Erev Rosh Hashana 5779 – Rabbi Howard Cooper

I want to talk this evening about imagination: our capacity for imagination. Because a New Year is an invitation to us to be imaginative, to extend our thinking, our mental wondering and wandering, to stretch our thinking beyond its habitual grooves and routines. But as soon as I start to talk about our imaginations I feel I’m entering dangerous territory. Because we know what our imaginations can do: how our minds can become filled with fears, anxieties, apprehensions about everything from our bodily health to the health of the planet, everything from the material and mental well-being of ourselves and those whom we love, to the well-being of our Jewish community, or the very future of our country. Our imaginations can wrap themselves around these issues and cause us sometimes to feel anything from vaguely ill-at-ease to acute distress.

As we enter a New Year, tentatively, hesitantly, and think of – imagine – what these  next 12 months might bring, it’s easy for our imaginations (as we project forward) to run riot, but not in ways that are advantageous to our well-being, that aren’t uplifting to the soul: we can already, and do, let our minds run amok amidst the bewildering complexities of the world we live in; our imaginations become polluted – not only that our brains become contaminated, literally, from the toxins in the very air we breathe, but metaphorically and just as perniciously, our minds and imaginations become polluted from the poisonous miasma that arises from that quagmire of news and information and opinion and analysis and rumour and scaremongering and recrimination and suspicion that fills the airwaves and the social media – and we inhale that stuff whether we want to or not. None of us can insulate ourselves from the toxic vapours of the contemporary social environment in which we live and breathe – well, you have to work very hard  to keep yourself uncontaminated by these toxins, and by what passes for thinking in the communal and national and international spheres we inhabit. The novelist Saul Bellow once described this hyped-up modern world of ours as a ‘moronic inferno’, and that was before the age of the internet and Twitter, and all the rest of our dementing 24/7 culture was even dreamed of.

So, okay, if I’m going to talk about imagination, this remarkable dimension of what it means to be human, I’m very aware of its double-sidedness. And yes, I’m starting by acknowledging, as the New Year begins, the way our imaginations already gravitate towards worry, concerns, paranoia sometimes, about our personal lives, our health, our relationships, our financial situation, as well as our lives as Jews, and our lives as citizens of this precious kingdom, and world citizens on this fragile planet. But let’s turn, deliberately, defiantly, almost counter-intuitively, let’s turn – a turn that is also a return –  to consider our imaginations as a source not of fear and suspicion and accusation, but our imaginations as a source of wonder, a space within us not of dread but of hope, a source not of anxiety but of playfulness and creativity and inspiration. Imagination not as a source of nightmare but of vision, and opportunity, and glorious possibilities.

Do you remember a time, when you were very young, when you would get fascinated by something in the world around you: it might be watching an insect move -an ant, or a butterfly; or how the sun refracted into the colours of a rainbow in a puddle; or wondering how the new baby got into mummy’s tummy – or how it would get out – or you’d be fascinated by the hairs on your grandmother’s chin, or by how exactly the microwave heated up your pudding,  or where snow goes when it melts. It’s the stage we all go through, if things go well for us growing up, the stage of ‘why’, (the bane of a parent’s life sometimes), ‘why’ this, ‘why’ that, ‘why..how..what’, question after question, that endless curiosity, fascination, about the world around us.

It’s the stage of life when our imaginations really get going, not only around the things we observe, but around, well, ‘imaginary’ things that we encounter in books and in stories, on TV and in films, and in conversations we overhear: our imaginations become populated by realities that we create, and by the creations of others: we enter into a world of ghosts and giants, talking animals, cartoon characters that change shape, superheroes that fly, a world of magic spells and elves and angels and God and Mad Hatter’s tea parties. One of the most problematic things you can say to a child is ‘stop imagining things’ – when we should be interested in expanding a child’s capacity for imagination and wonder, because the world is a mystery and a constant source of wonder – but as life goes on we may well become dulled to the mystery and wonder and aliveness of this period of our development: something of that capacity for imagination and wonder and curiosity becomes blunted in us, ground down by what we come to think of as ‘reality’; something in us that responded to the newness and exciting strangeness of what we saw and heard and thought gets calloused over. The glory fades, and the light can go out of our eyes.

And maybe we vaguely feel something’s missing in our lives, but we don’t know what it is, we can’t pin it down. And then we one day, if we are lucky, or have some help, we find something, maybe it’s a poem or a text or a piece of music, that puts us back in touch with these early glimmers of everyday wonder and helps us recollect something precious we have lost. Maybe we find Wordsworth’s “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” where he recalls a time:

When meadow, grove, and stream,/The earth, and every common sight,/to me did seem/Apparelled in celestial light,/The glory and the freshness of a dream.

Or we discover William Blake’s poetic vision, a state of mind and imagination in which we can “see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And a Heaven in a Wild Flower”.  Or we watch again that extraordinary moment in cinema history when Stanley Kubrick in ‘2001:A Space Odyssey’ shows us our ancestor the ape beating the ground with a stick, breaking up bones, and one bone flies up into the air and the slow motion of movement in space cuts to the vehicle in space somersaulting over and over and our heart leaps in amazement and awe – oh, this is us now, this is how far we have travelled in the blink of an eye, aeons long.

Or we recall that last interview with that rascally playwright Dennis Potter, knowing he was dying, talking to Melvyn Bragg for Channel 4, and speaking about the blossom he could see from his window in Ross-on-Wye:

“…the blossom is out in full now…it’s a plum tree, it looks like apple blossom but it’s white, and looking at it, instead of saying ‘Oh that’s nice blossom’…last week looking at it through the window when I’m writing, I see it is the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom that there ever could be, and I can see it. Things are both more trivial than they ever were, and more important than they ever were, and the difference between the trivial and the important doesn’t seem to matter. But the nowness of everything is absolutely wondrous, and if people could see that, you know. There’s no way of telling you, you have to experience it, but the glory of it…the comfort of it, the reassurance…not that I’m interested in reassuring people, bugger that. The fact is, if you can see the present tense, boy do you see it! And boy can you celebrate it…”

This is what Rosh Hashanah can be for us: the time in the year we have been given to cleanse the doors of perception – that’s Aldous Huxley’s phrase, borrowed from William Blake – and see the world anew. The High Holy Day machzor often refers to that text from Isaiah that precedes by two millennia all those other writers and artists I’ve mentioned: ki hinneni voray shamayim hadashim va’artez hadasha… – “For behold, now, I create new heavens and a new earth…be glad and rejoice in what I am creating” (65:17-18). ‘What I am creating…’ – if you can ‘see the present tense……boy, can you celebrate it’.

Rosh Hashanah is our celebration of the present tense. So as we move into the New Year, and the new moon appears in the sky, and we are reminded through that – even if only subliminally – how our Jewish cycle of the year revolves around the ‘heavens’, we have this opportunity in these days, these ten precious days, to begin again this journey which depends upon our capacity to use our imaginations benignly, creatively. Can we regain some of that wide-eyed innocence and curiosity of childhood, that sense of wonder? Entering these days is like entering some sacred space, separated out from that toxic environment I spoke about before, that is all around us. We can choose not to be contaminated, polluted, by what chokes that everyday world we also live in, we can choose to use our inner faculties of imagination and resourcefulness and really see what is there within us – and within our tradition, with all its dark richness.

And what’s in us, and what we need our imaginations to nurture, are things like our capacity for kindness, our capacity for compassion, our passion for justice, our ability to give of ourselves, our capacity to be honest with ourselves, and others, our capacity for self-sacrifice, and generosity, generosity of heart and our pockets, our capacity for tolerance, for tolerating difference, for not getting swept away by populism, whether it’s in the Jewish community or the wider community. And yes – spoiler alert! or is it a trailer? – I will be talking at some stage about antisemitism and the Labour Party, Second Day RH, if things go to plan – but right now I’m talking about how to use our imaginations not for fearfulness and hysteria but for righteousness and reflection: reflection on our remarkable human capacity for recognising wondrousness and transforming what isn’t working, what isn’t right in our lives, transforming it into something more life-enhancing and life-giving. And that work of transformation requires us to be imaginative, to use this divine strand of creativity within us, our imaginations. We have that capacity grafted to our souls and this evening we remember it again, we rejoice in it again, we renew our commitment to it again.

It may be true that, as John Keats wrote in a letter to his younger brothers exactly 200 years ago, “There is nothing stable in the world; uproar’s your only music” – so on one level nothing much has changed since then – that may indeed say something true about 2018 as well as 1818; but it is also the case that Keats was on to something vital for us today when he wrote in another letter: “I am certain of nothing but the holiness of the heart’s affections and the truth of the imagination”.

So as we move into and through these days, let’s remember and renew and rejoice in the holiness of our ‘heart’s affections’ – all that sacred work we are capable of doing – and our own personal and collective connection to ‘the truth of the imagination’.