Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Rosh Hashana 5768 - a Message against Despair

Sometimes the best laid plans go to waste. Sometimes we miss opportunities. Sometimes we feel we simply don’t control our lives. Sometimes, or perhaps once a year, we need to think about where we're headed, whether we're going in the right direction, and whether we're where we want to be.

In a speech last April,
David Grossman describes the emotional desensitization caused by living in a war zone, the dangers of becoming ‘nationalized and confiscated by the conflict, by governments and armies, by despair and tragedy.' He talks about the void growing ever so slowly between the individual human being and the external, violent and chaotic situation he lives in and which is being filled with apathy, cynicism and despair: Despair of the possibility of ever changing the prevailing state of affairs, of ever being redeemed from it.

On a similar theme but set in a completely different time and place, Amos Oz describes his aunt’s feelings of growing up amongst the Gentiles in 1930s Poland.

"A thousand times it was hammered in to the head of every Jewish child that we must not irritate them, or hold our heads up, and we must only speak to them quietly, with a smile, so they shouldn’t say we were noisy, and we must always speak to them in good correct Polish, so they couldn’t say we were defiling the language, but we must speak in Polish that was too high, so they couldn’t say we had ambitions above our station and Heaven forbid they should say we had stains on our skirts. In short, we had to try very hard to make a good impression…You who were born here in Israel can never understand how this constant drip drip distorts all your feelings, how it corrodes your human dignity like rust…"

Sometimes it doesn’t matter what country people live in. To paraphrase that 1980s
Bonnie Tyler song, every now and then we all experience a partial eclipse of the heart, a clogging up of our feelings, like the sticky goo in the British anti smoking adverts that somehow blocks our emotional arteries, prevents us from truly feeling…from truly becoming who we are meant to be.

Rosh Hashana for me, is about trying to unclog the muck, to purify our hearts to allow us to feel, to rid the void within us of despair and apathy and fill it with hope, to ignore those aspects of our environment that impede us from becoming who we really are, to overcome the ‘corr
osion of human dignity’ and the ‘void of despair and apathy.’

In short to do Teshuva, to ‘return’ to ourselves, to who we are supposed to be.

Grossman and Oz raise a challenge that we should be answering – how to face a painful reality yet continue to feel, how to face a world that rejects us yet remain true to ourselves. How to experience disappointment yet not become apathetic to the suffering of others. How to find enough room in our hearts to care about domestic violence in Lod and road accidents in Rahat, to feel for the children of Sderot and Bet find the courage to ignore what the goyim may think.

Yet the message of Rosh Hashana is the opposite of Grossman’s ‘despair of ever changing our prevailing state of affairs’. Instead it teaches us that if we’re not happy with the type of person we are, we have the power to change. If we’re not satisfied with the society in which we live, we have the power to make a difference.

On the anniversary of humanity’s creation when each person and nation needs to answer God’s everlasting question of איכה – where are you, let me wish anyone that still visits this site after 5 weeks without a fresh post a happy new year filled with renewed ability to return to ourselves, to unclog our arteries and to believe the radical idea that if our lives or society or country or world aren’t the way we would like, the power lies within us to effect change.

Shana Tova

(for anyone interested in seeing how my writing has regressed in the past year, click
here to check out my 2 Rosh Hashana posts from last year)