A broadcast by Rabbi Raymond Apple on the ABC Radio national network (Australia) in 1973 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.
This program, from the Great Synagogue, Sydney, marks the advent next week of Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year.
On that day Synagogues all over the world will be crammed from end to end with worshippers, and in many places temporary premises will be utilised as additional houses of worship to accommodate all who seek to join their co-religionists in prayer on this solemn day.
Jewish tradition regards Rosh HaShanah as the anniversary of the creation of the world. It invests the anniversary with the character of a day of judgment on which the Almighty takes up the pen and inscribes the fate of each of us in His Book of Life:
“On the first day of the year it is written… who shall live and who shall die, who shall have rest and who go wandering, who shall be at ease and who shall be afflicted…”
But it is no capricious, arbitrary Divine Ruler who thus determines the destiny of helpless subjects. This is not the situation of which Omar Khayyam writes:
“The moving finger writes, and, having writ,
Moves on; nor all your piety nor wit
Shall lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wash out a word of it…”
The New Year says something very different.
“Nor all your piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line”? Not at all.
God’s decrees are not irrational. He calls men to account as to whether they have advanced His purposes for the world or frustrated them by deeds of omission or commission — and on this account and reckoning is His decision based.
And even then it is still possible “to cancel half a line”, or at least to take the sting out of it, by man’s penitence, prayer and charity.
God’s decrees do not remain unaffected by men’s attempts, even at the eleventh hour, towards self-improvement.
Penitence, prayer and charity; truth, justice and peace… noble and fine-sounding ideals these are. But are they not too vague?
Lecky remarks in his “History of European Morals”: “Simply to tell men what is virtue, and to extol its beauty, is insufficient. Something more must be done if the characters are to be moulded, and the inveterate vices eradicated.”
God does not leave us bereft of practical guidance in our endeavour to grasp the loftiest of ideals and bring them down to earth.
For Jews, the moment of opportunity comes with each of the festivals that punctuate their religious year. The observance of each festival expresses a basic concept or ideal.
A great Jewish scholar of the last century, Samson Raphael Hirsch, wrote: “The catechism of the Jew consists of his calendar. On the pinions of time which bear us through life, God has inscribed the eternal words of His soul-inspiring doctrine, making days and weeks, months and years, the heralds to proclaim His truths.”
Each festival has its teaching, and each has its musical motif. We dedicate this program to the roll-call of Jewish festivals ushered in by the New Year, and in words and music we evoke their spirit.
In synagogue and home, the New Year is announced by the Kiddush, recited over a goblet of wine. It stresses the major concept of the festival, which is faith. It sings for joy because of the “sense of presence” which a person feels when he enters the house of God on the New Year.
It knows that faith is not easy, especially for modern man living in this shattered, confusing 20th-century world. But to grapple with spiritual problems and find faith elusive is the first step on the road to faith.
To seek is already to find.
He who boasts he is near to God is often far from Him, because he erects an iron curtain of pride that separates them, He who fears he is far is in fact nearer to God, because he is humble and honest in his search.
The Ten Days of Penitence that begin with the New Year are a period of mental and spiritual struggle in which one yearns to find God and be reconciled with Him. The reconciliation is the theme of the Day of Atonement.
To atone means to be “at one” (indeed the word entered our language as a combination of “at” and “one”). The Day of Atonement pleads with man to be at one with God, at one with his community, at one with his fellow.
If there is only one God, then there is only one mankind in which we are all involved one with the other. If we wish to love God, then we must also love our fellow-men — even the most unloveable of them.
This is not the same thing as “tolerance”. That is too limiting a word. It suggests an attitude which is patronising and superior. It suggests that one person suffers another. When you are just tolerated, you are humiliated.
What is vital is mutual respect and understanding, loving someone precisely when it is difficult to do so. To find the way of being at one with God, we must find the way of being at one with His creatures.
With the festival of Sukkot or Tabernacles the mood of the Jewish year lightens. Sukkot recalls the frail portable structures in which the Israelites lived for forty years as they moved through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Without the blessing of Divine Providence, they could not have survived elements and dangers by the way.
We all enjoy many blessings because of God’s concern for us; the message of Sukkot is simply, “Count your blessings”… be grateful for the gift of life, the gift of beauty, the gift of nature and its resources, the gift of human talents, the gift of Divine and human love — the gifts which make life exciting and meaningful.
“Count your blessings” — and share them with others whose lives, like the tabernacles in the wilderness, are often frail and insecure.
Now we move on to the festival of Chanukah, which commemorates the victory of the Maccabean warriors at a time when Judea was menaced by the monolithic might of Antiochus.
A basic teaching of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is unity; a basic lesson of Chanukah is diversity in unity.
The Maccabees struggled for the right of a human group to the peaceful pursuit of its own cultural traditions For Jews as for every minority, the maintenance of their own religious philosophy and life-style and cultural institutions is important — both for themselves and for society.
Social understanding and harmony do not require you to give up your personality and distinctiveness. You serve the world better for being yourself.
It is unrealistic to pretend that differences do not exist within humanity; it is important to respect each other, differences and all. A society in which there were no distinctive groups would be boring and uncreative. It would also encourage totalitarianism and dictatorship.
Passover marks the Exodus of the Israelites from the long night of slavery in ancient Egypt. Dramatic readings at home and in synagogue take us back to the days of bondage, and we taste again the wonders of freedom as we emerge with our ancestors from darkness to light, from subjection to redemption.
This is an old theme, that of slavery and freedom, but also an ever-new one.
Peoples have suffered fear and degradation, and denial of human rights, far too often in the course of history — and none has known this bitterness better than the Jew, who, even today, sees his fellow-Jew victimised and discriminated against by certain regimes, just as he sees other men suffer injustice, and he says, “It’s the old story again”.
Passover teaches that all men have the right to be free, the right to self-determination. It teaches that “rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God”, and one dare not remain silent when there is injustice. It teaches that all must work so that no man must live in darkness but all may enjoy light.
Seven weeks after Passover comes Shavu’ot, Pentecost, when God gave the moral law at Mount Sinai. Shavu’ot teaches that freedom alone is inadequate. It must be invested with meaning and purpose.
A Jewish legend relates that God sent the Sword and the Book onto earth wrapped together. He said to man, “You have a choice. Choose the Sword if you wish, but you will bring your world crashing down on top of you with lawlessness and anarchy and destruction.
“If you choose the Book and live by its teaching, it may curtail your freedom of action, but this is the way of the greatest happiness for the greatest number, and this is the way in which your civilisation can survive — and thrive.”
The Sabbath teaches many great lessons — the dignity of labour… the value of physical rest and of spiritual recreation… the right of all men irrespective of social class to the same facilities for social welfare and social justice… above all, the glory of the home and the sanctity of the family.
The family that observes the Sabbath does not feel hemmed in or burdened by the day. It feels a sense of release and peace and serenity so sweet that it knows why heaven itself is called in the Jewish prayer-book, “the day that is wholly a Sabbath”. To paraphrase another famous Jewish saying, “More than the family has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the family”.
Thus we come to the end of our roll-call of festivals. Each great day has its personality, its character and its message. They combine to form a kaleidoscope of melodies and words, of ideas and ideals, of ceremony and symbolism.
On the New Year the worshipper looks back across a year past, and forward toward a new year. Has he, has mankind, striven hard enough and long enough during the past twelve months to translate the ideals of these festivals into daily deeds of faith and love? Have the teachings of the festivals been woven together to form his pattern of living?
The beginning of a new year gives him a heaven-sent opportunity of correcting the lapses of the past — and of affirming his dedication for the future.
May we all merit a favourable decree from God as He records the destiny of each of us in His Book of Life.
May He inscribe us all for life and happiness, for health and peace.
May He ordain blessing for all mankind.
May He grant peace in the Holy Land and everywhere on earth.