Rosh haShanah Sermon: The Good News and the Bad News
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz
The Good News and the Bad News
As is fitting for this time of year, there’s some good news and bad news. Which would you like first?
The bad news is that religion is a transformative power in the world.
Whether we are personally religious or not, there’s no denying that despite Richard Dawkins’ better hopes, religion is alive and kicking. And it’s especially the ‘kicking’ part that is troubling. This world, this young century, this year, these last few months have seen no shortage in how religion can ‘transform’ our world. The new millennium was dragged in kicking and screaming by the attack on the Twin Towers of 9/11, already an unbelievable 13 years ago. To say that this caused a cascade of disastrous political events would be an understatement.
Violent religious fundamentalism – be it Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian and yes, even Jewish – has a lot to answer for. The reasons why people follow fundamentalism are too complex to address here, though it suffices to say it involves a heady mixture of social, economic and psychological factors. For the fundamentalist, there is a stalwart belief that their religion can change things. Change individuals, change the world. And they have the fire, zeal and resources to try to inflict that change. We moderates are called to stand up to the madness in the world that is perpetuated in the name of God. We are inundated with these messages on every tv, computer and phone screen, every print and visual media at every turn. We may or may not have seen the gruesome images of the last few months. We may or may not have had heated arguments or desperate musings over the state of the world. ‘No man is an island’ and there are wild seas crashing into us indeed.
But the very curse that is seen to afflict our world is also our blessing. That is why there is actually good news too.
The good news of course being: ‘religion is a transformative power in the world!’ The challenge is, however, do we believe it? Right here today – do we believe in the transformative power of Judaism? The transformative power of Torah? Dare I say, the transformative power of God, however you define that in your own heart?
If there is any time of the year more apt to believe in the transformative power of our Judaism, this is it. Embedded in this season of Rosh haShanah, Yom Kippur and even Sukkot and Simchat Torah is that we can change. We can take that U-turn. We can do ‘teshuvah’, and return to our authentic selves, our authentic relationships and our authentic values. The power to change, renew, reset, reboot is woven through the fabric of our liturgy. ‘Tzedakah, teshuvah, u’tefillah ma’avirin et roah hagezeirah’: ‘acts of justice, repentance and prayer can change this evil decree.’ As problematic as it may be to believe in an authoritarian God on high Who punishes and rewards, there’s also an incredibly powerful message here: we can shift our circumstances, we can realign our priorities and we can change the outcome of our own lives. If there is one core message across our liturgy - from the rousing blast of the shofar as our spiritual alarm-clock to the solidarity expressed in our High Holy Day appeal to the internal discipline and strength we draw upon when fasting to the plaintive words of the Avinu Malkeinu – it is that we can be transformed.
This new year, however, is even more transformative than most. It is also the start of the Shmita Year, the little-known ‘Sabbatical Year of Rest’ that the Torah speaks of in the books of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. This Rosh haShanah – today – when we welcome 5775, we also welcome the start of this new seven year cycle. As the Torah states:
"You may plant your land for six years and gather its crops. But during the seventh year, you must leave it alone and withdraw from it. The needy among you will then be able to eat just as you do, and whatever is left over can be eaten by wild animals. This also applies to your vineyard and your olive grove." (Exodus 23:10-11)
"At the end of every seven years, you shall celebrate the remission year. The idea of the remission year is that every creditor shall remit any debt owed by his neighbor and brother when God's remission year comes around. You may collect from the alien, but if you have any claim against your brother for a debt, you must relinquish it...." (Deuteronomy 15:1-6)
Let us take a closer look at what these terse Biblical verses mean. In Biblical times, the Shmita Year was holistically transformative on every level of society: slaves were freed, debts were annulled, lands were laid fallow, its natural produce benefitting the poor and destitute who would glean from the fallow fields. We don’t know historically whether the Shmita Year was actually implemented, but just like the 2000 Drop the Debt Jubilee Campaign, it is an amazing goal to aspire to. To think, in an agricultural society, people could be freed from the bondage of debt and the scourge of hunger as well as letting the land rest and recuperate is nothing short of revolutionary. Religion, then, is about the bold imagining of how things could be.
This bold imagining, or in this case, reimagining, of the Shmita Year is what has lead to a flurry of thinking and activity around this coming Shmita Year. Both in the land of Israel (where Shmita exists as a real agricultural reality and where rabbis have become experts at finding halakhic loopholes to keep the economy afloat during this time) and the Diaspora, creative thinking has gone on about what Shmita can mean to us in the modern world.
Imagine you could push the reset button. Imagine you could reboot your life: your relationship to self, other, planet and God. Imagine we could actually change things; not just through the words we speak but through small but important actions. Imagine we could believe in this powerful idea that we can tip the scales of the balance. ‘Ma’avirin et roa hagezeirah’ is not about the antiquated image of God judging the world; it’s about us tipping the scales in favour of goodness, justice, love, hope.
This is what the current Shmita Project is about. About asking ourselves very fundamental questions about our quality of life, our responsibility in the world and our relationships. About our mortgages, financial commitments, work relationships, consumer patterns...
Different British Jewish organisations have come together through Jhub, a London charity that encourages Jewish social activism and provides seed funding and resources for tikkun olam projects, to launch 5775’s Shmita Year. If this sounds abstract, it will get quite a bit more tangible when I share Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers’ musings on her own ‘Shmita Manifesto’.
Rabbi Young-Somers may be known to some of you as the Movement of Reform Judaism’s community educator and is one of the brightest, most creative young rabbis in our movement. She explains:
“Many of us need the Shmita Year personally, and our environment is crying out for it, not to mention some of those who produce that which we endlessly consume. The faceless nature of the world’s economy today has made it possible for us to disregard the humanity of others. Others who produce our goods, or who are going hungry in the next street. Shmita asks us to let go of the concept of 'mine' and 'yours'; to share, to let go. Our regular economy grows on interest and indebtedness (a recurring problem in the last few years). The Shmita economy grows through gifting and sharing, and from everyone working together to be prepared. I was deeply moved at the Siach Shmita summit in May of this year by the variety of ways people around the world were looking to explore, expand, and bring meaning to their lives through Shmita. And they inspired me to want to make this coming year meaningful for us as a UK Jewish community (which the Jewish Social Action Forum will help us do with campaigns around food banks) but also for me on a personal level. How can I embody release, rest, just economics, healthier relationships to consumption, freedom, and a year that would bring balance to help me begin the next cycle with renewed vigour, as Shabbat does every week!”
Not only are her words inspiring, but our own Sinai Synagogue is proud to be at the forefront of this innovative conversation. We have signed up as a community to integrate the best of the Shmita Year into our own programming: educational, religious and social. Gwynneth Lewis, our Director of Education and myself are honoured to work on implementing this throughout the year through learning but also through supporting charities and local projects, whether it’s strengthening civic society through Citizens Leeds (a local branch of Citizens UK), joining the Living Wage Campaign and being a Living Wage employer ourselves, supporting the North Leeds Food Bank, raising money for Abigail Housing, a charity working with homeless refugees through our ‘Synagogue of Sanctuary Sukkah Sleep-out’ on the 14th of October (join us!), continuing our Winter Appeal and BOGO (‘buy one give one’) campaigns, there is plenty – and more – in the works on how we can transform our world, one small mitzvah at a time.
I've seen that transformative power of 'one mitzvah at a time' at our own synagogue by an intrepid team of volunteers displaying a 'get up and go' attitude by renovating the ladies' bathrooms - a scourge that has plagued Sinai Synagogue for many years! Through their collective sourcing of volunteers and supplies, they reshaped the space, making it more beautiful, more welcoming and user-friendlier, all through the consciousness that one mitzvah can change our world.
The opposite of hope is not despair but indifference. In our world, the bad news and the good news are inextricably linked. We live in a world more connected and more saturated with information than ever before. (For instance, the average American, I’m told, consumes 34 gigabytes and 12 hours of information a day. As Benjamin Disraeli, or Mark Twain, would have cautioned to take statistics with a grain of salt, but the point still stands). But this means that this world also presents us with more and more opportunities for transformation. And more and more opportunities for our Judaism to speak to us on a much deeper level that previously imagined.
The key of the High Holy Day message is that it isn’t only the High Holy Day message – it’s a daily message condensed in this intense ritual of introspection. What are the ways in which you want to challenge yourself? What do you want to see changed and what do you want to change? Use this sacred, reflective space to engineer your own Shmita – your own release and reboot. What is the baggage you want to leave behind? What are the gifts you want to carry with you? And what mitzvah – no matter how small – speaks to your Jewish identity, to your sense of who you are and how you want to move through the world?
The well-known Social Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said:
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has.”
We can rephrase this: ‘never doubt that religion, in its most noble form can change the world.”
It is up to us to reclaim what we love about our Jewish lives and our world.
Distancing ourselves from the toxic elements of religious fundamentalism can only be fully realised by building a viable, meaningful, compelling, progressive alternative. It means wrestling with our heritage, wrestling what it means to live in sacred community, wrestling with what it means to be a global yet Jewish citizen in the 21st century. But we are ‘Yisrael’ – God-wrestlers – and we can have great faith in our ancient tradition.
Pick up your machzor – your Lonely Planet Guide to transformation and meet the challenge.
Our world depends on it.