As we come closer to the High Holy Days, the question of repentance and change draws nearer. Lucy Benjamin’s PhD thesis dissertation is on Hannah Arendt and climate change. Reflecting on the High Holy Days and teshuvah she writes:
“As I consider the question of repentance I am struck by the stubborn irreversibility of certain deeds; how to repent for those actions that will remain in the world beyond our own appearance, how certain actions or inactions will percolate throughout the lives of others and become untraceable to a single ‘doer’ and in so doing resist the call to repent. Such deeds that fill me with an uncanny fear: how to atone for the unatonable?
“It was fear that the Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt embraced when she reflected on the world that had been left behind by Nazi totalitarianism. As she wrote: ‘Upon them and only upon them, who are filled with a genuine fear of the inescapable guilt of the human race, can there be any reliance when it comes to fighting fearlessly, uncompromisingly, everywhere against the incalculable evil that men are capable of bringing about.’ (‘Organized Guilt and Universal Responsibility,’ Hannah Arendt, p.131-2).
“Yet, fear for Arendt was not a paralyzing force; it was the necessary condition for recognising the world in the wake of the Shoah and it was fear that was essential to the enacting of human courage.
“Arendt’s fear enabled her to go on in the world and strive to recover those ideals that Nazism had sought to destroy; dignity, rights, and justice. When I look at the current world in which we live beset by the violence of climate change, I feel fear. And so, as I prepare to repent this Elul, I am equally tasking myself to embrace my fear. To recognise the ways that fear is a necessary mode of being in the world and to rise to the challenge of overcoming the unatonable and repair the world anew”.
As we move through the month of Elul we have the opportunity to work on ourselves, in the hope that we might begin a new year ready to make changes and to be the person we feel we could be. At Rosh Hashanah we celebrate the birthday of the world, and as we begin 5780 we know that our actions are increasingly not only impacting on our ‘environment’ (as if we ourselves were somehow detached from it) but changing and endangering our futures in the world.
This Elul, therefore, Reform Judaism is focussing on what wisdom and reflection Judaism can offer us, and encourage us in the changes necessary to make a difference in the upcoming year. Though we begin with ourselves, we do not end with ourselves. The changes we make, in our attitudes, understanding and behaviour affect all around us – our families, communities, our work place, the organisations we belong to, the government and the world itself. It begins with us.
The texts and reflections for this series have been drawn together by Rabbi Jeffrey Newman and Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, together with members of the Assembly of Rabbis and Cantors who are credited individually when appropriate. Reflecting together and learning in partnership has made this a much more meaningful process for us, and if you have the time and someone willing, we hope these texts might also provide a wonderful opportunity for learning with a partner (or chavruta). As Pirkei Avot 1:6 says “make for yourself a teacher; acquire for yourself a friend”.