New Year Message Rosh Hashanah 5766
from Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen
October 2005

Well, this really is my final Habimah message to my community before Gloria and I take our leave in a few months time. No, I’m not going to use these columns to indulge in any nostalgic personal reminiscences. I understand that there will be an opportunity for me to do so in due course!

On the other hand, reminiscences really are appropriate for this context, for that is precisely what Rosh Hashanah is about: Looking back. Surveying the past year, identifying and acknowledging where we went wrong, where we fell short of what is expected of us: as human beings, as parents, as children, as role models for others, as a society, as Jews and as a Jewish nation, as members of the family of nations.

As we recall the past year, the phrase that probably sums it up most succinctly is the one employed by Her Majesty some time back, namely, annus horibilis. Those of us who are ‘of an age’ will remember the James Dean film, ‘Look back in Anger.’ That title probably sums up the nature of our Rosh Hashanah retrospect this year. We will probably find it well nigh impossible to muster any of this faith in the future that I have just expressed. Many, reflecting on the suspicion, violence, hatred, alienation, disintegration of moral values, disrespect for parents, teachers and the aged, will conclude that we are in free-fall into total moral chaos and oblivion.

Most of us are totally mystified by a situation wherein a world that has contracted so dramatically since the end of the cold war, a world linked by international air travel, instant communication, multinational trade, sport, popular music and fashion, yet is still riven by competitiveness and chauvinism, to the extent that mini battles are played out on the terraces of rival football clubs. The deeply-sublimated, but most destructive and misplaced of nationalistic emotions bubble to the surface when an opportunity arises for a contest with “the other.” In a world so small, where each capital city and every high street is almost a carbon copy of the next, one would have imagined that suspicion of the unknown would have evaporated and given way to familiarity, understanding and mutual identification. But that is clearly and tragically not the case.

I referred above to Her Majesty’s problems. The one grain of comfort we can take from the terrifying events of this past year is that, just as the Queen and her family eventually put the past behind them, and commenced with growing confidence the difficult task of re-building their lives and their relationships, so must we be optimistic that our present woes will also eventually pass, and we – as people, as a society, as a world family - will learn from the past, will put in place measures to make our world safer and more wholesome, and emerge out of the dark tunnel of despair into a glorious sunlight of hope and confidence.

Are these the words of a naïve optimist? Is not terror, anti-Semitism and man’s inhumanity to man here to stay? Is not Islam and the West on an extremely dangerous collision course?

Of course the forces of evil have been unleashed. That is undeniable. But that is no reason for believing that they cannot, and will not, be defeated. I was born in the darkest days of the Blitz, when Germany seemed poised for world supremacy, and Jews for oblivion. But good ultimately prevailed, and the State of Israel was born just a few years later. We need to have faith. If history teaches nothing else, it should teach optimism. It is, after all, a chronicle of the struggle between good and evil, light and darkness, and the ultimate vicory of the former and the elimination of tyranny. As the Nigerian born writer, Ben Okri, wrote, ‘We have to believe that our future is better than our past.’ Nothing could sum up more succinctly the message and spirit of these High Holydays.

Gloria and I take this opportunity of wishing our dear rabbinical colleagues, Chazan Henry and Sally Black, Brenda Dresner and the office staff, our new H.E’s, members of the B.O.M., and all our members and their families, a shanah tovah umetukah, a healthy, happy, peaceful and prosperous year ahead.

Rabbi Dr Jeffrey M Cohen