A broadcast by Rabbi Raymond Apple on the ABC Radio national network (Australia) in 1977 to mark Rosh HaShanah. The broadcast text subsequently appeared in the booklet, Days of Awe: High Holyday Broadcasts from the Great Synagogue, Sydney, published by the Great Synagogue, Rosh HaShanah, 1979.
Sunset on Monday night will usher in the Jewish year 5738. On the first two days of the New Year Jews will gather in vast numbers in synagogues great and small, ancient and modem, palatial and humble, in every country of the world, and in an atmosphere charged with solemnity and emotion will direct their prayers to the Creator of the universe on the occasion believed in Jewish tradition to be the anniversary of the Creation of the world.
For any Jewish congregation, the New Year is a great and majestic experience. For the Great Synagogue in Sydney this New Year will be in addition a unique historic occasion, for it will inaugurate the celebrations of the centenary of the opening of the Synagogue — an impressive Victorian edifice which is by now a Sydney landmark — and the 150th anniversary of the commencement of Jewish congregational worship in Australia.
Jews have been in Australia since 1788. Among the convicts who came at the time of the First Fleet there were at least eight and perhaps fourteen Jews, and over the years that convict transportation continued some 950 or so Jews arrived as convicts, joined over the early decades by hundreds of free settlers.
They did not at fist set up an organised congregation. They were — as a report written in 1845 put it — “little versed in the faith of their fathers.” They did come together in 1817, but only to arrange a Jewish funeral, and some of them met sporadically for worship in the 1820s.
In 1828 Phillip Joseph Cohen, a young London Jew with a good Hebrew education, arrived in Sydney bearing the permission of the British Chief Rabbi to conduct religious ceremonies, and now regular services began to be held in his house.
During the 1830s a house in Bridge Street was converted for use as a synagogue, and then in 1844 the first specifically-built synagogue was erected in York Street not far from where the Sydney Town Hall stands today.
The gold rushes of the 1850s increased the Jewish population, but there was conflict between the newcomers and the older settlers, and a group of members of the York Street congregation opened a rival synagogue in Macquarie Street, opposite Parliament House.
Eventually the two congregations re-united with the opening of the Great Synagogue in Elizabeth Street, facing Hyde park, as a result of the peacemaking efforts of the Rev. AB Davis, who served Sydney Jewry from 1862 to 1903.
The Great Synagogue is thus the Mother Congregation of Australian Jewry, and the historic anniversaries which it will commemorate during the corning year are significant for Jewish citizens throughout Australia.
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Human beings have personality. Nations have personality. Some say that even inanimate things like cities and houses and cars and ships have personality in one sense or another.
But what about days? Can days have personality? To this question a Jew has a ready answer. He thinks of his range of religious festivals.
One, for instance, is a light-hearted, relaxed occasion. Another is a sombre, tragedy-laden day. He thinks of all his festivals, and he thinks too of his weekly Sabbath, a serene day blessed with peace of body and mind. Yes, he concludes, days do have personality.
What then is the nature of the personality of Rosh HaShanah, the New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement which follows it a few days later? One could of course point to the impressive crowds that flock to the synagogues, the white vestments in which the officiants are clothed, the stark sound of the shofar, the ram’s horn trumpet… and one would call these solemn and dramatic days.
But these are only the outer garments in which the New Year and Your Kippur are clothed. The personality of these days is found chiefly in the world-view they stand for, and the power and influence they wield on the spirit and soul.
Rosh HaShanah is the anniversary of the creation of the world. Hayom harat olam, says the Hebrew prayer-book: “On this day did the world come into being”. Rosh HaShanah commemorates the beginning of things.
And Yom Kippur? This recalls a major event in the life of Moses. The tablets of the Ten Commandments had been shattered in shock and indignation at the spectacle of the Israelites dancing around the Golden Calf. There was now a terrible period of bitter, agonising appraisal. What had gone wrong? What would happen now? Did the people have to live for ever with the terrible feeling of failure and despair?
Moses ascended Mount Sinai again. A further forty days and forty nights he spent, pleading for his people before the throne of the Divine Judge. At last, on the day which the generations came to know as Yom Kippur, he received an answer: Salachti kid’varecha — “I forgive, as you have asked.”
This first Yom Kippur set the motif of every subsequent Yom Kippur: and that motif is that a fresh start, if one wants it enough, is always possible.
Rosh HaShanah, the anniversary of the creation, reminds us of the grand, impressive hopes and ideals with which the world began, and with which in one way or another the life and career of every human being begins.
Yom Kippur reminds us of what so often happens. Things go wrong. The dreams we had can turn out to be unrealisable fantasy. The hopes we cherished can turn out to be unattainable. The ambitions we pursued can be ghastly failures. Or perhaps we do succeed for a time, sometimes for long periods of years, and we are on top of the world; and then, maybe because of external circumstances, maybe because of our own weakness or instability, our prosperity and self-esteem collapse before our very eyes.
Rosh HasSanah reminds us of what we wanted to be, Yom Kippur of what we have so often become. But Yom Kippur asks an urgent question. What are you going to do now? If things aren’t so good, are you going to stand by helplessly and watch the devastation? Is there nothing you can salvage, no way to make a fresh start?
Once, the Chafetz Chayyim, a saintly rabbinic sage of our century, was asked for help by a man who found his concentration seemed to lapse in synagogue, and instead of thinking of his prayers he found his mind turning to all sorts of other subjects. He was worried and wanted advice.
The Chafetz Chayyim answered with a parable. There was, he said, an old lady who had a fruit stall from which she gained a frugal living. One day a mob of hooligans came by, and seeing how defenceless she was, they tipped up her stall and the fruit flew off in all directions. She could of course have simply sat there and wept at what had happened. But this old lady was not so helpless. A lot of fruit was now lost: but some could be salvaged. She picked up whatever she could save, she set her stall up again, and she made a new start…
In the same way, the Chafetz Chayyim told the man whose prayers flew off in all directions when distracted by other things, a person should take hold of himself and turn his mind back to the prayer book and salvage what he can of the prayers. He should not just sit back and let his prayers vanish altogether.
This is the motif of Yom Kippur too. Something can be salvaged, and a fresh start is always possible. In a sense this motif appears out of place today. The types of philosophy that are fashionable are not optimistic. They speak of man’s predicament and man’s frustration and man’s helplessness. Man moves from crisis to crisis, from catastrophe to catastrophe. There is no way out of the dark tunnel. Man can only despair.
Judaism rejects these philosophies. It has never found it necessary to go chasing after fashionable ideas and ways just because they are fashionable. Judaism believes it does not need to follow the times. It believes it is more important to judge the times and to stand alone, if need be, on the side of an unfashionable philosophy which happens to be wiser and sounder in the long run.
Judaism rejects philosophies of pessimistic gloom. It insists it is always possible to make a fresh start. Do you want illustrations? In the thirty-two years since the end of the Second World War we have had constant reminders of the wreckage in which the Holocaust left world Jewry — but we have also reflected on the remarkable resilience of the Jewish people which carefully salvaged its remnants and made a new start in Israel and many other lands including Australia.
On the festival of the New Year, and on the Day of Atonement, we are told loudly and clearly of two things: that one must begin with high ideals, and that even when something goes wrong all is not lost.
In how many areas of life does this lesson apply. It applies —
• in business life, where reverses can be immensely serious, and yet one can still find a way of rebuilding…
• in human relationships, where things can go terribly wrong, and yet one can with sincere effort find a way to reconciliation and harmony…
• in religious life, where we often fail to meet up to God’s requirements, and yet He never rejects those who earnestly seek to return to Him…
• as we look out at a world which can be mean and dark and callous and cruel — but which also contains countless sparks of beauty and goodness and truth and holiness, sparks which man is capable of building into a light of inspiration and hope…
At this period of the year, Jews recite morning and evening a Psalm of optimism and trust. It is Psalm 27, and its culminating words sum up the message of these solemn days. It affirms in clear and unmistakeable tones that for him who has faith, nothing is impossible: “Have faith in the Lord, be strong and let your heart take courage: yes, have faith in the Lord!” (Psalm 27:14).
May Rosh HaShanah, the dawn of a new chapter in human time, mark the dawn of a new chapter in human living — a chapter of hope and harmony, of peace and prosperity, of faith and freedom — and may God’s blessing be upon us all.