Faith & Reason: Our chance to tip the balance between good and evil

We cannot change human nature, but we each have the potential to make a contribution on the side of good

Share

The ten Days of Repentance that usher in the Jewish new year reach their climax today with Yom Kippur, the most solemn occasion in the Jewish calendar. It is a day spent in fasting, prayer and seeking forgiveness for sins committed during the year that has passed. Such is the evocative power of Yom Kippur that even the most secular Jews might find themselves, at least on this day, drawn back to synagogue.

The ten Days of Repentance that usher in the Jewish new year reach their climax today with Yom Kippur, the most solemn occasion in the Jewish calendar. It is a day spent in fasting, prayer and seeking forgiveness for sins committed during the year that has passed. Such is the evocative power of Yom Kippur that even the most secular Jews might find themselves, at least on this day, drawn back to synagogue.

There, they will dimly remember the tuneful melody with which the Scroll of the Law is returned to the Ark, and the accompanying words from the Book of Lamentations: "Help us to return to You, O God; then we shall return. Renew our days as in the past."

Returning to God in contrite repentance is the theme of the Yom Kippur liturgy. Praying to renew our days as of old is the perennial human yearning for the restoration of prelapsarian innocence, for that sunny dawn before experience blunted our idealism and the ways of the world corroded our principles. Whenever we contemplate life, we all seem to oscillate between nostalgia for a better past and hope for a better future. It was William Hazlitt who noted that Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps, for he is the only animal that is struck by the difference between the way things are, and the way they ought to be. Hammering home the message of this disparity between "ought" and "is", both in individual conduct and in society at large, is what gives to Yom Kippur its unique confessional mood of cathartic intensity.

But perhaps it is a false hope, "a prayer in vain" as the ancient rabbis would have called it, to ask for the restoration of an earlier, ideal state of humanity. To imagine it can be achieved is implicitly to endorse the notion of human progress towards perfectibility, to believe that each succeeding generation can be made better than the previous one. From the Enlightenment to the Holocaust, it was the prevailing assumption behind European liberal thought. Mankind was on an ever-ascending curve of steady improvement.

However, as long ago as the Stoic school of Greek philosophy, this notion of progress was challenged. For the Stoics, there might be a small advance here, some scientific improvement there - cosmology in their time, computers in ours - but in the long run the balance of things, such as good and evil, beauty and ugliness, joy and misery, always remains fairly constant.

It is the Stoic response that I personally incline to, and find most plausible, at this penitential season when Jews look back on their, and society's, actions in the year that has concluded, and render their annual account before the bar of divine judgement. Two particular events stand out for me, among the myriad personal, national, and international experiences in the past year.

The first was an early walk with our dog in Regent's Park on a summer morning in June. In the distance, I saw a couple with what looked like a camera on a tripod. Coming closer, I realised that it was a large telescope. They were two Americans who had come over specially to watch the transit of Venus across the sun; the occasion had barely registered with me. But when they offered me to view the transit, I was overwhelmed by its wonder. For some reason, I recalled the story about that arch-rationalist Voltaire, who allegedly came upon a stunning panorama while out walking and instinctively sank to his knees exclaiming, "Dear God, I believe after all!"

After that awe-inspiring glimpse of the cosmos in all its grandeur, the second event was the siege at the Beslan school and its terrible conclusion. That made me despair of human nature. Casting back through history and its numerous examples of atrocity, genocide and wanton massacre of the innocent from earliest times to the present, I could not recall a similar instance of deliberately and callously targeting hundreds of children as bargaining pawns and being so indifferent to their slaughter. Who now would dare to suggest that human nature has improved, become more refined, since Attila the Hun or the Crusades?

In other words, the balance between good and evil, beauty and ugliness, joy and misery, remains constant. There was no ideal past, and there will be no idyllic future. The workings of human nature are a perennial mystery. And that is why it is sufficient simply to pray, "Renew our days", without adding any longing for the past or yearning for the future, but a modest determination to make the best of each day granted to us. We have the potential, while we live, to offer our small contribution on the side of good rather than evil. If only each one of us resolved to grasp that opportunity, it would be a start towards improving ourselves and our fractured, unredeemed world.

David J. Goldberg is Emeritus Rabbi of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, London

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Project Manager

Competitive: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Chelmsford a...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Business Intelligence Specialist - work from home

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nigel Farage has urged supporters to buy Mike Read's Ukip Calypso song and push it up to the No 1 spot  

Mike Read’s Ukip calypso is mesmerisingly atrocious — but it's not racist

Shirley Shackleton, wife of late journalist Gregory Shackleton, sits next to the grave of the 'Balibo Five' in Jakarta, in 2010  

Letter from Asia: The battle for the truth behind five journalists’ deaths in Indonesia

Andrew Buncombe
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album