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    Twice the same but different

    Samson Raphael Hirsch analyses the word shanah (of Rosh HaShanah) and finds two derivations which contradict each other – to repeat and to change.

    Linguistically helpful, maybe, but psychologically difficult. Repetition is the opposite of change; change is the opposite of repetition.

    How does it help us to understand Rosh HaShanah when we have to take both options into account?

    Let’s start with repetition. It goes on all the time. It’s comforting to encounter the familiar, to say “what was, is – what is, was”.

    You come home again and find everything in its normal place. You return to a city after years away and the old streets are still there. Many of the people are the same (though some have aged in the meantime). Even the problems are as they were.

    I remember 1952, when a certain rabbi said at his induction ceremony, “Human life has become so cynically cheap that its mass destruction is not greatly deplored”.

    In those days most people did not have a TV set but they knew he was right because the events of the Holocaust were so recent.

    Time has passed. By now the TV, Internet and other media bring events into our homes as they happen and it’s a repetition of what the rabbi said – cities being bombed, lives becoming a cinder, true peace still a distant dream.

    Other problems are also repeating – poverty, hunger, disease, homelessness, unemployment, lack of opportunity. Because everything repeats itself so often, the greatest tragedies are weakened and neutralised.

    Yet the siddur says something different – not “today is as yesterday” but “God renews every day the work of Creation”.

    That’s also repetition, but on a different plane. The world was beautiful yesterday, and it’s beautiful again today. The sun rose yesterday morning, and it rose again today. Nature was a source of joy and wonder yesterday, and so it is today.

    That’s two kinds of repetition, and they are rivals.

    Can we choose one and not the other?

    Actually we can if we use the freedom of choice which goes with being an independent human spirit.

    One choice is to squash the Creation motif, to decide to see only the repetitive ugliness and cruelty around us, to become negative about everything, and to lose hope in humanity – and God.

    The other choice is to rise above the negative forces and accentuate the positive, turning the world from jungle to joy, replacing fanatic hatred with determined love, and trying to attune civilisation with the Divinely-given blessings of truth, justice and peace on which, the rabbis say in Pir’kei Avot, the world stands.

    Whichever option we choose, we will find ourselves using Hirsch’s second option, change. We will have changed our world, maybe for evil, maybe for good.

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