September 2016, Shana Tovah

Dear friends,

We find ourselves now at the end of the month of Elul, the month where according to our tradition God is in the field, readily accessible to all. It is indeed interesting that the metaphor used for God’s palpable presence during this time, is the imagery of nature. To me such a concept highly resonates. Having spent the last week camping in the Otways, literally under Koalas, I can attest that the experience of being in close proximity to nature, is truly a spiritually uplifting one.

And this idea is highly relevant to Rosh Hashana, for on Rosh Hashana we proclaim that this day commemorates the beginning of creation which of course included plants, animals, and all of nature. It is, therefore, not surprising that through our immersion in nature, we become more spiritually attuned to the presence of God.

But there is something more profound about Rosh Hashana beyond our place in nature. Though I firmly believe that we disconnect from nature at our peril, I don’t think this is the whole story. For the state of nature is inherently amoral. We do not pass judgement on a lion for butchering its prey, or carnivorous plants for being deceptively deadly. They are inbuilt instincts propelled by evolution to ensure their survival. The animals or plants are, therefore, locked in to their natures and have no choice but to act accordingly.

Not so the human being. A human being is the only creature in nature which has choices.  On the basic biological level these choices are the reason humans have been able to colonise even the most remote parts of our planet. Consider this: a lion is the king of the jungle with all these extraordinary features that alongside it, humans seem puny indeed. Despite this, were you to transfer this lion to the North Pole, there is little doubt that it will perish immediately. Why? Because a lion is locked into its state of nature, both internal and external. For a lion to succeed it, amongst other things, has to have the right climate in which to operate.

A human being though, with the help of the most sophisticated piece of hardware found anywhere in nature – the human brain – can easily adapt to its environment and succeed even in the harshest climate. In the opening words of the great Jacob Bronowski in his masterpiece The Ascent of Man, ‘Man is a singular creature. He has a set of gifts which make him unique among the animals: so that, unlike them, he is not a figure in the landscape — he is a shaper of the landscape.’

The uniquely positive ability to choose is seen even better when viewed with regard to morality. After all, the ability to colonise every corner of the globe puts humans in the uncomfortable company of rats and cockroaches. With regard to morality however, humans stand entirely apart from the rest of creation. Human beings are the only creatures able to overcome their natural destructive tendencies and who are therefore held to account for the bad choices made.

No matter how intelligent an animal may be deemed, it has never been proposed that any animal at any point in time behaved immorally. Despite the retributive language sometimes used with regard to shark culling for instance, nobody actually thinks that the sharks are doing anything other than what they are programmed to do. Punishment as such is, therefore, entirely irrelevant.

On the other hand, every mature human being (minus seriously chemically unbalanced ones) is capable of morality and therefore subject to its laws.

This is what Rosh Hashana is all about: the celebration of the spiritual uniqueness of the human being as well as a time to reflect on the incredible responsibility this entails. Though we are absolutely a part of nature, we are also knowers of good and bad, who have the ability to choose our own destiny – for good and for bad.
May God grant us all the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the moral courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Shana Tova Umetuka – A happy sweet new year to all!

Rabbi Shneur