Sermon: Yom Kippur 5778
Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 4 October 2017
Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tsar me’od, V’haikar lo lefached k’lal
“all the world’s a very narrow bridge – but the main thing is not to be afraid at all.”
Nachman of Bratslav
In 1983, a remarkable documentary appeared called Koyaanisqaatsi. It focussed one some of the things happening to America’s natural and human-made landscape. There were some striking images, using powerful telephoto lenses and time-lapse photography. There was a stunning musical score by the composer Philip Glass.
There was no narration which the director explained by saying: “it’s not for lack of love of the language that there are no words. It’s because, from my point of view, our language is in a state of vast humiliation. It no longer describes the world in which we live.” A credit at the end of the film explains that Koyaanisqaatsi is a native American word from the Hopi tribe meaning “life out of balance, life disintegrating, life in turmoil, a way of life that calls for another way of living.”
When we gathered here last Yom Kippur, it 3 months after the referendum. Few of us can have had any real sense of what that decision would actually mean. Since then, however, hardly a day goes by without some new revelation about the impact Brexit will have on all sorts of areas of life in this country.
That was 3 months after the referendum but still 3 months before that other election surprise: Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency.
It has certainly been a Koyaanisqaatsi time – “life out of balance.” So now we inhabit a world of post-truth and alternative facts. But it was already out of balance before and since: ISIS-inspired terror on European streets; continuing refugee crisis in Europe; Grenfell Tower; the rise of right-wing parties in France, Holland, Germany, Hungary, Poland; hurricanes, floods, earthquakes; the continuing effect of climate change; Trump and Kim Jong-Un; Rohynga genocide. What a sad litany of woes our poor, sorry world has been going through.
Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tsar me’od “All the world is,” indeed, “a very narrow bridge.”
But uncertainty, insecurity and anxiety are, of course, nothing new, certainly for Jews. And while we may have had a particular corner of the market on suffering and persecution, this was part of a much-wider chronicle of human existence all over the planet.
Perhaps the difference is that the latter part of the 20thC led us not to expect to be insecure? Somebody is ill- medicine will make them better; what were serious conditions a generation ago are now dealt with routinely; we expected to live longer, enjoy a healthier diet, breathe less polluted air, drink cleaner water and so on.
Maybe we’ve simply lost the knack of coping with insecurity and there are fewer people around who remember less-secure times, who could have provided some wisdom to guide us now.
As we read in the machzor (p331):
Anshei emunah avadu Those we could trust have passed away, Whose power came from their own good deeds;
They had the strength to stand up to evil, Protecting others from its consequences.
Josh Levy asked me a couple of weeks ago what it had felt like during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when (for those who weren’t around) the USA and the Soviet Union were in brinkmanship stand-off over Soviet missiles on Cuba.
Last Sunday over 250 people gathered in this tent to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of YASGB, the Reform Synagogue Youth Movement, now RSY-Netzer. Talking with somebody we remembered being on a youth group weekend away in October 1962 when the world felt on the brink of nuclear war. That Sunday morning somebody got the newspapers, whose headlines were all about 6 feet high with the words ‘Nuclear War?’ For some reason the town council chose that morning to test the air-raid sirens and as the sound waxed and waned, we sat there, absolutely still, fearing the worst.
So long as the world moves along accustomed paths,” wrote Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine in the 1920s, “so long as there are no wild catastrophes, we can find sufficient substance for our lives by contemplating surface events, theories and movements of society. We can acquire our inner richness from this external kind of ‘property.’ But this is not the case when life encounters fiery forces of evil and chaos. Then the ‘revealed’ world begins to totter. Then the person who tries to sustain themselves only from the surface aspects of their existence will suffer terrible impoverishment, begin to stagger… then they will feel welling up within themselves a burning thirst for that inner substance and vision which transcends the obvious surfaces of existence and remains unaffected by the world’s catastrophes. From such inner sources we will seek the waters of joy which can restore the dry outer skeleton of existence. (Forms of Prayer, RSGB, 7th edition, 1977, p4)
On a much more personal level, few of us are insulated from Rav Kook’s ‘fiery forces of evil and chaos.’ Not every pregnancy ends in birth; nor does every baby born reach adulthood; not every loved one enjoys long life or a happy one; not all exams are passed; we don’t always get the job we go after and may, indeed, lose the one we do have; visions and dreams remain unrealised; relationships come to an end; serious illness strikes; we begin to lose our faculties.
But there are times when we encounter some sort of crisis where our resources seem unable to sustain us in the way they had until then. That in which we trusted no longer seems like such a solid rock. Then all the world does, indeed, feel like a very narrow bridge.’
And we look for reassurance, clarity. We want black and white, not grey. Maybe that’s part of Donald Trump’s appeal – he offers certainty, even if it is a totally spurious one. We want certainty. I can’t remember where I heard it but recently came across a quote to the effect that ‘neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity.’ The ‘inability to tolerate ambiguity’ – and maybe ‘ambiguity’ is just another way of speaking of that ‘very narrow bridge’?
‘Crisis’ invariably carries connotations of something terrible having happened, of some event bursting into our lives which was neither anticipated nor expected.
Though anticipated events – marriage, parenthood, going to university and so on – also carry with them the potential for crisis.
For what is happening in such moments? We find we are in a situation which means we are forced to look again at the framework of our lives: at what we hold to be true and important; at the assumptions we have made about ourselves, our relationships, who and what we are – and reassess them in the light of this new experience which we have to somehow absorb, assimilate, integrate into our being. And that induces a feeling of vulnerability.
And yet ….. that self-same point can also, paradoxically, contain the greatest possibility for change – which means that crisis can be experienced as a threat or as an opportunity.
The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word ‘crisis’ comes from a Greek word, ‘kri-neyn,’ having to do with a judgement or a decision. That’s why we talk about something a fever or an illness coming to a crisis – that fulcrum moment when everything is decided: recovery or death.
The OED goes on to say that ‘crisis’ is used figuratively to describe ‘a vitally important or decisive stage in the process of anything; a state of affairs in which a decisive change for better or worse is imminent.’ A crisis is, thus, a moment of turning.
And that sense of ‘turning’ is, of course, what the Hebrew word ‘teshuvah’ means, even if it is misleadingly translated as ‘repentance.’ For what is going on when we make ‘teshuvah,’ when we decide to repent? Our behaviour goes through some turning, some transition. It is a moment of judgement and decision. Maimonides goes into this at length in his hilchot teshuvah. Teshuvah is when we are faced with the possibility of doing exactly the same thing again, in all the same circumstances – and this time we decide not to, to take another path.
Crisis is experienced as negative when we come to the realisation that the things in which we have put our faith and trust no longer support, sustain and nourish us, when Rav Kook’s ‘fiery forces of evil and chaos’ take over. How do we find security in a world where the OED said ‘post truth’ was one of its words of the year and the phrase ‘alternative facts’ gained such currency earlier this year?
I don’t know if it’s my age or what, but I have been feeling a certain insecurity these months – not a disabling one, but enough to make negotiating that ‘very narrow bridge’ more difficult.
Josh’ question about what the feeling was in 1962 is a real one – maybe then we somehow knew that the leaders had enough experience, political nous and common sense not to press the nuclear button. Now we’re no longer so sure.
And if suicide was in the newspapers then, it was usually people who self- immolated – a Buddhist monk on a Saigon street or Jan Palach in Prague’s Wenceslas Square – acts of political protest.
Not surprisingly, Jewish teaching doesn’t give us specific information on how to react to what’s going on in this country nor in the head of Donald Trump. It’s not got easy answers because only children want those and we’re not children.
How can we live in the knowledge that “the essential thing is not to be afraid.” Maybe what Rabbi Nachman meant was something about being anchored in a realistic hope – we don’t know what will happen, but in recognising uncertainty, we also see that we may be able to influence what happen in some way. We are, as the Prophet Zechariah reminds us assirei ha’tikvah, ‘prisoners of hope’ (Zech 9:12)
In the past Jewish teaching offered a belief in things which remained constant even in the face of calamity: a belief in God, a sense of our immortal soul and that we lived in a world governed by eternal laws of justice and right. Now that’s no longer clear to us. It’s one thing to experience pain, tragedy and calamity. Quite another to feel it doesn’t fit into any larger, broader scheme of things – which may not explain anything but may provide a framework to help cope with it. Religion offers some of those things: values like love, decency, compassion.
Remember the Chasidic saying we read earlier:
We are afraid of things that cannot harm us – and we know it; And we long for things that cannot help us – and we know it; But actually it is something within us that we are afraid of, and it is something within us which we long for.
A man is wandering about in a forest, not knowing which is the right way out.
Suddenly he sees somebody approaching. “Great!” he thinks, “now at last I’ll be able to find somebody who can show me the right way.” They approach. He says to the other, “Tell me. Which is the right way? I’ve been wandering about in this forest for days.” But the other replies: “I don’t know the way out either. I’ve also been wandering about for days. But what I can tell you is this” and he points to the direction he had come from, “don’t go that way because it won’t help you. Let’s look for a way out together.”
Kol ha’olam kulo, gesher tsar me’od V’haikar lo lefached k’lal
“all the world’s a very narrow bridge – but the main thing is not to be afraid at all.”