"A man had been wandering about in a forest for several days..." What can an old parable offer us for consideration over Rosh HaShana and the upcoming holidays?
As we approach the New Year I am reminded of a Hasidic story retold by the Nobel prize winning Israeli writer S. Y. Agnon in his precious anthology ‘Days of Awe’ (Schocken, 1948/1965).
It’s a parable attributed to the 19th century master, Rabbi Hayyim of Zans:
A man had been wandering about in a forest for several days, not knowing which was the right way out. Suddenly he saw a person approaching him. His heart was filled with joy. “Now I shall certainly find out which is the right way,“ he thought to himself. When they nearer one another, he asked them: “Brother, tell me which is the right way. I have been wandering about in this forest for several days.” Said the other to him, _“Brother, I do not know the way out either. For I too have been wandering about here for many, many days. But this I can tell you: do not take the way I have been taking, for that will lead you astray. And now let us look for a new way out together.”_
And Agnon concludes this simple tale with the following comment from Reb Hayyim:
“So it is with us. One thing I can tell you: the way we have been following this far we ought follow no further, for that way leads you astray. But now let us look for a new way.”
There are times when I find this tale too simplistic. Life is complex.The problems of the human heart, and the problems we see in the world around us, are just too multi-dimensional and intractable for such pious homilies to make any difference. Judaism, and religions in general, are often much too quick to think they have the answers to life’s problems. They offer us sticking plasters when what is needed is open-heart surgery.
Looking for a ‘new way out together’ sounds fine, but what does it mean in practice?
Learning to open our hearts in a world that is often heartless requires more than an effort of will. It requires more than New Year resolutions or a vague desire to be a ‘better person’. At this time of the year, as the New Year approaches, Judaism traditionally emphasises the role of teshuvah – ‘returning’, ‘change’. It offers this ten day period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as a period of introspection and reflection, an annual calling ourselves to account, a time to look at our successes and our failures in the fraught (and joyful) enterprise of being human.
And it suggests – with breathtaking chutzpah – that not only our own personal well-being is at stake in this journey towards a possible ‘new way’ of being, but that the world depends upon the spiritual work undertaken at this time of the year by the Jewish people.
The medieval prayer the Unatane Tokef, which is repeated throughout this period, spells out this powerful mythic dimension of Jewish thinking:
“This day all who enter the world pass before You like a flock of sheep. And as a shepherd gathers his flock and makes them pass beneath his staff, everything that lives passes in front of You, and You record, and count, and consider them...On Rosh Hashanah we consider how judgment is formed, on Yom kippur we consider how judgment is sealed.”
What are we to make of this? When I use the word ‘mythic’ to describe this dimension of Jewish thinking, I am using it not in the popular sense where ‘mythic’ has come to mean ‘not true’, but as a way of suggesting that these ideas are a form of storytelling that point towards a different kind of truth. Liturgical narratives like these offer symbolic word-pictures to try to evoke a psychological or spiritual ‘truth’.
They are ways of thinking that appeal to the imagination, that speak to a part of us – call it the human heart, or the soul – that is not concerned with logic or rationality.
Don’t get me wrong though: there is a desperate need in our world for good, clear, analytic thinking - our capacity for reasoning, for being able to think clearly and logically and dispassionately about the problems we face on this planet, has never been greater. In an era of post-truth politics – where what is rational is trumped (pun intended) by what one feels – the role of rationality in the future well-being of our nations and of our planet is fundamental.
But ‘mythic’ thinking is crucial too: at its best (though religions are rarely ‘at their best’) a religion like Judaism offers a deep and life-enhancing story about the vital role of individual and collective human introspection and change and action in helping the world become more bearable to live in for more people.
Our Jewish story says that we are to be or l’goyim, a ‘light to the nations’. Our story says our role – our purpose, our raison d'être – is to bring a blessing to humanity, to be a blessing. This is a grandiose, narcissistic ‘myth’ – but its spiritual, symbolic truthfulness has sustained the Jewish people for two millennia and more. At the New Year we are asked to think about how we relate to, how we contribute to, this enduring story. How committed are we to writing our own chapter in this unfolding and eternal story?
Can we find a ‘new way together’?
The importance of solidarity, of recognising the value of companionship, of realising we are not alone in feeling lost, is a significant dimension of Reb Hayyim’s tale.
We can learn from each other.
We can help each other.
We need each other.
As the New Year comes and we look around us at the world, we may feel daunted by the scale of the task humanity faces. The number of overlapping problems can feel overwhelming. And we may sometimes feel it is too late to change the dynamics of contemporary life, whether one’s own life or the larger patterns of life in which we are enmeshed.
We may feel: it’s too late to find that special relationship, too late to have the family I want, or the friends, too late to have job satisfaction, too late to fulfil my ambitions, my hopes, too late to rid myself of my anxieties and fears, too late to learn a new language, a new skill, too late to exorcise the malign influence of my past, too late to heal that relationship, heal that old wound...
But what this period of the Jewish year that we are entering into says to us, promises us, is: it’s not too late. Not yet.
That’s what the Talmud (Shabbat 153a) intuits when it tells us the story of Rabbi Eliezer, who says to his disciples ‘Repent one day before your death’ – do teshuvah the day before you die – and they naturally respond to him:
‘Does that mean we are supposed to know when we will die?’ And Eliezer replies, in effect, ‘I think you get it: you don’t know how long you have in this world so you need to be attending to teshuvah – returning, changing - every day of your life.’
In other words: it’s never too late. It’s never too late for something to change – in us, to us.
But this wisdom might sometimes feel counter-intuitive. Consider the issues we face as a Jewish community. Is it too late to save our European Jewish communities from being overwhelmed by the toxic spillage that has seeped into so much of the discourse in the public domain around Israel and the Palestinians? We are coming up this year to 50 years of occupation and it has had an effect, for two generations now, on how Jews are seen throughout the world. This isn’t fair - but it is a reality we are aware of, even if we hate it being the case. Is it too late to change the flow of history in the Middle East? It laps onto our shores in ways that we now consider natural – synagogues with heavy security, CCTV cameras, buildings and people shut away behind high walls... But none of this is natural. And we need to wonder at this. Occupation is not natural. Injustice is not natural. Security guards checking us in and out is not natural. But is it all too late?
This question of ‘too lateness’ haunts the imagination. It presses in on us as we start our New Year, our annual period of communal and personal reflection. Is it too late to solve creatively and compassionately the European humanitarian crisis over refugees and displaced families and children? Is it too late to stop the poisonous xenophobia and racism that is stalking the continent of Europe from gradually taking over? Is it too late, now that the Arctic ice (as we heard last week) has shrunk to its smallest ever size, is it too late to change the rising of tides, the flooding of cities, the droughts and the floods and the food shortages that will overtake the planet this century as the temperatures keep on rising?
Jews have been gifted a period of time to reflect on where they are in their lives, individually and collectively – and the promise that our mythic story makes is: it’s not too late, it’s never too late. Judaic hopefulness insists that change, ‘a new way out’, is possible, for an individual, for a society – but we have to start with ourselves.
Rabbi Howard Cooper is a psychoanalytic psychotherapist in private practice, Director of Spiritual Development at Finchley Reform Synagogue, London, and a writer. He is the author of The Alphabet of Paradise: An A-Z of Spirituality for Everyday Life and he blogs on Jewish issues and current affairs at www.howardcoopersblog.blogspot.com