Rosh Hashanah 5776 Second Day Sermon
Friday, 18 September 2015 | 5 Tishri, 5776
RH 2015 Second Day –Making a difference…
Rabbi Ralph Genende
Today I want to remind you of the story of a remarkable old man – when undergoing a hip replacement at the age of 103, doctors asked him if he would want to be resuscitated if his heart stopped on the operating table. He was incredulous. Resuscitate me, of course! I want to live. And he continued to live for another 3 years.
A man who lived his life with a dauntless spirit, a remarkable and even reckless courage and the instinctive capacity to see an opportunity and make a difference.
I am referring to Sir Nicholas Winston who died earlier this year aged 106.
He wasn’t a diplomat or distinguished leader but a 29 year old stockbroker who cancelled a ski trip to join his friend who was helping refugees in Prague in 1938. Looking around at the desperate tide of humanity he realised he couldn’t save all, but he could help the children. He set up his own kinder transport and with stealth, cunning, tireless fundraising, badgering the authorities and forging entry permits he organised eight railway transports . He saved 669 children, 561 of them Jews from sure death in concentration camps.
His story remained untold for some 40 years until 1988 when his wife uncovered a case of documents and pictures in their attic. He didn’t consider what he had done as exceptional, but maintained that anyone in his position would have done the same.
I am telling you about Nicholas Winton because his story embodies many of the central themes of this day, of Rosh Hashanah. It’s a tale of hope and opportunity, a story about how the power of good can transform evil and how humility and serendipity shapes our lives.
Think about the Shofar and its 3 simple notes: the long, upbeat tekiah, the short sighing shevarim, the staccato, sobbing teruah. The shvarim and teruah are broken sounds. The word שברים means broken and תרועה is an anguished, torn cry from the heart. They remind us of a wounded, damaged world: a world in which terror and fear dominate, where ‘black is the colour hunger is the creed and none is the number’, where tides of homeless refugees wash up on alien coastlines, where Jews in Paris and Brussels face hatred and hostility, where abuse of women and children is rife. They also remind us of the suffering and imperfect world we live in where everything seems to be broken and everyone knows someone who has a bad diagnosis. Torn hearts and shattered lives.
These are the central and middle notes of the shofar but they are also preceded and followed by a long tekiah, tekiah the traditional sound of hope and confidence תקע בשופר לחרותנו the voice of the tekiah helps free us from stifling restraint, from the voices of hopelessness and despair. We begin with hope, we end with confidence.
We are the sons and daughters of Avraham and Sarah who took the risk of following the Voice that called them to leave their comfort-zone and travel to an unknown land.
To be Jewish is to take the risk of believing that the evils of the world are not inevitable or irreparable, that we can mend some of the wounds and fractures of humanity, that in Jonathan Sacks words, by loving others as God loves us, we can turn a little of the prose of the human condition into poetry and song.
We don’t do can’t do. We accept what we can’t change but what we can heal we must and we do. That is why I love the curious incident of Jacob and the shepherds. He meets them lounging around the town well waiting for a big enough number to lift the big rock אבן גדולה blocking it. “Why don’t you just move it”, he asks them. And they look at him, shrug their shoulders and say לא נוכל “It’s not possible –too hard, the rock is too big, we are not strong enough.” And then Jacob went over and simply rolled the stone off the well: ויגש יעקב ויגל את האבן מעל פי הבאר . Singlehandedly, simply because he was a man who didn’t do can’t do. It’s not about muscle but mind, not about platitudes – but attitude. Nicholas Winton’s motto was: “If something is not possible, then there must be a way to do it.”
And it’s this kind of attitude that has driven Jews disproportionately into fighting ignorance and disease, poverty and injustice. Just look across Australia and the number of Jews who have been instrumental in setting up charities. We are as good at charity start-ups as Israel is at start-up companies!
From Kogo (started by one of our members) that has distributed 200,000 hand knitted items to people in need- to CEO co-founder Ronnie Kahn’s OzHarvest that has delivered 38 million meals to the struggling, from the Jews of Jewish Aid who started Fair Share and have rescued 30 tons of surplus food from supermarkets this year alone to the great work that StandUp does, from the Nappy Collective in St Kilda which supports families in crisis (another member of ours) to the marvellous work of Rabbi Shlomo Nathan with C-Care and the Big Kitchen in Sydney. And to young Dean Cohen who just started Best Bunch helping kids with disabilities. These are people who are sounding the תקיעה not just blowing their own horns but responding to the deepest purpose and meaning of shofar.
In Maimonides’ timeless words in hilchot Teshuva the shofar is saying – “Awaken sleepers from your sleep, get yourselves up…examine your actions. If you have been spending your time in meaningless pursuits take a look at your souls, improve your actions... Perform a good deed, a mitzvah and you tilt not only the balance of your fate but you shift the world to innocence bringing deliverance to others…”
Note what he is saying: one act can change a life, transform a world. One person may not be able to change the world but you can change the world for one person. Our acts and interventions have ripples of consequences – spiritual, psychological, practical. The ramifications are vast but for the most part we are unaware of them. As chaos theory reminds us the beating of a butterfly’s wing in Australia can cause a tornado in Kansas or a monsoon in Indonesia.
Nicholas Winton in his humility hadn’t really thought of the full import of his actions until BBC invited him at age 78 on the show That’s Life. In one of the most moving and poignant moments ever aired on television, the host turns to the invited audience and asks: “Is there anyone here who owes their life to Sir Nicholas Winton. If so can you stand up please.” Nicholas who has been sitting in the front row, slowly turns around and faces them. There is a quiet, palpable and powerful silence in the studio as he wipes away the tears from his eye: all 80 of the guests were people he had saved. An estimated 6,000 people across the world are descendants of “Nicky’s children”. It’s all the more remarkable in that he himself was actually oblivious to all the good he had done.
I was reminded of Mordechai’s words to Queen Esther when she is doubtful of her capacity to save the Jews: “Who knows”, he says to her – “if it wasn’t for this purpose you were born. Don’t miss this moment.” Nicholas Winston could have just left Prague on that fateful day in 1938 – he could have walked away and done nothing but he didn’t – in the serendipity of his being there he saw opportunity. His daughter Barbara who penned his biography wrote: “If reading his story about the rescue of the children causes people to think, ‘What a hero. I could never do anything like that. It’s much too difficult and anyway, heroes like that were needed in remote history when we were at war. Now let me get on with my life’, he is not that interested. “But if reading it inspires people to think, ‘Well, things are not right in the world now. I can make a difference in my own way and I am going to do it’, then he will be a happy man.”
There are, says Rabbi Sacks, three barriers to growth: three barriers that prevent us from achieving the greatness we are all capable of. The first is self-righteousness or arrogance, the belief we are already great. The second is false humility, the belief that we can never be great, לא נוכל The third is learned helplessness, the belief that we can’t change the world because we can’t change ourselves.
All three are false. We aren’t yet great but we are called to greatness and yes we can change. We can live lives of moral beauty and spiritual depth. Judaism has consistently asked great things of our people and in so doing has made us great.
In the early days of the civil rights movement great African American poet Langston Hughes famously wrote:
Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly
We Jews are the ultimate realists and the ultimate dreamers, with pessimism of the intellect but an optimism of the heart and will. Like Churchill we choose not to see the difficulty in every opportunity but opportunity in every difficulty.
In the words of our tefillah on Rosh Hashana, may we aim high לעלא וילעלא reach for the sky and fly on eagles wings. Today we are called to greatness, not to be rich or successful, famous or powerful but to find favour in the eyes of God and appreciation in the eyes of people. To be great is to challenge the comfortable and to comfort the challenged, to reach out to the broken winged, to heal and teach them and ourselves how to fly again. So let’s be equal to the challenge of this sacred hour and reach out and reach high!