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

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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

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