At the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, Jewish people wish one another, “May you be inscribed for a good and sweet year.” The liturgy acclaims the sovereignty of God, the affirmation that this is a beautiful, meaningful world, the creation of which attests to wisdom and benevolence of the Creator.
In some years, however, it is easier than in others to affirm the essential, underlying goodness of Creation, and this year, it has felt more difficult to me. The grotesque malformation of the fish in the Chesapeake watershed has hit me hard. The ever rising level of the sea, the storms and the droughts of climate change. The beheadings, not only of Westerners videotaped, but of thousands of anonymous Syrians and Iraqis. The kidnapped African schoolgirls, no longer in the news. The Ukrainian ceasefire that isn’t observed. The Israel/Hamas ceasefire that is observed but that leaves the situation unchanged and thus offers little hope that the fifty-day summer war will not be repeated yet again.
Not that Jews believe that the just and peaceful functioning of the world is dependent on God alone. Central to our beliefs is that there is a divine-human partnership. Whatever is divinely created, we have to plant it, harvest it, mill it, and bake it. Justice and peace are states that we can co-create when we promote them with our human effort. But even given human responsibility, how does one proclaim the sovereignty of God when there seems to be so much evidence to the contrary?
I was reminded yet again during the New Year worship services that when we affirm the possibility of a world in which people live in ways that reveal God’s otherwise hidden presence, we are not uttering an observation of demonstrable fact. Rather, we are making a statement of faith. We believe that our yearning for a more just, peaceful, and compassionate world are reflections of those divine qualities in the universe. We believe that when we work for an end to oppression, exploitation, and cruelty, we take strength not only from one another but from immanent and transcendent divine presence that supports and sustains us. We believe that we are not alone, whistling in the dark. And we take strength and encouragement when we gather together in worship and sing that belief together.
I recite blessings that state that God supports those who fall, heals the sick, and frees those who are imprisoned, not because I believe that God always intervenes supernaturally to execute these operations, but because I believe that when we support those who fall, heal the sick, or free captives, our values and actions are aligned with those of God. Similarly, I sing medieval poems that hail God as the past, present, and future sovereign of the universe because I believe that it is possible to create a world together in which there will no longer be hunger or violence or war or cruelty and in which our resources will be distributed equitably.
“In that day,” Jewish people sing three times each day, at the end of each service, “God will be one and God’s name will be one.” My personal vision of the messianic era is a bit less homogeneous. I would be happy if there remained many names of God, but I affirm the underlying hope for a world in which all peoples, however diverse, would feel sufficiently united to care about one another, to build peace and end war, to do the difficult work of cultivating empathy for the other, to do without some of their own discretionary pleasures to help others acquire some of their necessities.
I am acutely aware that there is no evidence that large numbers of human beings have ever been able to achieve these goals, and I’m less certain than many others that such a vision is actually attainable. But I am certain that prayerfully rededicating ourselves over and over again to our most elevated objectives is an essential way to gain renewed strength in our shared goals as we inch our way toward the millennium.
Rabbi Jacob Staub is Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, PA, where he directs the program in Jewish Spiritual Direction.
This content was adapted from a piece originally published in 2014 the website of The First Day, at http://firstdaypress.org/we-have-to-keep-trying.
Image: “Sky18_Free Texture #133″ by Brenda Clarke via Flickr.