By Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg
A Mirror Before our Hearts
I wish you, your family and your friends a Shanah Tovah. May this be a good year in which we care better for each other, for our community, for our people and all people, especially the homeless, hungry, suffering and sick, and for all life.
Rosh Hashanah celebrates creation. The issue is not whether we believe God made the world in six or in six million years. Rather it is this: Do we see everything around us, including nature and other people, as ‘stuff’ to use when it suits us, exploit to the limit and throw away when we’re finished? Or do we understand life as sacred and precious; as appealing not just to our need but to our respect and reverence? This is a question answered not just by how we think but through how we act.
I can’t be alone in feeling caught between shame and wonder.
I experience collective shame when I witness how we allow people to suffer and the desperation and degradation in which they feel abandoned. I wonder what it means morally to cross in ease the borders of Europe protected by a valid passport, when others carry their children for miles and miles along railway lines and plead for food and water, for life and a future. Our people suffered such a fate once, and worse. It’s not by virtue of any personal merit that it isn’t us today. I feel shame too at my portion in an economy which often buys from the poorest at the cheapest rates, and feeds us through the desecration of the soil. I have a personal, private shame when I consider what I have said or done to hurt, when I might have acted otherwise.
Yom Kippur will set a mirror before our hearts in which the reflections of all our deeds become visible, though only to ourselves, and only if we choose to see. We can turn away; or look close and try to learn.
But mercifully life also offers wonder and joy to lift, inspire and guide us. The world is full of beauty. Practising my running, I often listen to the owls as I pass the heath, or see the bats flying through the dark above the water. In the morning, the goldfinches peck at the feeder while a blackbird eats the middle out of an overripe fruit. There’s beauty within the human heart too. One constantly witnesses kindness, little acts of ‘can I help you’ which add up to a collective good will far deeper than any distinction of age, or health, or colour or religion.
Such goodness and beauty call us towards them and guide us to live with reverence and compassion.
There’s a special prayer said only on Rosh Hashanah: ‘May all created beings know they are God’s creation’. I treasure these words because they remind us who we are and could be, who everyone else is, and how we should treat one another and the world.
Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg is the senior rabbi of Masorti Judaism and rabbi of New North London Synagogue.