Inner strength - Sermon for Rosh Hashanah morning 5781 (2020)

We are living in uncertain times, or as my son says, ‘funky’ times.

For the first time in my life I realised that wishing people Happy New Year does not mean “let’s hope that with a bit of luck the new year will be happier than the old one”. It actually means one will have to make the new year happy by finding joy(s) and meaning(s) in (the) places you would not expect to find them before or did not have time to find them before: the sounds of Nature, gardening, improving our homes, communicating more with people directly rather than via social media.

On Tuesday, a member of our community told me about his neighbour's son, a delightful young man, with a wife and small child, who had achieved his dream of becoming an airline pilot. After working for two budget airlines he finally 'landed' his dream job - working for BA flying, of all things, Dreamliners.

He started work for them in January of this year. A dream come true, you might say. This new family realised another dream by buying and renovating a 'des res' cottage in Kent. For them life was like having a big box of chocolates in front of you saying in big letters "no calories", or like winning the lottery.

The end of the story is sad though. This young man who had trained so hard, for so many years, and at enormous expense, was made redundant, on a last in/first out basis, from BA, because of the impact of Covid on the airline industry.

He has now returned to his parents' house, to his childhood bedroom with his wife and child, without a job, without a home of his own, without prospects and overwhelmed by debt. Where does he go from here? Where does one get the strength to move on?

Hundreds of thousands of people have lost and will lose their jobs due to the Pandemic and a lot of them, young people aged between 16 and 24.

Since the lockdown I have been thinking about Holocaust survivors a lot. Where did they find the strength to go through the experiences that life put them through? Where does one get the strength to move on?

Where did Douglas Bader, the golden boy of the RAF take his strength from? Was it not enough trauma for him to lose both of his legs? No, during the Second World War he convinced a desperate Air Force to give him his own squadron. Being shot down in France, the Nazis had to take away his false legs from him to stop him trying to escape. “He faced good luck, disability, leadership and capture with the same charm and determination that was an inspiration to all around him”.

How did our grandparents live through the second world war and the Holocaust? Where did they find the strength to continue living?

The Dalai Lama said: “It is worth remembering that the time of greatest gain in terms of wisdom and inner strength is often that of greatest difficulty.”

Indeed, in times of greatest difficulty often there is nothing left to keep us going but our inner strength. It is like a diamond, (which is) buried deeply within us and we don’t realise how much power we have within ourselves until we are hit by life’s challenges: illness of a loved one, death, health problems, problems at work, in relationships, Global Pandemic, feeling insecure, lonely, anxious, depressed, and sometimes these can come together and hit us hard.

But this time for us is an opportunity as well. It is the time for us to relish those inner powers, inner energy, inner strength, which will help to carry us through the period of deserts in our lives day by day.

Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor, and philosopher of the stoic school, who ruled the Roman Empire for 19 years, famously said: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Our strength is within us. The uncertain times we have been living through have also been an opportunity for us all to implement some urgently needed changes in our lifestyles and also our thinking. This time has uncovered our inner strength as individuals, as a community and as a Movement because at times we have had nothing else to rely on but ourselves and each other.

In the last couple of days, following the success of the Shavuot surprise, the army of NLS volunteers or as Susan King, one of our co-chairs, put it on our Facebook group “a whole army of delivery angels were traversing Nottingham and the wider East Midlands on behalf of NLS”. In these most challenging times our community produced a small army of volunteers twice, which included the members of our care group and Alex, who designed our cards to show each other that each of us matters.

We did receive a few complaints post Shavuot action: a few people complained that they had not been asked to volunteer. Could you imagine something like this happening before the Pandemic?

Un’taneh Tokef, The High Holiday prayer, the abridged version of which we read every Rosh ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur, reminds us about the power each of us holds in our hands: our power to change the decree, or as we say today to change the way we react towards the challenges lying ahead of us, through making our inner self stronger to face those challenges through repentance, prayer and righteousness/charity thus changing the seal in our book of life.

The beginning of the Un’taneh Tokef prayer is softly translated in our Machzor as “Let us proclaim the holiness of this day, a day of deepest awe”, which stands for “a day of awe and dread.”

We omit two thirds of the prayer because of our progressive theological discomfort with the fatalistic mood of some parts of this prayer, which was written after the Medieval Holocaust of the German Jews – the Crusades.

We can admit current events are beyond our control, but we also believe in ourselves and each other to rise to face the challenges ahead of us with dignity and strength.

Rabbi Israel Mattuck, the first Rabbi of the Liberal Movement, in his High Holiday service, changed the first line of the Un’taneh Tokef prayer to “Deeply solemn and inspiring this day” acknowledging not only our fear of the unknown but also the opportunity it presents for our growth.

Deeply solemn and inspiring is this day for us to evoke our inner strength to face the daily challenges ahead of our unknown future, to face them with dignity and strength as individuals and as a community, because together we are stronger.

Shanah Tovah u-Metukah – let’s make the New Year a year of joy, peace and blessings for each other! Happy New Year!