As September begins, the sacred seventh month of Tishri, is just around the corner. Those synagogues – mostly in London – with memberships too large to accommodate all those who will turn up for Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur services have already hired sports halls and other large-scale venues to ensure that everyone gets a seat.
As Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote ‘the shofar calls … the most distant wanderer home.’ Paradoxically, Jewish teaching addresses, both, the Jewish people as a whole, and the individual Jew. In the Book of D’varim/Deuteronomy, we read (Va-etchannan, 6:4): Sh’ma Yisraeil Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad – ‘Listen! Israel, the Eternal is our God, the Eternal is One.’ And we also find there (Nitzavim, 29:9): Atem nitzavim etchem ha-yom kull’chem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem – ‘You are stationed today, all of you, before the Eternal your God.’ This passage, which is read on Yom Kippur in Liberal and Reform congregations, specifies the ‘all of you’, the list concluding with the words, ‘from those who chop wood to those, who draw water’, making it clear that every single individual is addressed. So, every one of us is challenged to embark on our own journey at this season: to reflect on our lives and our deeds of the past year, to undertake cheshbon ha-nefesh, an ‘accounting of ourselves’, and to engage in t’shuvah, to make amends and ‘return’ to the true path of our lives.
Despite the fact that the other holy days of the Jewish year, in particular, Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Chanukkah and Purim, stress the collective experience of the Jewish people, Jewish teaching is, paradoxically, equally concerned with the actions of the individual. In rabbinic literature, we find emphasis on the mitzvah of g’milut chasadim, ‘deeds of lovingkindness’, including, most importantly, accompanying the dead – l’vayat ha-meit –which requires the individual to accompany the individual, who has died. In the modern world, many of us adopt the prevailing assumption of the dominant culture that death is a private matter, the exclusive concern of family and close friends. This is a far cry from the Jewish attitude, which understands the death of the individual in a community context, in which each one of us, regardless of whether or not we knew the deceased, has the responsibility of accompanying the person who has died on their last journey. Significantly, the Hebrew word for a funeral is l’vayah, an ‘accompanying’.
The individual’s responsibility to act reveals another paradox: that Jewish teaching reflects universal concerns – with life, death, our deeds, and our complex needs. The sacred season begins with S’lichot, prayers of ‘Forgiveness’ on the Saturday night/Sunday morning prior to Rosh Ha-Shanah. This year, at BHPS, for our pre-service study, we will be joined by an Imam, who is a colleague and friend of mine, and we will focus together on Jewish and Muslim texts on Forgiveness. Like Judaism, the calendars of Christianity and Islam include a sacred season – Lent, Ramadan – in which adherents go on journeys of repentance. We are all in need of renewal. L’shanah tovah!