Three major themes punctuate our Holyday services – penitence, prayer and charity.
We are good at penitence, in the sense that when we find ourselves at the periphery of Jewish life we often find our way back and become “ba’alei t’shuvah”, “reversioners”, as an expert on Franz Rosenzweig calls them.
We are quite good at prayer, though we are more successful at talking to God in our own words than endorsing the words of the prayer book.
We are good at charity: we often get philanthropic organisations going even before we establish synagogues, and we try hard to provide for people’s needs wherever they are, in Israel and the Diaspora.
The historian Salo Baron once said,
“No Jew in the whole of our history ever seems to have died of hunger while living in a Jewish community”.
It’s a bit of an exaggeration, since there have always been individuals and families who had a struggle to make ends meet and to put food on the table. But our communities certainly do their best, and our welfare organisations are constantly finding better ways to handle the problems.
I have to add, however, that charity is not only a matter of money to pay the bills and food to feed the hungry. There are other problems that we should be addressing, and we don’t always handle them adequately.
My mind flashes back to a year when the rabbis of London were asked to make a pulpit appeal on Kol Nidre night in aid of a major Jewish charity.
After Yom Kippur one of my congregation admitted I had made the requested speech but said I had left something out.
He said he was well-to-do and had a fine apartment, but he was lonely, and loneliness was as big a problem as poverty.
I accepted his point and have to say that he is still right. Much more should and could be done for the people who need a friendly word, a phone call, an occasional visit, a feeling that they are wanted.
THEY KICKED ME OUT.
The second of the three sections of the Rosh HaShanah Musaf says that on this day, sentence is pronounced upon countries.
When I say these words I think of Germany and my teacher, Professor Samuel Billigheimer, who influenced much of my life and thinking.
His expositions were sometimes over my head, but nothing could prevent me coming to him and trying to understand. Even now, many decades later, I still remember and quote what I heard from him, though I puzzle over some of his sayings.
He was one of the products of pre-war German Jewry, a poet, philosopher and teacher whose life changed forever with the advent of Nazism. Released from a concentration camp, he left Germany with his wife and sons (and his library) and recommenced life in Australia.
After the war he decided to accept an honour from the German government, but he would not travel to Europe to be invested with his award. He said, “They kicked me out. I’ll never go back.”
I still often think of those words, “They kicked me out”. It happened to so many German Jews. Their dedication to Germany – even fighting in the German army – was brushed aside. German Jewry was systematically destroyed. So much was owed to the Jews by German culture, science, philosophy, law, commerce and even sport – but they kicked the Jews out.
Hermann Cohen, who knew that German Jews had political problems, thought the Jewish and the German spirit were companions. But as Nahum Glatzer pointed out,
“The layer of humanity in Central Europe must have been pretty thin if the Holocaust could have taken place”.
Yes, the financial, political and social aftermath of the Great War encouraged antisemitism. But how could a nation stigmatise, sacrifice and expel some of its best citizens? If it can happen in Germany, can it happen elsewhere?
Professor Billigheimer never found the answer. I fear that I have.
COMING, READY OR NOT
. Remember me?
I stayed with you last year. I enjoyed my visit, but I think I may have caused you some embarrassment.
You did not seem to be quite ready. I did not really understand why since I let you know in advance when I was coming.
This is why I am sending this message today, to remind you that I will be there in a few weeks.
I would not want you not to have time to prepare for my arrival.
No, you do not need to worry about the spare room or extra food. I am not that kind of guest.
What I am is a presence – and an opportunity.
My presence brings awe, spirituality, inspiration; please prepare for me by sitting quietly by yourself, or walking somewhere quiet, and thinking about life, yourself, the past, the future.
I am also an opportunity – to identify your destination and plan your direction.
Please – don’t wait till I’m there. Be ready for me, and have a Shanah Tovah!