The old year has drawn to a close and a New Year has just begun. And yet, as we gather here on Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah, we don’t yet have a sense of a new beginning. After all, it is evening. It won’t be until the morning that we will fully appreciate that we have entered a new year. Interestingly, the word for ‘evening’ in Hebrew, erev, conveys the sense of a ‘mixture’: evening is a time that is a ‘mixture’ of otherwise distinctly defined binary opposites; ‘night’ and ‘day’; ‘darkness’ and ‘light’. So, let us now on Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah, take the opportunity to pause in this in-between, liminal moment to reflect.
Just over three months ago, the UK electorate made the most momentous decision of the past 40 years, with a majority vote to leave the European Union. What a year it has been for Europe. Apart from this epoch-defining event, the past year has been etched by fear and terror. One example: Who can forget when a lorry was used as a weapon to mow down spectators at the fire display in Nice on Bastille Day, July 14.
Of course, we all know that violent attacks, whether or not motivated by terror and perpetrated by terrorists, have not been confined to Europe. But it has been the attacks within Europe, so close to home that have made us feel particularly uneasy, and fearful about what might happen next… I recall the helicopters hovering over Brighton Pride on August 6; the police on heightened alert, as 300,000 people packed the city centre.
Apart from the shocking and devastating nature of the attacks themselves, our continuous attention to the News has deepened their impact on us. Many of us have become hooked on the News: transfixed by the images as they flash across our TV screens, tablets and smart phones; for some of us, our days are punctuated by the beep of News alert apps informing us of the ‘breaking news’. What an expression that is: ‘breaking news’; breaking into our day; demanding our attention.
I’m sure many of us recall a time, not so very long ago when the News was broadcast on the radio on the hour, and most of us caught up on the day’s News on our televisions at 6 PM, 9 PM or 10 PM. Less urgent and demanding, the News caught us up with events of the day, but it did not consume the day. Of course, there is always the option to switch off our televisions and electronic devices – or, at the very least, to keep the latter on ‘silent’. And no doubt, many people do this. Nevertheless, the issue is not just our hyper-exposure to the News, or the impact which such hyper-exposure has on our nervous systems, generating a condition of hyper-alertness and anxiety. There is a deeper issue entangled with the way in which our attention is monopolised by the News. The deeper issue concerns our capacity for paying attention, serious attention to actual events and people – both close at hand and faraway – with profound consequences for our way of being and acting in the world.
Of course, this is not a new problem, and our inability to pay attention is not simply a result of our addiction to the News, it is also a consequence of our 24/7 society, generating perpetual and habitual hyperactivity, with so many of us preoccupied each day with the challenge of accomplishing task after task after task. The word ‘preoccupied’ is interesting. When we are ‘preoccupied’ our minds are dominated by particular concerns to the exclusion of other thoughts. Interestingly, the Hebrew blessing for study, concludes with the words ‘…. and who commands us to occupy ourselves in words of Torah’ – … v’tzivvanu la-asok b’divrey Torah. To be occupied is very different from being preoccupied. To be occupied is to be engaged. The blessing for study reminds us of our sacred obligation ‘to engage ourselves in words of Torah.’ To be engaged is to be present. When we are engaged in an activity, when we are present in a moment, we are no longer distracted and overstimulated by the sounds and images around us clamouring for our attention.
To be fully present is to listen. The most famous statement in the Torah that became a prayer recited each day, in the evening, and in the morning, is known by its initial word, Sh’ma! Sh’ma! means ‘Listen!’ The grammatical form is very revealing: Sh’ma! It is an imperative. The passage found in the Book of Deuteronomy chapter 6 (:4-9), does not begin, ‘You shall listen’, or even, ‘You should listen’; rather, like the urgent bellow of someone who is trying to get our attention, it summons us, Sh’ma! Listen! And then goes on to declare a message of utter profundity:
Sh’ma! Yisraeil: Adonai, Eloheynu; Adonai Echad.
Listen! Israel: the Eternal is our God; the Eternal is One.
Listen! Israel: ‘the Eternal is our God’; the eternal, transcendent force in the universe has a relationship with us. But, at the same time, the Eternal does not belong to us and is not ‘ours’ alone: our God is the Eternal One; the singular power in the universe. Whether or not you believe in God; whether or not you make sense of the existence of the world and universe in terms of the existence of God, the imperative, Sh’ma! Listen! summons each one of us to an awareness of an eternal, indivisible unity above and beyond us. What are the implications of this eternal, indivisible unity? A unity beyond all the divisions and differences that separate us; that separate one individual from another and one human group from another; that separate human beings from other creatures, and from all the diverse life-forms that inhabit the earth. In scientific terms, all of life, and every single element and form of life is organic matter. The Torah puts it more poetically: ‘from dust you came and to dust shall you return’. We are, essentially, one, as the Eternal is One.
Just as important as the succinct message about oneness in this verse, is the message that follows in the succeeding verses. To listen is to pay attention and to pay attention is to translate our awareness into action. The text of the Sh’ma, is couched in the second person singular, addressing ‘you’; that is, each and every one of us. And so we read:
V’ahavta eit Adonai Elohekha – ‘You shall love the Eternal One your God’;
B’chol l’vav’cha – ‘with all your mind’; a more precise meaning of the biblical Hebrew word, leivav, usually translated as ‘heart’.
U’v’chol nafsh’cha – ‘and with all your being’; again, a more precise rendition of the biblical Hebrew word, nefesh, usually translated as ‘soul.’
U’v’chol m’odecha – ‘and with all your might’; the biblical Hebrew word, m’od, signifying ‘very’ or ‘much’ is difficult to translate.
Mind, being and might. And that’s not all: words are to be translated from Divine commands into the material of our daily lives: each one of us is to ‘speak of them’ when we are ‘sitting’ in our homes and when we are ‘walking’ along the way, when we ‘lie down’ and when we ‘rise up’.
But first, we must listen. In the midst of the perpetual din of daily life, and our habitual busyness, and the endless stream of distractions all around us, we are summoned to pay attention. We read in the concluding part of the narrative of Revelation that the people gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai responded with the words, Na’aseh v’nishma, ‘we will do, and we will listen’ (Exodus 24:7). The order of the verbs is significant. Traditionally, for Jews, doing comes first. And yet, let us remember that the words, Na’aseh v’nishma, ‘we will do, and we will listen’ were a response to what the people had heard and witnessed. The Jewish emphasis on action is crucial, and righteous action always takes precedence over what we think and believe. And yet, in order for our action in the world not to become mechanical, it is vital that we begin by listening and paying attention. What a difference might it make to how we respond to what is happening in our world today, if we listened deeply and paid attention to the real lives behind the flashing images and ‘soundbites’. Perhaps, instead of being overwhelmed by the endless flow of News, we would feel moved to educate ourselves about a particular conflict. Perhaps we would pay more attention to refugees in our midst and listen to their stories, and participate in local initiatives in support of those in flight from war and persecution.
Of course, there is not a simple connection between listening and doing, and sometimes it is not readily apparent what we can do to make a positive difference to the lives of others. What is clear, however, is that, as long as we remain transfixed, distracted and preoccupied, we also remain passive spectators; the News a gruesome form of entertainment, whilst all the while, the lives and homes, communities and cities of real people are being destroyed.
So, again: here we are on Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah between the old year and the dawning of a new day. We are in this sacred moment between yesterday and tomorrow. Tomorrow morning, we will be exhorted again and again to listen. Significantly, the blessing recited prior to each sounding of the shofar does not concern the shofar-blower’s responsibility to make the ram’s horn produce the sounds, but rather the obligation of everyone present to listen to the blasts. And so we say that we are commanded: lishmo’a kol shofar – ‘to listen to the voice of the shofar’. Indeed, we are summoned to listen to its many voices: t’ki’ah; the single clear blast; sh’varim, the three broken notes; t’ru’ah, a series of nine rapid sounds; and to conclude them all, ‘t’ki’ah g’dolah; the ‘great’ t’ki’ah: the final long clear blast.
In the command lishmo’a kol shofar – ‘to listen to the voice of the shofar’, we can begin to appreciate what it means to listen. In the absence of words, we discover that listening is not an intellectual exercise. And, however moved we may feel, listening is not about our emotional response, either. Ultimately, to listen is to respond with our deepest selves; with our very being – our nefesh. And so, listening to the blasts of the shofar represents a kind of primordial listening; the breath-infused blasts of the shofar transmuted into the original nishmat chayyim; the breath of life infused into each one of us. As we read in the second account of the creation of humanity in the Torah (Genesis 2:7):
Then the Eternal God formed the human – ha-adam – out of the dust of the ground – ha-adamah – and breathed into its nostrils the breath of life – nishmat chayyim; and the human became a living being – l’nefesh chayyah.
This evening on Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah, as we embark on a New Year, let us pause to rediscover nishmat chayyim, the breath of life within our beings that also animates the entire Earth. And when a new day dawns, may the voices of the shofar re-infuse our beings, so that we recommit the work of our hands to the sacred task of tikkun olam, repair of the world. And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue – Adat Shalom V’rei’ut
Erev Rosh Ha-Shanah 5777 – 2nd October 2016