Sermon: Erev Rosh Hashanah 5779 – Days are scrolls, write on them what you want to be remembered

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 12 September 2018

Sometime in the 1920s, the analytical psychologist Carl Gustav Jung introduced the concept of ‘synchronicity.’ Two things happen and the way they are connected gets our attention for one reason or another. Jung argued that events are ‘meaningful coincidences’ if they occur with no causal relationship, yet seem to be meaningfully related. We’re thinking about somebody on the way home, for example, and as we walk in, the phone goes, and it’s the person we were thinking of. This isn’t to suggest that our thinking of them somehow caused them to phone us. Nevertheless we’re amused, struck, if only momentarily by the coincidence. But it doesn’t have any lasting effect on us.

But there are times when it’s as if the coincidence of events seems to be conspiring to tell us something about our lives. Then we don’t say “hey, that’s a funny coincidence.” We’re slightly troubled by it – we think about it – we might talk about it to somebody close. Such coincidences lead us to reflect on what meaning – emotionally and intellectually – they contain for us.

Clearly our lives are full of meaningful events which we have deliberately and consciously set out to bring about for ourselves: pursuing a relationship with somebody we are attracted to; applying for a job; deciding where to study, work or live and so on.

But when we look back over our lives we sense that there were points where they could just as easily have taken some other direction than they did. Had we not met this person at that time, been in a particular place as a particular moment, things might have worked out quite differently.

People ask me why I became a rabbi. It’s not a particularly special story but in brief 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. Would I be interested in going? We went. I liked it and stayed – he didn’t. I got more involved with the group and became chair of the group the year that Hugo Gryn became Rabbi at West London. I had offers to study at universities both in London and outside. But one reason why I stayed in London was to remain in close contact with Hugo who had become very much a mentor for me. Through him I was drawn closer, initially to studying Judaism seriously as an adult and finally to the Leo Baeck College and the rabbinate.

So I ask myself, “what course would my life have taken had I decided to study outside London?” or “what if it had been my friend who stayed at the West London Youth Group and I was the one bored with it who went elsewhere?”

My first rabbinic post was at the Reform Synagogue in Paris, where I spent three years. For various reasons, the synagogue decided they wouldn’t renew my contract. Virtually at the same time, an old friend from youth group days called me. His name was Rolfe Roseman. He knew nothing of what had been going on in Paris but was involved with a newly-established Reform Synagogue in an outer suburb of London with very few Jews called 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 Bushey?”

At the time I had no sense of any inevitability in what was happening. Perhaps the greater the gap between now and that event in our past, the clearer do we begin to see patterns in what was and had been happening in our lives?

“Days are scrolls – write on them what you want to be remembered” we will read in the machzor. What story do we write on the scroll of our life? Some feel there is no storyline to them – life is just a matter of getting through another day, coping with what they have to cope with, finding, hopefully, a bit of satisfaction in it and, dayenu, that’s it. Maybe we see ourselves merely as extras in some movie, with a silent role in a story which unfolds around us but doesn’t affect us, nor we it. Yet there are great stories in all our lives – of love and suffering; of relationships; of tests and trials; overcoming difficulties, experiencing pleasure.

In the past, Jews saw the story of their lives reflected in the weekly cycle of Torah readings. They were reading their story as members of a people experiencing a cosmic drama unfolding across the generations, but also as their personal story.

What, then, is the theology – the religious meaning – we give to our lives? We are born into a family, a tradition, a culture, a people – we absorb a world view. What do we do with all that?

What is the Jewish story that we live out? What part of it has been central to our lives this year? Creation, maybe? – family events? death? new life? the end of a relationship? the beginning of one? Like Abraham, others have left the familiar surroundings of their lives and gone off into the unknown. Like Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, there is the story of ongoing relationships with our siblings; or is our story more that of the Israelites in Egypt, enslaved to some metaphoric Pharaoh, a slavery sometimes of our own making where we yearn for an Exodus to set us free. But Exodus leads irrevocably to Mount Sinai – for freedom without commitment in no real freedom. So at our Sinais we make commitments, take on responsibility, create the Torah of our lives. For others, the image of this past year feels more akin to the years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert but without a Promised Land at the end.

Maybe we don’t see ourselves as ‘heroes,’ like Jacob, Moses, Miriam, Ruth and so on. But that is to make our lives humdrum and not see the unfolding drama in them. Do things just happen to us? Where do we take control?

Franz Rosenzweig argued, almost a century ago, that Jews no longer come to the text, the Torah, as something with which they’ve grown up from childhood. Rather, he argues, we come to it as adults, from the outside rather than from the inside. So, then as now, it’s no longer the key text in many Jews’ lives and they feel estranged from it because of that.

And of course we also live in the world out there, which has its stories and mythologies. Maybe Humpty Dumpty is our story – falling off our wall and neither we nor anybody else being quite able to put us together again. Or is our script more the Ugly Duckling – with unfulfilled potential? Maybe we’re waiting for our prince to come – though rescue from outside is, Jewishly, only a Messianic possibility. And the whole premise of this season is that ‘rescue’ comes from inside ourselves through how we transform our lives.

This season invites us, therefore, to look at the narrative of our lives, the story we’re living out, or the one we’re in. Is it the story we’ll be stuck with for another year?

And just how do we describe our story? Is it ‘comedy’: do we take life seriously and yet are able to laugh heartily at ourselves? Maybe it’s ‘tragedy’: do we feel that pain, suffering and disappointment have been meted out to us is disproportionate measure? Maybe this year’s life script has been ‘romance’: serious or soft-focus Mills and Boon, more childlike wishful thinking than adult reality? Perhaps ‘mystery’ is the best description: things have happened but we have little understanding of why or where we are heading. Probably most of our stories have elements of these various life scripts.

So at this season we are invited to tell our story, not to anybody else but to ourselves, to God. When we tell it to others we edit it, depending on whom we are telling it to. When we tell it to ourselves, we can tell it as it is.

Ribon ha’olamim, Mah anu? Meh chayeinu? Meh chasdeinu?

Ruler of existence, what are we? What is our life? What is our goodness? Or – for these Yamim Noraim, “what am I?” “what is my life?” “what makes sense of my life?”

Rabbi Colin Eimer