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Sermons and Thoughts

The power of “radical humility”

16 September 2023
Rabbi Aaron Goldstein
Rosh Hashanah Morning Service (High Holy Days 5784)

You can watch a recording of this sermon on our YouTube channel.


Rabbi Eliezer said: ‘In the month of Tishri, the world was created.’ (Rosh Hashanah 10b).

The editors of our Machzor Ruach Chadashah, commented on this:

“As we prepare to welcome a new Jewish year, as we search for a new beginning to our lives, we look back to the days of creation, the first beginning. We look forward to a world filled with light, beauty and goodness; a world blessed by God’s presence and promise for the future (p. 38).”

A priceless opportunity to reset our clock, our lives. To reclaim the simple primordial essence of life.

Our liturgy urges us towards that moment of perfection. In the Akedah, the story of the binding of Isaac, time surges, slows and then stops – we all hold our breath – and then release it as we join Abraham, represented by the ram caught in a convenient thicket, untangling himself, struck by the realisation of a life-affirming God; and our Haftarah (Isaiah 55:6-13) concludes with messianic zeal, a time in the future where God’s name will be forever established, a time accompanied by harmony in nature, mountains and hills singing, trees clapping and shedding any need of defence.

It is as if we are reborn. Our world begins once more tied with nature as the story goes on.

Yet we know that at some point after Creation, humanity got it wrong. The biblical flood is an all too horrific reality for the people of Derna in Libya, water and land swallowing up humanity. Natural disasters, a part of life. The impact of life multiplied by human failure.

I have recently been fascinated by the dystopian novels that challenge the efficacy of human relationship with Creation. They are not unique to a single culture, although I admit they are based in the northern hemisphere and dealing with developed world issues. Whilst I tell you about a few of these, feel free to connect with other more obvious dystopia in the natural and human worlds.

In Yōko Tawada’s novel, ‘The Last children of Tokyo,’ set in a future Japan where pollution and natural disasters have scarred the face of the earth and children are born frail and grey-haired. Following the story of Yoshiro – a 108-year-old who remains the picture of health – and his sickly grandchild Mumei, The Last Children Of Tokyo sees the pair struggle through the challenges of life in search of an answer. The concept of continual progress, of a future that comes after the present is harrowingly laid bare.

In the award-winning, ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ by Olga Tokarczuk, one of the foremost contemporary Polish activists and public intellectuals, we are confronted with the role and limits of activism and serious questions of the value of human and animal life.

Finally, in the book, ‘Leave the World behind’ by Rumaan Alam, we find a couple renting an Airbnb in a remote part of the Hamptons at the end of Long Island. They arrive with their teenagers when an older couple arrive at the house in a panic, with news that the city has been struck by a major power outage. Their idyllic holiday quickly comes to an end. With no phone, no TV signal, the two families are forced to figure out what’s going on – all while deciding whether they can trust the people they’re now living with.

The work raises our fear of strangers, the fear of the unexplainable, the fear of harm coming to our children.

A common thread through each of these books is that the characters and the societies they depict are isolated. They are isolated from civilisation.

I strongly believe that the solution to many of the problems that beset us is not that we should berate ourselves for all that we have got wrong, so much so that we lack the   motivation to act. It is not to focus only on one crazy moment, a single policy or blaming an individual. Though we might do all of that.

It is that we aim at being the best versions of ourselves that we can be and to do it High Holy Day style. Communally. Our prayers are not in the first person singular, rather in the first person plural. “We have …” “Our Creator and Sovereign…”

When we aim at being the best versions of ourselves, part of that is assuming unless proven otherwise, that the person sat next to you, also has that goal. With that confidence we then start a conversation and become less isolated from our own community. When we as a community aim at being the best versions of ourselves, we start to assume that the community next door are also engaged in this holy act. We become less isolated from civilisation, less fearful. Our fear of strangers is diminished, the fear of the unexplainable lessens as we get on with what we can do, and the fear of harm coming to our children decreases as we develop a shared sense of hope. We become less isolated from civilisation, less fearful, and way more powerful – in a simple, humble fashion.

The most impressive character I have heard of recently is Baroness Catherine Ashton. Speaking to her book, ‘And Then What: Inside Stories of 21st Century Diplomacy.’

“From 2009 to 2014, Baroness Ashton was the European Union’s first High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, effectively Europe’s foreign policy supremo responsible for coordinating the EU’s response to international crises. Arriving in Brussels as a relative novice to international diplomacy, she faced the challenge of representing the views and values of 28 nations during one of the most turbulent times in living memory. Decades-old certainties were swept away in days. Hope rose and fell, often in a matter of hours.

From the frozen conflict of Ukraine to the Serbia-Kosovo deal, there were challenges, failures and moments of success. She encountered dictators and war criminals, and witnessed the aftermath of natural disasters, military action, and political instability.”

The task Baroness Ashton faced cannot be under-estimated. When asked on the Leading Podcast, Did you enjoy your time in post? She replied:

“There were moments of deep satisfaction, even joy, and I made some of the best friends of my life. But it was relentless, there was no time to be complacent as there was always another problem to solve. I was admired and hated in equal measure every day and the hate got to me much more than the admiration. I dreaded the press, feared the news and worried about my diplomats all over the world and hoped for good news that seldom came.

I visited some of the worst places on earth, saw children living in terrible misery, heard the stories of destruction and cried alongside the bereaved and injured from earthquake or war and wandered at our capacity for evil.

I saw acts of bravery and kindness in unlikely places and watched the infinite willingness of children to learn in dusty, crumbling schoolrooms or tents in refugee camps. I did everything I could to help knowing it was never going to be enough and worried that a better person than I could have done much more.”

She said that this assessment was “not meant to be bleak but real”…trying to help the world get better is really difficult and is never enough and there’s always the next challenge after the crisis that you are trying to deal with.

So what can we learn from her approach, her philosophy of diplomacy, resolving issues and pursuing peace.

“A philosophy of radical humility that does not assume you know the answers to other people’s issues that happen to impact your own. Rather the ability to continue to interact, even when you think the other is abhorrent, their values deeply flawed at best, criminal and illegal at worst.”

“Real diplomacy is quiet. It goes on, it takes its time, it keeps going, it is drip-drip, it’s small interlocking moments that create the opportunity.”

To my mind, Baroness Ashton is a remarkable human being. And yet, she is also just a human being.

We are not like animals or angels, largely or wholly singular in purpose. We can change direction – actually relatively quickly – when we come to think of it.

In less than a year, Progressive Judaism has become a reality in this country with all the opportunity and hope that it offers:

Around a hundred communities working together across the UK rather than in competition.

A national voice of religion that brings a progressive agenda into the country’s consciousness. We will prove that religion is not monolithic and that a plurality of voices are welcome. One that is unafraid to know the stranger, to be open to possibilities for human society and how we can and must work together to create viable community that embraces the multi, the variety of people that Creation allowed.

No more excuses, no more ignoring what can be done because we know that our actions, minutely on an individual level but powerfully on a collective or global scale, does affect Creation, the world we know, love and wish for us and future generations to live on. If we are to be life-affirming, reflecting our understanding of God and as our High Holy Day narrative urges, every small act matters and we can truly celebrate the birthday of the world. The beginning of a new cycle, a new year 5784, can and must, begin with hope – and resolve.

In the words of the modern mystic, Arthur Green:

“Thank you Eternal one, for all that nervous bundle of energy that we are. Life as an angel might have been easier – standing still to do Your bidding. But it is our walking, our ever climbing (and sometimes falling) from rung to rung that makes us human. Despite all the struggle and pain that go along with growing, we wouldn’t have it any other way.”