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Rabbi Thomas' Yom Kippur Morning Address in 2022

My father was born on the 31st of December 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s 60th Diamond Jubilee, when she addressed all the nations in the British Empire with the words: "From my heart I thank my beloved people. May God bless them."  It was also the year when Rudyard Kipling wrote the five stanza poem, Recessional.  

The poem went against the celebratory mood of the time, providing instead a reminder of the transient nature of the British Empire’s power.  My father lived in human terms a long life, through both the First and Second World Wars as well as communism - or socialism as some liked to call the period.  Interestingly, he lived in four countries,  having been born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Czechoslovakia and later Hungary but he never actually moved from his home town.  I think that must be a Guinness Book record!

The poem expresses both pride in the British Empire, but also an underlying sadness that the Empire might go the way of all previous empires.  In the poem, Kipling argues that boasting and jingoism, faults of which he was often accused, were inappropriate and vain in light of the permanence of God.

The phrase "lest we forget" forms the refrain of the poem.  It alludes to a verse  in Deuteronomy Chapter 6.v12:

הִשָּׁמֶר לְךָ, פֶּן-תִּשְׁכַּח אֶת-יְהוָה, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצִיאֲךָ מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, מִבֵּית עֲבָדִים.

then beware lest thou forget the LORD, who brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage”

The reference to the "ancient sacrifice" as a "humble and a contrite heart" in verse 2 of the poem is a direct reference to Psalm 51, where we also read the words which we recite at the beginning of the Amidah prayer אֲדֹנָי, שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח;    וּפִי, יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ.

O Lord, open Thou my lips; and my mouth shall declare Thy praise.

Let me read a couple of the verses of the Poem:

‘God of our fathers, known of old,
  Lord of our far-flung battle line,
Beneath whose awful hand we hold
  Dominion over palm and pine —
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,

Lest we forget—lest we forget!

The tumult and the shouting dies;
  The Captains and the Kings depart:
Still stands Thine ancient sacrifice,
  A humble and a contrite heart.
Lord God of Hosts, be with us yet,
Lest we forget—lest we forget!’       

As we look around the world and see what is happening - putting aside for a moment the war in Ukraine - we see and hear a lot of leaders (or would be leaders) blowing their own trumpets, or talking with excessive pride or self satisfaction as if they can cure the ills of our world in one fell swoop; have they forgotten - have WE forgotten -  who has created us, who has breathed life into our nostrils, and who and what keeps us alive.

Having gone through the past two and half years of the pandemic, we can see how weak and helpless we can easily become, totally dependent and reliant on our leaders to protect us.   We can also see, if we look carefully, that this has brought us to a period in the Western world where the freedoms which have been so hard fought for by previous generations, are slowly being eroded.  Debate, discussion, arguments - which we Jews have valued so much throughout the ages to help us reach hard and difficult decisions, compromises, or innovations - are being silenced and dissenters are not only shunned, they can be ‘cancelled’ altogether by their peers, or even society at large, simply for their views.   The threat of putting one’s head over the parapet these days is very very real, and we are, in effect, being asked to agree with every current prevailing ideology without questioning.

I believe that humanity has evolved, developed, lived through, and progressed through its own strength and abilities, and through its ability to learn from its mistakes.  Indeed we read every year  through the cycle of our Torah the same stories which offer everyday examples of how people were meant to live, with the frailties of humanity plainly written so that we can understand and learn from the mistakes of our ancestors.  Nothing is sanitised for us in Torah.  The so-called difficult passages help us to understand our own nature, to come to the realisation of what and who we are, forcing us to think about what we are doing, and to take responsibility for our actions.

The Bible’s examples of plain speaking can be seen for example from when we read how Jacob swindles his older brother to get his birthright. That King David sends Uriah to his certain death because he desired Bat Sheba. 

At Rosh Hashanah we are reminded that God asked Abraham to kill his own son.  God also denies Moses entry into the promised land for an infraction so minor, having struck the Rock in anger to extract water, that even school children might be indignant when they read it.  Most of what we read in the Hebrew Bible tells us of events and consequences, teaching us to learn from them.

Returning to Kipling—— his poem reminds us constantly of the importance of  knowing one’s past and lessons to be learned, by the poem repeating, the words ‘lest we forget’ at the end of each verse.

When we look at our modern day liturgy, we can’t help but notice that the events of the Exodus from Egypt are frequently repeated in our prayers. When we make Kiddush to sanctify the Sabbath;  in our daily or festival Amidah prayer;  and of course in the Haggadah, we are reminded that we were slaves in Egypt - referring to l’Yitziat Mitzrayim,  emphasising what we must or must not do as well as the notion of freedom:  ‘ LEST WE FORGET’.  

I believe that we now have two important areas to consider God’s eternity and the importance of Freedom.

My feeling is that our 21st century world is posing us even more challenges than we have expected, having experienced - at least in this part of the world - relative peace since the Second World War, and perhaps taking freedom  for granted, something for which we and many fought for on our behalf.

The question is are we ready to face the challenges ushered in with the new century.  The loss of multinational cooperation and the rise in nationalism has affected world politics and stability, threatening freedom in countries we have previously regarded as democratic. 

Global health and how we handle pandemics has affected almost everyone on the planet.  And wars currently being waged against sovereign states pose more questions than answers for countries not directly under the line of fire.

So is it perhaps legitimate to ask: Are we living today in a better or worse world than the one that came before this one? Can we cope with it, or even understand what is happening? What should be our attitude and approach bearing in mind Kipling’s poem and his and the Biblical words ‘Lest we forget’ when we are complaining or expressing dissatisfaction. 

An article by William Hague in the Times a month or so ago caught my eye recently and set me thinking.  He was lamenting the current difficulties with which the world is struggling and after reading much of his prophecy of doom and gloom, I was most surprised to read this.  He said, and I quote:

 ”Please stop this; what you are now saying seems like a counsel of despair.  Surely we have to be optimistic about the future.  Yes we do, and this is where history comes to our aid.” He continues: “When my grandfather was born, in 1901, it would have been entirely correct to be optimistic about the state the world would be in when he died, in 1998. He witnessed the 20th century bring a vast improvement in the human condition however you measure it: lifespan, health, sanitation, peace, freedom and prosperity. But he also lived through the cataclysms of two world wars and old concepts of what was normal being lost forever”.

Equally my father who also made it through those wars, when he came to this country in 1975 and probably should have been more than optimistic about the rest of his life, was very much still prone to complaining.  I remember him telling me, for instance, with much annoyance that there was too much choice on supermarket shelves, especially in different butters of all things!  But once he settled into the British way of life, he realised how restricted his life had been for more than 30 years, and all of a sudden, he was free to pray, to travel to places he could only have dreamed of, and to say what he liked about prevailing politicians.  First and foremost, until his death, he has never forgotten God and to appreciate freedom. 

It is this idea of knowing who we are, and what we are capable of - knowing that and keeping in front of our the eyes the Omnipotence of God - that makes our chaotic and constantly changing world seem not quite so scary. There is no doubt that our freedoms are being eroded but also we live in a better world, more aware, better equipped and more prepared to help.

No matter how vulnerable or ill-equipped we feel, no matter the challenges and problems we face, when we have faith in the Almighty, it may help us to find the strength to go on.

And so I hope and pray that politicians and leaders of the world of whom many seem to be full of bombast - will show a little more humility in the way they deal with situations.  Queen Victoria did not rule for all those years because she was so sure of herself.  And indeed, our beloved late Queen Elizabeth II  had a belief in God that shaped her ideas about duty and about service.  Her faith’s influence was apparent from even before she became Queen. That belief, it seems to me, kept her grounded.  If you are answerable to a higher power, however grand your own titles, it gives you perspective and humility. It also means that you have and feel a strong sense of spiritual support. The world is changing but our faith should not.

Kipling conveyed this too in his poem when he said:

 “ If, drunk with sight of power, we loose
Wild tongues that have not Thee in awe,”
 and indeed in our own teachings of the prophets, we read  in Micah, Chapter 6 v8

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ

“It hath been told thee, O man, what is good, and what the LORD doth require of thee: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.”

May we pray this Yom Kippur for the fulfilment of this Prophet’s instructions; Micah lived in the seventh century BCE and he predicted the destruction of the First Temple.  He was someone who was wise and yet at the same time humble.  He perhaps knew what he was talking about as he never Forgot who brought them out of Egypt.

Wishing you all well over the fast. May we all to be inscribed in the Book of Life for a Good Year 5783.       


Mon, 27 March 2023 5 Nisan 5783