Rabbi Walter Rothschild

The theme for the High Holy Days, the ‘Yamim Nora’im’, the ‘Days of Awe’, is at its heart a very simple question and answer:

Can one make good something bad that has been done? An insult, an injury, a financial loss, the damaging or destruction of a relationship, an injustice? The simple answer is: No, you cannot. BUT – There are things you can do.

– You can acknowledge what you have done.

– You can apologise for it – either personally to the one affected, or publicly, or (if possible) both.

– You can promise to do your best not to repeat what has happened.

– You can learn from the experience.

There is more that can be added, but these are some of the basic ideas. Our calendar, our liturgy for these days, reflects the issue. There is the relationship to Ourselves, that has been damaged over the past year. There is the relationship to our Fellow Humans, in our family, our community, our nation, the entire species – people we do not know, whom we have never met, but they are nevertheless fellow human beings and they live in the same world; and this has perhaps also been damaged. And there is the relationship to God, to our Creator and our Judge.

On Rosh Hashanah, today, we enter the Court, worried, nervous, not really sure what to expect, how we will be treated, whether the judge in our own personal case will be in a mild mood or a stern one, whether we have brought with us enough evidence for good deeds and good intentions to help balance out the long list of failures we have accumulated over the year and which, we know, stand on the Charge Sheet; whether at the end of the trial, which will last over ten days until Neilah, we will be given (as we hope) a conditional discharge or – at the very worst – a death sentence to be carried out before the end of the year just starting.

On Kol Nidre we will apologise for all the times we promised God we would try to be better, we promised to avoid certain mistakes – and failed. ”Please accept that our intentions were good, even if we did not succeed in fulfilling them….”

Through the long day of Yom Kippur we shall neglect our physical needs and concentrate instead upon our spiritual ones; We will plead for mercy, for understanding, for forgiveness, for another chance. Throughout these ten days there are the two major thoughts which are encapsulated in the liturgical pieces known as ”Ashamnu” – ”We have sinned, we acknowledge this” – and ”Avinu Malkenu” – ”Please, despite the fact that we have sinned, be merciful with us and those with us.”

One major difference to courts here is that we are not employing any lawyers to represent us. I have personally spent a lot of time and money in the past year on a legal case which has been dragged on and on; I must correspond with my lawyer and explain the background and the personalities and the context and make my own suggestions – and each letter, each mail, each phone call, each meeting costs me sums of money. This is normal. But in the heavenly court – we represent ourselves. There is not a lot of complex law to learn, even though the rabbis can compile whole books of minor regulations. The basic outline is clear enough. We know what we have done, we know what is at stake.

Another major difference is that we do this communally, not just individually. We do not have to embarrass ourselves in public by standing alone in front of everyone, with a big black arrow pointing at us labelled ‘THE ACCUSED’; No, we come together with the other members of the community, people we know and people whom we do not know, and we sit together and stand together and read together and plead together and sing together, and we speak almost all the time as a community, we say ”WE have sinned”, not ”I have sinned.”

It is a bitter truth, but an important one: You cannot undo what has been done. You cannot ”re-set” back to a year ago. You cannot deny that someone has been hurt, perhaps been in physical pain, or has lost their property or their job or their love for you. That has happened and, as the saying has it: ”The difference between God and an Historian is that God cannot change what has already happened.” What happened – happened. It shouldn’t have happened, maybe you didn’t want it to happen, maybe you didn’t expect it to happen, maybe you even secretly wanted it to happen but didn’t expect to be found out! But – it has happened. There are total accidents and there are things that get out of hand. There are misunderstandings and there are also deliberate attacks, deliberate insults, deliberate injuries – actions committed with intent to hurt someone else physically, mentally or materially. There are times when two people get into conflict and BOTH lose. (This happens much more frequently than many people realise). Yet each considers themself to be the innocent party, the victim.

And so we start, together, this process of Teshuvah. To Return. To return to where we would want to be, to return to a state before what happened, happened. We know it is impossible but then, that has never been an excuse not to try. We know it is impossible to Live – our bodies are endless battlefields of cells and viruses and bacteria, we are – in physical respects – merely bags of water trying to stand upright, supported by bones that grow old and brittle, and muscles that cramp, and veins and arteries that can get tangled or blocked, the bags filled with organs which can weaken…… We are subject to all sorts of natural forces of which gravity is but one, there are so many things that could go wrong every day and indeed every day thousands of people rise from their beds and start a day, not knowing that they will not live to get back into their beds in the evening. It happens. Yet still we get up, and start our days, hoping that we will survive and continue. In spite of everything. In spite of the stupid things we do, the wrong things we eat or drink or breathe. Because we know we each have a Soul too, something that cannot be measured or treated or revived in any medical sense.

We know the body cannot go on for ever, that we are limited, mortal, decaying all the time, ageing, under attack from inside and outside – but still we go on. And so it is with Teshuvah – we know it is impossible to get back to where we were, but we still make the attempt, we try our best.

Because not to try would mean that we fail before we start, and that we betray ourselves, and the others who depend upon us to be there with them in the community. We would betray our own souls.

We wish each other a ”Shanah Tovah”. A YEAR, a whole year… and a good one, a year in which we will be good, and good will be done to us. May each of us deserve to be written in the heavenly court records, to be sentenced to: A Year of Life.

Rabbi Walter Rothschild.

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