In the months and weeks leading to the High Holy Days, a Rabbi feels a mounting pressure, a growing sense of urgency: what am I going to say to my community this year, as we are preparing to enter a new Jewish Year? One my Rabbinic colleagues commented, there is so much to say! And she was right. The world is in a mess. There is no point of denying it. In recent weeks, we have experienced the reality of global warming. The tiny numbers of refugees trying to reach our country is only a small fraction of the millions of refugees chased away from their homes because of war, of climate change, and other calamities. The war in Ukraine is lingering, with its strings of effects on world peace, global economy, prices of raw materials. And closer to home, our Western world is facing a crisis with multiple layers. We are losing trust in our institutions, our political leaders seem unable to tackle the current challenges, the soaring cost of living, the rise of all sorts of populism, the effects of climate change on our lives. And where to start with the existential threat that Israel is facing at the moment? And last year, apart from some tech nerds, nobody talked about artificial intelligence. Today, it’s everywhere; it’s worrying, and we are trying to understand how our way of life will be altered by this programmes that can think for themselves.
Of course, our views are mainly informed by media outlets, with their tendencies to tell gloom stories, with the snowball effect of social media. We know that happy stories don’t sell, that human beings have a tendency bias to pay more attention to bad news than to good news. Our system needs crisis: journalists need to dramatize news, because they attract more attention, and government officials need to appear to be responding to crisis. This creates an atmosphere of urgency, of fear, and this emotional, somehow engineered state dictates our political choices. It becomes very difficult to have a proper conversation about real challenges, because they are not presented with facts, but with an emotional charge, which ultimate goal is to win the argument, to monopolize the conversation in order to wield power.
This tendency runs deep into the human psyche. Yuval Hariri has brilliantly demonstrated this fact in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (published in English in 2014). In his work, Hariri explains that our species, homo sapiens (Latin for “wise man”) is one of the different species of humans that inhabited the earth. We appeared 2.5 million years ago, but it was only through the last 100,000 years that we began to dominate the planet. This was made possible by a series of revolutions, the first being the cognitive revolution, which occurred around 70,000 years ago, when we developed language, a skill that enabled us to cooperate in large groups and share knowledge. Hariri also says that this first revolution was made possible by our brains which grew bigger, and enabled us to create stories, narratives that have shaped since our understanding of human interrelations. I would refer you to his book for the next revolutions, that try to elucidate how we have become the dominating species on earth, for better or for worse.
Let’s explore for a moment what Hariri calls the Cognitive Revolution. It allowed Homo Sapiens to develop three new abilities: flexible language, communication about other people, and collective fictions. Hariri says, “Homo Sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language” (p. 22). Some critics have said that this was a bit simplistic, that there is more to it than just the ability to create collective fictions. However, there is an element of truth. We do create collective stories. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that they are only fictions, because they actually bring about a reality: our political or economic systems do exist and influence our lives. We define ourselves by telling stories about who we are.
As my Rabbinic colleague said, there is so much to say. But let’s be a bit humble here. I am, after all, just a Rabbi. I don’t have a definitive say on all things, and it is not a position I’d like to hold anyway. Today, I would like to frame with you what could be called the Jewish conversation about the world. Forget about media outlets, forget about social media, and look at our own Jewish stories. Let’s begin with three stories from our tradition, three stories that you can take with you this year and use as a guide.
The first is found in the Mishnah, Tractate Avodah Zarah, a tractate that deals with idolatry (A. Z. 3: 4).
Rabban Gamliel, a great Sage of the first century C.E., was bathing in a bathhouse in Akko, where a statue of the Greek goddess Aphrodite was standing. A Greek scholar, Proklos ben Flosfos, came to him and asked, ’why are you bathing in a place where there is an idol, whilst Torah prohibits any contact with idolatry?’ Rabban Gamliel replied, ‘I do not see this statue as an idol, but as a mere ornament for the place’. In other words, for the Sage, art is acceptable, as long as it is not deified. More largely, this Mishnah raises the question of living in a world that is diverse, where different cultures coexist. I think this story is perfect for a Jew in the diaspora, who is constantly asking, how do I live as a Jew in a country where I am part of a small minority? Our answers may differ, but the question remains. It needs to be addressed, and it is at the heart of our Jewish conversation.
Another story, found in the Talmud of Babylon, Tractate Ta’anit (fasts), page 23a. Honi ha-me’agel, Honi the circle drawer, was a scholar. He was known for his ability to draw perfect circles, which he used to symbolize the unity of God and the Jewish people. His prayers were usually heard because he was persistent and bold. One day, Honi was traveling on a road, and saw a man planting a carob tree. He asked the man how long it would take for the tree to bear fruit, and the man replied that it would take 70 years. Honi asked the man if he was certain he would live another 70 years to see the tree bear fruit, and he received this startling reply: he found in the world carob trees that his forefathers had planted for him, and so he was planting new trees for his children. Honi sat down for a meal and fell asleep. He woke up 70 years later and saw a man gathering the fruits of the carob tree. “Are you the man who planted the tree?”, Honi asked the picker. “No, it was my grandfather”. Honi realized he had slept for 70 years. He went back to his hometown, where nobody recognized him. And then he died. This story is quite radical. In a world that seeks instant gratification and places an emphasis on the ego and the here and now, we are reminded that we must think forward beyond our own generation and have faith in God’s care for the world. Selfishness and despair can be overcome if we look at the larger picture. We are not the measure of everything; one day we will be gone, and only remembered by the legacy we left for next generations.
The last story for today is a parable taught by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Midrash Rabbah Leviticus 4: 6). “Some travellers were on a ship. One of them took a drill and started drilling underneath him. The others said to him, what are you doing?! He replied, what do you care? It is under my seat that I am drilling. They said to him, but the water will rise and flood us all. It seems quite a good point. ‘We are indeed all in the same boat’, as they say.
All things, all human beings are interconnected. Any action, any word has consequences that need to be carefully considered. Sometimes, a small change in one state can result in larger differences in a later stage.
Let us imagine for a moment that our lives, either collective or individual, are a drama unfolding before our very own eyes. The plot of this drama is the coil of events and actions that happen every day. They are the results of our choices, conscious and unconscious, that we make at each moment. The protagonists of this drama are us, the members of our families, our community, our society. We make decisions, influence the plot, and inhabit our universe. There are interpersonal relationships, tensions, and an atmosphere created by these protagonists. The way our stories unfold brings about a certain suspense. Nobody is really sure about the direction of travel, and everything can happen. However, a drama is only great when the plot is interesting, relevant, and authentic.
That is why the Jewish drama, the Jewish conversation, is so fascinating. We are story tellers, interested in others’ life story, and the main characters of our Jewish conversation. We question endlessly the accepted wisdom of the world, with critical thinking, building on what our ancestors did in the past. We know from our history that certainty and permanence are illusions. How many times have we fled from our homes? How many times have we faced persecution, death? And yet, here we are, still celebration Rosh Hashanah with its promises of hope and renewal, after all these millennia.
Ours is a story of resilience, of humour, of controversies for the sake of finding the truth. And above all, our loyalty towards the ethical teachings of our tradition, that have shaped countless generations before us. We are responsible not only for our little selves, but also for the others. We know that all things are interconnected, so we’d better be part of it, instead on watching on the side-lines. Here we have the core elements of the Jewish story: resilience, responsibility, commitment, and loyalty.
So, when you watch or read the news, and you feel overwhelmed by what you see, remember who you are: you are Jews, a people that has seen so many tests and threats throughout its long history, and yet survived, thrived, and celebrated many Rashei Shanah.
Ken Yehi Ratzon,
May it be God’s will.
Shana Tova u’Metukah
Rabbi René Pfertzel
Kingston Liberal Synagogue, 1st Tishrei 5784