This evening, as the old year fades into the darkness, and before the New Year dawns, we have gathered for an interval between the old and new, between the known and the unknown, between our achievements and failures of the past and the opportunities and challenges of the future.
Let us take a moment to reflect in this space between the years, and recall how we have lived during the past twelve months, our experiences of joy and sorrow, loss and fulfilment. Let us also, pause to consider what we have done – and not done; how we have used our powers – for good and for ill.
Eight days ago, on the penultimate Saturday evening of the year, we inaugurated yamim nor’aim, ‘the days of awe’, with a study session, followed by the S’lichot service, which focuses on prayers in search of ‘forgiveness.’ Before we began, we conducted havdalah, the Jewish ritual that concludes Shabbat, and acknowledges the distinction between the ‘sacred’ seventh day and the six ‘ordinary’ working days of the week. As the concluding phrase of the blessing we recite at the end of the ceremony, puts it: Barukh Attah adonai, ha-mavdil beyn kodesh l’chol – ‘Blessed are you, Eternal One, who distinguishes between sacred and profane.’
Havdalah is a beautiful ritual conducted in the semidarkness, involving a candle of intertwined wicks, mixed spices and the fruit of the vine. At the beginning of the ceremony, the multi-wicked candle is lit, generating a spectacular flame. Then, the cup of wine or grape juice is lifted and the requisite blessing is recited. Next, it is the turn of the spices, accompanied by another blessing, and each participant breathes in the bittersweet fragrance. Finally, everyone turns to the flame, some reaching out their arms and bending their fingers towards their palms to note the distinction between light and dark. Significantly, unlike the Erev Shabbat candle-lighting ritual, the blessing recited is not for light, but rather for fire; it concludes: Barukh Attah Adonai, borei m’orey ha-eish – ‘Blessed Are You, Eternal One, who creates the lights of the fire.’ Note: the plural form. As we gaze at the dancing flame we see many lights within it.
Havdalah, the ritual for ‘distinguishing’ between sacred and profane is more complex than it seems. When we inhale the mixture of spices, we sense that life is made up of multiple varied experiences. When we look at the havdalah candle, we see in the intertwined wicks and the luminous lights that ‘sacred’ and ‘profane’ are closely interconnected; the one has no meaning without the other, and both are multifaceted. As we recite the blessing for the lights of the fire, we remember that the power to light fire is a human gift, and it is also in the gift of human beings, how we use that power. At the beginning of each week, we are reminded that it is our responsibility to choose. Will we light fires that consume and destroy, or will we light fires for warmth and nourishment? And so, as we spill the contents of the cup to douse the flame, we let go of the joy and peace of Shabbat and face the challenges of the week ahead.
Havdalah is always a profound moment at the end of Shabbat. Yesterday evening, as the sun set on the last Shabbat of the year, the sense of the choice before each one of us became starker and more direct. How will we exercise our powers in the year that lies before us?
It is not easy to acknowledge that we have power – even the weakest and most vulnerable amongst us. As we witness the plight of refugees fleeing monstrous tyranny, persecution and violence; when we learn about yet another bombing and the senseless destruction of the lives of individuals, who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, we like to imagine that the perpetrators of these ‘evils’ are alien creatures, not at all like us. But the reality is that the only difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is how we choose to use our powers. We also like to imagine that the motives of those who wreak havoc and destruction are simply wicked and malevolent; that they are all nihilistic ‘terrorists’. But then, what do we make of the killing and destruction perpetrated by armies in war – wars sanctioned by governments, including the British government?
This year, has marked the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. In the final months of the conflict in Europe, in an effort to force Germany to surrender, the Allied powers engaged in carpet bombing campaigns that levelled cities, like Dresden, to the ground and killed tens of thousands of people. But, as the war continued to rage in the East after the defeat of Hitler, the worst was yet to come. On August 6, 1945, after years of secrecy in a bid to acquire nuclear capability ahead of Germany, the Americans dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. When the Japanese failed to surrender, a second bomb was detonated over Nagasaki on August 9. Japan surrendered on August 15. So, the bombs achieved their objective. Meanwhile, the lives of hundreds of thousands of people were devastated – and the impact of radiation continues to be felt in the succeeding generations.
Did the ends justify the means? And: how to calculate the destruction? Of course, there are a host of facts and figures. On the atomicbombmuseum.org website, we read:
The Hiroshima bomb was exploded at a height of 580 meters (1,870 ft.) for maximum effect. The bomb’s explosive force then shot directly down to earth below (ground zero), spread swiftly out to surrounding hills, and then rebounded back into the city…. The energy release of the Hiroshima bomb was the equivalent of 12.5 kilotons of TNT. At burst point, the temperature reached several million degrees Centigrade. This heat was 35% of the bomb’s total energy release. Hiroshima’s resident-plus-temporarily present population at that time, is estimated at 340,000–350,000.
Of that number, 158,597– under half the population – survived. But surely, the word ‘survived’ is somewhat of a euphemism. After all, subjected to the on-going effects of radiation the ‘survivors’ – and their descendants – were also among the ‘victims’.
Meanwhile, concerning Nagasaki, we read:
The Nagasaki bomb was exploded at a height of 503 meters (1,540 ft.) above a densely populated valley just north of the city’s center. Here, too, the explosive force and heat instantly impacted ground zero, swept out to the hills and back. Its destructive heat and force exceeded that of Hiroshima. The combined resident-plus-temporarily present population total for Nagasaki on the bombing date is estimated at 260,000–270,000.
There were 124,167 survivors – well over half the population were killed. Apparently, 10 people experienced both bombings.
The figures for these instantaneous destructions are staggering. Just as it is hard to comprehend the murder of 6 million Jews – a third of the Jewish people – by the Nazis and their co-murderers between 1938 and 1945, so it is very hard to grasp what it means for tens of thousands of people to die in an instant. And so, it is always helpful to hear the stories of those who witnessed the horror. The Hiroshima Peace and Cultural Centre has video-recorded the testimonies of survivors. On another website, I found the testimony of Dr. Michihiko Hachiya, who lived through the Hiroshima bombing and kept a diary of his experience. Director of the Hiroshima Communications Hospital, Dr Hachiya lived near the hospital approximately a mile from the explosion’s epicentre. His diary was published in English in 1955. Let me share with you some of his account. I shall omit the most graphic parts:
Clad in drawers and undershirt, I was sprawled on the living room floor exhausted because I had just spent a sleepless night on duty as an air warden in my hospital.
Suddenly, a strong flash of light startled me – and then another. So well does one recall little things that I remember vividly how a stone lantern in the garden became brilliantly lit and I debated whether this light was caused by a magnesium flare or sparks from a passing trolley.
Garden shadows disappeared. The view where a moment before had been so bright and sunny was now dark and hazy. Through swirling dust I could barely discern a wooden column that had supported one comer of my house. It was leaning crazily and the roof sagged dangerously.
Moving instinctively, I tried to escape, but rubble and fallen timbers barred the way. By picking my way cautiously I managed to reach the roka [an outside hallway] and stepped down into my garden. A profound weakness overcame me, so I stopped to regain my strength. To my surprise I discovered that I was completely naked How odd! Where were my drawers and undershirt?
What had happened? All over the right side of my body I was cut and bleeding…
Where was my wife? Suddenly thoroughly alarmed, I began to yell for her: ‘Yaeko-san! Yaeko-san! Where are you?’…
Yaeko-san, pale and frightened, her clothes torn and blood stained, emerged from the ruins of our house holding her elbow. Seeing her, I was reassured. My own panic assuaged, I tried to reassure her. ‘We’ll be all right,’ I exclaimed. ‘Only let’s get out of here as fast as we can.’ She nodded, and I motioned for her to follow me…
Our progress towards the hospital was interminably slow, until finally, my legs, stiff from drying blood, refused to carry me farther. The strength, even the will, to go on deserted me, so I told my wife, who was almost as badly hurt as I, to go on alone. This she objected to, but there was no choice. She had to go ahead and try to find someone to come back for me…
Could I go on? I tried. It was all a nightmare – my wounds, the darkness, the road ahead. My movements were ever so slow; only my mind was running at top speed.
In time I came to an open space where the houses had been removed to make a fire lane. Through the dim light I could make out ahead of me the hazy outlines of the Communications Bureau’s big concrete building, and beyond it the hospital. My spirits rose because I knew that now someone would find me; and if I should die, at least my body would be found. I paused to rest. Gradually things around me came into focus. There were the shadowy forms of people, some of whom looked like walking ghosts… A naked woman carrying a naked baby came into view. I averted my gaze. Perhaps they had been in the bath. But then I saw a naked man, and it occurred to me that, like myself, some strange thing had deprived them of their clothes. An old woman lay near me with an expression of suffering on her face; but she made no sound. Indeed, one thing was common to everyone I saw – complete silence.
All who could were moving in the direction of the hospital. I joined in the dismal parade when my strength was somewhat recovered, and at last reached the gates of the Communications Bureau.
With the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, humanity entered a new era. Henceforward our destructive capability had no limits. And yet, of course, human beings are also capable of the most astounding creativity. As always, Jewish teaching is helpful as we explore what it is to be human, and Jewish teachings associated with the New Year are particularly instructive. Like the New Year in every culture, on Rosh Ha-Shanah, the year changes. And so, as the sun set this evening, we entered the year 5776. As we are aware, the Christian calendar – which has become recognised by most people’s, alongside their own particular calendars – is dated from the birth of Jesus (with a few adjustments along the way). The Jewish calendar, by contrast, begins, not with the ancestors of the Jewish people, Abraham and Sarah, but rather with Creation. Rosh Ha-Shanah is harat olam, ‘the birthday of the world’. Of course, the planet Earth is not 5,776 years old; the calculation is based on the generations recorded in the Torah. Nevertheless, the principle is very important. Each New Year, we celebrate, not simply the New Year for our people, but the anniversary of Creation.
There are two creation narratives in B’reishit, the Book of Genesis, which span chapters 1 and 2. In the first, humanity is at the apex of creation, empowered by the Divine to have total dominion over all the other creatures. It is not clear in this account if there are any limits to humanity’s powers. In the second, the first human, ha-adam, formed out of the dust of the ground – ha-adamah – is placed in a garden l’ovdah u’l’shomrah – ‘to serve it and keep it.’ And humanity doesn’t even have complete dominion of this limited realm. As we read in Genesis 2: 16-17:
The Eternal God commanded the human being, saying: ‘Of every tree of the garden, you may freely eat; / but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat of it; for in the day that you eat from it, you shall surely die.’
As Genesis chapter 3 reveals, eating of the fruit of the forbidden tree meant, not sudden death, but the beginning of mortal existence in the real world. It seems as though the second creation narrative is an antidote to the first; an attempt to contain the power of humanity, and bring the human being, down-to-earth.
Nevertheless, one particular verse in the first creation narrative gives us pause for thought. We read at Genesis 1:27:
Then God created the human being in His image, in the image of God, God created it [oto]; male and female, God created them [otam].
‘In the image of God’ – b’tzelem Elohim. As we learn in Genesis 2, the God-like human being is nevertheless controlled by the all-powerful Creator. Nevertheless, we are images of the all-powerful God in every respect. The Creator is also a Destroyer. The very next parashah, the Torah portion, Noach, relates the story of the flood. Having created the world, the Creator was so enraged by human wickedness that God decided to wipe it out – with the exception of a remnant: Noah and his family. And then, towards the end of parashat Noach, we find the story of the Tower of Babel. When a revived humanity came together to build a tower that scaled the heavens, incensed by human arrogance, God destroyed their work, scattering the peoples across the earth and confounding their languages, so they could no longer communicate with each other. Of course, these are stories – ways in which our ancestors attempted to make sense of how humanity came to be divided to separate nations, and to explain the massive flood that did devastate that part of the world, as recorded in other ancient traditions, like the Gilgamesh Epic. At the same time, like all good stories, these tales have much to teach us – not least, about the implications of being b’tzelem Elohim, ‘in the image of God.’ One of the purposes of these narratives may be to warn humanity that however powerful we may be, ultimately, God has the upper hand. They also remind us that power is power – and that as images of God we have the capacity, both, to create and to destroy.
Since the atomic bombings of August 1945, humanity has lived, both in the shadow of the impact of nuclear devastation, and in the knowledge of the potential for total destruction at the push of a button. Of course, we do not directly wield that button-pushing power ourselves. But we do have the power to call to account those who wield state power. We do have the power to speak out against nuclear proliferation and to challenge governments to make the case for war in all circumstances. And, just as important, we have the power to make a difference through our actions great and small to the lives of those near and far, and to the world that we all share. This evening, as we begin a New Year, may remembrance of the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki make us mindful of our powers as homo sapiens – the most powerful creature on the planet. Aware of the power that lies in our hands, may we resolve to channel our awesome capacities for life-affirming purposes, so that we generate blessing for ourselves, for others, and for all the whole earth. And let us say, Amen.
Rabbi Elizabeth Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom Verei’ut
Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah 5776 – 13th September 2015
- The principal scientist involved in the Manhattan Project that produced the bomb was Jewish theoretical physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer. Interestingly, as chief adviser to the newly created United States Atomic Energy Commission after the war, Oppenheimer lobbied for international control of nuclear power and counselled against an ‘arms race’ with the Soviet Union. But even before the first bomb was dropped on Japan, after the test atomic bomb was detonated in New Mexico on July 16, 1945, Oppenheimer later revealed that it prompted him to recall words from the Hindu sacred text Bhagavad Gita: ‘Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds’ ( www.amphilsoc.org/sites/default/files/proceedings/Hijiya.pdf ). For books about Oppenheimer, see American Prometheus: the Triumph and tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2005) and J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century by David Cassidy (Pi Press, New York, 2005). ↑
- “Surviving the Atomic Attack on Hiroshima, 1945,” Eye Witness to History, www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (2001).
- During the musaf, ‘additional’ service, when the shofar is blown in three sequences of blasts, the congregation recites the prayer that begins, ha-yom harat olam – ‘Today is the birthday of the world’. The prayer is found in the first prayer book, Seder Rav Amram by Amram ben Sheshna (c. 860 CE) (edited by Daniel Goldschmidt, Jerusalem, 1971). According to the German-Jewish liturgist, Ismar Elbogen, in his Jewish Liturgy. A Comparative History (Translated by Raymond Scheindlin, JPS and JTS, NY/Philadelphia, 1993), these verses are common to all denominational rites and are based on a passage in the Babylonian Talmud (c. 500 CE): Tractate Rosh Ha-Shanah 10b
- For a fuller exploration of the two creation narratives, see Ch. 1, Making Trouble from Day One: Re-Reading the Creation Stories in Genesis, in my book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Books, London, 2012).
- Genesis 2: 2; 15.
- Genesis 6:9-9:28.
- Genesis 11:1-9.
- See: The Epic of Gilgamesh. An Old Babylonian Version edited by Morris Jastrow and translated by Albert T. Clay http://www.gutenberg.org/files/11000/11000-h/11000-h.htm http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/11000 See also: http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/the_flood_tablet.aspx ↑