Making Our Lives Matter
Eight weeks ago, just past midnight into Monday, Jess and I visited the Peace Camp at Cuckmere Haven – by the Seven Sisters cliffs in East Sussex. One of eight on the British coast, the camp took the form of round, glowing tents of light, some orange, some white, arranged in clusters on the downs, accompanied by a sound-system, broadcasting love poems, which echoed around the tents and through the night. It was a wonderful, haunting, magical experience. And there was something else: Walking along the winding path, to and from the camp, a distance of about one mile, another breath-taking installation: the moonless, clear night sky. I had never seen so many stars, nor really taken in the clustering of swathes of light, like glistening clouds, nor the degree of variance in size and brightness of the different points of light. Only on visits to the Planetarium as a child had I been so aware of the patterns and shapes in the night sky. The glowing camp: both, living art and an evocation of a familiar type of holiday-living; a whimsical reference point in the vast universe.
Tonight the moon is also absent. The Jewish New Year begins on the first day of the Hebrew month of Tishri in a moonless sky as if beckoning Eternity to witness our tentative steps towards a new beginning. If we get to see the stars tonight after we leave and go outside, perhaps you might like to take a moment to reflect on the dome of the night sky…
With the stars and the universe in mind, tonight on Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah, I want to begin my reflections by sharing with you an intriguing cosmological hypothesis. Brian Greene, Professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, New York and co-founder of the World Science Festival has recently published a book entitled, The Hidden Reality. The Hidden Reality explores what Brian Greene calls the multiverse. Yes, multiverse, not universe. I am not a scientist, so cannot even attempt to explain how he reaches the conclusion that there are other universes beyond the universe. Let it suffice to say that the hypothesis has something to do with the failure of astronomers to explain the mystery of unfathomable amounts of ‘dark energy’, and that, according to Brian Greene, ‘direct evidence for the multiverse might come from a collision between our expanding universe and its neighbours.’ While Brian Greene calls the multiverse ‘high-risk science’, he also reminds the reader of the journey that scientists have taken over the past five centuries and how much our understanding of the cosmos has been transformed during that time. Who knows what five more centuries of exploration will reveal? So, let us pause to ponder the multiverse: the notion that there is not one expanding universe, totally beyond our imagination to fathom, but still other universes beyond….
As we reflect on the multiverse, another intriguing nugget of science – this time from the field of what is known as Epigenetics. Tom Spector, Professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London has published a book entitled, Identically Different: Why You Can Change Your Genes. When I was a sociology student at the London School of Economics in the 1970s, the nature-nurture debate raged and I remember how affronted I felt by what two sociobiologists, aptly named, Tiger and Fox, had to say about the way in which nature determined human behaviour. In more recent years that nature-nurture binary trap has been somewhat subverted by research that suggests that our behaviour can actually have an impact on our biology – not just vice versa. In Identically Different: Why You Can Change Your Genes, Tom Spector focuses on identical twins. Coming from a single fertilised egg, identical twins have identical genomes – that is they share three billion genes. And yet, clones at birth, identical twins nevertheless diverge in the course of their lifetimes in response to how they live and what they do. Contrary to what people used to think, the brain, both, on the level of anatomy, and on the level of the genetic code, can change. As it is happens, two of my God-sons are identical twins. When they were little, I really did have a hard time telling them apart. Now 18, in the course of their teens, their preoccupations, ways of being in the world and personalities became more and more distinctive, although they continue to be each other’s best friend and share many interests in common. Now, they even look physically different. So, no two human beings, even identical twins, are alike. Each individual is unique. Neither nature nor nurture alone determines who we are. For each one of us, living involves a dynamic interplay of internal and external factors, making and re-making who we are.
So, putting together these two examples of scientific exploration: on the one hand, the multiverse or the universe, in which even our galaxy, let alone our planet, is an infinitesimal speck, and our lives and struggles utterly irrelevant; on the other hand, the unique, utterly unique and dynamic, individual human life, alive with ever-changing possibilities. Yes, each individual life really does matter. Multiverse or universe there will only ever be one of us.
A short while ago the sun set on the old year. Like our birthdays, as we get older, each New Year reminds us of our mortality. And as we get older, each year seems to pass more quickly than the one before. The passing years: before we know it, we are no longer young – and then, we are no longer, even, middle-aged. Before we know it, for those whose lives are not cut off in midstream, we are old. Old age seems to begin later and later nowadays, but nevertheless, however well and fit and active we are, we know that our lives are finite and will, with certainty, come to an end, sooner or later. As the Psalmist expresses it – in Psalm 90 (:5), in words that are included in the funeral service – our lives pass, as swiftly as the day-time hours: ‘Like grass which springs up in the morning; in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers’. And in Psalm 103 – also used in the funeral service – the simile is even more pointed (:15): ‘The days of a human being are like grass, we bloom like a flower of the field; the wind passes over it and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.’
Life – each individual life – is that fleeting. While Psalm 103 tempers the message with words of comfort about God’s compassion and the steadfast Love of the Eternal One for all eternity towards those who acknowledge the sovereignty of the Divine and observe God’s Commandments (:17), Psalm 90 offers some wise counsel. Since, as it says, ‘our years come to an end like a sigh’ (90:9): ‘Teach us to number our days, that we may acquire a heart of wisdom’ (90:12). And the psalm closes with this emphatic declaration (90:17): U’ma’aseh yadeynu ko’n’nah aleynu! u’ma’aseh yadeynu ko’n’neinu! – ‘May the work of our hands endure for us! Oh! May the work of our hands endure!’
That is our hope – that somehow in the brief moment that is each person’s individual life, we will leave an enduring legacy. Interestingly, the Hebrew root, repeated twice, which I have translated, as ‘endure’ – Kaf Vav Nun – means to be ‘firm’ in the sense of to be ‘established’, ‘stable’, ‘secure’. And so the verse captures a poignant paradox: essentially, our lives are completely insubstantial, but like the stone set to mark a grave, it is possible for us to create through our actions a lasting memorial that bears witness to our fleeting existence. But that hope is also a challenge – a demanding challenge. From the Jewish point of view, it is not enough to be, we are also summoned to do – to act, to make a difference.
We have come here this evening to begin the New Year together as a congregation. But essentially this moment is not about us – as a community of Jews, or even, as a particular community of Jews – this moment is about each one of us; a collective milestone that gives each of us the opportunity to reflect on our individual lives. According to Jewish tradition, King David wrote most of the psalms, but whether or not that is true, what is so special about them is that unlike many of the other parts of the Hebrew Bible, each psalm provides a glimpse into the imagination of an individual responding on a personal level to the challenges of life. Called T’hillim, in Hebrew, from the root, Hei Lamed Lamed, to ‘praise’, what we find when we read the psalms is much more than praise for the Eternal One. We also discover anguish and fear and yearning. Perhaps, in addition to reciting the liturgy this evening, we could also take some time for ourselves before going to bed, to reflect on our lives – and perhaps, even write down, our thoughts.
So, here we are on Rosh Ha-Shanah – a collection of individuals. Like Moses at the burning bush, each one of us is challenged to respond to this moment by saying, hinneini, here I am – here I am ready to embark on a new year. But how do we summon up the courage to respond in this way? In the context of the universe and the possible multiverse, is there any point? Does it really matter what I, as an individual, do or don’t do? On the other hand, in the context of the utter uniqueness of each individual life, are we not compelled – each one of us – to make our own unique contribution?
Just a week ago, the Paralympic games ended. Like the Olympic Games a few weeks earlier, a wondrous demonstration of skill, effort, focus, determination, courage, mental and physical discipline and prowess. And also something else: a testimony to the triumph of the human spirit over adversity and audacious human ingenuity. When we look, for example, at athletes, like Chinese Sun Hongsheng, swimming without arms, or the US archer Matt Stutzman, clasping bow and arrow with his feet, or any of the other variously disabled athletes, don’t we feel that however hard the challenges we face, if they have the courage and determination to grapple with the challenges they face and realise themselves, we too, can summon up our resources of courage and determination?
Each one of us has our own personal challenges and demons. This New Year presents each one of us with a new opportunity. But it is not only for the sake of ourselves and our ever diminishing years that we are called to act. Each one of us has the chance to make a difference to others, as well as to ourselves: to enable individuals less fortunate than we are; to bring joy and blessing to our loved ones and to our friends; to make a positive contribution to our congregation, to the different communities we inhabit, to our society and to our world. On August 10th, in the midst of the Olympics, the Prime Minister hosted a Hunger Summit at 10 Downing Street. One of the people who attended that summit has become a new national hero – Mohammed Farah: one-time Somali refugee who has been British for the past 15 years of his life and is now, following his 10,000 and 5,000 metre runs, a double Olympic champion. Mo Farah: demonstrating, in his own words, what ‘hard work’ and ‘grafting’ can achieve, and also demonstrating his commitment to making a difference to the lives of others.
Mo Farah: an example to us all and also, simply, himself. In Tales of the Hassidim, Martin Buber includes this story about Rabbi Meshulam Zusya of Hanipol one of the great Hassidic Rebbes, who was born in the city of Tarnów, Galicia, in 1718 and died in 1800:
A rabbi named Zusya died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, “Why weren’t you Moses or why weren’t you Solomon or why weren’t you David?” But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, “Why weren’t you Zusya?”
The New Year beckons. May each one of us find our own ways to be who we are and to contribute our unique gifts and qualities to those around us. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah 5773 – 16th September 2012
 The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos. Vintage Books, 2011. See http://www.briangreene.org/?page_id=26
 Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2012. See review by Peter Forbes: www.guardian.co.uk/books/2012/aug/08/identically-different-genes-spector-review
 See Exodus chapter 3, verse 4.
 See http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/2012/aug/12/mo-farah-hunger-summit-downing-str
 See http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/aug/11/mo-farah-london-2012-olympic-games-double-gold
 See Schocken Books, New York, 1968, p.14