke from their traditions with openness and a readiness to listen. If we listen to our young people, they can provide us with inspiration.
Morning will come. Through the night, we have to keep our vision alive. We have to remind people it need not be like this. We can overcome anti-semitism, prejudice and bigotry. We can create a society where strangers are welcome and people who are different can feel at home. We can build a world that is safer, more tolerant and more just for the generation to come, and they can help us build it. Our Torah and our Jewish tradition give us guidance and teach us that we are partners with God in creating such a world. As the night falls on this Rosh Hashanah eve, let us determine to keep the light burning through the night until the morning comes.
As Isaiah expressed it: ‘Watchman, what of the night, what of the night?’ The watchman replied, ‘Morning will come, though the night seems long.’ May morning come bimherah v’yameinu, soon and in our time. Amen.
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