Sermon Nov 8 2014

Erev Rosh Hashanah

As my mum would have said its “narish”, trashy even, but don’t all the best novels that allow you to escape into a different world get accused of that?  One of my pool-side summer reads this year was Dave Eggers “The Circle” which was a tongue-in-cheek recommendation from a member commenting on my obsession for the community to be more connected to one another.

The Circle deals with the question of transparency, offering what appears to be an achievable utopia, using technology to create a more transparent world.  It starts with petty crime that could be eradicated by watching more closely, knowledge about people accumulated to document history and highlighting commonalities to connect people, but it slowly illuminates the more sinister side of a society watching each other’s every move in this totalitarian way.

It’s fiction but its pull for me was that it’s all based on existing technology.  As I store all my photos with Google, have the most wonderful record of my son’s life on Facebook and spend more time looking at the screen of my iPhone than in to the eyes of anyone around me (lucky my son’s life is on the screen otherwise I’d accuse myself of missing it), the book’s premise isn’t that far-fetched.  The experiment in which the lead character is taking part simply takes Instagram, Facebook and Twitter one step further where your followers see your life in real time via a camera permanently hung around your neck.  All politicians are encouraged to sign up to the programme because by fearing a camera with audio listening to your every word implies you have something to hide. Surely it could be the ultimate in democracy if the cameras create “a filter-less society where secrets are crimes.”

In my teenage years it became a family joke that the worst thing my brother, sister or I could do was to find ourselves on the front page of the Jewish Chronicle   My Dad would quip, “All the good firsts have been taken so your name on the front page will only be for a scandal.”  I knew that when we talked about judgement, the eyes of the Jewish community were definitely no less fearsome than God’s own. Perhaps that’s why God evokes:

יט  הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day,

The judgement of society is ultimately the thing we fear the most.  Maybe it’s part of the power of community taking these steps into the New Year together; we keep each other on the straight and narrow.

Rashi the medieval French bible scholar asks why heaven and earth are ever needed as our witness: Rashi explains: Moses says, “Tomorrow I will die. If Israel says, ‘We never accepted the covenant’, who will come and refute them?” Therefore, he called upon heaven and earth as witnesses for Israel — witnesses that endure forever. Enduring memory, witnessing your every choice in life.”  The witness and the enduring memory are definitely both integral components to the power of community.

The Torah makes the same implications that the novel initially makes. If society is our witness we will temper our behaviour, rethink the way we speak, do away with reckless actions and make more ethical decisions. But what happens as society becomes our constant witness? It’s easy to say it would be positive if becoming aware of who might be listening eliminated the snide comments we are all prone to making.  Yet what of the private moments of friendship that would be lost along the way? What of the moments of intimacy that would be tempered?  What would happen to the necessary moments of uncertainty when personal choices need to be made, strength sought or resolve found before opening ourselves up to other people’s responses? Moments where people express vulnerability, fury or sadness would inevitably be buried, away from the public eye because sometimes we can only bear to acknowledge it alone or with a trusted companion.

Some years ago I spent time with a congregant who was very ill in hospital. They, very uncharacteristically, felt vulnerable and scared. They were confused and challenged many decisions they’d made in life. They even looked physically smaller hidden beneath the hospital sheets in their nightclothes. We talked for a long time but some weeks later when they went home he kept me at arm’s length, which went on for the couple of years before he sadly passed away. We never talked about that time again, if I tried to it was made clear we weren’t going there.  I don’t think he ever believed me that that period didn’t change how I felt about him and when he died I reflected on how much I would have liked for him to have been able to press delete on that episode, maybe the voice of a judge could demand “strike it from the record”, being sure that no one else would remember it either. He was desperate to be able to blank out a chapter in life but he knew it remained in mine and other’s memories. Does transparency mean it has to stay there, especially now yesterday’s news is no longer tomorrow’s chip wrapper but rather nothing more than a Google search away, or does real trust mean we can overwrite it together?

Heaven and earth are our witness, now more than ever before, but in our encouragement to choose life, and do so in the right way for us, surely we also have to understand the importance of privacy as well. Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez said “All human beings have three lives: one public, one private, and one secret.” Our sanity relies on us being able to reside in all three places and call on others, let them in, encourage them to bear witness on life, but only as and when we move each aspect of the building blocks of choosing life into the public domain. There is an expectation now that we live our entire lives in public, under society’s scrutiny; the Bible’s heaven and earth bearing witness was meant to keep us on the straight and narrow but technological advancements mean we now live our lives not worrying about public scrutiny so much but rather public judgement and seeking public affirmation.

Our model of communal prayer reminds us that our transparency needs to be internal, though we may choose to articulate it as totally honest only to God, God demands enough introspection that we are being open with ourselves. The huge numbers of people who will join us on the journey these ten days should not make us want to strike from the record that which we would rather hide away from but rather remind us that the power of these ten days lies in what we allow ourselves to contemplate, reflect on, challenge ourselves with. The more afraid we are that anyone else should know what we are thinking about, the more powerful the journey is going to be for us. Dig deep and make it worthwhile. Before we become transparent on the outside let’s see if we can achieve it on the inside.

We shouldn’t fear judgement; we should appreciate that as we write on our life’s scrolls our parchment marks other people’s scrolls as well. Rosh Hashanah gives us a chance to choose life for the coming year. May we manage to live between the concepts of

יט  הַעִדֹתִי בָכֶם הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֶת-הָאָרֶץ. 19 I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day,

While feeling watched and the joy of a fresh clean start this new year, as we are told In Isaiah

יז  כִּי-הִנְנִי בוֹרֵא שָׁמַיִם חֲדָשִׁים, וָאָרֶץ חֲדָשָׁה; וְלֹא תִזָּכַרְנָה הָרִאשֹׁנוֹת, וְלֹא תַעֲלֶינָה עַל-לֵב. 17 For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.
יח  כִּי-אִם-שִׂישׂוּ וְגִילוּ עֲדֵי-עַד, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי בוֹרֵא: . 18 But be ye glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create.

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