Rabbi Richard Jacobi – 23th September 2020
The one-word title of this week’s Torah portion affected me this week in a different way to my many previous meetings with it. Ha-azinu means “Give ear” and in the context of Deuteronomy 32:1, Moses is asking the heavens to listen, and then he asks the earth to hear him.
This coming long weekend begins with Shabbat Shuvah – the Sabbath of Return or Repentance – and ends with Yom Kippur – the Bank Holiday Monday of Atonement. Throughout these ten days from Rosh Hashanah, we are asking the heavens to listen as we reflect on our errors and misdeeds and promise to make the effort to be better people in the year of 5781.
This year, more than any in recent memory, we come to this time of reflection and return, de-stabilised by the unprecedented impact on our lives of something we did not know existed this time last year. We have been reminded, more forcibly and painfully than we would have liked, of the truth of our humanity – we are mortal and our life on earth is not to be taken for granted. Our Torah portion gets no further than verse four, when we reach a passage well known to rabbis and others familiar with the funeral service:
Ha-Tzur tamim po-olo …
The Rock! – whose deeds are perfect,
Yea, all God’s ways are just;
A faithful God, never false,
True and upright indeed.
We are having to learn again something which our generation has forgotten. More accurately, we have chosen to erase from our minds a simple but important truth, because we would rather exist with a comfortable delusion than live with an unsettling but essential truth. We are mortal and we ARE NOT IN CONTROL.
Now, I’m going to argue with my previous paragraph, because I have come to the realisation that holding on to the delusion that we are in control does us more harm than good. It’s a fragile myth, that we then waste valuable time and energy trying to perpetuate. It is actually for easier to live with the superficially unsettling, but ultimately calming truth that we are not in control, but we have to learn how to shut out the all too loud messages of advertising and media that idolise youth and suggest immortality in the form of anti-aging products and edited images.
Verse seven of Moses’ poem provides a strategy for life: Remember the days of old / Consider the years of ages past / Ask your parent, who will inform you / Your elders, who will tell you … The memory of a family, a community or society does not ever have to be a barrier to the future, but if we are not open to considering the lessons of the past, then we place our future at greater risk. Our Jewish tradition was not built on history – the academic discipline – but on Zakhor, “Remember!”. Memory passed down from one generation reminds of where we have come from and that the past generations have worked to hand over a better world to us. Where their attempts to improve the world have damaged it, for example, through our impact on the earth’s climate and natural ecological balance, we can act to correct this damage, if we give ear to the heavens and listen to the earth.
The message of Yom Kippur every year is that God WILL be forgiving when we repent and return. There is no maybe about it, no whim or ego involved – God is the ‘Rock’, reliable, steady, judging and forgiving. Similarly, when we accept that we are mortal and acknowledge that we will die (but – thankfully – none of us knows when), we can start to appreciate the gift that is each day.
Maybe, we can become confidently humble, comfortably mortal. Then, we will approach these days willing to change and to make the most of every day we live. We will, as our Torah portion on Yom Kippur tells us: “Choose Life!”
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