Wednesday, 20 September 2017

When the Fly Flew Into a Train - First Day Rosh Hashannah 5778

Four rabbis are in a coffee bar discussing Rosh Hashanah sermon topics.
Oy, says one.
Oy vey, says the other.
Oy vez mir, says the third.
Listen, says the fourth. If you don’t stop talking politics, I’m going to take my coffee elsewhere.

It’s an old joke, apparently dates back to Berlin in the early days of the Third Reich, back then the punch-line was ‘if you don’t stop talking about the Nazis.’

In these strange times, alternate punchlines are easier than they should be, ‘if you don’t stop talking about terror attacks on the underground,’ or ‘if you don’t stop talking about Myanmar, or Syria, or Yemen, or North Korea, or Trump, or storms in the Caribbean or refugees on the Mediterranean...
You could also substitute a punchline from any of the great subjects of particular Jewish concern. Did you catch the survey on declining Synagogue affiliation numbers and the future of the Jewish people? Or, prospects for peace in the Middle East or, or ...

Oy vez mir.
Sermons on big topics seem doomed to crash into walls of Oy vez mir.

But I’m not sure the sermons on small interpersonal topics - sermons about the inner workings of my soul - fare much better. ‘ve been doing this Rosh Hashanah thing for a while now. I’ve heard, indeed I’ve given a bunch of sermons persuading me to change, an it’s still the same me. I’ve the same tendencies to fall and fail and snap and bark I’ve had for years by now. Sermons encouraging me to throw myself against walls of my entrenched behaviours and rigidities feel doomed to provoke the same run of Oy, Oy vez and Oy vez mir.

If in doubt, try humour.
What did the fish say as it swam into a wall?

I’ve been thinking a lot about colliding into seemingly unyieldingly powerful objects. In fact, it’s the journey I want to welcome you to share with me through these sacred days.

Here’s one of those of conundrums I remember from my school days: Suppose a fly collides with a train travelling in the opposite direction. At a certain point, the fly instead of going from left to right is turned round and begins to travel from right to left. Laws of physics suggest that between moving in one direction and moving in the other there has to be a moment of non-travel, a moment when the fly is moving at zero miles per hour.
At that moment, the fly and the train are in contact, and if, at that moment, the fly is stationary and attached to the train, the laws physics, surely, suggest that the train must also be travelling at zero miles per hour.
At that moment, surely, the fly has the ability to stop a train.

An early Rosh Hashanah apology to the physicists among you. I know just enough physics to be dangerously wrong. I know. I’ve checked. Apparently, as a matter of physics, the fly doesn’t stop the train. There’s something about the way the fly gets sequentially squished and also something about the insignificance of the moment in time under examination. But my conversations with physicists about flies and trains haven’t deadened my fascination with this image for religious, if not scientific, reasons.

What happens if we do pitch ourselves in the face of seemingly insuperable opposition? The anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, ‘never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can’t change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.’ I was thinking about Mead’s quote on a recent visit to a homebound nonagenarian member. I was sharing something about the ‘Oy vez mir-ness of these times, and found myself realising that the man I was visiting had lived through the Blitz and his German born wife had been interred as an enemy alien. ‘How did it feel at that time?’ ‘Ah well,’ he replied, ‘we used to go up Primrose Hill and watch the Spitfires take on the German planes.’ A few brave, committed citizens changed the world. Never have so many owed so much to so few, and all that. As scary all these new scenarios feel. We’ve been here before and it was the flies who flew at the trains who made a difference.

Of course a tiny group can’t change the world alone, nor can a single fly stop a train, all by itself. But if enough people get behind an idea, stand alongside a leader, are prepared to follow a lead - then our individual actions are more powerful than we could possibly imagine.

In Rabbinic idiom, it’s called being a Nachshon Ben Aminadav. The story is told that when the Children arrived at the Sea - Egyptians behind them, wall of water in-front of them, the waters refused to part. It took one person - Nachshon Ben Aminadav - to walk into the water, before the waters parted.[1] Before the impossible happened, someone had to take the first step. Someone had to launch themselves at the train. A new good futures only unfold before the courageous.

I think this is the best way to understand one of Maimonides most captivating teachings on Teshuvah. ‘A person,’ wrote the greatest of all Jewish Medieval sages, ‘should see themselves, and indeed the whole world, narrowly balanced between good and bad, success and failure, power and impotence. Take one action and the entire world is tipped over onto the scale of good.’[2] The idea is that you take one step and someone sees you and is drawn forward by your courage, your willingness to take on the train. And then another and then another.

But the most religiously interesting reason to launch ourselves at trains has something to do with the question of significance. My physicist friends point out that the moment when the fly and the train are stationary is insignificant. If we are talking about the human view of trains and flies, I’m sure that’s the case. But what if we look at this fly and this train, not from our own perspective?

From God’s perspective, the Talmud teaches, a thousand years is but a blink of the eye.[3] The notion that anything any of us do is makes any real kind of difference on scale of time by which God measures the millennia seems ridiculous. If you watch history from the perspective of, say a Yuval Noah Harari, then the train of metahistory is indeed unstoppable, and every individual action does indeed pass into insignificance. Even a Mozart, even a Caesar, even a Ghandi - all meaningless.

But what if we view this story from the perspective of the fly?

I love a story told, first, by a remarkable Jewish paediatrician, David Baum.

As an old man walked along a beach at dawn he noticed a young boy picking up starfish and putting them in the sea. He asked him why he was doing this. His answer was that the stranded starfish would die if left until the morning sun. ‘But the beach goes on for miles, and there are thousands of starfish,’ countered the old man. ‘How can your effort make any difference?’ The young boy looked at the starfish in his hand and placed it safely in the waves. ‘It makes a difference to this one.’[4]

The point, I think, is this. Viewed from too grand a perspective my physicist friends are right, it’s all insignificant. Nothing matters. But if viewed from a sufficiently immediate place even the most tiny moments in time can prove to be truly awesome.

There was the story of members  who managed to gather to say goodbye to their soon-to-pass loved one. And the story of members who missed that moment, by minutes. That was significant. There was the story of member who took the opportunity to propose to a woman who was to become his wife for over 50 years in the days before he was due to leave the country. And the countless love affairs that never were because we’ve lacked the ability to seize the moment. That’s significant. There’s a moment in the aftermath of a row when there’s a possibility of saying sorry and making good. And there’s the way that moment passes and it becomes increasingly difficult to heal the brokenness. That’s significant. I’ve known families ripped asunder for less.

Here’s the difference between the significant and the insignificant - how much attention do we give to tiny individual moments? You pay attention to a moment and it is significant. You deem a moment insignificant and, for you, it is indeed insignificant - though it might be desperately important for others. It’s a circular logic, I know, but that’s not a fault in the logic. It’s a pathway to making a difference.

The more we view our lives from the grand scale, the less significant we become. But that doesn’t mean it’s right to view our lives from the grandest of scale. When we view our lives from the grandest of scales, we defeat the point of being alive at all. But when we shorten the sense of how big a moment needs to be to count the more powerful we become. The more we view our lives from the perspective of those we might help, or hurt, the more significant our actions seem to become. And the ability to choose how to view our actions lies in our hands.

So here’s the option - do we want to live our lives as if they are significant, or insignificant? Will you join me in an attempt to live treating the perspectives of others as really important? Will you join me in an attempt to consider that every moment has the potential to radiate significance and possibility?

It’s a very Jewish way to live a life. There are a web of practices, known as Kavvanot, designed to bring our intention in performing whatever we are doing, to the very moment in which we are acting. “Behold I am ready and accept the obligation to hear the Shofar;” We bring our attention to right this very moment. Here and now is important. We locate potential and significance right now, not thinking about the next thing I need to do, the next place I need to be, the next list item I need to get to. Because, religiously speaking the important thing, for me right now, is to invest as much possibility and significance into this very moment, and not be rushing off anywhere - either spiritually or emotionally.

Here’s a tiny example, I made a note a year ago. On first day Rosh Hashanah a year ago, we got to the Adon Olam and while Cantor Jason was leading Adon Olam, a wave of tallitot removal swept the sanctuary. We had an epidemic of people treating the moment of Adon Olam as if it didn’t matter. And as a result it didn’t. Let’s try it the other way this year. Be here. Let the last moment of prayerful song we will enjoy together this morning be invested with possibility - sing up, sing strong, and then head off to lunch. See if it makes a difference. I believe it will.

Here’s a bigger example, when you next get a call to action - a call to throw yourself in the path of an oncoming train, to make the world, or even yourself better, go for it. If you get a call to protest against the unconscionable, protest. If you get a call to  support the impoverished and the destitute, support. If you get a call to play a part - even if your part can only be tiny, believe in the value of the moment, have faith that if you heed the call to be brave and bold, others will follow. And know that in accepting our obligations to be forces for good in the world we are in some way worthy of the life we have been given.

A lot of flies have flown into a lot of trains without turning them around. But I still think it’s worth flying into a train.

Being prepared to step before the seemingly immoveable object is an act of faith in a future we help create. It’s the origin of the possibility of change. It’s the origin of hope.

We are all so much more powerful than we know.
In this year to come, may we use that power well,

Shannah Tovah - a good, powerful, year to us all.

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