Every morning when I go downstairs to feed our two cats, I always open the door on the area of the house that that they are allowed to roam in at night, rather gingerly: what will I find? Sometimes: a neat pile of innards on the carpet – always the carpet; never the wooden floor. Sometimes, a tiny inert mouse or vole – left uneaten. Sometimes: a pile of feathers. Sometimes – thankfully – nothing at all. Exactly two weeks ago, I opened the door, and looked left to take in the small organs of a consumed creature. As I proceeded to put out the food that some nutrition-conscious human beings have decided their cats should eat, Dinah, the larger of the twins, whom I usually find waiting for her breakfast, did not begin to eat. The cat-flap moved – was that the wind? As she continued to be distracted, I went to investigate. Lailah, our other cat was standing still in the conservatory area, a small greenfinch in her mouth. In a flash, managing to surprise Lailah, I released the bird and she fluttered behind the store of tins in the corner. Somehow, despite Lailah’s determined efforts to recapture the greenfinch again, I managed to take the fledgling in my cupped hands, walk across the kitchen into the living area and open the window to release her. On that short journey to the window, I felt that tiny creature’s heart beating rapidly against my left palm. As I was walking back, glancing at that hand, I found a small patch of blood. Obviously, she was injured – and yet she had flown away … would she survive? If she didn’t, I hoped that, at least, she would die quietly in a sheltered space, and not become prey to another creature.

What do you make of that story? Does it point to the difference between human beings and animals; that they are guided by their instincts, and we are impelled by conscience? Does it demonstrate how irrational so-called rational human beings can be; after all, there is a food chain: cats eat birds; birds eat worms; it’s a natural process. The birds that are caught are weaker, or simply unlucky; the birds that don’t get eaten are stronger: ‘survival of the fittest’ rules – okay? So, what’s the point of interfering? No point, but still, the need to intervene – governed by our human moral sense, and by our feelings of empathy for a suffering, captured creature, born to fly and roam free.

Where does this moral sense and empathy come from? Is it natural? The very first portion of the Torah, B’reishit, relates in Genesis chapter 4, the tale of the first siblings. Like so many of the stories the Bible tells, it is shocking: jealous because God prefers his brother, Abel’s offering over his own, Cain kills Abel. And then, when asked by the Eternal One, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ Cain has the nerve to retort, ‘I don’t know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ (4:9). Hot-blooded murder; compounded by cold-hearted deceit.

So, human beings don’t just kill to feed ourselves, we kill in fits of rage, revenge or rivalry. Of course, the murderous feelings nurtured in our childhoods alongside the loving feelings, provoked by our experiences of helplessness, abandonment and displacement, don’t lead the great majority of us to commit murder. But the point is that human beings are not simply creatures of conscience, capable of constructing moral codes, with the unique ability to think and reason, we are emotionally driven, too. And our emotions may drive us to kill, as well as to save life.

What sort of theme is this for an Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah sermon, you may ask? Well, in essence that’s why we’re here: to explore what it means to be human. According to the rabbis the Jewish New Year is ‘the birthday of the world’ – harat olam; the anniversary of Creation – and so, the birthday of humanity, too. It is also, again, according to the rabbis, yom ha-din, ‘the Day of Judgement’, when, following a month of preparation, we embark more intensely on the process of reflecting on our lives and on our deeds – and misdeeds; what we have done and what we have failed to do; whom we have hurt and wronged; on our frailties and habitual failings and weaknesses. However, while the forty days from the first day of Ellul until Yom Kippur, may be the Jewish time for engaging in cheshbon ha-nefesh, ‘the accounting of the soul’, that’s not because self-examination is a Jewish task alone: Muslims, engage in a similar process during the month of Ramadan, and Christians, during the forty days of Lent that lead up to Easter.

Each of us is on our own personal journey. At the same time, we are also walking together, alongside one another, the path of t’shuvah, repentance and return. So what sense are we making of who we are – of what it is to be human? I have mentioned Cain and Abel. As we survey the history of the world on the world’s birthday, and reflect, in particular, on the history of our people, as we ponder the defining events of the 20th century, as we look back on the first decade of the 21st century, we are aware that alongside the wondrous fruits of our creative endeavours as a species: conflict and war, destruction and genocide. But how often do we collectively own up to it all? How often, by contrast do we make sense of the challenging events of the past – and the present – in terms of victims and perpetrators; letting ourselves off the hook, because other people – murderers, despots, terrorists, fanatics, psychopaths – have committed these terrible deeds?

Of course, 99% of the time, other people are directly responsible. Nevertheless, these other people, whether we consider them to be ‘mad’ or ‘bad’, are still human beings – like us – and were babies once. Not only that, but some of these other people – like the 2005 7/7 bombers, for example – had fairly unexceptional childhoods, went to school and university, like thousands of other young people. Until they were radicalised by extremist Islamist propaganda, the path they were taking was leading them towards middle-class professional careers, not in the direction of murderous terror.

Two months ago, on July 22nd, a 32-year-named, Anders Breivik, bombed government buildings in Oslo, killing eight people, and then went on a shooting spree at a camp of the Workers’ Youth League (AUF) of the Labour Party on the nearby island of Utøya, where he murdered 69 people, mostly teenagers. Breivik was clearly motivated by extreme right-wing views, as is evident in the militant far-right manifesto is circulated on the Internet just before he went on the rampage. Is Breivik a psychopath? Probably. But judging by his contacts with organisations, like the English Defence League, his views are shared by a significant minority of other right-wing extremists. And what about the particular details of Brevik’s personal biography – do the facts of his life explain his behaviour? Breivik’s father was a diplomat, his parents divorced when he was young, and the young Anders was brought up by his mother. Meanwhile, both his parents are Labour Party supporters. Significantly, the newspapers at the time of the killings report his father’s feeling that his son should have taken his own life. Should Breivik have taken his own life before or after he killed 77 people? Having planned his attacks meticulously for nine years, Breivik clearly felt that this was what he had to do. But what else might he have done with his rage and resentment? Could he have chosen another way?

On September 11th, the 10th anniversary of the terrorist assault on the United States was marked by commemorative events in the US and in London. On the anniversary of 9/11 itself, and in the days leading up to it, a series of television programmes repeatedly replayed video footage of the planes crashing into the Twin Towers, of the towers collapsing, of the destruction and mayhem. There are no words adequate to express the horror of it all. And, since that day: the ‘war on terror’, resulting in the wars, still on-going, in Iraq and Afghanistan; thousands more dead – including hundreds of British and American soldiers.

So, this is how human beings deal with our conflicts and our grievances. The 9/11 terrorists, like their 7/7 counterparts, were also, educated young men once, full of other possibilities: could they have taken a different path? The American and British governments felt compelled to respond to 9/11 by going to war. Again: were there other options?

I don’t have the answers to these questions – and I don’t expect that you do either. I recall at the millennium, looking back on the 20th century. Even after the Great War, and the Second World War, after the Sho’ah and Hiroshima, after Stalin’s purges, after Biafra and Cambodia – after all this and more, the 1990s bore witness to the, so-called, ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Bosnian Muslims by the Serbs, and the mass murder of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis by their Hutu neighbours in Rwanda. I remember hoping at the dawn of a new millennium, that the 21st century would be different. How foolish! How irrational! After all, the calendar that configures that we have completed one millennium and started another, is a human construct. And so, the only era that is really significant is the era of homo-sapiens, of the human species that began to evolve around 200,000 years ago. And the only question that really matters is, are we human beings capable of change?

The scientists will remind us that evolution is a very slow process, and since we haven’t really evolved as a species since the time we lived in caves, it is unlikely that we can change our behaviour in the short term, at least, during the next few thousand years …. And yet, alongside the litany of horrors, there are all the steps that we have taken, especially since the end of the Second World War, with the founding of the United Nations and the International Declaration of Human Rights. And so, the creation of new political and legal frameworks to create possibilities for nonviolent ways of dealing with human conflict, reflecting the determination on the part of the human community – in a formal sense – to change. This is an entirely new departure in the history of human affairs. And then, there have been some largely non-violent transformations, most notably, in South Africa and in the former Soviet Union. Maybe we don’t have to wait thousands of years. Maybe human beings can learn from our mistakes and effect positive change?

So how do we go about it? All the self-help books around now tell us that it is possible for individuals to change, provided the individual acknowledges the need to change and is really committed to personal transformation. So, we can break destructive habits; we can find new ways of relating to others and ourselves. But we don’t have to look to contemporary self-help guides. The basic premise of all Jewish teaching, from the Torah onwards, is that human beings are capable of change – hence all the commandments and laws directed, not simply at controlling our behaviour, but, more importantly, at changing our ways. Indeed, these ‘awed days’ – yamim nora’im – are predicated on the notion that we can turn our lives around, and are structured to enable us to engage in a process of transformation. That is why Rosh Ha-Shanah is preceded by a month of preparation. That is why Rosh Ha-Shanah revolves around the shofar waking us up to pay attention to our lives, and ushers in a ten-day period of repentance that concludes on Yom Kippur. This does not mean that we may be able to transform ourselves in just ten days – or even in forty. As we read in Pirkey Avot, the Chapters of the Sages, appended to the Mishnah, the first code of rabbinic law, edited around the year 200: lo alecha ha-m’lachah ligmor, v’lo atah ven-chorin l’hibateil mimenah – ‘It is not for you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it’ (2:16).

Perhaps, we may only manage to change in very small ways. But each New Year brings a new opportunity. Of course, there are obstacles in the way – fear, obstinacy, denial – before we can even embark on the process. But that is why this important season summons us to come together. The task of trying to change lies before each one of us, but we are not alone. We are accompanying one another, and hopefully, encouraging one another. As we begin this New Year together now, let us give thanks for the opportunity it gives us to renew our lives. And let us say: Amen.

Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah

Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut

Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah 5772 – 28th September 2011