Sermon: Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777
Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 2 October 2016
In a frame on the wall above my desk at home, there’s a commemorative cotton panel, about 2½ feet square, produced after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. The caption, in Hebrew, reads “Yom Kippur service 1870 in the camp near Metz.” It shows a large group of German Jewish soldiers at prayer outdoors. There’s a portable ark and a reading desk, with a Feldrabbiner, a Jewish Chaplain, in tallit conducting the service. There must be several hundred soldiers there, maybe even a 1000. Many have prayer books, some wear tallit. On a hill overlooking the service you can see a line of German soldiers guarding the camp while the Jews are at prayer.
It’s a pretty impressive scene – except it didn’t happen quite like that. There was a Yom Kippur service for Jewish soldiers in that war. But there were probably 150-200 soldiers there, not the hundreds shown. The war coincided with a wave of anti-Semitism in Germany and Jews were accused of avoiding army service. So that commemorative panel was designed to show that German Jews were in the army, and retained their Jewish identity while fighting alongside their non-Jewish comrades who even stood guard over them while they were at prayer. “We are good and loyal German citizens” it was saying. That panel thus portrayed a collective mythical narrative.
There are such narratives; the death of Shimon Peres this week will surely bring forward some of the ones connected with the establishment of the State of Israel.
But there are also individual narratives, which tell our story, say something about who and what we are, as individuals. This season becomes an annual exercise asking “who do you think you are?”
As a TV programme its subjects were celebrities. But you don’t have to be a celebrity, of course, to have your narrative. In looking at our narrative, are there not moments when our life could just as easily have taken some direction other than the one it did? Obviously external events force life choices on us but I’m thinking here of ways in we make those choices freely, as it were. Had we not met this person at that time, been in a particular place at a particular moment, things might have evolved quite differently.
A friend at school – we must have been about 16 years old or so – said that he’d heard of a youth group at West London Synagogue. We went. He didn’t like it and stopped going. I stayed, got more involved, and became chair of the group in the year that Hugo Gryn became Rabbi of West London. He inducted me, as it were, into the world of Progressive Jewish thought and life. Instead of heading towards a career in what is now called Urban Planning, I went to the Leo Baeck College, so that now, more than 50 years later, here I am standing before you.
After ordination, I spent three years as rabbi in the Reform Synagogue in Paris. For various reasons the synagogue did not renew my contract. Virtually at the same time, an old friend gave me a call. He knew nothing of what was going on in Paris but was involved with a newly-established Reform Synagogue in Bushey. “Had I any thoughts, “he asked me, “about returning to England? Because if I had, would I be interested in becoming part-time Rabbi in that new community?”
I’m not suggesting some mysterious forces at work in the life of Colin Eimer. Maybe at the time there seemed little choice or the choice seemed obvious, but with the passage of time we can often see what has happened in our lives from a broader perspective understanding things differently? More clearly perhaps?
“Days are scrolls,” we’ll read in the machzor tomorrow, “write on them what you want to be remembered.” So what do we write on the scroll of our lives? For there are great narratives in those lives: of love and suffering, of relationships, tests and trials, difficulties overcome, sacrifices made, pleasures experienced, challenges met.
What, then, is the theology – the religious meaning – we give to our lives? The Torah suggests a number of narratives which may or may not resonate with where our life narrative is. What part of the story has been central to our lives this year? Perhaps it’s Creation – family events: like Adam and Eve we have to sort out our relationships, some of which have been made, others broken, this past year; perhaps, like Abraham, we’ve had to leave familiar surroundings and go off into some unknown to meet new challenges?; or is our narrative a Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers one? – a story of ongoing relationships within our family; perhaps it’s work-related: Children of Israel-like, we feel trapped in Egypt, enslaved to some metaphoric pharaoh, yearning for an Exodus. For others, their narrative is that of the 40 year wandering in the desert, wandering and wondering, asking themselves “where am I meant to be heading in my life?”; maybe we’re like the Jonah of Yom Kippur – knowing he should be heading in one direction, but trying to run away in the opposite one.
And all of this at the same time as living in the world out there, with its stories and mythologies. Maybe our story is Humpty Dumpty – somehow things not working out as they should but not knowing quite how to put ourselves together again; or is it Ugly Duckling – knowing we have unfulfilled potential but never becoming the duck who can fly? Or is it a Cinderella narrative? a tale of toxic family relationships; others still, wait for their Prince to come – but Judaism reminds us, especially at this season, that rescue comes from within, through how we choose to transform our lives.
And what word best describes our life narrative? – is it comedy, comedy of errors, maybe even black comedy? Is it ‘tragedy’ where we feel that pain, suffering and disappointment have been meted out to us in disproportionate measure; is it ‘romance’ but adult stuff or some soft-focus, pink-tinted Barbara Cartland pap? Maybe ‘mystery’ best describes how we feel things happen but we have little understanding of why they do, or of where we are heading. I guess most of our personal narratives contain elements of these various life scripts.
So this season invites us to tell our story – not to anybody else, but to ourselves, to God. Because when we tell it to others, we edit it, depending to whom we’re telling it. Telling it to ourselves, we can tell it as it is, warts and all.
For this season says that we are not doomed to play out our particular life-script, as if it’s the only one, even though we might believe it is. Rewriting is possible and it’s in our hands to do it. Easier said than done, of course, but not impossible. Otherwise this season would have no sense.
There’s a lovely story that has Stalin on the podium in front of a packed Red Square in Moscow. “I have received a telegram from Leon Trotsky in Mexico. “You were right,” he reads, “I was wrong. I should apologise. Trotsky.” Cheers. Applause. Everybody is jubilant that Trotsky has finally admitted his ideological errors – everybody except for one man, Hymie Cohen, in the front row before Stalin. “Why aren’t you cheering like everybody else?” he demands. Hymie tells Stalin that he didn’t read the telegram with the right emphasis. He should have read: “You were right!? I was wrong?! I should apologise. Trotsky!”
So too with that TV programme. It could be: “who do you think you are?” in other words, how do you see yourself and what’s the reality of that self-perception? Or is it, “who do you think you are?” – what’s the narrative that you tell yourself about you and your life? Is it real? Is it true? In one of his novels, Isaac Bashevis Singer uses a marvellous phrase which I wish I had thought of for this season. We have “to sit shivah for our illusions” – what an evocative phrase! – we have to let go of what’s not real in order to see more clearly just who we really are.
In one of his stand-up cabaret routines, Woody Allen jokes about a man holding him up with a gun. “My whole life flashed before me,” he says, “swimmin’ at the water-hole, eatin’ hominy grits and watermelon, fishin’ with my granpappy…. then I realised – somebody else’s life was flashing before my eyes!”
For Woody Allen it was a joke. For us, at this time, it’s no joke, an altogether more serious question: “what is the life that will be flashing before our eyes?”