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Chief Rabbi's Rosh Hashanah message

Last updated: 2003-09-24

Chief Rabbi's Rosh Hashanah mesage

We enter the New Year, this year as last, poised between hope and fear. The situation in Israel remains uncertain. Elsewhere, anti-semitism is on the rise. The international arena is still tense: the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have not ended the threat of terror of which the West has been aware since the attack on the World Trade Center two years ago. Individually, we live in an age of rapid and unpredictable change. In retrospect, ours will be called the Age of Uncertainty. Jews, however, are no strangers to uncertainty: our ancestors lived with it and still found themselves able to celebrate life. That in no small measure was due to the strength they gained through prayer, especially during the Yamim Noraim. What, though, is prayer?

Josephus, who lived in the first century C.E. and witnessed the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans, tells us that the Jewish world at that time was divided into three groups: the Sadducees, the Essenes and the Pharisees. They differed in their view of fate. The Sadducees believed that history was made by human beings. The Essenes believed the opposite, that what happens is the result of Divine providence, not human choice. The Pharisees, guardians of rabbinic Judaism – our Judaism – and the sole group whose beliefs survived, thought that both were true: fate is an interplay between heaven and earth, Divine decree and human choice. That is what gave the Pharisees their distinctive view of prayer.

Tefillah is where heaven and earth meet in the human soul, and something new is born. For without the faith expressed in prayer, fear would prevail. Would we have the same courage to build, create and take risks if we believed that G-d was deaf to our prayers, blind to our fate? But Judaism said more: just as we have faith in G-d, so G-d has faith in us. He has invited us to become His “partners in the work of creation”. Prayer therefore is precisely that interaction between the infinite and the finite that, according to the Pharisaic sages long ago, shapes the course of our collective and individual lives. If we were Sadducees we would not need to pray. If we were Essenes, we would not need to do anything except pray. We would not need to act. Providence would do it for us. Both were wrong. We need to act, to do our share. G-d asks that of us. But when we act, we are not alone. If we have aligned our wills with His, G-d is with us.

So it was then. So it is now. Looking back on the birth of the State of Israel, indeed looking back on Jewish history as a whole, it is hard to disentangle the role of Providence and the acts and choices of individual Jews. In truth it is both. Jewish history – the most remarkable of any people on earth – is the story of G-d acting through human beings who acted because they had faith in him. In Jewish history, as in our individual lives, heaven and earth, G-d and us, each play their part, in ways not always apparent at the time but which become clear in retrospect. Prayer is where heaven and earth meet and a new strength, greater than ourselves, is born.

May our prayers this year have a special depth and intensity. And may the Almighty hear our prayers, for ourselves and our families, for the Jewish people and the State of Israel, and for the world – and may He grant us health and fulfilment, blessing and peace.

Wishing you a ketivah vechatimah tovah

 

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