The forests are burning, Brexit is boiling, Hizbollah is threatening, Hong Kong unravelling, world trade teetering. What a week!
If a week in politics is a long time, a week of global disruptions is a very long one … It’s hard to recall a time quite like this. Charles Dickens talks of the best of times, the worst of times. This seems to be the worst of times – an age of anxiety, a period of unpredictability, a sense of chaos and disorder, of things falling apart. Will the centre hold?
So I turn to my centering point, the Torah, the Jewish calendar; the axis of eternity. It’s Rosh Chodesh Elul, the start of a new month on our calendar this Saturday. No ordinary month, but the one that prepares and leads us up to the most significant time of year – Rosh Hashanah, New Year.
Writing from the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941, Rabbi Kalonymous Shapiro notes: the time for repentance and change is Rosh Hashanah. This is the time of the creation of the world because repentance or change is a form of creating. At this time of the year we can turn to a new creation, discover new energy. In the midst of chaos I find this reassuring, it restores my sense of confidence and hope. It reminds me that Creation itself was born out of chaos and anarchy, out of darkness on the deep. It challenges us not to accept crisis and chaos as inevitable and unchangeable. We can do something about forests burning and glaciers melting. It is human beings who create so much of the disorder and mayhem. World trade, Brexit and terror are controlled and shaped by human beings as was the Warsaw ghetto.
Rabbi Elkins has pointed out that inside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, near the Jaffa gate, there is an ancient block of stone. It’s easy to miss but if you stop and look closely you will see the letters LEG X. The stone is a relic of Titus’s 10th Roman region, the one which destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple some 2000 years ago. Recently it has been recycled and now is the base for an ordinary street lamp. Jewish author Arthur Wasco comments: Giving light -a strange renewal of the old Menora (central candelabra of the Temple) and a strange reversal of the Arch of Titus. The Arch was built in Rome to celebrate the destruction of Jerusalem and bears an image of the captured Menora. “This arch turned the light from the Menora into stone, this street lamp turns the stone back into life. Light to live by.”
This profound insight reminds me not only of the words of the Psalmist (the stone that was rejected by the builders has become the cornerstone) but also of the eternal task of our people and indeed all people of goodwill. To keep turning stone back into light, burnt landscapes back into forests, terror into peace, insecurity into confidence.
This idea is also highlighted in the Torah reading of the week. The Parasha (Re׳eh) opens with the words -Look, I am placing in front of you a blessing and a curse so choose wisely. We are called on to discern the blessing from the curse, to focus on life, to create hope and shape a better world. Significantly the blessings of God are then proclaimed on a verdant green mountain and the curses on an adjoining but starkly barren mountain. We can green the world or reduce it to a toxic, lifeless place.
Reporting from one of the many cities of Brazil covered in the smoke from the burning forests a journalist poignantly said: There are no lights tonight, only thick sheets of smoke. To this we must respond with the words of Psalm 27 that we recite from the month of Ellul till the end of our festive season – God is my light and my salvation – who and what should I then be afraid of?
A new year is soon to be born. It is waiting to be shaped by us into an era of healing and constructive, compassionate creativity. So let’s put out the fires and turn on the lights!